Now nine years old, Summer Sundae established itself long before the term ’boutique festival’ had become common currency. It may be family friendly, clean and urban (Leicester city centre is within walking distance, and one stage is actually in De Montfort Hall) but it stands well apart from the majority of such enterprises, partly by not being in London but also through the likeable atmosphere and the inventiveness of much of the booking. So much so, in fact, that the festival has in recent years developed a reputation for poor headliners and a lively undercard, something Sunday headliners The Zutons weren’t going to do much against this year.
As it turned out, neither were Friday headliners The Streets. A case of swine flu in his band meant Mike Skinner had to pull a weekend’s worth of gigs at 2pm, and it’s testament to the crowd it attracts that for the most part the news was greeted with acceptance. Of a sort, anyway. Plenty of the official notices were having the first two letters of the word ‘unfortunately’ scribbled out by sundown.
Idlewild stepped into the breach as opening day headliners and pulled off a solid if not spectacular set. ‘Everyone Says You’re So Fragile’ and ‘When I Argue I See Shapes’ is as good an opening one-two as you’re likely to ever get from them. If some of the more recent material doesn’t pass muster in such company though, and the crowd seem a little light and quite a bit unprepared, a charge through ‘Roseability’ and a proper stadium moment in ‘American English’ show Woomble and co can really put their all in when the occasion demands.
Elsewhere the main stage saw a lacklustre Mystery Jets include two new songs that seem more watered down from the retro-eclectic curiousities of their work to date and Beardyman‘s more than impressive beatbox skills running low on stickability ten minutes or so into a 45 minute set. More fascinating fare took place elsewhere. Wild Beasts are growing in live stature all the time, investing a set heavy on Two Dancers with life and peculiar groove. múm can come across as austere on record but live turned out to be by turns spine tingling and actively lively. The performance/spoken word venture Phrased & Confused hosted its own marquee and invited Jeremy Warmsley in for a solo set, incorporating covers of Daniel Johnston and Billie Holliday as well as introducing the secret sixth verse of ’5 Verses’ – one that bore a distinct resemblance to the chorus of a well known lachrymose break-up song by our now non-appearing headliners.
Saturday began with a storming set by the partly local Her Name Is Calla, whose dramatic post-rock slow build and crashing crescendos gradually won over a midday audience in some style. In fact the local bands the festival puts on for the experience did well more often than not. Mr Plow deals, in his own words, with “murder ballads and disaster songs”, cut from a Johnny Cash cloth with a storytelling bent as dark as its humour. The city’s current great white hopes Minnaars will hear Foals comparisons from now to kingdom come but bolt on an electronic undertow and a melodic hardcore dynamic. The main stage was too big for them now, not helped by technical issues, but keep an eye out.
There’s plenty on the second day with energy to spare. It’s too easy to say that as a female fronted trio The Joy Formidable – introduced, for some specious reason, with the third word in the French style – bring to mind prime Throwing Muses, but their cathartically dynamic fuzz tones mark out their own territory. The Kabeedies are full of youthful exuberance and silly dancing to complement their odd janglepop, Broken Records‘ Waterboys/Beirut referencing melodrama again suits the live experience more than the studio and Future Of The Left… well, you’d be well advised to stand back some distance from Falco and Kelson at the best of times. Kids down the front formed a pit, middle aged people at the back were seen grinning at the odd lyrical quirk. As it should be. The Charlatans headlined, but I was watching the ATP film in the cinema tent at the time.
It was a day when the singer-songwriters made the best of things too. Emmy The Great shook off some recent variable quality festival sets for a a confident, poised set including a cover of the Carpenters’ ‘End Of The World’ and a complete setlist rejig so she could play a request of ‘Canopies And Drapes’. Frank Turner packed out the Rising tent with devotees, but the plaudits mostly go to the genuine one-off that is David Thomas Broughton. Broughton reminds me of cult Northern chansonnier Jake Thackray, all inscrutable Yorkshire baritone and folky acoustic playing. Then again, there’s the intricate looping, the occasional dissolving into complete dissonance, the feedback solos, the studied tics and completely straight-faced expression throughout the theatrics and the songs of heartbreak. So completely apart from the rest of his supposed field, Broughton live is completely captivating.
Sunday brought another unmissable live experience, but I’ll come back to that. The early running was taken up by two local favourites from different ends of the spectrum, only connected by a love of the noise made by loud guitars. Kevin Hewick has more than thirty years’ service behind him and a footnote in one of Britain’s most covered music stories when he recorded demos with the post-Curtis Joy Division with a view to becoming singer in what became New Order. Fronting a power trio he pulls out serrated “grunge for the over-50s” (his words) like a Midlands Neil Young. Maybeshewill meanwhile take their instrumental post-hardcore/post-rock elegance to the main stage and succeed where lesser bands of the same type might have easily failed, the closing ‘Not For Want Of Trying”s quasi-metal riffs feeling like it could level the whole park. Only Micachu and the Shapes‘ static solos and odd time signatures, not to mention Mica Levi’s newly peroxided hair, is more awkward in its surroundings.
Not something that Woodpigeon will ever do, but their delicately arranged chamber folk seems to develop a new full-blooded textured life in the hall, Beth Jeans Houghton joining them (sporting a mighty blonde afro wig) for a cover of Abba’s ‘Lay All Your Love On Me’. First Aid Kit‘s spectral close harmonies enchanted in a short set including covers of Fleet Foxes and Buffy Sainte-Marie, while Teitur beefed up the awkward arrangements of his album by exposing the darker core. All these are leading up to Bon Iver, not even headlining (again: The Zutons! In August 2009!) but what he says will be his last English gig for a good year, while not as perfect in timing and reception as his celebrated End Of The Road 2008 performance, proves Justin Vernon can still tug at receptive heartstrings. Guitarist Mike Noyce can do it too, taking vocals on a stunning cover of Graham Nash’s ‘Simple Man’, but it’s ‘Re:Stacks’ solo and the now traditional singalong ‘The Wolves (Act I & II)’ that really steal the show.
Or at least, that particular show. For this Sunday of Summer Sundae was essentially divided into three parts: pre-Monotonix, Monotonix, post-Monotonix. Some of us were aware, pre-Monotonix, of the Israeli garage rock trio’s insane dance party live reputation, but actually seeing it unfold in the flesh for an hour – in a half hour slot – was quite another thing. People are jumped on, drinks are summarily redistributed, drums are crowdsurfed on or stood on/played while held up above everyone’s heads and a large plastic bin is brought into play before the drumkit, singer Ami Shalev and most of the crowd relocate themselves to the upper tier for an elevated dance party which is brought to a conclusion only when Shalev jumps off the twenty foot balcony into a sea of arms. He then somehow persuades everyone to sit down in silence for a brief lecture on something or other. By this stage Micachu and co are setting up on the stage behind them, or as much as they dare to before the next tsunami of a pit around the band breaks out. Eventually the plug has to be pulled. In the midst of all this I overhear a security person tell another that the venue couldn’t guarantee the insurance to let them set the kit on fire. If you weren’t there, you were being told about it for the rest of the day.
Perhaps part of their allure this weekend is how ridiculous their booking seemed on a day that also played host to the Lightning Seeds (more popular than you’d imagine) and the Heatonless New Beautiful South. But that’s the joy of Summer Sundae – an atmosphere both laid back and rewarding to the more than casual music fan.