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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SOMETHING FOR SOPHIE - YMCA Fresh Talent Stage -
Something For Sophie have the potential to become a pop-rock phenomenon across the UK. Notching up a fair few plays on their myspace caught the attention of the organisers of the YMCA Fresh Talent Stage at Greenbelt. Suffice to say they were duly booked. With killer hooks, brilliant melodies and an explosive live performance they had the tent truly swelling at the seams. The back of the tent was about the only place to congregate for latecomers drawn to the impassioned delivery of songs like "Day Of Your Life" and "Chasing Venezuela", which will see them pick up fans as quickly as the Greenbelt volunteers can pick up litter from the empty site. Something For Sophie are a band to watch indeed and accolades to the Fresh Talent organisers for spotting them.
THE STEELS - Underground - 3.30pm
After the delay following a false fire alarm interrupting Deathisnotwelcomehere's set, The Steels bring a rather light sounding start to the Meltdown Sessions - usually renowned for bringing us the heaviest stuff at the festival. But these are a tight trio of pop rockers who know how to put a smile on your face and a bounce in your step. I've known about these guys for a couple of years but this is the first time I've caught them live. I wasn't bowled over with them but they did enough to keep my interest. Considering they went full time this summer I fear they'll need to do a little bit more to keep crowds interested for longer periods of time and get the illustrious invite back to a venue played before. Plus whilst the music was fun and entertaining, the patois of the guys was far from captivating - but then I guess it's not their role to compete with the likes of [dweeb], My Spoon and Austin Francis Connection, all who know how to do more than just create good music. The Steels' second album, which came out early on this year, was a great improvement on their debut and it's good to hear most of their set given over to the newer stuff. If you like the Busted and McFly mould of fun and tuneful pop rock, you should investigate The Steels.
IAIN ARCHER & FRIENDS - Centaur -
Iain Archer chose this opportunity to air songs from new album 'To The Pine Roots', which was launched at Greenbelt. With a brand new guitar for which he had forgotten to buy a strap, he came out on his own and set the mood for his fresh, more understated direction. Wife Miriam, who had literally just arrived from London, entered the stage after a couple of numbers, gave Iain a quick hug and was joined by Gabi Froden to sing angelic backing vocals in the fluent story of "The Acrobat". The almost cracked fragility of Archer's voice was complimented by the atmosphere and dynamics driven by the stellar Phil Wilkinson on brushes and Jon Kensington on double bass. Iain's parents and in-laws helped make up a choir on "To Mend And Move Along", making it a truly friends and family affair. The captivating "Canal Song" from the fantastic previous album 'Magnetic North' was given a particularly warm reception by the crowd in the wonderful Centaur. Yet new song "The Everest" was saved for the set closer, building gradually with some sweet guitar from Archer, whose distinct picking style was consummate throughout. A stunningly soulful choir made up of Miriam Archer, Gabi Froden, the Archer and Kaufmann parents, Julie Lee, Aaron Roach and Foy Vance joined in for the song's refrain of "Some other day, when my morning comes/I'll be the one that's waited all night." This was the set highlight of an intimate gig that warmly involved friends and family, and particularly the in-laws at whose house amidst the quiet setting of a German black forest he wrote and recorded many of these tender songs.
KINZLI - Performance Café - 4.00pm
An oriental girl in a floral dress sings a jazz-style song with a violinist and bass player helping her out. The lyrics, about the exploited poor, are sincere but clumsy and only on the scat singing outro does it all meld together. Kinzli in a South Korean-born,London-based singer and according to the Greenbelt programme her debut album 'Going Just To Be Going' is out now on Polkadot Records. By her third song I've decided I won't go to the G Music Store in search of a copy. Kinzli's songs strike me as rather dull and full of clumsy phrases that don't scan too well. So whether she's singing about important topics like the political turmoil in Burma ("We walk for peace.carry on, carry on, carry on-on-on") or a song about her boyfriend which, rather strangely, she sings in Spanish, it fails to grab me. Kinzli's rather reedy voice and at times plinking, perfunctory accompaniments don't add up to a great deal either. By the close many in the audience have drifted away.
