Riverside was brilliant because it was free and everyone had a good time and all the musicians were great and it was brilliant.
Right, is the coast clear, have they gone? You know, those people who can’t tell the difference between a review and a press release? That lot who don’t quite grasp that the best compliment you can pay a musician is actually to listen to them? The gaggle who do one of the absolute highlights of Oxfordshire’s music calendar a disservice by getting upset if someone dares admit that one of the performers was, perhaps, not that great?
Good, then we level-headed people can get on with talking about the Charlbury Riverside Festival 2011, always a beautifully run, welcoming event, and one that we organise our summer around because we’d hate to ever miss it. In some ways, it doesn’t spoil the event if the music is duff at Riverside but we must admit, this year the lineup was, pound for pound, the strongest it’s been for quite some years. And starting with Peerless Pirates certainly couldn’t dampen anybody’s spirits, even as the first of many showers blew across the festival. They play classic indie welded onto rugged, shanty-style basslines that justify the band’s name: think The Wedding Present with arrangements by Guybrush Threepwood. Not always painfully original – you don’t have to be Scott Bakula to make the quantum leap from their opening tune to ‘This Charming Man’ – but they offer friendly, jolly music that inaugurates the festival almost as well as the near visible battle within compere Lee Christian not to say naughty words on the mike.
This year’s lineup on the second stage is definitely the strongest and most intriguing since the Beard Museum left the helm, and our first visit rewards us with one of the sets of the weekend. Last time we saw STEM, it was all acoustic guitars and bongos and it couldn’t have been more worthily earthy if the PA were powered by a tofu wind turbine. Now they’ve returned to their Neustar roots to give us fat, brooding trip-hop in the vein of Portishead and Lamb. Emma Higgins has a richly soulful but mysteriously intimate voice, like Grace Jones whispering secrets in your ear over port and cigars, and John West’s electronics envelop her with dark wings of autumnal sound, that’s often only a breakbeat away from early Moving Shadow material. Perhaps a tad too in thrall to their mid-90s influences, this is still a band that is worth investigating as soon as possible.
We cock a quick ear in the direction of Mundane Sands, whose expansive folk rock is played with relish and personality, before visiting the charmingly odd man selling the coffees. You want a tasty Americano and a string of confounding non-sequiturs, you won’t get a better option anywhere in England. Last year we began to wonder whether he was some sort of live theatre installation, so unexpected were his utterances. You wouldn’t get that at your corporate energy drink sponsored mega-fests, eh?
They ought to show videos of Samuel Zasada before every acoustic night and open mike session in the county, with a subtitle reading “This is what you’re aiming for; if all you’ve got are miserable sub-Blunt moans, go home and try again. Thank you”. There have been alterations and expansions to the Zasada lineup since our last meeting, but they can still imbue their tunes with a gravitas and texture that’s sadly lacking from nearly all of their peers.
Black Hats have only really got one song. It’s a goodie, though, a slick new wave canter with an anthemic culture-yob chorus and the hint of some amphetamine ska lurking just below the surface. They play it a bunch of times today. We like it every time. Job done.
Like Samuel Zasada, Tamara Parsons-Baker has been showing up the paucity of talent in most acoustic performers with a powerful, dramatic voice and some bleakly imposing lyrics. The Martyrs is her new rhythm section, featuring colleagues form the recently disbanded Huck & The Handsome Fee (not to mention much-missed sludgehogs Sextodecimo). We like the fact that there is pain and bitterness evident in the songs, but the delivery is always melodically accessible; they sugar the pill like Oxford’s answer to The Beautiful South.
What’s that? No, we quite like The Beautiful South. No, honestly. Anyway, Tamara & The Martyrs don’t actually sound like them, they play a sort of gothic blues, it was just an analogy. Look, let’s make this easier, and move on to The Dirty Royals. No room for confusion here because they sound – and to a certain extent, look – like first album Blur. Not a band that has “develop sonically” at the top of the To Do list stuck to their fridge, maybe, but to dislike their mixture of upbeat indie and airy West coast psychedelia you’d need a cold, black heart and a suspicion of music in general. And we have both those, and we still enjoyed it.
