For the ninth time we've expanded this comprehensive review of the music of GREENBELT
In what is now an annual service to Greenbelt goers and Christian music buffs generally from 24th to 27th August Cross Rhythms installed an intrepid team of reviewers at Cheltenham Racecourse to report on the music performed at Christendom's longest running arts festival. Here is our most updated version.
FRIDAY, 24th August
SARAH MASEN - Mainstage - 5.50pm
A relaxed and chilled-out crowd sat to soak up the first performance on the Mainstage, smiling and clapping politely as America's Sarah Masen whisked her way through some beautiful tunes. She announced herself to the festival stating, "It's a lovely day for some hopeful music, and we are going to play some for you." With a total of five backing singers, including Greenbelt favourite Cathy Burton, lush harmonies complemented the strong and soulful voice of Masen, who endearingly refers to her singers as the gaggle geese girls. There was a folk feel to her understated and subtly crafted songs, meandering along in the afternoon sun. "Therapeutic/Charismatic" gradually built up, was true to its title and displayed haunting vocals showing that Masen does not just write sweet songs. Her songs were performed largley acoustically, with the occasional electric guitar solo, some interesting and unexpected breaks and middle-eights, and a heap of honesty. It has been five years since Masen has released any new material and she took the unorthodox decision this year to release three EPs independently and her live performance included offerings taken from the 15 songs birthed in these latest releases. When the performance was stripped down in one of the new songs "Ploughman", to just her voice and guitar, the sound carried before her band joined in to rush home the melody with abandon. The penultimate song "75 Grains Of Sand" was a particular standout. As Masen put down her guitar to concentrate on vocals, a stomper of a tune unleashed itself as she bounced around with great stage presence and powerful vocals akin to Alanis Morrisette. These redemptive, soul-searching anthems were a treat of a start to the festival.
ADAM CARPENTER - Performance Café - 7.30pm
Oxford-based Adam Carpenter used to lead a collective called Topaz, but has since decided to put himself forward as a solo act. A small and scattered crowd witnessed a set of acoustic folk inspired by the likes of Dylan, The Band and Wilco. Opening with "Death Blues", he pulled off the blues with a nice riff and rasping vocals, and pulling no punches lyrically as he sang "Your name it is destruction/The Devil is your twin." The struggles of living life as a Christian are focused on in many of Adam's songs. As he explained to me after the show when I asked the songsmith what the ballad "How Many Times" is about: "It is about feeling a long way from where you want to be, and alternating between hope and despair." Adam was joined onstage by wife Nicola, who contributed backing vocals. Switching from blues to more mellow country-tinged songs, the harmonies led me to imagine myself sat at home with my feet up and with a cup of coffee on a long and lazy morning. The highlight was certainly the set-closer, a wistful cover of The Band. For the depth of heart, humility and honesty, this was a fine set.
OVER THE RHINE - Mainstage - 8.10pm
I sit on the dampening grass at Mainstage listening to the lady in the pretty summer dress sing a jazz torch song. Some of the words don't carry over the chattering crowd though I can pick out the occasional line or two. "I don't wanna waste good wine/If you won't stick around," she sings and if on cue a swathe of people get up and leave to go and find a warmer and possibly more dynamic venue. Over The Rhine are, of course, long time Greenbelt favourites but as the songs from their latest album 'The Trumpet Child' clearly indicates, their new stripped down jazz direction is all wrong for the unforgiving vistas of open air Mainstage. By the time the duo (with sideman) get to the bass and drum solos there are plenty of spaces in the thinning crowd. Things only pick up when they revert to older songs. Their gospel gem from 'Ohio' about being carried in the arms of Jesus is truly wonderful while the last but one song, where they revert back to their country bluegrass roots, also hits home. And Karin Bergquist after all these years still has the most effecting of voices able to note-bend like a black diva one second and find the poignancy of Appalachian harmony the next. If that mighty voice wasn't enough, each musician on stage is a master with Linford Detweiler's piano demonstrating enough dexterity to show he would be quite able to wow them at Ronnie's. But of course this isn't an intimate jazz club but a venue best suited for rock 'n' roll dynamism and this, plus a low key set which in truth was way too eclectic, leaves me, quite literally, cold.
