Three days of mixed magic and Madness in leafy Surrey, from Thea Gilmore, Love, Cosmic Rough Riders, Alice Cooper, Jesse Malin, a befezzed marching band and more...
STOKE PARK, GUILDFORD
FRIDAY, JULY 4 TO SUNDAY, JULY 6, 2003
Guilfest’s reputation for bills seemingly selected by an unhip blind man with a pin, plus a sedate family atmosphere, is partially dented this year by an Uncut stage heavy on abrasive, thoughtful singer-songwriters. But the charm of music offered in ignorance of niche marketing or snobbery, on a sunny weekend on the edge of a leafy small town, where under-fives and over-50s dance with equal abandon, is anyway hard not to applaud.
Thea Gilmore is on Uncut’s stage as I arrive, striving to shift a crowd stretched on the grass, beers in hand, with an amped-up, bluesy set. It’s when the heavy strum of “Juliet” makes four disparate strangers?a sexy young nu-metal couple, teenage hippie boy and middle-aged professional man?form a ragged line, skipping and swirling to their own private beats, that I start to like it here. Wandering towards the Main Stage, I stumble on Love’s whip-lean, inscrutably amused Arthur Lee, dragging bouncing fans into Forever Changes’ dark lyrical maze and soaring sound. Back with Uncut, Cosmic Rough Riders’ sweet Scottish harmonies make more sense as the sun gently sinks than on record, before darkness fittingly falls for Alice Cooper’s Detroit-rocking Main Stage finale.
Hip Slinky’s vacantly amiable Britpop pleases Saturday’s early Uncut crowd, but for US troubadour Peter Case, an undeserved hell awaits. Defiantly out of place in green jacket, old-fashioned glasses and hat, the lazing audience’s indifference makes him worry at his lonely quietness and his street-singer stories and jokes fall flat into the field’s silence. Perhaps six people are listening, but he’s thrilling anyway, punching volume from his acoustic guitar, screaming harmonica and half-hillbilly voice, which sings whirling epics of disenfranchised America. Marc Carroll follows the fleeing Case to a still emptier field but, saying nothing at first, instead letting his songs picture storm-lashed apocalypse and drug-drained romance, the Irishman’s attacking presence ignores the crowd’s somnolence, burning through it.
By the time Jackie Leven arrives, the field is filling and wide awake. Sitting in faded shorts, legs splayed under his big belly, the veteran Scottish maverick is over-relaxed today. But on songs like “Classic Northern Diversions”, as imagined landscapes of slush and rain blur through his head, shame and his dead mother haunting him, his guitar clattering and his voice a force of nature, he casts a spell.
“Hey you, don’t watch that, watch this!” Madness advise, climaxing Saturday’s Main Stage bill, but Richard Thompson still fills the Uncut field with fans of his own brand of Englishness. If he’s a little too practised, and the crowd too indulgent, “Bright Lights Tonight” remains a good-time anthem/autopsy without equal, and “Tear-Stained Letter” is an Anglo-American hoedown that sends us grinning into the dark.
There’s a morning-after feel as Wales’ Songdog start Sunday, seemingly risking Peter Case Syndrome. But as Lyndon Morgans twists on the mic like his mouth’s fish-hooked, and his keening voice obsesses over oral sex and slashing violence while innocent toddlers gambol in the grass, the absurd modern detail of his voyeuristic reveries, like his band’s sonic swells, are too oddly specific to ignore. By new song “The Republic Of Howlin’ Wolf” (another panoramic snapshot of careering, doomed love), the crowd is theirs.
The crowd are Jesse Malin’s from the start, and he’s likeable enough, but his broken-hearted early Springsteen borrowings seem pointless to me. Ex-Dream Syndicater Steve Wynn is something else. Sharp-suited but bashful between songs, when he’s in the middle of a prismatic, disgusted American requiem like “Carry A Torch”, or other songs of useless hard-gained wisdom, you can get lost in them. When he’s interrupted by an inexplicable befezzed marching band, leading women and children to an unknown fate, you know you’ve found the spirit of Guilfest, and it’s time to leave.