The tenth installment of music reviews from the GREENBELT festival held at Cheltenham Racecourse, 26th to 29th August.
Continued from page 2
ARUN GHOSH - Big Top - 3:15pm
Here was another Greenbelt gem - a packed Big Top took in every astounding note of Arun Ghosh's ensemble and their intriguing brand of eastern influenced jazz. On this occasion the band was made up of tenor sax, double bass, alto sax, drums, piano and Ghosh on clarinet. Opening with "Aurora", the first track from his debut album 'Northern Namaste', the crowd were immediately drawn into a jutting, funky, minor key treat with melodies that seamlessly marry Asian sensibilities with more traditional jazz - although I couldn't help but be reminded of the theme music to The League Of Gentlemen (for me, that was a good thing!). Next up was "Unravel" a tune from Ghosh's new album, due for release at the end of October. Tenor and alto sax beautifully blended with so much space left in the compositions both to form a groove but also for each member of Ghosh's band to have a chance to shine - a particularly apt piano solo truly did convey the sense of unravelling. The set took a more relaxed approach for the chilled out "Bondhu" but it was set closer "Greenhouse" which grabbed me particularly - with a solid foundation provided by a pounding rhythm section it broke out into classic funk with an all too brief drum solo. Another festival highlight.
YVONNE LYON - Performance Café - 3:15pm
From the very first song, the title track from her brand new 'You And I' album, it was obvious that Yvonne has lost none of her ability to hold an audience. Her mesmerising Celtic lilt was even more evident on "All Is Not Lost" from her highly praised 'Ashes & Gold' set. It seems 'You And I' features more piano-based songs than Yvonne's previous work so, appropriately, she sat at the keys and despite nursing "a stinking cold" she proceeded to teach the audience the accompanying chorus to a song, which worked beautifully. After that delight Yvonne spoke about a "box of joy" which turned out to be a piano accordion deftly played by her multi-instrumentalist accompanist husband David. Before the beginning of that song the singer/songwriter explained how she was inspired to write "Everything's Fine" after a fleeting encounter with a handicapped child with a beatific smile. As she sang "Heaven has a habit of sneaking up on you". Indeed it does. Yvonne finished her beautifully-judged set with a song which she imagined, she said, singing at Hogmanay. It was a blessing from her 'Ashes * Gold' album exhorting us to enjoy life not just endure it.
MALOKAI - Undergound - 3.20pm
Another good sized audience in the Underground waited with patience for an elongated soundcheck to conclude, the band were well aware that the venue is renowned for not having the best sound team. Once up and running it was clear that the band's sound (and line-up) has significantly changed since their last EP. Clearly their Jessie J cover and schools work in Manchester has left them wanting to be more accessible. Alex's trademark Mohawk was hidden under a red baseball cap worn backwards ala Fred Durst, rather going in the face of their move away from slightly naff nu-metal towards a more polished pop punk sound. One of their 'I promise we're not Thousand Foot Krutch, honest' tunes that did still stay in their set was "Run", It's not a bad song but one they may have to drop around the time of their next release. The band may have softened their sound but they've massively upped their live show, helped in part by guitarist recruit Andy Bell (ex-Crave) who was affectionately referred to as Side Show Bob by the afternoon's compere. It was hardly surprising that they ended on their best known song, which sadly isn't theirs but a clever cover of "Price Tag" by Jessie J. Nonetheless the crowd lapped up their punked up rendition. I love the band's work ethic and it's only a matter of time before the band produce something that takes them to the next level.
REND COLLECTIVE EXPERIMENT - Mainstage -
After playing an early morning worship set in the Big Top, Rend Collective's second show of the day was performed in front of a jubilant Mainstage audience who were bathed in glorious sunshine. "Christianity is about all inclusiveness. . . so let's have a shindig," said one band member before Rend opened their set with the spine-tingling "Come On My Soul". This young Northern Ireland-based aggregation are one of the freshest forces in modern worship as they expertly combine first rate musicianship with original and inspiring songwriting. "We're going to go AWOL up here, join in you like," said the band before totally losing themselves in "Build Your Kingdom Here" where a tender introduction was built into a Mumford & Sons-style foot stomper. The only criticism was that Rend's set was far too short (not the band's fault) leaving two helpless comperes to fend off booing from a crowd eager to hear more of the majesty of the Rend Collective Experiment.
EXTRA CURRICULAR - Mainstage - 4:50pm
Unfortunately, the insanely inventive Extra Curricular aren't widely known in the music world except in their Huddersfield hometown. The soulful styles of frontman Thabo Mkwananzi, jazz singer Ruby Wood and MC Jack Flash got toes tapping along with their funky, bass-driven hip-hop hooks while the band's horn section backs, in the GB programme "a rhythms section to die for." Incredibly interactive with the crowd, Thabo boldly stated halfway through the set, "You are no longer spectators, you are participators," as they led everyone to raise their hands and jump around. The atmosphere amongst the audience was electric. Martin Chung's guitar solos weren't bad either.
