Thursday, 25 August 2011

Standon Calling: review


2011 marked Standon Calling's seventh year of public operation and the three day event promised much by way of bands and festive silliness. Friday morning: after we took one of the festival's easily-arranged taxis from our London flat, a trip that lasted no more than an hour, we arrived in blistering heat around lunchtime and began in good spirits: expedient tent-circle establishment and the drinking of an inaugural ale. Line ups consulted, fancy dress at the ready, the 405 had arrived in style and in this fashion intended to continue.


Friday's line up began mid-way through the afternoon- I have a soft spot for the half-day bills that coax you into the spirit of the weekend. And it began for us in the Twisted Licks tent, Standon's smaller tented venue, with Dananananaykroyd's mid afternoon billing. The impetuous Glasgow six-piece were tearing through an energetic set when we happened upon them, a large crowd bouncing enthusiastically in sync with the band's over the top performance style. Power pop at it's finest, this reviewer will admit to not being the group's most ardent devotee- but still, despite even my inherent cynicism, it was hard not to be convinced. Firstly, Dananananaykroyd have such a good time on stage. If they don't, then they're fantastic actors. It all looks like a dream come true for them, but if youthful innocence is their calling card- then ignore their musicianship at your peril. Whilst Calum Gunn and John Baillie Jr marauded the stage, leaping from amplifiers, stage diving, and scissor-kicking as if educated at Richard Linklater's School of Rock- the band on stage carved out a tight as you like punk-rock. Ended each performance with a congratulatory, ironic chorus of “We did it! We did it all together! Yessssssssssssssssssss!” (the way we all did when we were kids, the glee at 'whatever' being accomplished)- the band were enjoyable, ridiculous, professional, and absolutely hilarious.

Errors performed on the Main Stage, and their electronic post-rock grooves found a home in that field. An encore was denied, which seemed a shame as the gig improved exponentially as it went on. A slow start picked up pace as the crowd caught wind of what Errors were about, and danced in approval. Glitchy synth stabs and a cutting bass gave emphasis to the exemplary work that drummer James Hamilton was doing underneath; a frenetic, beaming, dervish of energy throughout, I've rarely seem drummers hit drums with such vigour. Simon Ward's intersong banter is a particular memory: dry awkwardness came with each reminder of “We're Errors”- not only getting funnier each time- but goodness that man could read a shopping list with that accent and I would listen intently.


London's Chrome Hoof next, the large avant-garde ensemble having descended on Standon Calling with tweets earlier that week warning of a space monster in the festival vicinity. Musically, the band no know limits- an eclectic mix of funk, space rock, doom, hip-hop- all conveyed with trademark complexity. But that's somewhat misleading, for like Mr Bungle at their best, all Chrome Hoof's disparate elements add up to a compelling, easily enjoyable sound. Clad in metallic robes head to toe, the band's members would come and go throughout the set as their revolving line up accommodated different songs and styles. A heady futuristic performance in the vein of Janelle Monae or perhaps more fittingly, Grace Jones- the gig was in need of a centrepiece moment, an event of theatricality to mirror their cosmic songwriting- and this came midway through, as the prophecised space monster invaded the stage, threatened everyone and was decapitated by a backing singer. We caught the (rather soggy) brain after it had been ripped from the monster's head and flung to the crowd.

A brief sojourn back to the 2nd stage, where hipster band du jour Washed Out were serenading a packed out tent. Really, the vibe was tangible and the smoke heavy in the air as the band performed a short set plucked from their debut LP- but this reviewer was unconvinced by the elitist attitude of the crowd, and the gig fell a little flat for me. The band never really broke out of a mindset of playing 'at' the crowd, and I can't blame them: half the audience was chattering, smoking, having a banter- or seemingly 'there' just to be seen there. If gigs are a marriage of mindsets between band and audience, then here both parties here failed to turn up. Washed Out played well, but without great enthusiasm for the moment.

Similar disappointments became of Friday's headliner, Battles. I'd been looking forward to this gig especially, given that it was my first opportunity of seeing the group perform as a three piece. They are like a new band, I had heard- and I was open minded, being a lover of their second album Gloss Drop. Opening with the chaotic pop of Sweetie & Shag, the band were clearly enjoying themselves on stage, if the overall effect was a little lost on Standon's gathered masses. One of the difficulties of releasing an album featuring guest vocalists is in the live re-performance: here, Battles enlisted a dual video screen with a custom-filmed projection of each singer performing their lines. This was synced up with the studio-mixed vocal, which was played as an overdub over the live music. Except, it wasn't always in time. Firstly, Sweetie & Shag's precision was lost under a hive of choral synths- there seemed a chasm-sized aural distance between the live music being played and the vocal overhead. Second, at times (as in Gary Numan's post-lyrical My Machines) the vocal overdub just wasn't in sync with the video. I appreciate it's hard.

