Back in the realm of indie rock, Daughter were warming up in the totally swarmed out Radio 6 tent, for what turned out to be one of the most listless experiences of the festival. I enjoy Elena Tonra’s folk-tinted tones, and her album If You Leave is one of the most heartwarming mainstream releases of the year. I was intrigued when guitarist Igor Haefeli took a bow to his guitar and began to charge out harmonious post-rock sequences to Tonra’s delicate vocals. The young lady was indeed timid, but the two giant “EXTREME!” balls that had been inflated and were hammered about the audience for the entirety of her set didn’t lead to distraction. It must have been off-putting for the band to see these inflatable objects punched about in front of them, but they showed little sign of being fazed — they waded through their tracklist, differing very little from their album — it was OK. In need of something a little more driven, I turned to the main stage to catch Jessie Ware, who must have been a quarter of the way through her spot. “This fucking thing doesn’t work,” she blurted, jibing her sampler. Ware is a born performer, and her tenacious grip on the audience was just startling as she soared through “No To Love,” Wildest Moments,” and “Running.” In between songs she would introduce band members and thank the audience, promising them that she would be out partying later on that evening. Her instant transformation from pop-soul extraordinaire to South London flybanite was riveting to witness, and she gave the fest that much needed kick to see it from late afternoon Saturday slump into early evening mash-up as the crowds gathered for the following act.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs (Photo Credit: Pooneh Ghana)
Even though the half-baked disappointment that was Mosquito only came out a few weeks ago, there remained a buzz in the air for Karen O as she graced her audience wearing something like a ’70s retro-brand casino-valet PE kit. With huge sunglasses covering the upside-down crosses under her eyes and hockey socks pulled up to her knees, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs opened with “Zero” — a hopeful indicator that they were going to stick with past material as opposed to focusing on Mosquito tracks. I hadn’t seen the YYY live since 2003, just after they released their debut album, and the enthusiasm they displayed back then was just torrential — this is something Karen O has maintained over the last 11 years, and she appeared a ball of rabid ecstasy, flaunting about the stage in her frazzled blaze. The band crashed through “Pin,” “Heads Will Roll,” and “Gold Lion” amid a set that also was scattered with new material. The slight Mosquito bent didn’t matter so much though, as the audience was hyped just at seeing Karen and the fellas playing so wildly and having so much fun. When the band’s touring member (and former Slint guitarist) David Pajo departed the stage, leaving the original threesome, things got really hot — they played a spine-tingling rendition of “Maps” and finished with a rip-roaring version of “Date With The Night.” I don’t care much for what the band released after Fever to Tell, but seeing them play that early track as a closer was enough to rekindle an old flame. For if nothing else, seeing Karen O run a riot, deep-throat her microphone and spray backwash all over herself time and time again made for a statement in itself — the Yeah Yeah Yeahs haven’t grown up, and they are all the better for it.
My plan for the rest of the day was to seek out some of the smaller attractions. After watching the likes of Daughter, Jessie Ware, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it felt as though I needed to see something a little less obvious… My first port of call was the Faraway Forest, which was home to the outdoor theater; the show times were sporadic, but it was intriguing to see all the props scattered about in the open; a set of manikins tied to a tree, a cylindrical partition among the branches with a small set of speakers playing “This Charming Man” with a guy sitting there on his lonesome. Without the feast of spectacle though, there was not much to be seen, and I veered toward the poetry tent. As I arrived, Jess Green was giving instructions to her audience, asking them to chant the final words of the poem along with her as it reached a climatic finale. The tent was doing rather well for this time in the evening; lots of people sat around on the floor hugging random inflatables and listening to the verbal flow of poets and comedians gearing up for the Edinburgh Fringe. Green was confident in her delivery; an amusing piece about young, porn obsessed chap who was looking for his soul mate — it was funny and clever and unadulterated. The audience listened, but nobody chimed in during her final few lines. Green was followed by poetry and rap artist Charlie Dupre, who proposed to perform both Faust and Hamlet in his half-hour slot, voicing all of the characters and modernizing each story for a contemporary audience. Faust is a personal favorite of mine, and it was a joy to hear performed with such zeal. The same, encapsulated format was applied to Shakespeare, the performer casually informing his crowd, “Right, I’m gonna do Hamlet now.” He spat rhymes like a Jacobean gangster more than a poetry enthusiast, making the production sound quite odd and rash — Faustus was decidedly the better portrayal but both shows gave a distinct outline as to what was happening off the beaten track.
