The Wierd [sic] String Band
Kendal Calling More
Written By Michael Wood Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008
Andy Whittaker, Owter Zeds, Atomic Hooligan, Dizzee Rascal, Seven Seals, Serious Sam Barrett, Becky Taylor and Paul Cowham, Maupa, Flamboyant Bella, Chris Helme, Lava, The Wierd String Band, The Witch and Robot, Brandon Steep, Eamon Hamilton, John Byrne, The Bookhouse Boys, O Fracas, EMF and British Sea Power Kendal Calling at Grate Farm, Kendal
I've put off this moment, dear reader, for some years now.
This is Kendal Calling 2008 and it is the first festival - which is to say field based more than one day event - of my thirty four years.
I've avoided them previously initially because of work and then because of football but always because of an image that became fast in my head of the atmosphere of one of these events.
I imagined cliques of people in tie-dye. I imagined drunk sixth formers on a kind of weekend long third Thursday in August. I imagined people eating tofu burgers and talking about the environmental cost of hot dogs being offset by the fact they drove a hybrid car. Probably called Christian. I imagined people with glow sticks called Phillip or Juniper. I did not think much of it.
I imagined that these people would turn up to an event like this not to see whichever bands were on but more just for the outing. It was relive your student days weekend - I surmised - and I cared for that not.
Nevertheless there I was - persuaded by the girlfriend - and so the night fell hard and rain came down with the mountains of the Lake District on one side and the open fields of Grate Farm on the other. I wore Wellington Boots and a rain coat. Me. At a festival.
Late too. Traffic had us arrived past time and the thick mud that were the fields was rapidly becoming arduous navigation on the legs. Wandering into the main field to get our bearings of the site, our ears discover the electronic and dance tent, “Traffic“, care of Andy Whittaker who was studiously spinning disks in the dry ice and darkness for the dance heads.
Dance heads we are not ,so up field we travelled to discover Hebden Bridge’s Owter Zeds kicking out some ska, reggae and the like into the folksier, more relaxed, “Kaylied” (adj. A high state of inebriation. F.Y.I) tent which was also full of people hopping about in appreciation.
Watford duo Atomic Hooligan are on by the time we persist through the rain to find the “Main stage” (sadly lacking an alternative name, perhaps Big Top would have worked due to it‘s red and yellow stripes). Their spirited fusion of electro, hip hop and breaks fill the main tent with energy which is well received, supporting their Best Live Act 2008 accolade at this years International Breaks awards. I am struck by how into the music these festival goers seem to be. I am taken aback, I am surprised. They lap up the sound of the Atomic Hooligan which will segue smoothly into the UKs premier grime artist and also this week, responsible for the UKs Number One selling single. They await the headline act of the evening and tonight that act is Dizzee Rascal.
They chant his name, this Dizzee Rascal. They chant.
I try to recall the last time I saw the UK's number one act live. I never have but I will soon with this London MC - oh yes I at least am familiar with the terms - occupying the once hallowed slot for four weeks now.
Dylan - as his mother probably calls him - works the audience as well as just about anyone can aided and abetted with an equally enthusiastic foil in his relentless rapping. The audience is mostly collected of white middle class studenty types and there is a line or vicarious living going on as the black guys ring about East London grime and crime whilst stood in the fresh air and sedate open fields of Cumbria.
This is no cultural cringe though and perhaps Dizzee is grime for the Kendal kid. The set is popular as he cherry picks from his material including Fix Up, Look Sharp, Jus’ A Rascal, and others that keep the crowd moving and participating and in the song Jezebel - sadly not a 10,000 Maniacs cover - it feel he really has something to say. After more than an hour (in which even the casual Radio 1 listener would probably recognise about seven tracks), the crowd were rewarded with the finale of the chart topping Dance Wit Me which was truncated by merging it with David Bowie’s Let’s Dance before Dizzee and friends exited the stage to negotiate the mud in their pristine white trainers - probably by a lit.
