Our annual music review of the GREENBELT festival held at Cheltenham Racecourse.
FRIDAY, 27th August
THEBANDWITHNONAME - Mainstage - 6:00pm
Nameless but not talentless. That's Thebandwithnoname. And they proved it by bringing their unique fusion of electronica, hip-hop, rock and unforgettable pop hooks to this year's Greenbelt festival. The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement as the trio stormed the stage with their distinctive energy and presence. The large crowd was responsive, as shown by their dancing and singing. Indeed, this already energised gathering became a tightly knit mass united in the message of the songs. The trio told us this was their second to last gig then engaged with their audience, inviting them to support and attend their last ever performance, promising they would not be disappointed. At a quieter moment during their set, Leon reflected on people's spiritual journeys. There was a real and genuine connection between the band members and their fans. BeBe Vox made a fleeting appearance for a song as Chip informed everyone that she too came from the same Innervation Trust. The band's farewell song was, predictably, their classic "Amazing Grace". The crowd bayed their approval. Everyone was taken up in the moment, knowing this was the last time they'd be singing along with the boys. Thebandwithnoname will be missed.
THE CUT UPS - Underground - 7:00pm
Last year I raved about these Exeter lads, with their exhilarating mix of folk protest and English punk, but this year, such is the risk of high expectations, I felt a little underwhelmed. Last year had the added dynamic of guest vocals of Ben on "A Song Of Lament And Regret" and Pippa on "These Bones Were Built On Rice". Whilst these songs were still great and Jon remains a good communicator as their frontman the band seemed to fail to capture me in the way they did last year. For the uninitiated, imagine if Billy Bragg had yanked the mic from Mick Jones and started to create his own unique Clash. Lead singer Jon is a theology teacher and it's ably reflected in his intelligent lyrics which also reflect a certain amount of religious indignation. Fairly early on into their set there were problems with their guitar amp, but, in truth, it's what you've come to expect from the live sound team at the Underground and the band carried on successfully despite this hiccup. The band's labelmates on respected punk label Household Name Records, The King Blues, went down a treat on the Mainstage whilst The Cut Ups, despite this reviewer's reservations, left a pleasing impression on the humble-sized Underground crowd.
TOXIC FEDERATION - Underground - 8:00pm
I really wanted to hate these guys but couldn't. This has nothing to do with Christian love for your enemies but for the fact that Toxic Federation really knew how to put on a good show. Why would I want to hate them? Well, they're a pretentious bunch of posers playing a style of music that predates the year of their birth. These guys take us on a trip back to 1986 yet despite being born post the fall of the Berlin Wall, at the mic they are the spawn of Axl Rose and David Lee Roth whilst a junior Def Leppard tribute band seemed to be providing the tunes. Fans of Steel Panther and Blessed By A Broken Heart are well aware that cheesy '80s-style hair metal has had a resurgence and these guys have totally nailed the Motley Crew image and sound. The Derby-based lads put on a corking show, with the kind of frontman and axemen who are clearly used to showing off to their mates - one out of the five Toxic Federation didn't have long hair and looked rather out of place as a result. Two songs in and the show was so smoking hot that the fire alarm went off, interrupting and abbreviating their show. Despite this hiccup the good-sized crowd lapped up every offering, although there was a slight intake of breath when the lead singer swore during his introduction to one of their songs. The musicianship of these guys is very impressive; a wonderfully tight rhythm section, two glorious and soaring complimentary guitar lines of attack with one of the guitarists lending a nice counterpoint backing vocal to Mitchel Emms' lead. They've already supported acts such as Diamond Head and The Answer and it's not too hard to imagine them playing the likes of Download and Leeds/Reading in the near future.
