Thursday, August 14, 2008

This dancing day: Summer Sundae Sunday review


So we start a windy but almost dry day three with Charlie Jones, as mentioned in the Fringe bit two days ago. It sounds like journalistic laziness to say about a female singer-songwriter that she has a touch of the Kate Nashes about her, but there is insomuch as Nash's acoustic stripped down material shows a storytelling touch, if the odd rote rhyme, and Jamie T-like rhythmic vocal style which would be ruined if they had a full band behind (which, obviously, she's gone and done on her Myspace demos. Sigh.) For her last song, a fast bluesy number, she hands over the guitar to a male accomplice so as to be able to concentrate more on the kazoo. There's class.

Mystery Jets' withdrawl due to Blaine Harrison's hospitalisation has meant a slight rejig on the main stage, and a chance to play to a wider audience for The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir. The suggestion is they've been booked on the back of Seasick Steve's runaway success last year, and another growing audience fascinated by this authentic country-bluesy sound bears out the risk in elevating to the wider audience this sound founded on banjos, upright bass and a drumkit which features a huge bass drum facing outwards on top of the actual bass drum. Musically it's pacy Appalachian folk, stomping bluegrass and a touch of the Tom Waits, topped by a proper Delta blues holler and climaxing with a call and response version of John The Revelator.

Somewhat more stripped back is another of the day's range of soloists, Ed Hamill AKA Hamell On Trial, one man, one battered guitar, an amp next to him and a whole lot of punk via antifolk testifying. Strumming ferociously, littering his set with jokes (and deliberate rock poses for the cameramen) and belting out stories telling it as it is on ageing, drugs and bosses, persuading the audience to yell "fuck it!" on command, although in doing so you wondered about the couple of kids at the barrier. Is it against the grain to call Hamill a showman? Because that's really what he is.

How would you describe Hayden Thorpe, then? Wild Beasts, like fellow Kendal emigrants British Sea Power, come on to a tape of John Betjeman and proceed to assert their own lofty poetic range. Having watched their astro-indie funk close up we still have no idea how they do it, other than the combination of strutting rhythms, Ben Little's Postcard Records via Johnny Marr guitar and Thorpe's keening vocal, once the soundmen have located it, and odd chicken strut of a guitar playing stance shouldn't work but very much does. The album tracks retain their cabaret of the grotesque qualities and as with their underwatched set here last year Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants sees outbreaks of sporadic flailing dancing, while two men who have possibly indulged somewhat over the previous two days concern themselves with rave gurning over the barrier until the security girl breaks down into laughter. (That they then kept doing it for the next ten minutes turned them into twats, but for a moment it was a beautiful thing.)

Another singer-songwriter who does things his own way is awaiting in the hall. Jeffrey Lewis' set, compared to End Of The Road last year, is lighter on the Crass covers, although there are a couple, and while there's a big space where Jack Lewis usually is and no Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror he still more than holds his own, using the hall's big screens to project The Creeping Brain's comic strip and having an extended run through the not exactly easy to begin with The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane. Outside, two years ago Jose Gonzalez played the main stage on an overcast day on his own to a large audience and it didn't quite work. This year he gives it another go and does no better.

More palatable, in every sense, Swedes take to the Rising stage. Those Dancing Days are just what you need at teatime on the last day of a festival, as their infectious new wave girlpop (the new Kenickie at last? Discuss) rubs off on plenty. Enthusiasm over technicality they may be - bassist Mimmi really needs to work on a way of brushing her hair away without taking her left hand off - and the organ may be a bit too low in the mix but live their joyousness is the equal of their recorded vitality, and the new songs from October's debut album prove there's more where Hitten, here given a slow build-up first verse, came from. And while Linnea Jönsson remains the doe eyed, soul voiced, John McEnroe haired centre of attention, it's worth keeping an eye on Lisa Pyk Wirström, who switches between being a candidate for the most insouciant keyboard player we've ever seen and when not immediately required turning into a whirlish dervish of a dancer. Ending, as they should, with their eponymous song, the transmuted enjoyment is hard to shift... until we realise that it means we've missed almost all of Efterklang's set in the Hall. We enter just in time for the glacial Danish octet's last song, the sort of indefinably overwhelming choral stateliness, ending with a two-man horn section requiem, that suggests they deserve further investigation alone.

While we're about it, on this evidence Cold War Kids's forthcoming second album might well be something worth shouting about where their first was taken beyond its means by an overexcited press. The new songs they play are darker, punchier and more insistent, Nathan Willett channelling his vocal ire into focused anguish in a set that backs up everything said early on about their live dynamism - some of them seem properly angry at us for some undisclosed reason, Willett occasionally resorting to artless piano bashing to make his point. Might they finally have the song consistency to match the adrenaline?

