Wednesday, June 13, 2012

NO DIRECTION HOME 8 - 10 June 2012: Day Two

Day Two at No Direction Home started with relief - the tent was still standing after the night’s heavy winds. Then on to see Laish open the Lake Stage. The South Coast five piece politely threatened to be too genteel: witness one song ‘I'm Enraged’ about moving to Lewes “
because it's only 12 min by car”. However this song and many others despite their folk whimsy trappings – beards, tweed jackets, clarinet and violin – were upbeat, rousing even beefy all powered by a hefty rhythm section. Laish could also tug at the heartstrings too - a genuinely poignant song about the singer’s relationship with his parents called ‘A Happy Accident’. It would not be the last of its kind today.

Over at the Electric Dustbowl stage then for New Zealand’s Tiny Ruins. Here Hollie Fullbrook on acoustic guitar was accompanied by double bass for a set of slow, affecting songs that didn’t sound as close to Laura Marling as the programme made out but those notes were right about the emotional depth.

Liz Green’s antique folk-jazz on the Lake Stage put a swing into the afternoon and was predictably as witty and entertaining as ever; finishing one song, tugging at her top she turned all Alan Bennett “
ooh after that I’ve got a bit of a folk-sweat on”. Alongside her “inappropriate” songs of funeral watchers, midnight blues and death (“This is ‘The Quiet’. It was called ‘Death’. I was advised to change it. By The Powers That Be.”), it was great to hear four new songs. Now last year’s “O, Devotion” album took five years to realise – does this mean we don’t have to wait so long for a follow-up?

On the Electric Dustbowl, Seamus Fogarty was being asked to prove he was Irish. Does being amiable, garrulous, witty and musical, alongside that name, provide enough evidence? This was quite a different set from the solo one I saw last month supporting James Yorkston. Here he was supported on violin and vocals (Emma?) and as well as three songs from album “God Damn You Mountain” he went back to songs from his Chicago days, playing bars and working the building trade, plus some (I think) new songs. And did I say ‘talented’ as well? Entrancing.

Martin Simpson, despite better advice, I had already pigeon-holed as too trad for my tastes. But what an astonishing performance from the humble and softly spoken Yorkshireman. His lightning quick finger-pickin’ and mixture of British and American accents and styles was impressive enough but two songs were devastating. One ‘Never Any Good’ was a loving celebration of his father’s life, both his service in two World Wars and his impractical nature which meant he agreed to keep his son despite being in his fifties when he was conceived. Heart-breaking – and his father never go to hear it. One of his final songs was a Leon Rosselson cover ‘Palaces Of Gold’ about privilege and inequality. Raw, emotionally devastating and then politically incisive. That’ll teach me to write off folk music as “
too trad”.

Folk of a more contemporary hue followed back in the Big Top with four-piece The Cornshed Sisters – one keyboard, three guitars and lots of soothing close harmonies and good humour. It could easily have tipped into saccharine but remained on the right side of this. Very pleasant mid-afternoon fare but I was never bowled over (I may still have been a bit over-awed by Martin Simpson).

Can anyone play guitar?Euros Childs asked the crowd from the Lake Stage at the end of his band’s first number. “Anyone? Only need to get through about thirteen songs. We’ll give you the nod for the chord changes”. Somehow Huw Evans of H Hawkline had missed joining the rest of the band – Sweet Baboo on bass and R Seillog on drums – for the opening number. Belatedly arriving on stage, the now-completed four-piece played a blinder.

Songs from yet-to-be-released album “Summer Special” plus last year’s “Ends” dominated this ‘something old, something new’ set (“Nothing borrowed – there’s no covers. And blue? We’ll save our sex set for the campfire”). It was impassioned, muscular and quirky with many humourous interjections plus a Gorky’s song too with ‘Poodle Rockin’ (“actually that one’s quite erotic”). Euros Childs is touring the UK this September – this time with The Wellgreen as his backing band but still unmissable.

