The tenth installment of music reviews from the GREENBELT festival held at Cheltenham Racecourse, 26th to 29th August.
FRIDAY, 26th August
[DWEEB] - Mainstage - 5:00pm
This being one of the last few gigs from the dweebs before they become a chapter in UK Christian music history it was fitting in some ways that they opened Greenbelt '11 though, in truth, the band would have been a better act to close Mainstage Friday Night than Billy Bragg. But, in more ways than one, politics wouldn't allow that. So we had one of the most exciting and original units ever to emerge from the British scene playing to a gathering of 1,000 in the watery sunshine rather than the 12,000 or so in the strobing light atmosphere of the evening closer. No matter. Tim and the lads delivered a torridly tight set, full of those jagged guitar riffs, nagging synth lines and music that morphs heavy rock and pop techno in a delicious rhythmic brew. Tim was his usual high energy self, even being told by a steward to get down from the guard rail during one particularly daring stage move. By the time "Playing In The Snow" was juddering its way from the stack speakers it was clear that wherever they were placed on the GB bill, Coventry's finest were able to deliver their idiosyncratic music with mesmerising energy.
CATHY BURTON - Performance Café - 6:00pm
It's always a nice surprise when the act promised in the programme (Two Men, perversely a five piece band from the Czech Republic who, according to the said programme, are "inspired by dEUS") don't show and we get a last minute substitute we'd much prefer to listen to. And so it was that Greenbelt favourite Cathy was called in to replace the missing Men. She did wonderfully. As Cross Rhythms have observed on numerous occasions, Ms Burton's voice is angelic in tone while her craft with melody and lyric is always evident. Cathy warmed the crowd with songs from past albums but kept the best for her two closing numbers with "Hallelujah", a song inspired by a little baby who died of spina bifida, and the exquisite worshipful "Song Of Healing" which is as beautiful a song for the broken and hurt you're likely to hear this side of Heaven. As I said, a welcome surprise.
GRACE PETRIE - Mainstage - 6.00pm
The impassioned protest singer got the Mainstage off to a storming start on a rather wet Friday evening. The Dylan-influenced folk songwriter, who also cites festival headliner Billy Bragg as a personal hero, empowered her listeners, who were all ears during her short set, with politically charged rants mostly directed towards the current government. With bongo player Caitlin Field, who incredibly learned the instrument on the journey down to the festival Grace took no prisoners with her witty lyricism, which she used to vent her anger - usually against Tories and empty-headed girls - but also her sadness. This all came across most poignantly in set highlight and closer "Farewell To Welfare", in which Grace announced her discontent towards coalition benefit cuts, particularly towards single mums ('the only victim is the child'), the disabled and the mentally ill. A technical hitch midway through the song led Petrie to amusingly ask, "Has David Cameron come to shut me down?" She rescued it sublimely. Grace wasn't to everyone's taste. One Cross Rhythms reviewer observed that she "sounded like a second rate busker". But considering the challenges she overcame, this angry young woman, and her armoury of hard-hitting songs did well.
ANNA ELIAS & THE FORLORN HOPE - Performance Café -
I approached this set as a Music Reviewer's chore. Not only had I not heard of Anna Elias & The Forlorn Hope but their name conjured up for me the kind of dreary exercises in miserablism which normally leaves me rushing to the exit. Instead I sat entranced. Two acoustic guitars, a cello player and a blonde female singer (who, it turned out, used to front the fondly remembered Bodixa) make fine music. Their style was wistful, poignant and though "slow and melancholic", as Annie described it, was also infused with glimpses of transcendence. Annie's voice had the rich cadence of a singer able to bring light and shade to the songs, most self-composed that she and her guitarist husband sing while Colin Dunkley's cello brought elegance to the set. "Sarah Jane" was a song about the painful subject of senility but with no trace of the theatrical or maudlin ("She said, sing when you can and find a place to dance/Hear the music in this town as Sarah Jane's soul is found"), "Plough Song" portrayed the images that met the Elias' after their move from Leeds to more rural surroundings ("The rapeseed fields surround this town/Singing out, it's your turn now/To stand and be seen/Speaking of new beginnings"). They performed a lovely version of "May The Sun Always Shine On You" by Jewish singer/songwriter Clem Shyde while "Evensong" sounded beautiful even without the Southwell Minster Choir who added their talents to Forlorn Hope's just released recorded version. Memorable music from a highly gifted group.