ATLUM SCHEMA - Underground - 8.15pm
A programme change meant many tuned up expecting to see the band The Guild but instead got this very competent solo guitarist/pianist. Altum's use of loops to build up a vocal bedrock for him to then sing over was an impressive display in technological wizardry and was the high point of his set. The songs were, I felt, pleasant if not exceptional.
LUCIUS - Underground - 9.30pm
To many people Luke Morgan is still perhaps best known for being the brains and guitar behind Axlanbay. Yet Welsh rockers Lucius are over two years old now though as a live band they are much younger. My guess would be that as such the band offered us the entirety of their musical back catalogue (as good as that may be). Maybe it's a band trying to be diverse or just a band yet to have found their sound but really you can't blame Lucius for having every song sound the same as the last. A good use of sampling added to their diverse rock sound. It seems clear the band is keen to write sing-along catchy tunes. To pigeon hole them to one genre is rather tricky, imagine catchy mainstream rock that sounds like it should be indie but with meatier hooks and a sound bigger than the sum of the three band members. It's a shame that the Friday evening bands do have the downside of a smaller pool of campers to lure in. Not only that but the cauldron heat of the Underground stage is just daft - this was my first of many visits to the dark and badly ventilated cavern. Luckily the early birds are usually the keenest and the crowd certainly seemed to like what it saw.
BILLY BRAGG - Mainstage - 9.35pm
Billy Bragg made his second appearance at Greenbelt, coming this time as a speaker as well as a singer. His Mainstage appearance was the climax of the opening evening on a surprisingly mild and dry Friday evening, and set the scene for the days of performance and debate that were to follow. Billy's opening quip was "trust you guys to get the dry festival," a phrase which captures his warm feelings towards Greenbelt but also perhaps reveals that he still feels an outsider. Some of his later comments and jokes also suggested that he wasn't entirely sure how to relate to this audience. Nonetheless his set offered his characteristic mix of raw energy, passionate protest and clever wit. The audience seemed strangely subdued at times, but they did warm particularly to his expression of deep concern about the effects of war, not least on the soldiers who find themselves on the front line. As well as a wide ranging selection of his own material he included songs from Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and, more surprisingly, the Carpenters! The best "Greenbelt moments" came with a sing-along version of Bob Marley's "One Love" (with new lyrics in support of the Drop The Debt Campaign), and the new song which Billy introduced called "Keep Faith". In a long introduction he explained that he no longer viewed capitalism or conservatism as the great enemies to be overcome, but that cynicism was real enemy. Faith, he said, is the antidote to cynicism, enabling us to keep working for a better world even when so many would say that nothing can be done. It is the activist element of the Greenbelt Festival that most impresses Billy, so it is no surprise that this created the moment of greatest connection. Billy Bragg is no longer the angry young man of pop, but he continues to be moved by the injustice of the world and is only too happy to stand alongside religious people as he brings his considerable talent and passion to the cause.
LLEUWEN - Performance Café - 10.00pm
Lleuwen Steffan's successful appearances at last year's Greenbelt brought the Welsh star back for a return visit and her eclectic set taking in a Louis Armstrong oldie ("Wonderful World"), accapella Welsh folk music, hymnody and Bill Withers ("Ain't No Sunshine") was executed with skill and relaxed professionalism. Her classically trained voice is a thing of pure toned beauty while her stand up bass and jazz piano accompanists were clearly top musos, the latter changing every chord to "Ain't No Sunshine" to make it into a sinuous 3.00-in-the-morning style opus. I can't say I cared for Lleuwen's rendition of "It's A Funny Old World", the lyrics being too much of a wallow in Leonard Cohen-style self-pity for me but whether singing in English or Welsh, folk or jazz, the dear lady's sheer technique never failed to keep the audience listening. The big surprise in the performance though was when, mid-set, Lleuwen brought on one Chloe Leavers, explaining that the lass had approached her after a gig and put a CDR in her hand. When this slip of a thing, hunched over her acoustic guitar, sang her one self-composed song the audience instantly heard why Lleuwen had so generously given space in her set for this musical unknown. Chloe's voice was a beautiful, delicate thing which breathed brittle poignancy into her song of faith. One number clearly wasn't enough for the hugely impressed crowd. I left having enjoyed Lleeuwan's set but certain we'll be hearing much more from Ms Leavers in the future.
