It feels weird because it feels so normal.
We are back in the fields of England with a careful eye on the weather and the festival toilets and avoiding the patches of mud that churn up in the intermittent downpours and it feels great. It’s been two years since the great outdoors and the high decibel combined for many of us and with a weird mixture of déjà vu and normality we are back in the fields for that great British outdoor experience.
Tiptoeing around the virus we are already in the post-pandemic period without noticing. Trying to get back on with our lives with the invisible RNA. Much has changed but the song remains the same and Beautiful Days remains the portal of energising hope and one of the last bastions of music as a place and palace of hope and ideas. The energy and empowerment of the community was underlined in the bleak isolating virus months and it’s great to see old faces and reconnect with our world again. The Levellers festival is nearly 20 years old now and very much part of the calendar and still exists outside the narrative – the same weekend as the Green Man festival which gets all the media attention.
Friday is actually warm and sunny which is a surprise but fear not there is still space for the gigs of thunder. New Model Army are typically delivering a fire and brimstone set on the main stage full of melodic power that underlines their recent renaissance. The band have become somehow timeless defying everything and an eternal granite of grinding brilliance. Justin Sullivan oozes passion from every pore like a preacher man come down from the Yorkshire Dales to deliver his powerful sermons and the intensity level between performer and audience has hit top levels. The New Model Army march on their own terms and it’s been heartening to see their renaissance in recent years with their albums charting across Europe and an embrace and understanding of their craft. It’s a powerful and brooding set that sets a powerful stall.
Hawkwind headline the second stage and it’s founder member Dave Brock’s 80th birthday which they celebrate in style with a pulverising set of space rock. The talismanic sound is built around driving incessant bass lines and space junk keyboards that filter noise and blow your mind as they slip and slide and bubble across the machine-like rhythm section. The packed tent is deep into its trip and you stand there rereleasing just how melodic they are – these are great pop songs stretched out into gargantuan grooves. Quite how Hawkwind are not enshrined with hipster cool like their contemporary German bands like Can and Neu have been is one of the great mysteries but the band themselves seem above such concerns as their sound envelopes the arena and they remain timeless and eternal and a thrilling trip through a portal back to 1969 and then onwards into the future.
Saturday sees a run of great bands on the main stage from the upcoming Lancashire band Fighting Rhythm, whose post Rage Against The Machine power grooves with an added shot of punk angst make them an enticing prospect. The band are tight and the rhythms powerful. The keyboard drones that replace the conventional bass guitar give them a whole individual twist and a myriad of future possibilities. There is a genuine passion, dark humour and anger about what they do and you can feel the claustrophobia of growing up in broken town Britain in their music…very much ones to watch.
Avalanche Party create a big sound – they take the stage like they own it and explode into a suave frenzy of garage rock with big sky ambitions. This is a sound that is served through sharp suit intentions of the Nick cave school but also with the explosive guitars of post-hardcore plus a British love of the consecutiveness of melody. The band have been getting the non for a few years now and are teetering at point crossover. Like The Blinders this is a powerful impassioned beast and close to creating a kinetic new scene of off-kilter sweatshop impassioned devilish brilliance.
The Skints have refined their initial bursts of enticing ska-punk into deep dub grooves creating a haunting and captivating sound that is becoming something quite special. Like the Selector who are on an hour later they merge the sounds and styles of the many musical cultures from punk to the brilliant long lost Capdown Reggae, Dub, Ska, Steppas, Lovers Rock, Dancehall, Hip Hop, Soul, Funk, Jazz, Blues and even grime that form the backdrop to the real United King/Queen-dom and make them their own whole. The Skints filter this through their own lives in 21st Britain and their music is a thrilling composite of ideas and rattling bass-heavy chassis but always with a pop mentality and driven home by Marcia’s charismatic vocals.
The Selector are a perfect festival band they have the hits, the energy and the grooves to get a field into meltdown and the band take the stage resplendent as ever in their sharp suits and styles. Far more than a 2 Tone template (which they helped to create) band the Selector found their own space and sound years ago and their rattling rhythms show an inventiveness that broke out of the cliches of the form and a playfulness that was a perfect counterpoint to their serious message and reportage on those times. This helps to create a timelessness around the band that keeps them much loved to this day.
Gary Numan continues his late-career renaissance with his even more dystopian music that is deep into its industrial twists and turns. His current album was another number 2 in the charts and dripping with dark themes and with darker sounds part provided by producer, Ade Fenton, who is in the stage wings watching Numan deliver a great set that relies mainly on recent material underlining the fact that this is an artist in perpetual forward motion and not bogged down in the past. Even the two classic hits Cars and Are Friends Electric are rearranged and changed to match the modern Gary style. Played against a backdrop of driving rain that is captured in the bright stage lights that adds to the dystopia-dattopia Bladerunner vibe this is a perfect festival moment.
