Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Lunar Festival @ Umberslade Estate, 6th – 8th 2014



Arthur Brown carrying a flaming torch, leading a procession through the site with a brass band playing Fire; Donovan performing with Temples; crouching down in the mud with The Polyphonic Spree’s Tim DeLaughter; watching a dude having a 6 inch nail hammered into his head...these are the kind of moments that make a truly great festival experience...and Lunar Festival was stuffed full of them.

It all started gently enough, Simon Fox greeted early arrivers on Friday with some pluckingly lovely banjo driven tunes at times coming across like a one man Miserable Rich with touches of John Martyn for good measure. Early afternoon tiffin anyone? No? How about some brain twisting psych then? Step forward The Exploding Sound Machine who rolled up an organ-asmic set in one phat joint. Bonus points for the band dressing up in authentic 60s style clobber too...although I suspect this is their normal day to day wear. Golden Glass did an equally good job of convincing you that you’d just stepped through a wormhole and shot back to 1968 with their trippy blend of psych folk, The Doors and The Brian Auger Trinity. It was left to The Dollcanoes (rapidly becoming one of my favourite Birmingham bands around right now) to bring things kicking and screaming back to the present day (well, almost) with some inspired synth flecked Riot Grrrl. Shouty anti capitalist anthem What You Need It For? chimed well with the festival crowd whilst I’m An Idiot could well be the theme tune for anyone still sadly stuck at work and missing it all...

At their best Money managed to straddle the stadium and the bedroom with some rather beautiful and reflective tunes that doff a cap to both U2 and Pink Floyd. If they can somehow avoid sliding into Coldplay land they may well be...er...on the money in the coming years. Toy picked up the pace a little with the kind of motorik beats that call for an open highway and a bag of illegal highs. Imagine Terry Hall fronting a krautrock band on acid and it’s a bit like that. “Sounds like Can” mused a long haired dude next to me nursing a pint as their last number Join The Dots faded into the late afternoon sun. Can? Don’t mind if I do. Mine’s a cider.

Blimey! It’s Kurt Cobain! He’s back...no doubt to “Enertaaain usss”. Hurrah! Oh. Hang on. Nope...it’s Tim Burgess. Sporting bleached hair with his roots showing and white framed plastic sunglasses The Charlatans’ frontman certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to old Kurt even if the music, a mix of country and gentle psych tinged folk, is a world away. 



He’s actually got some impressive solo songs under his hat with previous singles The Doors Of Then and White from 2012’s Lambchop seasoned Oh No I Love You sounding particularly good this evening. Great to hear The Only One I Know reworked as a folk song too, maybe it’s my age but somehow this new treatment seems to suit the lyrics even better than the original (even if bits of me did yearn for the crashing drums and squelchy guitars to kick in from time to time). It was down to British Sea Power to close Day One and at times they did so in suitably anthemic style courtesy of Machineries of Joy, Waving Flags and Animals. 



At other moments they can, for me at least, ‘chug along’ a little rather than driving you three shades of crazy but hey, there’s always that giant dancing bear to liven things up eh? 

After the live music finished the hardcore festival goers danced the night away (‘erb optional) with Don Letts and The Silver Dollar Soundsystem. They (and the rest of us) had a rude (boy) awakening the following morning when the weather gods unleashed pretty much all they had. Thunder and lightning bright enough to pierce heavy eyelids and the kind of torrential rain that would give Noah a stiffie. The result? Festival favourite, mud. 


It didn't phase anyone though and by the time Saturday’s opener’s Batsch played their hip swinging mix of afrobeat and synthpop the skies (if not the heads) had pretty much cleared. Later, in the packed and gently steaming Northern Sky tent, legends John Renbourne and Wizz Jones lifted hearts and tickled ribs with an intimate mix of virtuoso guitar playing (recalling their friend and peer/mentor Bert Jansch) and gentle chat. Trust me, their richly textured and poignant version of Fresh As A Sweet Sunday Morning does more to soothe a hangover than any amount of ProPlus. Lovely stuff. Oh yes, and if Bruce Springsteen happens to read this (a long shot I know but a boy can dream) Wizz would like a mention next time you cover his track, When I Leave Berlin! Staying for their whole set meant missing some of Laura J Martin. 


What that girl can’t do with a flute ain’t worth knowing. Seriously, Spy has to be one of the most remarkable bits of flute playing in history. Add Laura’s breathy vocals, a mix of Tori Amos meets Kate Bush, and some delightfully quirky lyrics and you’ve got something really special.

After one of the best burgers EVER from the Meat Shack local boys Victories At Sea were the perfect accompaniment to the hazy sunny afternoon, their shimmering synthy soundtracks with one foot in the 80s and the other in heaven inspiring an old dancing dude (this bloke danced his ass off all weekend...legend) to really go for it. “The t-shirts we have for sale are as good as the music” suggested lead singer JP doing his best to shift the merch. Hell, they must be some shirts then.

Like flames to a moth Katherine Priddy (that sounded better in my head...the lovely Miss Priddy looks nothing like a moth...but her music does have that kind of beautiful fragility...so...er...that’s what I mean) started off with just a handful of people watching her then they seem to be drawn in magically and siren like from all corners to the site. It’s hardly surprising. Katherine just has ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ may be. 



