Tuesday, July 3, 2012

'Hop Farm Festival' 30th June and 1st July 2012

After the queueing nightmare that was Field Day, I was fully prepared for the worst at Hop Farm.  Once again I had a crumpled, printed out email confirmation to exchange for a wrist band, but this time I planned ahead.  I brought a book and something to drink (a giant jug of cider). If I’m going to be queueing for 2 hours, then at least I’ll have something to do.  But as soon as I step off the train at Paddock Wood I begin to get my first inkling that things might be different here.  A fleet of buses awaits the passengers in the station car park, together with surprisingly friendly and personable security personnel.  I was able to get a list of stage times for the entire festival for just a pound.  As I sat on the bus, and it headed down the road to the festival, I was almost suspicious.   “Why on earth are they treating us so well?  What do they have to hide?”

A short journey later and we were at the ticket offices.  There was no queue.  It was just after midday, a time when I’d anticipate a lot of people arriving and I waltz right up to the desk and had my wristband right away!  Having bought a giant jug of cider and now having no queue to drink it in I ended up sitting outside the festival enjoyably drinking it while hearing music drifting over from the main stage.  Once again my plans are foiled, but at least this time in an enjoyably chilled out way.

First impressions are of a chilled out, friendly festival.  Notably there is no dance music tent, children under 12 get in for free, and there is a refreshing lack of corporate sponsorship or branding.  It all seems faintly old-fashioned somehow, but adds to a somewhat more polished, muso-friendly experience.  If this festival were a magazine, I think it’d be ‘Mojo’ rather than ‘NME’ or ‘Q’.  The line-up reflects this, with veterans like Peter Gabriel, Ray Davies, Patti Smith and Bob Dylan headlining, with the ‘younger’ generation being represented by Richard Ashcroft and Suede on Sunday night.  It seems to be refreshingly unafraid of not being considered particularly cool or with-it.

There are three stages, an open main stage and two in large tents at either ends of the field.  The usual suspects in terms of festival food are all in attendance and you run the gamut from noodles to burritos with varying degrees of quality.  I was pleased to see my favourite festival stall there, Pie Minister, but was distressed to get there and find they’d run out of mash (somewhat squashing my dream of pie n’ mash).  Toilets were mercifully free of long queues, clean, and with toilet paper seemingly being regularly supplied throughout the day.  A stand-out was the cocktail area – with a small ‘Power Bar’ stage operating out of a chrome Airstream trailer which played folk music.  There was a welcoming and friendly atmosphere throughout the festival, but particularly so here, and it was a perfect place to rest your weary feet after a day walking around.  But sore feet are a minor concern with such a great array of music on offer.

Slow Club (photo by Gaelle Beri)
 The first band on my ‘to-see’ list were Slow Club.  I listened to their first album ‘Yeah So’ quite a bit in 2010, but haven’t kept up with them recently, and I haven’t heard their latest, ‘Paradise’.  This meant that I didn’t recognise a lot of the songs they were playing, and I found myself waiting a little impatiently for my favourite single ‘Giving Up On Love’.  Their new stuff was pretty good, but what I like about Slow Club is the back-and-forth between the two leads and I couldn’t see much of that here.  I also like their wordplay, and the lyrics were a little indistinct.  Oh well, after all the waiting, ‘Giving Up On Love’ was as amazing as I had hoped it’d be live, and it was worth it going to see them just to hear that.

Patti Smith (photo by Gaelle Beri)

 Next up on the main stage was Patti Smith.  She seems absolutely fearless, packed full of energy, strutting angrily around the stage, spitting her lyrics into the audience.  I didn’t know quite what to expect from her, I suppose I had a vague expectation that she’d slowed down and become more sedate over the years.  I was dead wrong, there’s some fountain of energy within her that seems impossible to extinguish.  At one point she’s exalting us to throw our hands into the air to “shake the ghosts out of our bodies”, she growls, she screams, she swears at us while gyrating and pumping her fists.  She finishes with ‘Gloria’ and ‘Because the Night’. By this point we’re all converted to the church of Patti– it was magnificent.

