Live Review

V Festival 2009, Chelmsford

If there’s a better band in the world right now at playing the ‘sunset’ slot at a festival, we’d like to see them.

It’s a warm summer’s day in Chelmsford for the first day of V Festival 2009, so the foundations for a successful weekend have been laid. Safe in the knowledge that tents aren’t going to be washed away, the punters are gearing up for a weekend of unashamed debauched hedonism but for the time being, that will have to wait. Within minutes of arriving on site, it’s apparent that all over the place people are queuing, be it to pick up tickets, to get in, for the toilets, for the beer tokens, or for the bar. Q Festival, as it has now (unofficially) been renamed, is taking an age to get going and as a result there’s relatively few people actually watching the first few bands of the day. Something for the organisers to ponder for next year maybe. Nevertheless, with cider firmly in hand, we’re off to the Channel 4 stage for Aussie retro rockers Jet.

Now, we’re not saying Jet are the worst band in the world, but you do have to wonder what the point is. Their two records to date have shown very little in the way of craft or invention, so it’s no surprise to see them up onstage wearing the same clothes, playing the same songs with the same sound as they did five years ago. ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ predictably receives a good reception, but the band play this early on in their set and as a result the crowd starts thinning almost immediately after the final chord. The clunky ‘Holiday’ seems to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back as people turn and head for the bar. Not that you’d need a drink to forget such a bland performance.

The far from bland Dizzee Rascal bounds onto the stage and has an enormous crowd in the palm of his hand almost instantly. ‘Come on Essex!’ is his battle cry as he launches into a raucous ‘Just A Rascal’. The large stage speakers sound like they’re struggling to contain an enormous version of ‘Sirens’, and by the time ‘Dance Wiv Me’ is given an outing, ears and amps alike are glowing. It seems as though everyone onsite has turned up to see a man at the peak of his powers and Dizzee effortlessly breezes through an impressive back catalogue of hard hitting hip hop and grime. A triumphant set is closed with ‘Bonkers’ and the audience go collectively, erm, bonkers. The benchmark by which all performances today will be judged, has just been set.

Over on the V Stage, someone’s managed to drag Lily Allen away from the cricket and she’s sauntering around looking perfectly at home performing for an impressively large crowd. The laid back soundtrack of ‘Smile’ goes down well on a sunny afternoon and Lily seems to be enjoying herself, maybe someone’s just told her England have taken a wicket.

Without an introduction and seemingly taking the crowd by surprise, The Specials burst into life with an extremely speedy ‘Do The Dog’. It seems that Chelmsford is still half asleep after the first few songs and Terry Hall is getting frustrated with the lack of response from the audience. ‘F*cking dance will ya?’ he asks politely. ‘Gangsters’ finally gets everyone moving and from then on the band slip into top gear and rattle out an energetic performance proving that not a drop of conviction has been lost since their heyday. It may be the combination of alcohol and sunshine, but when Amy Winehouse joins the band onstage for a two-song cameo, we could have sworn that she appeared not only healthy, but sober and coherent. ‘You’re Wondering Now’ and ‘Ghost Town’ close the set with a bang, and the Specials leave nobody wondering about their relevance today.

Howling Bells and The Sunshine Underground form a potent double bill on the Union Stage and the former kick start what proves to be a pair of mightily impressive performances in front of small crowds. “Come closer, lets make this more… intimate” beckons Juanita Stein and those loitering at the back duly oblige. The band serve up a sparkling set of dark, bluesy numbers, none more seductive than the huge sounding ’Cities Burning Down’ which deserves to be blasted from a far bigger stage. The Sunshine Underground draw a slightly bigger crowd and when they play euphoric indie-pop like ’Borders’ and ‘Put You In Your Place’, the tent is jumping. Those that resisted the lure of bigger acts on the main stages are well rewarded as the Leeds band put on a show worthy of a higher billing and infinitely more attention.

An attempt at catching the first half of Calvin Harris in The Arena is aborted as it becomes clear that we’re not getting anywhere near the tent, let alone inside the thing, such is the vast crowd that Harris has drawn. A long trek back to the V stage for the start of The Killers proves frustrating as the first half of the set is dominated by newer material which, let’s face it, isn’t fit to shine the shoes of the older stuff. Brandon and co., as ever, look the part and certainly put on a good show, but even ‘Somebody Told Me’ is beginning to sound tired. It’s a struggle to feel enthusiastic when they seem to headline nearly every festival, every year and you get the impression that if ever there was a band subject to overexposure, it’s The Killers.

The increasingly reliable Peter Doherty is bang on time at the Union Stage and fills the tent with ease. ‘Last Of The English Roses’, complete with accompanying ballet dancers, sounds a lot bigger and bolder than on record and is a solid start, with the crowd bellowing along to the chorus. A beautiful version of ’For Lovers’ reminds everyone that Doherty can actually sing, while the Smithsian jangle of ’Back From The Dead’ is a stand out track from ‘Down In Albion’ which translates well to the live stage. Snippets of Talking Heads and Chas n Dave are thrown into the set and once again we’re treated to the sight of Amy Winehouse and her dodgy beehive invading the stage, this time it seems not for musical reasons, more for encouragement. Not that Doherty and his band need it as they’re on top form tonight, running through the highlights of recent solo album ‘Grace/Wastelands‘. The roof of the tent threatens to take off into the night sky when Doherty strums the opening chords of Libertines’ songs ‘What A Waster’ and ‘Time For Heroes’, both of which prompt mass singalongs. By the time Winehouse has been bundled offstage, the atmosphere is a mixture of rapture and relief as Doherty has delivered a timely reminder of what an enigmatic performer he can be.