The phrase ‘fragile, ethereal folk’ might be the kind of glib cliché that dodgy reviewers trot out from time to time but I won’t let that stop me. Fittingly enough, given that we were on the very land that Nick Drake walked in his youth, some of her songs and performances have that magical otherworldly quality. One, as yet unnamed but it could simply be called You, was a haunting Drake-ish ode to lost love whilst Indigo reminded me of All About Eve at their gentler best.

Tucked into the corner of the Lunar Cafe and armed only with a guitar Tom Peel bravely battled a sound check going on on the main stage to play a selection of his greatest hits. In my mind Peel’s a ruddy star as well as being one of the nicest blokes on planet earth and any day I can hear him sing Bad Things is a good day in my books. Somehow he even managed to turn the whole Fair Trade movement into a catchy song in Salt and Pepper too. Not even Billy Bragg’s managed that one.

Goodnight Lenin are pure festival gold and in the sun with a powerful sound system behind them they sounded at their very best. 



I’ve seen them so many times before that I kind of forget that they may be new to some of the crowd here today but if you’re a lover of Neil Young then you’ll fall head over heels in love with them. Today they were as tight and phat as I’d ever seen or heard them and they continue to explore their rockier side a little bit more which is, in my humble opinion, the way to go from here. And yes...that debut album really is coming out soon.

How do you follow that? We followed it by watching a dude get a 6 inch nail forced into his face. Ouch. Nope, not MC Hammer...ahem...but a loveable bunch of freaks from the SDR Circus. As if that wasn’t stomach churning enough two of them had a tug of war using uninflated balloons which they somehow passed through their noses and out through their mouths. WTF?! Don’t try this at home kids. Freakishly good fun and a ruddy friendly bunch of people too. Just keep them away from your tool kit...lord knows what they’d get up to.  

Thankfully Donovan was soon on hand to calm things down a little and he dished up a real crowd pleaser with Catch The Wind, Jennifer Juniper, Hurdy Gurdy Man and Mellow Yellow all making the setlist. 



Pretty much every track came with some story or another but when they start off “When I was with The Beatles, a Beach Boy and Mia Farrow...” they’re worth listening to. He’s still putting on that dodgy Jamaican accent (bless him) for some reason but I’m guessing half a century of pot smoking might do that to a man. He was back again later to help Temples cap off their set with a unique psych rock take on Sunshine Superman. 


Before all that though Kettering’s finest rocked their ‘psocks’ off. In Shelter Song, Colours To Life, and Mesmerise they nail that distinctive 60s sound better than any band around right now with a cunning pop twist that makes pretty much every track as catchy as hell after just one listen. That would’ve been an awesome way to end the day but something even more magical was waiting in the woods. With a little help from their friends the organisers of Lunar Festival had managed to get hold of the very record player that once occupied the home that Nick Drake shared with his parents in nearby Tanworth. At midnight, bathed by the flickering flames of a fire, 60 of us sat listening reverently to a remastered version of Drake’s seminal Pink Moon. For 28 minutes not a word was spoken, seemingly not a breath was breathed and...even more remarkably these days, no ruddy mobile phones went off either. It was a strangely beautiful and moving event, especially knowing that the little clearing in the trees where we sat was one that Nick himself had once sat in many pink moons ago.

Sunday and it was still morning (only just) but The Grafham Water Sailing Club were calling with their ominous sounding post punk ready to mess with fragile frazzled minds. The old dancing dude was there again going for it. I have no idea what he’s on bless him (maybe it’s just life?) but I’d like a sack of it. The more I see of this lot the more I like them especially when they add a little housey stuff into the mix like on set highlight 90 Degrees. Happily the sun was now doing its best to hit the same heights too.

It’s been ages since I last saw Misty’s Big Adventure but I’m delighted to report that all the bits I loved about them back in the day are still present and correct. If anything getting older seems to suit the bands enigmatic leader Grandmaster Gareth. He always seemed mildly annoyed at being young (I have no idea how old he is now...it’s difficult to tell with that beard and hat) and now he’s kind of growing nicely into his grumpy old man persona. Unlike many bands it’s frankly impossible to sum them up in a few words but there’s certainly a healthy nod towards the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band in there. I was particularly struck by the existential Tetris inspired Stuck On Level 9, with (whisper it) poppy keyboards and choppy reggae guitar it would be a smash hit in a better world. Erotic Volvo (a man with a blue face dressed in a kind of red gown thing with blue hands sown all over it) gave the old dancing dude a run for his money and by the end of set closer Never Stops, Never Rests, Never Sleeps he seemed in grave danger of combusting. Still one of the coolest and most exciting bands on planet earth. 

