Field Day 2008

Being in Britain and at a festival, you'd think rain would be a given.

But after sunshine at most of this summer’s musical gatherings, the sight of precipitation streaming down the cheeks of cold looking faces is about as welcome as the cancellations that hampered this year’s event.

Yes, Mystery Jets pulled out due to singer Blaine’s ongoing illness, Dan Deacon cancelled after having his passport stolen, and the weather is more miserable than this review so far. But that’s as far as the negativity goes. Field Day, if not an indubitable success, is an amiable achievement, managing to keep thousands of indie kids entertained for, oh, a good ten hours. OK, there is a bit more pessimism, but if we’re talking about the weather we may as well embrace another infuriating English trait. 

Noah and the Whale, current implausible chart darlings, begin the day on the main stage as an eager crowd waits to hear ‘Five Years Time’ and nod along to Charlie and the gang’s laudable lullabies. Sadly, ‘Shape of my Heart’ is struck by sound issues and the set never really recovers despite solid instrumentation and a heartfelt voice. It isn’t really their fault; it’s early and people are milling around on mobiles trying to find friends or gawp at Noel Fielding, but even the aforementioned single lacks a spark and this is an opportunity missed.

Howling Bells grasped what should have been their shot at the big time a couple of years back with a stylish, layered record and sultry live shows – but nobody really noticed. Now back with a new album to plug, the brooding, colourful melodrama of ‘Setting Sun’ and the ‘Broken Bones’ has been replaced with synths and attempts to find a hook the radio will play. This may diminish from the overall impact of Juanita and co, but the songs burn slowly, suggesting future promise.

This is all that many people are left with by mid-afternoon, as a lull in proceedings and a further downpour dampen spirits and leave many seeking shelter in tents playing electro and jolly disco thoroughly unsuitable for 3pm. Solace is found in the form of the British Legion playing shaky brass band covers of ABBA tracks on a bandstand under a tree. The feeling they are here every Saturday and the festival was merely placed around them brings a warming glow and before you know it we’ve won a coconut.

Suddenly, we’re back at a festival: the fact a few bands were mediocre is an irrelevance, there’s a man wearing a bin bag losing to a girl wearing a smile in a consuming carrot-consuming contest. Following this vegetable eating virtuosity, it’s back to the business of watching bands.

Laura Marling doesn’t disappoint. Beginning with ‘Ghosts’, the sound problems that haunted last year’s event return and Laura’s ephemeral spurts of lyrical prowess are lost in wind and bass. Nevertheless, she plays with such quiet disregard for crowd reaction that any response is irrelevant and ‘My Manic and I’ plunders into ‘Cross Your Fingers’ with delicate power. There are lots of pretty young things who can hold a tune, but Marling sounds like she needs to sing, a few evocative moments lingering in the drizzle long enough to make the lulls immaterial.

Then it’s time to race around the site as the thought of the day disappearing becomes perceptible. Tunng thrill with a gangly version of ‘Bullets’, all arms and ahs, sound effects aplenty. Then Of Montreal fail to translate to a muddy field, despite theatrical stage-play, so it’s back to the tents for The Mai Shi to bemuse but delight with a contorted set of strangely engaging noise. The guitarist loops around the stage, the singer takes to repetition and attempts to obliterate rhythm, but, secretly, there’s melody in there, chuckling as it hides behind squawking guitars and Jack Black poses.

Lightspeed Champion is pretty definitive of this place. Thoroughly engaging, quite amusing, ostensibly confusing and pretty unsure of exactly what he wants to be, this is the only festival even verging on being as indie as him. So it’s only right he’s bumped up the bill to replace the Mystery Jets, noting their absence with apologies and a short cover of ‘Alas Agnes’. He’s soon spurred into extended versions of album cuts ‘Dry Lips’ and ‘Tell Me What It’s Worth’, the longer time slot giving him chance to arse around a bit with extended guitar solos. However, the core spirit of Hoxton Americana remains, gashing guitars and bittersweet melodies competing for attention. It’s all very loveable, with a Star Wars introduction into epic closer ‘Midnight Surprise’ characterising the niche appeal of this congenial chap.

Sometimes festivals dip for an hour or so, but there’s always adventure lurking for those inclined. Here, as evening creeps into darkness, there doesn’t really seem to be. Confined into mass huddles in cramped tents, toilet queues and, in many cases, exits for early trains home, the appeal of this well-intentioned affair dwindles as nothing truly attention-grabbing leaves hordes just hanging around for headliners or kicks. The sack racing antics of the afternoon feel a daydream as a skip in the step becomes a trudge and murmurs of discontent flood the field.

A show-stopping headline performance is required to salvage the evening. Foals await, not the most likely candidate considering their tendency to ignore regardless of how much they are adored. However, this stand-offish style bubbles into a potent truce between band and fans, the jerky music mixing with reflexive audience reactions and brewing into an atmosphere of tangible tension.

Guitars held high, drums tight and choruses now known, Foals look solid; they’re more comfortable with their position as an act people want to see but still calculatingly deprecating of the whole sham. Yannis looks positively menacing during ‘Cassius’, while dropping other singles ‘Balloons’ and ‘Hummer’ early smacks of buoyant self-belief. By the time the marauding, glazed attack of ‘Mathletics’ bleeps by, everyone present is converted to Foals’ mantra, even if they want you to think they don’t want you to be.

Field Day could be brilliant: better scheduling; reliable sound systems; more toilets – we aren’t asking for The Beatles. Nonetheless, a few eccentric little twists and choice performances from artists make it a satisfactory if not unforgettable day. With better weather it could easily move from one to the other, but then what would we have to moan about?

by Greg Rose