The Jesus And Mary Chain
Reverend And The Makers
Looe Festival Cornwall
Review and photos by Shirin Hodgson-Watt
The Looe Music Festival is a unique and slightly surreal event, eschewing the usual festival field-based setting and instead taking root slap bang in the heart of this Cornish coastal town. The advantages of this are manifold, with local businesses both benefitting from and contributing to this last hurrah of an end-of-season blowout, and local people providing much of the fuel that keeps this behemoth rolling via the army of willing and enthusiastic (not to mention vital) volunteers. Starting out as a fairly small affair, the festival has grown year on year into a multi award winning concern, attracting people from across the globe both to the stunning and quirky location and by a bill that consistently demonstrates a strong mix of local and well known artists. This year’s event was a little later in the year than normal, with the scheduling dependent upon a particular moon in September that dictates when the tides will be amenable (it’s all very Pagan, and therefore rather lovely), but the risk of a bit of evening chill was worth running in order to avoid the sudden need for waders or lifeboat rescue (they had enough to do anyway, more of which later).
Although the festival proper doesn’t start until the Friday, everything cranks into gear on the Thursday by way of a free for all in the tent in the main harbour car park. I admit I gave that a miss this year as I have a pathological fear of interactive comedy acts (although by all accounts he was pretty excellent, but nonetheless absolutely way too interactive for me). The run up to kick off always fascinates me, the speed of the build over the preceding few days is impressive and quite thrilling, and the invasion of high vis, diggers, and apparently self-populating multicoloured flags is curiously magical to me. I always did want to run away with the circus. The chance to have a peek at the construction process was one I snatched with undignified glee, and the little part of me that still pines to become a rock star was rather giddy at being able to walk out onto the main stage, albeit a main stage filled with flight cases and seamlessly coordinated men on terrifying ladders, and gaze across the bay and cliffs with brand new (if still hopelessly dodgy) eyes.
Day one of the festival is always a slow burner, with the stages opening only from late afternoon, the slow trickle of outside arrivals gradually building as the day rolls on, along with a notable increase in the number of passing glow-in-the-dark pirates (one must remember that this is Looe, pirates on patrol are pretty standard and it’s only when you get gaggles of them that anyone bats so much as an eyelash in their direction). My evening started well with an impromptu run-in with King Creature, to the slightly wistful envy of a nearby steward who declared herself to be in the wrong job, only to be marred by the cliched snarling of a random passing buffoon asserting that if I smiled, I might get better photos. Of you, kind Sir? I’m sorry, I have a vat of curry to snap first (no sarcasm intended, people need feeding and choice is good), or, you know, maybe I’ll just stalk King Creature (if there was a theme this festival, this might just have been it) and barge in on the set up for their interview with the local news and nab myself a super exclusive candid. Yes, I think I’ll go with option B, but I do hope you’ll be reminding all of the male photographers in attendance of the value of sporting a beaming grin AT ALL TIMES while you’re on your travels? Otherwise you’d kind of be a bit of a ninny, wouldn’t you?
Being an unapologetic nerd, I bagged myself a spot on the beach in front of the main stage over an hour before Reverend And The Makers (my cunning plan meaning I would also have a prime position for The Jesus & Mary Chain), which meant I inadvertently caught Chay Snowdon’s impressively confident set. The ear piercing shrieks from the teenage girls next to me, and the near hysterical reactions when Mr Snowdon climbed down to pose for photos with them suggest that his star is definitely starting to rise. Excellent shape throwing, too.
Reverend And The Makers were revelatory. Ever late to the party, they were pretty new to me, but as Jon McClure prowled the stage like a psyched-up pre-fight boxer, scalpel-sharp northern wit in constant evidence, his band’s ska tingedelectro rock poured equal shots of attitude and sunshine upon their soft southern audience, albeit a soft Mediterranean Cornish audience McClure deemed cool enough as to be honorary northerners. It’s about as near a compliment as we’ll get, so I think we’ll take it.
That my near thirty year wait to see The Jesus and Mary Chain finally came to an end a casual 15 minute walk from my front door (and it only takes that long to get to the beach because I live on the opposite side of the river) was pretty special. I was awestruck enough that I had to occasionally give myself a shake to remind myself that they were actually right there in front of me, and if the beautiful lighting was fearful to photograph (backlights and smoke, anyone?), it was exactly as I’d hoped it would be. Jim Reid may have been as non-effusive as ever, yet even he was moved to declare it to be the most beautiful stage they’d ever played on. It’s not too much of a stretch to feel he might just be telling the truth.