Kraftwerk (Photo Credit: Danny North)
I recall reading that Matt Biancardi had seen Purity Ring at a show in Chicago recently — he even hit it up for our Live Blog. The Alberta duo were playing on the iStage and I made a bold decision to head in their direction as opposed to the main stage for Kraftwerk, who I saw at the Tate back in February. The woodland location was rendered even more mystical by the furry lantern lights that Megan and Corin hung around their instruments. Corin’s mixing desk was accompanied by a smattering of bell lights, and when Megan appeared in a cloud of smoke, all hand gestures and mystique, the atmosphere was smashing. The tent was crowded, and I happened to be standing next to a group of young teens who had all just double-dropped — their hopes were to come up at about the time the bass kicked in, and they made their intentions very vocal — they must have been about 18. It was probably the only show I have seen where the audience was distracting enough to ruin the music. That’s not always easy to avoid, but I shimmied back a few places and found myself in the center of the tent with a great view of the band, who played most of their debut album Shrines. It sounded spooky, especially with their stage all rigged up and glowing. What had the potential to be a horrid experience of dodging amphetamine-ridden teens turned out to be one of the best — the rest of the crowd sang along joyfully to “Bellyspeak,” “Saltkin,” and set-closer “Fineshrine” as neon lights flickered and Megan pranced about the stage. The fact that their set finished half an hour before Kraftwerk’s meant it was easy enough to head back to the main stage to catch the conclusion of Kraftwerk.
Even for the last half hour of the iconic German group’s set was a small batch of highlights: “Radioactivity” followed “Tour de France” and “Trans Europe Express,” then “Boing Boom Tschak,” “Techno Pop,” and “Musique Non Stop.” The crowd reaction seemed mixed — heading back to the disco tent, it was strange hearing people talk about how disappointing they found the set. I guess Kraftwerk remain for the fanatics, and in a huge field, where only one of four large screens was displaying the 3D effects, it was always going to be a bit of an uphill climb.
(Photo Credit: Pooneh Ghana)
After a festival breakfast bap I headed straight to the film tent on the final morning. There had been a muffled sense of hype behind the scenes at TMT about an obscure duo named Boom Bip and Charlie who released a very peculiar EP last year called Music for Sleeping Children. The record consisted of sound bites from interviews with teenage girls about school, food, gossip, and relationships, and was mixed with an electro-pop backing track; a strange idea, but one that apparently came with a video installation piece. There were a few people waiting outside as I ate a pot of organic oats and chatted to the security guard about streakers and people getting drunk and climbing trees yesterday evening. He was working a 16-hour shift, which adds perspective to my energy levels that morning — this gent was most pleasant considering his sleep deprivation, and explained that of all the festivals he had done, this was one of the calmest. That was an interesting thought to take away as Charlie White sat at his laptop and the cheerleading schoolgirl collective Emeralds took to the stage for an introductory segment. The girls spiraled and pirouetted as the hungover audience looked on at such a crazy Sunday morning spectacle. The music was taken directly from the EP, but it came with a visual component that was a cross between Super Nintendo graphics and ’80s-style TV commercials; all tied up in comments about lemonade, crunchy ice, and having relationships with older guys. This was possibly the weirdest thing I saw over the weekend, and it made for a great start to the last day.
The comedy tent was rammed as I walked around the corner to find Marcus Brigstocke’s policy unit in full swing. Crowds were huddled around the various exits and operating a self-sufficient one in, one out policy — it was all very civilized. Brigtocke was joined by Andrew Maxwell, Robin Ince, and Simon Evans, who were discussing various political and social issues in attempts to come up with new policies surrounding them — each proposal was put to a vote, which Brigstoke either passed or waved depending on the show of hands. The whole thing was a format for topical comedy that had the audience roaring with laughter. From animal death matches on X Factor to issuing licenses for narcotics, the chat was as UN PC and expressive as you might expect.
(Photo Credit: Pooneh Ghana)
Meanwhile, over the other side of the field, Hookworms were warming up for their set. Hailing from Leeds, the British four-piece have just released their debut album Pearl Mystic, which has been out in the UK since February and is getting a U.S. release in the coming weeks. The band were very much fronted by MJ, who supplied vocal and synth debauchery. He came on shouting wildly into space, optimizing the microphone as a useful tool, but not an essential one. Hookworms played an absolutely devastating set; riddled with noise, psych, and prog-rock, they carved the festival apart with a performance throbbing with energy. As the young kids down the front came tearing out with their hands over their ears, MJ continued to turn up the ferocity of his distortion and his vocals and as he pillaged the iStage. The atmosphere was electric, an absolutely spellbinding performance — Hookworms, whatever they morph into as critical acclaim begins to mount, were the undisputed highlight of the festival and had me trembling in my boots. I haven’t been this excited about a rock band in years.
With only a few hours to go, we regrouped at the meeting point, a mythical crooked tree. múm were next on the agenda, and even though I haven’t been blown away by any of their recent stuff, they’ve always remained one of the bands I felt I needed to see live. When Summer Make Good came out in 2004, it rode on the back of the mysterious charisma the band carry. The crowd filled a good third of the tent, which made for plenty of space to gain a vantage point as two vocalists took to the stage in typically outrageous frocks. As the cellist began to play (was that Hildur?) she also sang tenderly in front of the band’s percussion and bass section, creating a mesmerizing mood, graceful in their freakish exuberance. At one point both singers were flailing their arms about the stage, darting back and forth, before one of them picked up a melodica, which she played while wrapping her hands behind her head like a tangled octopus. It wasn’t the strangeness that made the performance so spellbinding, but the confidence the musicians exposed in pulling it off, not to mention those gorgeous cello renditions and wonderful vocals. When the band played, “We Have A Map of the Piano,” the audience clapped ever so softly, as if they were taken back by how confident the act had become in their wackiness — Hildur wrapped her arms around her skull and simulated her neck breaking as she fell to the floor over and over again during their closing number — it looked exhausting.
