Thursday, 26 May 2011

Standon Calling 2011: Festival Preview

Besides one of the most exciting line-ups a UK festival can boast this year, Standon Calling is set to unleash all manner of nightmarish visions and epic mythologies upon festivalgoers this summer.

This little gem of a festival, tucked away in Hertfordshire, is one of a growing number of independently run 'boutique' festivals which promise a more authentic, responsible and engaging weekend experience than the corporate festival behemoths which have come to dominate the UK summer circuit- and has fast become one of our favourite occasions on the calendar.

What started inauspiciously with a birthday barbecue between friends some nine years ago quickly became defined by the organisers' desire to hold the best party they could, or so the story goes. A stage appeared, but even when bands of some considerable repute began making the journey to play at the gathering, it hadn’t occurred to organisers that they were putting together anything more significant than a cracking house party. But since 2001, a seismic shift has polarised festival goers between those happy to pay over the odds and engage in the ‘theme park experience’ of the mainstream festivals and that more discerning crowd: people desiring something more engaging and authentic- and Standon Calling has found it's audience and blossomed in the years since.

At no point is the festival spirit compromised by a necessity to advertise, do things by half-measures or pander to corporate demands. As such, a lucid and immersing space is maintained, a place for imagination to run riot and creativity to flourish. And more than catering for a superficially ad-free experience, the ethos runs into the Standon Calling's approach towards the on-site food and bars, which offer a diverse range of quality nourishment sold by people you can have conversations with, through the festival's décor and visual aesthetics, and through each festival's unique fictionalised sub-story and dress-up theme.

Like Bestival and Secret Garden Party, this 5,000 capacity festival- staged entirely in the grounds of a 16th Century manor house (with it's own swimming pool) incorporates all the whimsy of dressing up with an annual theme- and a carnival atmosphere prevails across the weekend. But more than merely requesting it’s willing punters to don a bit of vintage or home-spun costume, Standon Calling’s fantasy world is immersive and fully realised.

We visited the festival last year and were taken aback by it's unique and welcoming atmosphere. This is a site where attention to detail has been paid, where care for your experience has been considered and where anything is likely to happen. Taking the dress-up theme fantastically further than any other festival troupe would, Standon Calling enlists the services of The Heritage Arts Company in entwining a themed narrative throughout the weekend experience. Last year this involved an art theft and murder mystery- a real 'whodunnit' that was elucidated over the weekend with flyers, newspapers and actors immersed in their surroundings. At one point, a 'police officer' enlisted us to join a search party, to report clues back to the local constabulary: a pop-up 1930s police store centred in the festival's faux-vintage high street. This year the chosen theme is Gods and Monsters, a title which invites classicism and fantasy in equal measure. However it unfurls, it seems implausible that a festival manifest such an aesthetic in any less than 'epic' circumstance. And so it seems, from the Garden of Healing to a Zombie Marketplace- Standon Calling is embracing it's theme with vigour: rumours of black magick midnight rituals abound.

And this is without mentioning the extraordinary music that Standon has quickly becoming associated with. An eclecticism pervades the line-up choices, and you're likely to see many bands here that just don't play at other UK festivals. Last year saw Fucked Up, Liars and Pantha Du Prince play one after another, comprising possibly the finest 3 hours of music I experienced in 2010. This season, a similarly impressive collection of high quality independent artists dominates the scheduling. Friday's main stage headline slot goes to art-rock impresarios Battles, who will be touring second album 'Gloss Drop'- whilst the Saturday headline slot belongs to UK festival favourite Spiritualised, in what promises to be a memorable performance. The festival is closed by a headline slot from house-maestros Hercules and Love Affair, whose uplifting, super-hip house stylings will guarantee a warm, enthused end to the festival. Elsewhere, a rare UK date for invigorating NY rap-poet Saul Williams catches the eye and will surely be a highlight. Hackney swing-favourites The Correspondents make an appearance- and are at their best when regaling a festival audience, never failing to win the hearts of their crowds with their jangly remixing of vintage swing numbers, broken and transfused to dubstep and house beats.

It's a line up which surprises as much as it does excite- we came away last year having made many discoveries, plenty of 'new favourite band' moments amidst actually seeing our existing favourite bands. There's a philosophy which carries through all the line-up choices, an aesthetic which binds them. Further, the festival is known for having 'an eye' to catching emerging artists before they break: Florence and the Machine and Mumford & Sons are both remembered for having played breakthrough gigs in this festival's intimate and inspired environment.

