Charismatic conservative evangelical Tony Cummings reviews the 39th GREENBELT arts festival
Continued from page 1
As I step into the Performance Café singer/songwriter Gavin Osborn is apologising for his bad language brought on (presumably) by frustration with some technical glitch. Not a good sign. He then breaks into his next song as I find a chair and gradually become conscious of Mr Osborn's performance. His voice is pretty good, his guitar playing very limited and his wordy songs seem laced with anger and "humour". One of his offerings goes, "In these circumstances I'd rather eat my own cock'n'ball." Other songs tell us that McDonalds burgers make him sick or tell of going to a party where he's the only one in fancy dress clown outfit. But long before the end of his set I lose interest in Gavin's badly-scanned rants and reminiscences.
It's hard to concentrate. I sit at a table where two young ladies chatter over their paninis and a thin, middle aged man reads a glossy gay magazine. He is joined by two young men wearing purple Christian & Proud t-shirts and the three begin a noisy conversation. I'm the only one on my table listening to Calamateur's wonderful sinuous, high voice swooping and arching over the Performance Café noise. Gradually as the Scottish singer/songwriter's set progresses I manage to filter out some of the extraneous sounds. Calamateur has a falsetto to kill for and his songs resonate with other worldly beauty. To me he's clearly one of the most underrated talents on the UK scene. But now my table mates' chatter has turned to raucous laughter and now there's another distraction. The rain is causing pools of water to come through the holes in the plastic flooring to find the holes in my old trainers. I decide to leave before I find out whether Calamateur is going to sing his wonderful interpretation of Steve Taylor's "Jesus Is For Losers".
Talk of intermittent showers has gone, the rain now sheeting down seems relentless. I'm astonished that the crowd gathered at The Canopy stand there, soaked to the skin, listening to the haunting ambient rock of Atlum Schema. I lean against a tree the bark of which is covered in silver foil - this is an arts festival after all - and try and ignore the rain trickling down my neck. The deftly layered alt rock has the same haunting dissonance of The Choir. Atlum's closer may have lines like "Night time circles, shelter from the storm" but there is little shelter under this tarted-up tree. Never mind. Art rock as good as this can always be enjoyed. Having said that, as the song soars to its haunting climax even the lady next to me, who's been wearing a lap top cover as a rain hat, seems relieved that Mr Andy Mort's set is over. As his band acknowledges the loud applause of the crowd we're both already scuttling for more substantial shelter.
The rain is sheeting down. The pathway to my tent has momentarily turned into a brown stream coming half way up my calves. I've experienced festival mud baths before, but never a flash flood.
I'm finally dry and have stopped shivering. I'm not leaving my tent and read large chunks of the Greenbelt programme. Surely any event offering Abdul-Rehman Malik with "a personal meditative search for the Islamic conception of paradise" can no longer claim to be a Christian festival. Maybe next year, Greenbelt's historic 40th, they'll come clean and leave off the "Christian" tag. Multi-faith? Spiritual? I'll leave that to GB to decide.
SUNDAY, 26th August
It's still very wet outside and I'm still reading the programme. One of GB's talks is by Dave Tomlinson advising Greenbelters in "how to think with the soul instead of following rules." Sounds good but from my viewpoint and personal experience that soul needs to be indwelt with the Holy Spirit. Otherwise we escape the angry, judgmental legalism of old times (such as the Pharisees) and modern times (such as Moral Majority zealots) only to find ourselves in the quagmire of believe-anything-you-like relativism and ironically (considering Dave Tomlinson's escape from charismania) the dysfunctional behaviour which attributes all kinds of whims, suspicions and bad behaviour as emanating from God.
In the Press Office I'm interrupted in my journalistic labours to be introduced to Tim Winter, who was there to be interviewed by the BBC about him designing Britain's first eco-friendly mosque. When I'm given this news, all I can think of by way of response is "Oh."
"Are you boys ready to rock?" "Are you girls ready to rock?" bawls Stephen Fischbacher. Clearly many boys, girls, mums and dads are and the punchy, good ol' rock of Fischy Music and with the sun out and shining, one's happy to forget the dangerously slippery ground that encircles the Mainstage area. The Scottish kids communicators have songs full of fun and full of Jesus. They must get exhausted performing if the white-topped girl dancing like a whirling dervish is anything to go by. Their set is over in a flash and as if on cue the rain clouds are back.
I LOVE this song! John Ball is teaching us the Mozambique worship song "Nzomuranza" and though the words "Nzamuranza Angakona wakufanana naye/Angakona wakufanana Jesu/Angokana wakufanana naye" may at first seem unlikely to circulate UK churches, when sung to the infectious swaying melody coupled with a translation ("We worship Christ!/There is no one who will ever be like him"), it's clearly a worship gem. John isn't the best of singers but he has an excellent nine men and women aggregation with him, the Wild Goose Collective from Iona who, together with a conga player, stand in the concreted area at the back of the racecourse's Grandstand - a venue abstractly called Jerusalem - and teach the seated throng new songs. A Big Sing also teaches us songs from Nigeria, India, South Africa and another one I am particularly keen on, "Dolorosa", from Mexico.
In the Greenbelt village I scan the Charity Store selection of books and albums. The latter are a motley selection of middle-of-the-road and teeny-bop items which even if they hadn't got sleeves damaged in the rain don't warrant the £1 each selling price. Not a Christian artist to be seen - save for a worse-for-wear Rick Wakeman.
I catch a Mainstage song from those acoustic pop survivors The Proclaimers. I'd interviewed the Scottish brothers when they played Greenbelt in 1994. That year I'd been commissioned by NME to write a report on Greenbelt. As it turned out, NME never published my Greenbelt piece because Alan Lewis, the editor who'd commissioned it, was on holiday when my copy arrived and his assistant editor left in charge HATED anything to do with Christians. But I still remember that interview with the Reid brothers when they told me they weren't believers but were interested in the origins of the Labour Party formed by Christians appalled by society's treatment of the poor and oppressed. I had intended to stay for the whole Proclaimers' set but with nowhere to sit and my trainers letting in copious amounts of water I leave after one song and head back to the Press Office.
I'm sitting on the steps of the Grandstand talking to my friends Ruth and Paul. A charming girl called Cat talks to us about the need to put the needs of the poor back on the political agenda. All three of us gladly sign the petition she hands us.
In the G-Music tent I see Martyn Joseph. In a voice loud enough for him to hear I announce "here comes The Liberal Backslider". Martyn makes a funnier remark, one about the treacherous skidpatch of G-Music's floor which threatens to dispatch all of us onto our backs. We both laugh. I'm in G-Music to catch Dennison Witmer. The volunteers in the Press Office have been trying all day to set up an interview for me with the singer/songwriter all day but they keep just missing him. So the news that Ruth brings that Dennison is doing a mini-set in the G-Music Tent gets me hurrying (well, as fast as anyone can hurry across patches of glutinous mud in wet trainers) to catch the last bit of his set.
As it turns out, Dennison Witmer'S G-Music performance is barely audible above The Proclaimers booming from Mainstage close by. But afterwards this most gifted of songsmiths graciously agrees to talk to me. In a portacabin lent by the G-Music manager, Dennison, though he's clearly dog-tired, talks lucidly about the songwriting process and an album he's currently working on with Sufjan Stevens.