We wander over the see Welcome To Peepworld, and are simply astonished by the first two songs we hear. Their semi-acoustic sound is cohesive and balanced, but like mid-period Dylan the songs are allusive and intriguing enough to keep you hooked as the music floats by. We’re just wondering how amazing it is that two vocalists as different yet as impressive as Tamara Parsons-Baker and Fi McFall could share a stage at a free provincial festival, and pulling out the thesaurus to look up “astounding”, when Welcome To Peepworld toss it all away. Why, why, why did they have to start the affected cod-Brazilian vocal trilling? What possessed them to do all the horrible, Morrisette trash with the lazy repetitive lyrics about bad relationships and the criminally uninteresting use of two good guitarists? We thought we’d found one of the best bands in Oxfordshire, but Peepworld broke out heart and we had to leave. No, no, it’s nothing, there’s just something in our eye…
Things are more reliable over on the main stage, with The Anydays. As the name suggests, they’re a band for all seasons. So long as that season is early summer. In North London. In 1964 or 1994. Again, this is a good band, but not one who are interested in pushing the envelope. In fact, they probably wouldn’t even open the envelope unless they knew it contained loads of lager and Chelsea boots and old Pye seven inches. But if ever there’s a place for well-made moddish rocking, that place has got to be a big field at a free festival. Even as we’re nodding along, we imagine somehow merging The Anydays, The Dirty Royals and The Black Hats, to turn three solid local bands into one world-beating Friday night behemoth.
Smilex are playing on the second stage, uncredited in the programme. If you don’t like Smilex, you should get a bit tired and a little damp, and walk over to find them playing a set just when you weren’t expecting it, and we reckon you’ll come out loving them. Days like this is what Smilex are for – well, this and ‘Your Song’ – rousing flagging crowds with their irrepressible energy and remarkably well-made sleaze-punk. Each of their songs is like the quick, sharp tingle of pulling gaffer tape from your chest; can’t think where we got that image from, Lee.
Borderville are sort of the opposite of Smilex. They are a truly excellent band, but one whose music, for all the bow ties and bombast, works better on record, where the sensitive playing is evident and where it’s possible to relish the subtle melancholy beneath every epic composition. An evening in a field just doesn’t do them justice, the environment seems to demand more immediate gratification than they offer. It’s like putting P G Wodehouse on Mock The Week. A favourite act of ours, but not a set that we really got much out of.
And then it was home, because that’s what the transport dictated – the countryside’s all very well, but it’s nowhere near our bed. There was still Charly Coombes, The Rock Of Travolta and Leburn to go, all of whom we know to be highly reliable options. A very strong day of music, in a delightful setting, it’s pretty hard to find fault with that.
As much fun as Saturday was, Sunday packed in a few more surprises for us, not least with Grey Children, the new project for Dave Griffiths, once of Eeebleee and Witches. As befits a first live performance of songs played by a scratch band, there are hesitant, uncertain moments in the set, but the material is very strong, with a muscular poeticism that’s something like a cross between Tindersticks and Sugar, with some excellent baroque curlicues from Benek Chylinski’s trumpet and Chris Fulton’s violin. Not a project we expect to see gracing the stage with great regularity, so it’s a real treat for those who turn up early.
After discovering him last year, we have to hang around to catch a bit of Sonny Black’s performance. You see so much hollow showboating in blues, it’s just great to see a relaxed, unhurried musician who lets his technique serve the music, and not the other way round. Hints of Davey Graham and John Renbourn abound, as well as the greats like Doc Watson. Sonny also plays some nice bottleneck national guitar, a gorgeous instrument which is only spoilt by the fact that just looking at the thing reminds us of Brothers In Arms.
A complete change of style at the other end of the festival, with thumping drum machines and squelching 303 basslines. We have an admission: we have no critical faculties in the face of acid house. None whatsoever. Honestly, just the sound of it immerses us in a wash of serotonin-drenched euphoria, taking us direct to cloud 909. So, for us to observe that Manacles Of Acid are very good indeed is probably meaningless, but they do a bang up job of reliving that wonderful space between Phuture and early Orbital. There’s a lovably ramshackle edge to the show, as lines come in at different volumes, and jack leads are swapped on the fly, but really if you do this music well, it always sounds good, you don’t have to rewrite the rulebook. So, not that dissimilar from Sonny Black after all.
Main stage engineer Jimmy Evil disappears at about this time, so we follow him over to the second stage to witness his progcore outfit Komrad. Since we last saw them, the tracks have been rearranged a little, and the music is less the unforgiving technical metal of old, and has a lighter, post-Zappa bounce: it’s not the all-out jape of Mike Patton’s more leftfield projects, but there is definite humour on display, not least in the genius song title ‘Parking Restrictions In Seaside Towns (Strongly Worded Letter To The Council)’. At moments the set is a little approximate – with intricate arrangements like these there’s nowhere to hide the odd fluff – but this is a band well worth watching.