Controversially I passed on seeing Woodpigeon (for what would be the sixth or seventh time) to see Ichi who I’d had never seen. Both the programme and the introduction at the Flying Boat Society promised ‘you’ve never seen anything like this’. Go on then, surprise me. The Japanese performer reached the stage by walking on stilts through the crowd with cymbals attached his knees playing a kazoo. What then followed cannot accurately be described or captured on video. The first song was played on a typewriter. Next one of those stilts turned out to be a two string instrument when plugged into an amplifier. It was inventive, playful, unpredictable mix of playground rhymes, primitive blues and outsider music played out on hand-made contraptions, steel-pans, inflatable devices and of course stilts. He deservedly received the loudest and warmest applause I’d heard all day.

I checked in for a few songs of the finely costumed, carnival pop of Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny on the Lake Stage before securing a front-row (well rail) place for David Thomas Broughton. Like Ichi, another unpredictable performer who I cannot do justice do with these poorly formed strings of words. What was misdirection, what was theatre, what was a confused man on stage looking for his watch?

Tonight’s show featured drones from Mark ‘Woodpigeon’ Hamilton and Rob St John but all eyes were centre stage on Mr Broughton whether lying down, kicking something over or throwing rock star moves with his lion’s mane hair (these always ended in an awkward pose). I recognized ‘One Day’ and ‘Perfect Louse’ amongst the songs but it was the combined effect of performance and music that made this uncomfortably bewitching piece one of the festival highlights. “Verging on mental illness” was the best summation offered to me.

Other Lives provided a lush backdrop for veggie enchiladas (but I still don’t get it) then on to Joe Gideon And The Shark in the Big Top. I was expecting something more raucous and initially couldn’t find anything in the duo’s electro-blues to latch on to – Gideon’s semi-sung monologues weren’t distinct or memorable and the pair (or rather I) didn’t lock into a groove. However the imagined (I think) tale of one of Ray Charles’s backing singers ‘Kathy Ray’ was both hypnotic and theatrical. Must give them some listening space.

To the Lake Stage for Gruff Rhys. I recently dismayed someone by telling them I had never really listened much to Super Furry Animals. And to continue that heresy, I haven’t really listened to Gruff Rhys’s solo output either. So this sixty minute set was my longest and most sustained exposure to the Welshman, here backed by Y Niwl plus vocalist and trumpet-player. I can now understand the devotion without necessarily sharing the unconditional adultation. A winning collision of Beatlesy psyche-pop with Welsh oddball melodicism in which the more wacky moments – arriving on stage in red rain mac and motorcycle helmet or interrupting a song about driving to give (fake) Sat Nav directions to Sherwood Forest – felt happily part of the charm.

Wooden Shjips off-shoot Moon Duo provided a disappointment after a string of successes. Performing in near darkness, the sound mix felt all wrong. Drum machine and some doomy keyboard chords dominated but the vocals and guitar were indecipherable and under-powered. Sanae Yamada’s seductive, slow swishing of her long hair from side to side never got boring but the rest of the package lacked volume, impact and the churning groove I was hoping for.

Andrew Bird appeared on stage to open his headlining set with blanket draped over his shoulders and wearing a woollen hat. Solo he looped first plucked violin strings, then his whistling before adding some elegant bowing of the violin. Pace yourself Mr B, I thought, you don’t want all your tricks out in the open so quickly. But this introduction served as overture with all those elements beautifully repeated through the 90 minute set. It took him four songs to warm up – fingers that is not figuratively – but although an elegant, classy performance it never did warm up consistently.

Mid-set the guitar-heavy pairing of ‘Eyeoneye’ and ‘Fitz and Dizzyspells’ were thrilling, ‘Effigy’ and ‘Distant Shore’ dedicated to Levon Helm were sweetly engaging with tender vocals and then ‘Give It Away’ and a Townes van Zandt cover performed “travellin’ style” around a single mic was a great, fun conclusion. But I wanted this from all the songs, all the time. Cerebrally celebratory rather than mind-blowing this was still a strong finish to an excellent day of music. No quasi-spiritual experiences yet but unpredictability and heartbreak amidst the rain.

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