The 'Will they? Won't they?' over the potential performance of Atlas was answered quickly enough- Tyundai Braxton's iconic vocal lines here re-sung (fittingly) by children. Closing their set with Gloss Drop highlight Futura, it became ever obvious just how compromised the band are by playing as a three piece. And this is no reflection on their ability to make compelling music, but rather in how it was being performed. I have always thought of Battles as a cyborg band- a perfect union between man, instrument and computer. Modulated effects, looped segments- it's hard to tell at moments what is being played live, and what is being manipulated. But whilst this has always been the case, Battles have arguably made the spectacle more interesting in the past. Here, it was obvious that riffs were being pre-recorded well in advance, only to be tapped into being played when needed. Very little, besides the synth stabs that perforated the band's riffs, and the compelling spectacle that is drummer John Stanier, was live. And this is no criticism, I have no gripe with this methodology (nor overdubbing guest vocalists)- but rather it's an acknowledgement of how much harder Battles have to work during a gig as a three piece.

I enjoyed their hour-long main set. It was difficult to follow in places but frequently inspiring- both musically and as a performance. Atlas won the undecideds over, Futura had done it for me. But when Battles returned for an encore, I'm not sure anyone could quite have predicted just how spectacularly it would fail. A ten minute build up comprised of looped and modulated guitar notes, dub synths passing left to right- eventually, cohesion coming out of this- Gloss Drop closer Sundome (by this point, half the crowd had left in search of pastures more enriching). It was an underwhelming outro, better suited perhaps for a crowd of ardent fans than a festival audience.


Saturday morning at Standon Calling brought firstly a swim in the wonderful on-site pool. The sun was relentless, beautifully so, and a quick dip clearly seemed everyone's activity of choice- the pool was full but well rationed. It became a quite beautiful introduction to the day's events; the invigorating waters casting away any cramp or discomfort from the last night's adventuring.

Then came an unexpected delight whilst moseying back, an enormous guitar cacophony erupting from within the Twisted Licks tent- north London's Teeth Of The Sea inside. I only caught the last 20 minutes of what seemed a momentous performance; the band not letting their early billing get in the way of a towering, deafening rock sound. Strung out, violent and consumed by their noise-making, the band carved an impressive slot that pulled in those queuing for coffees, lulling about their mornings.

I had some coffee myself, and made my way down toward the festival's quieter end- its elysian fields. Here, the lovely vibe out bars one finds tucked away, the kind to serve you a warm chai and goad the night's frenzy with some soft folk, antiquated and proverbial, endlessly sweet, acoustically performed. There now was the draw of sock-wrestling, which I had happened upon the previous year quite by chance. The rules were simple, contestants drawn from the gathered crowd and wearing of two socks- must wrestle each other until a sock is removed, therein the remover being crowned champion over the bout's two sock-oriented legs. Rollicking good fun then, made all the more so by the troupe of enthusiastically dressed participants. For Saturday was Standon Calling's dress-up day, and festival-goers had clearly given in to inspiration for the weekend's Gods and Monsters theme. My comrades in arms that weekend, lovely folk from the London based 'music friendship' charity The Note Well, had indulged it a detached cool- dressed between them as characters from the Kanye West 'Monster' video. I had come robed in Panda God costume (What? Pandas make legitimate deities. Google it already) and was attempting to stay in character where possible, responding only with the grunts and roars I presumed Panda Bears to have.

A walk back up to the festival site proper, and a beautiful wail drew me into the Main Stage fields. There, quite unexpectedly, the festival's largest crowd thus far, bouncing and beaming to the Raghu Dixit Project. A large and ever-changing troupe led by group's namesake, the band had the crowd in their palms of their hands. The sun was bright and warm, flags danced in the crowd- a euphoric state took over. Ostensibly a collective endeavour, Raghu Dixit produced the group's debut album as a means of collating musicians into a cohesive platform for shared expression. Electric guitar thrashed in a manner that recalled Kula Shaker at their best, whilst Dixit's voice was a breathtaking thing. The control uttered over sky-arcing melodies seemed impossible, but Raghu was caught in effortless, joyful release. The gig was a pleasure, and certainly the festival's high point thus far.


