In what is now an annual service to Greenbelt goers and Christian music buffs generally, from 22nd to 25th August Cross Rhythms had a team of reviewers at Cheltenham Racecourse to report on Greenbelt '08. Here is the final version of their reviews.
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SIXSTARHOTEL - Underground - 8.50pm
Last year these Northern Irish beauties produced one of the best albums of the year, not only according to me but also to the listeners to the Cross Rhythms Rock And Hard Place programme (who obviously have amazing taste). This was the set that allowed many of us here in the mainland UK to hear it live for the first time. Their wonderfully unique brand of music is really hard to describe without it sounding like I'm talking about an emo outfit, just to clarify - they are not emo, ok? They're melodic, they're kinda post hardcore, they've got a lot of indie influences, they have heartfelt lyrics matched by emotive music but they are not emo; or at least not what is stereotypically thought as being so. Instead some quirky time changes, some lovely quiet-loud moments and passionate heartfelt ditties washed over us - sounding remarkably tight for a band performing at the venue they were at. You've probably gathered I rather enjoyed the set and I'm looking forward to hearing their new stuff in hard copy form. There's no reason why this band won't go big.
GARTH HEWITT - Performance Café - 9.00pm
The compere introduced "a Greenbelt legend" and Garth Hewitt began to play. The melody was delightfully fresh, his guitar playing deftly picked and the warm, passionate voice powerfully denounced man's inhumanity to man. "And the Palestinian guns pound out again/And Israeli families cower from the blast/But as the gunfire mows down children, women, men/The cry goes up 'how long can this war last?'" All this, with the exception of the compere's introduction, was, of course, a complete flight of my fancy. The reality of the veteran singer/songwriter's Performance Café gig was rather more predictable. Garth, now showing a bald patch and sporting his recent Man In Black neo-Cash look, showed that neither his musical approach nor his socio-political lyric writing have changed one iota down the decades. Garth's melodies were still predictable, often being little more than folk/blues/country "carrier tunes," his guitar playing unsubtle strums and his voice still showing that unmusicality and odd neighed vibrato which etched into the memories of longtime radio listeners decades back with Garth's unwise rendition of "Oh Happy Day". Today Garth still displays his worrying vocal mannerisms. But putting aside Hewitt's limitations as composer/instrumentalist/singer it's his one dimensional political vision which makes many of his songs so hard to concentrate on. Now don't get me wrong. Down the years thousands of people have become aware of the heroism of Oscar Romero, the plight of South African street children and the appalling plight of the Palestinians through Garth's songs. But to take up the latter example, Garth's strange political myopia blithely ignores the savage brutality of Hamas bombardments and suicide bombers let alone whole swathes of Old Testament Scripture. Genuine peacemaking doesn't come by taking sides but by opposing hatred and violence wherever it appears. And songs intended to stamp on injustice only ring true if both sides of the barbaric Israeli/Palestinian conflict are equally expressed. Garth's set in the Performance Café was not without any redeeming features. His song about the injustices heaped on India's Dalits was timely while "Stealing Jesus Back" scored some good points against Bush-style foreign policy linked to fundamentalist religion. But this particular listener is awaiting a new age of singer/songwriters-cum-prophets who will be able to pinpoint sin not only by gazing over the parapets of tired Right Vs Left divisions. Let's have songs that expose the sin of multi-national manipulation AND the sin of abortion's baby butchery. Until such courageous songsmiths emerge we, the Church, are left with Garth, a singer/songwriter who with his simplistic choruses like "the wall must fall" has failed to realise that shallow sloganeering and highly selective political pronouncements simply add more bricks to the wall of division.
