Live Music + Gig Reviews

Nova 2012 @ Bignor Park, Pulborough, West Sussex

8 July 2012

It doesnt bode well when getting intoa festival requires being towed through marshland by tractors. Less still when, having waded knee-deep through fields laden with bags late on Thursday, it becomes apparent that the site isnt finished. Add pretty much unbroken downpours, at a festival with very, very few undercover areas, and its unsurprising that at least a third of attendees had fled by Saturday afternoon, trails of mud dripping behind them.

Those that remained were rewarded by a lineup that seemed to diminish by the minute, with Norman Jay, The D and both the headliners on Saturday night, The Phenomenal Handclap Band (who, to be fair, had just split up) and comedy sketch-troupe Pappys, amongst the no-shows. With the weekends programme already sparse to begin with, considerable tracts of time were left with little to do bar cowering beneath trees or staring with rising envy at the few people who could afford the hot tubs.

Poor Nova. And the press releases/website design promised so much. And, to be fair, there were loads of nice ideas here, from the arty golf course – Hitlers arm raising to a Nazi salute as the ball passed through his body was a highlight of, well, this year – to the Post Office that delivered anonymous letters to other campers. But these little details cant really do much when youre hunting for a toilet in the campsite and realise there arent any – the poo woods were, at times, more populated than the main arena – or when, by Sunday, youre genuinely not expecting any of the scheduled acts to turn up.

Its easy to feel sorry for the organisers. But then we didnt pay to get in. Long before the weekend closed message boards and Facebook pages were swelling with comments from those who had, who felt a little bit, well, cheated. And they have a point. With tickets selling for 139 theyre not actually far off the prices for Latitude, and the line-ups just dont bear comparison. Sure, Nova was aiming for something different – a stripped-down, more organic experience, shorn of the corporacy, the crowds, the fashions and the branding – and had the weather have been on-side they may have achieved this, but as it was there simply wasnt enough going on to make the conditions worth bearing.

But hey, there were some moments. One of them, apparently, was Mercury winner Speech Debelle‘s Friday afternoon set, although few people could attest to that given that most of us – us included – were still queueing at the entrance trying to work out how to attach towhooks to our cars. Headliners Fink were fun, though, their indie-folk made far more interesting through the shades of post-rock and minimalism that fleck their sound, hinting at Interpol or even Bon Iver at their more experimental moments.

French three-piece We Were Evergreen enliven a dispiriting Saturday afternoon with their hyperactive, sugar-laden pop, even if at least half of their appeal comes from trying to work out what instruments theyre playing – banjos, toy pianos, ukeleles, glockenspiels and trumpets all contrive an appearance – whilst Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan imbues a touch more bite into his decaffeinated Damien Rice fare than usual. This years next big thing Jessie Ware puts in a spirited performance, all diva vocals against a palette of synthy indie electro, although – Running aside – its tough to get too excited when its a struggle to avoid sliding over and drowning. The unquestionable days highlight, though, was a member of excellent comedy group The Beta Males channeling a deranged Buzz Aldrin, bereft of clothes and writhing in the liquid mud around the audiences feet, arms flailing and face contorted into a blur of mirth and rage. He seems an apt symbol.

By Sunday only the hardest of core remains, the exits to the festival a churn of ground and bits of car and the stewards pretty much outnumbering everyone else. At some point in the afternoon the container storing the contents of the main arenas compost toilets explodes, showering those nearby in urine and god knows what else.

Its a tough act to follow, but the Mercury-nominated Ghostpoet does pretty well, his noirish mesh of beats and melodies coming off somewhere between a drowsy Roots Manuva and a more jazz-inflected Massive Attack. Certainly he deserves a much bigger crowd, although theres no half-measure in his performance, and little indifference from those assembled: hypothermic and past the point of caring, people dance barefoot and down whisky from the bottle, their laughter tinged with mania.

Nobodys really expecting Novas biggest name to turn up, and no-one – no stewards, security guards nor the long-since-vacated Information Tent – can say with any confidence whether they made it on-site. Even when the stage is being set up for tUnE-yArDs we refuse to quite believe it, suspecting a final cruel trick as we patiently array before it – still, tellingly, the largest crowd of the whole event.

But shes pretty hard, that Merrill Garbus, in her wellingtons bought just the day before – which is fortunate as it falls to her to salvage the weekend. Which she just about does, her gnarled and erratic folky-jazz-pop an apt soundtrack for the sleep-deprived and under-stimulated assembled in the pit before her, from opener Party Can – its Do You Want To Live? refrain met with something near indifference as we neck more whisky – through to favourites Gangster, Es-so and Powa. She really is a mesmerising presence, a blur of motion as she multitasks ceaselessly between drums and ukelele, vocals and an array of loopers, and her saxophone section perhaps more so, intertwining brass rhythms hypnotically on set highpoint Bizness. Set closer My Country even gets a flashdance, people mounting the stage to drunkenly amble through a routine learnt a few hours before, although their efforts are brutally curtailed midway through when the sound-desk cuts the power for breach of curfew. A few boos ring out, the last-gasp before the spirit breaks, but most just shuffle away, the temporary elation of the last hour already fading fast.

En-route to the gates, scraping muddy boots against anything vaguely above the waterline, a friend commented on her experience. I she begins. Theres a very long pause. I thinkI had a good time. Possibly not the precise legacy that the organisers might have hoped for, but hey – lets chalk this one up as a learning experience.

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Nova 2012 @ Bignor Park, Pulborough, West Sussex
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