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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A TRIBUTE TO LARRY NORMAN - Centaur -
I don't think there will be many people who would argue with an assertion that Larry Norman is the most influential artist ever to play Greenbelt. So this tribute, introduced by Steve Stockman and featuring some of Larry's songs performed by a selection of Greenbelt artists, was not only well received but entirely deserved. Kicking off with Martyn Joseph singing "Great American Novel" - as if anyone else other than Larry himself could possibly get away with playing that song at Greenbelt - the set also included Brian Houston (singing "Shot Down"), Iain Archer and Steve Stockman giving a kind of music and reading duet and a medley from a trio consisting of Rob Halligan, Gareth Davies-Jones and After The Fire's Pete Banks. Probably the most moving moment, though, came when Helen J Hicks, one of Larry's former backing singers - and who actually met him for the first time at Greenbelt - played "I Wish We'd All Been Ready", a song she claimed never to have performed solo before. And wrapping it all up was Larry himself, on the video screen. By the end, there was hardly a dry eye left in the house.
ARADHNA - Centaur - 6.30pm
Sometimes even the most committed journalist feels it best to put notebook on one side and simply allow the whole atmosphere of a masterly musical performance to wash over him. Or to put it in a more evangelical way, the music at this Centaur performance encouraged all to enter into the presence of God. Aradhna sat in a circle, Chris Hale, Pete Hicks and the others effortlessly playing their bhajans while the audience, drinking in the eerily poignant vocals and the intricate interplay between sitar and tabla, sprawled in various positions on the Centaur's carpeted expanse. Occasionally I'd catch the word "Yeshua" but soon I stopped listening for Christian buzz words and just let the whole flow of Indian music was over me. The effect was an uplifting sense of peace seemingly a million miles from the noise and jostle outside the Centaur. Time seemed to stand still as we bathed in these beautiful evocations of faith. For the final song we were asked whether we'd like to dance and even I made a clumsy attempt to move to the exotic rhythms. A wonderful hour indeed.
MATTHEW HERBERT'S BIG BAND - Mainstage -
Now, I quite like experimental electronica and, as it happens, I also have a bit of a soft spot for big band music as well. So this fusion of, well, experimental electronica and big band ought to have been right up my street. But, I'm sad to say, it wasn't. The brand of experimentalism espoused by Matthew Herbert (who also, apparently, goes under the various monikers of Doctor Rockit, Radio Boy, Mr Vertigo, Transformer and Wishmountain) is distinctly at the avant-garde, atonal end of the scale (no pun intended) and, while it might work as a purely electronic experiment, it really doesn't seem (to me, anyway) to fit with real, live brass instruments. The musicians on the stage - complete with morning suited conductor - didn't really seem to have any function other than to be a human source of samples to be looped and remixed by the man on the console at the front. To be honest, if I hadn't been there to review it, I wouldn't have stayed to the end. But then, the thinnish crowd seemed to be enjoying it.
EBEN - Underground - 7:15pm
Eben have built on their captivating performance at last year's Greenbelt with recent outings at the prestigious BBC Kent Introducing shows. The first song at Greenbelt's Underground was started by frontman Ollie Knight as familiarly poetic lyrics such as "the prison of the mind crumbled away" washed their tender vocals over the growing crowd. A sweet riff was broken in at the end of the song, reminding me why their alternative rock, influenced by the likes of Radiohead, Sigur Ros and Arcade Fire, provides many instrumental surprises within each song. Whether it is Greg's deep bass, which seems to stand out on its own, or Tom Upfield's inventive and sparkling guitar sitting between the two Jonnys of Buckland and Greenwood, there is always something new to admire and explore. You can imagine the writing process being a very specific and focussed affair in which each second seems to count and each part exists on its own. Ollie Knight switched onto keys as Alison Parish moved to synth and displayed her magnificently powerful voice on the gorgeous "You Bring The Rain". It's almost hymnal yet equally soulful quality displayed just how she has brought a whole new dimension to their magnetic sound. "Washed White As Snow" is reminiscent of Radiohead's "There There", as its magical glittery guitars and pounding drums ushered in another wonderful melody. On the basis of this performance Eben should soon occupy the same territory as their alternative contemporaries The Race, with successful albums, Radio 1 live sessions and adoring fans of their beautifully touching music.
