Kendal was bathed in Spring sunshine but the drive through Kirkby Stephen and from Cumbria into the Yorkshire Dales was in pouring rain and with darkening skies. But I shouldn’t have been worried about the rain. As soon as I got out of the car at Britain’s highest pub (altitude 1732 feet) what I should have been worried hit me in the face: the strong, icy winds. This wasn’t refreshing, bracing stuff – this was chill-you-to-your-bones-where-you-stand wind.
I had missed the husky dog racing on the road outside the pub to start off Saturday’s antics but was there in time for the Birds of Prey demonstration (didn’t stay watching as long as last time given those winds) followed by a hearty plate of veggie curry and a customary pint of Black Sheep bitter.
Given the rain the ‘Tan Hill Olympics’ was down-sized and moved indoors: cracker and doughnut eating and pint drinking. But what we were really here for – the music – kicked off at 6pm in the barn.
‘Barn’ sounds beautifully rustic. It is in fact a breeze-block and slate floor affair with wooden beams (now featuring lighting equipment!) and a small riser stage but has a rare intimate charm of its own. First up were Sharp Tongues featuring Paul (member of British Sea Power crew) on bass and his identical twin brother on drums. The trio played a spiky pop-punk that didn’t immediately make an impression but I warmed to by the end of their set.
Mid-set there was an attempted stage invasion. Of sorts. Two lambs wandered in and nosed around the equipment at the side of the stage. You don't get that at V Festival.
This early on in proceedings and with a door open to the outside elements (it led to a covered beer tent along the side of the barn) it meant the room was icy cold. It was warmed somewhat with the summery indie-pop of London four-piece My Sad Captains playing I think their first live gig of the year.
Their set was almost exclusively new material with just ‘You Talk All Night’ from the excellent “Here and Elsewhere” album. The new songs sounded good: the same mixture of downbeat wistfulness with gorgeous melodic tunes and a touch of fuzziness. My Sad Captains are an unshowy band, their performance favouring thoughtful and workmanlike over flamboyant, but nevertheless enjoyable and a great addition to the bill. Looking forward to the new album – hopefully due this year?
If My Sad Captains are unshowy, Thomas White is SHOWY and in giant neon flashing letters. Arriving on stage via the audience and wearing what looked like a hooded, embroidered picnic blanket, there wasn’t a moment in the next 30 minutes where he wasn’t posturing or preening or punching the air.
The first – long – song was glam-prog-punk meets performance art. The four piece band hammered out the tumbling tunes as White sang and conducted the band sometimes from the stage, sometimes from amidst the crowd. It was entertaining and on occasion a little threatening as he saluted the players, kick-jumped, span around furiously or threw the tambourine around him with abandon. Entertaining as I say but I was all ready to dismiss the music until the band then delivered a passionate and faithful cover of Warren Zevon’s ‘Accidentally Like A Martyr’. From over-the-top to lump-in-the-throat I was not expecting. More costumes changes and masks followed (long-sleeved kaftan dress with peacocks if you’re interested) before finishing with a storming cover of Sparklehorse’s ‘Some Day I Will Treat You Good’. Still remain unconvinced by the originals but the barn was definitely warmed up now.
Canadian Basia Bulat and her two-piece backing band play bluegrassy folk-pop. Basia started singing acapella without amplification accompanying herself with cowboy boot-heel foot stomps. The band then joined her playing an arrange of curious instruments – a five string electric bass, a was-it-a-miniature-guitar-or-a-ukelele and Basia on autoharp (including one that was 95 years old) and acoustic guitar. Highly engaging neo-folk tunes all played with a warm, natural style that got an equally warm and good-humoured reception from the crowd. By the end such was applause she was called back for an encore and seemed genuinely bowled over. Apparently they normally play with a drummer (Basia’s brother) who had been caught up in volcanic ash travel woes – without wishing to cause family disharmony, it was difficult to imagine this improving the sound.
And talking of curious instruments next up was The Phantom Band with their myriad percussion including metal shelving brackets. If My Sad Captains played all new material, The Phantom Band stuck purely to songs from 2009’s “Checkmate Savage”.
This was a great performance of their rhythmic voodoo-swamp-blues-rock – a real pleasure to watch and enjoy. The band were accompanied on stage with plenty of whisky but if they were a bit worse for wear they didn’t show it in a tight performance (except for moments of ‘Crocodile’ going a bit astray) and singer Rick even passed his bottle around the crowd – a true gent. However as several people pointed out they really need to improve their taste in whisky: Famous Grouse and Grant’s?? Surely a single malt band if ever there was one.
The Phantom Band Set List: Burial Sounds / Throwing Bones / Folk Song Oblivion / Crocodile / The Howling / The Whole Is On My Side / Left Hand Wave
Festival sets are often rely on bands sharing the same kit to minimise turnaround time. Not for the next band though. The entire stage was cleared and then re-filled with vintage instruments and amps. Even the harmonica case for Kitty, Daisy and Lewis was a battered brown leather affair from a bygone time. I don’t know the full back story for Kitty, Daisy and Lewis but I bet it goes something like this: Mum and Dad drill their children from an early age in learning an array of instruments and immerse them in a musical education that starts in 1949 and ends in 1959. Said parents raid an Aladdin’s Cave vintage musical instrument store and once old enough set their children out into the world. Daisy, Kitty and Lewis have supported Coldplay I’m told; if they are more used to stadia than a barn in the Yorkshire Dales they didn’t show it.
The two sisters opened their set singing an acapella duet before being joined on stage by brother Lewis, Dad (acoustic guitar) and Mum (stand-up double bass). The three siblings tore through 50s standards – blues, r ‘n’ b, even hillbilly – with each moving between instruments, swapping drums for guitar or keyboards or banjo or accordion or harmonica. It was unashamedly retro but thrillingly vital and given some real bite by Lewis’s often fierce guitar playing, and Daisy’s impassioned drumming (in stilettos no less) and some real snarl in the vocals. You do wonder what life at home for this curiously retro-kitted family must be like; but live they transformed this chilly Swaledale barn into a swining 50s Soho dive bar.
It was after 1.30am in the morning when The Modern Ovens (“The UK’s premier Jonathan Richman covers band”) took to the stage and the crowd had definitely thinned despite being half the band being BSP members. Lead vocals swapped between Darren Moon (of The Tenderfoot), Matt Eaton and Hamilton from BSP (with Martin Noble of BSP on drums) for a highly reverential, warmly entertaining and mostly tight run-through of Jonathan Richman’s back catalogue.
Some songs like ‘Astral Plane’ they admitted not been played live before/recently ("We nailed it" claimed Matt not entirely truthfully) but this set was not about polish. After exploring the whimsical side of JR, The Modern Ovens (joined by Andrew Mitchell from Thomas White band on extra guitar, Phil from BSP on cornet and Thomas White on tambourine and shapes) played a noisy ‘Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste’ and then finished with the Velvet Underground’s ‘Foggy Notion’ (as played live by JR). This morphed into ‘Roadrunner’ with additional air raid siren, rowdy audience singalong and The Phantom Band climbing on the rafters. A late but enjoyable finish to the day sending (most of) us off to our tents and to brave those chilly blasts with smiles on our faces.
The Modern Ovens' Set List
(NB 'New Teller' was not played)