Saturday, July 12, 2008

"I say, can you see....?"
Kelvedon Free Festival, July 12th.

I suspect it may be one of the seven signs of ageing, but when I was asked this week about an outdoors gig I'd been to I enthused at length about the car parking, the stewards, the food outlets and the availability of paper in the portable toilets. It wasn't until I was prompted further that I realised they wanted to hear about the bands. As a performer, your perspective on festivals does tend to be coloured very much by pretty similar concerns, and that's before you even get to whether the sound engineer can hear you pleading for some vocal monitors while he has a fag and chats up some impressionable young thing, or if they've supplied some free water, or given you a shiny laminate to stick on your pinboard at home. Last week, for instance, we had rain, the stage manager was holding the tech spec upside down while we were setting up, I had a slippy B string and we were summarily dismissed with a curt "that's it" due to earlier over-runningwhen we still had three songs to play. That kind of puts a downer on your day, especially when you're playing real good, for free. At Kelvedon, however, we are happy to enjoy the hog roast, a refreshing coffee, the close availability of Brewer's Gold and a sunny morning before setting up, taking in the sights and sounds of the festival circuit - gazebos, pretty tea dresses combined with floral wellies and the sight of a face-painted circus refugee of the persona of the commedia dell'arte. "Who's that clown?" remarks someone.
On before us are Relay, a classic-rock styled band who feature veteran Songs from The Blue House recording engineer Steve Tsoi, responsible for knob-twiddling duties on the first two albums and a thoroughly good egg. Their set is reliable riff-heavy open air fare and at one point they break into a remarkable metal version of Wuthering Heights, which is a first for me. A short break and then we're up - the increasingly standard live line up of two guitars, bass, flute, banjo, piano and fiddle (Our Glorious Leader, Myself, Gibbon, La Mulley, Turny Winn, TT and, er, Fiddly who, as we almost always announce, is a hundred and four and comes all the way from Thorndon). We have left the bouzouki at home today out of sympathy for the stress levels of the traditionally hard-pressed festival sound engineer. We are introduced by an enthusiastic MC who whoops the crowd up and gets the name of the band right (check). The usual couple of songs go by while we sort out whose monitors need tweaking and we have a great onstage sound (check!). I'm enjoying the free water (check) between songs and it occurs to me that the coffee stall, rather brilliantly, advertise that they can be texted from anywhere on site and they will deliver your latte to you. I mention this onstage and enquire whether I can get a coffee. Before the middle eight of the next song a (recyclable) cup o' steaming java is popped onto the lip of the stage. This is all going terribly well - once again the infallible back-of-the-neck hair raising second verse in Rolling and Tumbling hits the spot and our proto Who/CSNY crossover (may sound unlikely, but I've just heard a metal band doing a Kate Bush cover so all bets are off as far as I'm concerned) Raise Your Flag continues its journey from demo to fully-fledged anthem, albeit one whose title we can't quite decide on. Even at this early stage in proceedings things are over running slightly and a considerate stage manager gives us the subtle "two to go" signal - excellent, we've fitted in the single (Don't Fear The Reaper, iTunes lovers) we can adjust the end of the set properly so we can include the big closer (check). Unfortunately there are three songs left on the set list (we've dropped one mid set already) and there appear to be every possible permutation of these being suggested from all quarters of the stage. OGL steps in with an authoratative decision and we're off, despite mutterings from the stage left cabal of myself and TT. The sun is out, and we're playing "Risk" - how good does life get? A good one, only momentarily interrupted by the Essex Air Ambulance, which hovers over the stage mid set as a sort of thank you for the day's fund raising.
We are able to offload pretty quickly due to the portability of our acoustic-based equipment, leaving TT to transform himself into a posh suited member of The Committed a (yes) Commitments tribute band. In the interim there is a set by that most ubiquitous of white, middle class week night hobbies, the samba band. It is soon apparent that they feature a heavily made up be-headdressed frontwoman who is dancing in no more or less than a star spangled bikini. One of the thong-style ones. She is soon joined by a more modestly attired festival dancer (leggings, cut off t-shirt, dreads) and there is soon an entertaining dance-off going on between the representative of the spirit of Brazil in the (electric turquoise) blue corner and the spirit of The Spirit in The Sky in the (henna) red corner. It's pretty much an amicable draw. I take a natural break in the clean and fully paper-stocked backstage latrine (check) and sidle up to the sidestage tent to help pimp some merch.
The Committed, a tribute band to a fictional tribute band, I mean, really, and that's not considering the couple of versions already touring the corporate circuit. The musical snob in me feels the bile rising until they start playing and they are...brilliant. We are, let's face it, watching a white-hot band playing Stax and Memphis soul party songs out in the open air. What's not to like? The band are almost as tight as the girls' little black dresses - at one point we're pretty sure we can tell what blonde number two had for breakfast, and they can all sing. Really well. Someone inevitably shouts for Mustang Sally - two songs in - but I'm pretty sure they've remembered to put that in the set. The frontman is pretty much a doppelganger for Andrew Strong, at least what I'm pretty sure he looks like these days and he halts the set while a couple of idiots are ejected to a round of applause from the four thousand people present. At the merch tent someone comes up and asks if The Committed have a CD on sale. Well, perhaps they are unaware of the film. They play Mustang Sally. Very, very well. Party band and audience One, reformed cynic Nil.
I can't stay for Salt Dog or headliners Eddie and The Hot Rods, but I do catch Absent Kid. After a storming set a bunch of teens are giggling and trying to attract the attention of the excellent (and coolly good looking - think a slightly more handsome and much younger Alex James) drummer. I'm still in a good mood from the soul revue and so I go over and point them out. "Firstly, brilliant set, secondly, there are a bunch of girls who keep saying 'I wish he'd come over' and they're talking about you" I say. "I expect they are" he replies insouciantly. Twerp.
It's time to go, weaving through the smiling happy children and their picnicking parents, the indie kids, girls in tutus (check), dogs on strings (check), and the seventy year old man who's been grooving in the sun all afternoon (check). Thank you Kelvedon free festival. You ticked all the boxes.

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