Gig Review: On Blackheath Festival, Blackheath – 12/09/2015

CA - On Blackheath logo Saturday’s line-up at September’s ON BLACKHEATH FESTIVAL – now in its second year – held particular appeal for Mark K. Here’s what he made of it…

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This is On Blackheath Festival’s second year, and my, hasn’t it grown?!! With a very impressive bill too. Although it’s not a sell-out signs for the future look good.

Proceedings commence for us with Hooton Tennis Club on the Heavenly Stage. I had heard great things about them and was really looking forward to them. Their jangly but punchy indie sounds great on the radio, but doesn’t come across quite so well live, which is a shame. There seems to be a spark that is somehow missing. When they announce “a slow, sleepy song” my main reaction is to think that they’ve all been a bit soporific so far. However, this one is indeed different – it’s the equivalent of an aural duvet.

When they rock out they’re a bit more believable, a bit like a meatier La’s. There are elements of Ride in the mix too. The two guitarists share lead vocals and make a reasonable fist of it. Also the bass player throws in the odd McCartney-esque melodic line which is very pleasing. There may be a bit too much of an early 90s groove about them however. That said they’re a good band. Enjoyable even. At the moment though, as a live band they’re unremarkable.

When I saw Jack Savoretti at Guildford Boileroom in 2012, I met him after the gig. I told him that he was “essentially providing a late 1960s/early 1970s singer/songwriter experience”, and compared him to Cat Stevens and James Taylor. He took this as a compliment. It wasn’t meant as such. I was telling him in a nice way that he was perilously close to being a plagiarist. He was a good performer, but I didn’t really rate him as an artist.

Imagine my surprise when today he’s introduced onstage by Harvey Goldsmith as “one of our young rising stars”! Well… OK. Then he and his band started playing. He has a new band, and his approach is far rockier than hitherto. The band has a keyboard player which broadens the sound. His lead guitarist is a guitar hero in the making. He doesn’t let rip often, but when he does… blimey. He plays with economy but can blaze when required, and Jack allows him the space to do so.

In addition to the new band, the material on Written In Scars is light years ahead of his previous material. All in all this is very much an upward gear change. So maybe Harvey’s right! Jack has sold out a number of dates on his upcoming UK tour too. Watch this space…

The last time that I saw Anna Calvi she was accompanied by the Heritage Orchestra and Choir. Whilst this was all very fine, I felt that there was something that was missing from her performance on that occasion, as if it had been somehow diluted. This time it’s just Anna (looking very cool dressed in black and wearing shades) and her band, so I know we’re in for a great gig!

It soon becomes clear that Anna has been working on some new tunes, one of which features the most blazing bottleneck guitar. She has never been shy of experimenting with the way an electric guitar can sound, today scratching her plectrum across the strings, for example. Previously I’ve seen Anna playing guitar with a drinking straw, amongst other items.

It’s not just Anna’s guitar skills that amaze however. Her singing is equally astonishing, with the most breath-taking vocal gymnastics occurring throughout. It’s astonishing to think that she only started singing in her mid-twenties. A comparison I keep coming back to is Jeff Buckley. Anna has the skills as a songwriter, guitarist and singer to match him. The comparison stands up with regard to Anna’s interpretations of other artists’ songs too: Jezebel for example.

This being a festival we get plenty of favourites. Rider To The Sea is not just sublime, it’s even better than the recorded version. Desire is supercharged with some absolutely explosive drumming, and there’s some superb soloing in Love Won’t Be Leaving. However, time is short and the set closes with the aforementioned Jezebel. Relatively short sets are a down side of festivals. A couple of hours would have been brill!

Anna Calvi is followed by the Manic Street Preachers, for whom it is mandatory to get as close to the front as possible. Apparently there is legislation that has been passed by the Welsh Assembly that confirms this fact. In my humble opinion, the Manics are their generation’s Who. They’re a powerful live band, they have similarly meaningful intelligent lyrics and inspire the same kind of fanatical following. If anyone cares to disagree with me I’ll see them outside at the end of this review! CA - On Blackheath - Manic Street Preachers

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There aren’t many better set openers than Motorcycle Emptiness, and it gives us the opportunity to witness James Dean Bradfield’s guitar heroics at their best. He does his Guns and Roses loving younger self proud! It’s always astonished me how a really good guitarist and lead vocalist can fit into the one pair of shoes!!!

