1 – 4 May 2015
View: Craic-ed up
The “friendliest little festival in the world” got off to a sensational start with a searing performance from John Murry. Looking and acting increasingly like a baddie in some deranged silent movie, Murry with his pick-up band killed Pavement’s Shady Lane before debuting new songs that indicate that his next album might even outdo the award-winning Graceless Age. Nominal Kilkenny bill-toppers were Calexico, whose panoramic and super-slick show at the plush Set Theatre ended up in mass partying. Male / female folk duos slugged it out in the form of London’s The Rails and Saskatoon’s Kacy And Clayton, both vying for the title of the new Fairports. In terms of commercial appeal, the highly-accessible Sons Of Bill seem set for mainstream success, but the band that Kilkenny clasped closest to its bosom was Montreal’s Barr Brothers. Their category-defying world / folk / blues virtuosity proved that there really is room for a harp in rock and roll.
South By South West Festival
17 – 22 March 2015
After last year’s overcrowding and huge headliners, it felt like a conscious move back towards the original spirit of sxsw. With the help of some rain, it was quiet enough to return to the core task of seeking out hot new bands. American Aquarium, a Springsteenesque outfit from North Carolina, drew attention, as did Virginia’s classic rockers Sons Of Bill. On the country front, Andrew Combs looks set for stardom. At Hotel San Jose, a slightly damp showcase symbolised the genre-bending line-ups that make sxsw so special: Carl Barât, Gang Of Four and cool new band Houndmouth mixed it with The Zombies. Who’d have thought that the voice of the festival would be that of 70 year old Colin Blunstone? The best live band in the world right now is Chuck Prophet And The Mission Express, who were stalked by RC as they did nine shows in three days. Imminent breathroughs included Australia’s Courtney Barnett and Germany’s super-accessible Milky Chance, but only one outfit demonstrated the clear power to conquer the States. The ridiculously frantic energy levels and in-your-face enthusiasm of the Pogues-ish Skinny Lister mean that a Mumford-style triumph is inevitable. And you haven’t lived until you’ve been crowd-surfed over by someone playing a double bass.
View: Behind a six foot seven man
If this is the future of rock, forget it. Not because they aren’t any good, but simply because of the audience’s demographic: forties and fifties. If Sleaford Mods revive the spirit of punk (which they sort of do), it’s not an introduction of punk to a new generation, it’s old punks reliving their youth. Sleaford Mods are a lot of entertaining fun. There’s Jason Williamson with a severe case of Tourettes, who jogs round in circles, gobs on the stage and wiggles his tongue, shouting like a cross between Eminem and John Cooper Clarke. Arguably even more entertaining is Andrew Fearn, whose role is to swig Corona, check his phone, do a mild grandad dance and, every ninety seconds, press a button on his laptop, like a grinning, emaciated John Shuttleworth. Williamson’s profane lyrics are actually very clever, with nifty wordplay, relevant themes and caring attitudes, rewarding repeated listening on the vinyl which, interestingly, at least a quarter of the audience walked away with. They ain’t here for the long haul (there aren’t enough real tunes for that), but go see them while they last. They sure are different, and in a bland musical environment, that counts for a lot.
The Cellars, Southsea
View: Hunched on a stool
This was a strange show. Why has a flame-haired Welsh songstress recorded an album of her songs with some of the finest session musicians America has to offer? And what enables her to bring those very musicians to a cosy back street pub in Southsea? There’s legendary drummer Russ Kunkel and dreamy bassist Lee Sklar, although advertised guitarist Waddy Wachtel is inexplicably absent. It may possibly be to do with Judith’s husband, none other than Spinal Tap’s Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). The band is promoting Judith’s new album Ebb And Flow and the show contains not only some of the rambling songs of Laurel Canyon philosophy it contains, but also some reworkings of songs by artists they originally worked with, such as Carole King’s “It Might As Well Rain Until September” and James Taylor’s “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On The Jukebox”. More bizarrely still, Judith likes to completely rework some popular classics, in this case Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” and David Dundas’ “Jeans On”. The musicians, despite barely breaking into a sweat, are sublime, but the question is, is the world ready for a cross between Tori Amos and Lyndsey De Paul? Maybe. “This is just the start of something much bigger”, says Judith, confidently. We shall see.
Salisbury City Hall
Desperately eager to please, it would be hard to imagine a less suitable Eels support act then toothsome duo Daughters of Davis. It was probably a typical bit of ghoulish E-style humour paving the way for a long series of what the dapper Everett called “soft rock bummers” – two minute laments such as “Parallels” from new album The Cautionary Tales Of Mark Oliver Everett, culminating in the saddest song ever written, “It’s A Motherfucker”. There was a valedictory feel to this last date of a 53-date tour (“nursing 52 hangovers”, as E put it). Bookended by two tear-jerking standards, “When You Wish Upon A Star” and “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, were energetic re-workings of Eels favourites “Fresh Feeling” And “I Like Birds”. Not since Chuck Berry has an artist been so adept at recycling his own songs while still retaining the affection of his audience. We’ll forgive him anything.