Later that evening and after The 405 had enjoyed a sit-down chat with him, Saul Williams would take to the main stage. Clearly excitement was peaking and a few devotees in the crowd were anticipating the rare opportunity to catch Williams entertain a festival audience. His four piece band in place, he bounded onstage and stood at his mic in silence before launching into a venomous a'capella performance of old-school rhyme Coded Language. Vivid, clear and impassioned Williams catapulted this existentialist rap high into the fields. Its central motif a cry “to lift up the consciousness of the entire fucking world”, sent shivers arcing down my spine. Applause followed, and the band had launched into List Of Demands, its punk rock shimmy provoking mass breakout amongst the crowds. From here, the hour long set came thick and fast- some meandering in the middle borne of the artist's melodically oriented material. But it was relentless throughout, and Saul was a man born to recite from a stage. Second To Think was anguished, overall it was a lively, often awe-inspiring set from an artist with a back catalogue of riches.

By this point in the evening, the crowd looked just ridiculous. A comedy dragon built of many participants, the cast of Monsters Inc, sea creatures, beasties, Michael Jackson, John Terry- at one point Saul took note of the theatrics and taking into account the recent rioting across the country, noted how despite all this, creativity and human imagination has flourished.

I have often thought that Lamb, who headlined the Main Stage on the Saturday, are best suited to a festival audience. This was my third such Lamb gig, the first having been their quite genuinely tear-jerking farewell gig at Glastonbury in 2003 and the latter being a reunion gig at the Leveller's annual Beautiful Days festival in Devon. Here, the band were in a similarly splendid setting. A large crowd had amassed, and I think this is testament to the band's continued following. People seem to have a large amount of affection for their music, borne of the same era and location that saw Massive Attack and Portishead become internationally renowned. Lamb performed tracks from their early, pre-hiatus, albums- and kept newer material to a minimum, humbly introducing each new song as such. Lamb have a new album out, though the group were keen to appease the festival audience with well-known numbers like Gabriel, which seemed to stop even the air. An acoustic performance of a new song was touching, if for it's impromptu recital: the electronics board and Macbooks had given up the ghost temporarily, and so Standon Calling was treated to a perfectly cohesive, entirely unplanned bass and live drums rendition. As headliners, Lamb did not disappoint.



Sunday firstly saw the much-anticipated Rockaoke, this year in the Twisted Licks tent. A four piece band, tight as you like, with a songlist as long as your arm and the invitation for onlookers and passers by to rock the mic with a live-ass band behind. It was all good fun, a bombastic version of pub-karaoke favourite Mustang Sally inciting a crowd singalong in the chorus, a good humoured and out of key rendition of Amy Winehouse's Valerie cover, and this reviewer couldn't let the opportunity pass by without hopping onstage for an outing of Rage Against The Machine's Killing In The Name. A theatrical song, frequently co-opted by anyone with a vaguely dissenting voice, too often used as a 'fuck you Mum and Dad' anthem- it's original meaning borne of the LA riots lost under the weight of dumb audience expectation. Frankly, I can understand why Zach De La Rocha left Rage. Anyway, I dedicated it to “all the muppets who woke up with a new flatscreen TV or pair of Nikes last week”, and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Apparently there is video evidence, which I am reluctant to embed anywhere near this article.

Next up was the afternoon billing for the inspired rap of Katie Tempest, fronting her Sound Of Rum three piece. A warm and affectionate reception was given, and in truth Tempest was a force. An unstoppable flow of wry social observations and delicately phrased rhetorical questioning, her rap skills are breathtaking- perhaps demonstrated best on the number where she decries an old 'open mic' freestyler for wearing all the bling and having no bars to back it up. “It's all about the content, it's not about your image” she barks, knowingly, self-depreciatingly. There's such little bravado about her, so few pretensions. She speaks between songs at once humbly and with confidence, there was little distance between the crowd and the stage. An a'capella poem recited in lieu of the recent social problems across the country, Katie offered a profound and touching perspective that through rap and rhyme became impossible to ignore. Her verses were staggeringly good, her mind dextrose and nimble in a way you wouldn't think possible for someone so young- she's only 24 and Scroobius Pip has called her “annoyingly good”. It's apt, but not annoying- you get the impression that hip-hop, and especially UK hip-hop needs voices like this at the moment- if only to offset the celebratarian faux-bling aspirations of the pop/grime scene- where content has been forgotten and image rules all (if anyone can tell me what Tinie Tempah is rapping 'about', in any one of his songs- I will bestow a worthy prize). Musically, the three piece shirked around electronic patterns and slight guitar riffing, drummer Ferry Lawrenson afforded an impressive solo at the gig's climax. An altogether accomplished unit, Sound of Rum ended the set with a spot of crowd participation. Katie couldn't help herself, “This is so much fun for me” she observed, as half the crowd chanted “Sound of” to the other's “Rum”, and she was spitting verses overhead using the crowd's voice as percussion. Sound of Rum's performance absolutely marked the high point of the festival, without a doubt. The band left to huge applause, and had seemingly made friends of everyone in that field.

