With the 4Music Stage looking like teen mag Smash Hits rose from the dead to throw up all over it, the V Stage has a lot of pressure on it this weekend.
Luckily, V spends more on their line-up every year than an average country does on food. This guarantees a stellar – if top-heavy – line up, brimming with potential headliners throughout the bill and ageing rockers tempted out of retirement by one more shot at big crowds and bigger paychecks.
It’s a band who have recently rejected the arguable merits of corporate endorsement, not entirely through choice, that kick-start the main stage on Saturday. The Futureheads look to have a hunger back following the release of third album ‘This Is Not The World’ and manage to provoke an impressive amount of crowd interaction considering the early hour. Predictably, ‘Hounds of Love’ is the main thrill for most with singer Barry Hyde stating: "We’re gonna drag this out for 15 minutes”, self-deprecatingly noting the disproportionate reaction the song receives. Still, new tracks like ‘The Beginning of the Twist’ are delivered with verve and it’s never less than solid.
Alanis Morissette is a less obvious billing, but draws a large crowd for her crass set of sun-kissed nostalgia. Her voice is pretty remarkable, almost as notable as the shaggy mane of hair she carries around with her as she writhes around like a stoned Bon Jovi fan circa 1986. It’s rather dull, besides the hair-shaking, with ‘You Oughta Know’ coming across corny rather than potent and even ‘Ironic’ sounding dated rather than defiant. Her backdrop of a dove and clenched fists behind a barbed wire fence says it all – it’s supposed to rouse protest and togetherness, but ends up just looking a little bit silly.
Of course, much of the audience laps it up, as is the case as major-league indie returns with two bands suffering from second album syndrome up next. Maximo Park save themselves the indignity of a patchy set by sticking to first album tracks and the odd choice cut from ‘Our Earthly Pleasures’. They throw in a new song, ‘The Kids Are Sick Again’, maintaining their energetic, jerky blueprint. With Paul Smith oozing outsider charm, encouraging the crowd to make V signs and referencing Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s harmlessly entertaining.
Whereas The Kooks are simply dull. Despite every person in Chelmsford seemingly knowing the words to every song, the novelty of ‘Ooh La’ has gone, the allure of ‘Naïve’ seems juvenile and the new songs sound plain tripe. Even a guest appearance from Kinks legend Ray Davies on ‘Victoria’ can’t save them (especially as most of the audience don’t know who he is) and the inevitable massive sing-alongs acquire an emptiness that isn’t solely down to the need for a trip to one of V’s hundreds of food vendors.
Though not exactly fulfilling, The Stereophonics then put in an exemplary display of festival know-how. Expertly pacing their set, the Welsh band intersperse a few new songs that continue their signature stadium sound into a solid 70 minute show. Tracks from classic album Performances And Cocktails are scattered throughout, with ‘Just Looking’ heralding a particularly rowdy response, drowning out Kelly Jones’ vocals. His strained, scathing voice is utilised best on more mellow moments such as ‘Maybe Tomorrow’, but it’s ‘Dakota’ that prepares people for the onslaught Muse are preparing backstage.
Armed with more eye-catching onstage paraphenalia than the entire bill put together, including six gigantic satellites that bring a Dalek-like sense of chilling campness to the gig, the intergalactic agitators take to the stage. Ripping through a marathon set including ‘Hysteria’, ‘New Born’ and ‘Starlight’, their back catalogue is raided as they dredge every inch of enthusiasm from the rapt audience. Rumours of collaborations and UFOs fail to take off, but the likes of ‘Plug In Baby’ and ‘Knights of Cydonia’ contain riffs bigger than any set-piece and the show is an identikit of how to headline a festival.
The Stranglers are equally adept at their own role the next day. Heavy-eyed boys and girls blunder their way past the all-engulfing advertising that overwhelms the walk to the main stage, only to find the punk veterans are not going to allow them a lazy lounge in the sun. The filthy blast of ‘Peaches’ is a wake-up call, ‘Golden Brown’ a darling, morose lullaby that seeps with intensity and ‘Whatever Happened To Leon Trotsky’ a cracking blast of stripped rock.
