Like the many thousands who will eventually be here this evening, I’m still on my way to the Hop Farm when Los Lobos play, which is why when I get there, the band’s David Hidalgo, instrumental star of the last two Bob Dylan albums, is already in the hospitality bar, deep in conversation with a couple of confederates. Things moving to a strict schedule here and people going on surprisingly early means I’ve also missed Dr John and have in fact made it just in time for Blondie, who have just stepped out on the main stage to a great cheer.
Deborah Harry looks quite magnificent in a platinum blonde wig and voluminous black frock festooned with a lot of lace, belts and chains. “Hello, Hop Farm – Blondie calling,” she yells, with perhaps more genuine gusto than you’d expect from someday who only the day before had turned 65, before the band launch into a laudably lively “Hangin’ On The Telephone”.
What follows is a generous greatest hits set of slickly delivered crowd-pleasers, among them “Maria”, “Atomic”, “Rapture” and “One Day Or Another”. Some technical glitch then halts their well-rehearsed momentum and as Harry surprisingly flounders in the sudden musical lull, her patter and small talk falling flat, the air goes out of their set.
When they resume with “The Tide Is High”, it’s too sluggish too breathe the same life back into it. But they’re still on their way to a hearty ovation for the closing “Heart Of Glass”, by which time I’m making my way around the edge of the crowd to the second stage, all the way over there on the other side of the festival site.
Tomorrow, when there are maybe three, four or five times as many people here, it will take the best part of an hour to get this far through the milling crowd. Tonight, though, it’s actually a pleasant stroll through the cooling evening, darkness now slowly coming to this part of Kent.
Richard Thompson’s already on stage. In his black beret, shirt and jeans, the shirt decorated with what look like military ribbons and medals, he looks convincingly like a folk commando in full battle fatigue, someone dropped by parachute behind enemy lines to wreak a little havoc.
He’s playing a song called “The Money Shuffle”, the target of which is the international banking community whose general ineptitude has visited such economic woe on the world. He delivers the song with the venomous relish you might associate with something similarly caustic by Warren Zevon, indignation bordering on an edgy fury.
An irresistible version of “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight” changes the mood, which turns more reflective still with a lovely reading of “The Sunset Song”. “This is from my last incredibly successful LP,” he offers by way of sardonic introduction, a line you suspect he’s been ruefully using since he started making records.
A dynamic “”1952 Vincent Black Lightning” follows and after that “Persuasion” and a snarling “Crawl Back (Under My Stone)”. “This is a song about sexual frustration, like most of my material,” he’s saying now, setting up the bleak and hilarious “Johnny’s Far Away”, whose colourfully rousing chorus the audience joins in on with such full-throated enthusiasm, it makes you wonder how many other songs about separation and serial infidelity could inspire such a mass sing-a-long.
I’m reluctantly about to leave at this point because van Morrison’s due on the main stage in a few minutes. But then Thompson starts playing “Wall Of Death” from Shoot Out The Lights and as much as I don’t want to miss a minute of Van, I can’t drag myself away from a performance as compelling as this and as it anyway happens I’m back in front of the main stage just as Van starts.
He’s sitting at a piano, resplendent in a white suit that probably fit when he bought it and a matching hat. He looks positively regal, soul royalty with the imposing heft of Solomon Burke and a voice that remains a thing of time-defying wonder.
He’s feeling his way into a magnificent version of “Northern Muse (Solid Ground)”, a sweet meandering through many familiar aspects of his music. And now, here’s a surprise: a funky, sultry take on “Brown Eyed Girl”, ungrudgingly played, as if this beautiful summer night has taken the edge off even his legendary truculence. The audience accept it as the rare gift it might actually be.
And here’s something else I wouldn’t have expected, a long, mesmerising version of “Fair Play”, the opening track from Veedon Fleece, that drifts and circles, falls back upon itself, any given moment from the original script likely to inspire some digressive extrapolation, gusts of extemporised brilliance, no telling where any of this will go. His voice glides breathlessly through changing stratospheres as effortlessly graceful as something with wings riding currents of air.
It ends when he decides it’s over, with the clipped instruction to someone called Chrissie to say goodnight.
Van’s surlier side, whatever the weather and even on a might as magical as this, is never, I guess, that far away. And after a beguiling “The Mystery”, from Poetic Champions Compose, we get an angry “Keep It Simple” and the bitter rant of “Talk Is Cheap”. Then there’s a gorgeous “Have I Told You Lately?” which gives way to a seething “Tear Your Playhouse Down”. The extended joyful vamp of “Moondance” is perfect, of course, in this setting, a cool swinging celebration that carries over into “That’s Entertainment”, which in turn is followed by the questing beauty of “Philosopher’s Stone”.
A stalking bass line introduces “Baby, Please Don’t Go”, with Van on electric guitar, the song segueing into a jumping “Parchman Farm”, which is followed by a long and unbelievable version of “Into the Mystic” that unfolds slowly, revealing itself incrementally, the few brief minutes of its original incarnation extended in the manner of something like “Almost Independence Day”.
As the song drifts into silence, I can’t imagine for the moment he could do anything better. But he does, with the sublime “When The Healing Has Begun”, from 1979’s Into The Music, and then a sublime “In The Garden”, from No Teacher, No Guru, No Method.
It’s also his last number, so there’s no encore either. When he walks off stage, the band still playing, he stays there. But there’s nothing – as there sometimes might be – that’s churlish about his departure. He came to do what he does, did it wonderfully and then it was time to go.
Now for tomorrow and Bob.