STEPHEN LANGSTAFF - Performance Café -
Word of the quality of this Liverpudlian singer/songwriter is spreading rapidly. At last year's Greenbelt a Cross Rhythms reviewer saw Stephen perform to a handful of people and was blown away by his songwriting talent and high, achingly expressive voice that critics have compared to Jeff Buckley. "Is it raining outside or something?" enquired a modest Langstaff as he took to the stage of a packed Performance Café armed only with his acoustic guitar. The stripped down approach highlighted the strength of Stephen's songwriting and his spine-tingling voice. Highlights included the tender "Mary Rose", "It's not about the sauce," he joked, and the wistfully haunting "Saw The Angels", which recently got to number four in Amazon's rock charts, and got a tumultuous response. Stephen's confidence grew with each song and soon he was charming the crowd with tales from his support slot for Status Quo: "Their fans are nuts. . . grown men were taking their shirts off and throwing them at the Quo!" After demonstrating to the full his own songwriting craft Stephen ended the set by daringly seguing two oldies, The Undertones' "Teenage Kicks" and Kylie Minogue's "All The Lovers", slowing them down and thanks to that attention-grabbing voice turning this most unlikely of medleys into something entirely his own. It only remained for an obviously blown away compere to stumble onto stage, as the clapping and cheering continued unabated, to blurt "Bloody hell!" into the mic. Not the wisest of responses at a Christian-orientated arts festival. But like many others in the crowd he was utterly stunned by the consummate performance he'd just witnessed.
AGENTS OF FUTURE - Underground - 9:00pm
A glorious concept, a mixed outcome; those six words succinctly wrap up my thoughts on the Agents Of Future live experience. On CD Agents Of Future sound as if Gogol Bordello acquired a piano and started a worship band in their friends' garage, a wonderful mix of heartfelt passion and freestyle singing - leaving things very much open to the Holy Spirit rather than keeping it tight and regimented. Live they're seemingly even less dependent on a set song structure and instead go with the flow, recruiting random people they bump into before the show. Why recruit and put your faith in strangers? "We believe that something beautiful happens when people get together that wouldn't have happened if we'd done it by ourselves" is the reason given by lead singer and pianist of the band, Todd Fadel. Amongst those recruits were people from Portland (their US West Coast home town), Wales, Staffordshire, Hampshire and Scotland, the Scot in question being Dougle McMysteron on the bongos, quite a sight to behold! Two of the younger members tried their best on banjos, glockenspiels also featured, as did various forms of percussion. Rather than the wondrous sound of a battered piano as heard on their fantastic 2009 release 'Sneek Peaks At Magic Moments', Todd relied on a rather dated sounding keyboard strapped to his person. Those hackneyed and synthetic drumbeats, which I remember so well from my primary school years in the early '90s, have never been used so well. Schooldays nostalgia struck once again when AOF threw a number of glove puppets into the crowd, a mini fight for them then ensuing. Audience participation was actively encouraged and a young boy stepped up to the plate by intermittently making a noise on THE instrument of 2010, the vuvuzela. This joyous bunch of spirit-filled hippies closed with their best known tune, "Nothing In The Way", bringing a rather diminished crowd to their feet. In a church setting you can imagine that the broken down barrier between the consumer and the consumed is a breath of fresh air. But as a musical performance to watch it failed to deliver.