KAREN GRACE - Perfomance Café - 5.00pm
I know absolutely nothing about Karen Grace other than the information in the Greenbelt programme bio, which notes that her "wistful voice intertwines with her idiosyncratic guitar parts and her bewitching violin". That's a fair summary, although the violin only made a single appearance during this set, right at the end. Karen is currently working on an album with Iain Archer, and on the strength of this gig it will be worth waiting for although her material is currently still a bit raw.Nonetheless, this was an assured performance which bodes well for the future. I suspect we will be hearing more of Karen Grace.
ESKA - Performance Café - 6:00pm
Eska has played Greenbelt once before, as vocalist with Matthew Herbert's Big Band, an act I've never seen. So maybe some of the audience packed into the Performance café weren't as awestruck as I was when the large black lady clutching what I thought was a ukulele (but turned out to be a Venezuelan cuatro), got singing. All the irritations of a 20 minute delay instantly fell away the moment Eska opened her mouth. The Zimbabwean-born, London-based singer had one of the most extraordinary voices I've ever heard. Pigeonholers might want to label her music Afro jazz gospel but that doesn't begin to do justice to a voice that climbed octaves like a fireman climbs a ladder and which was rich and textured one moment and a high stratosphere yodel the next. Such dazzling pyrotechnics were put to work on a "body of work" (Eskra's phrase) called English Skies and for the next half hour we were treated to intricate multi-layered songs where occasional images like Joshua tearing down the walls emerged from Eskra's virtuoso performance. Eska switched to piano and then brought in technology too add exquisite improvisations to a pre-recorded track of Armatrading's "Love And Affection". Eska went off to tumultuous applause but wait. . . it wasn't over. Playing fast and loose with the time-conscious conventions, the grand diva was invited back for an encore and what an encore. Performing "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" to the tune of "These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things" (you can't make these things up!) it was also an exercise in sublime scat singing and where Eska failed to remember all the words her forgetfulness too was instantly integrated into the jaw-dropping whole. With the honourable exception of Mavis Staples, if there was a better singer performing anywhere at Greenbelt '11 I don't know where he or she were hiding. Eska. . . please release an album soon.
ROB HALLIGAN - Performance Cafe - 7:00pm
This gig by the Midlands journeyman was a slow burner in effect, but once it got going, Rob took everyone crammed in the Performance Cafe through a range of emotions with his storytelling songs. The acoustic singer/songwriter was joined on stage by fellow cohorts from old festival favourites After The Fire: founding member Pete Banks on keys and the band's more youthful former drummer, Matt Russell on percussion. Rob proudly noted that, with Matt's recent departure from the group, he is now the youngest member of ATF. Every one of Rob's tracks has an interesting story behind it. Particularly inspiring was "Streets Of This Town", which Rob wasn't initially going to perform during his set until an enquiring fan, whom he met in the Greenbelt Shop earlier in the day, persuaded him. It was a song written in New York, a week after his father's life was taken away in the south tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11. It's about the hope he had in God even in these circumstances and was extremely powerful. It's admirable that Rob chose to focus on God during those tough times, instead of hatred towards the perpetrators. He boldly stated, "My God is bigger than retaliation". A fine song and a good set.
FRESH CLAIM - Underground - 7:30pm
My new favourite Greenbelt band Eskimo Fires inexplicably failed to appear for their set and were replaced by one of Greenbelt's long-standing cornerstones, Plankton Records stalwarts Fresh Claim! Simon Law and his blues-rock chums have, in various line-ups, been present at Greenbelt for longer than I can remember and I've been going to Greenbelt since 1984! They've been playing pretty much the same set in all those years, but it doesn't matter because they are wonderful, crowd-pleasing, rock classics. Simon is a superb guitarist who solos effortlessly in a Hendrix style and the band, who rarely play together these days, are as punchy and tight as ever. The set included their much loved "Broken Man" and "Paris Air Show", both giving Simon the chance to show off some fine chops. Two out of the three members are full-time vicars, but they clearly felt they need further ecclesiastical support and brought on a special guest vicar to play some guest blues harp (Sorry guest vicar, I didn't get your name). Wonderful stuff, see you guys next year.
GENTLEMAN'S DUB CLUB - Mainstage - 8:15pm
The sharply dressed Leeds-based nine-piece ska band Gentleman's Dub Club were an excellent choice for a Saturday evening Mainstage slot. Coming across like a louder and brasher version of The Specials, GDC's thumping basslines, reverb guitar and delicious brass soon prompted mass outbreaks of skanking in the Greenbelt audience - something that proved to be an effective way of keeping warm! The band themselves were clearly enjoying themselves with frontman Jonathan Scratchly literally holding onto his hat as he bounced around the stage while one member of the brass section even ended up falling flat on his back during some overenthusiastic skanking! Latest single "Emergency" was introduced by Scratchly who commented, "We don't need no riots!" prompting cheers from the crowd and "Fire" proved to be an exhilarating climax to the set. Here's hoping these Gents return to Greenbelt next year.