We made our way back to the exact same place to watch Austra. The tent was half full, so we were able to secure that vantage point once again as Katie Stelmanis embraced the stage. múm must have been an exceptionally tough act to follow, particularly after Hildur’s dramatics, but the Canadian singer came bounding onto the stage with huge bubble sunglasses and a seemingly ecstatic young gent wearing denim dungarees, pink socks, and matching nail varnish. The set was high energy and marvelous fun. Stelmanis had the crowd in the palm of her hand, and the front few rows in the Radio 6 tent were seemingly enchanted by her delightful electro pop.
James Blake (Photo Credit: Jessica Gilbert)
It had been a brilliant start to the day, and I still hadn’t quite recovered from Hookworms, but there were still two remaining acts on the agenda. As we made our way out of the Radio 6 tent, the hordes began to flood toward the main stage. The sun was at its most powerful by this point, and that didn’t quite suit the mood of the next performer. I don’t know if it’s because his latest album cover features him walking about in the snow, but Overgrown is surely an album for album for Winter, ideal for the period long after the trees have lost their leaves and the cold has set in; the deep melancholic air that embellished James Blake’s debut was seamlessly carried through to his most recent record. But even with the sun blazing, the young London musician managed to retain a sense of atmosphere. Opening with a selection from “Air & Lack Thereof” and moving straight into “I Never Learned to Share,” he introduced the set as a combination of songs old and new. He was joined on the stage by Rob McAndrews on guitars and drummer Ben Assiter. Together they worked through a brilliantly executed set and exhumed the most prominent sections of the artist’s catalog. I stood right in the center of the audience, directly between the two main speakers, and the bass tones were phenomenal. Blake was utterly composed and relaxed at his machines, as though he was sitting comfortably in his studio laying down beats for his mates. It wasn’t until “CMYK,” that the crowd started to get physically involved — it was probably the peak moment, looking on as one of the most accomplished and inventive electronic musicians of the age conducted his finest selection of dub rhythms — the set was flawless, a genuine treat.
It would have been the perfect point for my departure — an awe-inspiring high for the end of the fest. I had a six-hour trek back into London, which relied on my having to find the right bus pick-up points, but there still was time, and so I took one of my dear friends back to the Radio 6 stage.
It was a risky choice, especially as Eddie Izzard was performing at the same time in the comedy tent, but we had received word that area was bursting with people. We stayed in the cool of the R6 venue and watched as Sierra and Bianca Casady appeared in their wild outfits. Tales of a Grass Widow is my favorite Cocorosie since Noah’s Arc — I also loved La Maison De Mon Reve, but I was so put off by Ghosthorse and Stillborn that I didn’t even give Grey Ships a chance — perhaps I should have done so, especially because the band’s set was to contain material from 2007 onward (No “By Your Side” or “Lyla,” sadly). The sisters performed alongside a dark and unidentified man at the far right of the stage who had bass responsibilities, opposite him on the far left was a mysterious chap on keyboards, and then there also was Tez on beat box. I had seen the latter perform online before, but never in the flesh, and alongside Cocorosie, his gnarly flow and their wacky antics made for one of the best performances — it was outlandish. Across a spectrum of new and songs that were all pretty much unknowable to me, except for the latest album standout “Childbride” and perhaps “Werewolf,” these weird little melodies took on a different vibe. They were enchanting in this context — as Sierra played her harp and wailed operatic, Bianca twirled and spun her odd combo of folk rap, and Tez was electric. The Gothic circus quintet they became was a mesmerizing end to the festival. I’m not sure what the man next to me thought; he was tripping and touching everyone’s hair.
I had every confidence that I could make it to the right exit point for the last bus across Norfolk and to Diss station. After saying my goodbyes, I hurried back to the tent and packed everything up before heading to the nearest exit, which was located all the way across the site at the Orange gate. That’s the area from which the bus departed, and I was prepared to walk it, if it had not been for a volunteer minibus driver named Scroggy. Typical of the people I had met, this bearded and long-haired gent picked me and another Londoner up and drove us all the way to Orange. The conversation was typically friendly; it was the guy’s fifth such festival and every year he comes back to help people out, make new friends, and offer his services as a driver. He was a local man, and I don’t know where the attitude comes from, but it seems Norfolk was a fantastic place to host to the festival; the landscape wasn’t the only reason for hosting the event there — it’s all about the people you meet along the way.