James operate in a world of their own. They are a fascinating band – their creativity seems to exist beyond the narrative and their popularity is often overlooked – this autumn they are doing a stadium tour and their albums are always top 3. They have become a jukebox of wonderful hits that surprise you in their amount but they are also still deeply rooted in the deep intelligence and experimental souls that birthed them back in post-punk Manchester. Jim Glennie’s bass lines still have that stark early Factory drive to them and they still play with their sound and form willing to recreate their own personal palate- Tonight they have two new members Deborah Knox-Hewson on percussion and Chloe Alpe to the James template stretching the band to a nine-piece that still has space in the sound to add to the dynamics. The newer songs are less pop in structure but pull you in with the ebb and flow of their textures and build slowly to huge climaxes. It’s enthralling the way they toy with your expectations and shows a band still prepared to take chances and deconstruct its muse. Tim Booth is still a charismatic presence on the stage – lost in his intense dances before looking into the crowd oozing a calming tranquillity and also an outer space charismatic presence and his voice is still velvet.
Dea Matrona have popped over from Ireland to deliver their seventies rock vibe that hints at the Runaways or Suzi Quatro stylistically and musically and its very effective and with great harmonies sweetly sliding over the guitar collisions. The Lottery Winners are full of small-town Lancashire twang, their’s is a Wheeltappers and Shunters nightclub banter and ridiculously loud shirt world but also with a core of a tight band who wear their eccentricity on their too loud shirt sleeves but deliver great songs in the middle of their mirth. Pulled Apart By Horses have not let the inactivity of the pandemic affect them at all and their intense set is deeply in the tradition of the total performance of the MC5 and At The Drive In acrobatic ambition and skyrocketing post-rock adventure. This is a music that is full of the spirit of free jazz skronk and the powerhouse possibilities of firebrand insurrectionist post-hardcore.
Dreadzone are dead certs for a festival. It’s mid-afternoon the sun suddenly comes out and the field is packed with 20 000 happy soiled souls bouncing to the grooves of the band who bring a joy to their dub and groove soul that when shackled to their post-punk sensibility makes them the perfect standard-bearers for the post Clash eclectic trip of Mick Jones who they once played with in the latter days of BAD.
From the Jam are a real surprise – of course, they play the hits but damn they sound good doing it. It’s a great reminder of this jukebox of a band who remain a punk band with mod styling in my mind and the rough rhythmic crush driven by Bruce’s killer bass is as punk rock as it gets. The songs remain timeless and despite Paul Weller writing most of them it’s important to be reminded of Bruce Foxton’s key contributions with his bass lines and also his singing – the Jam were very much a sum of their parts and this faithful reproduction of the band is far from a cabaret romp through old hits – they still have the fire and brimstone and the love of the catalogue to make this work.
Skindred explode on the stage with their cranked up groove machine that grapples with their infectious metal tinged anthems and reggae and hip hop flavoured rhythms. The exuberant presence of frontman Benji decked out in a sparkling Butlins red coat that only seems to underline his presence as he dominates the stage as the band detonate.
Imelda May has gone through a big change since her fifties classic early days and now delivers a classy big sound that lets her voice soar whilst Van Der Graaf Generator are a legendary shadowy presence existing for decades. Another band lazily dumped into prog in the seventies, their fascinating journey built around frontman Peter Hammil has been one of frontier experimentalism and shape-shifting identity that, to me, feels closer to the hallowed terrain of an Eno or a Robert Fripp. They were a profound influence on many in post-punk and the band that formed in Manchester in the late sixties are as vital sounding today as decades ago. Their adventure tonight sees two keyboards facing each other on the stage and a drummer in-between as Hammil delivers his poet adventures in that clipped very English voice before they switch to guitars in an enticing set that is a reminder that you can still enthral an audience without any of the razzmatazz of pop culture.
Yet again The Levellers headline they own party with their annual (apart from last year!) Sunday night shindig. It’s fascinating to stand in the wings and watch this every year. The ebbs and flows of bands as they get older are enticing – finding strength in adversity. 2021 Levellers have changed again, Simon Friend has elected to remain in Scotland where he lives sitting out the pandemic whilst Boaky has retreated from scampering across the stage blowing his didgeridoo – two potentially mortal blows to the band who simply reconvened moved into a more linear clipped sound that pulls on the Clash influence in their DNA with a sharper more focused razor blade guitar sound that cuts through and a punkier Levellers is on show tonight. Mark Chadwick is in fine voice with his melodic rasp in the fine Lennon/Strummer tradition defining the songs whilst the rest of the band explode with post-pandemic joy. The field is rammed and the singalongs are in full fire – it’s powerful and emotional and very much on their own terms and annually defines this eclectic and much-loved festival.