There are a number of ways that iconic artists with 40-year careers can approach live gigs: the Lou Reed “I’m going to play my new album no matter how good or bad it is, but I’ll do Sweet Jane as an encore”; the Neil Young “I’m mostly going to play songs you know, but I’m going to mix it up a bit”*; or David Bowie’s perfect approach “I’ll play a selection of my hits, plus some of the better, but more obscure, album tracks, a few of the new ones (I know they’re not generally as good as songs from my peak, but some of them are worth hearing) and a cover or two (here’s an early Pixies tune)”.
Then there’s the Bob Dylan approach: send out a band all dressed in grey and black. Don’t show any close-ups on the big screen, ensuring hardly anyone can see you. Don’t dare speak a word to the audience. Play some well-known songs, but turn them all into soul-less blues-rock numbers. To say this was disappointing is an understatement. I’m not the biggest Dylan fan in the world, but I was looking forward to hearing him. Instead we walked out early and got an early train home (turns out we only missed 1 ½ songs anyway, and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ sounded just as good from the bus queue as it did from inside the venue).
That aside, this was a pretty good day festival. An easy train ride (and a dodgy walk along a dual carriageway) from London, set in Kent fields on the hottest day of the year.
The Magic Numbers are a perfect summer festival band: sunny and happy pop, and they have just enough songs to last a 30-minute set before you start getting bored.
I saw less (e.g. none) of Pete Docherty and Seasick Steve, because we were hiding from the sun (man, but it was hot; credit to the organisers for constantly publicising the water taps, and having plenty of medics on site – both were needed). I hear Docherty played a well-received set of his hits from both bands. Seasick Steve doesn’t do it for me, so that’s all I’ll say about him.
I’ve somehow never heard Laura Marling in spite of being a fan of a couple of the bands she’s associated with, but I enjoyed her set, without feeling greatly moved by it. Her voice is fantastic though, and I’ll have to give her more of a listen.
Mumford and Sons did their thing (interesting to see them playing above Seasick Steve, only a year ago I watched them play the second stage at Neil Young’s Hard Rock Calling, at the same time as Steve played the main stage). No new songs, but their stage act and set was tight and people were singing along, even well at the back of the crowd. Marcus won points for being as enthusiastic about being there as any of the audience, and could later be seen stageside watching Ray Davies.
Ray Davies was, of course, great – but if the gig had consisted solely of Ray playing ‘Days’ and then punching me in the face, I’d still consider it a great gig. Because, you know, ‘Days’!. Plus ‘Dedicated Follower’, ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘All Day and All of the Night’, ‘Victoria’, etc. Sure, the set could have been better – would have loved to have heard ‘Waterloo Sunset’ and ‘Village Green Preservation Society’, and setlist.fm tells me he played both at Glastonbury. Plus there was a little too much dull 12-bar blues-rock for my tastes – when you’ve written intelligent pop as brilliant as ‘Days’ or ‘Waterloo Sunset’, or basically invented new-wave guitar pop (well, maybe not, but work with me here) with ‘All Day…’ and ‘Really Got Me’ it’s a shame to hear those more dull and derivative tunes. Nonetheless, when it was good, it was very very good. (Also, I liked the fact that Ray was angry and ranty about his set possibly (?) being cut short, and seemingly refused to leave the stage – though he may have misunderstood what was going on, as he later started praising the organisers). On the other hand, he could probably do without playing ‘Ape Man’ again – decent tune but when you have a song with that title, in ¾ time, and you THEN mention ‘pretending to be in Jamaica’, well, it starts to look at best unfortunate and at worst racist…but I hope I’m wrong.
Which brings us back to Bob. I guess I get what he was trying to do: make it about the music (maaan), by taking the focus away from the people making the music. (Or conversely, maybe it was some kind of Brechtian alienation effect. I don’t know. Bob wasn’t talking). But it didn’t work for me. From what I’ve heard, fans were split – a lot of people thought it was a fantastic performance, so good for them. I’m sorry I didn’t feel the same way.
*which beats the earlier Neil Young. Apparently, when he was touring Tonight’s the Night, he played that (then unreleased) album all the way through. When fans protested or called for old songs, he told them that later on he’d play ‘songs that they’d heard before’. He then played Tonight’s the Night all the way through again.