Monday, July 11, 2011

Lounge on the Farm 2011

Unlike the last few years, there was no Furthur field at LOTF (the annual music festival on Merton Farm near Canterbury). But what's left of the Furthur collective was commissioned to do the decor for the new "Meadows Field" and stage, and to book the music for the Sunday. This was part of a general change in the festival — larger, less of a personal, local feel, more commercial music. A shame, really, but that's the way these small friendly events often seem to go.

I spent some time on the farm during the week leading up to the festival with Joel, Liam and friends , helping out with wiring, fencing and generally whatever needed doing. The field was meant to open at 12:00 on the Friday, and we'd just finished filling in the cable trench between the stage and soundbooth (rather unconvincingly reconstructed from the old strawbale one in the previous field) when the gates opened. I had to leave the site shortly after that to deal with some boring work-related stuff, but wasn't too bothered, as the only band I wanted to see that day were the first one on — Delta Sleep.

It was a damp, grey afternoon when they got started, and only about 20—30 friends were there to see them. But rain soon brought the small audience huddling under front of the saddlespan stage cover, which made for a pleasantly cosy atmosphere. The band responded well (lots of jokes about dry ice and strobes). The polyrhythmic interplay between Glen and Devin's guitars (both fretboard tapping) was pretty breathtaking, supported unfailingly by the superb rhythm section that is Maria (bass) and Adam (drums). And now they're triggering all sorts of glitchy electronic weirdness with pedals (there was even an extended sample of Alan Watts leading into one track — I wonder if they know that he went to school in Canterbury?). Still a lot of thrashy heaviness in their set, but I'm happy to hear this getting integrated into a dreamy postrock-ish framework which is starting to work really well (to my ears...oops, just got lost in a Wikipedia vortex reading about 'post-metal' fusions of post-rock and sludge metal!). An inspiring blast of musical creativity that left me feeling satisfied and happy to depart the site at that point (and I felt vindicated by the torrential rain that night).

I got back to the Farm the next evening (after a day of working outdoors) in time to see Cocos Lovers in the Folk Tent. In fact, they'd been given the whole afternoon to fill with Smugglers-associated acts — I missed Will Varley as the result of a long conversation, but caught the end of a (naturally) raucous Bucket Boyz set. The last time I saw them was in the tiny Tom Thumb Theatre in Westgate-on-Sea, playing to a mostly polite, elderly audience, so a Saturday night festival crowd was something else altogether! They were actually less drunk on this occasion, although the banjo was just as out of tune (but how could it be otherwise?)

A seemingly interminable soundcheck was made entirely worth putting up with when now-much-beloved-of-East-Kent-and-beyond Cocos Lovers finally started playing. Their set was quite similar to the one I've seen them play in the last months: "Anchor to the Moon", "Our Love is Not Like Roses", etc., from the new album, only "Howling Wind", "Moonlit Sky" and "Time to Stand" from earlier (and the stomping "Old Henry the Oak" encore which everyone expects in these situations). Pog (who's switched from violin to flute, so one violin and two flutes for now in the lineup) again sang a powerful version of Gillian Welch's "Caleb Mayer", the only real 'cover' they've done (to my knowledge), and a song which suits them surprisingly well. They were obviously enjoying themselves, playing to a large, enthusiastic, mostly local audience, and sounded great throughout. They're on a good one at the moment, and were publicising the first occurrence of their own festival-to-be: Smugglers Festival, September 2—4th on some land near Deal, with several of the current wave of Canterbury bands along with the usual Smugglers lot and others from further afield, plus SondryFolk doing some art installations. Looks like I'll be helping out again...should be a great weekend.

A bit later I caught what may end up being local Afrobeat band Mr. Lovebucket's last ever performance. I think this has happened before, but they'd pretty much split up before being offered this gig. It's a shame that I was half asleep — managed to stay on my feet, but wasn't as fully there with it as I'd like to have been. I was too tired to watch any of Graham Coxon (best known as Blur's guitarist) headlining back on the Meadows stage. I knew that he's cited the influence of Gong, Robert Wyatt, etc., but based on a couple of things I'd heard I wasn't expecting too much. Apparently, though (according to Liam from Syd Arthur the next morning), his guitar playing was "sweet". I sense I may have missed something rather good, asleep in my tiny green tent behind the stage.

Sunday was the the day, really. Liam started things off with a solo acoustic set (so much material, he just keeps writing, countless excellent songs are piling up, unrecorded...his perfectionism means many of these may just get lost). Rae (from Bristol) played a set of songs very familiar to me (as I've been listening to a pre-release of their excellent debut album Era). They ended with "Eyed Ear", my favourite (Syd Arthur's Raven plays on the album version of that one). Leonie stuns everyone with her voice, and Rae's music keeps defying my abilities to classify it (always a good thing).

Boot Lagoon were as excellent as usual. The second piece (I didn't catch the title) had a bit of a Grateful Dead "Spanish Jam" feel to it, Pete-the-guitarist's Santana influence perhaps evident here? He's still playing his guitar with no effects (they all got stolen in Brixton a while ago), but the sound doesn't seem to be lacking as a result. Tracy, an old friend who happened to be there with me, and a lot more musically conservative than I, surprised me by describing their sound as "crazy" — this led me to realise that I'd like to hear them become "crazier" than they currently are are. When you see them play live, you can almost feel them pushing up towards the next level of where they're going, musically. Almost there.

Zoo For You (with partial horn section) did their oblique funk thing, and particularly well. Bruno (sax/vocals)has settled into the frontman role, it all seems a lot more comfortable/natural now. An excellent bunch of musicians — the older songs like "Cyriac Skinner" and "Polystyrene Man" are pleasingly familiar and the new stuff included something based around an insanely PHAT stomping horn-based figure that I can only compare to the beat underlying Pharaoh Monche's "Simon Says" (1999), if you know that. If this is a sign of things to come, the Zoo could become monstrous.

