There are a lot of ebullient kids here this morning, waking me early in this big field in Oxfordshire with some outlandish shouting and speaking of the bands who are kind of cool to coin at the moment, but as Johnny Cash‘s I Got Stripes comes spinning out of my cheap iPod speaker, I decide to take it in good spirit.
I’ve read something really good about this festival, saying that it’s a fiercely individualistic event, and I’m here open to all of its delights like a curious kitten. Emerging from the tent, it’s a hello to the new person camping here and a hats-off to that steward over there and ah, is that the local vicar, helping lug a giant shop sign across the grass expanse? Now that’s what I call cool…
Walking through the arena at Saturday lunch time is a cheery experience, the local Rotary Club stall sitting here modestly selling soup, a little sweet stall over there presided over by parents and children with busy gusto, a small canvass caf offering tea, coffee and hot chocolate, and then the darker charms, a full-on outside bar and a mysterious cow shed looming on the horizon, just waiting to explode with sounds. But for the moment it’s the Trailer Park tent, and behold, Leo Lightning and the Dynamic Two, a kind of fashionista Half Man Half Biscuit.
Rakish suits and sensible hats prevail, and one song called Green Cross Code leads the way in a humorous manner, Leo L singing wistfully of knocking down his girlfriend in his car before his band interject with the Formula One TV theme tune, the three chaps in the band whipping up a happy atmosphere for the healthy early afternoon crowd, before I sneak out to the early strains of Floyd’s The Wall to explore pastures new.
It’s now up the field towards the Main Stage, which comprises of three trucks parked sideways to give a luxurious spaciousness, and what a band London’s The Cut Outs are, clad in uniform black and being danced to voraciously by a group of spiky-haired relics. I edge my way closer, weary of getting too embroiled in the dancing, but drawn in by a sound that has all the colours of the rainbow, and a bassist/co-vocalist who has the look of a million indie vixens all at once, sultry and sophisticated like Stories-era PJ Harvey, with a special way with her bass. This is downright punk only in appearance, and The Cut Outs suggest worlds way beyond the three-chord museum, raucous, shimmering and contrarily brilliant.
A cluster of three stages are closely grouped with the many stores at the central festival space, and there’s some magic stuff happening in The Lounge, which sits opposite the Trailer Park, the hardcore kids of Restlesslist evoking a little of The Slits in the way they incorporate reggae-type rhythms into a loose and propulsive sound. The people floating down from The Cut Outs at the Main Stage are promptly transported to an alternate haven of strangely shaped Pop collage, and somehow it all feels so right.
Restlesslist lean more towards post-rock and electronica than anything else, but their sound is quintessentially art-punk in its most noble sense, striving for creativity with a genuine compulsion and coming up with brilliant rhythmic amalgams. I’m disappointed I only catch the final tracks, but what I do hear is enough to send me away charged.
When Restlesslist grind to a halt, I’m lured back into the Trailer by a glimpse of the light blue psychedelic suit of the Jim Protector drummer. It’s a good thing too, because the rest of his band are pretty handy in sketching post-rock soundscapes that match his sartorial wit with an air of the melodically unhinged. I step further in to see what’s going on, and the Jim Protector singer/guitarist is leaping between his axe and keyboard like a man possessed, all the while etching hooks to wake the gods from slumber. The sound is whirling, propulsive, evocative, atmospheric and everything else you get from good post-rock, and the singer keeps building up more and more of a head of steam, finally striding the drumkit to etch out the final track in a certain frenzy, and leaping off at the end with a touch of rock clich that I think we can take with a pinch of salt. Jim Protector have emotion and sensuality running through their sounds like gold dust, and don’t need any kind of cool posturing to hold them up further.
The Main Stage is the next destination, and the sounds of Monkey Swallows the Universe drift out over the small gathering of people at the front with humble folk ingenuity and a shy kind of soul. Nat Johnson’s voice is really something, a wondrous mixture of Sophie Ellis Bextor (oh yes) and any number of pure-voiced country chanteuses, winding around the teeming pastoral orchestration of violin, keyboards, drums, mandolin and guitar with an easy shimmer, and suddenly, half way in, it all gets that little bit cooler and surreal. The drummer swaps his humble sticks for the subtle mechanics of the accordion, accounting for possibly the only case of this I’ve ever seen, Johnson dedicates a track about tragic lovers killed in a car crash to Ronnie Corbett (announcing that he’d met the same fate last night), and they play an exquisite version of Jonathan Richman’s ace Ice Cream Van, which is an absolutely perfect moment in the afternoon sun.
Monkey Swallows the Universe were humble, outlandish, charming and poignant in equal measures, and now it’s back off to the smaller tents and the shade for one of the bands I’d been particularly looking forward to. I’m admittedly relieved to see that sound problems have put a halt to proceedings at the Trailer Park tent for the moment, as I’m ten minutes late for Fanfarlo. It’s soon all fixed though, and the wildly evocative Fire Escape floats out over us in beatific waves.
