Thanks for the interest, it was truly a blinder! As if I wasn’t going to say something… Alex, Soni and Harry duly whisked me off to Eastnor on Thursday afternoon for a weekend of sun, beautiful surroundings and a tonne of superb food. Oh yeah, there was plenty of helpings of great music too! After having wrestled with two cumbersome tents (one of which Alex’s friend Catreona had generously donated to the cause) we went to explore this year’s main enclosure. Despite there being no entertainment on the Thursday night, food and drink are usually being served and music is to found at all bars.
Traditionally there haven’t been that many festival guests around at this time but this year there were tonnes – a sure sign of the hoards that would be arriving next day. The amount of food stalls, boutiques and in particular stages had grown tremendously. Certainly last year the amount of festival goers was putting strain in the size of the enclosure and this year modifications had been made. The smaller “Chill Stage” had been enlarged slightly and renamed “The Castle Stage” (the front of the stage was decorated with little towers and crenulations) and the nearby beer tent was similarly medieval-ised. Last year’s Art Trail area had become a domain in its own right. “The Enchanted Garden” played host to the “Sanctuary Stage” (it had broken free of its tent this year), the Art Trail and a few bars/food stalls. The “Village Green” realm had been similarly awarded its own stage area which was to be the venue for much of the weekend’s folk music. Adjacent to this was the “Media Mix Tent” and next door was the addition of another big top with a white corrugated steel frontage in the shape of a chapel (complete with stained glass windows) simply labelled “Lost Vagueness” where naturally you could get married (in a boxing ring). The frivolity of the New Orleans themed Fat Tuesdays and Creole Café felt a bit inappropriate this year but was certainly prominent nonetheless.
Because of the swelling of the general enclosure (or perhaps simply better planning) the festival didn’t feel quite so packed as last year even though there were clearly more people on site. The Castle Stage shared the burden of the bigger crowds with the Open Air Stage meaning that in effect there were two main stages and it seemed at times that The Castle Stage enjoyed the bigger crowds.
Many of the more enjoyably tranquil acts from The Chill Stage had been reassigned to The Sanctuary Stage and because of the lengthy slope up to the Enchanted Garden audiences for the acts were modest – you had to really want to make an effort to see someone perform there. Standout acts here were Alucidnation, who I had never seen and who was a real revelation; gorgeous songs stretched out into simple, beautifully executed, ambient electronica. I’ll definitely be investing in some of Bruce Bickerton’s stuff in the future as, more than anything else, he’s such a good song writer (he was also accompanied by a VJ who was mixing to some of Bruce’s home movies of him and his wife on holiday). Also at the Sanctuary were the funky and irreverent “Toy”, Norwegian pranksters who use children’s programme melodies along with “Japanese style electronica” and their own beats to come up with very enjoyable ditties. This year’s Art Trail was sadly lacking. It encompassed little more than a pear-shaped tree tent (designed to help bypass protestors); a painfully dull, triple-screen video installation; some large, unremarkable, illuminated green jellyfish baubles and a weave of comic-style bandages wrapped around yet another tree. Uninspiring stuff.
The amount of bands who had been booked on the strength of one or two current popular songs was baffling. The Proclaimers aside, Lily Allen (who has had recent chart success) seemed to have gotten lost on her way to the V Festival being completely out of place with her pop anthems about the many complexities of being a teenage girl, José González seemed to have only been invited because of his hit “Heartbeats” from that ad in San Francisco with the bouncy balls (sadly the rest of his set was a bit dull) and Vashti Buyan had only been dragged out of obscurity because of her track “Diamond Day” from a recent mobile phone campaign. Arrested Development who have surely lain dormant for a decade were much of a muchness until they played “Mr Wendell” and “People Everyday”. Quite why Sparks were there at all was a mystery. Nizlopi (who had the Christmas No 1 last year with the “JCB Song”) actually played a great and inventive set and The Proclaimers managed to conjure multitudes of previously invisible Scots to appear out of nowhere, whilst making sure that their crowd genuinely had a great time throughout each and every one of their songs, despite no one really knowing anything beyond “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” and “Letter To America”.
Other stand-out sets for me were Aim who played a lot of stuff from their new album “Flight 602” (which sounds superb) and followed it up with an encore of “Cold Water Music”. They were fronted by a gorgeous, sprightly, young thing who had a great voice and was handy with a keyboard but sadly possessed little charisma (and tragically wore an “Aim” T-shirt). The Egg also rolled out a storming set on the Saturday that was very much appreciated by the audience, as were Bent on the Sunday. Phil Hartnoll’s new project Longrange packed a really satisfying arsenal that retained enough of that Orbital sound, whilst building on the atmospherics and the breaks to keep me and the rest of the sizeable crowd happy.