SUGARFOOT - Performance Café - 9:00pm
The gig didn't start particularly well but then my whole Greenbelt had not started well (four hours getting from the Greenbelt gate to the campsite lugging heavy bags - rain on Thursday had brought the restriction of no cars allowed anywhere in the camping area). And from what I'd heard of Stephen Langstaff's breathtaking final two songs Brown Music were being asked to follow what was unquestionably one of THE sets of the entire festival. But wait, as they themselves explained, they're not called Brown Music anymore but are now known as Sugarfoot. Singer Natasha Andrews told the audience that she and her identical twin sister Loretta (best known to CCM followers as one-time members of teen pop foursome Shine) had now expanded the group to a trio with the addition of singer/guitarist/composer Johann Ting. Johann stood to the left of Natasha clutching an acoustic guitar and wearing a Blues Brothers-style hat as Natasha then went on to make our heads spin as she further explained that the newly named, newly minted group were, for tonight only, back to two "as Loretta can't be with us" (child care issues). After a rather hesitant opening song, Natasha's voice began to show warm, soulful qualities. On occasions it rather resembled the sublime Anita Baker and though we couldn't help but miss her sister's harmonies you couldn't deny Natasha's vocal class. The songs ranged from good ("Time") to dull ("Kissing Without Kissing"). Sugarfoot are currently recording their debut album at Paul Weller's Black Barn studio so presumably the intimate "I Can't Stand It If You Get Much Closer" ("a sexy song," explained Natasha before adding, "married sexiness") will be on there. Occasionally the Andrews/Ting lyrics lurched into cliché ("When I'm safe within your arms/The world's alright with me") but overall the strength of Natasha's voice and surprisingly effective accompaniments from Johann pulled the set back after its unsure start though the closer - a fine and emotive rendition of Michael Jackson's "Man In The Middle" - demonstrated that their own songwriting has some way to go before they reach that standard.
THE STAGGER RATS - Underground - 10:00pm
This Edinburgh-based band seem like an odd choice to play at Greenbelt as their main claim to fame is providing three tracks to the soundtrack of a film called Pimp, subtitled Sex, Betrayal, Murder: All In A Day's Work. The group describe their sound as "gypsy death funk" and it's certainly danceable with Coral-like guitar, Holloway's style bouncing basslines and vocalist/guitarist Daniel Paylor who does a passable impression of Arctic Monkeys' frontman Alex Turner. But there lies the problem; the first half of the Rats' set almost sounds like "The Best Of Indie 2006". It's only during the second half of the set where the five-piece band toughen up their sound and keyboardist Callum Easter takes on more of the lead vocals (with a superbly thick Scottish accent) that they start to find their own voice. The band play with a real sense of fun and the crowd are clearly lapping it up (it's the first gig that this reviewer has attended and witnessed a conga line). But the band need a large injection of originality if they're going to expand their appeal.
MEGSON - Performance Café - 10:00pm
Darlings of The Independent's 5 Gigs To See listings and once famously described by The Guardian as "simply brilliant," this Teesside husband and wife duo are well worth experiencing even if you aren't a middle class leftie or a hardcore enthusiast of folk music. Megson's brand of folk is powerful, eloquent and impassioned while narrative songs like "Working Life Out To Keep Life In" tell of working class life and injustice with gutsy power. I particularly liked the lines "Don't call my man a drunken sot/Because he wears a ragged coat" while Debbie's voice has a rich cadence perfectly suited to traditional and Victorian folk songs. "Last Man In The Factory" with its poignant depiction of redundancy in the raw was gripping while their take on football culture, "Longshot", with its memorable observation "a longshot is better than none," hit home. Equally enjoyable was the tongue-in-cheek title track to their third album 'Take Yourself A Wife'. With funny banter as he tried to tune his guitar, Stu added a lot to Debbie's mesmerising way with the tales of Teesside fish markets and a "song about hope." Folk music has seldom been more compellingly performed.
GRACE - The Hub - 10:00pm
Experiencing Grace's alternative worship gathering at The Hub was a perfect ending to my first night at Greenbelt. Well, near perfect. The chairs were a bit uncomfortable but it was my own fault for not being bold enough to sit on one of the big sofas with a bunch of people I didn't know. And the lack of carpet or even groundsheet meant that I couldn't really manage the promised "horizontal dancing" that I had been looking forward to. But despite this I was really excited to see and hear the radical worship pioneers from London Grace. And I was pleased that what we got was very close to the sound of one of their worship services as they ran through some of the material from their new 'Landskapes' album. Matt Stevenson did a brilliant job of DJing the soundscape, mixing these tracks live as we sat in a chilled atmosphere of the Hub watching creative computer generated graphics that had been put together by Electrik Café who had also done a couple of the tracks on the album. The set started off ambient but quickly stepped up notches into lazy house, electronica and dubstep. Though the tracks were mainly instrumental on a couple of the tracks spoken words were added live including a rap/poem by Harry Baker aka Dubb who recently won Edinburgh poetry slam. The one disappointment of the night was that Todd Fadel of Agents Of Future failed to show to add vocals to the drum and bass remix of "Nothing In The Way" but still the track was brilliant to hear even without him. For the close Grace returned to an ambient mood and slowly I returned from my deeply relaxed state to make the journey back through the dark to my tent.
