Hernhill, Canterbury, Kent
22nd – 24th August 2003
A few miles down the road in Reading, Good Charlotte are getting bottled off, System of a Down are inciting a near riot and Damon Albarn has fallen on his big fat arse. Literally, this time. But I’m spending the weekend in Canterbury with several thousand middle-aged hippies. Just my luck. Or maybe I was best off of all...
Headlining Friday, Inspiral Carpets are far from a revelation. Their peppy organ driven mod pop, swaggers along like the Happy Mondays decked out in Carnaby Street gear, but gets dragged down by the flatulent reverb-soaked guitar and their more anthemic, it’s-grim-up-north stuff apes New Order to such an extent, you half expect Keith Allen to pop up. And that is a chilling thought indeed, so we depart for the delightfully named Croissant Neuf Circus Tent, where Hawkwind alumni Space Ritual are playing. It’s hard to imagine a band living up to such a preposterous name, but Space Ritual are every bit as ludicrous as their rum moniker. Old men in sparkly leotards share the stage with a troupe of dancers seemingly recruited from the local drama school and the local strip club. Their prog-space-boogie doesn’t shy from ridiculous extremes either. It’s like Electric Six for crusties and it would be completely fucking crap were it not for the fact that all of the tunes are complete genius: Insanely catchy T-Rex stompers are attacked with silly whooshing synths and free-jazz sax bounced along by a deceptively tight and funk-driven rhythm section and taut, economical arrangements. It’s frankly embarrassing to see crusty old gits outstripping the young(er) tykes by a country mile.
Saturday provides little to inspire, neither Theo Travis’s icy, ethereal flute and echo experiments nor Deborah Bonham’s AOR country-schlock offer much of a compelling wake-up call. Incredible String Band’s hymnal hippy folk music is interesting enough in a chin-stroking anthropological sense, but it’s hard to see what my Dad was getting so excited about. Which leaves just Robert Plant tonight. The original Rock-God presents us an intriguing conundrum: With strutting cock-rock at the height of fashion, Plant might easily be expected to rest on his laurels, so it’s admirable that he feels the constant need to musically re-invent himself. On the other hand, the droning eastern-tinged interpretations of Percy’s folk heroes (and Elvis) are laughably dwarfed by the Zep material in the set. In fact even hearing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ again would be better than a lot of the ‘clever’ stuff. Thankfully we’re saved from falling into total coma, not by the scourge of guitar-shops but a mighty ‘Whole Lotta Love’. Plant unleashes that famous squeal, gravelled and mellowed by age and reminds us just why he’s such a legend. Not a minute too soon either.
Sunday. What the hell happened to Cosmic Rough Riders? How a band can go from beatific jangle and showers of Byrdsian harmonies to joining the ranks of crap Scottish pop bands (Teenage Fanclub [you're fired - adie], Del Amitri, Travis…) in one album is beyond me. All I know is Alan McGee is an evil, evil man. Fuck knows who thought Buzzcocks should play this festival, but thank God they did. Their ragged set is a constant joy. Terrible, terrible sound and ear-piercing trashy garage guitars can’t ruin songs this fantastic. Quirky and angular without being arch and contrived, instantly accessible without being dumb or throwaway, they make timeless punk pop, which sounds nothing like punk-pop. Steve Diggle is a maniac blur of energy, strutting about the stage thrashing his guitar like the years never touched him. A more reserved Pete Shelley smiles benevolently down on the crowd, delivering his trademark nasal drawl. Look, they wrote 'Ever Fallen in Love', they’re Gods, what more do I need to say? Age and fifteen years inside haven’t dimmed Arthur Lee’s fire either. The sun is setting as the original psychedelic outlaw, social commentator supreme, eccentric genius and former jailbird takes to the stage. Dressed like some Dickensian rogue in top hat, long white shirt and tight black pants, Lee prowls the stage dancing as creepily as he sounds. When he sings, his leering California drawl opens up into a mighty, rich expressive croon. Songs which sounded hemmed in by the tinny 60s production on ‘Forever Changes’ stretch out here in the rolling splendour of the Kent countryside. Backed by strings, brass and gorgeous harmony singing, Lee’s performance is that rarest of things; a genuine extravaganza, a thrilling moment, a unique event. When he sings “Sitting on a hillsi-i-ide, watching all the people die” it’s actually quite unnerving, with us, y’know, sitting on a hillside and that... Until Captain Beefheart decides to grace us with his presence once more, Arthur Lee remains the undisputed guardian of the '60s rebel spirit. Long may he continue to give us the creeps. Metallica, you can keep your moshpit, it was worth missing the party to see a legend like Arthur Lee in action.