DiS went to Summer Sundae last weekend. We had a stage and everything. Here, three DiS scribes share their highlights from the weekend that was...
Having started life ten years ago, long before the term "Boutique Festival" was even invented, Summer Sundae has established itself as one of the country's leading events of its size. Held in the picturesque grounds of Leicester's De Montfort Gardens, there's a homely family orientated feel about it that sets it apart from many of its more commercially aspiring brethren.
Lower down the bill were several hidden gems, and while Derby's Rugosa Nevada and Leicester's Kyte both regale musings of U2 and Sigur Ros past respectively, its left to another East Midlands outfit, Nottingham's Spotlight Kid to set the standard for the weekend. Although linked with the post millennium "nu gaze" movement for the past few years, they've upped the ante to the point where their M83 meets Neu groovathons mesmerise and astound those who've made the effort to watch their performance on the Indoor Stage. Whereas previously dubbed half-heartedly as "a Nottingham supergroup" thanks to boasting ex-members of Six By Seven, Model Morning and Echoboy in their ranks, their show stands out as one of the festival's highlights, despite SSW2010 being no more than a few hours old.
Lost in the smog rather than confined to the ether, Norway's Megaphonic Thrift make a claim for loudest band of the weekend, even though a combination of Spotlight Kid's brilliance and adverse weather means DiS only catches one-and-a-half songs of their set. The same cannot be said for The Sunshine Underground, a band whose best days seem to be way behind them or London stage school puppet Eliza Doolittle. We watch bewildered why so many seem so encapsulated by one this ordinary, and when she launches into an inexcusable jazzy cover of Justin Bieber's 'Baby', we leave sharpish.
Teenage Fanclub may be one of the elder statesmen of this year's line-up, but the likes of 'Ain't That Enough' and 'Star Sign', both written and recorded the best part of two decades ago still resonate with a vibrant beauty many of today's young pretenders would do well to study and put into practice. One of those we refer to could be Slow Club, a duo normally so passionate and exuberant live if not quite so interesting on record. 'Because We're Dead' still triumphs head and shoulders above the rest of their set, and when the band announce the debut of yet another new song, DiS leaves their dress rehearsal for liquid sustenance. When we return, Roots Manuva is putting on a larger than life show that makes us wonder why he isn't as commercially successful as the aforementioned Mr Stryder et al. 'Witness (1 Hope)'and 'Dreamy Days' still sound like UK hip hop's most potent 45s of the past decade, while the more eclectic, dubstep-influenced material off 2008's Slime And Reason boasts an added spring in its step that couldn't be a more fitting end to Friday night's proceedings if it tried.
With the rain falling even heavier than twenty-four hours ago, its left to early afternoon main stage openers Gaggle to introduce a kaleidoscope of dazzling colour to a miserably grey Saturday. Seasoned festival performers these days, the (currently) twenty-strong choir also possess a glut of genuinely catchy, thought-provoking songs in their armoury to counteract those naysayers already dismissing them as a novelty act. 'I Hear Flies' and 'Liar' you'll possibly already be familiar with, while the intuitive 'Power Of Money' and set closer 'Bang On The Drum' is the sound of twenty Bjorks fighting for the spotlight over a furious drum and bass backbeat. We like, a lot.
The rest of Saturday becomes something of a scramble to find something interesting to watch. C86 veterans The Woodentops are as shambolic as ever, while reality television finalist Diana Vickers and trusty prop-cum-sidekick Tommy The Trumpet may be all bubbly and bouncy yet still manage to give Marcel Marceau a run for his money in places. Or maybe we're just being a little harsh? Folky home counties dwellers Stornoway meanwhile fare little better, their depressingly anodyne set making Mumford & Sons sound like My Bloody Valentine. Time running out not to mention our wits end, its left to the noodly electro of Caribou to save what has, by and large, been a fairly disappointing day. Great pizzas in between mind...
