Saturday, 30 June 2012
Jodrell Bank Transmission 002 June 23rd 2012 featuring Elbow & Guests
As a kid in the late 60s I grew up about forty minutes' drive from the Lovell Radio Telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. It was the biggest movable radio telescope in the world when constructed in 1957 and still is third biggest. At the time of the Apollo moon landings its visitor centre boasted a planetarium and extensive permanent displays which reflected the worldwide fascination with astronomy provoked by NASA'a endeavours. Sadly, a fickle public lost interest just as quickly and the space programme went from a source of justified American pride to white elephant almost as soon as Neil Armstrong got dust on his boot. Likewise Jodrell Bank's status has declined from national must-see visitor attraction to eccentric nerd-magnet. The planetarium has gone and the remaining visitor centre is a fragment of former glory. I used to love visiting Jodrell Bank, with my primary school, Sunday School, Cub scouts and on my birthday, so to see it downgraded in this way is a source of some sadness. Of course, its research continues and its scientific importance is undiminished, but Joe Public has largely forgotten about it.
Anyway, last year someone had the bright idea of organising a music festival in the shadow of the telescope, in tandem with a popular science exhibition featuring lectures and displays based around the visitor centre. Flaming Lips headlined above British Sea Power and others and despite some teething problems (insufficient catering and toilets seem to have been the main gripe, along with the car park exit queues that are pretty much guaranteed at such events), it was deemed a success.
This year two consecutive one-day concerts featuring Elbow on the Saturday and Paul Weller on Sunday were announced, the former selling out at once. In retrospect, making such arrangements for what would normally be Glastonbury weekend and therefore notoriously tempting to the Rain Gods may seem a little foolhardy, but at the time the chance to see Elbow do a full set (they only had an hour at Glastonbury last year) was too tempting. Furthermore, Elbow are one of the few acts that all four family members would willingly travel to see.
Unless you live in another country or have been sedated and/or detained for the last couple of months, you will know that the British summer of 2012 has been characterised by severe precipitation. It has chucked it down across the nation so that pockets of flooding have cropped up in almost every corner. By the time we set off from Gloucester on Friday afternoon we were armed with weather forecasts that were, as Guy Garvey remarked the following evening, positively biblical. By the time we were settled in our Premier Inn (Lenny Henry's absence duly noted), it was pouring and it continued to do so for much of the night. On Saturday morning brief but heavy showers continued and so by the time we pulled into the concert car park, normally a dairy field, at 2 p.m. it was already pretty soggy.
The concert took place in an adjacent, gently sloping field, itself next to the Lovell telescope. A short path led to the "Science Arena", the permanent visitor centre with temporary exhibition stands and a few catering outlets set up around it, everything dwarfed by the dish which occsionally twitched and swivelled, as if to show it was paying attention. One wag had fixed a sign to the fence warning of a £10,000 fine for mobile phone use, which is normally banned, but the restriction had been lifted for the weekend. We met at least one person who had been fooled, however! Having checked out the bar (Robinson's Build A Rocket Boys bitter, produced in collaboration with Elbow, was the primary tipple on offer), we went to visit the exhibition area. Unfortunately, in doing so we missed opening act Willy Mason. This was not intentional, although I'd have to admit that research the previous day had led me to believe that his was the set I was least bothered about. No disrespect to his material, but having been underwhelmed by various earnest troubadours with acoustic guitars trying to attract the attention of a fieldful of apathy, it seemed least likely to work in the context. Those we spoke to who did catch his performance said it was good but sad (as in depressing songs). Perhaps not an ideal opener. Anyway, the same research had led me to expect better things of the bill's next offering,
LIANNE LA HAVAS
I'd have to admit that I was pretty much oblivious to Ms. La Havas' work until I knew I was going to see her, at which point I checked out some video and downloaded a couple of singles. The publicity made much of a newspaper quote describing her voice as the best to have emerged since Adele, but I'm not sure the comparison is fair or accurate. You have to do something remarkable as a singer these days to get noticed amidst the crushing volume of competent but forgettable warblers who spring out of the woodwork to appear on T.V. talent competitions at the annual drop of a hat. The voice matters; Amy Winehouse and Florence Welch are two which are unlikely to be mistaken for anyone else, however what both those ladies, and Adele owe their success to is a combination of pipework and material. Lianne La Havas is blessed with a very good voice, which I'm reluctant to compare to another for fear of misleading, but it's probably her material that will get her noticed. There are some break-up songs, which perhaps invite the Adele comparison, but her style has more of a blues edge, enhanced by her plucking away at the deeper end of an electric guitar for much of the time, both with and without her unobtrusive backing band. One song was a duet with, and co-written by the aforementioned Willy Mason, but for the most-part she relied purely on her own charm, talent and tunes to win over the majority of those paying attention. I hope most of us have heard of her by Xmas - her album "Is Your Love Big Enough?" is released on July 9th.
