Friday, 20 July 2012

7th July 2012: Celebr8 Festival (Day One) - The Hippodrome, Kingston


Some months ago, I was heading back from something in Central London (a gig, maybe?) when I came across something rather odd. Making my way down my train at Waterloo, I eventually found an empty seat across the way from a quiet looking chap, studiously reading a book which he’d produced from his man bag, and keeping himself to himself. It looked rather a lot like promoter, DJ and all-round rock legend Jon ‘Twang’ Patrick (aka Twitch, apparently), but obviously it couldn’t be, since he appeared to be sober.

I sat down opposite anyway, if only to study this doppelganger Twang from over the top of my Evening Standard and see if I could get a subtle photo to stick on Facebook. (I had much more luck with the Dwayne Dibbley-alike I’d spotted a few months before.) Eventually, after much unsubtle fake text reading, he clocked me – “Alright mate?”. Apart from the fact that there were no words beginning with ‘f’ in the sentence, this was good enough confirmation that it actually was him, so we settled down for a good old chinwag.

“Mate, keep the 7th and 8th of July free, alright? There’s something really big I’m working on.”  I sounded intrigued enough to be trusted with a little more information. “Right, you mustn’t tell anybody. This is top secret…”And so began the story of Celebr8. To start with, it sounded like an extension of the yearly Mattfests at the Peel, a few Peel regular bands all on the same bill, only this time over a whole weekend.

The train journey wasn’t really long enough to find out much, but it sounded both ambitious and exciting. The House of Progression was spreading its wings, with a bigger, more impressive venue, better access to food not consisting completely of stray vermin, and a cracking line-up of the top progressive bands who’d started out at The Peel. “It’s going to be massive, mate.”

I pencilled it in.

Saturday 7th of July

After the previous night’s fun, nobody’s really in the mood for getting up early, but our rodent visitor needs to be delivered to the venue ahead of doors time to go and take up his position as Nellie’s Biatch at The Merch Desk stall. (Yes I know I just said both desk and stall, deal with it.) The best thing to clear the cobwebs is clearly a blast of 5.1 Genesis, and as the bass pedals on ‘Squonk’ loosen up any last traces of last night’s excesses, we consider ourselves suitably progged up and hop on the bus for the epic 15 minute journey to the venue.

With Tim safely delivered to his new owner, Karin and I join the slowly growing crowd and there’s plenty of time to chat with pretty much everybody we’ve ever met, whilst watching hordes of middle-aged men in black band t-shirts filling up the square between the Kingston Hippodrome and the Post Office. The locals (I say that like I’m not one) are bemused. “Wosson ‘ere today then?” Erm, a music festival. “Anyone good playing?” Nah.

Doors time comes and goes, and then a rather stressed looking Twang appears from the door to announce that there’s been a slight delay, “As will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been to a gig at The Peel… And now I’m going to have a fag.” Fair enough. Eventually the venue is deemed safe for the general public to enter (co-organiser Geoff Banks’ beautiful shorts notwithstanding), and we all file in for a weekend of wondrous musical delights. Slowly.

Ah yes, this being a town-centre nightclub, the staff are rather more used to dealing with, shall we say, a less refined clientele than your average prog fan. After each of us file past and collect our wristbands from Twang and Geoff (and have to fit them ourselves, which is an interesting test of manual dexterity), we’re shuffled along to the security search, where the staff are determined to put all of us and our bags through the metal detector before we can be allowed in. This lasts as long as it takes for them to get everyone in once, at which point it’s switched off and put to one side so that anyone coming and going later can bring in whatever munitions they desire. It’s discrimination against early arrivers, I tell you.

Unfortunately our chatting outside places us squarely at the very back of the queue, and the queue moves very slowly, so as a result, we miss the vast majority of…

 …who has no choice but to start his set before most people are inside, otherwise it’ll be cut so short he’ll have to head home before he even starts. It’s the first gig for Sean’s band, who span quite a variety of age ranges, and they play several tracks from last year’s “War and Peace and Other Short Stories” (an album I’ve bought and enjoyed.)

It’s a great start to the festival, setting the quite ‘Neo-Prog’ vibe for the Saturday, and what I do hear sounds good. There are the typical first-ever gig / first band of the day gremlins, and Sean often pushes himself to the very limits of his vocal range, but in general it goes down very well, the two guitarists make their mark duelling across their frontman, and they pull off one of the album’s great epics impressively well.

Some of these photos were not taken on my phone - thanks Mike Evans!

