Sunday, August 20, 2006

Saturday 12th August

What ungodly hour is this? Why haven’t other people got hangovers?

A bacon and egg roll and a coffee returns me to something like normality.


Claire has somehow got her bottle of water wedged fast in a bright pink welly, but continues to drink out of it. Meanwhile Miriam, suffering from a severe case of alcohol-induced memory loss, ponders quite how she managed to obtain a staff wristband the previous night, and where she’d ventured with it: “I feel a bit like I’ve been abducted by aliens, tampered with and then returned to earth”.

Alison and I play a few hands of poker, that troubling first large glass of wine in hand. Andy really is irrepressible. Unable to stop singing the ‘I Like Monkeys’ song from Howard Read’s Little Howard children’s show that morning, he’s now placing a banana skin on the path between the tents and then crouching behind a bin to see if anyone will slip over. I think they call it “high on life”.

Into the arena. Most of the group disappear off into the mysterious Polly’s Garden (some kind of strange multi-sensory experience, I gather later – I’m too interested in chatting to Kenny and ploughing on with the wine), but not before Polly has positively ID’d Jim as the bloke who was drunkenly rambling on at her the previous evening. Summer Sundae is a small world.

Our paths have never quite crossed before, much to my annoyance, but now, finally, a chance to catch HOWLING BELLS (Indoor Stage) live – and they don’t disappoint. “They look great”, says the compere (oh yes – cowboy hats and scuffed boots for the boys, a short floaty dress and black tights for Juanita Stein), “they sound even better” (damn right), “their debut is being hailed as the album of the year” (I’d find it hard to disagree)… ‘Blessed Night’ is the opener, and between that and a fiery ‘Low Happening’ we get all bar four tracks from the aforementioned record. Occasionally there’s that sense of mystery demystified, of seeing how a delicately flavoured and lip-smackingly delicious meal has been rustled up in the kitchen, but there remains something obscure and enigmatic about them, the dark space of De Montford Hall ideally suited to their exquisite gothic blues. Stein’s voice, it gives me great pleasure to report, is as arresting in the flesh as it is on record, and she and her guitarist brother Joel are magnetic presences on stage. The real highpoint of the set – and, for me, of any set I’ve seen so far this year – is ‘A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts’, when I get goosebumps on the goosebumps on my arms. Sublime.

The gauntlet’s been well and truly thrown down, and TUUNG (Outdoor Stage) certainly aren’t able to pick it up. What I catch of their (warning: journo’s self-constructed pigeonholing term to follow) folktronica is pleasant enough, but a load of bearded blokes performing slow quiet songs whilst sat down is unlikely to get anyone to their feet. The percussionist merits a mention, though, for the sheer array of bizarre instruments at his disposal, including what looks like a small sheaf of wheat…

Fish and chips to die for from The Sea Cow stall, for a fiver. Seriously, the fish is the best I’ve tasted anywhere for years. Never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad the Thai spiced fishcakes had run out.

After the lull of Tuung, THE YOUNG KNIVES (Outdoor Stage) are mercifully on hand to inject a bit of much-needed life and energy into the afternoon. One glimpse of the local heroes (well, almost – they’re from Ashby-de-la-Zouch originally) and Alison’s smitten – particularly with bassist The House of Lords, who’s looking somewhat streamlined, presumably as a result of this year’s punishing touring schedule. There’s more than enough from their forthcoming debut proper Voices Of Animals And Men to suggest that it’s going to be an essential purchase – the singles in particular (‘Decision’, ‘Here Comes The Rumour Mill’ and closing duo ‘She’s Attracted To’ and ‘Weekends And Bleak Days (Hot Summer)’) are marvellous, as is ‘Loughborough Suicide’ (HoL: “I had a letter from the Loughborough Echo this week saying ‘You can’t call a song that’. But have you been there?”). That said, none of the B-sides aired – ‘Elaine’, ‘Guess The Baby’s Weight’, ‘Current Of The River’ – signal a drop in quality. Having seen them back in March, this time around I’m even more struck by the Futureheads parallels – but, with the Mackems apparently having lost their sense of humour for second LP News And Tributes, there’s more than enough room for The Young Knives to thrive. And thrive they certainly deserve to.

I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that the cover of her most recent album, the Mercury nominated Ballad Of The Broken Seas, is the best I’ve seen this year, so I feel I really ought to go and see ISOBEL CAMPBELL (Indoor Stage). The fact that many of those lured in by the knowledge of her past in Belle & Sebastian soon wander off speaks volumes about the nature (but not the quality) of the material. It’s light years away from her former band, darkly ethereal stuff that instantly beguiles me. Back to the album cover, which depicts Campbell arranging her hair in a hotel room mirror in the foreground, while in the background an out-of-focus Mark Lanegan reclines vaguely threateningly on a bed, his shoes on. As Simon puts it, that tells you all you need to know about what the album sounds like. The problem is that Lanegan isn’t here today, and that means we don’t get to marvel at the former Screaming Trees vocalist’s inimitable rumble (truly one of the finest voices in rock) intertwining with Campbell’s elfin coo. His stand-in gamely tries his best, and has wisely opted to dress in black to play Lanegan’s night to Campbell’s day, but I come away not enthusing about a spellbinding set but imagining how the songs would sound with Lanegan’s input – and drooling at the prospect. The album’s on its way in the post.