IGNITED - Underground - 4.15pm
I like these guys, every time I see them they always try to keep improving and evolving their sound plus they're a good bunch of lads to get on with as well. But it was clear to most of the crowd that they'd fallen foul to the below par abilities of the Underground sound technicians. At times you could hardly tell they were the melodic hardcore outfit they claimed to be as their sound was softened far too much, mainly due to the guitars not getting enough volume. The keyboards, added exactly one year ago at last year's Greenbelt, continue to improve and be a more integral part of their sound. It added some nice extra layers - albeit ones which don't always overlay as best they could. One of the highlights for me was their penultimate song in the set, a new one entitled "Flick Of The Switch". It's good to hear their sound and technical ability improve since shifting from their pop-punk roots to this more melodic hardcore sound. Another sign of their move away from being a generic punk band is that next year sees them change their band name when they release their new album; I'm looking forward to it already.
THE IRRELEVANTS - Underground - 5.00pm
The Irrelevants are from Accrington and started life as a covers band in 2003. With all the black and white chequered stuff on their new EP '"dARed Says It's Grand' you would think that they were a ska band. Well it seems that I've been fooled as they turn out to be a pop-punk band with spiky hair, pogo power and northern grit. The three piece let rip through "DOA", "Punk & Anarchy" and "Cheer Up". The latter song has great lyrics, "Well all I see is emo kids with fringe over one eye/My Chemical Romance told them it's cool to cry/Skinny jeans and skinny tops, tattoos that they'll regret ./I wish these people would cheer up/So cheer up guys, no need to be sad." Then they bludgeon their way through "Barbie Girl" along with the elephant mascot that came out and danced during some of the songs. It was already hot in the Underground, so I don't know how he managed to keep going without keeling over from heat exhaustion. A few more songs on and they are riffing through their own composition "She's Got A Boyfriend". I wasn't expecting to see a punk band on the Meltdown stage in the Underground, yet they seemed to be well received by the crowd.
HELEN J HICKS - Performance Café - 5.00pm
Hicks' set brought a jazzy feel to the Performance Cafe - the sun had stayed out and her laid back tunes made great listening on a warm August afternoon. Sassy and sweet, Hicks glowed from behind the keyboard, almost every song introduced with warm humour. She switched between bold and intimate moments with ease, aided by guitarist Simon Nelson whose subtle but confident playing brought further swing to the proceedings. "Barbie With Soul" got the crowd grinning, while "Perfect On Paper" (which could have come across like the obligatory song that men have to skip on Alanis Morissette CDs so they don't feel inadequate) was sharply written and performed with tongue in cheek (No mean feat. Ed) - throughout the set Hicks' humour and clever composition shone through. Hicks toured with Larry Norman shortly after meeting him at Greenbelt when she was 18, and talked of looking forward to playing "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" in Sunday's tribute to Norman - sadly, the crowd were not granted an advance listen, but the 10 songs on offer, including two songs that Hicks wrote and released as charity fundraising singles, made for an enjoyable 40 minutes of jazz-tinged pop music.
THE ROYAL WELCOME - YMCA Fresh Talent Stage -
Ah youth! A lad in a crumpled shirt who looks like he's studied every move in the MTV Book Of Rock Band Cliches is crouched over the mic while his fellow band members create a joyfully jagged rock racket. This bunch of young men from Leicester play punchy hard rock with a tightness that belies their youth and though they overdo the rock hero posturing they're good with some complex time changes even recalling the golden age of thrash. Particularly impressive is their closer "about the overlap between Heaven and earth." Certainly The Royal Welcome sound good enough to be hiked up to Greenbelt's Underground venue next year together with the other two outstanding bands from the Fresh Talent venue, Something For Sophie and Toxic Federation. It seems Greenbelt can still unearth exciting grassroots talent.
