Monday, June 11, 2012

NO DIRECTION HOME 8 - 10 June 2012: Day One

Eskimos have many words for snow. And Nottinghamshire has many types of rain. Or at least it did for the first day of the inaugural No Direction Home festival on the Welbeck Estate near Sherwood Forest. I arrived to an rotating selection of heavy drizzle, steady drip, horizontal sheets and occasional but sudden downpour. But with a new festival site to explore and a 40+ band line-up ahead, a ‘bit’ of rain wasn’t going to dampen spirits.

Opening the Lake Stage, the largest of the three music stages, was Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog. The five piece played a leisurely, languid Welsh Americana , starting with an acapella number then folk covers, some English language songs and this near ten minute story of going away to war “
set in a Swansea village... it’s probably a roundabout now”. Great opener.

Peter Wolf Crier who followed on the same stage were a genial American duo (“if anyone wants any musicians with a habit to join them around the campfire later, we may know some”) who took electric folk-blues to a more arty and complex place. Definitely not ‘stripped-back’ it was constantly shifting through intricate twists and jagged riffs but was never off-putting. As intelligently engaging as their geniality.

Then to the second stage, a big-top circus tent clumsily named The Electric Dustbowl (The Eclectic Washing-Up Bowl rolled off the tongue just as easily), to see Boat To Row. The lead singer of the six-piece told us his last trip to Sherwood Forest had been a Dads and Lads trip with the Boy Scouts. Judging by the band’s youthful appearance, this was probably quite recently. Their pleasant rousing alt-folk may have followed a familiar template – the one given a woefully bad reputation by Mumford and Sons – but this was much more invigorating and genuine and sounded as fresh-faced and companionable as the band.

Diagrams, the new project for ex-Tuung man Sam Genders, came armed with a ten strong band – including three-piece horn section – plus two bags of balloons from the Streatham Hill Pound Shop. Their colourful, bouncy math-pop sounded good on the big stage with such a large ensemble and was then matched on the last song by the crowd filling the darkened sky with balloons. Fun and making it appear effortless.

The first trip to the Flying Boat Society stage at the lake’s edge also brought the first surprise discovery of the festival for me. I suspect the leader of Orlando Seale and the Swell may come from aristocratic stock so upright of bearing , high of cheek bone and well-spoken was he. Whatever his genetic make-up, the irrepressibly smiley Mr Seale and his multi-player orch-pop folksters provided a hugely entertaining, witty and humble performance. A great set that left everyone off-stage, as well as on, smiling despite the blustery conditions just outside the thinly covered makeshift stage.

The Lanterns On The Lake album is a joy, both graceful and epic. The songs, with alternating male and female vocals, came across well on the big stage but they never quite soared as I hoped. The band weren’t helped by a broken guitar and the delay of over-long tunings. ‘A Kingdom’ was a highlight despite the delays with some furious bowing of the electric guitar and an powerful thump to it but this was the first performance of the day were it felt like the musicians weren’t enjoying themselves as much as the crowd.

The intro from The Local’s Howard Monks (“I’ve an MA in Stage Compering”) was so long, joked Denmark-via-Iceland’s Snævar Albertsson (aka Dad Rocks!) That his eight song set was now going to be only six in length. I didn’t keep count but his performance was one of the day’s – and the festival’s – highlights. Rich, funny songs about fast food, erotic novels and nappies, played on acoustic guitar with violin and harmony vocal accompaniment. On record – the highly recommended “Mount Modern” – there are fuller arrangements but the simplicity here gave extra poignancy or humour to their gentle insights and wit.

The many and disparate homes of the members of Django Django were given a shout during their set – Leeds, Dundee, Northern Ireland. Their music on record can be even more far flung, pulling in subtle global influences to their danceable electronic art-rock. Live it loses some of these rich flavours and is reduced to – admittedly still enjoyable – dual vocal melodies and a danceable pulse. Fun for those who wanted to move their arms in the air but without knowing all the songs well lacked substance beyond that for me.

A quick dash around the stages to catch songs from Eyes and No Eyes and Peaking Lights ensued before settling back at the Lake Stage for The Dirty Three. Instrumental chamber post-rockers may seem unlikely co-headliners but the visceral power of their Australian trio’s music plus the towering stage presence of Warren Ellis deserve the slot. Their music may be dark and foreboding – heavy violin riffs, creepy and almost detuned guitar and muscular, flowing drumming – but the hilarious stories of Ellis (becoming trapped in a portaloo in Phoenix, Arizona in 45 degree heat where “I nearly met the Hand of God” was a favourite) brilliantly counterpoint or even introduce their elaborately titled songs. And Ellis is a blur of movement on stage incorporating side-kicks and projectile spitting into his energetic playing, only pausing to tell another anecdote.

I’ve spent the last couple of year’s missing Veronica Falls many shows in Manchester so it was good to come away to the woods and finally see them live here headlining the second stage – and with some new songs to boot. Their infectious death-fixated indie-pop with dreamy girl/boy vocals was a treat, given some extra punch from fiercely loud drums; my only quibble was those vocals felt a bit low in the mix.

I maintain high expectations of The Low Anthem having had near-religious experiences watching them on both festival stage at dusk and in a Salford church. And there are other lesser performances that were still excellent. Not sure tonight if it was the familiarity with their set or the sogginess of the evening, but the performance from the touring five-piece felt a bit lacklustre. I wanted more heart-break (‘To Ohio’ and ‘Ticket Taker’ just didn’t create the hairs-on-neck moment they should have) and more spontaneity and engagement.

The last three or four times I’ve seen them, for ‘This Goddam House’, Ben Knox Miller invites the crowd to join him in creating a communal eerie, crackling feedback coda to the song using mobile phones. Here he performed this alone on stage. It felt indicative of the set – not seizing those moments to absorb and enthral the crowd. Excellent musicians and worthy headliners delivering a very good performance but after 11 hours straight standing up in muddy fields, my expectation wanted more. Maybe the next two days would bring a quasi-spiritual moment? And I don’t just mean another Hot Spicy Cider from the Somerset Cider Bus.

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