Monday 31 July 2023

Recent gigs ( Part Three ) - Wychwood Festival 2023 Day Two


After a fantastic first day at Wychwood, we went home for a rest, then headed back to Cheltenham on the Saturday for day two. Gluttons for punishment or committed gig-goers? A bit of both I suppose. The 3rd of June was just as hot and sunny as the previous day and the site was much, much busier. We rocked up a bit later this time, as we'd already sussed the place out. The first band we saw on the main stage were the pop-tastic Scouting For Girls at a crazily early 15:00 pm...

The familiar, twangy sound of the James Bond theme rang out as the band took to the stage to play, inevitably, I Wish I Was James Bond. ( Just for a day. Not "Heroes", but Bond. Very specific. ) I kind of remembered SFG from their chart days of a few years ago and thought they would be fun but I'd underestimated just how much grinning, bouncing, sun-kissed fun their material would be. More pop fireworks whizzed over our heads in the form of Elvis Ain't Dead and Heartbeat, before singer Roy Stride introduced "the most inappropriate song of the day" in the form of Posh Girls. It may have been inappropriate but it was a guilty ( not that guilty ) pleasure which prompted a huge singalong from the crowd. 

They played their song Bad Superman which they said was basically a rip-off of Stacy's Mom by Fountains Of Wayne, which itself was apparently a rip-off of Busted's Year 3000. To prove the point they mashed all three into a musical medley for our entertainment and education. Which was nice. Roy embarrassed himself in front of thousands by ringing his wife and daughter from the stage and getting us to sing to them. He wanted to prove to them how many people were there as, apparently, "nobody goes to festivals to watch Scouting For Girls". His wife was having none of it, so he's got some making up to do. Hopefully not in front of thousands. They finished ( of course ) with their biggest hit, She's So Lovely, yet another Summery pop classic, and then they were gone. SFC were a delight, a band I probably wouldn't have gone to see otherwise but definitely enjoyed on this gorgeous June afternoon. They're touring later in the year, so who knows, I might see them again... stranger things have happened...

Next up was some proper pop royalty in the shape of Heather Small. Or "THE Heather Small???" as my daughter exclaimed when I mentioned she was playing. Singing along to a backing track and only performing six songs (!), Heather Small still gave her all, and then some. Strutting sassily across the stage ( I mean, how else would she do it? ), Heather ran through a greatest hits selection of mostly M People songs like One Night In Heaven, Search For The Hero and How Can I Love You More? as well as her signature solo anthem Proud  -  and there were obviously some Miranda fans in the crowd as a bunch of people were wearing cardboard Heather Small masks for this one. You had to be there. Heather was quite the diva on stage, in a light-hearted but totally authentic way, and her voice was as rich and powerful as ever as she led the crowd through a closing rendition of female-empowerment classic Moving On Up. 

An uplifting, if short, set which made me decide I'd like to see more of Heather ( steady! ), but with a full set and an actual band...

From pop to Britpop next, as the stupendous Sleeper rocked up at Dave's Stage ( that's the main stage to you ) to bring us their own brand of indie wizardry. The strains of You Only Live Twice rang out around the arena ( what was it with all the Bond references? ) and then Sleeper kicked into a rousing Cellophane to start their set.

 Their set was basically a greatest hits compilation but this first song, from 2018 comeback album The Modern Age, easily held its own against the familiar songs. And what songs! The impish Nice Guy Eddie, power-pop banger Statuesque and the achingly sad What Do I Do Now? were all outstanding and showed that the underrated Sleeper were easily on a par with the more populist, blokey bands of the Britpop era. The gorgeous Louise Wener, resplendent in a frilly skirt and green "Rock Hag" T-shirt, looked like she was having the time of her life, a permanent smile playing on her lips. The medley of Blondie's Atomic and Joy Division's Love Will tear Us Apart paid fine tribute to their heroes ( and gave the crowd yet another singalong ) before they concluded the excellent set with the one-two punch of Inbetweener ( of course! ) and Sale Of The Century. This is the second time I've seen Sleeper and both times they've been fantastic, easily one of the best live bands around at the moment.

