Sunday, August 20, 2006

Friday 11th August

After a supermarket shop which sees me attract attention by buying nothing but two boxes of wine, a box of cider, some crisps, two packets of custard creams and a bag of pork scratchings, Birmingham disappears in the rear view mirror.

We park the car immediately outside the site, where it can stay all weekend long for little more than £10. There is no queue for those of us collecting tickets, nor is there one to exchange tickets for wristbands. Beaming staff direct us to our campsite, where there is plenty of space for us all to set up camp together. For someone accustomed to hour-long treks from car to Pennard Hill, this could just be the least hasslesome festival ever. Summer Sundae 1 Glastonbury 0.

Fed on tasty but suspiciously undercooked sausage and bacon hoagies, we relax at the tents with cider in hand. Looking around, it seems bizarre to see three tall blocks towering over the small enclosed festival area – but we are right in the heart of the city, after all. Festival-goers of all ages wander past and pitch tents around us. Everything seems very placid – there’s no madness. We’ve not been approached with drugs once yet.

Excuse me”, says a young chap clad in a Libertines-style military jacket, “this might be a cheeky question but I’ve heard someone round here is selling pills…” He’s almost as polite as the steward showing people to spaces in which they can camp. What is normally an undignified free-for-all is here an orderly process.

JAMES MORRISON (Outdoor Stage) kicks off this year’s festival in earnest, at the end of the week in which his debut album (the now ironically titled Undiscovered) hit the #1 spot. That fact would have been enough for other festivals’ organisers to bump him up the bill, but I’m not complaining. I give him as wide a berth as possible, but unfortunately the size of the site means his mewlings are clearly audible from the campsite too. Alison labels him a Powter, but I prefer to call him a Blunt.

Morrison gone, it’s time to venture into the arena (or the “amphitheatre”, if you will). Any plans of paying close attention to the new (the latest?) Badly Drawn Boy LIAM FROST AND THE SLOWDOWN FAMILY (Outdoor Stage) are soon jettisoned in favour of hooking up with Kenny and Simon, amongst others. Well, that and marvelling at the sheer range of delicious beers and ciders and even cocktails on offer in the real ale tent. A real ale festival – at a music festival! What with keeping Morrison in a lowly spot and this, I’m already willing to nominate the organisers for sainthood.

RICHARD HAWLEY’s expansive pop (Outdoor Stage) is enjoyed from the steps outside the Victoria Bar. “I’m so vibing my tits off, they’ve fallen off”, he informs us. He may be drunk.

A visit inside to catch this year’s token folk nominee for the Mercury Music Prize, SETH LAKEMAN (Indoor Stage), proves to be an educational experience when one of my companions wonders out loud what the difference is between a violin and a fiddle and someone next to us answers that there isn’t one and that the latter is simply the Irish name. So, an educational experience, but not a particularly entertaining one. I get the feeling that this is considered remarkable only because it’s young men playing old men’s music (as if to emphasise his youthfulness and distance himself from Fair Isle sweater wearing bearded folkies, the double bassist / banjo player has a key chain…). Is Lakeman to folk what Jamie Cullum is to jazz? I half suspect so. That said, I’m intrigued enough by the unusual percussion to stay until the end, as does Miriam, though for rather different reasons: “He’s boring but he’s got good arms”…

The weather hasn’t been particularly clement but the grey clouds wait until the appearance of THE DELAYS (Outdoor Stage) to deposit their load upon our heads. Perhaps it’s a passing comment from the gods on a band that has more than a malodorous whiff of Britpop about them, but it’s not heavy and doesn’t last long. ‘Nearer Than Heaven’ is the closest they come to distracting me from devouring my tray of delicious veggie pakora and tempting me out from under the protective wing of the stall’s awning.

A bloke playing some records never makes for much of a spectacle, so thankfully DJ FORMAT (Indoor Stage) not only has visuals but, more importantly, gets a crowd swelled by the drizzle outside dancing with an expertly blended mix of funk and soul. I don’t recognise any of the songs, but then that hardly comes as a surprise and it doesn’t take long before I too am shifting awkwardly from one foot to another, almost as much Maypole’s Wellow Gold slopping on the floor as has slipped down my throat.

This is the first time ELBOW (Outdoor Stage) have ever headlined a festival – apparently they’ve been waiting for the right offer to come along – and Guy Garvey is clearly relishing the experience. His introduction to the title track of third album Leaders Of The Free World goes something like this: “There are some terrible things going on in the world, and the people doing them know they’re doing them. And I’m not talking about Cud reforming…” The song itself, and particularly the chorus about “little boys throwing stones”, brings a wry smile to my face, knowing from Jenni that Garvey was just such a little boy playing soldiers where they both grew up in Bury. Unfortunately the song is typical of Elbow’s material in general, in that it’s worthy but dull and just doesn’t match up to Garvey’s engaging between-song wit. That said, one song featuring just Garvey and keyboardist Craig Potter has me momentarily spellbound and, after the induced chants of “Lasting peace in the Middle East!”, old favourite ‘Newborn’ rounds off the encore and the evening in suitably rousing fashion.

One significant advantage of there being an indoor venue is the access to regularly cleaned proper plumbed-in toilets rather than Portaloos, mud-smeared shit-splattered devils’ Tardises that they are. It also makes for more of a communal experience, and allows for the possibility of lighthearted banter. “Why’s there a queue?” asks one voice with a very familiar accent. “Is this Leicester? This wouldn’t happen in Newcastle”. Another bloke delivers a running commentary when his phone rings: “I’m urinating. Well, I’m about to urinate. I’m commencing urination”.

The bands may finish around 11pm, but the Victoria Bar stays open for another hour of drinking. Rather more civilised than sitting on a bin bag round a campfire gulping down Scrumpy.


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