After weeks of sun, sudden gales and driving rain arrived on Thursday just in time for the weekend. Aside from unavoidable weather problems, the festival was well organised. There was a great mix of international and local rock, world and folk music and a comedy line-up including Russel Howard and Rich Hall. Activities, storytelling and theatre performances made it perfect for families. The toilets and showers were clean, the stewards were friendly, and the food was good quality and decently priced.
Frank Turner was a big draw for both young and old listeners early on Thursday evening. Having never seen him with a band before, their ability was notable but they didn't add much to the performative aspect. Turner's down-to-earth attitude came across in banter - an amusing story about a policeman saving him from an ex-girlfriend - yet the songs seemed to bleed together a bit. Old favourites 'Long Live The Queen' and 'Photosynthesis' had lots of people singing, and newer tracks like 'The Road' were tight if a little lacking in energy.
Watching American blues guitarist Robert Cray was an unexpectedly enjoyable hour and twenty minutes on the cold, wet, darkening main field. A dedicated, mostly middle-aged crowd stood enraptured by the band's playing. As well Cray's dexterity on guitar, his singing and flexible musical style were impressive. Longer, more experimental songs with funk chord structures interspersed the traditional blues rock work. He also took the weather in his stride, joking about having needed a shower as the stage covering failed to protect him from the pouring rain.
The new album from NYCers Easy Star All-Stars featured heavily in their live performance. Highlights from Easy Star's Lonely Hearts Dub Band included a dubby 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' and big sing along to 'When I'm 64'. The frontman movingly dedicated this to Sugar Minott, who featured on several Easy Star tracks and passed away last week. The music was really bassy and got the crowd moving, with a great horn section (sax and trombone) as well as the strong male-female vocal team. Sound slightly hampered things because the vocal and horn mics were too quiet, but the set as a whole was a lot of fun.
Swing-folk eccentricities The Mandibles were an entertaining discovery. Great sax and trumpet playing, harmonised singing about pirates and giant squid, and generally crazy energy made them a perfect soundtrack for the emergence of the sun on Friday afternoon.
Skip "Little Axe" McDonald did a few sets at the festival, the better one using only an electric guitar and no backing track. With a career including work at the hip-hop label Sugar Hill, r&b albums, and a recent reinterpretation of blues rock, his first set was surprisingly simple. Lyrics about peace and love, a powerful voice, and guitar lines with blues chord progressions and smooth solos took up the better part of the set. Not that it wasn't good - his guitar work was fantastic - but he would benefit from a band like Cray's, especially for the r&b songs he played later on.
Dubbed "up-and-coming" by the music media, Ellen and The Escapades proved better live than expected. Recent single 'Coming Back Home' strikes middle ground between UK and US folk sounds, with a beautiful, catchy harmonised chorus. The band were tight and the sound was clear, and though they lost some energy - playing to a crowd sat down in the afternoon sun - the songs spoke for themselves. Comparisons have to be made with Alessi's Ark and Laura Marling, but Ellen tends toward a pleasing country sound which is quiite unique among UK contemporaries.
Unsigned band The Roots Union were also an impressive bunch of young musicians. The singer-guitarist's shanty-style love songs were the basis of the set. The other band members on fiddle, steel guitar, harmonica, bass and drums developed the overall sound into folk-pop that owed more to Richard Thompson than to the current scene. The harmonica player was amazing, with some percussion-like backing and fast solos.
Toots and Maytals were undeniably the best band of the festival. The set opened with 'Pressure Drop' as an elderly but lively Toots entered the stage wearing a bandanna and orange suit. 'Time Tough,' 'Pomps and Pride,' 'Louie Louie' and 'Reggae Got Soul' followed in a row. The musicians all played flawlessly, though the pace of many songs was irritating - generally sped up and/or getting faster at the end - which I guess was supposed to rile up the crowd. There were some nicely funky songs mid-set, with great wah pedal work from the lead guitarist, and including a strange long version of 'Funky Kingston'. The band were good but had no horn section, which is rare for a reggae band, and the keyboard had to fill in unsatisfactorily on a couple of songs. Hits 'Monkey Man' and 'Sweet and Dandy' got everyone singing along and the teenage front-rowers jumping. The encore was almost ruined by stage invasions during 'Broadway Jungle' ("skahbahnehbahnehbah...skahnehbah!") but was redeemed by a killer '54-46 Was My Number'.
I missed most of Dizraeli and the Small Gods but managed to run and catch the end of my favourite song, 'Engurland'. Based around the football chant, it's lyrics are a hilarious poke at what it means to be English. Dizraeli's live band were skilled musicians and complimented his ranting, poetic speech-rap style with acoustic guitar, fiddle, flute and decks. 2009 album City Shanties took up the end of the set. With a vocal line from an old whaling song, 'Homeward Bound (On The Overground)' was better live than on CD as the audience joined in the chanting. It was followed by a spoken-word 'Bomb Tesco' which prompted lots of chuckles from the crowd and ended with the band coming in on a loud, dancey chorus. The lovely sound man made an allowance and gave them time for another song, the soulful 'Reach Out'.
With a mixture of older songs and a couple from the new album, Tunng were near-perfect. Some more folky stuff, some electronic stuff, huge smiles and silly sunglasses. The guys playing 'etc.' instruments (percussion, bells, keyboards, laptops) captured their recorded sound well and gave the whole thing a brilliant atmosphere. The acoustic guitar and banjo provided an nice base for the soft voices and a particularly good performance of 'Hustle'.
French band Babylon Circus took the main stage after Cornershop and proceeded to tear it apart. Their sound was nothing special - poppy ska with rough edges - but the performance was fantastic, with the many members swooping around the stage on various instruments, getting the audience to shout and clap and dance. The horn section and accordion player were really decent musicians, too. Unfortunately there were some technical problems which made very loud screeching noises over the PA and sort of ruined things.
West London's Dub Pistols may be getting on in years (well only 20 years old now...nothing compared to Toots) but they closed Saturday night with a huge, jumping crowd in the Big Top. Despite a slightly monotonous set, the sound levels were great and the energy of the two frontmen was impressive. A tight, fast 'Cyclone' and awesome version of the Specials' 'Gangsters' were highlights - though there was a sad lack of skanking during the cover.
Friday night Toots and the Maytals stage invasion at Larmer Tree - were you there??
By Alice Knapp
Frank Turner is touring in December.
Easy Star All-Stars will be playing several festivals and headline shows around the UK this year.
Dizraeli is also going to be up and down the country over the summer.
Tunng are on tour right now! Info and dates can be found here.