Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Live review – Summer Sundae festival – Saturday

The UK’s averaging about three festivals per weekend all summer at the moment, which is pretty ridiculous: competition for punters is intense, line-ups tend to be broadly similar, and even established events like Truckfest are struggling to keep their heads above water, financially and literally (d’oh…).

Leicester’s Summer Sundae has a canny set-up, selling itself as ethical and accessible, with a line-up that’s eclectic but unthreatening. It’s in a large, attractive city park. It has an indoor stage, which is mighty civilised. It’s aiming to be a carbon negative festival, handing out free low-energy lightbulbs. Props! It’s also got a tie-in with BBC’s 6music, which ensures endless online and radio plugs. All said, it probably doesn’t need a sniffy review from an obscure blog, but that’s just how GMS gets down.

First up are teenage siblings Kitty, Daisy and Lewis. According to the brochure, they mix rockabilly, swing, country and western, surf, Hawaiian, and rock ‘n’ roll. If all these musical genres essentially sound the same to you, then that’s a fair description. Aside from a few clunky signifiers (at one stage, Kitty puts on a lei and starts singing about ‘Honolulu’), this is pretty narrow and unimaginative 50’s revivalism (strangely, they’re dressed in 1940s pachuco costumes). Musically, they’re decent and versatile, though not exactly great – there’s a trio of middle-aged men who play rockabilly on the street in central Oxford every Saturday morning who do this thing with much more verve. It’s also a nice, light start to a summer’s afternoon, making children, hipsters and middle-aged weekenders dance around; there are much less entertaining genres one could thoughtlessly ape; mum and dad help out on bass and rhythm guitar, which is sweet; but there’s no sense of why they’re singing about a ‘mean old man’ or ‘Louisiana swamps’, or that they’ve thought about the artistic, racial or gendered implications. Maybe this is asking a bit much of the kids, but once you lose sympathy, it does grate.

swing that mean thing daddio-wa-diddy etc.

Next up are Jazz Jamaica. According to the brochure, they mix … yup, yup, alright. Something of a supergroup, if you’re up on UK jazz: Abram Wilson, Soweto Kinch and Denys Baptiste all raise a flicker of recognition, though I couldn’t tell you who’s who. Unlike the previous act, they’ve got the integrity and the instrumental chops to let fly with crowd-pleasing Skatalites covers and a wah-wah trumpet-enhanced version of the Bond theme. Overall, the set pitches a little unsatisfyingly between energetic and arresting soul-funk numbers and languid, tasteful reggae-jazz noodling, never quite settling for one or the other.

On the indoor stage, bizarrely, are reunited late-80s / early-90s baggy-ish Peel faves Cud. Except not quite, as their singer is missing. Good sports that they are, the band invites a succession of ageing devotees onstage to do Bez dancing and Cud karaoke (they get lyrics sheets – I can’t believe that many people know the words to Cud songs). I saw Cave In do this a couple of years back, when Steven Brodsky’s voice gave out mid-set. It turned an above-average gig into an unforgettable event – not least because half the crowd were in bands themselves, loved Cave In, and could sing. This, as you might imagine, isn’t quite in the same league, though the joke is funny for a while, and though you get the impression that Cud’s heavy, funked-out indie wouldn’t sound too bad alongside people like the Klaxons and !!!.

Back to the main stage for former Arab Strap instrumentalist Malcolm Middleton. Pretty much what you’d expect – depression, mordant whit, decent sparse mid-90s indie sounds. Like Arab Strap but with singing instead of talking. Like Smog but with a ginger Scottish chap instead of Bill Callahan. Lyrically, Middleton turns Arab Strap’s miserabilist tales of drunkenness, failed relationships and low expectations in a populist direction, telling us we’re all pissing our money up the wall and listening to shite. There are moments when he seems undecided whether to slap a Snow Patrol-sized chorus on one of these and go for a money-making cross-over hit, or to stoke his sense of integrity in the hope that Silver Jews fans have ten quid to spare. I hope he goes for the former – hearing Middleton soundtrack an ‘emotional’ scene in an ITV drama would be funny as fuck.