SETH LAKEMAN - Mainstage - 9:30pm
Seth Lakeman gave a most worthy performance on Saturday with his energetic brand of folk rock. He is fast becoming the pin-up boy of UK folk, is already as popular as former bandmate Kate Rusby, and all for the right reasons too. Opening song "How Much" was proof of how diverse the genre is in style, the kick-ass grooves giving the gathered throng a taste of what was later to come with the hoe-downs. In an interview previewing his latest album 'Poor Man's Heaven', Seth explained how live folk bands like to push the beat and this certainly appeared to be true here. The album material takes on an edger stance in live settings, exemplified by none other than Ben Nicholls who proved to be the coolest and funkiest double bass player I've ever seen. He also later donned a banjo with the strut and swagger of an electric guitarist, something you're unlikely to see too often. Next to the punchier material "King & Country" from 'Freedom Fields' was as evocative, moving and addictively melodic as ever. The storytelling in the songs is always sublime, with a leaning towards real life stories such as the tragic 1981 Penlee lifeboat disaster depicted in "Solomon Browne". What struck me about the song "The Colliers" was that it could easily be a top 10 hit for a female R&B group if arranged differently. It's a surreal compliment to an undoubted skill of bringing folk into the mainstream without seeming to compromise the essence of folk itself. The moments when Seth played solo flew by in a flurry of virtuoso violin playing, and the headline slot was a vibrant festival highlight.
EDWINA HAYES - Performance Café - 10.00pm
Edwina is probably best known to the Christian community as being one third of Hummingbird but even without the ethereal tones of Cathy Burton and Amy Wadge helping out, the singer/songwriter showed herself to be a huge singing talent. She sang beautiful songs about old flames and new flames, told amusing stories about her hometown of Driffield, East Yorkshire and then sang one of the saddest songs ever, Hank Williams' "I Can't Escape From You". Edwina was excited about getting a new solo album out and as that is only her second in 14 years one could understand her enthusiasm. A Richard Thompson cover, a fine version of an old bluegrass song "Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor" and her own "Only A Bend In The Road" followed, each displaying her voice of spine-tingling purity. Edwina told a story about her two years in Nashville then sang a song she'd penned with an unknown Nashville songsmith who finally hit paydirt by penning an Alan Jackson hit. More songs and stories followed with a John Prime cover and a song, "I Want Your Love", taken from the Hummingbird album. Edwina's final reminiscence about her alcoholic father was both funny and sad, as was the song that went with it, "Pour Us A Drink". Overall, Edwina's set was a showcase of truly beautiful music even if most of her lyrics dwelled on heartbreak. All that was lacking was a shaft or two of hope and joy.
SUNDAY, 24th August
RICHY D - Underground - 10:30am
Unfortunately the full transatlantic compliment of G-Force Alliance couldn't make it to Greenbelt, so it was left to Richy D to go solo with the aid of his accomplice Colossal. Colossal by name and relatively colossal by size, he worked the small morning crowd as they rapped over the funky backing track for the cities of the UK and US to "Stand Up" for God. The test of a good hip-hop gig is often whether the rapping can match the well-produced beats and grooves of the backing tracks. I'm not sure Richy D's voice did it full justice and I would have expected a few more quirky metaphors within the lyrical content, but there can be no criticism for their gospel-centred approach as they declared, "This is more than mere music.I do this for Yahweh."
QUENCH - Underground -11.20am
Simmering since their return to the recording studios in 2007, Quench have burst back on to the CCM scene with a blistering four-track EP 'Reality Radio'. Scorching guitar riffs, rhythms from the drums like you've never heard and vocals second to none! Festival fans were treated to a "secret" 40 minute gig by the band on Sunday morning. The queue wormed its way from the entrance doors to a considerable distance outside the venue, anticipation and expectation running high. The high level of excitement amongst the crowd was evident. The band came on stage, what no drummer? An acoustic set? Surely not? Was it going to be a disappointment? Not at all. Treated to songs from the new EP, and some favourites, the crowd lapped up every minute of it. In between songs was the usual banter. It was as if the band had been away for only a short time. The crowd cried out for more, but sadly it was not to be. A triumphant return to the music scene and stage was accomplished and everyone went away satisfied indeed. Little did they know Quench were destined to play Mainstage the following day.
TBC - Children's Festival - 12.00noon
The great thing about Innervation's tweenie evangelists is you know exactly what you'll get every gig. All action dance routines, cleverly catchy songs from the pens of Pennell and Porter and spiritual truth gently but plainly spelt out for the adoring seven to 11 year olds who make up the bulk of their fan base. Judging from the hugely enthusiastic response from the young audience here, they well and truly hit the mark and indeed their renditions of "Beautiful", "Faithful", "Talk Of The Town", "We'll Keep On Dancing", "Nobody Loves Me Like You Do" and "One Summer's Day" were well up to par. A Greenbelt committee member told me that his daughter had become an avowed TBC fan as a result of this concert. He looked pretty pleased with the idea.