His DJ makes much out of the fact that despite rumours of a last minute pull out, he did not miss the show - never missed one yet he says (take that! Amy Winehouses and Pete Dohertys of the world…)- and with the increasing volumes of mud, you have to give him credit for risking his white trainers in a place so far removed from his natural habitat.
Piling out, back into the rain and mud, we find an island of grass located by the “Club COG” stage - a more “indie” tent sponsored by once Kendal based Check Out Gigs crew. Advantage is taken of the island and we stop to watch a few tracks of Kendalian five piece Seven Seals - including double A single Black Drop and Cake (Guiding Hand) - who are entertaining enough playing the kind of eighties twinge indie that no one ever listened to in the eighties but is getting popular now. However weariness, early starts, traffic jams take a effect and I'm heading back towards bed through mud the likes of which I've never known.
Next day and the rain has come down in sheets over night. What was mud is now just liquid which makes almost canals instead roads between areas on what is a promisingly sunny second day.
The day for us kicks off in the mellow Kaylied tent with Leeds bluegrass man Serious Man Barrett who is ten minutes into his mix of obscure American folk, skiffle classics and self penned songs that fit into this cannon. His version of Lonnie Donnigan’s Gambling Man is a favourite and is a great start to the day and his ability to captivate is never stronger than during a traditional song from Skipton about a girl running away in disguise as a man to join the Navy.
Barrett's folk style celebrates the wide world of music if draws from - honest, personal tunes - and his own work adds to this. Stella is about his guitar, White Rose a paean to Yorkshire. He plays with an open heart and wins other.
Irish folk fun Becky Taylor and Paul Cowham follow with Uilleann (or Irish) pipes and guitar respectively. Led by Becky, they course through various reels, jigs and some more melancholy tunes, many of which she confesses she doesn’t remember the names of. Cosy and merry in the tent though it is, we have heard enough towards the end their set and so move on before the cider sets in and we take root on the precious patch of grass at the side.
Maupa are more par for the course offering the poppy end of post rock combined with probably a bit too much Editors inside the emptier Main stage. The four stage guitars in the Accrington sextet create a full and rich sound lauded by the NME amongst others but for me they lack something to move them over the morass of bands in their class.
Flamboyant Bella in a packed Club COG tent are in the same class as Los Camposinos sharing the shrill tweeness of the Welsh nine piece. They are in love with couplet writing and deliver them in a little too mockney a way via Flo Kirton’s and James McBreen’s vocals (reminiscent of Kate Nash and The Lodger’s Ben Siddal - if he was southern) but to be honest to Northerners, all of the South sounds like that and they are indeed from Hitchin.
Bella mine an idea that eighties music saw Duran Duran and The Smith side by side and that The Cure and Culture Club were somehow interchangeable which was never the case however that kind of fusion results in fine, synth lead tunes. Single Touch is such a track with bizarre Casio keyboard sounds meeting bedroom poetry.
Next a treat.
Unexpectedly, Chris Helme - one time man of The Seahorses and The Yards - plays an acoustic set in the Main stage to fill a set time that The Long Blondes were now unavailable for. He plays a heartfelt couple of songs alone on stage with his guitar and it‘s not until he ventures Hello and with some resignation Blinded By The Sun from The Seahorses days, that the penny drops exactly who he is. He is not comfortable with either of the old standards and prefers his cover of a Soldout Brothers song.
His eyes are sad and it saddens me at the thought that someone could not enjoy doing something that brings pleasure to others. There’s a feeling he is almost being rehabilitated back into performing and his family sit in front of him supportively and he seems visibly bolstered by the presence of his two young sons and his wife to be. He is emotional and while the sound of a tremble in his voice might not be for the same reasons as he trebled when he first picked up a guitar but it is touching and warm. None more so when he later puts down the guitar and asks the audience to accompany him with claps and foot stomping as he sings his final song about his wife to be and becoming married which he dedicates it to her with his eyes.
