Thursday, 16 August 2012

TRUCK STOP - Truck Festival: A Review - Part I

With the stellar line-up it had been boasting for a number of months, the fifteenth annual Truck Festival held at Hill Farm in Didcot, Oxfordshire well and truly lived up to the nickname it once received from The Guardian. It is without any doubt the Godfather of small festivals. Being a Beautiful Days veteran I always thought that was relatively small but while Truck’s size may well be considerably lesser in scale, it more than makes up for it with the mammoth weekend of music it delivers for its Truckers (not of the lorry driver kind – just to be clear).

Naturally with the ‘Great British Summer’ of eternal downpours in full swing I was fully expecting to be swimming in oceans of mud when as if by some Truck magic, the real summer arrived just in time. Both the campsite and the arena areas were pretty much dry and solid although I still lived in the mandatory wellingtons. It’s almost like they become a part of my actual body as soon as I fit my feet inside them now. Gone are the days when one would fall over at the slightest change in terrain. I must have finally moved beyond being a festival freshman.

One thing that washed over me as I arrived was the amazing atmosphere that encompasses the entire event. It was like I was entering some kind of chilled out bubble. It instantly puts you at an ease so you fully feel a part of the family of attendees whether or not you choose to mingle. There were quite a lot of groups of young people yet no trouble or anti-social behaviour I heard about and I’m sure I would have done had there been any such incident. In these days of doom and gloom it is nice to experience such a sense of community when among people you are unlikely to ever meet again. There was also a large number of families and with extra effort having been taken to cater for keeping little ones occupied, combined with it being a shorter 2 day event, you can understand why.

With some experience of trying to manage timing clashes I’m surprised it took me so long to find the clashfinder website. While a few of the timings were a little off, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to be able to use such a tool in conjunction with the awesome mini schedules issued with the programmes (although seeing one chill out at a festival might nevertheless provide a degree of amusement).

I was disappointed to arrive about an hour after the music kicked off but that is down to my own lack of organisation and having to go buy tent pegs before leaving (a pretty important necessity you’ll agree). Thankfully my tent is one of those simple spring open affairs so the only real time it requires is the hammering in of pegs. I say ‘simple’ but it loses this simplicity when trying to take it down again. This can take considerably longer as the thing keeps popping back up – I don’t think I’ve ever gotten it back to the small size it was when I bought it. Ah, what the heck, it serves its purpose.



Michele Stodart
Americana is the genre that kicked off the music for me with Michele Stodart proving that sometimes the decision to move outside of what may have been a very beneficial comfort zone is the right one to have made. Her performance was heartfelt, poignant and perfect. With a cookie basket brimming with melancholic songs about heartbreak, loneliness, anger and frustration, Michele belts out her songs with a pure simplistic beauty that seeks to move you. She doesn’t rest up until she’s succeeded, either. The skill with which each song has been crafted was demonstrated wonderfully in the resulting performance. I was captivated from start to finish. Switched on and fully engaged.

Even the gloomiest lyrics are lifted high above the darkness with a powerful emphasis on the upbeat sound intertwining with the, at times haunting electric guitar. The words grab at the throat startling the sense back into you. With other songs she moves to the complete opposite end of the spectrum showcasing her versatility. All those years as a bassist for The Magic Numbers mean Michele is obviously no stranger to live performance and she certainly has what it takes to lead the show all by herself.

Boat To Row
After nipping back to the tent to swap jeans for shorts given the sudden appearance of summer, the clouds swam in speedily dropping their contents. Typical, I thought. Thankfully it was merely a passing shower so there was no need to seek out a Boat To Row to get to the second stage and catch this truly inspiring folk collective. With proper hook laden melodies they create sounds that once through your ears penetrate so deep inside the mind they won’t be letting go anytime soon. Marrying their instruments almost effortlessly for a band as relatively young as they are, their performance was marked with an abundance of talent. Actually, I’m surprised the stage didn’t collapse under the weight of it. A flourishing six piece group, the harmonies were outstanding and the overall sound just right.  

They were perfect for this time slot and the magical resonance of their music making is no doubt what enticed Mr Sun back out as it blew the clouds away. Their songs are thoughtful and deep. So deep I wonder if Boat to Row may even be a bit of a pun. Old Scenes has the kind of indie sound to it that reminded me of some of the Levellers’ folk focussed tunes. With a piercing violin lament and Michael King’s vocals layered with added harmonies bellowing out over the crowded tent, this was a tasty treat indeed. The horns make an inspired addition, always so prominent when live as is the banjo on Freedom. It is inspiring individual music that latches on, gets you moving about to their beat and their philosophy cannot but infect you with a feel good factor. It’s easy to see why they have already supported the likes of Willy Mason.

