Still expanding, now with 78 performance reviews, our coverage of the GREENBELT festival continues.
FRIDAY, 28th August
PEGGY SUE - Mainstage - 6pm
For the uninitiated, Peggy Sue are a band, not a person. A folk/roots outfit hailing from Brighton, their rather unenviable task was to open the Greenbelt Mainstage lineup on Friday evening. I say unenviable because, frankly, putting an unknown acoustic act on first thing was hardly likely to pull in the crowds. And so it proved. Peggy Sue's mix of gentle, thoughtful songs based around guitar, accordion and drums would probably have worked a lot better in a smaller, more intimate setting (later in the evening they played the Performance Café), but out on a rather windswept Mainstage they were lost. The crowd that had come for the opening ceremony immediately preceding mostly stayed for the first couple of songs, but as the set went on a trickle of departees turned to a flood and by the time the band left the stage most of their audience had already departed. Which is a pity, because the music deserved a better reception than that. But, rather more importantly, it deserved a better environment than that. If Peggy Sue felt collectively let down by the scheduling then they would have been entirely justified.
ROBIN THOMPSON-CLARKE (cello) with CHRIS NORTON
(piano) - Centaur - 6pm
There seemed very little panic at 5.55 in the Centaur, despite Thompson-Clarke having only just appeared in the building, cello in tow. One swift sound check later and a crowd of 250 or so were treated to almost an hour of music that was as much about Norton's piano as Thompson-Clarke's cello. The accomplished and widely used Christian pianist acted as MC, introducing the pieces with stories and pointing out the musical flourishes in each number, clearly revelling in the opportunity to get people listening closely. A broad range of styles were on show, the majority of compositions being from books put together by Norton to encourage teenagers to continue developing a love for piano. We journeyed from Dixieland to rock preludes, Latin mambos to cello over techno beats and "chill-out" synth. The preludes and improvisations were entertaining but short - more satisfying was the complex Sonatina for cello and piano - composed by Norton aged 20. He resurrected the piece after hearing his son compose a similar work when he reached the same age. The second movement led to a fevered peak midway through, before reaching its delicate conclusion. Inevitably (but with resigned good humour on Norton's part) the highlight was not one of his own compositions but the performance of Arvo Part's "Spiegel Im Spiegel" - a beautiful piece flawlessly played, particularly by Thompson-Clarke as the work was originally intended to be played on the violin. 6pm in the Centaur on the first night is potentially a tough slot - most people are only just settling in to the festival mood after a long drive. But for those fortunate enough to have made it, this recital was a great way to forget the cares of the week and prepare for a weekend of surprise and creativity.
STEPHEN LANGSTAFF -The Underground - 6.30pm
This relatively unknown artist, reminiscent of such singers as Paulo Nutini, began his set with just himself, an acoustic guitar and a drummer, and as the set went on it was evident that he missed his keys player and bassist. However, Stephen gave a strong performance and it may have been a small crowd but those who were there certainly enjoyed his passionate and convincing performance. Musically consistent and inventive, he gave a heartfelt performance with honest songwriting. It was strange to hear such a beautiful and powerful voice come out of such a thick Liverpudlian accent but the energy which was put into the show was infectious and his songs had the gathering tapping their feet and nodding their heads. Soon to head out on a tour of the O2 academies, Stephen's gripping and fresh approach to songwriting had me engrossed throughout. I would love to see a performance with his full band.
GAVIN MART & THE SATURDAY VANDALS - Performance Café -
I'd made a special effort to get to the Performance Café to get to see Jim Jones whose 'Daylight & Stars' is a stunner. But there at the entrance was a hastily chalked notice. Jim Jones wasn't playing, his place being taken by a new-to-me aggregation from Leeds. So it's tribute to them that long before their set closed I was making plans to meet up with this gutsy-voiced songsmith and his expert accompanists. They made a fascinatingly fresh sound. Gavin Mart calls himself a "protest singer" and I wouldn't argue as he spat out ripostes at he delusions of "Progress" ("What about your lifestyle/Whatever that means/I'm caught up in your ignorance, affluence, reticence/Your fascist regime") though a song about an educationally challenged boy Mart once knew who committed suicide, "Heriwood", is achingly poignant. Gavin's voice is bluesily passionate throughout while the lack of the band's second guitarist here put particularly emphasis on bassist Daniel Norton (a fine muso who used to play with Bodixa) who responded with some stunning solos and percussionist Robert Hall (whose expertise belied the fact that he was a mere 16 years of age!). The towering set closes with an extremely powerful "Patiently" with its searing climax "Does anybody listen?/Does anybody care?/That every time I speak out/It's just like you're not there." Unforgettable stuff.