IAN MCMILLAN AND HIS ORCHESTRA - Rise - 7.30pm
Before the set even started, Northern poet Ian McMillan was mingling with the crowd, cracking jokes, checking football scores and assuring those assembled that what they were hearing from the stage was only a sound check and not the actual show. It was a good sign that the crowd were in stitches before the gig had even begun. Some sitting around on this chilly Sunday night had come quickly for seats as close to the stage as they could; others were still sitting around mulling Philip Yancey's talk on the Secret Of The Universe. McMillan, however, had secrets of his own to be revealed. The intention of his poetry was to "celebrate people who don't normally get their story told." Songs veered from the moving (a tribute to Ronnie Barker and "This Is The Year" tales of four mornings at four different pits facing closure) to the ridiculous ("The Shanty Killer", plus an attempt to distill the entire canon of traditional folk song into one tune, with a suitably non-sensical singalong chorus). Whether they were joining in with Barnsley's existential cry of despair ("Eeeeee") or chanting "Trainspotter! Trainspotter! Train! Train! Train!" about Derek, Britain's least successful trainspotter, the crowd were completely at McMillan's disposal. He displayed the rare ability to switch effortlessly between sharp attack ("Curtains Down", a response to the Arts Council's decision to put limitations on performance licences) and humour as he informs the crowd of 10 forgotten moments in history. A fabulous freestyle using words suggested by the crowd resulted in the best poem about a gnome ever made up on the spot. Backed up by his accomplished "orchestra" (double bass, violins, accordion, guitar, hurdy-gurdy) with roots in the folk club scene, the music was tight, top quality folk, intelligently played and arranged for maximum comedy impact. There were issues with sound that occasionally spoilt the occasion - bin liners that protected the PA from rain rasped as the double bass kicked in on a stage more used to hosting speakers. The response was not to remove the bin liner but to lower the volume, which was a shame and made McMillan's wordplay harder to take in. However, this didn't stop the fun - McMillan promised (with a cheeky grin) that we were about to experience "one hour of pure gold" and as the crowd departed with huge grins it was wonderful to see that that was one thing he wasn't joking about.
SHLOMO AND SPECIAL GUESTS - Mainstage -
I've generally considered that beatboxing - making drum-like sounds using your voice and a microphone - is the musical equivalent of a performing seal. There's no denying the skill involved, but I was dubious as to whether anyone could make it interesting enough to last for a full Mainstage set. Far be it from me to admit that I was wrong, but, well... I was wrong. Shlomo isn't merely incredibly gifted technically, he also knows how to put on a show. Starting with just his voice and a microphone, he ran through an amazing repertoire of beatbox trickery before adding a loop machine which he used to create a multi-layered sound including sung vocals (and Shlomo is no mean singer, either) that effectively made him a one-man acapella band playing a medley of well known hits. Stage three of the set brought in the titular special guests - Pete Lockett on tabla drums, Jon Cox on bass and Pavan Mukhi (of the hip-hip group Foreign Beggars) providing improvised vocals which, together with Shlomo's virtuosity, created the impression of a much larger band on stage. To finish it off, Shlomo returned to his one-man-and-a-loop-machine solo performance with a song of his own composition that highlighted every inch of his vocal skills.
HER:ENEMY - Underground - 8.20pm
Her:enemy are definitely a band who know how to rock with the best of them but not only do they know how to rock they also know how to craft a catchy melodic song. Like their mainstream counterparts Biffy Clyro, the songs are brimming with powerful riffs and quieter moments of the more melodic nature. Hours before the band were due on stage I saw them promoting their performance and their hard work clearly paid off because for a pretty much unknown band to us Greenbelters there are more than a healthy number of people present to witness at tightly performed set. And we aren't left disappointed, the band play a rocking set brimming with passion and energy. With a debut album due out later on this year the future looks bright for these anthemic Brit rockers.
KADIALY KOUYATE - St Ethelburga's Tent - 9.00pm
One of the new venues at this year's Greenbelt was Ethel's Tent, run by the London-based St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation & Peace. Over the weekend, it was here that several issues related to reconciliation were discussed, including a much needed discussion on relations between Christians and Muslims. Every evening at Ethel's tent was rounded up with a World Music performance. So far, so good; now for the inevitable "but". The two-person tent I camped in was bigger than Ethel's Tent! You could describe the gigs taking place in there as "intimate" if you were being nice. If you weren't you'd say they were an invasion of the artist's personal space. Anyway, when I turned up for a gig which started about 20 minutes later than the advertised time, I knew there was no way I was getting into the venue. Fortunately for me, I was able to see it from the tent's large transparent plastic windows. I could hear the music, but not the things Kadialy said in between songs. What I did hear, though, was simply amazing. There was Kadialy on centre stage with his kora, accompanied by his band (a bassist, guitarist and percussionist). He sounded soothing and very warm - music which in mood matched the peace-loving ethos of the group running the venue. It's just a shame many of us couldn't fit in the venue to really share the warmth.