Josh Kumra
I must admit I don’t recall having heard of Josh Kumra before seeing him here and given the quality of his acoustic numbers I’m shocked by this. Granted, as he started singing his acoustic version of Don’t Go, which he co-wrote, the penny dropped. But then I’m not a radio 1 listener so can surely be forgiven for my initial ignorance? I had heard this one of course and in fairness absolutely love Josh’s part of the particular song. It was great to hear him play it how it should sound, in my opinion. I have absolutely nothing against this kind of talented musician who, quite rightly, get snapped up by record labels and earmarked to work on potential number ones with huge artists. Ed Sheeran is another such artist who really exploded on to the mainstream music scene but who I first saw performing an acoustic tune on Jools Holland’s Later programme. I can’t help but prefer this proper acoustic set up but even so one cannot take away from the obvious talent these young guys possess.

Josh continued to prove he had so much talent I was fully expecting the roof of the tent to be blown off. As he worked through his set, more and more festival goers kept piling inside, any more and everyone would no doubt have soon been on somewhat more intimately personal terms. If there were any ‘health and safety’ nerds about they’d have been having kittens. You could not expect anything less though, with such an astounding cover of Calvin Harris’ Feel So Good. It made me wonder how on earth this could not have been the original version. It would have been a smash! Pulling out lyrical and musical gem one after another, he stunned everyone into a silent appreciation with The Answer. I don’t think people were expecting to be quite so moved. The silence erupted into a thunderous applause as it ended of course and although I didn’t really know of him beforehand, I will not be forgetting Josh Kumra in a hurry.

The Dreaming Spires
It must have been exciting for festival founders, Robin and Joe Bennett aka The Dreaming Spires to play out songs from their recently released debut album, Brothers in Brooklyn. Over the fifteen years since they formed the heart of Truck, they have performed there well over a hundred times between them. Singing Sin City opens up the album perfectly as it did their set here. What really helped create the transatlantic atmosphere they produced on the album was being able to play as a full five piece band. With their unique brand of infectious hum along Americana tunes sung out via Robin’s smooth and distinct vocals, the harmonies were never ragged but they were most definitely sweet. Following with Everything All the Time enticing an early evening jig about before moving on to Not Every Song from the Sixties is a Classic, this performance has to be at the very top of my highlights for the day.

Brothers in Brooklyn delivered the heart of their message and one which every performer at the festival would relate to, ‘We do it cos we must, cos’ we need this the most…’ That isn’t the only message from the song of course and the three little words, ‘We are stardust…’ melt my heart each and every time I hear them. Seeing and hearing this live, it felt like it connected even more directly with my soul. The energy flowed out from the stage and washed over all in the tent with a shower of inspiration.

There is a rawness to The Dreaming Spires and yet it is a very well polished and faultless rawness giving them clear prominence amongst other bands in and around their genre. They utilise their vast array of skills so their show becomes one of musical transcendentalism infused with freshness capable of quenching a thirst. An embodiment of this ability was gifted upon the Truckers in the form of Strength of Strings. If forced to choose a favourite from the album, this would be in the top three without a doubt and the quality of the performance left me yearning to hear a full set worth of tunes. I enjoyed it so much I stopped by the Merchandise tent the following day, where the band performed an acoustic set, so I could hear it all over again.

Clock Opera
It was a wee trek back over to the main stage for Clock Opera who I must admit proved a worthy last minute replacement for Get Cape Wear Cape Fly. Bathed in green light and all wearing the same heavily patterned shirts (apart from the drummer) they looked like they were going to perform a synchronised dance or something. Perhaps it was in case they lost each other in the crowd prior to the gig and needed to find one another quickly. Clothing aside, their set possessed a little bit of a Wild Beasts enigma although it is evident their inspiration comes from a totally different corner of the spectrum. I cannot pick any fault with the performance and neither could my fellow Truckers it seemed as more and more of them gathered to see what the band were all about. Songs like Belongings strike a musical equilibrium before they burst through an inter-dimensional portal with a force that will knock you flat if it doesn’t knock you out first.

Guy Connelly wins the award for the best beard of the festival (perhaps even the world) and I’d like to know where I can get one from please. His amazing vocals add a real emotional depth to some of the songs, his jumping up and down as he sang various parts of the The Lost Buoys making it clear how much he relishes the buzz of entertaining a festival crowd. They returned this enthusiasm by jumping along and those who knew the words sang along to a song or two. This is a band offering an engaging mix of quality musical experimentation while sounding refined and absolute. Many people, including myself, would have been eager to see Get Cape but as a last minute stand in, Clock Opera managed to fill the hole their absence may have ended up creating. 

Missed Opportunities
I kick myself I didn’t go and check out Brontide in The Barn but it is of course necessary to eat so I queued up for chips instead. At £1.50 for a tub of chips one cannot complain.

I must admit I deserve to be strapped to a moving circus wheel and have knives thrown in my direction for not making it over to the 2nd stage to see Guillemots close the night there. This is what time machines should exist for. Feel free to throw things at me if you should see me walking down a street near you. I hear the tent was completely rammed.

Others I would have loved to have seen include Gabriel Minnikin, and Little Comets. Get in line to slap me. Just not too hard please.