were next up. They are one of those bands who seemingly exist as a vehicle for one member, in this case Simon Aldred, whose Lancastrian twang was a bit of Garvey-lite for those awaiting the headliners with growing impatience. The weather was mostly behaving itself at this stage and I watched the set from one side of the stage from which I could only see Aldred and the keyboard player, but I'm not sure it mattered. Although I had liked a couple of the tunes I'd downloaded, the performance was subdued and lacked any movement or excitement. The crowd approved for the most part, and in isolation each song was worth hearing. Unfortunately it was difficult to pick stand-out tunes, however and the tempo barely varied. O.K., I was bored.
I had the chance to see Cherry Ghost in the considerably more intimate setting of Gloucester Guildhall not long ago but missed it. I might go next time, as although I was underwhelmed in a field with several thousand people in it, a more intense context might bring greater rapport between artist and audience, and this member of the audience and the material. The Mrs.and I agreed that Cherry Ghost sounded "almost there" but needed a tweek to cross the line. As mentioned before, I'm reluctant to dismiss professional musicians who are clearly having some success and devoting their lives to its pursuit, just because I'm not that blown away, so as before, I'd just wish them luck...
Now this lot I had heard a bit, what with spending a fair amount of time listening to BBC 6Music. I'd even downloaded the whole of their most recent album and was looking forward to hearing what they sounded like live. Unfortunately, as the final support they were doomed to perform in front of a swelling crowd that was getting excited about seeing Elbow and all too indifferent to whatever they had to offer. Short of disembowelling a large mammal onstage or employing a troupe of naked dancing girls, they were going to face an uphill struggle just getting noticed. Polite applause was about the limit of what they received in the way of encouragement and I was far too busy containing my desire to throttle the drunken fools directly in front of me to catch every nuance of their show. It crossed my mind that were you to flick through their record collections you'd probably find some early XTC and a bit of Talking Heads. It proved difficult to concentrate on the lyrics, which I suspect are important to their work and while I enjoyed what I heard, for much of the time I was hearing but not listening due to the growing distraction of the aforementioned inebriate imbeciles. Hey-ho. Suffice to say that offered the chance to see them again I would take it, as the performance had a bit of raw energy as well as musical intrigue.
As I mentioned, I had seen Elbow at Glastonbury last year,and they were probably the highpoint for me, which is no criticism of several other acts, but reflects the fact that their style and songs suit a big venue. Compared to the Pyramid field at Glastonbury, the 10,000 capacity at Jodrell Bank may be a mere bagatelle, but it's still an awful lot of people spread over a large area of land. To make those people feel engaged, when to some you're just a bloke in the distance, blurred by the rain falling in the way, takes some doing. Yes, there were giant video screens integrated into the stage, but these alone can sometimes devalue a concert into a mass telly-viewing, in which you realise that you are watching the screen more than the people you paid to see. One special touch at Jodrell Bank was that the set opened with singer Guy Garvey instructing the telescope operator to face the dish at the audience and, as night fell, images including the live feed of the concert were projected onto its white surface. Still, a projected image alone still amounts to watching television, and Elbow managed a lot more than that.
From the outset it was apparent that the sound was going to be top notch, despite the additional challenges presented by the elements. The bass in particular had that diaphragm-rattling quality which challenges you to try and ignore it, but across the spectrum the music was clear as a bell. Visually significant was a runway out from centre stage which went maybe half way to the sound/light tower that lay at the midfield point. Within a few seconds of taking the stage, Garvey was down this runway, encouraging waving and singing and effectively shrinking the gulf between stage and crowd. Later on the other band members joined him, under umbrellas, to perform one song. "Electric instruments and rain - what could possibly go wrong?", he asked. Nothing, happily!
