The first port of call on Sunday was the literature tent where Vashti Bunyan was bashfully answering questions about her life and career. Given her time in the spotlight prior to now was merely for a matter of months in the sixties, the interview didn’t last too long, and soon it was time to go and see Scotland’s latest Robert Burns, Alasdair Roberts,
Roberts’ album, The Amber Gatherers, is a minor masterpiece of contemporary folk and was a welcome relief from his previous LP, a collection of Scottish murder ballads that left a bitter aftertaste of abject desolation. Today, again with Joanna Newsom tittering with approval back stage along with the mighty Vetiver, Roberts was on as good a form as ever. The album’s title song, The King’s Hand and Riddle Me This proved his metal as a bona fide folk sensibility, and worthy of the evident approval from the big American names in the wings.
The Earlies, described as ‘uncategorisable’ in the programme, were diverting enough, though perhaps they should consider categorising themselves after all, as this much-hyped band perhaps lack an identity. It was with a sure foot, despite the mud, that this reviewer left them to it to go and watch John Renbourn in the Folkey Dokey Tent.
This was the right thing to do. Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Martin Carthy and co all deserve the admiration they have earned for being seminal, hugely gifted folk guitarists, but Renbourn stands apart. The jazz and classical influences upon his playing takes his fret board activity to places others don’t manage, not for a second did the audience’s attention waver, until the end of each track when grown men started squealing like little girls. An encore of Jackson C. Frank’s Blues Run The Game, a song without which your Findlay Browns, your Vetivers or your Alasdair Roberts would perhaps not exist, could not fail.
A few Pro Plus later and it was time for Seasick Steve, who strolled on stage and said, “Y’all ain’t gonna hear no folk music”. He was right, but Seasick isn’t as old a blues master as he might seem – his production of Modest Mouse early in their career and his energetic trawling of the UK festival circuit ensures he is one of a kind. His time at Green Man, frankly, pissed all over his Latitude performance. His natural rapport with any audience is something few can match, including Gruff Rhys, who as reports suggest was pleasant, but did not enthral over on the main stage.
On Friday, Joanna Newsom had smashed any doubt about her astounding talent. On Sunday it was Devendra Banhart‘s turn. I had never been fully convinced by him, put off by the weird-folk, alt-folk, beard-folk new-folk, freak-folk descriptions he encourages, and more enamoured with his former band Vetiver. Did I mention they were great?
Anyway, Devendra too is a special guy, only tonight there was little of anything pertaining to folk. Indeed, for much of the show he was a swaggering, cock-sure rock star wiggling his hips. We’re not even too far off with the word ‘funk’ (funk-folk anyone?). He did betray his capacity for a good love-in by inviting a female member of the audience up on stage to sing with his band, though she did proceed to sing note-perfectly in tune, and shout out her MySpace address afterwards, suggesting her appearance was not entirely spontaneous. Still though, another dashing bearded man with attitude. Just what the world needs!
Stephen Malkmus versus The Aliens was a difficult one. Actually, there was never any problem, and so it was to the Folkey Dokey to bop along to Gordon Anderson and co. It was at this festival in 2006 that the trio first properly emerged, and the confidence and fun that pervaded this return show was palpable. Robot Man, Ionas (Look For Space) and Only Waiting were sublime, though Glover suffered from keyboardist John Maclean’s equipment failing. Not to worry, its impossible not to love The Aliens.
This festival was the most enjoyable three days I’d had in years, despite the weather. Us middle-class folkies in the UK really are all one big happy family: performers mingle with fans, gentle people are everywhere, not a word raised in ire is heard at any point. Let’s all love each other next year too.