Finally, the sun is out! Unfortunately, the majority of Sunday's must-see artists are playing on the DrownedinSound/Indoor Stage, one of those being Canadian post rockers The Besnard Lakes. If 2007's ...Are The Dark Horse provided a slight taster for their epic moodswinging jams, recent long player ...Are The Roaring Night offered the realisation that the early promise had paid dividends. Live they're a much more accomplished outfit than the last time they visited these shores, the on-stage chemistry between matrimonial partners Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas evident throughout. Meanwhile Errors aren't so much the cats that got the cream, but more the mice that raided the cheese. Heaps of it, because their dance-orientated instrumentals can't quite decide whether they're The Cuban Boys bezzie Buckfast drinking mates, or the sorcerers known as Battles' techno-wizardry apprentices. Baffling. The Futureheads however have no such identity crises. Having been signed and dropped more times than a journeyman League Two footballer, they've had to bounce back from so many knocks to the point where there really isn't an awful lot left to prove, and their career-spanning set is as perfect an ending to the weekend's festivities as we're likely to experience all summer.
Having had my first festival experiences at Glastonbury in the 1990s, it’s a relief to find one that jostles and squelches and booms at you from all sides – colourfully, melodiously, sweet & sourly, all as you’d expect – while offering the massive convenience of actually being able to get from the Rising Stage, via the (New) Musicians Stage to the Main Stage, and finally the Indoor Stage, all in well under ten minutes, without feeling like you’re in some heat-struck refugee convoy, and without missing more than a few minutes of overlapping sets.
I’ll leave eulogizing The Fall to someone with more perspective, and less awe. Mark E Smith once said “…if it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s still the Fall”. Suffice it to say, this current 'The Fall' are a wrecking ball demolishing everyone else, all weekend, and Mark E Smith in person is like Michael J Anderson playing Napoleon, in a version where he actually does take Moscow.
Watching Frightened Rabbit at De Montfort Hall on Sunday night, it becomes wonderfully, grin-splittingly obvious they’re the best new band in Britain. Not “in waiting”, but Right Now. Cut their three albums any which way, and you’ve got a perfect set. Brian Eno once said that the secret of perfect pop is a simple backing vocal even the least musical of us can sing along to, no matter what (or something to that effect). The affect had us: bouncing up and down, yelling what we can, and ooh-ing along to everything else. Plus, they get the prize for cutest banter, ever: “this next song is all about the clapping; I’d clap along with you, but I’ve got to play this thing.”
Three less obvious highlights:
Announced only a few days ago, DM Stith manifests on the Rising Stage mid-afternoon, to the polite indifference of a small, young crowd come to sit out of the sun. I sincerely hope they find his melodies nagging at them, over the next few weeks, because it’s a slow process realizing just how exquisite his subtle arrangements are, and how perfectly observed the details of his world, whether it’s bathos raised to tragedy (“since you left / I have been sleeping with the light on”) or the little epiphanies of the natural world (“is it a star? / oh, pale victory…”). On last year’s Heavy Ghost, Stith’s lulling, sussurant folk was lapped by layers and layers of vocal harmony, like souls in limbo, albeit with a classical, and often jazzy feel, rather than anything at all Goth. Live, and solo, Stith uses a pair of microphones and a loop station to create serene soundscapes surrounding the silvery trickling of the guitar – miles of sand and flat sea beneath a white sky – and it’s no less beautiful. He keeps his eyes closed the whole time, to pinpoint the exact intonation that’ll take us there with him, and when he starts an (unannounced) ‘Spirit Ditch’ by Sparklehorse, I’m immediately singing along, there in the midst of all the surreal bricolage, “sleeping with metal hands”, waking up “in a burned out basement”, at home “in a slide-trombone”. It’s the best possible tribute to the late Mark Linkous, who never would have wanted a crowd roaring his name; just knowing he’d passed into the canon of great songwriters, where DM Stith already has a foot in the door, just waiting for us to come and see.