Lunar was one of the friendliest festivals I’ve ever been to and some of Sunday afternoon was spent chatting and chilling with people in the sun (yes, the sun had his hat on). In between I caught Michael Chapman (vocally a gruffer, folkier, Yorkshire version of Johnny Cash) do Fahey’s Flag, simply one of the best guitar solos you’ll ever see. EVER. I can’t get my head around how the hell he plays it, those changes in pace and intricate bits of picking are just nuts. If an acoustic guitar could take mind altering drugs this is what it would sound like. In the distance I could hear Scott Matthews who, with a similar tone to his voice on his quieter moments, could well stake a claim to be Nick Drake’s spiritual heir. 



Okay so maybe there’s more of a Jeff Buckley vibe to some of his tunes but I can’t imagine he’d mind the comparison. Back in the Northern Sky tent Chris Tye impressed with a lovely cover of Walking In The Sun and the equally beautiful (but meteorologically opposite) New York City Rain. In stark contrast Pram’s experimental 60s and 70s soundtracks to unmade late night movies could well scare the bejesus out of you. There’s something spookily delicious about them, from the haunting slightly disconnected female vocals of Rosie Cuckston to Harry Dawes on theremin.

I can’t pretend that I don’t miss Paul Murphy’s huge contribution to The Destroyers but they can still whip the crowd up into a klezmer-clismic frenzy. 



If the residents of nearby Tanworth felt the earth move at teatime on Sunday then they can blame this lot. Zipping back up to the Northern Sky tent the Dirty Old Folkers’ Keep On, Carry On came across as irresistibly catchy as the Only Fools and Horses theme tune whilst the sight of Panda (a man in a giant panda suit) and Death (a man in a giant skeleton outfit) having a dance off to Big Fish, Little Fish with two nuns as backing singers wins the award for most surreal moment of the weekend...any weekend in fact.

Speaking of madness it’s probably fair to say that Captain Beefheart was a little odd. Now sadly not so much ‘safe as milk’, more ‘dead as a doornail’ the Captain’s no longer with us but his Magic Band (or some of them at least) still are. 



John ‘Drumbo’ French did a decent job of growling out the lyrics amid the thick swampy blues and slippy slide guitar, reaching its peak on The Doors meets Hendrix meets Dr John of Big Eyed Beings From Venus. Far out maaaan...which leads us neatly onto Arthur Brown. 



I’d not seen him live before and, like many people I imagine, I know him for just one song...Fire. If you’re going to be known for one song make it great one though eh? His set was a revelation though. At 71 his voice, range and energy are frankly mind blowing. Looking like Fagin on a particularly weird acid trip his set was a brilliant mix of the old and new, from a cover of Simon Dupree’s Kites through to The Unknown from the forthcoming album Zim Zam Zim (out this July). I’ve heard the whole album now and it’s brilliantly bonkers, a concept album of sorts focussing (as far as I can make out) on Brown’s quest for spiritual clarity. It’s a little Zappa, a little Waits, a little pop, a little psych...a melting pot of madness that’s one of the most extraordinary records I’ve heard in ages. I loved every minute of his set and the rest of the crowd seemed to agree. Of course he did Fire, sadly without the flaming helmet, but the SDR Circus guys made up for it with some impressive fire breathing by the side of the stage that practically singed the early evening sky. Arthur then led a brass band playing Fire up through the site to a giant wooden sculpture that he lit with a flaming torch and a slightly demonic look in his eyes. Whoohahahaha! See? He really is the god of hellfire...



What a dude. What a moment. What a festival.

How the hell do you top that? Impossible, right? Wrong. I can’t think of a single band in the world who could’ve done a better job of closing the weekend than The Polyphonic Spree. Breaking though a giant Brummie Moon (clever eh?) banner Tim DeLaughter and his band of merry men and women delivered not just a set, more a religious experience. Perhaps unfairly written off as a bit of a novelty act by the more precious and sniffy music critics you forget just how many truly great songs they have. Light and Day, Hold Me Now, Soldier Girl, It’s The Sun...it’s like the best bits of The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev sung by the happiest people on planet earth. Dear reader I nearly wept. 



They sounded MASSIVE tonight (I think I counted 14 people up there). Did I mention the covers too? Only Live and Let Die (Wings) and ruddy Dreamer (Supertramp), both of which outdid the originals. “I want to play this festival every year” said Tim towards the end of the set, offering a bit of a prayer up to the universe. You know what, I’d have no complaints with that, hell, I’d be happy to see ‘em close EVERY festival.

That, barring a lovely drunken chat round the fire with some great friends and good rum was that. With just one previous Lunar festival behind them this one was a frickin’ triumph. Like a mini Glastonbury it just felt special, maybe it was the site (like Glasto the setting’s beautiful), maybe it was the choice of bands and stalls, maybe it was the cider, hell I don’t know but trust me, miss this next year and you'd be a Lunar-tic.  



All photos courtesy of the lovely Richard Shakespeare (aka ShakeyPix)!

2 comments:

David Jenkins-Handy said...

I have to agree. A brilliant festival, which even the occasional downpour could not dampen. For those who went home early on the Sunday; you missed a genuine grand finale. Power, pomp and posturing at its finest.

The Baron said...

Cheers David. It really was a great one wasn't it? Just a wonderful atmosphere all weekend and, yes, The Spree were AMAZING. Just the most perfect band to end things on a high.