THE GENTLEMEN - Underground - 10.45pm
Sheffield's The Gentlemen were definitely one of the bands to watch out for at Greenbelt this year, being hailed as the Christian answer to the Kaiser Chiefs. Judging by the huge crowd queuing outside the Underground stage at on a Friday night, it's easy to tell that expectations were high. Thankfully the band did not disappoint - far from it. The performance was filled with catchy indie guitar songs, leaving the crowd singing, dancing and clapping along for the entire performance. The band treated the crowd to a good batch of songs from their album debut 'Smile Back At Me' such as the upbeat swagger of "Electricity", which would easily sit well in a set from the Kaiser Chiefs or Razorlight. It's clear that this venue is too small for this band, they could in fact easily hold their own on the Mainstage and still get the crowd jumping and singing along.
THE ANGELS SHARE, HOSTED BY STEVE STOCKMAN, FEATURING OVER THE
RHINE, LIES DAMNED LIES AND SARAH MASEN - Mandarin -
One of the secret treats of Greenbelt has to be The Angels Share. Hosted by Steve Stockman, broadcaster, poet and author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2, it provides an intimate setting to experience some of the acts who played on various stages earlier in the evening. With a new album out, Northern Irish Stockman introduced Over The Rhine, who are a favourite band of his. And Linford Detweiler responded to Stockman's comment that they have lightened up since their previous material by stating: "I think joy is more elusive than melancholy." Karin Berquist's incredibly smooth voice was highlighted in the travelling song "I'm On A Roll", while they paid tribute to famous songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Neil Young in "If A Song Could Be President". Detweiler explained of the latter: "We are real proud of American music and we wanted to celebrate that a little. We took a little pointer from Van Morrison. He was good at doing that within the context of a song." Lies Damned Lies then took the stage in front of the intimate crowd of around 150 Greenbelters. Their beautiful picking and three-part harmonies were equally gripping in the Mandarin. Sarah Masen finished off the night with two songs including the infectious "Dream In A Dream". She also shared about the trials of the recent diagnosis of one of her children as autistic, remaining cheerful throughout. The Angels Share was a brilliant opportunity to see some fantastic artists perform close up in an intimate setting and to hear ol' Stocky quiz them on the background to their songs and lives.
SATURDAY, 25th August
SCHMO - Underground - 10.30am
"My name's Joe, some people call me Schmo." That was the understated introduction to this morning set from the aforementioned Schmo, a Brit soloist who weaved his way through a fusion of genres and humorous medleys of pop songs. He began with bluesy guitar amidst an apt purple haze of smoke that surrounded him as he impressively worked his way through riffs from Deep Purple's "Smoke On The Water" to Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love". On his own material, Schmo's spoken word set the urban tone for his act, yet he also mixed it up with gentler, melodic vocals. Schmo's versatile, intricate and fast-paced guitar playing was then displayed on what can only be described as a combination of Latino and The Kooks on his third song. A more than valiant effort at an upbeat version of Coldplay's "Yellow" ensued as the bleary-eyed small crowd looked on. I was not even put off when he sang, "You're like a journalist, you can cut, paste and twist." At this point I shuffled nervously but kept scribbling my notes, including one observation that he sounded rather like Robert Smith of The Cure. Two songs later and he pulls out a cover of "Lovecats". The second medley of the morning surreally combined TLC's "Scrubs", Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me A River", Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" together with some Nelly and other assorted pop treats. It had the crowd cackling and singing along. This skilled and laconic troubadour announced on penultimate song "Average Joe" that he has no CD or myspace page but that members of the audience could hear one of his songs by borrowing Schmo's ipod for a quick listen! Now that's what I call avoiding the hype of the pop rock scene.
WHERE ON EARTH - Underground - 11.20am
For a band initially formed in 2006 to play some cover versions at a birthday party, Where On Earth have succeeded remarkably well in garnering approving comments from the likes of MixMag and NME. Now playing their own compositions, the band had brought a sizable number of supporters with them to their GB appearance which made it feel a bit as if they were still performing for a friend's party. Musically, the songs reminded me a bit of early Jam, and the lads certainly know how to play. Unfortunately, the "we're all here to have fun" approach let them down somewhat with a bit too much self-indulgent zaniness preventing them giving a tighter and more professional performance. It will take some hard work and discipline to convert reviews which talk about their potential into reviews which laud their actual achievements.