VOICE OF THE MYSTERONS - Underground - 5.40pm
If Edgar Allen Poe had ever decided to branch out into songwriting after finishing The Raven then this is the band he might have written for. This extraordinary aggregation was formed after Blaster The Rocket Boy/Man's lead singer Otto NoBot (Daniel Petersen) moved to Scotland and met Dougle, who wanted to form a credible Christian punk band. The album they wrote is called 'They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven On Their Heads OR Come Hell Or High Voltage: An Electromagnetic Rapture Rock Shock Apocalypse In Dramatic Dialogue With Damned Abaddon's Lost Lads And Lasses'. Either it's the long lonely nights in the Highlands or they must put something in the water up there in Livingstone! Voice Of The Mysterons have unfeasibly long song titles which tell tales of monsters and mythical beasts whilst the songs themselves have complicated lyrics and rarely contain any choruses or singalong parts. They had the lyrics of three songs written out on long poster rolls stuck to the speaker stacks, which just emphasised the complexity of the language used. After playing at Cornerstone and a mini American tour, Dan has perfected the art of jumping from the stage onto the crash barriers (and then sometimes into the crowd). Dougle, on guitar, strikes heroic posses in his kilt. He is an imposing figure at six and a half feet tall, with sideburns that Wolverine would kill for. They are joined by Francis on bass and the Daveytron XJ5000 rhythm unit. The audience were stunned by the sonic onslaught of "Sarx Machines Are Dying To Become Daughters And Sons (Irene, Irene Evangeline)", "The Ants Of God Are Queer Fish (And Now Walk Gently Through The Fire)" and "You Don't Understand My 25-Year Transmogrification Plan (An American Werewolf In Glasgow)". The sheer amount of words crammed into two-minute songs is spectacular. And because their songs are short, the Mysterons do several songs in a row, only coming to a halt to give Dan a chance to get his breath back. "Something Breathes Beside You In The Darkness" starts off with a spoken word intro of "In the pitch past midnight, in the last thick-thatched dark-sight before dawn/The shore shone and I was humbled by what I stumbled upon." As the crowd leaves, we are in no doubt that we have been subjected to a truly original band.
JULIE LEE - Mainstage - 6.00pm
After highly impressive yet short and sweet spots at both Last Orders and The Rising, a full band backed up Julie Lee on Mainstage. The Nashville-based singer/songwriter blended the combined influences of gospel, bluegrass, folk and Maryland jazz, all with a classic American voice. Most songs slipped between the genres, though her Mainstage slot was dedicated more to the swing leanings of her 'Take Me Out To Hear The Band' release, in what was a welcome lazy early evening slot. She donned the ukulele for the feel good shuffle groove of "Born To Pine And Sigh" and charmed the crowd after announcing following song "A Good Man Is Hard To Find", joking "That's because you're all taken." The teasing cascading rhythms were propelled by Phil Wilkinson on drums and Jon Kensington on double bass, who both played more than proficiently after learning the songs on the day. "Before You Came Along" was the soulful set highlight featuring twinkling piano from Nathan Phillips, also of Winston Jazz Machine. Julie Lee's artistic credibility in this set was affirmed not only by her outstanding voice and fine song craft but also by her generous attitude towards her band of musicians, giving credit to their contribution and side projects, many of which appeared at Greenbelt's other venues. Guitarist Aaron Roach, a brilliant singer/songwriter in his own rite, deserves particular mention for accompanying her in beautiful fashion throughout the weekend, his sticker-laden guitar providing a fine solo on closing song "Little Evening Star". Julie Lee was undoubtedly one of the most special and defining artists of Greenbelt 2008.
CATHY BURTON - Performance Café - 6.00pm
Obviously, there are a lot of performers peddling their wares at Greenbelt, so by Saturday evening I'd already found myself suffering a little singer/songwriter fatigue. However, my faith was restored wonderfully by Cathy Burton, performing her first gig in nine months after becoming a mum again last year. From the off, Burton was making excuses for herself (hardly rehearsed, covered in baby sick, got a stinking cold) but she needn't have because she's a natural talent and, as Stu G (he of Delirious?, no less) gallantly pointed out, even with a cold she sings like an angel. Gerrard was providing accompaniment on guitar and contributed some masterly guitar licks and occasional vocal harmonies. Although he refused to whistle for the crowd (I'm not sure how the on stage banter led to that particular challenge) he did perform "Kingdom Of Comfort" from Delirious?' latest release. With its brooding chorus and hints of Paranoid Android, it added a neat balance to Cathy's mostly upbeat numbers. If you asked any member of the audience what their favourite moment of the set was, they may just say "Stu G's note perfect rendition of the Postman Pat theme song in its entirety" - and that would give you an indication of how free the set was. Cathy sang "Hollow" with breathtaking poignancy and I realised that it still held the same power over me as it did when I first heard Cathy perform the song with ex-band Blueberry in my church hall way too many years ago. Her charming onstage personality combined with an honest approach to her faith and some deft songwriting are the reasons that, year after year Cathy is a Greenbelt favourite.