Sunday morning and DIY wakes with a rather sore head, but nevertheless determined to catch all that’s good about the day’s lineup. What might slow us down somewhat is the searing heat that’s already baking the Chelmsford site, something that later on has many a festival-goer seeking relief under trees and inside tents. In these kind of temperatures, the less said about the toilets the better.

Five men in white masks wander onto the Union Stage with little fanfare and strike up a mid-paced, synth-heavy tune. It takes a few minutes to realise that it’s Miike Snow and they’ve gone all Kraftwerk on us. There’s plenty of energy and some really strange noises coming from the stage but the lack of anything resembling a decent song means that our attention is wandering. When the unmistakeable thrash of Biffy Clyro drifts into the tent from the adjacent V Stage, we’re off in a flash. It’s fair to say that Chelmsford won’t have seen anything like Biffy all weekend and for those who have lost their way en-route to watch Katy Perry, it’s likely to be completely alien. As ever, Simon Neil is shirtless and wrestling with his guitar like it’s electrocuting him through set opener, new single ‘That Golden Rule’. The small, but devoted crowd are in fine voice and join in on vocals almost all the way through, impressive considering that the single isn’t released until the following day. There’s an incredible intensity throughout the set which reaches a climax as fan favourite ‘Mountains’ is played, cue some frenzied moshing down the front by fans of the only band all weekend capable of prompting such a thing.

It’s comeback time for Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong on the Union Stage, and they’ve got 30 minutes to prove they were worth waiting for. ‘Thanks for coming, we’ve been away for so long’, Joe Lean offers by way of introduction. After infamously ditching their debut album at the very last minute, the band decided they could do better and de-camped to the studio to have another go. So with a new guitarist in tow and a new album to play they confidently stroll through first two tracks ‘One Woman’ and ‘Where Do You Go’ and it’s like they’ve never been away. The sound has been beefed up considerably and the rhythm section is extremely tight as a couple of new Strokes-esque songs are played and well received by a curious audience. ‘Lucio!’ demands an impatient fan to which Joe Lean seems irked. ‘We’ve got half hour up here, shall we just play ‘Lucio’ 8 times?’ When the debut single is finally played towards the end of the set, it sounds as perfect as ever, a faultless 3-minute exercise in how guitar bands should do pop. The frantic rhythm of ‘Lonely Buoy’ plays out and fans are left grinning from ear to ear as, finally, Joe Lean & The JJJ are back.

The unwelcome message flashes up on big screens around the Chelmsford site that Oasis have pulled out of their headline slot due to illness. Rumours are rife among the crowd of a bust up in the Oasis camp, especially as Liam Gallagher performed seemingly untroubled just 24 hours before and this builds into a certain amount of ill-feeling towards the band. While it’s a tad over the top to suggest that many weekends have been spoilt by this announcement, there is an atmosphere of disappointment that hangs over the festival, something that isn’t particularly dispelled by the news that Snow Patrol will now play an extended set.

Before that though, James provide a pleasant Sunday afternoon soundtrack which leans towards material from last year’s album ‘Hey Ma’. A slow paced set is peppered with old and new tracks but of course it wouldn’t be James without ‘Laid’ which gives rise to the first big sing along of the day. The band, surrounded by floating inflatable flowers, seem to enjoy it, as do the crowd who give them a warm send off for their efforts.

The hazy sun is beginning to set just as Elbow march onto the V Stage. It’s a perfect setting for one of the best bands around at the moment and what follows is epic, beautiful and by far and away the most compelling performance of the weekend. The brash and brazen trumpets of ‘Starlings’ signal their arrival and instantly every person in the audience gives Guy Garvey their full attention. A guitar-heavy ‘Bones Of You’ and the strutting ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ set the tone nicely for ‘Mirrorball’ which sees couples and the newly acquainted within earshot of the stage lock lips, hold hands and link arms. Crowd participation is taken to the next level when Elbow drop ‘Grounds For Divorce’ into the set. The result is near-deafening and the band react with beaming smiles all round. When he’s not delivering his soulful croon, Garvey is cracking wise with the audience and to his infinite credit, has an engaging wit that very few frontmen can boast. ‘This next song is for us… it’s called ‘Bunch Of Bastards!’, but it’s hard to hear what they’re playing over the sound of 20,000 slapped thighs. If ‘The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver’ threatens to conquer the festival with its vast, sweeping soundscape, then ‘One Day Like This’, with it’s festival-pleasing mantra’s, is it’s older and bigger globe-straddling brother. Every single word is sung back at the stage and as set closers go, it takes some beating. As we head back to the bar, we’re pretty sure that everyone’s thinking the same thing - if there’s a better band in the world right now at playing the ‘sunset’ slot at a festival, we’d like to see them.

Snow Patrol do their level best to replace Oasis, but what with the original expectation of seeing the Gallagher brothers, it all falls rather flat. They have their moments with fan favourites like ‘Run’ and ‘Chasing Cars’ but before the end, large sections of the crowd decide to either call it a day, or check out one of the other stage headliners. The cover versions of ‘Champagne Supernova’ and ‘Wonderwall’ are valiant efforts but many will feel like it’s rubbing salt in the wounds. Snow Patrol themselves will probably admit they’re not quite headline material so it was always likely to be a step up too far, and one that organisers would have hoped they wouldn’t have to make.

Considering the number of new and eclectic festivals cropping up around the country, it’s somewhat surprising that V Festival organisers decided to plump for several bands that were on the line-up over 10 years ago - especially when they’d made such great strides in previous years to keep up with Glastonbury and Reading in the major festival stakes. There’s no doubt that people will keep coming to V as it’s a clean, generally well organised event with something on the line-up to please everyone. With a fair deal more selectiveness on the music side, there’s no reason why the 2010 instalment shouldn’t garner respect from even the most hardened festival fan.

Tags: Elbow, Features

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