As the set comes to a close, I expect a stage announcement to let us know where and when the next dollop of quality entertainment will be taking place, but nothing is forthcoming. The day’s programme shows a 5 minute gap before the first act on the acoustic stage, but nobody’s quite sure where the acoustic stage actually is. Luckily Karin’s been on a quick recce during the last song and found that just along from the vomit-zone around the CRS Merch table, there’s a well-hidden portal to the unplugged dimension, so we make our move along with around 5 other punters.

… are all set up and ready to go, but rather lacking in people to play to. Never mind, Matt gives us a quick rendition of Genesis’ ‘Mad Man Moon’ on the piano, which gets a hearty cheer from, um, me. Eventually it fills up enough for them to start their short set, and they take us on a little tour of the world from sunny California (via Kerry and Matt’s own, excellent songs) to deepest England, with a popular XTC cover.

Kerry had been due to play the festival with his band Mars Hollow, however when the band broke up shortly before, he quickly recruited his buddy Matt to come over and play these slots with him – and frankly, I’m glad he did. Who needs yet another prog band on the bill when you can break things up with a laid back set of summery songs from two superb performers? Kerry thrashes his guitar and sings with gusto while Matt hammers his keyboard so much that it threatens to fall off the stand.

The only unfortunate thing is that nobody has told them when they need to finish so as to allow everyone to get back into the other room for the next act, so they’re in the middle of a song when we suddenly hear the unmistakeable thumping of…

… who kick off their set with Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebrate’. (See what they did there? Good, that makes you more intelligent than at least two other reviewers, who questioned why on earth they thought it was a good idea to play this song at a prog festival.) Suitably warmed up, they kick right into ‘The World That We Drive Through’, the first of the tracks loosely beginning with ‘W’ that comprise this afternoon’s set.

We join proceedings 5 minutes or so in, as the band’s latest line-up (the smallest and easily the best of their history, fact fans) are heading off into the first of many extended instrumental jams. The Tangent’s set at last year’s Summer’s End festival was one of its big highlights, and today is no different, in fact they easily walk ‘band of the day’ for me. With the injection of young blood in the form of talented gits Luke Machin and Daniel Mash (from the band Maschine, formerly Concrete Lake), not to mention powerhouse drummer Tony ‘Funkytoe’ Latham, main man Andy Tillison plays keys like a man possessed, and sings his heart out in his own inimitable style (think a Yorkshire Roger Waters and you might not go far wrong.)

In fact it’s great to hear Andy handling all the vocals on this early track- having got into the band properly after the Flower Kings had taken the road back home to Sweden, it always jars a little to hear Roine Stolt’s voice on what is very obviously Andy’s music. In this pared-down, home-grown line-up, it puts the focus rightly on Andy himself and takes them way beyond the undeserved ‘spin-off band’ status they’d initially inherited.

20 minutes into the set and the first proper song comes to an end, whereupon Andy announces their intention to “do a Transatlantic” and play “nothing but fuckin’ epics!”.  Fairly safe move for a prog festival. And epics they do play – their 70-odd minute set consists of 4 songs, including highlight of last year’s ‘COMM’ album ‘The Wiki Man’ with its dissection of internet culture, and my own personal favourite Tangent song ‘Where Are They Now?’ which prompts a crowd singalong of the spine-tingling main riff (or maybe that’s just me).

With the music taking turns from straight-up prog to fusion, to Canterbury, to electronica, there’s plenty for the incredible band to get their teeth into, and what’s more they seem to have an absolute blast doing it. (I say ‘they’, I can’t actually see drummer Tony since the extended stage demanded by IQ’s Subterranea show seems to leave all today’s drummers stranded on a separate drum-island some miles offshore from their bandmates.)

The energy coming off the stage from the four performers, especially chief gurner Luke Machin, is infectious, and they go down an absolute storm. Unfortunately Luke’s efforts go a little bit too far during ‘Where Are They Now?’ and he ends up playing the last couple of minutes of the song on 5 strings only - what a pro.

Thanks to the band not taking a proper soundcheck, the day’s running order is back on track, although I can’t help feeling I’d rather have had another Tangent song and lop the time off elsewhere. But I’m awaken from this most important of thoughts by a sudden unexpected presence on the stage – it’s Celebr8 website guru, chicken farmer and supreme podcaster Bob Hodds of the Dead Nobodies show. “Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Tangent!” At flipping last – I whoop and holler even more, as much at Bob’s initiative at getting up there and making the day look organised, as for the Tangent. What’s more, he even directs people towards the acoustic stage, where Jadis’ Gary Chandler is about to play.

