It’s hard to believe that Joe Strummer would have been 60 this week.
The late Clash frontman is so tied into my generation’s youth that he is freeze framed into the forever as the iconic, revolutionary, twitching vocalist and Telecaster abuser of the only band that mattered that made him a focal point of our generation.
Like Che Guevara his well defined, charismatic face has now become a T shirt, poster, wall mural by-word for all that is great about popular culture. His features capturing that simple cry for feeedom, any kind of freedom. That high decibel freedom that comes from the heart of all great rock n roll music, an electric shiver that the Justice Band capture, celebrating a glorious back catalogue but for a reason.
It’s very fitting then that Joe Strummer’s family have thrown a festival in his memory and got the Justice band in to headline. Strummer Of Love is a special event- a festival that is like a massive multicultural hoe down extension of Joe himself with a whole host of varied musics booming across the muddy fields of Somerset 30 miles away from where he lived. There is dub reggae, world music and a main stage that sees a whole host of eclectic musicians here to celebrate the man.
Strummer of Love is a big site and a beautiful one. It seems to include endless forests and far-flung stages with a versatile cross section of bands and events. There is, of course, the bonfire that was so central to Joe Strummer’s thinking. The bonfire where people would sit around and tell stories make up music and open up- the bonfire was a the backstage staple at Glastonbury and has now found its way into the festival proper here where it should be and burns bright deep into the night surrounded by settees and music
The Clash were famous for their musical freedom. They may have been forged in the white heat of punk but their first album included a cover of Junior Mervin’s Police And Thieves- an early hint at the eclectic voyage they were about to set out upon.
Later albums, like the underrated Sandinista, are amazing journeys into all the rebel musics of the world made sense of by a band who had the musical chops to play most of this stuff -so it’s only fitting that the headline band of this event are the Justice Tonight band with Mick Jones at the helm playing an emotional show for his old campadre from the front line of British rock n roll.
The Justice Band is not really a band atall but an ad hoc collection of individuals who came together to play one benefit gig for the justice for the Hillsborough 96 and Don’t Buy the Sun campaigns last September in Liverpool. There was never a plan to turn this into a money making machine cashing in on the Clash legacy- Mick was always keen that this should stay focussed on the cause and on that emotional night the bonds were forged in front of a full house and the mist of emotion on the stage and from the audience.
The Subsequent gigs have been triumphs of humanity over cynicism and tonight feels like the end of the cycle- a fitting climax to a good years work.ÃÂ The Hillsborough report is about to be published- whether that will tell the whole truth is another matter and the band have made their point. People out front ask could be the last show or not- the answer is there is no game plan, no marketing five year T shirt selling plan of action, no career opportunities- Justice Tonight could carry on calling for justice or they could pass the baton on to several other bands. Lets hope they continue- we need a space to celebrate our culture and also flag up key causes and the Justice Tonight band is a perfect platform for this.
This uncertainty makes the band all the better .
Everyone loves being up here playing their part in these classic songs but no-one assumes that this is for ever. It could go on for years or it could stop now. The whole things comes together at a whim and it’s this instinctive, electric impulse that gives the shows their edge.
The pre set atmosphere builds as former Clash in house DJ and long time mate of Louder than War, Scratchy cranks up a great cross section of tunes with the band waiting in the wings with a palpable buzz about what they are about to deliver and after my introduction rush the stage.
Tonight is back to a full set after the mini sets that have been taken round Europe in support of the Stone Roses. A full 75-minute workout also sees the return of Pete Wylie who left the tour a couple of months ago. It’s great to have the exuberant Wylie back and also to hear his fab Wah songs again. Story of The Blues it stretched out and quotes from Just My Imagination in its elongated intro before segueing into the songs uplifting Spectorish brilliance. The bulk of the st is made up of Clash songs which obviously hit home with the crowd who are in the main Clash fanatics here to celebrate Joe’s 60th.
Londons Calling gets a dusting down again- it’s only been played once on this series of dates and Mick stops the song to get the band to pay it slower and with a bit more swing- as ever concerned about getting the music right and letting it breathe like it did in the Clash who may have been a band forged in the white heat of the punk wars but were never a band who hammered the music out.
Stay Free is thrown into the set early on even though it’s not on the set list and the Farm show their versatility by picking up on the whim instantly and play a great version of the song sung by Pete Wylie. Bankrobber sounds massive with its warm, rolling, dub groove filling the night air that only a returning into the set Armageddon Time can equal. It’s the space in these songs that really marks them out and is crucial to their spectral beauty.
Rock The Casbah gets the whole audience jumping and a watching Topper Headon must be grinning with pride as the song that he constructed on his own remains one of the staples in the Clash canyon with that rolling piano loop taking the band into a very different direction and becoming their biggest hit single. Keith Allen is the guest vocalist on the song and the other guest is Richard Archer from Hard Fi who delivers a great vocal on Clampdown- looking the part dressed in a black Harrington and red Doc Martens
It’s great that Topper is here, giving props to his former lead singer, people in the audience sense his presence and wonder if he will be playing but to just turn out is enough and he looks sharp and very well.
Should I Stay or Should I go sounds magnificent, the Clash at their most swaggering rock n roll and the 21st century version has lost none of this power and poise. Mick looks great in his silver tonic suit, tonight the ÃÂ Motown fused guitar hero with the white Les Paul and the song’s razor sharp riffing stands the test of time.
The encores include a great version of the Farm’s All Together Now which is now a huge, sprawling powerful anthem where everyone gets up on stage arm in arm. The song quotes from Mott The Hoople’s magnificent All The Young Dudes and Sister Sledge’s We Are Family and has extended itself from the anti war anthem of its inception to a celebration of the warmth of humanity.
The set ends with a ribald Janie Jones and I leap off the twenty foot high stage into a boggy morass of mud and slime that must be about two feet deep. It’s like going over the top in the trenches without the bullets and it takes a lot longer than I anticipated to get through the gunge to get to the crowd at the front who join in for the song with a riotous glee that makes a fitting finale to the set.
The set ends with Pete Wylie donning a Pussy Riot style balaclava and shouting out for justice for the imprisoned Russian band- another fitting cause for the Justice Band to embrace.
The gig is a triumph and the festival a successful celebration of the diversity and human warmth of Joe’s life. Only the muddy bog of a field prevents the whole thing from turning into a big bouncing party. The conditions making it hard enough to walk across the filed let alone dance on it.
It’s at moments like this when you wonder how much longer the outdoor festival can survive in the UK. Strummer Of Love is a great mini festival. There is loads to do and lots of great people to do it with and lots of cool ideas incorporated into the site. But the weather is a real pain these days at all British festivals washing everything out. It’s difficult to control the weather, especially the moody British weather but with summer increasingly becoming months of chipping mud off your clothes and wondering when the next torrential storm is about to appear the outdoor festival experience is becoming harder to sustain.
Festivals like this work because they have an idea- a sense of celebration of the counter culture spirit that makes the battle worth it- I fear for the directionless festivals and wonder what their future is.
We need these spaces and hopefully Strummer Of love can become a permanent fixture and a not only a celebration of a great figure but also a fast forward to the future and space where the freak flag remains high.