Saturday, July 21, 2012

Trowbridge Village Pump Festival

"Seed, bud, flower, fruit -- they're never going to grow without their roots...." 

Show of Hands gigs always feel a bit like revivalist meetings. The less kind prefer the word "rallies". On Saturday night, Steve feels even more like a worship-leader than usual. Throughout the weekend there has been a positively Glastonian sense that the star of the Trowbridge folk festival is the Trowbridge folk festival – that bands have only to say the the word "Trowbridge!" to get a big round of applause. Steve, as ever, encapsulates the moment:

"Branch, stem, shoots...we need roots! We need roots....we need The Trowbridge Village Pump Folk Festival!" 

There is a back story. The 2011 Trowbridge festival (not to be confused with the 2011 Trowbridge festival) was cancelled for the first time since it started in the 1970s, so everyone is keen to maintain that the 2012 Trowbridge festival (not to be confused with the 2012 Trowbridge festival, which was cancelled) has full continuity with the old one, despite being run by different people at different locations. 

The weather is on the new organizers' side. By day, there is sun and blue sky. At night, there are stars. A spotlight from the marquee illuminates the White Horse. The drumming workshop comes out of the tent and finds a home under a tree; people in the bar busk Rock Me Mama Like a South Bound Train. The Bloodstone Border Morris interpolate "My friend Billy had a ten-foot willy!" (which I suspect of not being entirely traditional) into one of their blackface routines, and no-one seems to mind or notice. I buy a slice of Victoria Sponge from the cake stall, and a hat from the hat stall. People get out rugs and camp chairs and drink beer and wine and newspapers and kindles. The music becomes the idyllic backdrop to an English summer picnic.

By Sunday, expressions like "triumphant return" and "feels just like the old one" were drifting across the valley. Earlier in the weekend the word "shambles" was being avoided like one of those elephants that hides in peoples rooms. Show of Hands and the sun (and the cake shop and general niceness) had saved the day...

I wasn't entirely convinced by the arrangements in the main marquee. There was no seating; there was an imaginary line in front of the stage; behind the imaginary line, you could sit on your own camp-chair; in front of the line (hereafter "the mosh") it was standing room only. This meant that those of us with long legs could choose to stand all day, get buffeted by dancers, but actually see what was going on. I wasn't quite clear whether the lady behind me was miming intercourse with a: the crash barrier, b: Steve Knightley or c: Me, but it was not an experience I have had a folk gig before, and not one I would care to have again. Another reveller explained to me after the show that I was a fucking tall bastard, without making it entirely clear what he thought I could do about it. I don't think I am noticeably taller, and certainly not noticeably wider, with a hat (did I mention that I bought a hat?) than I was without. Those who thought to bring camp seats would presumably have got through the weekend without cramp but without actually seeing any of the acts. Since a lot of people knew to bring chairs, this may have been the normal set up at Trowbridge (applause!) But I wish -- in all seriousness -- that festival organisers would put you this kind of thing on the website when you buy tickets. "Bring you own chair.  Bacon sandwich kiosk ten minutes walk from camp site." Things you actually need to know.

The programme bore only a coincidental resemblance to the actual running order, which was fine for people like me who plonked themselves in the mosh at lunchtime and stayed there until the security asked us to leave; but less good for the people who turned up to hear Cara Dillon and found that her act had finished 15 minutes ago. I noticed that the very lovely O'Hooley and Tidow were giving out flyers in the beer tent telling punters what time they were coming on. 

And the PA system was very special. I know literally nothing about this sort of thing. I'd been going to concerts for a year before I realized that the blocky things at the front were what the performers listened to themselves on. Running sound may, for all I know, be like twiddling knobs on a wireless, or more like quantum physics. Quite often, you got to concerts where slightly precious musicians seems to be getting annoyed because the sound isn't just so even though we mortals in the audience didn't quite see a problem. But this weekend, we had guitarists who couldn't go near the mic because of feedback and reverb -- see, I do know some technical words. ("Could we do anything about the feedback on this note? This one? It's "C". We use it a lot. One of the white notes...") We had change-overs so long that there was hardly any time left for acts to actually do their set. (Fay Hield, in the company of Jon Boden, Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron, barely got to do half an hour.) My impression, which is based, as I say, on complete ignorance, was that the amp worked fine for instruments that plugged into the system directly (the very very electric Oysterband went right through a long set without a hitch) but panicked when attaching itself to acoustic instruments. Seth Lakeman appeared to be rewriting his set on the hoof based on which of his instruments were working at any given moment. Things aren't going well when a performer of this calibre calls into the audience mid-song "Can anyone actually hear my fiddle?"