Yet again, James Yorkston has fallen victim. Yorkston is someone who seems to be on the bill of half the festivals we've ever been to and we've never actually seen him. And we're not going to see him now, because as accomplished as he may be you don't get Elephant 6 members coming to Leicester every day, and especially not Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal. Sporting red patterned leggings and turquoise boots, Barnes and his four live bandmates' performance was as intense as they ever come, stripping the psychedelic electro-glam of their last couple of albums plus an Ariel Pink cover (no idea what it was, Barnes just said it was one) of all hi-NRG echoes into halluciogenic Prince territory, curious cartoon images on the hall's screens and even the performance art interludes going on around the music involving balloons and branches intensifying the experience rather than distracting from it. The culmination of the heightened sensory experience that passed for a festival set was a cathartic The Past Is A Grotesque Animal, Barnes striding the stage and ending up attempting to crawl across it before a cataclysmic noise climax backed with seemingly endless strobe light flashing, all followed by the virtual coasting home of a triumphant Heimdalsgate Like A Promethean Curse. What it all means nobody quite knows, and from where we were most people seemed attentive but completely nonplussed, but you knew, as it turned out, that the rest of the day would be divided into people who saw it and people having what it was like described awkwardly to them. Highlight of the weekend? Experience of the weekend, no question.

You could write a thesis on the fact that while all that is an American view of how to lift a show, the British idea of a frontman is one who shouts "are we fuckin' 'avin' it?" unironically. Reverend And The Makers have been indoctrinated into the 'landfill indie' scene through Jon McClure's friendship with Alex Turner, which may not be entirely fair - there's musical echoes of McClure's much talked about love of funk, dub and DFA - but the tales of Friday night life, love, local colour and where socially we're going wrong seem well played out. There's no doubt he's won an audience, as there's clearly plenty of devotees here who McClure plays up to, putting the mike out, commandeering a photographer's camera and most notably, if by now fairly unsurprisingly, jumping off the front of the stage once the set has finished with an acoustic and playing for a small audience upfield, albeit you can't hear a word more than three people away.

Not that we can stop to try to listen, because there's another clash going on. Having put her first album in our end of year top twenty after a fine performance here in 2006 we've not said anything about Joan As Police Woman's follow-up To Survive, for the reason that while it plows much the same furrow it feels by comparison too clinical, too clean, too aiming for the broader singer-songwriter market. And so her live show feels much the same, the nuances and winning self-deprecation ironed out. It becomes more glaring when set against the Rising stage headliner playing to a packed audience that apparently includes Kevin Barnes (and definitely includes all of Those Dancing Days because we were standing next to them). Lykke Li is sporting a matching black singlet and cycling shorts and has at her disposal a drum and cymbal, which she smacks the life out of as a precursor to an energetic opening Dance Dance Dance, and a loudhailer, used at key moments throughout. Bouncing around the stage in evident enjoyment she and her band take songs that often fall flat on record and gives them life anew with vaulting electronics and plenty of percussion as Li hardly pauses for breath except when turning into a bluesy love crooner. As keen to head for the feet as the heart, she asks if we want to dance again and promptly drops in a cover of Vampire Weekend's Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. Called back on for an encore by a probably physically exhausted front row, she apologises for her lack of her own material and instead offers a teasing Walk On The Wild Side bassline singalong before launching into A Tribe Called Quest's Can I Kick It?, complete with gutsily sung back call and response on the chorus before the band take it down to a standstill. Li's force of personality wins through to match the compere's expectations that we'd consider it a highlight of the weekend.

Simian Mobile Disco brought their full light show to close proceedings on the main stage, but we really don't have the knowledge or vocabulary to review that sort of thing - there were beats, there were flashing lights, people got excited. On the contrary, our SSW finished in the Hall with 2008 festival perennial Lightspeed Champion. So much travelling around the country and continent has given Dev Hynes and his band a freer rein on their songs, which you suspect the metal guitar hero in Hynes enjoys as he gives Galaxy Of The Lost a full-on rock blowout intro. There's two new songs, one with a western theme element, the other rawer and faster than most, although the same could be said for the treatment meted to most of Falling Off The Lavender Bridge. The best was kept for last, a version of Midnight Surprise that starts with covers of both the main and Imperial Death March themes from Star Wars and ends some fifteen minutes later with Hynes at the lip of the stage giving it some Steve Vai.

So, Summer Sundae 2008 was done. Another triumph for all concerned, and another indication that while assorted charlatans, fly by nights and credit crunchers may be conspiring to bring down the good name of the British festival, those who go about things imaginatively and in the right way will always prosper.

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