ROLL JORDAN ROLL - Mainstage - 9:30pm
The Mainstage hosts introduced the musical drama of Roll Jordan Roll as "a delicious treat for your audio canals." The story is an inspirational one following a group of freed slaves from Tennessee, known as the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who travelled to England in the late 18th century and were invited to sing for Prime Minister Gladstone and Queen Victoria`. Combining the musical forces of Abram Wilson & The Delta Blues Project and The Kingdom Choir, drawing singers from various churches in London, it promised to be a special headline slot. Yet the Kingdom Choir, who have performed with the likes of Elton John, Luther Vandross and Andrae Crouch, were rarely used in what appeared as a performance lacking any real sense of the story it was based on, and instead being filled up with elongated horn solos which in the context of the story's development or lack of, seemed self-indulgent. Between the songs there were short story updates explaining amongst other things how they sailed across the Atlantic by choice. Yet the extremely talented musicians on display were largely reduced to providing phenomenal background music, in which it wasn't easy to see how the music developed the story's ongoing themes. It felt like we were waiting for the jazz club to close and the real show to engage the audience. Failing to connect with the audience might explain why the crowd gradually thinned throughout the performance. A crowd which was 1/3 of the size for that which turned out to see Jose Gonzalez and Seth Lakeman on Saturday night.
MY SPOON - Underground - 9.30pm
The queues are long again for My Spoon this year as they have been in previous years, except this year I was actually able to get in! Expectations were high in the crowd who had packed out the Underground for one of the most anticipated performances of the weekend and the band kicked off their set in bombastic style with "Excuses Don't Fly", taken from their debut album 'Love Stories And Lies'. The crowd are bopping almost instantly and the band rip through their set, quickly going into a novelty covers medley including the Proclaimers' classic "500 Miles" and the Rhianna hit "Umbrella". The highlight of the set though is the worship section which sees the band put their own stamp on well known worship songs like "How Great Thou Art" and "In The Secret" which also features on their debut album. So after finally catching the band live was it worth the wait? Yeah I reckon, there was certainly plenty of both God-focus and variety in their set.
MONDAY, 25th August
FINCHLEY - Underground - 10:30am
After witnessing Finchley's first performance as a solo artist at Greenbelt 2006, I was interested to see how he has evolved as a performer and songwriter. This time with a full band, it becomes clear that the one-time Supervision man is better suited fronting a rock band than as a solo performer. The songs from his debut album 'No Clouds' sound even better live than they do on CD and the set is brimming with energy considering this is a 10.30am gig! There's a high level of musicianship across the whole band and a great camaraderie on the stage. The topics covered in the songs range from seeing ourselves as God sees us, to walking and talking with angels to Finchley's own take on the prodigal son story; all of which are well received by the audience (who are out in numbers despite the early start). Finchley's songs show both a maturity and a freshness that will appeal to both fans of his old band Supervision and to those who've heard Ian 'Finchley' Finch's ICC debut.
MORDECAI - Underground - 12.10pm
Mordecai were a band I wasn't that familiar with, I happened to just wander in to the Underground venue during one of my rare moments of free time, but within a few minutes they'd grabbed my attention and kept it. Their brand of grunge-tinged hard rock showcased a well crafted and musically tight set, with some nice guitar work. The fact that their cover of Alter Bridge's "Find The Real" fitted in very well with the set proves that the band aren't afraid to embrace their influences and wear them openly on their sleeves. The band showcased their mellower side with the appearance of an acoustic guitar, or so the audience thought: it was completely drowned out by the heavy riffs of the lead guitar - another victim of the sub-standard sound engineers that the Underground seems to be plagued with. If you're a fan of bands like Alter Bridge and Staind and like your music anthemic and loud then I urge you to check out these guys.
WOEBEGONE BROTHERS - Performance Café - 12.30pm
Blues gospel skiffle trio The Woebegone Brothers had a brief, but heady, flowering as festival favourites back in the late '80s and early '90s, and this appearance in a packed Performance Cafe was their first gig together since then. Not that you'd have known it, given the tightness of the performance and the enthusiasm of the crowd who managed to keep one of the songs going through a short interruption to the power supply. Desperately trying to find some background information on the brothers (yes, they really are siblings) on the web, the best I could come up with is a very old review originally published in Cross Rhythms Magazine No 2 which posed the question, "Should white boys attempt to cover classic black gospel material originally performed by itinerant jackleg preachers like Blind Willie Johnson, or the finger picking Reverend Blind Gary Davis, let alone quartets like The Swan Silvertones?" On the evidence of this performance (I'd like to be able to say that I was there at one of their original Greenbelt gigs, but, to be perfectly honest, I simply can't remember if I saw them or not) the answer is a resounding "yes". More next year, please!