Greenbelt: Music

31 August 2012

On Friday night, Kate McGill gave a sensitive performance in the old skatepark, which was once Stage One, and which opened this year again as a venue for live performance for new musicians, as The Canopy.

Ambient in feel and tastefully lit, the space is conducive to sensitive solo sets and Kate McGill certainly delivered.

This sweet-shop assistant is often emotional when performing, and sometimes breaks down mid-song.

Joined by guest musicians at times, this guitarist's lyrical concerns are intelligent explorations of her yearning for the reality of God, not least with The Key, which initially seems critical, but develops into a loving homage to old churchgoers, whose prayers have helped many to find such reality.

On the mainstage, the veteran Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn (Features, 24 August) turned the arena into his living room.

It was remarkable to see one man and an electric-acoustic guitar fill the space with such confidence. But then Cockburn is very much at home at Greenbelt, having played here on and off since 1987.

His performance was a slow burn, warming the audience on a damp night. He doesn't preach, or wind up an audience, he chuckles, makes asides, and allows the power of his poetic, and, often angry songs to do the talking.

Classics such as "After The Rain" and "Lovers In A Dangerous Time" sat alongside contemporary material, such as "Boundless" and "Call Me Rose", which, Cockburn reveals, "came" to him in his sleep, about hypothetical attempts to improve Richard Nixon's image.

Concluding with "Lord of the Starfields", Cockburn's psalm of praise to God, an appreciative response greeted a favourite son.

There was support for the Devonshire songstress Ellie Williams, at a lunchtime gig in the Performance Café, on Saturday. As people downed flapjacks and Fairtrade coffee in the music-diner, an unassuming "Oh, hello", from the surprised artist, was greeted by cheers from the feasting crowds.


The Adele influences in the vocals were matched by Keene-esque keyboards, two acoustic guitarists, and a bass player. And the sound matched the images evoked by "Stars", growing-up memories of nights on Dartmoor, before giving structure to her dedication to Williams's husband on "These Walls We Built".

After a while, Williams's melancholic tone gave rise to restlessness among those less familiar with her songs, but there's clear potential here, nevertheless.

It takes a pretty special band to keep people at mainstage in conditions like Saturday's, but Weapons of Sound proved that they were up to the job.

Generating raucous beats by smashing junk instruments - bins, bottles, tubes, and even a shopping trolley - these veterans of improvised percussion whipped the crowd up into a suitably muddy frenzy.

Even though the ground was being fast reduced to a quagmire, shoes were kicked off, hair let down, and mud thoroughly danced in. It takes talent to draw people out of their shells, and Weapons of Sound have clearly got it.

The singer-songwriter Chris T-T had caused a bit of a social media sensation with his acerbic review of the Olympic closing ceremony, but the burly Morning Star columnist was in a much better mood as he delivered a set of A. A. Milne poems, set to his own music, in the Performance Café.

"Children, this is a song about communism," he said, introducing his version of "Market Square". "Adults, this is a song about rabbits."

This avuncular style seemed at odds with his reputation as an angry protest-singer (he did a set of those songs later in the weekend at the Performance Café), but there was more than a hint of ideology in his approach - he just managed to avoid the earnestness that dogs so many of his peers.

Harry Bird and The Rubber Wellies are a delight. Having started playing together at university they now live on separate continents, getting to play together only for special occasions, such as the Performance Café, on Sunday.

This time, with Harry's brother Jamie guesting alongside the regulars Harry and Christophe, their positive and upbeat sound - blending guitar with mixes of banjo, ukulele, fiddle, and kazoo - burst like the sunshine on Sunday after the downpours of Saturday night.

Their joy-filled tunes reflect influences on their lives in Ireland and Spain, and contrast with their challenging and thought-provoking messages about freedom, hypocrisy, and politics, making their impact all the more potent.

As well as offering new songs, they pleased the crowds with old favourites such as "The Beard Snood", and "Ban the Bomb".

Playing at his first British festival, Willy Porter, a singer-songwriter from Milwaukee, welly-less, so barefoot at what had become "HMS Performance Café", brought his audience a unique sound, fusing rock-style guitar-picking with a moderated folk tuning.

Dancing his way across the strings, he shared some delightful stories linked to his songs, such as "Paper Airplane", inspired by a six-year-old neighbour who wanted to play with his cat.

He concluded by getting the audience to write a song with him reflecting on the weather, typified by the line: "God says, 'There's a nice little festival; I think I'll rinse it!'"

Luke Sital-Singh's gentle melodies drew in damp audiences to hunker under the shelter of The Canopy, late on Saturday afternoon.