We made an effort to head over to the Media Mix big top for a great performance by comic Mathew Holness (responsible for the “Garth Marenghi” series on C4) as a slightly unhinged folk singer called “Merriman Weir”. Merriman unveiled a spate of stinkers, (including one ballad he wrote whilst drunk where the lyrics were more non-descript wailings, though it didn’t make it any less amusing), stories and anecdotes that were derived from his relationships with past girlfriends Lilly, Sally and Molly – infact he revealed that he only actually formed attachments to anyone whose name ended with “-lly” – and how he couldn’t understand why they found it odd he could only write good songs when he pretended they were dead.
Lost Vagueness was a bit of a non-event. It had potential but whenever we ventured near the place it seemed enormously disorganised and largely incoherent. At one stage sixteen people were crammed into the boxing ring in the centre balling about how great porn was. A smaller leopard skin tent for dressing up was tucked away in the corner but access seemed impossible.
The only disappointments for me were Lou Rhodes whose set was surprisingly flat (though her musicians were good) and only came to life when she played Lamb’s “Gabriel” which only reinforced how uninspired and shapeless her own songs were. The absolutely insane Sebastian Tellier (he made a point of performing one song with a cigarette up his nose for the duration) might have left his audience with a more pleasant memory had he not explained how one of his songs was inspired by his disdain for Native American Indians and how their bodies were profoundly ugly and boring (a strange man, he also tried to finish his set early after desperately pleading for us to accompany him back to his Travel Lodge). The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain annoyed me as they still haven’t changed their set list and seemed to coast through, wowing anyone unfamiliar with their party pieces but adding nothing to a trick that only really worked once for me.
The weather really behaved itself all weekend neither scorching us nor raining (except, perhaps suitably, for The Proclaimers). The food was also of the highest quality. La Grande Bouffe remained the finest eat on site but was this hotly contested this year by The Goan Fish Co. who provided me with a fine Goan mackerel curry on Saturday night and I had a fine serving of falafel on Sunday to boot.
If there was any downside to this year’s proceedings it would only be the increase of revellers who seemed to flit exclusively between drinking at Fat Tuesdays and The Finlandia paddock and dancing in the Club Tent. This Axis of Evil was placed between the main music stages and The Village Green area making for lengthy expeditions between live bands. It would have been so much simpler to place The Club Tent, Fat Tuesdays and Finlandia in a field of their own and allow the Ibiza Set to ‘ave it large with their E’s and coke (which very much go against the spirit of Chill) away from everyone else. Many of these people had little or no interest in the location or live music and no regard for keeping the surrounds pleasant for others and when Harry and I walked past Finlandia (which had recently closed for the night on Saturday) it was by far the most beaten up and litter filled venue in the site. Many of the clubbers had far more money than anyone else there and were simply there to get mashed up. Because of their choice of drugs these people were still around long after the live music and DJ’s had finished for the night and could be seen wondering round like the infected from “28 Days Later” with no one else left to prey upon. Possibly because of the extra capacity this year security seemed a lot more noticeable. The increase in capacity last year was very noticeable but even more so this year with the rearranging of the site. Maybe I’m being unfair and many of the pill-heads are simply younger versions of the parents who now bring their children along each year. If the festival is going to grow each year there was every evidence it will retain it’s loving touches of individuality with one of the big oaks this year having been decked out in multi-coloured Chinese lanterns; fleets of candle paper lanterns were launched each night; there was croquet, fairy wrestling and more combinations of costumes to dress up in than you could possibly manage in a weekend. Maybe I was just jealous that I couldn’t get my hands on anything myself. I certainly have clearer memories this year ?
I would profoundly disagree with Chris Salmon who claimed in his review for the Guardian that “…the weekend was crying out for big names who could unite the 30,000 crowd for a defining moment.” I would go so far as to say that he had completely missed the point. For me every moment is defining and the fact that the crowd this year was comprised of people with such different tastes meant that there would never be an act to pull everyone in. The beauty of the festival is the feeling that whatever you are up to is exactly where you want to be at that time – be it relaxing in the sun by the lake, getting lost in the art trail, watching a movie being re-edited and DJ’d to or simply flopped down under a tree with a beer, you don’t want to have to rush to a “headliner” and start leaping about largely because whatever you are listening to is of a certain quality. I’m always discovering new music at this festival and I like the fact that I’m not confronted by the huge names that I can go and see at any other festival. £120 is a bit steep for a festival but Marc told me that he’s off to Fairport’s Cropredy Convention this weekend and 3-day tickets for this are £72 and you really do need to love your folk music. With The Big Chill the four of us had jazz with the E.S.T. (that’s the Esbjorn Svensson Trio to you), bossa nova with Nouvelle Vague, folk with Martha Wainwright and high-grade soul with Nicole Willis (of Leftfield’s “Swords” fame) And The Soul Investigators for our bucks. Apart from eventually getting to Glastonbury one of these years, I know where I’ll be going for my outdoor summer music for the next few years.