As ominous and bitterly ironic storm clouds swirl over London’s Hyde Park, this year’s British Summer Time series is off to a suitably gloomy start. This year, there’s extra added tension piled on to anything that references Britain and Britishness. In the wake of one of the biggest and most controversial political decisions the nation has ever seen, with reports of heightened racism and international terrorism flooding in faster than Hyde Park’s arena is threatening to at any minute; politically and socially active acts like Massive Attack, Young Fathers and Patti Smith aren’t about to turn up without some kind of message in hand - and today it’s one of action and more importantly, unity.
More on that later though, this is still a music festival. With fully constructed, authentic-looking pubs on every corner and a layout just big enough that it does feel festival-like, it’s also small enough that the walk between the two main stages means every inch of today’s impressive line-up can be caught with ease.
This bill doesn’t disappoint either. In the day’s early hours the eloquent, poetic rap of South London’s Loyle Carner rings out over the slowly building crowd. Across the patch Shura giggles and waves her way through material from her much, much anticipated forthcoming debut with ease. The drawn-out build up to her debut has given Shura plenty of time to hone her live show and the result sounds near perfect; her energetic, euphoric pop tempting the first few rays of the day onto the joyous waiting crowd. Later, TV On The Radio effortlessly fill the main stage with a catholic and impressively crafted run through of their diverse back catalogue and Ghostpoet’s jazzy, full-bodied band bring his difficult to pin down style to life with tracks from the exceptional ‘Shedding Skin’ given added potency. It’s not until later in the day though that BST really comes alive.
Opening with a powerful and dramatic reading of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Footnote To Howl’, Patti Smith immediately solidifies her continued relevance over four decades on from the release of her debut, ‘Horses’. Anyone who’s ever witnessed any of Patti’s work, from huge rock anthems to poetry and literature knows it’s her unrivalled way with words and unbridled passion in their delivery that sets her apart from almost any other artist from her era or even today.
Nothing has changed in this sense, Patti Smith and Her Band don’t miss a step and their set doesn’t feel like a throwback, it feels current and completely captivating. “We can’t separate ourselves from the great human family” Patti wails as she pays tribute to the victims of recent Istanbul bombings fresh off the back of a tour date there. Everything she does today has deeper and re-conceptualised meaning, from her touching cover of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ to the dedication of ‘Because The Night’ to Fred Smith, with the son he and Patti share fitting effortlessly into her band. The one-two punch of closers ‘Land’ and ‘Gloria’ comes with a battle cry of “we’ll fucking do it”, if “who the fuck cares when our skies are polluted and our children are sick”. This might sound like the slightly cheesy rantings of an era gone by, but in Patti’s genuine and passionate delivery along with the pairing of poetry and powerful instrumental accompaniment, it’s easy to get caught up in her vision of a world of unity and love.
Over on the Barclaycard Stage, Warpaint pay tribute to Patti Smith and Massive Attack as huge influences (as does almost every other act here today). “New music and a rainbow” beams Theresa Wayman as the LA quartet flow through new material. On a day riddled with British politics, Warpaint steer well clear and deliver a much needed respite that sees one of the most euphoric, all-dancing crowds of the day with the band themselves, as always, having seemingly the time of their lives. This is heighted only by the double rainbow that appears and sees the entire band literally jumping for joy as they close on the raucous chants of ‘Disco//Very’.
Closing the day, ever unconventional, Massive Attack and Young Fathers reinvent the notion of a support act. Rather than opening for them, Young Fathers are integrated into Massive Attack’s set, playing both their collaborative tracks; ‘Voodoo In My Blood’ and ‘He Needs Me’ as well as material from Young Fathers’ ‘White Men Are Black Men Too’. For the latter, Massive Attack add depth and suspense to the already powerfully energetic Young Fathers live set-up. Leaping around the stage, flitting between instruments and pummelling various percussion while Massive Attack nonchalantly craft epic soundscapes in the background, this is truly a match made in heaven.
This collaboration isn’t just fitting musically but in terms of Massive Attack’s message today. Early on they announce that they’ll be playing ‘Eurochild’, a track written about the unifying power of the EU, for the first time since 1998, and with heavy hearts. “We didn’t expect we’d be playing this 20 years later as a requiem” says frontman Robert Del Naja, not sugar-coating his disappointment in the result of last month’s EU referendum. Messages, some tinged with satire (“No Visas for Ibiza”, “Let Brussels Sprout”) and some lifted directly from the leave campaign with a twist (“Take Back Control – No You F**king Take It”) flash and flicker behind them with the ultimate unifying message coming back time and time again “We Are All In This Together”.
Massive Attack’s set is hypnotising, their lo-fi trip-hop builds to powerful crescendos over and over. With a smattering of further guest appearances including a wheelchair-bound Horace Andy whose vocals are no less chilling and captivating for ‘Angels’ than they were almost 20 years ago, as well as Tricky joining them on stage for the first time in three decades for ‘Take It There’, Massive Attack are clearly firing on all cylinders tonight. For Massive Attack, this coming home of all their chickens to roost isn’t just for the sake of the music. As they’re joined by Deborah Miller and a full orchestra for encore track ‘Safe From Harm’ to a backdrop of an impassioned plea for aid to refugees in Europe and the world over, there’s one final driving home of their message of unity as the only hope for “human progress”. Tonight Massive Attack (as well as Young Fathers and Patti Smith before them) are here to try and unite people, even for a moment, through music and discourse at a difficult time. If only for a short while, it’s worked.
Photos: Carolina Faruolo
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