Lou Rhodes is the biggest (personal) surprise of the festival, having been 50% of a duo I happily ignored 15 years ago, in the heyday of trip-hop, and having then gone down a path not dissimilar to Beth Orton. For years, I’ve been following plenty of critically acclaimed singer-songwriters who get tagged “gothic-folk” or somesuch, but often lack something (I’m thinking, here, Marissa Nadler, Elizabeth Anka Vagajic, maybe Espers). Lou Rhodes may not be a storyteller or poet (like, say, Nina Nastasia), but she’s got that something in spades, which turns out to be the authority of her singing, the attention to shades of meaning, and the cracks that let you see through to a whole life: “independence is starting to feel a lot like loneliness”. What lifts the performance even further is the stunning double-bass accompaniment: played like a cello, the drones fill DeMontfort Hall, and on alternate songs, the jazzy thumbing and plucking has a complexity far beyond most folk, and worthy of Van Morrison in his mystical period.
It’s unsurprising that Steve Mason would be worth seeing at a festival, but it’s a big surprise just how good he is, and how close to a massive comeback, if played right. Mason was, of course, the frontman with The Beta Band, who were once the most promising band in Britain, recipients of a 5-star review, for their debut, from The Sun “…because it’s really going to annoy the NME”. I saw his old band a few times when it was all about the costumes, the gimmicks, the gumbo of incongruous ideas (like rapping in Franglais) sloshing about over colossal blasts of bass. In 2010, Mason’s band are an impeccably tight groove machine, displaying total mastery of rock dynamics, and the slow build to hooks that might be expected but are also the only ones they possibly could be, and you’re gagging for them by the time the band get there. Compare this to a certain Welsh 8-piece, playing on Sunday afternoon: lots of melodies struggling out from the general racket, but the problem is, it is a general racket, rather than a single trudging saurian beast. Sure, Mason doesn’t play his weirder rhymes for laughs, nor his sentimental songs for heartache, and if he’s going to pour scorn on John Lydon and Iggy Pop for selling-out he needs to spit more – his general demeanour is a scowling “I defy you not to dance” rather than anything else – but he’s one stand-out single away from hooking everyone back.
Various commercial entities prick the indie sensibilities of the angry young folk: an ex-X-Factress gets booed, bottled, and much muttered about afterwards. Lissie is greeted with crossed arms in spite of her slick MOR, one song sounding like ‘All Along the Watchtower’ – maybe it’s the fact that between songs she has the cold dead voice of a killer (like Ladyhawke, come to think of it). The general enthusiasm for Eliza Doolittle baffles us, given the incompetence of the playing, singing, composition. Caribou sounds like I always thought Hot Chip would if they matched the descriptions, let alone the hype – in the dancier moments, this could even be house music, without the compulsion to slip some strychnine in the Ecstasy. We Don’t Show Up on Radar play their second-ever gig as an ensemble, perhaps prematurely because the songs mostly sound like Casiotone for the Painfully Alone, transcribed for six players; re-arrange those songs though, guys and girls, and you could be the next Allo Darlin. What else? During a break for air (50,000 Fall-fans generate a lot of heat…) Tinchy Stryder sounds surprisingly close to Smith & Co, with his relentless, one-dimensional rhythms, and slightly jolly keyboard lines. Finally, the film tent is a far better end to the night than an hour-long queue for Silent Disco (great idea, the latter, until those-queuing practice their football-chants). The film about The Doors, narrated by Martin Sheen, is a must-see for its logical leapfrogging to reconcile Jim Morrison being a visionary AND a buffoon, with the splendid punchline “…to date, the Doors’ music has never been used in a car advert”, as if that’s the ultimate form of rebellion. Next up, the Ian Dury film, starring Andy “Gollum” Serkis, proves essential viewing for anyone with even the slightest interest in the rock’n’roll lifestyle, the grubbier English roots of punk, and what gets called “big acting”.
Festivals have changed dramatically in the last five years or so. What were once the stamping ground of thousands of unwashed teenagers are now seen as a nice weekend getaway for the family. Summer Sundae is no exception, which explains the appearance of a handful of pop acts on the bill. Diana Vickers has a mid afternoon slot, while Tinchy Stryder is headlining Saturday night. This pop-ification seems to annoy some people, not least the group of boys stood behind me for Vickers’ set. It seems that they are not happy with the idea of a pop star, for that is what she is, appearing at a rock festival. Vickers performs a cover of a Snow Patrol song (it’s not the one you’re thinking of, since you asked), possibly in an attempt to win over the festival crowd as Snow Patrol are an indie band and festivals are for indie bands, so the cover should win her favour. It doesn’t really matter though, as she still has her number one hit single left to play. ‘Once’ ends the set; the large crowd at the front are happy, the boys behind me, not so much.