Easing myself into Saturday gently by way of tea in my preferred cafe – not a rare occurrence, I’ll confess – I was irrationally buoyed to see Reverend And The Makers stroll past in full tourist mode. Forgive me, we don’t get to do an awful lot of celeb spotting here that doesn’t involve Richard Madeley (not that any offence is intended, he always seems pleasant enough, but I digress). It didn’t take long for the persistently threatened rain to draw in, and by the time I hit the beach ahead of my photo plans it was a full-on deluge, causing me to regretfully sit out the much vaunted Big Cornish Sing from under one of the meagre seafront shelters, for the sake of my camera gear if nothing else. This granted only a brief respite, however, and in fact I spent over three hours looking like a complete lunatic (and I do mean ‘looking’, I’ve seen the pictures…), once more holding my spot with crazed, and now soggy, determination. The first target of the day was King Creature, just to avoid any nasty planetary-shifting breaks with tradition. Their set came just a day after their much-anticipated debut album ‘Volume One’ was released by Marshall Records, meaning that while they had played their official launch in London a couple of days previously, this was well and truly their Big Cornish Launch, and as was fitting they pulled out all the stops. After seeing Judas Priest’s Rob Halford ride out on a Harley at the Plymouth Pavilions as a giant glitter ball descended from the ceiling, I will always have a soft spot for delectable motorbikes on stage, and King Creature well and truly spoiled us with two, kicking the show off in no little rock n’ roll style as they swept in from the wings, despite last-minute misgivings from the stage manager that the wind might be rocking the structure to an unsettling degree (and not in any kind of a good way). Thundering through a well-oiled set, familiar to their obsessive home fanbase, if the band were troubled by the squelchy conditions there was no dampening the enthusiasm of the crowd. ‘Wrath’, ‘Power’, ‘Lowlife’, ‘Can You Forgive Me?’, seven (SEVEN!) fire extinguishers; you could almost kid yourself that the fury of the weather Gods played to their advantage. They might not agree, and I’m pretty sure my camera wouldn’t, but when there’s no mud to fret about, it’s, uh, character building? Yes, let’s go with that. At the time of writing, King Creature have increased their carbon footprints somewhat dramatically by way of a jaunt to China with Marshall Amplification: London-Looe-Shanghai in barely more than a week. If the reports of the gaggles of squealing teenage girls who were apparently next to my mother at the front (yes, this was her second year…) are accurate, then the rapidly accelerating wheels of the KC juggernaut are looking to be pretty unstoppable. We here in Cornwall may have to learn to reluctantly share.
The other reason for me willingly looking like the last official village idiot, necessitating the use of a second rain cover for my camera, came a scant three quarters of an hour after King Creature had departed to more sensible (dry) environs, in the exhilarating form of the muscles, mohawk, throbbing bass, mesmerising juddering gothic punk swathes, and searingly enviable cheekbones that is The Membranes. From watching main man John Robb guide the soundcheck with meticulous precision from both the stage and sound booth (including an impromptu ode to Looe and our delightful liquid sunshine), to the full throttle explosion into their set, Robb proved to be an exhausting and inspiring whirlwind of energy, both thrilling and maddening to photograph, exciting and passionate despite it being a startling 40 years since the band’s original inception. Enthusiasm on this scale is infectious, with Robb flinging himself offstage during the set and again at the end in order to cannily snag a bundle of CD sales (why risk them stumbling past the merchandise tent in the dark in search of MORE CIDER when, you know, they’re right there?) and the crowd didn’t really need to be threatened with Neptune’s rage if they didn’t dance – but it never hurts to keep people on their (twinkle) toes. Mr Robb had attempted to arrange a brief offstage shoot for me during the festival, but frustratingly this failed to come to pass – I’m still weeping silently at the late night text suggesting some beach shots, an idea thwarted by no flashgun, limited extreme low light camera capability, the fact that all my dripping gear was by that time in an airtight box with a tub of dehumidifying granules, and, oh dear, my fluffy pyjamas. I have little vanity left (as again, the pictures from that day have proven), but some outfits are just not designed for meeting punk icons in. Although they were leopard print…
The final day dawned rather earlier than planned when I (and the rest of the surrounding locality, well beyond the town itself) was woken at about 4 am by the search and rescue helicopter, repeatedly sweeping the harbour and coastline following reports of someone entering the water and failing to exit. The search was so low and loud that I soon gave up on any thought of sleep, and after marvelling at the meticulous nature of the way it scanned the target area, the searchlight beams clear enough even for me to follow, I decided to make use of the unexpected extra waking hours and start some editing. It was proven to be a false (if well-intentioned) alarm, and as ever huge praise goes to the coastguard, lifeboat crews and, of course, the helicopter team, for once more providing such an amazing and humbling service.
Sunday was a slightly quieter day for me, for which I admit I was grateful as that 4 am start soon made itself felt, so I started off with a smidgeon of King Creature stalkery at their signing session (well, might as well go for the full house), before ambling happily around taking in the inspired fancy dress, trying to ignore the abundance of foodie joys, and reacquainting myself with Senara and the animals from Hendra Farm, who are frequent and much loved visitors to my workplace. Stumbling into the BBC Introducing tent for 50 Year Storm, I had the surreal task of fighting my way through the silent disco to find the stage – note to self, pick up some headphones before trying that again, it’s like being invisible or looking in from a separate dimension. They seemed to be enjoying it, anyway, but it’s actually quite unnerving to watch people dancing and singing in unison when you can’t hear any music. Anyway, 50 Year Storm – a local band with a bit of a buzz brewing, sharp, dark electronic rock, new as a new thing to me, but they instantly caught my ear and are on my hit list for a proper gig when I get the chance. A clear tick there.
I’d had hopes of sneaking into a decent spot in order to shoot the Happy Mondays, but even an hour before penultimate band, Cast, took the stage it was clear that wasn’t going to work out for me, so I made an executive decision and instead hiked up the cliffs overlooking the main arena to try my hand at some night scenes. Why do I do that? I always kid myself it’s not really that steep. It really is. Worth it, mind you, those shots really show what a special festival this is, with the main stage a floodlight spacecraft, nestled into the pier, the waves breaking on the shoreline and the island looming in the distance. But ow, my calves and aged lungs. Anyway, staggering back down I had one of those pure and rare moments where I found myself lured into the harbour tent by the Seth Lakeman-like siren sounds of Jimi Mack. Seriously, look him up, just do it. I do so love when that happens, I saw it happen to many others a few festivals back when Perkelt played, and it’s those moments that keep music so addictive.
My festival drew to an earlier close than most, as I needed to be home in time to wrap a firework-phobic whippet in a blanket before the finale blasted off, and the post-festival blues bit hard over the following couple of days as everything was dismantled with depressing efficiency, gone as swiftly as it had appeared. I guess there’s no denying that I still want to run away with the circus.