SLEEPY VOLE - Underground - 7:00pm
Sleepy Vole is actually just one man, Dunfermline's Martin Little, who took to the stage equipped with only an electric guitar, a fuzzbox and some catchy self penned tunes. The stripped down nature of the performance may not have been to everyone's taste but most were charmed by Martin's witty banter and quirky songs that called to mind Billy Bragg and The White Stripes. "Is it fuzzy enough for you?" Martin enquired after opening song "Powernappin'" before turning up the dial on his effects pedal and showing off a little flash fretwork. Even Martin's attempt at a kids' worship song, "Heaven Will Be Amazing" was a fuzzed-up rocker, albeit with a great sing-a-long chorus. "Don't Be Too Late To Belong" slowed things down nicely, displaying a little more depth to Little's voice while his cover of The Beatles classic "Strawberry Fields Forever" (requested by an audience member) was particularly good. An unusual and unexpectedly enjoyable performance.
SHOW OF HANDS - Mainstage - 7.00pm
With an early slot on a grey first night, Show Of Hands had the tricky task of engaging many who had wandered to Mainstage on autopilot, still trying to get their bearings and figure out what in the programme they wanted to see. A good number of fans gathered enthusiastically at the front but it wasn't long before the swell grew and deservedly so. Down to both the quality of the music and Steve Knightley's banter fans and newcomers alike were soon singing and dancing along to Show Of Hands' distinct brand of pop folk. Also on stage were supremely talented, multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes on double bass. Opening with the catchy but scathing "Is There Anything in England Not For Sale?" was a great move; a "tribute" to the Thatcher government that still rings true today. Singalong "Are We Alright" revealed a more personal side to Knightley's songwriting but still kept the energy high. "Stop Copying Me" was a jaunty warning of the perils of social media that carried with it some dark undertones - that preceded a cover of Springsteen's "Youngstown" before returning to some earlier themes of hypocrisy and corporate abuse for "Arrogance, Ignorance And Greed", a song introduced with the band's wry sense of humour, Knightley claiming that "I thought I'd better write it before Martyn Joseph did." At the start of the set the band promised to bring the sun out, but a gentle rain started to fall as a jig lead into "Country Life" which charted the decline of the British countryside and a distinctly British way of life as Knightley lamented, "The coffin of our English dream/Lies out on the village green". Still, our spirits weren't dampened and the biggest reception yet was predictably reserved for "The Galway Farmer", a tale of a risky bet and a lucky win at the Cheltenham races. A great start to the weekend.
ATLUM SCHEMA - Performance Café -8:00pm
When singer/songwriter Atlum Schema aka Andy Mort from North East England last played Greenbelt in 2007 the review commented on his "impressive display of technological wizardry". Now to the songsmith's expert use of the loop pedal one can add haunting songs mostly taken from Atlum's 'One World Less' project. Initially expecting something a little more acoustic/folky, in keeping with the Performance Café vibe, I was a bit surprised to encounter Mort accompanied by an indie rock band in full flow. But having adjusted my expectations accordingly, I have to say that I was blown away by what I was hearing. Top-notch musicianship with cleverly crafted melodies and intelligent lyrics makes for one of the freshest sounds I heard at Greenbelt this year. I can easily imagine Andy and his team gracing the Mainstage, not just at Greenbelt but V or Glastonbury too. Catching up with Twitter at the end of their set, I spotted a comment by fellow audience member Steve Lawson, "Anthemic in all the good ways with none of the bad". I couldn't sum it up better.