Unsurprisingly the setlist was based around the two most recent and successful albums, The Seldom Seen Kid and Build A Rocket Boys, although earlier work was represented and indeed the title track to Leaders of the Free World, for which Garvey briefly strapped on a guitar, was one of the many highlights for me. Notable by its absence was the long awaited tune written for the BBC's Olympic coverage, making me wonder if it's been scrapped as we have already been "treated" to the Muse offering to be played at Olympic events. (N.B. The day after this was originally posted the BBC used a minute of the theme in the middle of the European Football Final, with the full debut promised for 7.30 p.m. June 3rd).
As a band, especially live, it is hard to fault Elbow on musicality. They are tight as you might hope for a group that have played together for over two decades, yet where for some bands longevity seems to require that members are showcased during a protracted solo or some other diversion from collective effort, this is not so here. Garvey is the frontman, but the strength of the playing behind him prevents it turning into a Guy Garvey and sidekicks show, or the nightmare noodle-fest of soloing which proficient musicianship sometimes spawns elsewhere. His voice belies his stature - from such a figure you might expect a Tom Jones bellow, but the subtlety and range, even in the context of a rain swept singalong, is outstanding.
The songs, many of them literally anthemic and therefore suited to the mass singing that took place, are also poignant and personal in a way that more traditional rock anthems (We Will Rock You and its ilk) are not. Indeed, they deserve to be sung, not chanted as if from the terraces
Garvey continued to jog down the runway regularly throughout the performance which started with the heavens zipped shut, but not for long. Less than half an hour in, they were duly opened and while the deluge that followed may not have been as apocalyptic as the one that lasted the duration of U2's 2011 Glastonbury appearance, it was plenty heavy enough! The songs came thick and fast, but there were a couple of devices that allowed the band a brief rest. Garvey explained that his cat is named Jocelyn Bell-Burnell in honour of the woman who discovered pulsars but inexplicably failed to receive Nobel recognition for it, and showed off a picture of said moggy, duly projected onto the telescope. As at Glastonbury, a toast was made, this time to a band member's new baby. Every now and again the singer would stick his head out from under the shelter of the stage to check if it was still raining (it was, mostly) and to show solidarity with his audience, as he put it. Fireworks drew the main set to a close before predictable encores of The Birds and One Day Like This, both sung robustly by the band and a crowd which was long past minding how wet it was. I can't remember audience participation being invited to not only be louder but to include "more harmonies" before, but it duly obliged, even if some of those harmonies were a little speculative. More fireworks and that was that.
Jodrell Bank was Elbow's "home game" of the summer, closest to their origin in Bury. They may have made a special effort because of the homecoming element,or indeed to compensate for the weather, but whatever the reason, at the risk of stating the obvious, One Gig Like This A Year Would See Me Right.
This weekend's hot ticket is for one of three 70,000 head sell-outs for the historic (i.e. lucrative) Stone Roses reunion gigs in Manchester. I would have no hesitation in giving up my ticket, if I had one, for a repeat of Elbow at Jodrell Bank. Remarkably, that goes for the two teenagers (13 &15) who came with me, as well as the long suffering better half.
We trotted back to the car to find ourselves surrounded and made precious little progress for half an hour before suddenly being directed out via the coach-park, a lucky break which may have spared us another couple of hours in the field according to some later online comments. Of course the organisers couldn't be blamed for the weather, but the car-park marshalling took a while to take control, and it might have been worth blowing a bit more cash on metal tracking to reduce the number of vehicles that got stuck. Unfortunately the site is adjacent to only one main road and therefore doomed to bottlenecking. Good intentions led to plenty of buses being laid on, but at a prohibitive cost. If another event occurs (the following day was cancelled through health and safety concerns and the sheer impracticality of getting cars onto a car park already pock-marked by previous sinkings), it must surely be planned on the basis that the worst will happen rather than the hope that it will not.
My personal gripe has to do with the security people on the entry gate, who denied access to my camera on the basis that it has a detachable lens. You may have seen such cameras in the shops. They are aimed at amateurs and owned by them. The pre-concert rules issued by the promoters contained a ban on professional equipment, but no serious professional would use my camera. In the meantime our crack security jobsworths let through numerous high resolution smart phones and concealed cameras (my error was honestly displaying it on the way in, apparently). Hence I must apologise for some slightly ropey images here. There are plenty of good ones to be found online, though, and the promoters claim that a DVD of the event will be released, although this has yet to be confirmed elsewhere. Again you can see quite a few clips on YouTube should you wish. I refused to let the killjoys spoil my day, but do allow myself the vindictive hope that they all contracted trench-foot in the mud over the next day or so...