Malcolm mulls it over

Indigo Moss have managed to remember a genre not minced up in Kitty, Daisy and Lewis’ throwback blender – bluegrass (you see … the name … it’s a play on words …). They’re also, in some ways, the opposite sort of band – less confident, less polished, but more talented, imaginative and interesting. They marry a Sons and Daughters-style mixture of bluegrass, skiffle and twang to the sort of light, wistful English romanticism peddled by Ray Davies, Pete Doherty and (occasionally) Morrissey. There are usually (I think) five of them, but they’re stripped down to a three-piece, which means that the bassist does little to help the sound, but the lead male and female vocals are impressive. They’re not quite there yet – some of the songs feel a little underwritten, and a reflective ballad entitled ‘England’ is rarely a good idea – but well worth keeping an eye on. Unfortunately, GMS has to report another fancy-dress mishap – the lead singer is dressed as a cheeky ‘40s tradesman, while his two lady accomplices are in prim dresses and feathered hats as if attending a flower show at the local rotary club: in the 1940s, the two classes would never have teamed up to put on a pop concert.

I’m glad I saw the Rumble Strips at Summer Sundae for two reasons. Firstly, they’re the sort of band who get a bit of hype and who I’d probably have forked out money to see if they’d come to Oxford. If I had done, I’d probably have been a little disappointed – although they have a bit of energy and a horn section to set them apart from the crowd, the songs aren’t up to much. Secondly, they sounded like Dexys Midnight Runners, but without any tunes, which reminded me to go home and listen to some Dexys. Huzzah.

Martha Wainwright seems to be a bit of a poster-girl for 6music. I’d hoped she’d be the person to inject a bit of bile and humour into a pleasant but underwhelming line-up, and she does, but only a bit. Her voice is incredible – live, at least, it’s better than Rufus’ – but she’s let down by the songs (most of which are new). The first time I saw her, she was all Tori Amos / Sandy Dillon raspy bluesy angry mad woman, which was good, if also slightly oppressive. The second, she was doing languid, drunk country stuff, like Cat Power but more compelling and witty. This time she seems to have swallowed one too many Ys (groan) – adding Joanna Newsom cutesiness to the end of her syllables, and generally aiming for songs so complex as to be formless. If this is what her next album sounds like, she’ll be head-to-head with Nina Nastasia for the token female slot in lots of end-of-year roundups. Nina wins, though.

Lake District writer and walker Alf Wainwright. Best Wainwright ever.

For the Low review, I’ll direct you to my last review of them, as the set was practically identical, not that there’s anything wrong with that, when it’s so much better than everything I’ve seen today. While I can’t find much to like about ‘Drums and Guns’ on record, it works well live, especially when it’s fleshed out and translated into the sort of gut-wrenching slo-mo blues that people like Codeine and Come used to do. It’s a shame they got such a thin crowd, as their only competition was odd-faced sub-Danni Minogue posh-pop shouting-catastrophe Sophie Ellis Bextor.

Headliners are the Magic Numbers, who are ideal for the sort of all-ages, all-tastes ethos that Summer Sundae aims at, especially as their debut remains one of the best indie records of the past few years – gloriously unfashionable, brilliantly composed, and packing an emotional punch. As everybody except the Magic Numbers themselves has noticed, the second album sucks. This is understandable – it’s clear when listening to old and new songs back to back tonight, that they spent their whole lives writing the first album, and twelve busy months writing the second – there are simply two or three fewer ideas per song. Frontman Romeo attempts to cover over the cracks with world-beating enthusiasm, celebrating the festival, the crowd, his band and himself. When they played a triumphant headlining slot at the Glastonbury New Bands tent two years ago, this was endearing and inspiring, but tonight it’s a little bit much, especially when Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, and inflatable cartoon figures of the Magic Numbers are brought onstage for an overwrought finale. Much better is their surprise collaboration with Martha Wainwright, paying tribute to Lee Hazlewood with a cover of ‘Some Velvet Morning’ that brilliantly exploits the contrast between Wainwright’s piercing, jazzy voice and Romeo’s soft, wistful vocals. A memorable festival moment at the last gasp.

1 comment:

Aidan said...

Thanks for the support! One of my top tunes of the year has to be the sports day megaphone remix of the rumblestrips 'alarm clock'. It's sooo good, gets me going for anything!