LARGO EMBARGO - Underground - 9:00pm
More brash band than brass band, this Bristol and Bath-based ska group brought nothing to write home about. Recently winning a competition to perform at Glastonbury, they have obvious potential, but it seems they treated their Greenbelt audience to a rather complacent show. Talented lead singer Jake Williams, who also blew his trumpet, was accompanied by four other very impressive musicians but, ultimately, together they were too much for two ears to take. Crude and confident, congested with noise.
BILLY BRAGG - Mainstage - 9:00pm
On his third visit to Greenbelt the ever popular Mr Bragg turned in another consummate, crowd pleasing performance full of great songs and intelligent chat. The recent UK riots and phone-hacking scandal had given the political songwriter plenty to talk about and resulted in new song "Never Buy The Sun" ("The only group who came out of the newspaper scandal with any dignity are the Scousers who, for years, have boycotted The Sun," he commented). Bragg kept the atmosphere from getting too serious though with jokes about the number of security staff at the front of the stage ("They are the world's only fully-ordained security team," he laughed). He also charmingly dedicated "I Keep Faith" to the Mainstage audience telling them "you keep faith" resulting in an appreciative cheer. Working his way through several cups of herbal tea Billy took requests from the crowd in a set full of his best known work including "The Milkman Of Human Kindness" and "Sexuality" performed solo on electric or acoustic guitar. Bragg checked his watch and joked, "I have to finish on time or the vicar will be cross," before closing the set with the classic "A New England" where he was joined on vocals by large parts of the GB crowd. An engaging and classy performance from a true professional.
JASON CARTER - Performance Café - 9:00pm
Jason's individualistic take on fusing classical guitar and world music has long been a thing of fascination and this globe-trotting troubadour has found a new creative lease of life since picking up the harp guitar. His virtuoso performances can grip any audience, particularly when he begins layering and looping his compositions into thrilling, evocative soundscapes. Sadly he, and his blonde girlfriend singer Verity Smith, weren't in the best of health for their Performance Café appearance. Both had had a head-on car crash with a lorry in France only six days previously. But despite being bruised and battered Jason still pulled off some dazzling playing from the moment he launched into a harp guitar rendition of "I Shine". Then came a long, funny monologue about the events leading up to playing a concert in North Korea which unfortunately was more entertaining than the piece "Restless" that followed it. It was only when Jason began to trigger some pre-recorded samples that his harp guitar began to come into its own and the audience were drawn in to the amazing layers of guitar over a ricocheting rhythm. Then came a lullaby which sounded a bit like something a lute player might have turned up with in the middle ages. Verity joined Jason for the final number but a fumbling sound desk man made much of Verity's vocal inaudible from where I was sitting. Overall, then, a less than riveting set from Jason but considering his recent misadventures a sterling effort.
DUKE SPECIAL - Performance Café -
Not being clever enough to pick up the special guest clue printed in the Greenbelt programme, I was delighted to find it was the Belfast troubadour I was about to watch in the quickly filling Performance Café. He didn't disappoint. The idiosyncratic songsmith gave a masterly performance that was lliberally laced with his laconic wit while his percussive piano was more than adequate to accompany Duke/Peter's rich, Celtic soul voice. By the second song he was telling us how, apparently, he was recently bizarrely recognised by Jedward, before launching into the jaunty "Everybody Wants A Little Something" while the third song was about Alfred Stieglitz who Duke was at pains to explain to us, was a pioneer of photography in the nineteen hundreds when photography was still considered an art form. Duke's song "You Press The Button, We'll Do The Rest" was a wonderful flight of fancy where Stieglitz's vigorously denouncing Kodak for making photo-taking the pursuit of the masses. Its masterly couplets emphasised Duke's ability to turn any subject, past or present, into a memorable song. Next came his Northern soul-style near hit apparently inspired by the songwriter once cheating death after falling asleep at the wheel of his car. Duke's ability to engage the crowd was shown as we all