Show of Hands brought their own cables. 

But Technical Problems (no less than Rain) can create an atmosphere which puts the audience and the band on the same side, having a great time in the face of adversity. In the end, it's the Moments that we take away with us. (Poss. title for song if I ever take up song writing?) Here are some moments I will remember (poss. second line?)

John Jones climbing over the barrier and mingling with the punters during Here Comes the Flood.  I've only previous heard the Oysterband with June Tabor, but they work great by themselves, more like small scale 80s stadium rock than folkies. Jones sings with his hands, gesticulating like a politician, drawing the audience in or thumping the air, making a clenched fist and then a single finger for "all things in common/ all people one"  in the obligatory World Turned Upside Down. ("I give you this song" he says at one point "I give you this song", leaving the audience repeating the refrain for several minutes, before, er, taking it back again. Possibly you had to be there.) The Oysterband are now firmly ensconced in my premier division of performers. No-one in the audience knew the words to "Put Out the Lights". It didn't matter.

(By the way, I committed a calumny, a solipsism and also a booboo the other day, implying that I thought most of what the Oysters do are covers of things which mainstream pop groups have done, largely because I know for a fact that the one with June Tabor  was written by the Velvet Underworld. So I should point out that I now fully believe that I Haven't Prayed Since God Knows When My Teeth Are UnAmerican and  Put Out The Lights, Put Out The Lights, Put Out The Lights on London City are Oysterband originals. And bloody good songs of course)

Luke Jackson singing his poignant coming of age song "The Big Hill". (All Luke Jackson's songs are coming of age songs. The song which he called "Oh Me Oh My" when he sang it in Bristol has been renamed "More Than Boys": it's going to be the title track of his album, which is absolutely spot-on.) The Oxford English Dictionary states that "Luke Jackson completely blew me away" is now a single word, like "England Test collapse". It's the ordinary language rising to the surface of the lyric which breaks my heart every time I hear him.

Reg Meuross was entirely new to me. He sang a pleasant enough song with a guitar; and then he sang a pleasant enough song with a guitar; and then he song the best damn song about a highwayman (and there are one or two) I've ever heard, and then followed through with the agonizingly beautiful World War I ballad ...And Jesus Wept. He has a Tilston-esque facility for complex, cerebral lyrics combined with melodies that could almost, but not quite be traditional. ("A nations guilty secret is this generation's debt / the hand of God came down last night and Jesus wept.") Lizzie Loved a Highwayman has something of the rambling quality of Slip Jigs and Reels, come to think of it.

Seth Lakeman is possibly still not quite My Kind of Thing but he did an absolutely storming set, and his new Blacksmiths Prayer, is a strange, powerful, beautiful thing.

Karine Polwart is my new folk hero for keeping going when the first bout of technical hitches threatened to mess up her brutal ballad "The Sun's Coming Over The Hill". ("He said that the loved me and swore he would die for me / then he drove off the road full of whisky and irony"). I associate her with the elliptical, enigmatic and slightly dark songs, but she can run to lovely sentimental gush about talking to her daughter on over skype ("I give a little, take a little wi-fi love / better than nothing but its never enough.)

But it was, as ever, Show of Hands who provided the defining moment of the weekend. Three lines into Cousin Jack, the PA exploded into feedback and Steve, entirely unphased, pointed out at the audience who took up the song until the electrics started working again. Magic. The sort of thing you can't plan for, and the sort of thing you can't get on a CD.

But maybe fix it so it doesn't happen again next year, peoples?

I wear a hat now. Hats are cool.

1 comment:

gloriamundi said...

That's very helpful as well as entertaining, thanks; just trying to decide whether to go to the Village Pump or haul over to Cambridge. Being a gentleman (some might say) of maturer years (anyone would say) I no longer want a festival with endless f-ups and poor sound, so I really hope they sort things out this year. Also the camping arrangements need to be at least OK or I come out in interesting worry rashes. H'mm. Good line-up, my thing. God, I hate decisions....

Anyway, thanks again.