The afternoon draws out in the sun that belies the mud and bands play second to relaxing in whatever area one can find to sit in. The next act to register are are Lava back in the Kaylied tent, selling themselves as "Hot Latino; Soulful Blues; Funky Flamenco"…all the way from sultry, erm, Lancaster. They certainly have enthusiasm - and some of their longer pieces would fit well as background music in a tapas restaurant - but the exuberance of one member as he weaved around the audience to stir them up did smack slightly of the keeness of your dad to get involved in the dancing at a wedding reception after several glasses of wine…Indeed, they are not as much fun to watch as they are to be in no doubt. Striking the balance perfectly of fun for both audience and performers were the The Wierd [sic] String Band who are a riot.
Having cropped up supporting British Sea Power in Kendal Brewery Arts Centre last year, they were on a list of bands to see at 'Calling and they did not disappoint. They are three native guys - double bass, acoustic guitar and fiddle - playing daft songs and odd cover versions (e.g. Kids in “Aspatria” - one for the locals, there!) and sharing a laugh. The free form joyous dancing, especially to their unique take on The Time Warp, is lapped up by the middle day crowd and the end comes too soon. Truly daft but guaranteed to get you laughing and jigging along and is essential to stave off mud induced fatigue as the evening builds toward the headliners.
That middle day crowd seem to have adopted a kind of “rugby team” night out mentality of drinking, good natured lairyness and dressing in tutus - the men at least - and they are full of good spirits but one senses not especially here to watch a band but rather to enjoy atmosphere around them.
On then to second day headlines the Super Furry Animals who fill the main stage and engulf the audience with a powerful set of strong guitaring. They certainly have devotees - hello Esther and Ian - in the same way that a band like The Wedding Present do, and like that band you probably have to 'get it' and I don't but I know a band who can belt out a tune when I hear one and SFA are that. A frenzy of excitement has built up at the front before Gruff Rhys enters the stage last in an oversized bikers helmet from within the vocals for the first track emerge slightly muffled. The helmet rapidly disappears and Gruff is liberated for the rest of the set, his unveiling inducing whoops from the audience. Several songs in, including the popular Rings Around The World, we reluctantly exit during Juxtaposed With U which sounds immense in the humid, sticky atmosphere of the Saturday night main stage and one of us murmurs the chorus whilst negotiating the foot deep mud in the dark.
They are delighting the crowd when I'm heading home to a warm bed.
Which is my confession. With the future Mrs Wood's parents living a mile or so away I'm scrubbed and clean for return each morning and not emerged fully in the festival atmosphere but as it‘s my first one, I‘d better ease myself in gently.
The toilets are foul, men pee against anything that stands and the pools of urine that collect are looked on and judged as not that bad compared to some festivals. After day two I'm having fun but nearest I’ve been to camping here is chatting to some friends stood outside their tents. They are a bit hardier and I probably would be if I had to sleep in this mud hacked field.
The next day starts off late because houses are nice and warm. Local lot The Witch and Robot try too hard on the Main stage to be strange and end up coming off like a sixth form music project. They churn predictably through chose changes without much of a spark.
Possessed of lots of spark are quintet of lads Brandon Steep who are up from that Hereford via London - a fact evidenced by the way one of them is wearing a years old Arsenal away shirt - and have attracted a good few followers in the Club COG tent. They have a good pop sensibility and know how to write a hook. They get shouty once or twice but they are kids so that is forgivable.
Bands that can carry create intelligent, good pop are rare and writing some of the smartest pop of recent years are The Brakes. Brakes main man Eamon Hamilton is doing his solo acoustic set in the Kaylied stage and having spiked a few new tunes in the set has freshness he takes a ramble through the array of short, sharp classics.
Porcupine or Pineapple is roughly ace and Eternal Return - a new track - wets the appetite for the third album. Slower numbers like No Return are a bit lost in the atmosphere today on an audience who are a mix of British Sea Power fans - indeed “Yan” of BSP came to watch his ex-band mate too- some Brakes people, wanderers and in a large part, the battle worn.