THEIR HEARTS WERE FULL OF SPRING - Underground -
I stepped into the Underground with Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring's set already underway. It was a less than impressive intro to the band. A girl in a sparkling headband, with a face of blank boredom, was intoning the line "Tell me you love me" rather inexpertly. It got worse. The soundman was clearly fighting a losing battle with the sound much to the visible irritation of Marcus, the shaven-headed frontman, with some instruments inaudible (the violin) and some hugely out-of-tune (the lead guitar). The complex arrangements, full of bursts of unexpected vocal harmony, clearly needed a soundman of considerable expertise but instead the thin-ish crowd got a muddy mess interspersed with blasts of feedback. The songs all seemed to have retro melodies with one sounding like an old Monkees song and another a ringer for The Smiths. But with that out-of-tune guitar ruining everything it touched and Marcus' camp vocal mannerisms more irritating than endearing the occasional bursts of effective harmony were scant reward for even the most generous Greenbelter. Near the end they announced that the G-Music tent had their new album on sale for £6.00. Even at that bargain price I suspect there were few takers.
YFRIDAY - Mainstage - 8pm
Although a full-on rock worship set isn't what the Friday evening throng at Greenbelt's Mainstage usually get, Newcastle's finest sailed through the challenge with flying colours. From the outset, Yfriday's tried and tested performance was perfectly targetted. With stadium rock energy Ken Riley and co soared into classics like "Revolution" and the award-winning "Everlasting God". As the band introduced songs from their new album, 'Great & Glorious', the increasingly receptive crowd were drawn in, visibly touching the crowd who an hour earlier had been shivering in the chilly evening air. Their unique style of gig worship had many hands raised (a rare sight at Greenbelt) and the passion of the band was transparent. Musically the band were flawless with their infectious, energetic rock grooves ensuring a number of people in the crowd jumped and danced.
EDWINA HAYES - Performance Café - 9pm
This was Hayes' third year at Greenbelt, having done a solo set last year and performed as part of Hummingbird the previous year. Promoting the new album 'Good Things Happen Over Coffee', the Performance Cafe was treated to a set of new tracks, old tracks and covers. Starting 15 minutes late just heightened the crowd's anticipation and no one was left disappointed by Hayes' sublime acoustic folk, which was very much in the vein of contemporaries Kate Rusby and Kris Drever. Hayes' made the most of her time slot, packing in a whole load of songs and not a few stories to accompany them - she'd even stocked up on badges for children because "there weren't enough for everyone, last year". The highlights: a fantastic cover of Richard Thompson's "Waltzing's For Dreamers" and "Pour Me A Drink", a beautiful and poignant song about Edwina's "lovable rogue" father. Hayes couldn't hide her excitement recounting how she was contacted by her idol, Nancy Griffith, who wanted to record a version of the song. Hayes' repayed the compliment by recording "It's A Hard Life" for a Griffith tribute album. In the year that Hayes' takes the plunge to pursue music full time all the signs are good - with a cover of Randy Newman's "Feels Like Home" landing a place on the soundtrack for My Sister's Keeper (and definitely not My Keeper's Sister!), her affable stage presence, beautiful songs and hearty stock of badges, Hayes deserves to become more and more recognised - judging by the reaction from audience, she will be the good thing that people are discussing over their coffee this weekend.
SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER - Mainstage -
Starting your set with your biggest hit - and the only song that a majority of the audience will recognise - is the sort of thing that Sir Humphrey Appleby would have described as "courageous". Sixpence None The Richer with their rendition of "Kiss Me" just about carried it off on the strength of their other back catalogue tracks and the surprisingly good new material, but it was a close-run thing. Unfortunately, the performance didn't quite match up to the content, the band giving the impression of being rather ring-rusty, having reformed in 2008 following a four-year hiatus, and singer Leigh Nash having an equally unsteady relationship at times with the melody. Bum notes and false starts apart, though, it was all going pretty well until the end when a rather ill-judged choice of an obscure Skeeter Davis song for the encore not only lost most of the audience but also Nash, who forgot the words towards the end and somewhat floundered to a conclusion. Roy Walker would have summed it up perfectly: It's good, but it's not right.