People might look at Steamroller and call them dinosaurs. That would be forgetting, of course, that dinosaurs are COOL. An unreconstructed power blues trio will send some people into frothing excitement (especially those who remember the younger Steamroller from their Corn Dolly days), just as it will bore others to silent tears, but even the most vehement critic would have to admit that Steamroller have more than earned their place in Oxford music history, and that drummer Larry Reddington’s lyrics have a knowing humour: he could probably pen a witty lyric like ‘Back In Ten Minutes’ whilst most of his peers were still trying to find a rhyme for Cadillac.
We’ve never quite managed to warm to Gunning For Tamar, for some reason. Their music is equidistant between Hretha and Spring Offensive, but for us they don’t have the rigorous elasticity of the former nor the emotive beauty of the latter. Solid, twitchy Oxford artpop, played very well, but not much else to our ears.
The Prohibition Smokers Club have developed in the past year from a random jam session to smooth, stadium soul party. Sort of a mixed blessing, as some of the set is too polite, but the highlights are excellent: ‘Graveyard Shift’ is a smoky sketch of urban night owls, like a collaboration between Tom Waits and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, and the final track is a spicy open-ended funk workout. Really they’re the sort of groove revue that can only be judged after two 90-minute sets and a gallon of Long Island Iced Tea, it seems as though they’re just getting warmed up when the gig finishes.
One great thing about Riverside is all the children in attendance who seem to actually love the music. We saw a lad of about four moshing away to Gunning For Tamar, and by the time Alphabet Backwards come on, he’s rounded up a whole bunch of chums, all right in front of the stage. “Oh God,” observes an audience member to us, “they’re flocking. It’s like The Birds”. But then, Alphabet Backwards are a band for the unabashed child inside us all, an improbably joyous froth of pop melodies and chirpy keyboards. The closing track, new to us, sounds like a mixture of The Streets and Supertramp. Brilliant.
We thought Every Hippie’s Dream was world peace, with perhaps the chance to smoke a joint and look at a lady’s boobs taking a close second, but apparently what they like is 60s and 70s rock covers. So, look, when the sun’s out and someone’s playing ‘Foxy Lady’ and they’re not completely rubbish the world can never seem an entirely awful place, but someone’s clearly been bogarting the originality round at EHD’s commune, as there isn’t much character to speak of on stage. They also seem to run out of steam a couple of numbers before the end of the set: if getting from one end to the other of ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ is a terrible chore, perhaps the covers circuit isn’t for you, lads.
Death Of Hifi give us instrumental hip-hop next, which is a tribute to Riverside’s diversity. There are some nice mid-90s beats and some cheeky samples, plus decent scratching and guitar playing, but none of the tracks go anywhere. A rapper hops up to freestyle over one of the tracks, and whilst he’s not quite got the flow of Half Decent, who guested with Prohibition Smokers Club, his presence lifts the music from a moraine of unconnected ideas. A blueprint for future developments, perhaps.
Our love of louche Gallic troubadours Les Clochards is well documented, so we shan’t dwell on it here. One thing that leaps out at us is the quality of the lyrics in their set (thankfully for this shamefaced monoglot, pretty much all in English today). “Some things were never made clear/ Behind the surface, another veneer” is a lovely couplet in ‘Lavinia’, and the line “I stood on the fire escape and watched the sunrise” still raises the hairs on the back of the neck in ‘Tango Borracho’. Songwriting: some of you bands reading this really should try it one day.
Remember Banjo Boy from a few years back? Well, he’s here today, playing with The Headington Hillbillies, and we forget to watch. Very poor. We do see some of The Fenns, a family affair featuring different generations of Charlbury locals who get the best response of the weekend. Proficient covers isn’t really our bag – and having to listen to ‘Magic Carpet Ride’ twice in one day is really testing us – but The Fenns boast plenty of charm, and there’s evident pleasure being had on and off stage, so we just sneak away quietly.
So, congratulations are in order to the Riverside organisors once again for another wonderful festival. A lovely weekend, and entirely for free: an obvious point, perhaps, but one worth repeating. If you doubt the effort that goes into running Riverside, take a look at the film of the site being set up on their website, embedded from Twitney, which we suppose is a Witney version of Twitter (of course, they’ve had social networking in West Oxfordshire for millennia, it’s called in-breeding). Riverside should be supported, cherished and celebrated by anyone who appreciates live music, especially today, when so many festivals have all the character of a gulag in a Welcome Break motorway services. Same time next year, then?