Today is theoretically the last date of the Manics’ Holy Bible anniversary tour. However, they’ve obviously decided that a run-through of that iconic album isn’t really suited to a festival, despite the Holy Bible t-shirts on sale at the merch stand. In fact, contrary to expectations, they play nothing from said album! So what we get instead is effectively a skimming stone across the Manics’ undeniably illustrious back catalogue.

The closest we get to a Holy Bible track is Jackie Collins Existential Question Time from Journal For Plague Lovers, the lyrics for which, of course, were taken from notebooks left behind by Richie Edwards. In addition to that the Manics entertain with goodies old and new. Walk Me To The Bridge from Futurology is at the newer end of the scale. A full band version of Suicide Is Painless from the mid-90s War Child charity album is a surprise. From Despair To Where and La Tritesse Durera from the much maligned (at the time, anyway) Gold Against The Soul album are welcome guests.

This Sullen Welsh Heart from Rewind The Film is really quite magical. Virtually no-one in the crowd speaks for its duration. It’s a lovely moment. Kevin Carter is also a highlight (with James playing the trumpet solo on guitar) as is Everything Must Go and You Love Us.A Design For Life ends the set. I would have liked Motown Junk as well, but you can’t have everything. Maybe they’ve outgrown that song.

James tells us that the last gig of a tour is usually a bit crap, “but this has been great”. He’s right. It has. The band, including the additional guitarist (who was leaping about quite happily) and keyboard player were really into it. The crowd were really into it. It was a wonderful communal experience, and ultimately, that’s sort of what the Manics are all about: community and inclusivity.

Another band who exude a sense of community are Elbow. After all, Guy Garvey is everybody’s avuncular uncle isn’t he? Irrespective of your age! The wave of love heading towards him from the audience is absolutely tangible. Mr Garvey may be spotlit on a huge stage, but you really feel that tomorrow he could pop down your local and have a pint with you.

The point that many people miss about Elbow (especially those who came on board having heard One Day Like This) is that they are essentially a prog rock band. The songs have thoughtful intelligent lyrics, and occasionally complex time signature changes and counterpoints. They also have hummable melodies and Guy Garvey’s personality to draw Mr & Mrs Joe Public in. So everyone’s a winner! Tonight they visibly have added gravitas as they are accompanied by a horn and string section.

CA - On Blackheath - Elbow This evening One Day Like This is disposed of pretty early in the set – fourth song in – and is followed by the very wonderful Lost Worker Bee, from their current EP of the same name. Elbow are not a band who ignore their back catalogue, and they positively pile into Bitten By The Tailfly from their first album. This features Guy Garvey on punky rhythm guitar, and is in many ways one of the night’s most exciting songs: both for its rawness and complexity.

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Their most recent album The Take Off and Landing of Everything is well represented in tonight’s set, with Fly Boy Blue/ Lunette, Real Life (Angel), My Sad Captains and the title track all getting an airing. Indeed, the title track is dedicated to the Manics who were kind to Elbow when they were a young band, and are great friends to them. During this song, Guy decides he wants to communicate more with the audience so gets a roadie, Richard House, to play keyboards for him!

Lippy Kids is a wonderful rumination on how ‘we’ view the younger generation. How did we suddenly get to be so old??? The first album is revisited for a rendition of Newborn, which features Guy sitting on a stool Val Doonican style playing acoustic guitar, and the set closes with Grounds For Divorce, which is possibly Elbow’s most rock’n’roll moment musically. They leave the stage, and the roadies begin readying the stage for the encore, but it is not to be. We have obviously hit the curfew as Harvey Goldsmith returns to the stage to wish us goodnight.

This has been a day of great music. The bill was well put together with artists who complemented each other without being too ‘samey’. More power to the er…. elbows of all concerned. See you next year!

Mark Kelly