Top of the world on top of a hill - a watered down Rock day is anything but insipid...
[L-Zone1]The somewhat deflated Essential line-up on Sunday’s indie rock day can be attributed to a simple bit of practical GCSE level economics. There’s only so much cash in the system, and when the indie rock kids have spent all of theirs on Glastonbury tickets, then it’s inevitably going to burst the bubble for lesser fests. Now don’t get me wrong (it was a sensible move on the part of the promoters to shrink the number of acts when they realised that ticket sales were down), but it irks slightly that they chose to try and hide behind a flimsy tissue of implausibility rather than just admitting that the money wasn’t coming in.
[R-Zone2]Now I don’t want to harp on, but just so you see what I mean then let’s look at the case for the defence. “We decided on health and safety grounds to close a couple of stages because the muddy conditions would have been potentially dangerous …ticket sales are fine!”
[L-Zone5]And then for the prosecution, “The main stage, which they closed, was at the top of the hill, and even at the bottom of the hill there was no mud anywhere except around a few leaky portaloos. A reliable source also tells us that people leaving on the Saturday were being offered Sunday tickets at less than half price. Lastly, if a full crowd is expected then surely it’s going to be asking for trouble to close a couple of stages and thus put more pressure on the others?” Case rests m’lud!
[L-Zone3]So, cast aside by harsh economic forces were festival stalwarts Reef and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, hotly tipped acts such as The Coral, Original Bedroom Rockers and British Sea Power, and various other potential crowd pleasers including Therapy?, Asian Dub Foundation, Sneaker Pimps and Raging Speedhorn.
[R-Zone4]What was left however remained a reasonable – if somewhat diluted – bill, and the fact that the weather held and we managed to walk straight onto one of the festival buses at the end of the night without having to queue meant that I remain predisposed to give Essential 2002 (indie rock) a thumbs up.
[l-Zone1]Ashton Court does of course genuinely provide an excellent festival venue… once you have ascended past the second base camp on the seemingly endless climb to the site! With a similar topography to Temple Newsham Park, where the Leeds leg of the Carling Weekend is held, it offers a kind of natural amphitheatre with the surrounding woodland lending a secluded feel to the whole event.
[r-Zone5]The amphitheatre effect was lost slightly because the organisers decided to tent all of the stages (probably hedging against bad weather this early in the year), but the sloping site definitely adds something that pancake flat festival locations like Reading or Long Marston always seem to lack. On the other hand however, after trudging about two miles up the hill, over stiles and gates (yes they were locked!!) completely flat sites might start to take on a certain appeal.
[L-Zone2]Most of the festival goers (those without guest passes) must, however, have all spent considerably longer than we did getting through the entrance in order to enjoy the site’s charms. With security tighter than the recent MTV 5 Night Stand Oxide and Neutrino gig it took us each nearly ten minutes to go through as thorough a search as you’re likely to find this side of a Heathrow arrival from Taliban Central.
[r-Zone3]Although only four stages remained in action, the fact that the last acts were on relatively early meant that catching a fair slice of the Essential serving involved some careful timetabling and little chance to grab refreshments. At £3.30 for a can of lager in the hospitality tent this wasn’t too much of a concern. We were sickened to discover that normal punters were only paying £3.00! What sort of hospitality do you call that? Organisers were clearly alert to the fact that by the time people got on site they were going to be so parched from the climb that you they would pay anything for a cold lager.
[L-Zone4]So, whilst fans relaxed in the sunshine, and those who were flush enough to stomach the hospitality prices lounged in leather armchairs, we charged hither and thither trying to sample highlights from as many acts as possible. All around us it was comforting to see that most of the hardy perennial festival stalls had begun to reappear from their long winter hibernation. So fear not, you WILL still be able to get that crocheted bikini or henna tattoo that you always wanted.
Kids Near Water were the first act to catch our ears. Our eyes were less than impressed by a band who looked like a bunch of nerdy Exeter schoolkids, but the sound had a hard and rocky US guitar edge that belied their boyish looks. They’re never going to set the world on fire (the zeitgeist isn’t right for bands who can’t give out visually as well as audibly), but a creditable warm-up performance none the less.
[R-Zone1]After a bit more wandering to get bearings, it’s back down to the Sidewalk Arena for ‘One Dice’. Here it’s tattoos a-go-go and a soft west country accent that is quickly disguised beneath a slip-knotesque (albeit melodic) roar. Frenetic shades of Linkin Park and some pantomime choreography of the mosh pit gets the crowd surfers riding the point break. Later on their singer vies with Supergrass’ Gaz Coombes and Hot Rod Circuits‘ frontman for Most Visible Performer of the Day back in hospitality.
[L-Zone2]Who else is worthy of mentions in dispatches through the day? Well, the Bell Rays pack a wallop in the soul-rock-plexus, with Aretha/Tina Turneresque vocals emenating from between the big hair and even bigger legs of scary front-lady Lisa Kekaula. Swedish all-girl neo-prog rockers Sahara Hotnights give a creditable stab at doing it right, and Alec Empire posture and pose their way through a set that strikes of Marilyn Manson – the early years.
[r-Zone3]Running a mile from the whiny pop offerings of Gemma Hayes down in the Backlash Arena, we were however inexorably drawn back to hear the whiny west coast witterings of protest uttered by ex-Dead Kennedy fontman, Jello Biafra. Full of contempt for Middle East warmongering and back-home politics (full as well, by the looks of that 38″ waist, with mom’s apple pie), Jello held a mixed crowd rapt as he cantered through his monologue on issues clearly close to his heart. What perhaps spoilt it for me was the uncanny similarity between Jello’s vocal delivery and the nasal weirdness of Third Rock from the Sun’s French Stewart (aka Harry).
[L-Zone4]With all the headliners on at exactly the same time it was down to the crunch at 9.30pm. Fortunately the stages were close together, and it was just about possible to catch the first couple from a fresh seeming Supergrass, then race across to take in two or three songs from much (and seemingly rightly so) vaunted Hundred Reasons – before finishing the night off in traditional fashion as The Levellers cranked out their old school blend of crust-rock to an enthusiastic and welcoming crowd.
[r-Zone5]Essentially? A good day out. The wandering and nomadic Essential Fest seems to have found a good place to put down roots. What the world needs is more medium octane events like this, where strings of predictable headliners give way to more low key acts from the ‘bubbling under’ section of the charts. There’s no real hint of corporate presence or commercialism (barring the high drinks prices), and that is a genuinely refreshing change for a cynical old festival hack like this one.