One of the bands that were forced onto the Furthur booking list, Haight Ashbury, then played. Vaguely "psych-folk", based around two women singing in very (and very specifically) American accents. They turned out to be from Glasgow, and didn't make much of an impression on me, certainly didn't live up to the name they've adopted.

Morviscous, on the other hand were mighty. A revelation. I'd seen two of them playing at Orange Street a couple of years ago as Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney, and listened to them a bit online, but this was something else. It may have just been having Henry Cow on the brain, but from backstage, I swore I could hear bassoons among the complex, almost overwhelming sheets of guitar sound (they weren't there, but the band are fans of the Cow, I've learned). From the little I'd heard, I was expecting a lot of sheer heaviness, but their music was very broad, texturally...again, vaguely 'post rock' (I suppose that term is becoming meaninglessly vague), but more inventive. They were circulating little flyers about a free download opportunity for their new album House Sounds — I ended up paying for it in the end — incredible stuff, highly recommended!

The ever-fabulous Syd Arthur kicked off their set with a crushing intro. New songs included "Ode to the Summer" (that one really seeps into you after a while), "Dorothy" and "Edge of the Earth", these taking shape and sounding ever more familiar. The oldest things they played were "Pulse" and "Exit Domino" (both of which I can remember the first time they played). A joker in the crowd (an old school friend of the band I think) kept shouting out for "Olive Grove", a song they've not played in years (and aren't likely to again!), probably just to wind them up. All four of them looked very much locked into the sound, there was a beautifully clean mix, and Liam's voice was just soaring. But it was hard not to compare with the year before, when they played later in the night, immersed in the psychedelic visuals of Le Rig, when there was a real sense of occasion. This was more of an "excellently played set at a festival" — nothing wrong with that, though.

Before I forget, 3/4 of the band were recently filmed on an East London rooftop for Balcony TV, and acoustic version of "Morning's Calling":

I noticed Brian Hopper backstage talking to fellow former Wilde Flower Pye Hastings and Caravan violist Geoffery Richardson. Caravan were to headline. This is the "current" Caravan lineup, rather than the "classic" lineup. But even so, it could have been so good. They ended their set with "Nine Feet Underground", and that was incredibly powerful. Unfortunately, the set list up to that point involved mostly inferior Caravan material. No "For Richard", "A Hunting We Shall", "Love in Your Eye", "Place of My Own", "Where But For Caravan Would I?",... but instead the execrable "The Dog The Dog, He's At It Again"...and Geoff Richardson even got the name of the album wrong (it's not on Blind Dog at St. Dunstans, sorry). It started off reasonably OK with "Headloss" and "Memory Lain, Hugh" (not big favourites, but they sounded quite good), then "And I Wish I was Stoned" (yeah) and a rather pointless "Golf Girl" (but everyone wanted to hear that — as with much of the audience, I think, that was the only one Tracy knew). After that it just went all wrong — I just had to walk out of the field at one point — some new songs, post-'74 stuff that just didn't work at all for me...until "Nine Feet Underground", when they just about redeemed themselves. During the "rockingest" (thanks J. Black!) part, I witnessed a cluster of early-20's audience members jumping up and down excitedly, must be nice for an aging band to see that. This just showed how good it could have been. Oh well.

Right at the end, new drummer Mark Walker got on the mic to point out that Richard Coughlan had indeed been onstage (I'd not noticed) playing some percussion, and to acknowledge the huge part he's played in creating the Caravan sound. He's very physically weak after (I believe) suffering from a stroke, so playing a full set on a drum kit is out of the question. I caught a very brief glimpse of him then, looking very frail. It must be terribly hard for him to be there and not fully contribute, put perhaps it would be harder to not be there at all.

Before they played it, Geoffrey Richardson mentioned that "Nine Feet Underground" was written at a house on the Old Dover Road (just a couple of miles from where we were). Something else I discovered recently (via the booklet in the In The Land of Grey and Pink 40th anniversary box set) is that Pye Hastings learned his first guitar chords off Kevin Ayers while travelling together on the continent (who was going out with his sister Jane at the time).

The only other time I've seen Caravan was on the same farm, at a different festival, in 1990. That was the classic lineup reunion, warming up for the filming at the Granada TV studio in Nottingham. I remember not being particularly impressed then (being 20, thinking they were just past it), but listening to the Live in Nottingham recording, I now wish I'd paid a bit more attention.

A bit later I wandered aimlessly over to the main stage area to find a reformed Echo and the Bunnymen (Ian McCulloch, Will Sergeant and a few supplemenary musicians, it appeared from where I was). I used to love that band when I was 15. And they sounded pretty much like they ought to... I stuck around for a few songs. "All My Colours (Zimbo)" worked particularly well, I'd forgotten about that one. But overall they didn't move me, it all seemed a bit pointless. Perhaps I'd have got into it if I'd have waded to the front of the crowd, but I was in no mood for that, so I wandered on.

Despite Caravan being the main act on the Meadows stage, there was one other band, Awalé, but (again, sadly) I was too tired to take in their music. It looked like they had a much smaller audience than they deserved. I couldn't face waking up in a tent in a rainy, litter strewn field, so I packed up and cycled home.

Overall, despite much excellent music, the LOTF2011 experience was a bit weird and dispiriting, when compared to 2010 (at least the Furthur part of it), which felt so inspiring. But the only constant is change. You just have to make the most of the good stuff while it's still good and recognise that everything eventually passes.


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