YVONNE LYON - Performance Café - 12.30pm
After a rainy Saturday night, 30 year old Scottish singer/songwriter Lyon played to a packed out Performance Café. By the time Yvonne started her second song "Healing Pain" the venue manager was turning disappointed punters away. The ground was muddy and slippery but if any of the audience came in frustrated or ill-tempered, I suspect that by the end of Lyon's set their bad mood would have subsided. Lyon was accompanied by her husband on guitar and they played and sang together with relaxed confidence and a sense of fun. She spoke a lot of her childhood in Scotland and used her stories and songs to paint an enchanting portrait of childhood, the simple life and close family ("Come" and "Monkey Puzzle Tree"). "Colours" was a multilayered piece; written about a walk in the rain, yet reflecting on another level many deeper questions and feelings surrounding sad circumstances Lyon's family were going through. The atmosphere lightened as the accordion came out for goofy crowd-pleaser "Once Upon A Squish", a 12-bar blues written by two lads at a songwriting workshop Lyon ran for disadvantaged children. The enduring feeling that I left with was that Lyon "created a world" that was deeply personal, yet welcoming, accessible and full of optimism in the face of hardship. Suddenly, the mud wasn't such a big deal after all.
TANKUS THE HENGE - Underground - 1.00pm
Tankus The Henge cryptically describe themselves as "street urchin purveyors of bohemian rags, ballads and polkas" whose shows "astonish, enchant and bewilder." I'm sure many of the audience present in Underground on Saturday at 1pm would agree with the latter statement. The band commanded the stage and had their audience bouncing, waltzing and spinning on the spot in delight. Their sound is hard to categorise, but for the sake of the review the following will suffice; they blend folk with rock, add a funky jazzy edge then season each song with a pinch of something else. Their show is driven by the talented Jaz Delorean, keyboards and lead vocals; all the band members are both very talented musicians and equally good showmen. This was the first occasion I had seen Tankus since the recent addition of a trumpet and saxophone, and the new sounds add further layers to the band's intriguingly eclectic sound. At wall of sound moments they make the wall 10 times bigger, leaving the listener enveloped in sound. A friend commented, "They're not my kind of music, but you can't escape their stage show, their magic."
RISING FROM DEATH - Underground - 1.50pm
Don't get me wrong, I love this band. Every time I see them I enjoy their energy and their brand of rough and ready metalcore. But their set at Greenbelt seemed to be more like a metalhead's version of a workout video. Every single song involved a long pause before it kicked in whilst various members of the band told the crowd exactly what they had to do to each song. Circle pit for this one, wall of death for that one etc... I mean, it was fun to watch but it meant their set lacked any continuity or pace and it really seemed to detract from their artistry. Having said that, if you stopped to listen to the band it sounded a mess. Again, this isn't a dig against their music, the blame lies fair and square with the people who had to make their live sound as good as possible. I've not against a band trying to rev the crowd into action but I think doing it before (rather than during) each song is a little excessive. On the plus side Rising From Death clearly have a blatant faith and portray it in a very effective way. Looking forward to their soon to be released EP.
BETH ROWLEY - Mainstage - 4.40pm
This is the year of opportunity for rising star Beth Rowley. Her presence on Mainstage drew a huge crowd that indicated an unjustified early time slot. As sunny blue skies chased away the threatening black clouds that were looming behind the stage, Rowley's soulful voice commanded the attention of everyone in the field. Backed up by an excellent band with a great sound, she commanded the stage with more presence and accessibility than a thousand Amy Winehouses, confirming her status as a genuine talent. Greenbelt regular and Duke Special band-member Ben Castle joined the group mid-way through the set to bring some sax to rock-and-roller "Beautiful Tomorrow" and first single "Oh My Life", while Beth solo'd admirably on harmonica. The track "Little Dreamer" gave Rowley's debut album a name, but didn't make the final track listing - co-written with Castle, it was a beautiful track that ought to make an appearance on a recording sometime soon. A cover of Willie Nelson's "Angels Fly Close To The Ground" was introduced with an unintentional double entendre as Rowley bantered with the crowd - as the light switched on her apologetic embarrassment only endeared her further to her audience. Something that became a more familiar sight this year was the unnecessary encore (band leave stage, audience clap, band return to the stage when they might as well have just stayed) it seems a bit pointless when we know the allotted time slots from the programme. Still, Rowley and the band received a well earned roar from the crowd and obligingly returned to close the set with the soul classic "I'd Rather Be Blind". Rowley has a voice to blow your head off and gave a great performance. As she whipped off to the Performance Cafe to wow some more Greenbelters, many newly won fans at the Mainstage will have headed to the shops to grab a copy of Beth's hit debut album.