I think we did another dash out of the main arena to find some grub at this point, and then headed back to catch Caledonian folk/rock duo The Proclaimers

Although Craig and Charlie Reid have been doing their thing since the late '80s I only own their first album so wasn't familiar with a lot of their songs. I also wasn't sure if they would have a full band or just play as a duo ( do they even do that any more? ) but, as it turned out, they had a shit-hot backing band, who rocked like muthas. ( Technical term. ) I didn't know the first song, Dentures Out, but they followed it with the strident, autobiographical Over And Done With which sounded great, especially the "I washed my hands and went for ma dinnerrrr" line. Another early highlight of the set was the unashamedly romantic Let's Get Married, a heart-on-the-sleeve love song that could have been sung by the Everly Brothers, instead of two spotty guys from Fife. And I think a lot of the group's appeal is this old-fashioned approach to song-writing, with no room for irony but plenty of room for sincerity. A beautiful Sunshine On Leith had everyone singing and possibly evoked a few tears in their fanbase. ( I was surprised how many people, and how many young people at that, knew all the words to all their songs. They're clearly more popular than I'd thought. ) Although the Reids were relatively taciturn on stage, their songs really said it all with their passion and gorgeous shared vocals. They finished, of course, with a crowd-pleasing rendition of their biggest hit, I'm Gonna Be ( 500 Miles ), which was a perfect way to end the set. I'll definitely have to buy more of The Proclaimers' music and hopefully catch them live again some day.

And then it was time for the last band we saw at Wychwood, yet another Scottish act, indie Radio 2 stalwarts, Travis. Sarah was always a big fan of this band back in the day and we had seen them before, many years ago at the Birmingham International Arena. I'd never been too bothered about their easy-listening indie and have been guilty of taking the piss out of them in the past but, to be honest they were great at Wychwood. Starting with two of their most well-known songs, Sing and Writing To Reach You, they instantly got the crowd fully engaged and singing along. Similarly to the Reid brothers, Travis are another band who come across as very sincere and down to earth  -  they may be lacking in weirdness or rock 'n' roll attitude, but they make up for this with their warmth and smoothly lovely melodies.

Driftwood was a mid-set anthem that had everyone singing and swaying along, while more recent song A Ghost was a (yes) haunting Country lament about not letting life pass you by. Singer Fran Healey announced they'd come to the "busking" part of the set and they all gathered around one mike to play a beautiful a cappella version of Flowers In The Window.

 After finishing the main set with a massive version of Turn, they encored with a couple of heavier songs in All I Wanna Do Is Rock ( "If Travis were a country, this would be our national anthem" ) and the Motown beat of Selfish Jean, before bringing the house down ( no mean feat without a roof! ) with the inevitable Why Does It Always Rain On Me? Luckily it hadn't rained on us or the band, and Travis had been a ( surprisingly for me ) fine way to end a cracking weekend. Same again next year? Let's hope so.

Monday 17 July 2023

Recent gigs ( Part Two ) - Wychwood Festival 2023 Day One

 Purely by chance, this Summer has been my busiest season ever for outdoor gigs. In recent weeks Sarah and I have seen the mighty Muse in Milton Keynes and the peerless Pulp in Manchester ( more about those later ) but it started back in June with the Wychwood Festival in Cheltenham. Wychwood has been running since 2005 but I've never paid it much attention, until this year's stellar lineup made me give it a go. I think they've really stepped up their selection of bands since the pandemic and this, coupled with the fact it's just up the road for us, made it a must. I bought us tickets for the Friday and Saturday only, as the Sunday seemed the weakest lineup, apart from Soul II Soul who I'm sure would have been good. 