And there, sadly- our Standon Calling came to an end. It was a splendid weekend in the sun, one that delivered favourite bands amidst newfound treats. A few of our favourite (and more random) memories then, to round up:

The horse-drawn carriage stage (which much to my surprise, boasted my old friend Lewis from The House Of Trouser on drumming duties). This toured the site all weekend, a troupe of guys and girls doing their finest horse impressions.

The space hopper tent. We indulged this many times over the weekend, going for space hopper races, space hopper wrestling, space hopper hopping competitions.

Great to see so much quality food onsite, add to that the delicious 'back of the van' coffee.

Spying other Pandas, and quickly becoming Panda friends.

The amount of bands that would play their gig and then be seen chilling around the festival, putting up their tents for the weekend. I can think of no greater testament to Standon Calling's loveliness than the willingness of artists to hang out with their fans afterward and not just 'do one' down the M25 to the next gig.

On Sunday, we caught up with friends of Alex Trenchard (the landowner whose birthday party inspired Standon Calling, who is now incarcerated in a well documented case of 'Robin Hood'), who were touring the site inviting everyone to write postcards to the missing birthday boy. This was a lovely gesture. I remember seeing Alex painting onstage last year during Buena Vista Social Club and I think that everyone at the festival holds him in warm regard. Also of note: seeing his parents travel around the site and meet people. Wonderful.

See you next year, Standon Calling!

First published in the405

Saul Williams interview

Of all the artists to play this year's Standon Calling, I was perhaps looking forward to seeing Saul Willliams the most. The enigmatic rapper/poet/actor had toured his fourth album, Volcanic Sunlight, earlier in the year and despite best arrangements, I had lived to regret missing it. Here then was a rare chance to see Saul entertain a festival audience, and it was a pleasure to meet with him earlier that afternoon. Saul Williams has been an outspoken figure, demonstrating a political self-awareness throughout his work across music, poetry and film. Given the context of what had been a tumultuous week in British politics/civic order, to say the very least, this seemed the perfect opportunity to converse at length.

405: Good afternoon Saul. How are you?

SW: I'm good, thank you. Woke up in Paris this morning, now I'm here in this beautiful field.

Glad to hear it. First up, could you talk us through your latest record. Is there a concept to the record, an overarching message?

The goal of the album was to create a record that sounded exactly like the title, Volcanic Sunlight. Besides that, I can't say that there's a common themality except for in my approach to it. And that approach was simple: I didn't feel like writing any songs borne out of anger. And anyone who is familiar with my previous albums will know that, well, anger and I have been pretty tight!

I think of your early work, which was almost driven by that very directed, pointed form of anger.

Yeah, we've had an intimate relationship in the past, a healthy one. But this time, I wanted to do something different.

I wanted to talk about this anger briefly, in reference to previous releases like the Not In My Name EP, or songs like Act 3 Scene 2. This politically motivated anger often found inspiration, if I can call it that, in the policies of the Bush presidency. How do you feel about Obama, and is this record a reflection of your changed attitudes?

How I feel about Obama is how I now feel about politics in general. I'm a bit further down the road now, and I see that for what they are politics, politicians, governments play their part. They do as much as they can do. I don't believe in the idea of martyrs or individuals having more power than the people themselves, I believe politicians are there inherently to reflect us. Obama, symbolically, holds his ground well. Nonetheless, I understand the dissatisfaction from, for example, the left- who often seem like they'd prefer him to be a dictator for the left, for socialist egalitarian policies- in the same way perhaps as some might interpret Bush's actions as him being a dictator for the right. I do think the more sage response would be less of a dictator and more of a balance between the two, but that would be and is very upsetting to the left. And not satisfying to the right either.