entered into the somewhat surreal exercise of singing "Last night I nearly died/But I woke up just in time". One of Duke's outstanding songs came next, "Applejack" inspired by the tragi-comedy literary figure of Huckleberry Finn's drunken father linked to the recasting of the Adam and Eve story where it's not an apple with which the serpent tempts Eve but a glass of intoxicating applejack. By now the crowd were entranced by Duke's witty and tuneful plays on words and even when he performs his one cover of the evening, it's in tribute to Ruby Murray - the Belfast-born best selling pop balladeers of the '50s who tragically journeyed from strings of hits and TV-propelled stardom to alcoholism and death. Showing Duke's gift of recognising a great song, "Happy Days And Lonely Nights" (a hit for Murray but actually penned in the 1920s) was heart achingly moving. Less effective was the ragtime rhythm "A Bitch Called Wanda" though the crowd enjoyed its roaring '20s atmosphere. Somehow Duke managed to squeeze in another intro reference to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, this time preceding a song about the painter Georgia O'Keef with whom Stieglitz had a passionate but ill-fated relationship and then it was back to Tom Lehrer-style black humour where after introducing a "song of hope", Duke got the crowd singing the refrain "diggin', diggin', diggin' an early grave". Maestro of the harp guitar Jason Carter joined Duke for the final song, a new one, he explained, he'd just written with Boo Hewerdine. "Condition" was a haunting gem, a memorable litany of contradictions where defeat and triumph merge in the complexity paradox of human experience. Sadly, there was one line which contained the unnecessary use of an expletive. But then this was a draft lyric of a newly minted potential classic. I for one eagerly await the recording of "Condition" as indeed I await the time when, to quote the song, "all these words are crawling back inside the ink."
RODENT EMPORIUM - Underground - 10.00pm
Scottish freak punk has really gone down a treat over the last few years of Greenbelt and with the sad absence of Dougle McMysteron this year it was down to Rodent Emporium to fly the flag. Stuart Gilmour (the UK's rep for To Write Love On Her Arms) is natural front-man material and enjoyed telling tales and just generally goofing around. Guitarist Graeme and drummer Logie never have any problems with being forthcoming on the daftness front either and bassist Heff (100 Philistine Foreskins) has settled into the band nicely. Stuart's enigmatic presence was enough to captivate a decent-sized crowd (especially for that time on a Friday evening) as they trawled through a cracking set of tunes. "Let's Go Mental" was a sneak peak at their forthcoming new EP and the title track of their second album "Sports" always goes down a treat although I've always been more partial to "Mandy". One thing I've always found about Rodent Emporium is that they have a worrying number of animal references, starting with their name and including a number of songs dedicated to various creatures. Most worrying of all must be "Squirrel", a love story about their "bushy little tail and their bucked white teeth" making them want to elope with them to Leith. One glaring omission in their set (unless it was the opening song and I missed it) from this bunch is Chickens Of Thought, my favourite track from their wonderful debut album 'Music Without Fear Of Reprimand'. Fan favourite "Man Not A Woman" also seemed to be missing. Colin acted as an excellent closer for a thoroughly entertaining set, it went down a treat during their acoustic set the following day too, with its cunningly catchy chorus of "we set you on fire, fire, fire" referring to a flammable radioactive lego man ... naturally.
THUMB - Big Top - 10:15pm
Thumb are a contemporary classical ensemble hailing from Birmingham and for their Greenbelt appearance showcased both their own talents as well as some distinctly varying pieces by modern composers including Fred Rzewski and Nicholas Stuart. Starting off with a more challenging work which, for non-aficionados, stereotyped all that's impenetrable about modern classics - atonal, unrhythmic and pretty much non-melodic as well. Its choice as an opener may have been a bit of a mistake as it proved too much for a large proportion of the audience who packed up and left. That was a pity, because in doing so the Greenbelt punters missed out on what, for me, was the most enjoyable aspect of the performance: Stephen Willey's meditative, almost minimalist "Slow Down". A nice, reflective ending to the evening spoiled only by being performed in a very sparsely occupied Big Top.