JULIE LEE - Performance Café - 5.00pm
Finding myself with an unexpected gap in my schedule, and having missed Julie's Mainstage appearance the day before, I set out to face the liquid mud en route to the crowded Performance Café. Julie and her accompanists are still soundchecking when I find a seat, my first thought is that this set is going to be music a long way from the Maryland jazz and swing of her Mainstage performance. As she and the other musicians give audio once-overs to an abundance of acoustic guitars, ukuleles, banjos, bass guitars, keys and even a glockenspiel this Nashville-based singer/songwriter looks nervous and confesses as much. After two or three songs I understood why. Here is a singer who is not only giving the first live airing to a fresh batch of songs (Julie's mini-album 'Will There Really Be A Morning' is being launched at Greenbelt '08) but an artist courageously transforming her secrets and pains into great art. Julie begins by explaining that her latest recording has been "a labour of love" and then proceeds to sing two songs based on the poems of Emily Dickinson. "Hope's The Thing With Feathers" and "Morning" (taken from Dickinson's poem Will There Really Be A Morning). They are exquisite. Aaron Rocke's deftly played guitar work is the perfect foil to Julie's voice which soars with an Appalachian purity. Julie introduces a friend, Henry Napier, on cello insisting he looks like Johnny Depp. He doesn't. Julie explains how she was a different person when she didn't know Christ, and how one can do a lot of damage to oneself and how, even after we've received forgiveness from God it can be a battle to forgive ourselves. Then, plucking a simple rhythm on her tenor banjo and in a voice which starts in little more than a whisper and builds into a chorus of heavenly purity Julie sings "Forgive Yourself". She asks the crowd to sing along with her, which they do though a lady across from me is too choked with tears to join in the haunting refrain that fills the tent. Here is a song ministering deep to broken human beings. She sings "The Other Half", about the divorces Julie has seen have such devastating effects on her friends. Its refrain "When you changed your mind/You broke my heart" is as sad as pop music gets. "Now for the lighter part," announces Julie and poetry is read and another exquisite song, "The Shepherdess", is sung. Two children edge to the front of the stage, drawn by the haunting music, and hesitantly dance in a shaft of sunlight. Suddenly Julie's ethereal, transcendent music draws to a close and the crowd is piling out of the tent, many making a beeline for the G-Music tent. I've been visiting Greenbelt since 1981. I'm certain that I've witnessed one of the finest performances that has ever occurred there.
THE AUSTIN FRANCIS CONNECTION - Underground -
For the last few years this quintessentially English take on hip-hop culture have garnered a still growing fan base, by playing anywhere and everywhere at Greenbelt that'll take 'em. This is the first year they've been given an official slot and it's clearly long overdue. Fans of Flight Of The Concords should already have some sort of idea of how it's possible to mix banter with hip-hop vocals over a simple guitar sound. Add to that one of the UK's premier exponents of the human beatbox and you're really in for a treat, the kind of treat that goes well with scones and a lovely pot of tea. They captivated a crowd that was already heavily disposed to them with some lovely touches of patois and some memorable tunes, including one mentioning that fine aforementioned British beverage. Perhaps the hit of this year was their song dedicated to the earthy Anglo Saxon moniker, Dave. Supposedly the song, along with its own dance, had been hastily garbled together the previous weekend yet it was already turning into a fan classic. The following day it was clear I was going to have catch them again in the music shop and did so with relish. The AFC are one of those rare entities that can both produce memorable music and keep a crowd fully entertained.