IAIN ARCHER - Performance Café - 9.00pm
So to the greatly anticipated set from the award winning Greenbelt stalwart. A packed Performance Cafe was overall appreciative of Archer's set who, in the fine tradition of the modern singer songwriter, seems capable of breaking our hearts even as they pour out their own. In an added touch of warmth, Archer's rough tones were beautifully contrasted by singer (and Archer's wife) Miriam Kaufmann's delicate counter vocals. Archer is a master of dynamics - delicate, whispered vocals sit alongside powerful bursts of emotion, barely vibrating guitar strings build into pounding, full bodied chords, deftly tied together with imaginative progressions and intricate fret work. For one confusing moment, Archer unplugged his guitar and sang an entire song without the microphone - the effect may have been to get us to truly listen, but sound doesn't carry far when you're battling against the wind (not to mention the Nuts Cafe) and it served to take us out of the moment somewhat. Some songs lack momentum or an immediate hook and those less familiar with Archer's material may have been left a little cold - 'Yes it's impressive,' they may ask 'but where's the heart?' - I fear that overall I may have fallen into that category. Alternatively, for the fan who has had time to get to know the songs, to see the Irish troubadour in this intimate setting will have been a real treat and despite it's melancholic lyrics, gorgeous set closer 'Summer Jets' lifted the mood as Archer grabbed his Telecaster and a with subtle use of the loop pedal played the most rhythmically upbeat song of the set.
GET CAPE. WEAR CAPE. FLY - Mainstage -
An inspired choice for Saturday's Mainstage headline slot were the brilliantly named indie popsters from Southend led by the affable Sam Duckworth. The group took to the stage a little late to make way for an excellent human beatbox introduction from The Austin Francis Connection's Hobbit. When Get Cape did arrive onstage they immediately set about wooing the cold Greenbelt throng with the pure pop perfection of "Collapsing Cities" but then, disaster! The band's equipment had failed and they were left with no drum machine. Hobbit heroically stepped in and replaced the malfunctioning laptop for the rest of the set resulting in a truly unique performance - this reviewer would certainly love to see more bands spicing up their act with a beatbox backing! Unfortunately this is unlikely to happen as, after this impromptu performance, Hobbit's vocal chords were destroyed meaning he had to miss the next day's show with his own band. Get Cape's set though was huge fun with Greenbelters following Sam's advice and enthusiastically dancing to "Nightlife" ("You're never too old, to let the beat take hold. . . lay down your pride, let's dance tonight") and the funky, brass drenched "Vital Statistics". An unusual and hugely enjoyable performance from a band who proved themselves more than able festival headliners.
[DWEEB] - Underground - 9:45pm
Walking into a wave of heat as the bodies crammed in to see the last [dweeb] gig at Greenbelt 2011, the expectations were high and the expectations were met! Tim Alford "showman of the year", held his audience captive and shone brighter than the stage lights with his energy and enthusiasm interacting with the crowd while reiterating that this was [dweebs]'s Greenbelt swansong. His bandmates' moved with synchronised invention and their playing was super tight. These boys have worked so hard and have mastered their pop/rock/metal/funk art understanding what their fans love and conveying it back within their songs. Tim gave a moving speech about their journey and the adventures along the way, giving credit to his maker. [dweeb]'s departure means another gap in the Christian music scene. Their final song, an encore demand, was a cover of Adele's "Rolling In The Deep". A stylish and unexpected closer.
MIRIAM JONES AND THE RED SEA - Performance Café -
According to the programme Miriam Jones is "a folk and roots Phil Spector" though whoever was responsible for that bemusing quote clearly witnessed a very different lady than the one who attempted to engage the sleepy crowd when I saw her. What Performance Café punters got wasn't Wall Of Sound dramatics but jangly, country-tinged pop. The opener was a "I like my space song" (her words), the second, "Helicopter", having a more interesting explanation of its origins (a police helicopter searching for a criminal landing in the fields beside Miriam's Oxford home) than the song itself. Miriam has a pleasant though hardly distinctive voice, and her band played with what sounded like gig-tested tightness. But her offhand quips "Here's a Christmas song I'd like to play. . . so too bad for you" struck a slightly uncomfortable note and as the set ambled on and Miriam briefly put down her guitar and sat singing at the piano it all remained rather underwhelming even when she sang her latest single "Don't Throw Your Words Away". The set had begun with the compere getting the crowd to sing to Miriam "Happy Birthday To You" but the subsequent musical party lacked balloons, jelly or much excitement.