Sunday, 4 July 2010

Hop Farm Festival, 03/07/10

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Hop Farm Festival 2010 began on Friday with Van Morrison, but its abundant attractions were scheduled for Saturday afternoon & evening when Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling, Peter Doherty, Sea Sick Steve, Mumford and Sons, Ray Davies and finally Bob Dylan would perform to a packed field in the Kent countryside.
Laura Marling - sacrosanct as a black-and-white photograph of some lovely, thirties actress - rewarded and numbed those who knew her music. Teeth-whistling into the obdruately blue sky, Marling air-conditioned a sunburnt audience. Despite stillness and shyness (her awkward, throw-away remarks about the heat and her peers were kind nonetheless) her presence is never quiet. She hardly moves, blonde and weightless at the lucky mic, and sings differently, awesomely for an hour; sonorous and shrilling in the pacey 'Devil's Spoke' and 'My Manic And I', and velvet and dulcet in 'Ghosts' and 'Blackberry Stone'. Five-star reviews in three British broadsheets for her new LP - I Speak Because I Can - paint a picture: Marling is a Siren luring sailor after sailor to her addictive melancholy; a Joni Mitchell for women and men.

Next up, Peter Doherty entertained with an acoustic set of seminal Libertines and Babyshambles numbers, and a couple from his private stock to appease the fanboys. Mock-ceremoniously, two ballet dancers parading Union Jack flags glided behind a delicate, dwardling Doherty. This bizarre decor boded well with his funny reference to an old Chas & Dave tune about Kent, as the misunderstood performer got the thousands before him to sing along to something utterly random between his own songs. But the serious, bookish Doherty was also on display, stealing breath with 'Music When The Lights Go Out' and the timeless, 'Can't Stand Me Now'. He kept it together, which is all you can, and need to, ask for.

Earlier in the day, young Johnny Flynn had impressed and is certainly one to watch out for. SeaSick Steve, an American folk-rocker I had never before absorbed, reminded me of the stump-legged sea-captain in The Simpsons: "Aargh me matey" pretty much summed up a fun, mortal set I spent most of which queueing for beers. Meanwhile the penultimate Ray Davies, 66, who seemed to have the adolescent hump about being behind Dylan in the pecking order, was uninspiring. Finishing with ten minutes of a L-lol-l-lol-'Lola' hymnal sing-along, one couldn't help but think of Paul McCartney's insufferable, 'Hey Jude' na-na-na-nah routine-finale.

It was Mumford and Sons who really stole the show, as apparently they had done at Glastonbury a week earlier. Even the authentically choreographed, hobbity jumping and pedalling are elegant not to mention quintessential - lending so personal a percussion to their flawless set. This was best illustrated in the climax to 'Roll Away Your Stone', where the strings and stamping escalated until vox broke in: "Stars, hide your fires / For these here are my desires / And I won't give them up for you this time around". There is a determination about this foursome that sets them apart from young, brooding types who have "fallen on their feet", as banjolin-player Winston modestly suggested they had to the ecstatic crowd: not happy with consoling listeners, the stuff of Mumford and Sons is stamina and affirmation. Can there be a more talented, physical and thoughtful group of musicians touring in the new decade?

The highlight of headliner Bob Dylan's set was his entrance, doubtless one of the few living (song)writers able to overpower a population just by showing his face. Applause, whistling and screaming sharpened these ordinary, flaccid acres. Both Dylan's influence and the substance of his works on war and peace, love and emotional blackmail, have survived, abounded and continue to muscle hope worldwide. But his miserable performance at Hop Farm can not be excused by age. Nor should anyone dare to suggest he has been the victim of his success and martydom. Dylan, electric, does not work, especially and obviously at sixty-nine years of age. His voice, hardly stadium gold, struggles to sound its wit. When I (and a thousand grated others) quit before the encore, there were supercilious evils from the Dylanites that brought to mind Nick Hornby's ingenious satire in High Fidelity: "Don't tell anyone you don't own Blonde on Blonde - that's insane!" Unfortunately seeing Dylan live when supported, or drowned, by a rock band is not a necessary experience. The bravest songs from Blonde on Blonde were either disenchanted (the muffled 'Stuck Inside A Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again') or disregarded ('I Want You').

Mid set, Marcus Mumford paid homage to the event, communally boasting - "Is it just me or is this the best line-up of the summer?" It isn't just him. The brainpower and charisma on show recompensed a sometimes ripped-off customer. The problem is I prefer my line-ups in sport, and though the assorted artistry here implied a learning experience, what I learned this weekend is how to make sense of festival zeal. These marathons, saturated by drowsed couples, overpriced groceries and countless sound-checks, make for more of a camping holiday than a robust, panging gig.

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