Our comprehensive review of the music at Cheltenham's arts festival GREENBELT concludes. A total of 17 reviewers filed 70 reviews. Read and be amazed.
Last year Cross Rhythms featured the most exhaustive review of music performances at the world's longest running Christian arts festival Greenbelt. This year at team of 17 reviewers encamped at Cheltenham race course over the weekend of 25th to 28th August. From hardcore to classical, acoustic to junk funk, here is the most exhaustive report ever assembled on the music of Greenbelt.
FRIDAY, 25th August
LOVE AND JOY GOSPEL CHOIR - Main Stage - 5.55pm
Love And Joy Gospel Choir, who hail from Liverpool's Temple Of Praise, performed at both the beginning and end of this year's opening ceremony. It was great to see the main stage return in a wide open space allowing many Greenbelters to get a better view and feel for the main stage events. It was welcomed back with a shower from above, the first of many to come, but this didn't dampen the spirits of the choir dressed in cerise pink and black or the crowd, already prepared for inclement weather with jolly, multi-coloured brollies and wellies. The Choir's performance of "Rock Of Ages" quickly warmed up the crowd all eager to get into the spirit of the weekend and by the second song "Free For All", people were doing just that, dancing and clapping along. A beautiful African song with a slow drum-beat complimented the powerful voices of the choir as they sang "When he comes I shall be like Him, no more pain, I shall be like him". There were a couple of solo numbers, including a contemporary hip-hop offering from guest Souls Rest. With talent and enthusiasm ringing out, this choir of joyful Liverpudlians served up a feel-good starter to send the damp throng off back to the camp area or to the village food vans.
CARA DILLON - Main Stage - 7.05pm
Winner of the 2004 Irish Meteor Music Award for Best Irish Female Singer, Cara Dillon has a massive reputation. She and her band performed a set of breathtaking folk songs with mesmerising melodies, which enticed an ever-growing crowd. Cara's voice had a mysterious quality which made it bewitching. The pipes were tantalising and Sam Lakeman's performance on both keyboard and guitar was magnificent. Throughout the set the different instruments and Cara's voice were arranged and layered beautifully allowing an effective use of dynamics. The rendition of "Where Are You", which talks about the sadness of losing a loved one, was a perfect example of this. The song began with just Sam and Cara which allowed a gentler, more mournful tone to be established which reflected the song's lyrics, however as the song progressed and the other instruments began to join in drama and passion was built and added to the piece. Another fantastic number was "Bold Jamie" which was written by them as a modern version of a typical Irish ballad; it therefore had 10 verses and included a father, a lover, a daughter and a goat amongst other things. It had a lilting rhythm and a rousing melody that was reminiscent of a jig. Folk music that thoroughly deserved its place on main stage.
YVONNE LYON - Christian Aid Performance Café -
I was impressed by the new Christian Aid Performance Café, a large space capable of holding a fair number of people but still keeping that cosy club atmosphere feeling - well done Christian Aid. This was to be the venue for Yvonne Lyon's acoustic set and the first performance of the festival on this stage; so armed with a mugful of tea I claimed my patch of grass near the front of the stage to watch this lady from Greenock. Accompanied by Paul Beard (from The Electrics) on guitar Yvonne began her set with a gentle tune called "Memories" then moved onto a beautifully inspiring song called "Everything's Fine". Commenting on how God has a way of sneaking up on you unexpectedly Yvonne explained the story behind this song. She had been sitting in her car one day agitated by day-to-day concerns when she was suddenly aware of a little girl with learning difficulties holding her mummy's hand. She was looking straight at Yvonne and just smiling. This tender moment gave her the inspiration for her song. In fact most of Yvonne's songs are reflections on life experiences. "Colours" was a gentle tune of encouragement through difficult times whereas "Marianna" had a harder edge than her previous tunes. My personal favourite of the set however was that traditional gem "Down To The River" popularised by the O Brother Where Art Thou movie and which had us all singing along. Yvonne drew to a close with a song written for her Gran called "Come" and by the end of her set the crowd had increased and so had the volume of the applause.
ROBIN STEPHENS - Foxhunter - 8pm
Robin Stevens' music was first heard at Greenbelt in 1985 and in 1987 he was the first composer to receive a Greenbelt commission. After a long absence he returned last year to give a talk on his paper, Redeeming The Arts. Greenbelters seemed to keenly welcome his return this year performing J S Bach's first cello suite interspersed with his own work on both cello and piano. He opened with Bach's Prelude, perhaps the most well known part of Bach's suite, to attentive audience. Despite their being no stage, no suits in sight, the audience sitting on the floor and the performer wearing a bright orange T-shirt, this performance was near perfect. Interestingly, Robin played all the Bach pieces without music while his own he played from the score. This was classical music for all! His second piece was a six minute movement from Stevens' one and only cello suite. It's definitely a tough piece to play, he explained, and you could certainly see his involvement with the music. It was captivating and reminded me of Han Zimmer's powerful music from the film Gladiator. This remained the style for most of Stephens' compositions, and although a lot was dissonant and challenging on the ear this was nothing less than brilliant! I'm a fan of the romantic composers and usually steer clear of 20th century stuff but Robin Stephens was awesome! A change in his style was seen in his "Sicilienne" that Robin wrote for his pianist mother for her 70th birthday. He introduced this with, "I can write tunes honest!" Not that the audience ever doubted his talent or skill.