And though we enjoyed so many musical moments at Standon Calling, it is the attention to detail in every other aspect of the festival that won us over and captured our hearts- whether it be the quality of the food (organic throughout, fair trade where possible) or the beautiful and well-thought out décor that adorned the space. We spent the weekend collecting moments: from the immerse art-stalls and narrative that unfolded across the weekend, to the impromptu sock-wrestling that saw priests fight ninjas, pirates fight strong-men. The delightful ladies from The Note Well who provided us with “guerilla” cake, the festival's on-site live-band karaoke, the Australian dude who'd carted his biodegradable toilets around the world, the decadence and noir of the 4am cinema, all the beautiful, happy, smiling, drunk, staggered, interesting, interested, psychic and special people we met along the way and the friends we made of them, oh- the unimaginable luxury of having a swimming pool on site! Standon Calling is a unique and special place, one we are very fond of.

Standon Calling runs from 11th to the 14th of August. Full weekend tickets cost £120.

Full details can be found at: or you can follow the festival's (highly amusing) tweets here:

First published in The405

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Anni Rossi - Heavy Meadow: review

I first heard Anni Rossi back in 2005. The Chicago based violist was with Carla Bozulich's then band as it toured Evangelista across Europe, and I caught an impromptu gig at Barden's Boudoir only a night after Bozulich had supported A Silver Mt Zion at Koko. The night afforded a twenty minute set to Rossi, who captivated the early birds with a rousing solo performance of shirking, playful vocals, fierce string manoeuvring and her impassioned tap and foot-stomping. Anni Rossi was a force, her talent and passion belying a tender age. In the years since this modest introduction, it has been pleasing to see her signed to forward-thinking indie label 4AD. Though previous homemade EP releases had been made through her “I'll play anywhere” attitude to global touring, Rossi enjoyed the privilege of recording her debut album proper, 2009's Rockwell with Albini, famously recording all the tracks and their arrangements in a day.

That record was a progression from her earlier, more stripped down sound. Here, viola and vocals called in drumkit and occasionally, synth chords. Whilst Rossi's solo live shows can be enchanting in their performative nature, here was an album that recognised the potential that a studio recording can offer. Arrangements were used modestly, only to complement her unique viola style; chords stabbed at and strung-out, her instrument assaulted and embraced. Inevitable comparisons with nu-folk's other 'weird string instrument' wunderkind, Joanna Newsom, inevitably followed- but Rossi's voice was unmistakably her own. Whilst Newsom may be content to reside upon an austere folk seriousness, a promise of authenticity- Rossi's work is more playful, less self-aware.

On Heavy Meadow- Rossi takes these studio elements further, expanding her songwriting repertoire with collection of highly focused songs. Whilst we are unlikely to see Rossi perform with 8 piece bands and such, these songs explore a range of instrumentation with simplicity. Flashes of guitar used as utterances in verses, 80s pastiche synths in the choruses of Crushing Limbs- a modesty pervades these recordings, but a maturity too in their arrangements. These are post-punk lullabies, highly professional sweetheart songs- stories that move far beyond the endearing nu-folk that marked her early releases. The album can move from twee to heavy in instants, there's a control in the record's mood throughout. A reverb heavy clean guitar slides a draining chord progression in the left channel of Hatchet's chorus, and the songs mood shifts in degrees.

Lyrically too, the album sees Anni Rossi moving beyond conventions of her past into a more lucid, compelling storytelling. Biography and retelling gives way to wholly formed narratives The Fight and pained stabs at resolution in Frame Me Right, a song which reveals an honesty and vulnerability not seen before. If this song is open, torn, at wit's end- then The Fight is the mood formed of conviction. It's irresistible beat is almost neu-disco, the driven shimmy and mirroring synths lending her vocals a defiant, aggressive quality. Elsewhere, Candyland is a toying call and answer verse that leads to nostalgia-tearing chorus. “Play it cool”, she recalls- before the reassurance only learnt in retrospect- “love is the only rule”.

The album closes with a song I first heard back at that gig in '05. Safety of Objects is a majestic and upbeat pop-number, it's strings picked as if her viola were standing in for a 90's grunge band. The song was first recorded for one of those 'hand out at gigs' cds, an acoustic viola performance rich with glee. This version loses none of that original's curiosity or verve, a chirpy drumpad sequence and oceanic synth here complementing lyrics which affirm the physical nature of things. The album's final song might well be it's most revealing, symbolic as it is of the record's whole process. Though her songwriting aesthetic might have matured and grown in confidence, her voice is still remarkably, and pleasingly, her own.

First published on the405