( As an aside, the cost for Sarah and I to go to Wychwood for two days was still less than the cost of one ticket for Springsteen's latest tour. As you may know, dear reader, I am was a big Bruce fan but the whole Ticketmaster "dynamic ticketing" fiasco, and Springsteen's shameless attitude towards it, has put me off the guy so much that I'll probably never see him play live again. I won't go into it now but, suffice to say, I'm not happy about it. ) Anyway, on to happier days...

Wychwood had the most chilled, relaxed vibe of any big gig I've been to: a very family friendly, welcoming festival with plenty of things to do besides the bands, like arts & crafts workshops, "wellness" stuff, dance classes etc. I even got Sarah onto a fairground ride :-) The weather was perfect which was a relief as the British festival experience can always be hit or miss. We always remember seeing Robbie Williams ( don't snigger at the back! ) in 2001 in a sea of mud. Which wasn't much fun. As the photo above shows, we had no such problems this time, our biggest worry was not getting too sunburnt. So, what about the bands? What indeed. I'll run through them in order of days and performances, which is honestly most unlike my usual, haphazard style. I don't know what's got into me. Starting with Friday 2nd June:

The first band on, at some ridiculously early time in the afternoon, were The Pop-Tarts. These two sisters plus backing band play pop / rock covers in a folk stylee with ukuleles and acoustic guitars, and were a nice, gentle way to start the weekend. ( All the bands I'm going to mention here were on the main stage. I didn't get any photos of The Pop-Tarts there, but they did play again later in the day in a tent, as you can see below... )

Also in the wasteland of the afternoon slot were Still Pigeon, a straight-outta-music-school indie band from Oxford. They weren't too distinctive but were a pleasant soundtrack to eating an ice cream in the sunshine and certainly enjoyed themselves onstage.

Then came one of the most joyful but also most poignant sets of the weekend from The Beat featuring Ranking Jnr. If you've followed this 'ere blog for any length of time, you'll know that The Beat ( not Dave Wakelin's "English Beat" version, thanks ) are one of my all-time favourite live bands. I hadn't seen them since the tragic passing of Ranking Roger back in 2019 and it was a real lump-in-the-throat moment to see Ranking Jnr take to the Wychwood main stage without his legendary dad. Junior, as enthusiastic and full of beans as ever, soon had the crowd moving with a couple of Beat classics in Stand Down Margaret and Too Nice To Talk To, before Side To Side represented the 21st century Beat catalogue. He then introduced Carry The Flag by talking about his late dad, bravely sharing his feelings at his dreadful loss, and describing Ranking Roger as his mentor and best friend. It was a very emotional moment and Carry The Flag beautifully summed up Junior's mission to perpetuate his dad's message of good vibes, love and unity. More classics followed, with virtually everybody dancing by this point, before the set-closing double punch of an extended Ranking Full Stop and ( of course ) Mirror In The Bathroom. It had been a fantastic performance, full of joy and sadness, love and hope, perfect for such a beautiful day.

We went to find some food at this point ( exciting stuff, right? ) so missed the majority of Republica's set but managed to catch about three songs. As expected, they kicked out some bouncy indie-dance which was good fun but not life-changing. Frontperson Saffron doesn't have the strongest voice but she makes up for that with her ebullient personality and down to earth manner. She told us that the band can't believe they're still doing this as they were just "some mates from Essex with a synthesiser" who got together for a laugh back in the '90s, and are still here. Good luck to them.

The next band, The Dualers, were an unknown quantity for me. We also missed part of their set as we'd been wandering again and catching up with my old Death Planet Commandos pal, Mark B. ( A shocking lack of commitment from yer blogger. ) The Dualers turned out to be a red-hot reggae / ska band who brought the party vibe to Wychwood and got people to move their feet to the Trenchtown-via-SE London beat. They summed up their optimistic, Summery sound with It's A Wonderful Life before finishing with a razor-sharp cover of Toots & The Maytals' all-time ska classic Monkey Man. Definitely a band to catch again.