Is it a question of whether the end, in this case policy, justifies the means, i.e. totalitarianism?

Partly. It's also a question of time, how much time does it take to pull out of Iraq, for example? Policy takes time. All these bullshit equations we wake up and find ourselves in, no different than you or I born into a family that has a religion, or that has a socio-political background. Man, we're born into that and we're raised to believe it until we come of age and question “Do I have to perpetuate the ideals of my father and mother?” In the same way, I think a president is born into a situation and has to navigate their own growth. Thus, I think the more interesting Obama would be in his second term.

Regardless of policy, I think a lot of people are hoping Sarah Palin runs against him- if only for the broadcast television debates and subsequent YouTube-worthy moments.

Haha, yeah. On the whole, there are so many issues in American politics which sadden me, that surprise me, that stop me and make me take notice. Are we still dealing with that? There's an actual frontrunner in the Republican ticket whose husband thinks you can teach gay people how not to be gay. You know? This is the 21st century, the world over, and we're still just there? It's a fucking shame. And it's for those reasons I say “politics plays its part” because people and ideas are evolving at a quicker rate than politicians can possibly keep up with.

The discourse catches up with itself eventually, as an idea gains in popularity. Perhaps it's ironic then that our so-called leaders do little at a time like this but 'respond'. That's a good link to my next question actually, on the recent UK news. I wanted to ask if you'd seen much of the country's rioting and the Government's subsequent response.

Yes, of course. To me, it's not even a matter of opinion. The facts are there. It's obvious to all that there is this unspoken tension in the younger generations and it's come out like, yeah, what the fuck. Otherwise, if it wasn't there, that wouldn't be the response.

There seems to be a willingness in this country not to acknowledge our shared responsibility towards that underclass, to not understand but rather to now punish and condemn. Many people have been reminded of the Martin Luther King quotes about the riots being the voice of the unheard.

And it is, essentially that. And it remains that. Anyone who says there isn't a class system in England would be foolish. It's evident through history. We all just celebrated a wedding, a national wedding of royal blood.

And we all paid for it, too.

Yeah, exactly. And of course, so there's going to be people who just look at that and think, “Ok, so now what about us? What about these streets?” So yes, voices have to be heard. And if people are slow in moving, slow in responding then more voices will need to be heard, and they will go about it in ways we can't control, using whatever means they have available to them. And sometimes it might seem easier to burn the first car you see in front of you than to get on the phone with your local congressman. Do you guys have congressmen?

MPs. We have MPs. And I think you can email them.

Yeah, right. Email them. Of course you can.

I wanted to ask you about beat poetry and hip-hop in general. How do you see those two disciplines interconnecting, or rather, where does one end and the other begin?

Well, to tell you the truth, I started out as an MC in New York. My relationship to poetry came through rapping primarily, and then through studying theatre. When you're reading a play closely, you dissect the language and of course when you listen to hip-hop, you use a similar form of deconstruction. So many playwrights were rhythmic, in their metre and stanza, line for line. And so, I grew like this: hip-hop and classical theatre. I wrote songs before I wrote poems, but I became known in the public eye through poetry. That gave me the opportunity to make music, which was my first love. Of course my first first love, before all that, was acting, was theatre. In all of these cases I feel like someone who happened upon something, I didn't grow up saying I wanted to be a poet or an actor, I just grew up reading poetry. I quit rapping when I was 16 because I wanted to be the youngest rapper alive- when I got to 16, I was all “Fuck it, it didn't happen”.

When you perform onstage to a crowd, is that an extension of theatrical performance?

Of course.

And how do you, if at all, separate the notions of art and entertainment?

I'm an entertainer. But it's like, I believe, I was entertained when I was growing up, I was heavily entertained by Public Enemy, I was entertained by playwrights like Amiri Baraka, I was entertained by South African playwrights like Athol Fugart. These were things that had serious political weight, but the end-point of Public Enemy was to make you dance. As they say, “Make you jump along, make you dance along to your education”. I never thought I had to be false or commit to a stupid idea to enjoy myself at a party. So when you close your eyes and you dance, and you hear 'Poker Face' or whatever, you could just as easily contextualise that as something profound, something driven and serious, like Rage Against The Machine you know- which is just as entertaining.

That post-structuralist Death Of The Author idea, then.

Yeah, I can totally accept that. Hahah.

Great. Thanks for spending time with us today Saul. Looking forward to your gig later.

Me too. Catch you then.

First published in the405