Beneath Welbeck Abbey, an expansive estate in North Nottinghamshire thus far untouched by any sort of National Trust daytripping, there is a vast network of underground tunnels, wide and stretching for miles around the roots of Sherwood Forest. Somewhere down there, according to my mother, there’s even a ballroom that she visited for a dance the best part of 60 years ago.
It is no criticism of the excellent No Direction Home festival that, at various points over a climatically as well as culturally lively weekend, large parts of the audience must have wished that the shows could have been relocated to the subterranean level. Sometimes, though, the weather can conspire with the music to produce real drama, and that was what happened on Friday night, a little before sunset.
No Direction Home’s main stage sits by a lake, on the opposite bank to a stately pile that was, until fairly recently, a military training centre. The wind is blowing viciously off the water when The Dirty Three arrive, but it does not stop Warren Ellis from theatrically unburdening himself of his outer layers as the first song rolls out.
Ellis comes across on this night like a kind of righteously wild God of the elements, conducting the gale with his violin, but watching his theatrics it is easy to miss another great showman in the ranks. Jim White squats over his minimal kit in such a way that he seems to dwarf his drums, but he moves about them with a speed, elegance and improvisational zeal that it feels almost a privilege to see one of our time’s great inventive players in action. By “Sea Above, Sky Below” – a neat choice from ’98, given the conditions – White is nonchalantly flinging his sticks and brushes, as Ellis and Mick Turner slowly build up a cumulative, awe-inspiring intensity.
As ever when watching The Dirty Three, I can’t help feeling amazed and bewildered about how they manage to navigate their way through these long, labyrinthine and not superficially dissimilar songs: how, in essence, can they remember what they’re playing?
Perhaps, as such a rare and mighty live spectacle, it doesn’t matter that much. Tonight, beneath the racing clouds, this year’s “The Pier” really stands out as the best example of their sputtering, eruptive romance, ending with Ellis letting out some blood-curdling and Iggyish whoops. Close behind, though, is “Some Summers They Drop Like Flies”; a mournful, rather Yiddish-sounding progression that leads, ultimately, to a firestorm and Ellis lying flat on his back as swallows come pelting out from behind the stage.
On the edge of the Welbeck estate, you can see birdspotters gathering behind the hedge to try and catch sight of an osprey hovering over the lake (we were lucky). The place is full of owls, too, not least the man-sized one, apparently plucked from some ancient British folk rite, that stands with a spear at the site’s entrance. No Direction Home – a new production from the meticulous, tasteful and considerate curators of End Of The Road – is not a folk festival as such, but there are a few artists on the bill who’d doubtless feel an affinity with such signifiers of weird tradition.
Chief among them may well be Trembling Bells, who provided my second highlight of the festival on an unexpectedly warm Sunday lunchtime. Recent Trembling Bells records haven’t sat so well with me as their first two, “Carbeth” and “Abandoned Love”. But, again, festivals can give music a perfect context, and it transpires that while the clomp and pomp of their psych-folk can sound a little clumsy indoors, outside it has a rough, artisanal grandeur.
The mix is good, too, so that Lavinia Blackwall’s warble can carry strong and true over her rumbustious bandmates, can ring true when she duets with Alex Neilson a cappella for “Seven Years A Teardrop”. Local pride means I must question opening their set with a song linking Robin Hood with North Yorkshire, but it’s mostly excellent stuff; songs from their recent “Marble Downs” surprisingly stronger without Will Oldham than with him (“Ain’t Nothing Wrong With A Little Longing”, in particular, is terrific). From that album, too, there’s an unfortunately timely tribute; an eerie cover of “Lord Bless All” by Robin Gibb.
As is ever the case with the best festivals, there was a bunch of stuff I had to miss, and it was particularly galling that I didn’t see The Unthanks with The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, and Mikal Cronin (though I am seeing his Dalston show tonight). Anyone there who could fill me in on their highlights, that’d be great: there should be a Facebook Comments box below this blog (please refresh if it’s not immediately visible) for you to use.
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