A work colleague has a mug reading “A bad day fishing beats a good day working”. Hardly Kierkegaard, but bear it in mind when reading this review: although we saw very few acts that really inspired us (on Saturday at least), we’d rather spend a weekend watching disappointing music at Riverside than a night with decent bands at The Academy. It’s something to do with the delightful landscape, the excellent Marsh Gibbon ales, the friendly atmosphere and the knowledge that some people have gone to a lot of effort to create a weekend out for us all, and not asked for a penny.
Deer Chicago are a decent opener to the festival, constructing large scale edifices of ever-so-slightly angular rock with a sturdy, emotional voice spread over the top. All very Fell City Girl, though Jonny Payne’s voice doesn’t have the natural power of Phil McMinn’s. The odd Jam interlude works surprisingly well.
At first Alan Fraser & The Resignation Orchestra offer flat jazz with Tom Waits Gruffalo growling from festival organiser Dave Oates. Diverting, but not much else. However, after a minute or two they start to warm up, and Fraser’s soprano sax solos become more interesting and contrast with some excellent honks and bubbles from Tony Bevan’s bass baritone, which is roughly the size of a hatchback.
Music For Pleasure entertain us as ever. Their mixture of spicy mid-reign R.E.M. melody and pre-leyline Julian Cope energy is always fun, even if it lacks the character of their day job bands (Harry Angel and The Unbelievable Truth). It’s like many of long term local trier Mark Cobb’s bands, but with bigger balls.
The Black Dog Emporium sadly sound nothing like techno trailblazers The Black Dog, nor much like Black Sabbath, despite the programme’s allegations. Instead they play a tedious brand of lightly funky 70s rock. The word “Reef” came to mind, and not least because it felt as though we were grounded inextricably in musical shallows. The drummer made things mildly interesting with some carbonated fills, but the vocals were honked out as if by a bingo caller trying to communicate across a Swiss valley.
More foghorn vocal subtlety from Crackerdummy. They’re a capable post-grunge trio who remind us of average Irish act Mundy. The playing is good, and it’s all well put together, but only in the way a small brick wall is. A small wall where you were hoping to find a bouncy castle and bourbon jacuzzi.
Remember David Oates’ functional blues growling? It starts to feel like a halcyon era once Stuart Turner starts his rubbish gravelly groaning. It sounds as though he’s trying to scare an errant toddler, not entertain adults. Pity, as The Flat Earth Society are a good band, spinning a nice sticky rockabilly web, and capable of a John Lee Hooker style boogie chug. We live in a frustrating world in which most post-rock instrumental bands sound half finished, but where most blues bands are ruined by duff singers.
Last year Diplomat’s Coffee kept us awake for the weekend. Sadly, this year we’re forced to buy our brew from a drunk man selling Mexican food, who was frankly fortunate not to have burnt his fingers off or inadvertently stabbed himself with a potato wedge at any point over the weekend. On one visit he mumbled something impenetrable about Mary Whitehouse and pronounced “hot chocolate” with one syllable, and at the next he blessed our coffee, even though we doubt he’s taken holy orders.
If Music For Pleasure hark back to R.E.M.’s Green, David Celia immediately reminds us of Around The Sun. Wrong choice, Dave. But we give him a chance and although the music is a little grown up for us, he has some a warm voice with decent Neil Young flourishes and some nice delicate keyboard parts, so we’ll give him the thumbs up.
Huck & The Handsome Fee are very good, if a little one-paced, and Tamara Parsons-Baker’s vocals really shine in this unabashed 50s throwback. The Roundheels’ trad rocking is less intense, a bit of a light, fluffy country meringue, but is pleasant enough. The Delta Frequency make out that they’re all about aggressive, subversive rock, but what we hear is like The Foo Fighters playing over a tinny old Front 242 LP. Ho hum.What a swizz
Undersmile amuse us, not least because their name sounds like coy slang for a fanny. They supply a thick, dense grunge sound that just trudges on slowly forever, like a man ploughing treacle. The twin vocals detract from the Babes In Toyland effect a little, sounding like two girls who don’t want to eat their sprouts, but that aside they’re a fun new band.
Far more fun than Charlie Coombes & The New Breed, despite the fact they’re several squillion times more experienced. Actually, he’s not that bad, and has a very smooth voice, like a 70s sit com vicar having a crack at Nik Heyward, but the songs just aren’t there. He only needs one great Crowded House style pop hit and we’d love him, but for now we’re bored enough to consider going for a quick game of chess with the guy from the Mexican food stand.
With flagging energy levels, Riverside keeps back three excellent acts to round off the day. The Family Machine still have the chirpiest pop songs in Oxford concealing the sharpest barbs, but they feel distant on the big stage. Beard Of Zeuss make a sort of bang bang bang noise for a while and it sounds bloody great; by the end we’re not only unsure whether it is wrong to spell Zeus with two esses, but we’re wondering whether a few more might not go amiss.
Borderville synthesise the twin poles of the sometimes mystifying Riverside booking policy. They play “proper” music, with choruses and schoolroom keyboard technique and a respect for rock classics, yet they also throw it together with such calculatedly wild abandon and desperate drama that the gig becomes almost aggressively experimental. They start with a string quartet, which is over-amped and out of tune, but sets the tone of faded glamour from which the set springs in all its camp glory. This is what Glee would be like if Roxy Music sat on Mount Olympus and Pete Townshend carried amps down Mount Sinai. Improbably excellent music.