With the national proliferation of festivals, and ever-increasing popularity of festival-going-as-summer-ritual, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell one Weekend In A Field With Bands from another. Not only in terms of lineup (with many of this summer’s big events sharing the same handful of big-name headline acts), but also identity: Glasto aside, what makes any one British music festival unique, distinctive and worth coming back to year on year?
Truck, now in its 12th year on farmland in Oxfordshire, is managing a fine balancing act of growing a little larger every year while still keeping its warm, small, distinctly family and quite local feel. The brainchild of the Bennett family (including brothers Robin and Joe, of Goldrush fame), Truck is perhaps best described as being like a Village Fete, but a bit bigger and with much, much better music. That one of its main stages is called The Barn, and is, in fact, a cattle shed, only adds to its charm; as does the fact that catering is provided by the Rotary Club and the local vicar.
Saturday dawned with much promising sunshine, and one of those excellent unexpected festival discoveries, when the later-than-scheduled start of Their Hearts Were Full of Spring on the main Truck Stage saw us instead taking a punt in the smaller Village Pub tent (lineup curated by BBC Introducing), for Army/Navy. A lovely opening act, their pleasant and jaunty C86-ish tunes and pretty la-la-la choruses started the event off nicely and they rose above the bass problems that beset them with aplomb. So much did they remind me of the more decent British indiepop type of a band from the 1980s that it came as a surprise to hear their L.A. accents between songs. With an album due out in early October, they would be a definite recommendation. Even their cover of Mary Nightingale’s ‘Right Back Where We Started From’ proved inoffensive, and a significant improvement on the original.
A dramatic change of pace, next, in the Barn, where Cat Matador’s dark gothic music – best compared to a more baroque Cure or, less kindly, one of those ubiquitous Joy Division-wannabee bands – soon became just a little dreary. Panama Kings, on the main Truck Stage next, to their credit performed as if they were headlining a sell-out night at Madison Square Gardens but sadly, to their debit, brought stadium-pomp acts like U2 or Starsailor mostly to mind.
From Light to Sound were the next really satisfying musical experience of the day. These unassuming-looking chaps peddle a pleasingly powerful line in shoegaze-cum-post-rock, the main influences being the holy trinity of ‘M’s (Mogwai, My Bloody Valentine, erm (Jesus and) Mary Chain), with an undercurrent of kraut discernable in the occasional motorik beat. A song “based on an argument with our old guitarist” is suitably full of ire, and when their set ends, in the normally dance-oriented Beat-Hive tent, it feels premature. Fanfarlo plus Truck Stage plus sunshine, next, equalled a pretty idyllic combination. Simon Balthazar’s vocal seemed somehow stronger and surprisingly robust live, and the summery brass, perky violins and exuberant percussion all contributed to a feel-good atmosphere. Closing with ‘The Walls Are Coming Down’, complete with five voice acapella introduction, then a sumptuous swell of trumpets, this was a very enjoyable, if not quite weekend-defining set.
data.select.party, playing their first ever festival, took half of their allotted time to really take off, but by the end I was more or less a convert to their confusing mix of sub-Foals math-pop and emocore. Next up, however, were We Were Promised Jetpacks, who delivered one of the highlights of the whole festival. With layers of emotional guitar beauty crashing and building right from the very outset of their set, moving from 0 to epic in about two minutes flat, a warm yet intense vocal sounding wise and world-weary beyond its owner’s years, this was enthralling from start to finish. They wisely allowed each track to segue into the next so as to not break the spell that they were busy spinning, and by the time we reached the anguished, shouted delivery of “your body was black and blue” from ‘It’s Thunder And Lightning’, most of the audience surely had goosepimples. Transcendent.
Ear-shredding feedback, heavy guitars and a dark, downbeat vocal (like a miserablist Evan Dando, in places) characterised A Place To Bury Strangers’ intense, and intensely physical performance, and it was no surprise when they took the “walk off stage with feedback still shrieking” approach to ending their set.
Damo Suzuki, ex-Can vocalist and improviser par excellence was just incredible, on the Truck Stage, next. His hour-long set seemed to pass by in a blur of minutes, with one long piece stretched out, pulled back, expanded and contracted, in a harmonious cacophony supported by a backdrop of clearly incredibly proficient musicians, but always held together by Damo himself, his lovely hypnotic vocal spinning tale after tale in unintelligible words that still nevertheless somehow made the utmost sense.
From here the evening pretty much tailed off, with Sad Day For Puppets, bland in some places, quite sweet in others, and “does what it says on the tin” headliners Ash proving reliable, dependable but ultimately not, for me, unmissable.