MARTYN JOSEPH - Main Stage - 8.15pm
I'd in fact assigned reviewer Dave Griffiths to cover Martyn's main stage set. Just as well as I was manhandling bags and tent through the crowd and drizzle by the time he was drawing to a close. Here's what Dave wrote: "I know this will shock some readers, but I had never seen Martyn Joseph play live before. My first impressions were of a clearly disgruntled middle aged man who wouldn't sit comfortably in your average church service. It was clear that the Greenbelt audience was mainly very familiar with him and his songs. His themes took in the second gulf war ("How Did We End Up Here?"), the anti-Christ ("666") and refugees with "The Good In Me". His singing was impassioned, his acoustic tones as sweet as I have ever heard. The highlight of his set, and one of the whole festival for me, was "Wake Me Up". This epic number had many 40 something aged men bouncing lightly on their heels. Joseph's use of his loop peddle was amazing, building the song to an astonishing crescendo and a wonderful lead-break. I was, by the end of the set, convinced that I would spend money to hear Martyn play live again." I agree with everything Dave wrote - Martyn is indeed a consummate talent. But I feel the need to add a rider. As I passed in ear-shot of main stage I heard Martyn leading the crowd to sing along on the song "Liberal Backslider". Now as it turns out I had a tiny part to play in that song. What happened was that a few years back I met up with journo and friend Mike Rimmer who the next day was interviewing Martyn Joseph and, suffering from the malaise of an experienced journo who'd already interviewed the Welsh songsmith several times in the past, Mike asked me whether I could suggest any interesting questions to ask Martyn. Without much thought I threw him a loaded question for the interview - "How do you respond to some sections of the Church who today view you as a liberal backslider?" It tickled Mike and, sure enough, next day he asked the dread question. Martyn's response was, "Mmm.that's an interesting question. That would be a good idea for a song." And sure enough, in due course, much to Mike's and my delight, the Joseph composition "Liberal Backslider" appeared on his 1999 'Far From Silent' album. To me the lyric seemed like rich irony ("I'm a liberal backslider, been sliding about 10 years/People ask me how I am doing, I confirm all their fears!/I am swearing like a trooper, drinking like a bum/I am a liberal backslider but it sure is a lot of fun"). At the time I thought the song came from the same source of tongue-in-cheek irony that Steve Taylor had once used when he sung he had "burnt down the [abortion] clinic real good". But as I heard and saw the song being sung by the Greenbelt crowd, particularly by a bunch of youth clutching Tennants cans and clearly the worse for wear, I began to perceive the song in a new light. My unease turned to dismay. Then Martyn sang the verse about "punching TV evangelists in the face" and vilifying American Bible teacher Pat Robertson. Here, I felt, was something more than the Church laughing over its differences. In this performance at least, Martyn was leading the crowd in an anthem of shrill intolerance. There is still today a chasm between the broad-church theology/practice of a Greenbelt and the theology/practice of many evangelical/charismatic churches. But if ever bridges are to be built, as one day they must be, we can do without misguided protest singers whipping up anti-right wing, anti-American prejudice. I say this as one who abhors much of Pat Robertson's politics. But if he, and other TV evangelists are to be critiqued in song, it will have to be done with more discernment and, dare I say it, love than that shown by Martyn during this performance.
Tony Cummings, Dave Griffiths
NUMINOUS - Stage 2 - 8.15pm
Northern Ireland's Numinous have obviously learnt lessons from their time in the studio with producer Matt Hyde (Fightstar, Razorlight, Funeral For A Friend), their delivery and tightness of sound was faultless. The actual music itself was a melodic form of rock that could easily be fobbed off as emo. Instead it took a much more straight-up rock direction, demonstrating their indie-rock past. Not easily comparable to any act I've heard, yet somehow they feel so familiar. Perhaps they've met in the middle-ground with fellow Greenbelters Blindside but from totally opposing directions. Another interesting fact is that each song, like a fine wine, improved with age - starting off unimpressively yet often finishing beautifully. A fantastic warm-up for Verra Cruz, who were next to grace Stage 2.