It’s been four years since Jesse Malin played in the UK and the audience was psyched up after a strong introductory set from Hollis Brown. The interim has been spent writing and recording a new album, which on first live hearing sounds to be stuffed with characteristically affecting songs. The diminutive New York road warrior exudes rock and roll charm and comes with the band that helped him record the new material, featuring guitarist Mike Montali and extremely dapper bassist Don DiLego. Apart from a confusing incident when too much instrument swopping went wrong and they lost their way, this made for a storming show with some moments of pure beauty, such as when the whole audience sat down, hippie-style, for the gorgeous “Bar Life”. Jesse has a great way with an anecdote and charmed the midweek audience with his fury at press accusations of being “alt-country”. New songs like “Addicted” and “Year I was Born” vied for attention with old favourites “Wendy” and “Hotel Columbia”. Let’s hope this marks the start of a Malin revival.
End Of The Road Festival
29 August – 21 September 2014
Considering that half the bands here have been influenced by Pavement, it was a joy to hear Stephen Malkmus, master of the contorted guitar, in action. By contrast, Jenny Lewis was as poppy as this festival gets, as the chill wind blew around her. The first exclusive was the cumbersomely-named Gene Clark – No Other Band (featuring Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes and the often sadly overlooked Iain Matthews, plus a Vegas-style compère). There were some truly beautiful voices here and a blockbusting encore of Eight Miles High.
New names making breakthroughs included Montreal’s Barr Brothers, cementing the role of the harp in rock and roll and sounding uncannily like The Low Anthem in so doing. Andrew Combs also charmed, as did the fragile but bewitching Tiny Ruins. Forthcoming plaudits for young Benjamin Booker as the new indie Hendrix are inevitable – and deserved. One exciting and unexpected show was the blazing psychedelia of Sean Lennon’s new band The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger, almost giving the Flaming Lips a run for their money.
Talking of whom … It was a joyful enough festival anyway, but Wayne Coyne and gang ratcheted up the happiness meter to the level of ecstasy. With their skill at turning a potential shambles into a technological multi-media masterpiece, they amazed and thrilled everyone from kids to grandparents. The organisers of this brilliant festival will have to go some to top this next year.
14 – 17 August 2014
From Bellowhead to James Blunt, Wickham Festival 2014 enhanced its reputation for relaxed musical randomness. Equally reviled and adored, Blunt boosted attendance figures to the extent that camping chairs were banned – controversial. The energetic skanking of Neville Staple (close your eyes and it’s the Specials) interrupted the general drowsiness of Friday afternoon. Hazel O’Connor is still playing Breaking Glass songs but now in a quite charming cabaret trio format. An almost unchanged Hugh Cornwell played some Stranglers numbers (close your eyes and it’s definitely not the Stranglers) and embarrassingly got an enthusiastic response when asking how many audience members read the Daily Mail. Among the enormous sub bill, two new acts stood out – Tankus The Henge and Connecticut’s Caravan Of Thieves – so good they were asked to play twice. They covered Bohemian Rhapsody and lived to tell the tale. It was left to a genial Steve Earle to be crowned as the highlight by delivering a crowd-pleasing set of hits. Wickham’s Boomers wear their bus passes with pride, and have a lot of fun on the way.
17 -19 July 2014
In past years, Truck has endured travails such as floods and insolvency. Not this time, though. Happiness was the keynote of the weekend, as a sell-out crowd escaped the corporate nature of bigger festivals and concentrated on the music. The main stage paid host to a stream of slightly dated synth-based indie rock from the likes of White Lies and The Twilight Sad, all of them dwarfed by a dramatic set from local heroes Stornoway. Slow Club’s performance was frustrating, starting off enthusiastically and fizzling out in a bunch of mediocre songs, before Roots Manuva got things moving again. Of the main headliners, The Cribs were the most polished, while riotous duo Deap Vally caused the most controversy and a discreet veil needs to be drawn over the latest version of Gang Of Four. Continung the cheerful eclecticism, British soul-rockers Danny And The Champions Of The World brought the house down – twice, while musical joy could be found in adventurous sets from lesser-known (but very Truckish) acts like Chris T-T, Co-Pilgrim and the twinkling Steven James Adams (ex of the Broken Family Band). Pure fun in the sun.
The Art Bar, Oxford
14 June 2014
The vibe is that of a smoky nightclub as the Delines hit the fourth show of their debut UK tour. Intended originally as a side project from Richmond Fontaine, this band has taken off in an unexpected way, with sell-out notices every night. Amy Boone’s voice has been compared to Dusty Springfield – the ultimate accolade, and what is striking is that Willy Vlautin has written his most affecting set of songs ever. There’s a satisfyingly organic vibe to songs like Colfax Avenue and I Won’t Slip Up, country soul that grabs your heart, but the variety is clever too – from the almost trip-hop of Flight 31 to a brace of drinking songs, one of them a cover of What One Bottle Can Do by Al James of Dolorean. Bassist Freddy Trujillo chips in with his own Freddy Fender while pianist Cory Gray adds colour to some of the songs with virtuoso trumpet. You get the feeling this is a story that’s only just beginning.
