United Kingdom | 29 June 2010
Dan Frost checks out London's Hard Rock Calling, which oddly, he notes doesn't seem to have much hard rock...
Hard Rock Calling is a fairly formulaic urban festival that offers few surprises but delivers big name entertainment in a safe, professional and punctual fashion. Taking place in Hyde Park, mere spitting distance from the original Hard Rock restaurant, it represents an attempt by the brand to show that it's as much about the music as it is the milkshakes.
And it doesn't do a bad job of it. Though it's a long way from being “hard rock” and the line-up seems rather ham-fistedly thrown together, it boasts three massive headliners (Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney) who deliver three massive sets.
As with all city-based, non-camping festivals, most punters are likely to attend for only one of the three days, making for a crowd that is mixed in age and partly populated by fans who would be put off attending if it meant slumming it in a tent for the night.
Unsurprisingly, the event is awash with corporate sponsorship (there's a Superdrug stall for crying out loud), but it doesn't seem to bother the crowd much, who are, on the whole, in good spirits and fine voice.
Getting there and back: 10/10
Being pretty much as central as central London gets, it's a breeze getting to and from the festival, whether you're based in the capital, the burbs or the sticks. A smattering of tube stations skirt the park itself, and Victoria station is a 10-minute walk away. The ample police presence ensures departing crowd flow is smooth and safe, and the entire experience seems largely annoyance free for all involved. Nice and easy.
The site: 7/10
Because it takes place in one of the capital's Royal Parks, HRC is likely restricted by more stringent site regulations than pretty much every other festival in the country. Nevertheless, it does a decent enough job with the space it has got, squeezing in one enormous stage, a large tent for smaller acts, plenty of bars and food outlets, and a couple of nice, shaded places to chill out. The bizarre, cattle-herding/theme park approach to bar queuing seems to have the desired effect (creating a semblance of order while confusing drunk punters so much that they just give up and wander off). And the toilets are no worse or better than can be expected. Perhaps the site's most offensive drawback is the rabid Volvo sponsorship, which places ridiculous mobile showrooms at odd points along the thoroughfares.
Thank goodness for the great British weather. Sharing a weekend with Glastonbury, HRC is also bathed in baking sunshine for the duration. Not surprisingly, this makes all the difference and lifts spirits even as Rooney et al do their best to dampen them.
Of course, a festival without camping is never going to capture the collective camaraderie of overnight competitors, and the mood changes as a new set of punters arrive each day. But on the whole, HRC is a friendly and kind spirited festival with minimal agro.
There's a good chance that most of the HRC punters are there on the strength of the day's headliner alone, so it's a good job that all three deliver stonking sets littered with crowd-pleasing classics. There are some other fine performances – and a few less fine – but it's hard not to notice a lack of cohesion in the line-up for each day. Is there really much common ground between Elvis Costello and Crowded House, Corinne Bailey Rae and James Morrison, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Paul McCartney? Furthermore, the bill on the second stage is disappointingly weak (in terms of named acts as opposed to quality). As a result, the tent is invariably close to empty and smacks of a cursory stab at bolstering the bill.
Pearl Jam – 8/10
With a career approaching two decades in length, it's not really surprising that grunge's most notable survivors can deliver a slick, professional and consistently rousing live show. Bouncing around the back catalogue and genuinely looking like they're loving every minute of it, the band are faultlessly tight and do a better job than any of the other big acts of living up to the event's “hard rock” billing – demonstrated in part by painfully interminable guitar solos.
Corinne Bailey Rae – 7/10
With a sterling band behind her, the fragile yet spirited Leeds girl delivers a rich performance far larger than her minuscule frame. Intimate tracks from recent album ‘The Sea’ – mainly inspired by the untimely death of her husband – translate well into the live arena, and her rousing rendition of Dorris Day's ‘Que Sera Sera’ is all the more powerful in the wake of this personal tragedy. In fact, it's like a lead weight on the heartstrings and is downright revelatory.
Stevie Wonder – 9/10
If you've seen him before or caught him on the Glastonbury TV coverage, you'll know that Stevland Hardaway Judkins puts on one hell of a show. Living up to the “wonder” of his stage moniker, he and band are on fire from the get-go, which comes in the form of Stevie wigging out on a keytar as he wanders on stage. So begins two hours of non-stop funk and soul classics spanning a 50-year career. Sublime.
Crowded House – 7/10
Scoff if you must but these Australian balladeers prove a surprising treat on Sunday afternoon. Minutes after the English football team flaccidly slump out of the World Cup, Crowded House are lifting spirits with Mexican waves and massive sing-alongs.
Paul McCartney – 9/10
An huge and exhilarating performance from the former Beatle closes HRC in spectacular fashion. His inter-song banter proves he really is one of the most cringe-worthy cheesemongers ever to be given a public platform but, let's be honest, it's all about the songs. Macca knows what the crowd wants and delivers in spades, churning out the classics with the vigour of a man half his age. Any dictionary definition of “awesome live spectacle” should make reference to his firework-spewing, flame-throwing, hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck rendition of ‘Live And Let Die’.
Ben Harper – 4/10
Hit and miss at the best of the times, Harper's HRC performance is an excruciatingly dull miss, cluttered with endless meandering around the fretboard. It's a live show that could make him millions if he found a way to bottle it and sell it as a cure for insomnia.
James Morrison – 3/10
This musical answer to limp lettuce has as much business being at a festival with the words “hard” and “rock” in the name as he does at a conference discussing the advancement of popular taste (unless, of course, he's there as an exhibit of the kind of obstacles that need to be overcome). Organisers, what were you thinking?
Jamiroquai – 5/10
The enthusiasm of today's crowd is fair evidence that these acid jazz has-beens remain inexplicably popular and a major live draw. Unfortunately, their formulaic – if tight and accomplished – traipse through the weary annals of funk pop is a more stark reminder that the music was always second-rate.
Elvis Costello vs the football
The hilarious decision to show the England/Germany game on a big screen behind the main arena lighting rig leads to a peculiar situation in which 15,000 people are gathered halfway up the central field during Elvis Costello's enjoyably country-tinged set, cheering (sort of) and shouting in all the wrong places.
By Dan Frost.
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