We’re back on track timing-wise, people know where to go when, and people finally know what Bob looks like (although he cunningly doesn’t introduce himself) – so for the first time I relax on the behalf of those of who have put so much into this event. I’m not quite sure why I’ve been so worried, apart from knowing some of those involved and really wanting them to make a go of it, but from here on in, it’s plain sailing, at least as far as the paying public (i.e. me) are concerned.

There is now a brief lull in the review as Karin and I take a break from standing up to go and get some dinner (yes, dinner, not tea). Unfortunately, the very nature of the day’s non-stop musical agenda means that something has to give if we’re to eat anything more than the crisps that the venue are selling. We therefore end up missing most of both Gary Chandler (although what I do hear is quite intriguing- some Oldfield-ish guitar playing over an electronic-ish backing track) and Pallas. Again, the songs I do see towards the tail-end of the set sound good, and the rest of the crowd certainly lap up their brand of heavy-ish neo prog, with new frontman Paul Mackie making a big impression on the room.

We therefore resume with…

… who is waiting patiently in the acoustic bar for Pallas to finish. He treats us to an impromptu rendition of some Metallica, before asking ‘Is it rude of me to start?’ – to which, given that Pallas are already overrunning their slot and have just started another song, the answer is a resounding ‘No!’

I won’t bore you yet again with why Matt (and his ‘one-man guitar orchestra’) is such a great performer (you can read all about a very similar set here if you like)- but suffice to say that this performance, supposedly his last of the ‘looping’ tour, is up there with the best of them. Melodic, rhythmic and cacophonous by turns, he builds up layers upon layers of riffs and harmonies on his acoustic guitar to produce the biggest sound in the side room all weekend. Jumping about the place and thrashing his axe in the process (hmm, sounds like a nasty euphemism for something but I’ll leave it in), the poor guitar is in a serious state by the end of the 30-minute set, as is Matt himself, who I’m rather concerned is about to collapse.

This crowd, however, wants blood, and Matt willingly gives it to them, with a seemingly unplanned encore which finishes off both player and instrument. I’m assuming neither are permanently damaged (since he turns up to claim the ‘TBA’ slot tomorrow morning), but there’s no time to worry about that, as it’s nearly time for…

… who tonight are playing their magnum opus ‘Subterranea’ (essentially the neo-prog version of ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ with more up-to-date effects.) Karin heads off for a chat with some friends and I jostle myself into a good viewing position (or, as the guy next to me correctly surmises, ‘The least worst position’.) Ah, yes…

…shall we take a minute to have a chat about that?

When Twang first told me about the Hippodrome, he mentioned the different levels and floors and viewing galleries and seating areas, and it sounded flipping marvellous. And it is, mostly. There are banks of sofas and tables and chairs round the back of the main room, where tired feet can relax and bored partners can play Sudoku on their phones. Which is ace, except that they’re all sunken down from the main floor and tucked away behind pillars and staircases and fixtures and fittings which seem to have been taken from a Miami Vice-meets-Innerspace themed pinball machine. Plus, all the upper floor galleries are cordoned off to mere mortals such as us.

Then there’s the problem that IQ’s stage show is a bit too big for the venue, meaning that some of the equipment obscures large bits of the stage from certain viewing points. And that the PA for the whole weekend is right in the way of the right hand side of the stage from the steps at the right hand side of the floor which would otherwise have been perfect. All of this means that, unless you’re in the first couple of rows of the floor, or the first row of the raised back section of the floor (or you arrive very early and bag one of the stools by the bar at the back left) you’re not going to see a lot. Which is not an awful lot different to The Peel, if I’m honest.

Also, once you’ve picked a spot and stood in it for a few minutes, you’re pretty much stuck with it, because, well, you’re stuck to it. Both the wooden floors and the carpets throughout the venue may as well be made of fly paper. (Now, that would have confused the night-time clientele, arriving to find us prog fans rooted to our spots around the place, waving frantically for help.)

But let’s not moan. The staff are lovely, especially once they realise that we pose no immediate physical threat to them (“unlike the fucking animals they have to deal with normally”, says Twang later), there are some decent beers on sale, there are lots of toilets, unlike at the Peel (although the soap runs out by about 3pm on Saturday), and the acoustic area is a lovely chillout zone for when you can’t bear the twang of another Rickenbacker.