Salisbury City Hall
The significant looks when a mistake is made, the relieved grins at the end of each song – such are the tell-tale signs of the first night of a tour. Mind you, it’s forgivable when your benchmark track is the 23-minute long “Nine Feet Underground”, written in 1971 by the absent David Sinclair. Indeed, only the statuesque Pye Hastings remains from the original line-up, although stalwarts like Geoff Richardson and Jan Schelhaas have been around for a long while. Caravan have a new album called Paradise Filter and it’s not very proggy. Many of the new songs which formed the bulk of the set, including I’ll Be There For You and the title track, are actually quite conventional rock / pop tunes, played mainly with great competence by the multi-instrumentalist Richardson. Among the small selection of oldies was a rather inappropriately funked-up version of Golf Girl. Back in the day, there was much swopping of members between Caravan and Camel. Now, in the battle of the unlikely prog comebacks, Camel are winning hands down.
The Barbican, London
When a show starts with a standing ovation before a note has been played, something special is going on. “It’s good to be here”, said Andy Latimer. “At my age, it’s good to be anywhere”. Knowing his recent history of severe health problems, there was hardly a dry eye in the house; most of the audience had thought they’d never see this day. What’s more, as sole original member, Andy is on tip-top form, his guitar playing as rich as ever in tone and melody, and tough and gritty when required. The historic run-through of The Snow Goose (the first since the mid seventies) took up the first half, the musicianship precise, the atmosphere joyful. Nothing could replace the silken Hammond of Peter Bardens, but keyboardists Jason Hart and Guy LeBlanc do a grand job. This is one band for which “prog” never meant ”pretentious”. Part two saw an eclectic selection of Camel classics, some less successful than others. An acoustic intro to Never Let Go was scrappy and Fox Hill was ill-chosen, but For Today was reminiscent of Gary Moore at his best and by the time an ecstatic audience was being entranced by their biggest “hit” Lady Fantasy, it looked, sounded and felt as if Camel is back for good.
The Railway, Winchester
An amazing fifteen years since their last studio album, the audience thought they were witnessing a miracle as the original Hoax line-up reconvened to present their new crowd-funded effort “Big City Blues”. This was the first date and the capacity blues addict audience was pleasingly tolerant of support act Well Hung Heart, featuring Hoax bassist Robin Davey and his wife Greta, sporting – yes – a lampshade, as she covered Radiohead’s “Creep”. You had to be there to appreciate the fun. With great courage, The Hoax blasted out the whole of the new album, which consists of snappy, grunge-bluesy two minuters like “Hipslicker” and “Let It Shine”, each with the kind of attention-grabbing hooks that got people joining in even though they had never heard them before. This is a new, leaner Hoax with the guitar battles between Jon Amor and Jesse Davey now heavily edited and all the more impressive for it. The band is, amazingly, hotter than it’s ever been before.
1 – 4 August
View: Among the picnic chairs
Wickham has discovered a lucrative way to attract festival-goers: Combine a trad folk fest with a bunch of retro pop and rock acts and pull in a crossover audience. It worked, as it was a sellout. A laidback crowd of mellow grandparents enjoyed the likes of Seth Lakeman, who could use some new creative input, and Show of Hands, whose eclectic approach and super-smooth professionalism mean they are always entertaining. The Waterboys impressed on their comeback and a version of 10CC hit the nostalgia button, while Dexys riled the audience by ignoring their hits. The seemingly never-ending supply of hoedown specialists (don’t mention the Peatbog Faeries’ bagpipes please) gave way on the final day to some classic and much-loved rockers. Wilko Johnson stormed through a high-energy set and even joined the Blockheads later. Not much in the way of new bands here, it’s not that sort of festival, but Public Service Broadcasting shone like a beacon of innovation and Southampton’s Sean McGowan triumphed against some leaking sound from the dire covers band in the next-door tent.
The Palmeira, Hove
View: Trampled underfoot
You may think that a festival of UK Americana and folk would be a laid-back affair but not in this case. By the time Danny George Wilson was leading his eight-piece Champions Of The World towards the late-night climax, the Palmeira pub had been turned into a massive, sweaty, pogoing moshpit, consisting largely of artists who’d previously been on stage and were now letting their hair down. Peter Bruntnell and his electric band had just finished a set of psychedelic rock of such power that the audience, after a day of hard drinking, was almost hysterical with joy. Two stages alternated throughout the day, with acoustic sets from gruff-voiced Jack Day and Radio Two’s favourite Liverpudlian Robert Vincent. But things took off with Welsh scallywags The Cave