And then it was time for the band I was probably the most excited about, the always awesome Ash! I'd had a ticket for a much-delayed Ash gig in Bristol ( thanks Covid! ) knocking about for a year or so and hoped to see them in late 2021. Unfortunately the pandemic was still hanging around, if not in full swing, and Sarah wasn't comfortable with me going, so I gave it a miss. This was my first opportunity to see the boys from Downpatrick since that time and I was really looking forward to it. 

Ash kicked off with A Life Less Ordinary ( yay! ) and basically played a greatest hits set, with the likes of Angel Interceptor, Goldfinger and Shining Light all getting rabid responses from the audience. ( Sarah, it has to be said, was a bit non-plussed by it all. ) This was the first time I'd seen Ash play an outdoor gig and, as can often be the case, the sound wasn't a patch on what you'd hear at an indoor venue. The band were playing as well as ever, Tim Wheeler was his usual charismatic self, but the guitar sound was too quiet for my liking. If you're going to play a Flying V it needs to be heard! After a ferocious Orpheus ( maybe too ferocious? ) the bass amp packed up and there was much faffing about on stage as roadies attempted to fix it. Tim led the crowd through a solo singalong cover of Teenage Kicks ( why not? ) but the impetus was lost. Luckily, the set-closing trio of Kung Fu / Girl From Mars / Burn Baby Burn just about salvaged things. Anyway, it was great to see them again and I'm hoping to catch them on their tour with The Subways later in the year. And they've got a new album coming out soon!

As the sun went down, headliners The Happy Mondays ambled onto the stage to bring some urban Mancunian madness to leafy Cheltenham. That distinctive, twangy guitar figure that heralds Kinky Afro started up and then Shaun Ryder launched into one of the greatest opening lines in pop history: "Son, I'm 30 / I only went with your mother 'cos she's dirty" - and the party started right there. Leaning heavily on the iconic Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches album, the Mondays pulled indie-dance banger after indie-dance banger out of their bucket hat, with the infectious Loose Fit and the righteous God's Cop being standouts. The expected sitcom shenanigans between Shaun, Bev and Rowetta were as random and hilarious as ever: Shaun made a big thing of not knowing which song they were playing next ( "Who put this in the fookin' set list?" ), even though they were obviously all well-rehearsed, and the less said about the lines Rowetta and Shaun traded during the "penis" song the better. Bez spotted a kid in the crowd shaking maracas along with him and clearly loved it. In fact, they all looked like they were loving every minute of this funky, fabulous performance. They finished with, of course, a melon-twisting Step On, with the crowd dancing like they were on a Saga mini-break to the Hacienda, before coming back out for a final, freaky-dancing Wrote For Luck. 

It had been a wonderful day: fantastic music in lovely surroundings with gorgeous weather. You can't ask much more for a festival in the UK. We headed home for a rest, before returning for Day Two...

Mad fer it!

( Have these people no shame??? )

Monday 3 July 2023

Farrah the Fox and Sabrina the Spirit of the River Severn

These two impressive characters visited Gloucester yesterday as part of "Hi! Street Fest", celebrating the culture and history of UK cities. Farrah and Sabrina took a journey back through time as they started off in the currently-regenerating King's Quarter of the city, processed through two of Gloucester's ancient "gate" streets - Northgate and Westgate Streets - before arriving at the beautiful, 1000-year old Gloucester Cathedral. We followed the fox and his fishy friend through the streets, accompanied by dancers and roller-skaters, families and friends, the town crier and the town drunks.

It was lovely to see these colourful characters parading through Gloucester's streets, raising awareness of this much-undervalued city's long history and cultural legacy. I was especially pleased to see the Sabrina character embodying the River Severn, which has been so important to this area, from the days of the first Roman colony here, through the years of sea trading and elver fishing, up to the present day. I've lived my whole life within a few miles of the Severn and it's been a constant feature of my 56 years. We've walked its banks so many times over the years and its just a wonderful source of life, energy and history, flowing through this county and on up country. 

The weather was beautiful and it was a perfect day for the fox and the mermaid to finish their journey in the gorgeous surroundings of College Green, outside the Cathedral. There was even confetti...



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