Rumours circle that Leicester fans, fresh from victory over Ipswich at the Walkers Stadium, are set to try and storm the site. Well, makes a change from the usual “Have you heard, [enter C list celeb here] has died?” The Leicester score is announced on stage by Whiskas of FORWARD RUSSIA! (Outdoor Stage), whose frontman Tom then sticks his neck on the line by declaring that “football is shit”. Forward Russia! (the name has an upside-down exclamation mark at the start too, but I can’t find the symbol to insert it – the awkward bastards) are a band I’ve not heard before but really should like: matching T-shirts, bundles of energy, numbers instead of song titles, a sound that draws equally upon Bloc Party and At The Drive-In. But somehow it isn’t quite working for me – perhaps it’s that they’re by far the rowdiest and noisiest band on the bill, and Isobel Campbell wasn’t exactly the ideal preparation. Worth further investigation, though, to be sure. Steve Lamacq certainly thinks so, scampering around for a better viewing position.

Howling Bells guitarist Joel Stein, pacing around by the Rising Tent looking a little edgy and lost, has the misfortune to make fleeting eye contact with yours truly, who takes the opportunity to gush about their performance. Stein is eager to find out when Vashti Bunyan and Calexico are playing, and it’s only in the course of trying to ascertain times from the schedule tags around my neck (handmade and laminated by Alison) that I realise quite how drunk I am. Best cut my losses, I think, shaking his hand again and allowing him to wander off in the direction of the indoor stage.

Jenni, who has insisted on referring to Forward Russia! as Go Russia!, is now approaching comatose levels of drunkenness. When the arrival on stage of NOUVELLE VAGUE (Outdoor Stage) is announced, she mutters “Fuck off you vague people” while lying on her back and then promptly passes out. Loungecore / bossa nova covers of punk and new wave (hence the name) classics? OK, so Nouvelle Vague (and yes, Andy, it’s pronounced “Vag” because it’s French) are a novelty band, but you can’t argue with their versions of ‘Ever Fallen In Love’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ – and especially not with their splendidly jaunty take on The Dead Kennedys’ ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’. Could have done without the dull slump into performance art in the middle of the set, though.

On the way back from another trip to the real ale tent, Henry and The House of Lords from The Young Knives are spotted with their parents. Mindful of having embarrassed myself earlier with Joel Stein, I opt for a quick “Really enjoyed your set” before moving on. Good job Alison didn’t see them – The House of Lords could have found himself with a proposal of marriage, which I doubt was what he’d bargained for when they signed up to play the festival.

As dusk gradually falls we’re transported from inner city Leicester to the desert plains of Arizona, courtesy of CALEXICO (Outdoor Stage). Like Wilco, they take “classic” rock down new more experimental avenues, their sound infused with rather than simply influenced by folk, gypsy and Mexican music. Affable vocalist / guitarist Joey Burns, whose floppy black fringe makes him look like Paul Smith of Maximo Park, clearly enjoys seeing that what they do can have mass appeal to an audience consisting mostly of the uninitiated - despite having played with Giant Sand and Iron & Wine and being beloved by the likes of Stephen Malkmus, they’re not just a bands’ band. Burns also knows how to raise a cheer, dedicating a cover of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’ to the late Arthur Lee and John Peel. ‘The Crystal Frontier’ is a rollicking finale, even without the full mariachi band they sometimes employ.

Another trip to the real ale tent, where there’s very little left. On my way out, a bloke stops me to impart an urgent message: “Clapping’s out! Howling’s in” I’m allowed to go on my way once I’ve promised to spread the word.

Every festival needs a nadir to throw everything else into relief, and this is it. THE VOOM BLOOMS (Rising Tent) hail from Loughborough and are evidently the sort of NME-believing pricks who think The Libertines were the greatest band ever to live. The vocalist / guitarist, a Johnny Borrell / Carl Barat lookalike, strips off his shirt while everyone else goes through the moves. No inspiration, no originality, no wit, no talent, no songs. They are fucking rubbish.

The Voom Blooms are as bad as the concept of Chas ‘n’ Dave meets funk rock sounds – but against all the odds THE BLOCKHEADS (Indoor Stage) really make it work. Having packed out the Musicians’ / Acoustic Tent the previous evening, they’re now filling in for the absent X-Press 2 in a headlining slot and doing so with aplomb. 6 Music DJ Phill Jupitus joins them on vocals, and for a bunch of ropey-looking old pub rockers they certainly have the songs to get us jigging around like loons. ‘Sex ‘N’ Drugs ‘N’ Rock ‘N’ Roll’ is second, followed soon after by ‘Billericay Dickie’, and the set’s wrapped up by ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ and ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful Part Three’. After The Voom Blooms, cheerfulness has been duly restored.

It’s pissing it down outside, so more pints in the bar seem like the sensible course of action. Jim tells us that he’s been walking into the real ale tent with his empty cocktail jug and before he’s even got to the bar they’ve poured him a fresh jug of “the usual”. Truly this is a marvellous festival.

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