Saturday, 11 September 2010

Dispatches from the Hop Farm -2010

Written in my notebook are two words I never thought I’d attribute to Pete ‘call me Peter’ Doherty- sober and coherent. The troubled Babyshambles front man doesn’t fall off stage once during his early afternoon set, a mix of solo material and old Libs classics that even sees him lead the crowd in a hop-picking themed sing along. Whilst his attempts to reinvent himself as a Byronic troubadour are at times unintentionally hilarious (Ballet dancers? During ‘What A Waster’?), he gives a lot of heart. That’s more than can be said for The Magic Numbers whose performance is decidedly vanilla. The most pertinent adjective to describe them is hairy, and whilst their sunshine pop should be perfect for the cider fuelled festival atmosphere, it somehow falls flat.

Never mind, for before you can say ‘barn dance!’ folk rock’s nouveau elite are bounding onto the stage. All hail the princess of folk Laura Marling. Last time we saw her she was a shuffling spectre of a girl, hiding her pretty face behind an enormous fringe and looking as if she wanted the ground to swallow her every time she was forced to interact with the audience. My, hasn’t she grown? Now she is all smiley and confident, projecting her haunting voice on stand out track ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ in a way that hints she knows far more about life than she should at her age. Swooping across the field, her pipes truly won our hearts. The same hearts that had been ruthlessly snatched by her predecessor, the matinee idol of folk pop Johnny Flynn. Laura Marling’s BFF is the kind of man you long to snuggle with in a log cabin. His beautiful floppy hair and huge pouty lips got pulses racing but Flynn proved he’s not just a pretty face, playing the guitar, banjo and trumpet and storming through his beautifully crafted ditties with a voice that could melt a polar bear at twenty paces. Bless.

Messrs Mumford, next on the bill, are in a celebratory mood. “Hands up who thinks this is the line up of any festival this summer?” They may have a point. Regardless, it’s certainly been greatly enhanced by their presence and it’s clear from the reaction of the crowd that they’re one of the day’s biggest draws. No mean feat for a band with only one album under their belts competing against such rock behemoths as Robby Zimmerman. The secret to their success? Nobody can make you want to stomp your feet like Mumford and Sons. The gig, a homecoming of sorts, is surely the icing on the cake for the lads whose year has been a whirlwind of critical acclaim, radio airplay and platinum selling records. Even new songs, showcasing a rawer, less banjo reliant sound are well received. Clearly they can do no wrong.

The stage is set for Seasick Steve, the first of tonight’s old guard. Seasick, as his friends undoubtedly call him never fails to raise a smile with his tales of freight train hoppin’ and choke pickin’. The music aint half bad either, the grizzled howl of Steve’s vocals being magnified by his crazed Animal like drummer who manages to elevate the lo-fi sound to field filling volume. Seasick is still keeping it real though, plucking a variety of instruments with ever decreasing numbers of strings until he’s essentially just thwacking away at a flimsy bit of wood. He may not have Johnny Flynn’s looks but when he drags a beautiful female audience member from the crowd and serenades her with ‘Walkin’ Man’ (“You say walk and I will walk to the end of the line and back to you”) you can’t help but feel he’s a bit of a catch, even if his dungarees could do with a service wash. What a shame his success came so late in life or else he would have been tonight’s headliner.

And so, to the big guns. Playing second fiddle tonight is Ray Davies who seems to be increasingly resembling Fabio Capello. North London’s finest tries his best to get the crowd excited about his solo material but things are pretty lukewarm until he gets going with some Kinks classics. ‘Lola’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Apeman’ and ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’ are perfect and, just for a moment, it seems as if ‘Sunny Afternoon’ had been written for this very day. Less promising is Ray’s dancing which brought back horrible Vietnam style flashbacks of your Dad ‘grooving’ to Dire Straits at your Uncle’s 50th. Grizzly. Overrunning his time, Ray refuses to leave and practically has to be dragged off stage during his encore of ‘20th Century Man’. National treasure status is surely long overdue.  

If Ray Davies is the relative that always puts a smile on your face then Bob Dylan is that cantankerous third cousin who no one wants to invite for Christmas. Whilst 40+ years at the top of his game has earned him the right to be a bit of an arsehole (Liam Gallagher has made a career out of it, on the back of only two decent albums), Dylan is bloody hard work. Even the die hard Dylan heads, well represented in tonight’s audience, wear the rictus grins of a wife who realises that her marriage has gone stale. Dylan is just so unlikeable. His boredom and frustration are evident as he plays with all the exuberance of a bear that has been woken from a deep sleep. It’s the songs that suffer. Well worn classics are rendered impenetrable by his sludgy whine of a delivery that strips all the lyrical nuance from such gems as ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’ 

It’s a criticism that has long been levelled at Bob but one that somehow, irritatingly, doesn’t diminish his greatness. As impersonal as his performance is (his only words to the crowd a mumbled “thank you” as he departs the stage) you still feel as if you’ve been in the presence of greatness and, for a brief moment, as the lyrics to ‘Forever Young’ escape across the field and you see people wrapped in blankets against the chill of the retreating sun singing along, you understand why Dylan is worth missing the last train home for. Mumford and Sons might have youth, Pete Doherty might have discovered a new talent for standing upright and singing, but only Bob Dylan can write songs that articulate the things you want to say but can never get down in words, songs that live with you, and in you, in your home and your heart, like part of your furniture. Love, divorce, death, youth, nobody says it better than Bob. He may be a letdown but he’s also the greatest songwriter of the last century and that’s why nobody present can ever really bring themselves to hate him. The bastard. 

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