Sital-Singh played only a short 30-minute set, but left the audience with plenty to remember, mainly his haunting lyrics and an endearingly introverted stage presence.

Unlike many singer-songwriters, his original songs were completely accessible for an unacquainted audience; the simplicity of his song-writing a testament to his obvious talent.

His uplifting musical artistry cheered the soggy spirits of a soggy audience.

The legendary Woodstock Festival had concluded in surreal fashion, with Jimi Hendrix, at 4.15 a.m., before a few hundred remaining fans who stood in quagmires of mud.

While hardly a credible comparison, Bruce Cockburn's long-awaited second, acoustic set saw a similar hard-core in ankle-deep mud, inside a Big Top partially closed owing to extreme weather. It was worth it, though. For 30 minutes, he addressed a variety of questions, and, in response to one, about controversy being a potential blessing, he again returned to the importance of turning everything over to God, in troubled times.

Humble, well-spoken, with a Canadian drawl, he was remarkable in his self-effacement. His faith seemed honest and hard-won. In the attendant acoustic set, it continued shining in songs omitted from the previous night, such as "All The Diamonds In The World", "Mystery", and "Waiting For A Miracle".

At The Canopy, the folk-electronica duo Golden Fable grabbed listeners from the concourse with their breathy and atmospheric sound. Reminiscent of bands such as Belle and Sebastian, listeners cottoned on quite quickly to why the pair have been lauded by BBC Radio. From sotto voce to shimmering crescendo they were another little nugget in the impending weather gloom.


Rivers of mud only improved the dancing conditions for Asian Dub Foundation's mainstage set. Their fusion of punk, dub, rap, guitars, and ragga was punctuated by the joyous squelching of hundreds of Greenbelters leaping up and down. "I wanna see that mud spraying above your heads, people!" said one band member, and everyone was pretty happy to comply.

Apart from a couple of mellow, hypnotic tracks, most of the set was furiously paced, which kept everyone toasty. Vocals were fast and rap-based with the odd "bo!" thrown in. There's an urgent political vein to their music: "History of Now" was dedicated to the people of Syria.

But brilliantly executed, life-affirming dance is what this band major in. Woolly-hatted heads nodded, young and old behinds waggled. The joyful finale with drumming ensemble Ministry of Dhol made the last mud fly high into the air, before we all squished off into the night.

MaLoKai, the heavy Manchester-based act, have been around for a while; they immediately sound competent. Although they initially displayed a few clichés - all Slayer shapes and low-slung Korn guitars - it was hard not to give in to their infectious energy, as they obviously love what they do and love God. Unafraid to reveal their Christian faith to a large audience, these four head-bangers are located somewhere between Sum 41 and Good Charlotte.

Needing a stand-in, because the drummer gets married the next day, you wouldn't know it as they rip up The Canopy with a calm, assured performance which reaches "wowser" levels with an unexpected rendi- tion.

Three-piece acts always conjure-up memories of the Jam, and Tiny Dragons are no exception: taut, anxious sound, and passionate (female) vocals, complementing her fret-work on the bass, there's more than a hint of Red Hot Chilli Peppers in there, too, as this Brighton combo veer from post-punk to funk.

With a mosh breaking out, and Paramore fans apparent, the refrain, "Where did I go wrong?" fills the warm, Sunday afternoon air, and suddenly we're reminded of 90s Britpoppers Echobelly. "Tremors" and "For The Dark and Handsome" stand out, and you realise that this group wouldn't be out of place on Zane Lowe's Radio 1 show; not least, because of excellent guitar playing.

This year at the festival nods (and sometimes shouts) of approval greeted any mention of Britain's multiculturalism. So it was some surprise to see that musical acts that fell outside the country's traditional musical heritage were sometimes sparsely attended.

The Mercury Prize-winning hip hop artist Speech Debelle (Features, 24 August) took some time to warm up given the low numbers at mainstage, but as night fell, her small but appreciative audience warmed to her impassioned take on the state of Britain today.

From songs about last year's riots to pleas for a world in which money is less important than spiritual wealth, she fitted Greenbelt's social conscience perfectly. It was just something of a shame that the festival audience did not have as much confidence in her as its programmers.

It's rare, in popular music, for an artist to communicate that most elusive of emotions, joy, but that's what comes across with Hope and Social - the new Fat 'n' Frantic, anyone?

There's a flavour of Madness in their Ska beat, as these nutty-boys energetically get the crowds, standing in mud, dancing and laughing.