Sorry, where was I? Ah yes…


… so, yeah, I find the least worst spot and wait for something to happen. I like IQ a lot and this will be the third time I’ve seen them live, but the first time seeing the Subterranea show. Some of the band are already on stage and they do a quick warm up with a little bit of ‘Frequency’ (“Don’t look at or listen to this bit”, says guitarist Mike Holmes…), before a screen rolls down at the front of the stage, the band launches into ‘Overture’ and a video starts of Pete Nicholls being chased through what looks like Lakeside shopping centre (ok, not really, but to be honest I’m so close to it, they could be in the Bahamas for all I know…)

It’s very clever – the video of Pete cuts out at the end of ‘Overture’ and the screen goes translucent to reveal Pete himself behind the curtain to sing ‘Provider’, after which the rocking title track kicks in, the curtain comes up to huge applause, and the projections move to the back screen. (Hang on a minute, did Steven Wilson get the entire idea for his solo show from a late 90’s IQ production?) And so it continues, with the entire of the Subterranea album being sung and acted out note-perfectly by Mr.Nicholls, ably assisted by the innovative lighting and video effects, and even more so by the band, including “new boy” Neil Durant on keyboards, “new old boy” Paul Cook back on drums and “even newer even older boy” Tim Esau back on bass.

I rather hope that the stage show will make some sense of the story of this concept album (which, actually, ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ almost does), however a combination of poor visibility and tiredness force me to retreat about halfway through to enjoy the rest of the music from a more comfortable spot. It’s at this time that I actually spy Steven Wilson, and what’s more, I witness him using his phone to take a picture of IQ on stage.

Steven Wilson. Taking a photo of IQ. This is how you know your event has arrived. (As it turns out, Steven saw IQ at the Marquee in the 80’s and has been asked by Prog magazine to do a review for the next issue. Or at least, this is what the gossip in the house is. For all I know, he’s just looking for some more stage ideas to steal.)

As the band finish up the Subterranea set with ‘The Narrow Margin’ before a couple of crowd pleasing encores of ‘The Wake’ and ‘Frequency’ (oh, who saw that one coming?), I reflect on what a great day it’s been. A variety of acts, all of which have been hugely popular with the crowd, and a huge number of fellow fans coming together in one place for a bit of a chat and some real ale (until it runs out.)

I’ve spoken to many new and lovely people, none of whom I would have met if it wasn’t for this event (some from as far afield as Washington DC, Rio de Janeiro, Japan and Hull.) And, yeah, the music’s been pretty first rate too. I’m bursting with pride for the chaps who stuck their necks out to put on the festival that nobody thought would work.


When IQ are done, most of the crowd file out to get their trains (or queue back up again for the Pyjama Party, which starts at 11), but since the Merch Boy is still in our custody, we have to hang about and wait for him to be ready, which basically involves being roped into stuffing boxes of T-shirts into a cupboard and then doing some proper roadie-ing when it becomes apparent that there is a whole load of gear in the venue which absolutely has to be out by 11 so that the local kids can get down in their PJ’s where all IQ’s stage equipment is currently standing.

It’s not exactly fun, I’m not gonna lie to you. It’s hard to strike the right balance between helping and getting in the way, and nobody seems exactly sure what needs to go where- but eventually after about 45 minutes of lugging, everything’s outside. Everything, that is, except the screen from the front of the stage. There’s a fraught-looking man up a ladder desperately trying to get it free from its fixings, to no avail, as the 11 O’clock curfew comes and goes and Twang starts pacing in the street outside, chain smoking… Eventually it becomes apparent that there is literally nothing anyone else can do, so, in typical Twang style, he says, “Fuck it, let’s go to the pub.”

Arriving at the Druid’s Head, a spontaneous round of applause breaks out amongst the remaining festival goers, as Lord Jonathan of Twangshire enters, upon which he is bought several beers and the night continues for as long as is possible, with tales of rock, Robert Fripp, and other stories completely unfit to print (because I’ve forgotten them.)

When we're finally chucked out, we decadently jump into a taxi home, or rather to McDonalds (again - I promise I don't just eat McDonalds, honest.) Suitably laden with inedible food, the three of us step out into the night just in time for the heavens to open in quite spectacular fashion, soaking us and our takeaway bags, which disintegrate, causing Karin to lose chips all over the stairs at Surbiton station.

Eventually we get in and and sit, dripping, in shell-shocked silence munching on what purports to be food- it's blooming lovely, actually.

And tomorrow, we do it all again...

1 comment:

  1. Nice one, James!

    And bonus points for identifying "mystery man" Bob Hodds for me :)