Because it has occurred to me that the festival crowd of Kendal Calling - and no doubt other places - mutates over the weekend as if battle weary. They seem to start with some focus on who they want to see and they seem to watch the with a reserve on the opening night but by this final Sunday it seems to me that great gangs are wandering the site in dire need of things to enjoy. They are done with selective. Warm cider, aching legs and sleeplessness will see them enjoy anything. Quality control has gone out into the mud with the countless lost flip flops and while every man, woman and child in this land should enjoy Eamon Hamilton one suspects for some of his audience they would be as entertained by a cow breaking wind. I do not wish to tar all with this brush - although even I am guilty of being more into mood than music on this final day - but such is the experience.
We were keen to see The Wildwood Band as they contain two thirds of the riotous Wierd Sting band we enjoyed the day before but failed due to possible rescheduling and so we saw instead Barrow-in-Furness singer John Byrne takes to the Kaylied stage in a snappy striped suit with an entertaining tune or two to be received like the return of the Beatles. Peppered with local area references, there is a something a little “Arctic Monkeys” or “The Streets” about his lyrics concerning minutiae of daily life. His song about not liking your Chav neighbour - Scummy - is lapped up and in the thick of the throng are probably the very type of person Byrne wants to move away from.
Back in the Main tent, the stage is filled with the nine strong group The Bookhouse Boys who are entertaining but not as epic as they seem to think they are. Named from David Lynch series “Twin Peaks”, the Londoners wear their Angelo Badalamenti inspirations of their sleeves but also extend their filmic influences to include The Surfaris, etc. as heard in Tarantino films. They are worth further consideration but once again they seem to be drawing an audience who are punch drunk and applaud anything. O Fracas over from Leeds are less entertaining but get the same response in Club COG tent. Meanwhile, Seven Seals get a second bigger bite of the cherry by filling in on the Main stage for the also ill Mystery Jets and play to a thinner crowd. So called legends EMF play the Traffic dance tent. EMF are no one's legends with little more than a single catchy chorus to their name but the name recognition value is enough to see them attract a healthy - well, large - crowd.
On then to British Sea Power who headline this third day having come 500 meters from their familial home in village Natland next to Kendal and playing the ultimate in home town gigs. Having seen Sea Power in Kendal and being impressed I hoped this would be more of the same and less like the indulgence of their show in Bradford a year before but I am disappointed with a band that on vinyl can lay claim to the title of “The English Arcade Fire” once again being rendered uninteresting in a large venue.
I struggle to know why this is and I know I am in a minority as many people wave flags and go wild to a band who are genuinely different and incredibly interesting record but the detached and diffident style that makes albums like Do You Like Rock Music? curious and fascinating makes the live shows distant and unengaging. They are a band with whom one can stand one to one with but who seem to fail - for me anyway - in a multitude of people. One's relationship with British Sea Power has to seem personal or it is - sadly - nothing at all.
So they play Remember Me and it is a highlight and No Lucifer sounds great but nothing hits me on an emotional level in the way - for example - Canvey Island does on the third album or thrill me like It Ended On An Oily Stage did on the second. Many others enjoy them. Many do. I wish I could.
And in a way I wish I could lounge in the festival atmosphere again. The slow afternoons are lazy delights and the people on the whole, friendly. It was unfortunate that the secondary headliners at the 8pm slot on both Saturday and Sunday had to cancel at short notice and this provided a bit of a lull in proceedings, however it gave opportunity to other smaller acts to be noticed and a bit of chance to rest your ears before the main headliners of the evening. Kendal Calling is a wonderfully small size (about 4,000 capacity) and next year I will probably be back.
I might even bring my tent next time.
This article, and weekend, only happened with the immense contribution of Ms Ria Wilkinson.
This post is about Andy Whittaker, Atomic Hooligan, Becky Taylor and Paul Cowham, Brakes, Brandon Steep, British Sea Power, Chris Helme, Dizzee Rascal, Eamon Hamilton, EMF, Flamboyant Bella, John Byrne, Lava, Maupa, O Fracas, Owter Zeds, Serious Sam Barrett, Seven Seals, The Bookhouse Boys, The Wierd [sic] String Band, The Witch and Robot