This is the second time this year I’ve seen the Sweden/London retinue, and as I stand there and the songs keep coming in shimmering grandeur, I recognise they’re a truly special band. We Live By The Lake sounds like it’s been sent to capture my heart and lock it away for the next hundred years, ebbing and swaying with an unnamed sadness, and the general orchestration with Fanfarlo is something to behold. Violin riffs here, trumpet lines there, simmering keyboards floating over the top, and singer Amos’s aching and unique voice, it all combines to make a shimmering spectacle of Pop poignancy and pathos that leaves me feeling like jelly, and it’s with a fair awe that I stumble out again into the sun.
Having nearly missed Fanfarlo, I now recoil in horror at having done exactly that with Josh T. Pierson and Emma Pollock, ex of The Delgados, at the nearby Barn, and also Rachael Dadd, a young Bristol folk artist I wanted to see at The Market Stage, which is back across by the tent area, but a short break for a bowl of pasta (the healthy option) and a cider (for balance), restores a little worth, and its back to the Trailer Park for Blood Red Shoes.
I’ll always be suspicious of bands who introduce a song by saying “this is our new single”, but Blood Red Shoes are still so much better today than they were the last time I saw them at Cardiff’s Coal Exchange in an NME-sponsored charade. There’s no long and cocky song pre-ambles from the drummer/co-vocalist that had made me disinterested then, and the music prevails. The tent is full to bursting point, signature tune You Bring Me Down is received with rapture, sounding barbed and fantastic, and the Shoes generally kick like a mule, bouncing out like-sounding three-minute nuggets one after another in ruthless, rhythmic abandon.
I roll out of the Trailer Park tent, shake off the remnants of adrenalin, and make my way down to the Main Stage, where Buck 65, the self-proclaimed squire of “Nowheresville” is steadily corrupting all of the values of modern hip hop, gregarious and funny. I only catch two tracks, one a promiscuous bit of work entitled I’m Gonna Do You, an amorous piece of comedy with an earthy chorus, and a final track called Spead ‘Em, which he dedicates to film noir (“I don’t know much about it, but hey”), and they’re more than enough to put him in my J Saul Kane box of modern hip hop wonders.
We wander away from Buck 65 in great spirits, and, after seeing them in Cardiff earlier in the year, I look forward to catching Foals once more up at the Trailer Park. The tent however is heaving in anticipation, even more so than with Blood Red Shoes, and with more people gathered outside and pushing to get in, it’s deemed a health hazard and the gig is re-scheduled for the larger Barn stage later on tonight.
I make our way out into the cooler evening air, and file back down to the Main Stage for Brakes, joining a huge crowd about to be set in consummate flames. A guitar screeches, singer Eamon Hamilton screams something incomprehensible into his mic, and its off we go into the indie wild west. Brakes for me are the foremost raucous wonders of the modern Pop world, breaking down boundaries and defying rock convention with a sharpness that makes the hairs stand on end. Thirty second blasts of obtuse lyrical fury roar past at breakneck speed, more developed tracks pulsate with a finely-honed melodic fury and alternate Beach Boys like grace, and a cover of Jackson floats out into the night with such contrary profundity as to make me gasp for air. Brakes are just so right, today or on any day, as I’ve learnt, but today in particular, a beatific beast of the wildest melodic sentiments, blazing profound trails into the Oxfordshire night.
I haven’t checked the Market Stage out yet, so merely by way of cooling down after Brakes I head back through the cluster of stalls and past the trio of arenas, through the winding gravel path and out the other end, where I find The Epstein playing country with a pristine air, slide guitar drifting, guitars swaying, and the vocals like calls from pastoral ghosts, distant and profound. I don’t think I ever want to leave, but this is only a brief stop, and I’m soon drifting away back across the path to catch today’s unexpected headliners in the Barn.
The central hub of the festival is virtually empty for the first time, and I soon see where everyone has gone. A huge concrete expanse welcomes me as I file in through the Barn’s opening, and, ushered round a corner, I promptly find the party – virtually the whole festival having gathered in anticipation of local darlings Foals.
Drums fly, a guitar line slowly loops in an elaborate rhythmic action, and we have a show on our hands… The Barn erupts like the cows will never see, and Foals go at it like demon cherubs, conjuring an indie-dance party of Dionysian proportions. Mathletics erupts in concise, furious guitar licks and distant yhelps, spawning happy images of New Rave being cut to pieces and stuck back together in gleaming new shards, while signature tune Hummer raises the temperature to boiling-point, its call and response coolness setting limbs aflame wherever you look. The hometown heroes have returned, their gift to Truck an opening night climax that burns, burns, burns till tomorrow’s an unrecognisable light.