SHAWN McDONALD - Christian Aid Performance
Café - 8.15pm; The Mix - 8.45pm
One of this Greenbelt's big mysteries was: "Why is such a high-profile US act only doing a one-off gig in one of the smaller venues? I can't answer that one, but I can say that Shawn's 20-odd minute set in the Christian Aid Performance Cafe certainly left me wanting more. Fortunately (or so I thought at first) he was drafted to fill in for an absentee act in another venue immediately afterwards...and so I dragged myself off to The Mix to see him again, only to discover that I was a little too old for that venue designated exclusively for the 11 to 14 age group. Still, the stewards were kind enough to let me in when I explained what I was doing, and I got to see the whole gig (all five songs of it) from side stage, as well as a bit of the Mowglee gig before his. In his short but sweet sets, Shawn came over as a very sincere bloke. He opened up his kiddie show with a song loosely based on the 23rd Psalm; in the Performance Cafe, he treated us to "Perfectly Done", "Home", "Take My Hand" and "Gravity", ably accompanied by a percussionist in a hoodie and another guy who played cello and electric guitar. I have to say that the reception he received in The Mix blew away all the preconceived notions I had about kids' musical tastes; they loved him just as much as the grownups did. It is hard to make a reasoned assessment of an artist based on a 20-minute gig (or two). But I can safely say I like Shawn McDonald's music. In the brief time he had with his audience, he conveyed a passion, warmth and plain old down-to-earthiness that was very endearing. And now I'm off to find all his albums.
QUENCH - Christian Aid Performance Café - 9pm
As these lads have played Greenbelt several times I was waiting in anticipation to see them as my first gig of the festival. Quench came out braced to play an acoustic set as a result of the more intimate feel of the venue. Sitting on stools ala Westlife, they opened with a cover of "Tribute" which surprised their diehard core of fans. They then meandered through the rest of their set with familiar songs like "Gollum" and "Afterglow" from their 2003 album 'Afterglow'. In between, local boy Jamie Hill spoke about his marriage, music collection and all other areas his life. Due to them only having a 45 minute set there was too much talking and sorting technical problems with the sound desk. They completed their set with "Chameleon", a new song that was designed for electric guitar and performed more enthusiastically than the rest of their set. Rock bands doing the acoustic thing are often a bit of an indulgence and in truth this set never raised itself above mediocrity.
VERRA CRUZ - Stage 2 - 9.30pm
Despite having the hallmarks of Audioslave written over a number of their songs ("Strange Food" springs to mind) - with their Rage Against The Machine riffs and their grungy vocals, Verra Cruz are still very much their own beast. The driving force behind the band, Marc James, spent a large part of their set mimicking Cousin It, with his head down and his hair covering his face. But when you can create his level of guitar expertise, it's easy to forgive. Each song was introduced with a brief explanation, some just ending with a dedication and some more poignant. Half of the set saw Marc playing his lap steel guitar, giving a great blues groove to the night. Having recently signed a distribution deal with Fierce! Distribution (and an even more impressive Christian deal to come in the US). A fine set.
MARIA McKEE - Main Stage - 9.45pm
I was a big fan of Maria's first band, Lone Justice, but, apart from her one big hit as a solo artist, she'd dropped off my radar after the band split though The Rimmer reminds me she did make an unexpected appearance on a Maranatha! worship album awhile back. So I was looking forward to seeing if her later solo material was as good as the early stuff, as well as wondering if any of the Lone Justice material would be part of the set. I wasn't disappointed in either respect - there were a goodly number of LJ songs scattered throughout the gig, and I left with a renewed desire to investigate Maria's more recent albums. That spine-tingling voice, part rock, part country, part tremulous vulnerability, is still an effecting sound. But, overall, I felt that Maria's didn't quite live up to what I'd hoped for. Other than a single backing singer, Maria played solo throughout accompanying herself on guitar or piano and, while this worked fine as far as most of the songs were concerned, it didn't fit the main stage venue. The laid-back, acoustic vibe just didn't seem right for such a non-intimate setting. I wonder whether, having attracted someone of Maria's stature to the festival, the organisers felt constrained to give her a main stage slot rather than using one of the smaller venues even where one might have been more suitable for Mraia's acoustic music. But then again there was still that voice to swoon over. A qualified thumbs-up for this one.
SUPERVISION - Stage 2 - 10.45pm
In America top CCM bands announce their retirement a year in advance and go out with a money spinning tour and a greatest hits compilation beefed up with "rarities" (ie, demos and tracks originally deemed not good enough for the original albums). In the UK the best a long-serving Christian band can hope for is a fairly high profile final concert. Like this one. And clearly the historic importance of this farewell gig by the Liverpool rockers was not lost on the GB faithful. A long tail of punters queued out of the concourse (the longest queue at Stage 2 all weekend). And Supervision delivered with a blinding set of high octane, energy filled rock which left the packed throng baying for more. Down the years Supervision have progressed from an average ministry band to bombastic yet intelligent declarers of the Good News who could give any band, Delirious? included, a run for their money. Everything kicked. Finchley's cascading, dazzling guitar riffs cut through like the Son Of Hendrix, Mark's vocals, particularly on "Heaven", "Here I Am", "Alien" and "Scream", were magnificent examples of full-on rock singing and the two Jameses, Harding and Burch, locked bass and drums together in a heavyweight whole which would have impressed any Muse fan. Mark explained why the needs of family, work and ministry was calling a close to the Supervision era and at the end of the steam-heat set there were people at the door handing out free copies of the band's 'Bring You Up To Speed' album. More than a few people at the gig also rushed over to the ICC shop to buy the band's 'Day Of Small Beginnings'. I suppose by Nashville super-gig standards it was small endings though I doubt whether any American big timer could have bettered this memorable and moving closure.
SATURDAY, 26th August