Thursday, June 14, 2012

NO DIRECTION HOME 8 - 10 June 2012: Day Three

The early sunshine of the third and final day of No Direction Home may have been cruelly short-lived but to brighten up the lunchtime slot on the Lake Stage here was Trembling Bells. The psyche-folk quartet sounded particularly sharp and emphatic today with some aggressive and swirling guitar. I haven’t heard their latest record of duets with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy so don’t know if that collaboration accounts for that extra thump or not. But these unheard songs did not feel lacking at all for the absence of the gruff Louisville singer. And the set included a stunning unaccompanied rendition of ‘Seven Years A Teardrop’ from Lavinia Blackwell and Alex Neilson. Consider that day brightened up (and I don’t mean by the vivid green paisley full-length dress singer Lavinia was wearing).

In the Big Top next for my first encounter with the music of the harpist Serafina Steer: "
I’m wearing a full-length dress with a print of The Spirit Of The Woods and this next song is an arrangement of a poem by William Butler Yeats. You couldn’t get any less rock and roll". The harp may not have been have been rock ‘n’ roll but its sound was beautiful, an elegant and dream-like setting for her curious songs of alien invasion and disco compilation CDs.

I had spent most of the previous week getting to know – and loving - the debut album from Cold Specks released last month. And boy was the live encounter just as special as that album. Initial songs were just singer Al Spx with sparse strummed guitar. But what a voice and what raw power: as she later proved she can make even the theme song to “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” sound soulful, grandiose and significant. The five-piece band – second guitar (and kick-drum), saxophone, cello and baby grand - provided restrained accompaniment as the songs grew more ornate, a swelling backdrop to the raw, gospel-infused vocals. I started day one of the festival looking for a quasi-spiritual experience and this set came closest to that. Another gold standard festival highlight for me. And now the sun was properly shining too.

I managed to squeeze in a few songs of the jangle-pop of Nat Johnson and The Figureheads before heading back to the main stage for The Wave Pictures. Can a band who you are a big fan of and have seen many times live still surprise you? Well not this time, but they did remind me how adept they at playing festival stages plus – I say it every time - how bloody good they are live. Fairly uncool in appearance, casual of manner between songs, they turned in super-charged, tight versions of songs today with only a more introspective slowie in ‘I Thought Of You’ to close. Good to hear 'Long Island' (as requested by the crowd) but the opening four-song salvo - 'Susan Rode The Cyclone', 'I Love You Like A Madman', 'My Head Gets Screwed On Tighter Every Year' and 'Eskimo Kiss' - was a bracing, career-spanning statement of intent.

More energy next from Sheffield boys The Crookes whose melodic pop-rock was played with gusto, big beaming smiles and a few none-too-serious (or were they?) rock postures. They provided plenty of debate in my party: were they going to be huge (“like The Vaccines” sic) or just remain local heroes. I think the latter. Fun but too obvious for me (hmmm that usually means ‘huge’ then).

Martin Carthy occupied a similar trad folkie slot to Martin Simpson the previous day but was accorded living legend status (“without him it is likely your record collection would be a very different place...”). Carthy’s approach to this billing was to play a leisurely meandering set with introductions and stories nearly as long as the songs themselves. Rather than playing the role of the “man who has been changing the face of folk for fifty years”, this was the softly-spoken grandparent who had earned the right to take his time. Songs included Napoleonic war marches, traditional airs and witty slapstick in an acappella, comic re-telling of “Hamlet”. Good to see the robes of living legend worn so lightly and with good humour.

I knew Father John Misty as the new vehicle for ex-Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman but not his music as either J Tillman or under his new moniker. I was also expecting a band. Not sure how much of the set or the act was Father John Misty and how it compared to J Tillman but what we got from the solo performer with just acoustic guitar and denim shirt opened to his waist was a masterclass in having your cake and eating it. Playing the 70s singer-songwriter lothario (and looking not unlike a young Kris Kristofferson) his songs were simultaneously celebrating and mocking his role as a ladies’ man and performer. He made fun of himself, his looks, the lack of stage show but also boasted of “the greatest entertainment you will see all afternoon” and came close to delivering it. One song lambasted the environmental waste of producing a piece of vinyl (“
and then there’s the shrink-wrap, and the gloss cover”) before acknowledging it is the only piece of him that will survive this death. Witty, thought-provoking, contradictory and compelling.

Sadly I missed the Slow Club set (there’s always Green Man Festival this August) but this sacrifice did lead me to one of the best chickpea curries I’ve ever eaten. Or that might just have been the embrace of anything hot and nutritious that wasn’t cider.

Next I took a chance on Alex Highton on the Floating Boat Society stage, noting with suspicion that Liverpool singer-songwriters could often wallow in sentimentalism. Now Highton did have one unashamedly sentimental song about his young daughter but he also had songs and stories about Cambridgeshire village life, swingers and escaped mental hospital patients. Not as dark as that sounds, they were humbly touching and sweetly engaging. Lovely stuff.

The Unthanks are adept at filling festival stages but here the four-vocalists-plus-grand-piano version were joined by “Champions of BritainThe Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band – 30 plus musicians in purple and gold braid uniforms. It was an impressive sight making an impressive sound too. Familiar Unthanks ground – cows, death and mining disasters - were given a richly different spin alongside some more comic moments: a “Manhattan Transfer” swing number and (predictably? Sadly?) the Brass Band’s novelty hit ‘The Floral Dance’. Many took these light-hearted moments in the right spirit. I wanted more death and Unthanks.

I only got to see Laura J Martin live for the first time this January but have been so diligent in making up on lost time it may seem as though I’m stalking her (I’m not). Such diligence is rewarded however, because as per her introduction by Howard Monk, her live show is “top drawer”. The combination of looped and layered flute and mandolin with her sweetly demure yet feisty vocals is as exotically intoxicating as the diverse locations and characters of her songs. Tonight with the sun setting by the lake a magical highlight was an intense version of ‘Salamander’ but also in the eight song set were two new songs ‘At The Close Of Day’ and to finish ‘Red Flag’ - one from a forthcoming EP, the other from a new album “probably out next year”. Not everyone is as impatient as me for those releases: after the applause died down, Laura J Martin was surrounded by a horde jostling to buy this year’s highly recommended album.

I saw Richard Hawley on the 2007 “Lady’s Bridge” tour and had given his latest album exactly 1.5 listens before his closing headline slot. So an acquaintance rather than a friend, and one I haven’t caught up with on their recent news. Hawley’s news was that following a trip to Barcelona (details were omitted) he had broken his leg. So arriving and leaving the stage by wheelchair he performed seated with four-piece band. A good mix of the older, lushly romantic numbers with the more psychedelic heaviness of the new album worked for me. Plus his sweary sentimentalism about the support he’s received from fans, family and wife (“I’m a soft fucker”) felt touchingly appropriate for closing a festival. A day of sentimentality plus a near-spiritual experience then. Or maybe in was just the sleep deprivation finally kicking in?

There were a few minor musical disappointments for me over the three days at No Direction Home but these were dwarfed by the quality and surprises elsewhere. As you would expect the festival is a mini-me version of End Of The Road – a strong focus on the music programme with a great supporting cast (and very friendly stewards and security too). There a few issues with the layout of the site – there was too much sound bleed between the two large stages and in it's first, untried year it didn’t feel as natural a fit as Larmer Tree Gardens. But these things are easily fixed. It’s good to have a festival in the North. Even better is to have one of this standard. Early bird tickets are already on sale for next year’s event (31 May – 2 June 2013).

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