Their performance on mainstage on Sunday can variously be described as "tight", "expansive", and "fun". It's enough to get the fans (some waving placards) running on the spot, despite the brown stuff underfoot.

But there's a serious side to this group, too, in songs like "Red, Red Rose", which ponders "talking about religious views" at the end of civilisation, and the poignant, Dexy's-influenced "Family Man", complete with high-energy banjo. Watch this space: these boys will put a smile on your face.

Right from the first line, that combination of Scottish vocal power and harmony pumping out from the mainstage could only be the Proclaimers, but the band now supporting Charlie and Craig Reid gave them a richer sound than before; not just on the newer tracks opening the set, but also on a slower and even more lyrical "Sunshine on Leith".

Still, it was the old favourites that many in the large crowd had come to hear. Three songs in, "Letter from America" had them all with their arms in the air. However, "Cap in Hand" failed to stir the couple of saltires on show; perhaps people were there for a good time rather than political commentary.

The inevitable climax was "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" resulting in a frenzy of hollering and singing. With thousands of pairs of wellie boots marching on the spot, parents and teenagers shared a rare moment of togetherness.

At the start of Sunday, the Greenbelt communion congregation had sung "Bring 'em all in", a reworked Mike Scott song. At its close, Nitin Sawhney's eclectic, and electric, performance did just that. It was as if he had taken a tour of the entirety of the catering concessions at the festival, scooping a dollop of each cuisine: Asian, Latin, Mediterranean, North African, English - and blended them into a spicy soul-food mix.


To say that Sawhney, a British Indian, musician, producer, and composer, is eclectic tells the story too baldly. Even though we were standing in a mud-clogged field in damp air, Sawhney took us and placed us at one moment in a sultry night with cicadas, a rum punch, and a breath of wind coming off the ocean. Then suddenly there was the bright flash of a vivid sari, and the smell of chillies and garlic cooking on an open fire.

The silent disco is far from silent. Even though the music is played through wireless headphones radio-linked to DJ booths in the Big Top, dancers scream along to the music at the top of their lungs, unable to hear themselves, or each other.

Two DJs fight for musical dominance (it's possible to flick between their channels at any time, by pushing a switch on the headset). Pretty soon groups form, bound by the simple camaderie of listening to the same music. It's a badge of honour to resist the lure of 80s cheese, and stay tuned to the thumping dance music of the other channel, but it's a hard one to keep for most.

Just over an hour after it shakes mainstage, the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)", comes on the headphones. All the voices in the tent are raised in unison. People stamp their feet in time. Most, it turns out, try to put on a Scottish accent for the chorus.

This choir is a world away from the original version. All the rehearsals have taken place in showers, in cars, and through hairbrushes in mirrors. And without headphones on, listening to the noise fill the arena, it sounds beautiful.

Despite the boggy quagmire in front of mainstage, a good crowd tipped up to watch Leeds-born beatboxer Shlomo (Hebrew for "God's peace") late on Sunday night. People enthusiastically clapped and jumped around to his remixed classics and original material, so much so, in fact, that children were falling over in the mud with excitement.

Later that same evening, in front of a crowd of mostly 13 to 18-year-olds, Shlomo took on the silent disco mantle for an hour, including a range of hip hop, Queen, and again, his own material.

Watching him was a privilege. Like a conductor, he co-ordinates such a range of sounds using a loop pedal to record motifs. Yet he has no strings, brass or timpani drums. He relies upon solely his own vocal chords.

Folk On present a challenge for the Greenbelt schedulers. Are they a musical act? Or are they comedians? The truth is, they manage to bridge that gap in which so many YouTube hopefuls perish. The quartet are talented musicians, mastering the didgeridoo and creating the genre of folk-rap, and genuinely funny performers.

Despite being regulars in the muddy venues of Cheltenham Racecourse, Monday lunchtime was their first stab at mainstage. Could they make the step up? Absolutely. The crowd laughed, sang, and lost their dignity performing ridiculous dance moves under the guidance of these "Real Men of Folk".

By Monday night, you might imagine that Greenbelters had toughed it out enough. But in Imagined Village and Bellowhead, the festival mainstage saw some of its biggest audiences of the weekend.

Melding traditional English music with the beats and sounds of a truly global palette, Imagined Village's lyrics called out for social justice at every turn. They seemed like a band birthed to play at Greenbelt.

In Bellowhead the festival got its biggest surprise ever, with a set that felt like a party. Raucous, inventive, generous, and euphoric, the 11-piece band blessed the thousands who danced on in the mud with their infectious musicality and spirit.

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