They show that reformed bands, despite bad clothes and worse teeth, can be worthwhile. Squeeze display why they should be outlawed, along with the fake tan that is plastered like war paint on almost every girl present, both band and beauty product looking embarrassingly novice and past their sell-by-date.
Mentioning fake tan may arguably be more apt as Girls Aloud strut onstage, but they actually look rather good, certainly interesting enough to have men sprinting from their stations at bars for a clearer viewpoint. Though aural delights are less frequent than visual ones, it’s flashy and fun, with the five black-clad ladies prancing their way through favourites like ‘Love Machine’ and ‘Biology’. The painful sound of Cheryl Cole rapping as they butcher Salt n Peppa and Run DMC verges on unbearable, but the many youngsters in the audience lap it up and Girls Aloud justify their festival stature with ease.
Lenny Kravitz does likewise, so cheesy he’s cool as he blasts through ‘Fly Away’ and ‘American Woman’. Garnering considerable affection for his cliché-ridden act, complete with Flying V guitar and the Fonz dress sense, he takes the opportunity to preach for world peace when all the crowd wants to do is hear ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way’. It’s worth the wait when they get their wish though, as the US rocker nails himself the right side of the novel/drivel divide.
Bridging the void with a display of real class is not expected to occur next as Amy Winehouse totters into view. Then, contrary to all expectations, she produces a show as tight as it is incident-free. A few expected rambles about her husband aside, she tackles the sizeable task of filling an hour without making a tit out of herself almost admirably, sounding in control and comfortable as ‘Back To Black’ and ‘Rehab’ resonate. Unpredictable in its professionalism, with her stunning roaming range intact, it hints at hope of a return to permanent form.
There is nothing capricious about the Kings of Leon's set. They walk on, say ‘We’re Kings of Leon’ a lot and leave as the highlight of the weekend, without an attitude or a satellite in sight. It’s ‘Knocked Up’ that connects tonight, its marauding refrain of ‘Oh, wooah wooah, woah oh’ reverberating around the blustery air long after the song ends as the Followills perform a masterful collection of blues-soaked rock. New single ‘Sex on Fire’ sounds a behemoth in waiting, while ‘On Call’ and ‘Four Kicks’ spit with rage and satisfaction. Their unfussiness, barnstorming self-confidence and sheer musical nous leaves them untouchable at present. As they thank the UK for “making them the kings” and celebrate “with a little drink and a little fun”, they cement their standing as rock’s premier performers.
The Verve have to follow that, plus it’s started raining, so they sharply slip in a colossal croon through ‘Sonnet’ to instantly appease a crowd getting soaked for the first time all weekend. Starting strongly, Richard Ashcroft sounds roguish but commanding and the band appears together despite reported unrest. Opportunities to showcase their new album are sacrificed for older material such as the revved up ‘This Is Music’ and an Isaac Hayes-dedicated ‘Rolling People’. Both are up-tempo and possess a certain drive, however this tenacity is lacking in the main, with ‘History’ and ‘Life’s An Ocean’ sounding languid and lifeless.
After an unsatisfying half-hour, the cavalry arrives in the form of ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’ and ‘Lucky Man’. Both are melodic colossuses, digging into the band’s brooding undercurrent and recapturing past glories. ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ follows to scenes of united exaltation across the field, but it’s almost backwards in its dominance. Though the new stuff sounds listenable, it mines much-travelled avenues and the reliance on Urban Hymns’ majesty to get them through makes for a disjointed set.
Though not a disaster, it’s not a festival-defining performance. Still, V is more about glossy excitement than revelatory affirmation, which is just as well. Little means much here, but this allows genres to intersperse and diversity to flourish. If that dilutes the impact somewhat, most people are having too much fun to notice, let alone care.