EDDIE JOHNS - Performance Café - 10pm
Having built up a fairly healthy following on the acoustic/folk circuit in the south, Eddie's melancholic, moody songs were the perfect way to end the first night at Greenbelt. His smooth, textured finger-style guitar playing beautifully underpinned his expressive voice while his melodies were wistfully memorable with imagery occasionally akin to some early Bob Dylan and frequently seemed to strike a chord with the engrossed audience. A delightfully chilled-out way to end the day from a top rate crafter of songs.
SHARLENE HECTOR - Underground - 10pm
It seems that Sharlene will forever be remembered primarily for that Coca Cola commercial a few years back when she sang "I Wish (I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free)" while distributing free Cokes to passers-by in the street. Although this most talented of gospel divas has gone on to sing with some secular heavyweights it's the Coke ad which was Sharlene's nearest brush with fame and sure enough, she sang "I Wish" here though with her band rather than acapella. Sharlene's accompanists were in fact a hand picked bunch of session-seasoned musos and backing singers but for all the deftly executed jazz and funk lines somehow the set failed to truly ignite. For a start, the drummer was way too high in the mix. More worryingly the songs, like the "Living In Me" opener on which Sharlene attempted to teach the crowd an "oooh-o-o-oh" vocal part, "By Your Side" and "The Rain", were rather shapeless exercises in jazz-funk-by-numbers. Sharlene introduced each song but spoke in such a hyper-rapid fashion that few in the crowd could pick up anything she said. But even if we'd heard every word the weakness of much of Sharlene's material meant that her elegantly soulful vocals were simply insufficient to hold the crowd who had begun to drift off into the night air long before her set finished. And at the close there were no free Cokes.
SATURDAY, 29th August
TRENT - Centaur - 9am
The band emanating from Nottingham's Trent Vineyard have expanded their sphere of influence way beyond the usual confines of local church. And as a worshipper who has already been blessed by their passionate take on guitar-driven worship music I made my way to the Centaur with every expectation of a touch from the Lord. As it turned out it didn't quite happen. Maybe the reviewing demands of scribbling notes stopped me from a conscious engagement with the divine. I suspect though that the fault lay largely at the band's door. "Here's the song 'Glory To God' - sing along if you know it," exhorted singer/composer/Trent frontman Nigel Briggs. Nobody did. There were no words on the large screen above the band; instead the crowd stood mute, watching the band play. Trent played on, often with no intros between one song and the next. The sound was superb, "I Will Hold On" featured meaty guitars, punchy drums and huskily emotive vocals from Nigel. But the connection with the crowd seemed almost non-existent. Most of the audience stood rigid, a few were sat down and one chap lay flat out and I'm pretty sure he wasn't soaking in the Spirit. Without lyrics on the screen and with little or no direction from Nigel, the crowd seemed unsure how to greet the conclusion of each song save for mild applause. Nigel did speak to plug the CD/DVD 'Burn Bright' but that seemed inappropriate. Finally, at the climax of their set came some words on screen. "All my hope is in you!" flashed and a smattering of the audience sang. But it was too little too late. Whatever the reasons, Trent failed to connect.
JIM JONES - Underground - 10.30am
A convenient bit of timetable re-jigging meant that as Something For Sophie failed to show, Jim Jones and band (who were unable to make their Performance Café slot on Friday night) found themselves plonked in the Underground at an unseemly 10.30 in the morning. And given that they were met by a crowd more attuned to emo fringes and death metal growling than acoustic balladeering they knocked out a fantastic set. Despite Jones being as far away from SFS as you can get, the crowd stuck around and benefited from a very chilled out, passionately presented start to the day. This reviewer admits to not being overly enamoured with Jones' acoustic set in the Performance Cafe last year, so it was fitting to be able to hear the songs come to life when given the full band treatment. The dynamics of each track were accentuated when drums, bass and electric guitar were added to the mix. There were still too many cliches peppering the mostly good lyrics, but more often than not the songs were affecting, beautiful and performed with passion. Jones expressed relief as he pulled off the complex harmonies at the end of "Evelyn" only for a cheeky crowd to shout "rock and roll" in support. "Real Life" had a touch of Nick Drake's "River Man" to its melody and was a much more effective track with the volume up, while on a number of the songs hints of Paul Weller and Tom McRae sneaked through. Set ender "Right Here" stuck in my head all morning with its haunting chorus "Am I a passenger or just a visitor? No I'm just passing through/Shadows behind me, trying to find me, on the road to you". A nice surprise indeed.