TASTE OF CODA - YMCA Fresh Talent Stage - 6.00pm
Taste Of Coda are a three piece from Hertfordshire with plenty of strengths but one glaring weakness. Their plusses are a commendable versatility so that the band is able to punch out power pop, neo reggae and even a bit of funk while bass and drums are tight and the guitarist is able to do some interesting things with the loop pedal. The weakness is that the band don't have an adequate singer so that despite all his dexterity on guitar, the lad's vocals are painfully flat. Even the small posse of supporters Taste Of Coda have brought to whistle and cheer can't hide that fact.
HOWE GELB AND GIANT SAND - Mainstage -
I kid you not - 20 minutes into Gelb's set an eight year old, unknown to me, dressed as Bob The Builder, clasping his hands to his ears and with a look of sheer distress on his pudgy face SCREAMED at me, "This is disastrous! This music is terrible! When will it end?" Eight year olds are fairly honest critics and I realised that I had to weigh up his comments and figure out whether, in disagreeing with him, I was being a pretentious muso or not. If his comments give you some indication of how family unfriendly Gelb's experimental alt-country was, it does not give you a fair understanding of the quality of the performance - after all, what does a kid know when it comes to a band who have been over 25 years in the business? Gelb began his set from the piano with a beautiful jazz medley, growling out a haunting verse of "Summertime" with a gravelly, weary, Arizona desert drawl - think Tom Waits with tonsillitis after a night on the town. He waxed lyrical about the rain (apparently he had made it a condition of his performing that Greenbelt must arrange an adequate downpour - God willingly obliged), before he sang out a love song, "a postcard... an invitation if you will," to the hot Arizona desert. The crowd had to work hard as the rain made conditions less than clement, especially during a set that had kicked off to such a laid back start. Then we were treated to two versions of the same song - firstly the "happy" version (which was slow, melancholic and stunningly beautiful) followed by the "sad" version which was a bluesy, rock and roll rendition that finally allowed the crowd a chance to move about a bit. Things got louder and trippier when John Parish ("all the way from Bristol, England") joined the band on stage. A cacophony of bizarre and brilliant tunes followed; searing distorted guitar, hallucinatory country jams and perhaps one too many effects pedal experiments made for a memorable if not completely accessible experience that may have suited a more intimate venue for a more select crowd. Those willing to put in the time, braving the rain to see a true original were duly satisfied. Eight year old boys, and I suspect a few others, were not.
JOSE GONZALEZ - Mainstage - 8:10pm
Sweden's Jose Gonzalez saw a big crowd gathering at the Mainstage, those who know his material expectant to hear his captivating live performance and others intrigued to hear more of an artist they only recognise from the Sony Brava advert that featured his popular cover of the song "Heartbeats". With a simple hello and one simple white spotlight revealing his bearded face, Jose began to weave his musical magic. As the wind gushed the gathering rain from the top of the stage onto the eager front section of the crowd, his refreshing atmospheric songs cast their mysterious spell over the Mainstage. While his songs can sound similar each one dropped like a star onto the field, creating and sustaining an atmosphere washed over with delicate picking and smooth velvety vocals. The meandering duality of the gentle drawing melodies and classical guitar playing displayed how close the relationship between his guitar and voice is, showing just why he has earned comparisons to the ever popular yet deceased Nick Drake. With the biggest cheer of the night reserved for "Heartbeats", and people undoubtedly arguing into the night over his cover of Massive Attack's "Teardrop" and whether it is truer and better than Newton Faulkner's, he concluded a special set.