Bob Dylan (photo by Gaelle Beri)
Taking a short break, (and missing out Damien Rice unfortunately), next up was Bob Dylan.  Even though I knew what I was in for with a Dylan concert, it’s still a shock when he starts singing.  Every lyrics is croaked out painfully, as if he’s a drowning man gasping for air.  It takes a while to get to grips with it.  He rarely acknowledges the audience, seeming to communicate only in half-smiles with his band members, who watch him like a hawk for time changes.  Coupled to this is the very limited video presentation on the screens to either side of the stage.  All the other artists I saw on the main stage had multiple cameras on them, and frequent closeups.  With Dylan, it was just a static shot, far pulled back from the stage.  Maybe the camera team had gone home for the night, maybe there were technical problems or maybe there’s a contractual request from Dylan for no-closeups?  If it’s the latter it seems oddly vain, and a little off-putting.  But, what I keep in mind during a Bob Dylan concert is that this is the man who wrote the line “the ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face”, so as far as I’m concerned I’m prepared to cut the guy an almost infinite amount of slack.  Very occasionally you begin to wonder if you’re there because you enjoy the music, or because you feel it’s the proper thing to do to pay tribute to the memory of the 60s Bob Dylan.  

What keeps it from being a mere curiosity show is that throughout the performance you never sense any level of delusion in his own abilities.  If you got the impression he was being lied to and told he sounded great it’d be terrible, nobody wants to feel sorry for Bob Dylan.  His strength here lies in that he knows exactly what he can and can’t do.  During ‘Spirit on the Water’ he growls “''You think I'm over the hill, think I'm past my prime”, he pauses very briefly, and someone shouts “No we don’t Bob!”. Some accuse Dylan of exploiting his audience, making fun of them for paying to see him in this run-down state.  If there is a joke, then the audience is very much in on it.  When it comes to criticising Dylan’s voice I always think of his first album, where a young man goes to great pains to make himself sound like a Guthrie-esque road-worn troubadour with a bag full of songs.  Well now he is a road-worn (and arguably a little clapped out) troubadour with a bag full of songs, so I suppose he has achieved his apotheosis.   

Even so – this is a headliner at a festival, and the crowd wants to sing along and have a good time.  It’s frustrating hearing the occasional snatched lyric from songs like ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ and trying to sing along only to be defeated by an unexpectedly change in pace.  Eventually with the crowd roaring along to the chorus to ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ Dylan, lagging behind, grins and lets us go for it.  Even with all the vocal problems this is still Bob Dylan dammit, the greatest lyricist ever, and he’s still worth seeing, especially when he seems to be enjoying himself as he is here. 

The next day the weather is a bit more changeable, a cloudy sky means we can be sunning ourselves one moment, and dashing from a heavy shower the next.  One upside of this is that sheltering in the tent stages means we get to see a few bands we wouldn’t have normally seen (like King Charles and fiN), albeit mainly because seeing them is preferable to being rained up.  When it was sunny, I had a nice lie-down to Indigo Earth at the Power Bar stage, whose calm and clear folk singing was just what I needed to chill out to before heading off for three big acts.

Gruff Rhys
I think I’ve seen Gruff Rhys maybe 5 or 6 times over the last 18 months.  I know his routine by heart by now, but I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of seeing him perform.  He’s got a certain confused charm to him, a smart innocence in the way he tolerates people asking him to play Super Furry Animals songs.  They shouldn’t bother really, his solo stuff is excellent without having to dredge too deeply into his past.  While his newer album, ‘Hotel Shampoo’ isn’t quite as good as ‘Candylion’, I still enjoy pretty much every song from it, even after hearing them many times.  This performance was pretty par for the course as far as his festival shows go, playing a nice selection of songs from both albums.  I always hope he’ll close his set with ‘Skylon!’, which is a 15 minute odyssey about him heroically stopping a hijacker on a jumbo jet.  From what I can tell, he only performs this when he’s got a headline slot, and considering the stage version of it involves aircraft seats and inflatable life jackets, I can’t blame him for not doing it at every show.  There is one thing that’s bugged me every single time I’ve seen him recently though - his ‘virtual drumsticks’ -  which allow him to play an invisible drumkit.  I haven’t seen them work properly once.  I won’t stop going to see him, he’s impossible to dislike, and frankly, anyone who holds up a sign saying “Tax the Rich” at the end of their set is alright in my book.