Waking up to a much greyer Sunday, Maybeshewill were a splendid kick-start to the day. Their post-rock was urgent and driving, with enjoyable switches of mood: sometimes heavy, riffy and aggressive (‘How To Have Sex With A Ghost’), in other places gentler or more euphoric and “up” (‘Co-conspirator’). Piano samples and clips of spoken recordings added drama and beauty to proceedings, with the rant about the recession and the state of the world (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take any more”) on closing song ‘Not For Want Of Trying’ particularly relevant, topical but more importantly rousing and invigorating.
Pausing briefly to catch about the last fifteen minutes of Young Husband (a tuneful, babyfaced four piece with “grade five piano skills” and endearingly meandering vocal), it was then on to Talons, for some more instrumental post-rock, back in the Barn. Their hard, abrasive use of violins was interesting, and made a nice change from the usual band tendency to throw strings in just to mellow things out, and they also had a good line in clatter-to-a-stop-then-restart guitar effects, and a commanding drummer. They did suffer a bit, though, from being somewhat one dimensional in mood and dynamic, although I admittedly did only catch the first half of their set.
Calories were disappointingly unadventurous, sounding like any other earnest rawk band, then Telegraphs too, failed to really catch light, although they certainly appeared to be having a great time on stage, which always goes some way towards taking an audience along with you.
I had to deploy the power of the press pass for the first and only time to gain access to the over-subscribed Barn for And So I Watch You From Afar; and I was mighty glad that I swallowed any scruples and did so, watching them deliver another of the weekend’s outstanding performances. Taut, tight, controlled yet at the same time fast-and-wild, they have co-opted some of the best bits of math, hardcore and post-rock and made them utterly their own. As ‘S Is For Salamander’ sped up, roared, screeched and grinded remorselessly before slowing down to gather breath before ramping up again with gunshot drums and incoherent shouts, the first circle pit of the day – formed by rapt youngsters in mid-barn – seemed the only appropriate response.
Andrew Ferris – formerly front man with the mighty Jetplane Landing but today performing solo having been (temporarily) deserted by his new band – performed an acoustic set of covers and JPL favourites. He showed all his customary enthusiasm and rhetorical skills, but just wasn’t as effective as a one-man-show. Sky Larkin unfortunately failed to successfully translate their enjoyable songs from Really Rather Good album The Golden Spike into live stormers – slightly bafflingly, since they are surely chock-ful of tunes crying out to be played in front of an audience. ‘Matador’, six songs in, worked best, but was not enough to stop things falling generally a little flat. Having tried twice to enjoy them live now, I think I’m just going to have to think of them as one of those “better on record” kind of bands.
Over on the Market Stage, DJ “Whispering” Bob Harris was curating the day’s proceedings, and introduced festival favourites Danny The Champ (billed as a solo set from ex-Grand Drive singer, but in fact joined by several guest musicians) to a packed tent. This provided a mellow interlude of gentle alt.country, and an atmosphere that was very, laconically, enjoyably, “Truck”. Next, in the same venue, The Incredible String Band’s Mike Heron delivered a “kind of a hippy set” to celebrate this year’s Woodstock anniversary, accompanied with jaw-dropping beauty by his daughter Georgia Seddon. Gifted with a seriously stunning voice, and also a talented songwriter and pianist, it was Georgia’s presence that really made this set so riveting, with her composition ‘Snow’ standing out as the highlight.
Chew Lips, in the Beat-Hive, offered a contrast to all this mellow niceness, in the form of brassy cheesy female vocals over “is it the 80s again?” synths. Fairly obvious, yet effective in its incitement to dance, this was one for those of the inclination for a bop with a bit of pop. Ghost Of A Thousand, next, whose shouty rock wasn’t really our cuppa, and whose front man seemed to be on a tiresome mission to swear with Every Other Fucking Word between songs, like a kid who’d just discovered the f-word.
And so as the rain came down and the festival drew to a halt, we chose to forego Supergrass, headlining the main Truck Stage, in favour of the quite wonderful, quirky, and entertaining Yacht back in the Barn. Their original use of video projections, all featuring mystical and symbolic triangles, the Google Maps illustration of their flat in Portland, Oregon (which every member of the audience was invited to visit), and their stylish, stylised dance moves all rendered the music itself (electro-dance, clearly no stranger to Talking Heads and Devo style post-punk) almost secondary. As “think positive” type slogans flashed up on the screen, and the audience shouted them, cult-like, back at the band (sample: “I will love”, “I will not attack”), the pelting precipitation outside ceased to matter as we all immersed ourselves in Yacht-world.
Photo credit: Joe Singh