Saturday sees the onset of torrential rain. Inside, the four men in Caribou arrange themselves in a tight huddle in the middle of the stage. One of them starts playing a simple chord progression on a synth. The drummer joins in, playing sharp and precisely. The other two members slowly introduce more aspects to the sound. A bass brings the low end, a guitar makes a brief appearance, vocals are sung, softly. More synths are played, with bleeps and stabs of keyboards coming from an array of boxes on stage. The sound builds. People begin to nod along. Caribou’s sound moves very slowly, like a glacier, inch by inch, enveloping everything in its path. The nodding heads turn to tapping feet. The sound builds. A cowbell is added to the mix. Caribou’s clinical organic trance takes over the hall and envelops everyone in a warm blanket of sound. Everyone forgets the rain and the mud and starts to dance. For 45 minutes Caribou provides a truly glorious festival moment that no one else will match for the rest of the weekend.
Frankie & The Heartstrings? More like Frankie & The Hype, amiright? Being a hype band can mean you get to play to sell out audiences. In Leicester it means you play to a half full tent on a Saturday night. The Heartstrings don’t put on much of a show; they merely provide a backdrop to Frankie. He’s the real star of the show, and it seems that The Heartstrings know this. As a frontman, Frankie excels – he has the looks, the charm and the charisma to go the distance. Plus he has lovely hair. He whips the crowd into a frenzy over the course of a somewhat brief set. By the end, those at the front are singing along. Frankie seems proud, whilst The Heartstrings seem a bit lost. They may not be reinventing the wheel with their 80s pop revivalism, but they’ll probably go down a treat at your local indie-disco.
On the main stage Tinchy Stryder is playing the part of seasoned pro. He gives away t-shirts to the best dancers, he knows to mention Leicester at every opportunity. He saves his two big singles for the end of the set. Inside, at odds with the professionalism of the pop world, we have The Fall being The Fall. More accurately, it’s very much the Mark E Smith show. The band can do what they like; everyone is here to see Mark E Smith. During their set, there are four incidents of amps being turned down, three incidents of lyrics being read lyrics from a piece of A4 paper. He spends a large amount of time hidden behind the guitar amplifier away from the spotlight. At one point he throws his microphone into the audience, giving one lucky punter the opportunity to perform a surprisingly decent Mark E Smith impression. He takes his jacket off. He puts it back on again. He decides to play a keyboard solo despite being completely out of tune. He puts his jacket back on and leaves the stage. The rest of the band follows. The lights go up. Everyone seems happy with his performance; Mark E Smith was very Mark E Smith tonight, which is what everyone wants. There were no free t-shirts.
Touring has been good to Los Campesinos! They’ve spent their time on the road honing their craft. You can really tell - where there was once a somewhat shambolic live band now stands a taunt rock machine ready to knock the hits out the park. The biggest surprise is that Los Campesinos! genuinely do have hits, as much as a middling indie band can have hits. ‘Death To Los Campesinos!’ is welcomed like an old friend, whilst ‘You! Me! Dancing!’ is received like the indie disco classic it was destined to become. ‘The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future’ builds the set to an epic climax, bordering on emotional at times. It’s only during ‘Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks’ when Gareth misjudges a stage dive, clips the barrier and lands on his face that the illusion is ruined – Los Campesinos! may have the moves and style of a well-oiled indie rock machine, but they still possess the charm and passion of their earlier days. If I may be so bold I would describe their set as triumph. Most triumphant in fact.
Check back tomorrow for our gallery of photos from the festival and also read Dom's chat with Diana Vickers(!?)
Photo above of Gareth from Los Camp! by Tommy