Richard Ashcroft

After this we stroll nonchalantly over to Richard Ashcroft, who is far better than I expected.  I’m not sure why everyone I spoke to seems to hate the guy so much, he seems perfectly pleasant to me.  He marches around the stage in a bomber jacket, haranguing the audience with the lyrics to his songs and occasionally shouting “Fuck David Cameron!”.  It’s great.  He takes time to complain about how whenever he swears in an interview, they transcribe it as “fook” rather than “fuck”.  According to him it’s just another way of denigrating the working class – it’s a good point.  Unfortunately, Hop Farm decide that the finals of the Euro 2012 football tournament are more important than the performer on stage, and decide to give over one of their screens to this rather than Ashcroft.  He doesn’t seem aware of it, but it seems a little insulting to prioritise some football match over the guy who’s singing on stage.  If people want to watch the football, then don’t go to a music festival.  He ends with ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, which he extends over 10 minutes.   It’s one of the most beautiful songs of the 90s though, so no-one is complaining.

Up next and closing the festival was Suede, and I haven’t seen a finer festival performance from a band in quite some time.  As the sun sets on the horizon they’re the perfect soundtrack to finish off a packed, tiring weekend.  It’s anthemic, joyful and energetic all at once, seemingly a celebratory full stop of the music that’s come before it.  Even though I’m a fan of Suede I haven’t seen any videos of them performing live in the last few years since they reformed.  There are few more dispiriting things than seeing a once androgynous and sexually ambiguous rockstar fall into the gloopy pit of middle-aged spread and baldness.  Thankfully, Brett Anderson has managed to avoid all of this.  He seems vampirically lithe, his skinny jeans hanging off him as he twirls the microphone over his head and leaps around the stage sounding exactly as he did 20 years ago.  They start off with so many hits that I worry they’re going to run out of material, running through ‘We are the Pigs’, ‘Trash’, ‘Filmstar’ and ‘Animal Nitrate’ as their first few songs.  How can they possibly top this?  But somehow they manage to sustain this energy all the way through the show.  It’s infectious, and seems to be driving the crowd wild. 

When Anderson announces that they’re going to play ‘Stay Together’ a girl behind me goes absolutely bananas, jumping up and down, screaming and crying throughout the song.  At one point they say what everyone at a gig like this dreads: “and now we’re going to play you a new song”.  But, amazingly, the new song, ‘For the Strangers’ is fantastic.  I think literally every time I’ve heard a band that’s reformed say that it’s been a recipe for 3 minutes of boredom, but not this time.  It ends with a festival-crowd ‘Hey Jude’ style ‘la la la’ ending that gets the whole crowd singing along.

There’s a cult-like air to proceedings at times, as Anderson makes his way into the crowd, where he’s mobbed by hundreds of adoring fans reaching out for him.  It’s as if by the touching him they can somehow cure their modern scrofula.  I’m one of them.  During my favourite Suede song ‘Wild Ones’, I rush to the front as he reaches out into the crowd, everyone chanting with him as he sings less than a metre away.  I reach out and shake his hand.  It’s a small moment which ultimately means nothing, but at the moment it felt like a direct connection to what’s going on stage.  He ends the set with ‘Still Life’, standing messianically, arms outspread, enjoying the adulation of the crowd.  I can’t tell if he’s just a good showman, but the smile on his face makes it looks like he’s had a great time, and so have I.

So, it’s now 11pm on Sunday night and I have to get back to London for work in the morning.  At any other festival I’d be worried about some logistical screwup right about now, but everything so far has given me a confidence in Hop Farm’s organisation skills.  My confidence is well-placed, after hopping straight onto a shuttle bus I’m driven back to the Paddock Wood train station where there’s a special train waiting that’s been put on for the festival.  I’m back in London by 00:20, and tucked up in bed by 00:45.  They could scarcely have done better if they’d had a fleet of unicorns waiting for us to ride back on rainbows from London Bridge.

I can’t say enough good things about Hop Farm.  Most of the recent festivals I’ve been to treat people like throbbing sacks of cash, to be pumped dry as quickly and efficiently as possible and then dumped out of the gates.  “Sod ‘em if they can’t find their way home” is their motto.  Maybe it’s a fa├žade, maybe there’s dark deeds going on behind the scenes, but Hop Farm genuinely seems to care about its attendees.  I never felt like I was being rinsed for money, all the staff were pleasant and helpful and the crowds were happy and friendly.  It’s like they’ve uncovered some kind of crazy alchemy for making a festival work.  Maybe this is what all of those people at other festivals are talking about when they say Glastonbury/Reading/Leeds etc is “not as good as it used to be”.  I think this is probably the prime of Hop Farm festival’s life, it’s as good as it’s ever going to be.

A big thank-you to everyone involved in this (including the lovely people at Supajam), my friends and I all had a great weekend!

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