Clash of the Bands
I also really wanted to catch Spring Offensive but they clashed with The Dreaming Spires and they’re a band I just could not miss! I will be making sure I follow them closely, however particularly as one of my top Bands of the Moment, The Scholars opened for them at a free gig in Banbury a few weeks back.


I became an instant fan of Villagers after seeing Conor O’Brien perform Becoming a Jackal, solo on Later with Jools Holland in 2010. I was therefore really looking forward to the band’s appearance and I wasn’t in the slightest bit disappointed. Even the fact they were running quite late didn’t impinge on the relaxed atmosphere as the evening lengthened. By now I was fully unwound from the monotonous everyday life cycle so they could have been postponed until the following day and with a simple shrug of the shoulders I would have happily waited. Conor is such an engaging character to watch play and sing. He gets you so fully immersed into what he’s singing about. So much so it can be hard not to end up feeling like you’re a character in the song itself. The way he wraps the lyrics around you with his compelling vocals to cushion the blow of their intensity is real musical artistry.

I don’t wish to do any disservice to the other band members here but this frontman simply is Villagers in my opinion. The songs and resulting performance are so drenched in his influence, the other guys needn’t actually be there. Yes they add necessary layers here and there with the backing vocals and at times, heavier electric guitar or drumbeats but Conor is more than capable of holding the crowd all by himself. Perhaps it’s because of how I first came to Becoming a Jackal, yet the majority of their set only served to reinforce it for me. To give them their dues the other members did make their presence known with the bigger sounding songs. Just to clarify, it isn’t their musicianship I’m questioning, just their overall presence.

Tim Minchin

I read some previews arguing Tim was an odd choice to headline a festival main stage. I’d just like to know on what humourless planet in deep space these strange little people live? My first Minchin experience came courtesy of Beautiful Days last year and I think it is never something you’re likely to forget no matter where you happen to be. There, he headlined the Big Top which itself is of considerable enough size and yet still wasn’t big enough to contain all those who wished for a piece of this singing comedian. With more space to breathe this year was even more memorable with him showing off his musical skills just as deftly. It takes genuine talent to compose music as elegant as he does and write tunes that can render you a messy pile of laughter one minute while the next inducing looks of contemplation as you ponder some of the words more carefully.

Tim offers up songs that have a perfect mix of intelligence, with his thought provoking comedy right down to the most outrageously silly farce of say, Cheese. Yes you read that correct, the song called Cheese while having a sparse shower of lyrics (namely various ways of singing, speaking and shouting, ‘Cheese’) never gets tiring all the way through to its ridiculous conclusion. It’s so easygoing one could assume it is his middle of the set relaxation come ‘take a break’ song yet he still gets fully engrossed.

Then there’s the lyrical splendour of Woody Allen Jesus (my favourite for sure, if I’m pushed to choose one). He made such a big point about being banned from performing it on British TV, even though that was some time ago now. It is obvious that kind of narrow-minded hypocrisy is something that annoys him to this day and rightly so. The song is a humorously written and composed poke of fun at the fanciful aspects of Christianity. It ends superbly with Tim having to defend the fact he’s described what he looks like himself but he’s not saying he’s Jesus. I’m sure another number, ‘If the Pope owned a disco’ must offend some but I was too busy laughing and admiring this gifted artist as he sang how, ‘no one would come cos he won’t allow gays there..’ This is an act not ever to be missed and with his unique brand of comical tunes I advise every festival to swiftly snap him up before he’s too big for them.

Mystery Jets
These guys were certainly a worthy choice to close this first night. They did so in epic style with an awesome set of songs spanning their growing list of albums. With all other stages having closed prior to the start of their set, it seemed like every Tucker had descended on the main stage arena for the show. The packed out crowd sang along (some rather drunkenly) to the better known hits Young Love and Two Doors Down. The latter being enough to have woken the Sun from its nightly slumber. With Serotonin the band managed to draw the crowd closer to them. So much so we may as well all have been on stage dancing about them as if we were at some indie club night. It was a fantastic way to finish off the night with such a relaxing climax following a long day of quality music.

Blaine Harrison played his part well, whether intentionally or not. Managing precisely the right amount of charisma mixed with that not quite but almost emo/mod supernaturalism that is all things indie, he reeled in the audience. Perhaps Flakes was an odd choice to close with but it worked perfectly. With a melody inducing a gentle sway from side to side as Blaine sang out in his trademark warble, the others joined him with their harmonious wooooah-ooooooahs. Some fans were visibly elated and it wasn’t just the alcohol. My only gripe is that there wasn’t much in the way of diversity to the set. By this I mean no adventurous or interesting asides. No expanded guitar solos or mini jamming sessions. Given crowd satisfaction such as it was these things are only minor snags yet it is at festivals when bands should offer that little bit more.

All things considered Friday at my first (but the fifteenth) Truck Festival was a blast so I’d already decided I’d be returning. Now back to the tent for more beer and some grub before crashing for the night. I was looking forward to Saturday and eager for more of the same.


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