Dancin' Dave Derbyshire
SATURDAY, 28th August
HERO NEXT DOOR - Underground - 12:30pm
Saturday lunchtime and the Greenbelt site was bathed in glorious sunshine which may have gone some way to explain why as this Wiltshire-based pop punk act took to the stage the normally busy indoor Underground venue was almost deserted. This certainly didn't appear to faze HND's frontgirl Beckie who burst onto the stage urging the thin crowd "get your hands in the air" as thumping dance beats and funky guitar filled the room. Part of Christian charity Ncounter, Hero Next Door's plan is to develop into a loose collective of musicians and start a schools' ministry and today their punchy set was enhanced by quality interjections from London-based urban gospel artist Soldier For Christ and rapping from Oxford's Kingdom Warrior. An energetic Beckie bounced her way through a performance of the group's first single "Derelict" and "The Roof Is On Fire" which has the potential to become a live favourite once the group acquire an audience to join in with the song's memorable chant. This young band have a long way to go but the blueprint looks good.
BEER AND HYMNS - Jesus Arms - 1:00pm
I know that the whole concept of a massed throng singing the glorious anthems of Wesley, Newton and Havergail, while gulping pints of beer (with names like Gospel Ale and Confession Ale) will be anathema to Salvationists and other Christian teetotallers but for me and the rest of the throng packed into the Jesus Arms tent this was a highlight of the weekend. With hymn sheets in hand the raucous yet enchantingly powerful singing began, accompanied by an old family friend of mine Monkey Dave on keys. However by the end of the singing every face around me had become a friendly one, as we had been united in a way that I have rarely experienced outside of a hymn-filled beer tent! It seems that when sung in such an unconventional setting, hymns which usually would have just washed over me, sank so deep, with the lyrics becoming so much more penetrating. I found myself singing the words of "When I Survey The Wondrous Cross" with a whole new level of understanding and meaning. More cynical observers may have viewed the whole Beer And Hymns phenomenon as an alcohol-driven 'Christian karaoke' but for me and many others it was a genuine act of worship. Many people who couldn't get access to the overcrowded tent stood outside the white picket fence singing those glorious hymns with us. It was such a victorious time of worship with hands and beer lifted up to God that we were all sad for it to come to an end. We drank up and resigned to the fact that we would see each other next year for another great time of praise! The words which best sum up the time for me were from the landlord, Tim Fox, as he explained in his thick cockney accent: "Beer & Hymns is not about introducing people who like hymns to beer, it's about introducing people who like beer to hymns." Amen.
David 'Straff' Strafford
ERIN MATTHEWS - Performance Café -
Oddly, Erin began her set by getting the detail wrong about her recent past. "I've got a first album under the name Erin Starnes," she explained. In fact the excellent 'Songs From The End Of My Bed' set was released in 2006 under the name Erin. But from then on the West Country singer/songwriter hardly put a foot wrong. "A Thousand Words" based on 1 Corinthians 13 was effortlessly performed with the hook line "it comes to nothing if I have not love" hitting home while the song "Feeling Alive" from 2009's 'Frog Street' was a warm celebration of life. A song inspired by "friends having babies", "Curtain Call", gave Erin the chance to tell the audience that she is expecting her first child in January. That was followed by the painfully poignant "Have Those Days Gone", a song about a friend who has somehow strayed away from God's path. Throughout her set Erin's voice was clear, expressive and pitch-perfect and considering she didn't move from her stool throughout her performance she easily held the attention of the Performance Café crowd.