Sunday 19 May 2013

11th May 2013: Celebr8.2 Festival, The Hippdrome, Kingston-Upon-Thames (Day One)

About 10 months ago, I had a wonderful story to tell. I was in on the exciting news about the first Celebr8 festival before most other people, on the weekend itself I tried my best to sneak backstage and get in the way, I watched pretty much every set by every band, and I got mistaken for a member of Tinyfish. Yes, it was a pretty good year.

This year, however, various items have conspired to make my write-up a lot less satisfactory. No Merchboy houseguest, the bare minimum of ligging, and, unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, not a whole load of music actually seen at all. However, I’m reliably informed by one of my three regular readers (Hi Dr Nick!) that half a review is better than none, so here we go.

After the slightly disappointing Tuesday night gig, there follow a few days of sitting about the house, working from home, whilst Tim makes use of my CD and 5.1 collection and we discuss the finer points of mixing, mastering, and what the actual Shineback story is (which might have been helpful to know before reviewing the damn thing), whilst there’s also an evening where not only do we witness Robert Fripp producing ‘Love Sprinkles’ for Toyah’s tea, but we also play a board game about poo. Which Tim wins.

Tim waves farewell on Friday afternoon, and I get ready to go and see some chap with a sparkly helmet of hair play Genesis songs. You should go and read about that, if you haven’t already.

The story therefore resumes on the Saturday morning of Celebr8 with a whiny text from blog regular whipping boy Bob/Bert, who has a poor hurty foot and a sore head and can’t be arsed to carry the boxes containing 500 festival programmes to the venue from his hotel (I may be paraphrasing somewhat.) Despite the fact that I’m still in bed, I dutifully head straight on over to help him out, and marvel at just how professional the whole thing and its included CDs are, despite the fact that I wasn't asked to write anything for it. (I’m assuming there was just not enough paper in the world to get me involved.)

Go and buy one now, even if you weren't there... the CDs make it totally worth it, I promise.

Boxes safely dropped outside the venue, I take one look at the early morning chaos going on in the foyer alone and decide that that's my fill of helping for this year, so I head back home, popping back down about 15 minutes after supposed doors time to find a fair old queue still outside, as things are running a little late. Still, unlike last year, the doors do open in time for everyone to get inside in time to watch the first note of music, but not before the following priceless conversation:

Me: That’s Leon! (from Tinyfish). What’s he doing here? He hates most prog.

Rob Ramsay (also from Tinyfish): Maybe he’s come down to see someone. Perhaps he’s got a crush on Damien Wilson, most people seem to.

Damian Wilson: Hello!

Rob Ramsay (terrified):  Arrrghhh!

Luckily Damian’s doing the rounds saying hello to all his fans so we’re spared too much embarrassment, and fairly soon we’re inside and waiting for…


… who are hot off the ‘Cruise to the Edge’ ship where they've gone down a storm with the velour-prog brigade, and they also get things off to a pretty good start here today. It's hard to describe their music without using phrases which conjure up extremely negative images, like 'New-age', but it's all done very well, with enough rock and proggy sounds to merit their place here. Someone I chat to during the set tells me how much he likes the ‘dance music’ elements of their music, although I can’t actually hear any apart from some slightly cheesy spoken vocal samples which sound like they should be the intro to an Enigma song from 1995. Oh, and the last song contains a musical quote from ‘Popcorn’. Mmmmkay…

You know, you can look as serious as you like, but you're still standing next to a sign which says
'Friday Nights is Big Cheese'.

Photo: Mike Evans -

Still, Dave Cureton is a really good guitar player, and he gives us plenty of opportunity during every song to figure this out, whilst gurning and pulling as many rockstar poses as he can – which makes him the focal point of the band for a lot of the set. In fact, I've not made any notes about anyone else in the band I’m afraid, largely since I can't see them.

Oh, except of course for new vocalist Linda Odinsen, whose first gig this is, and she does a cracking job, when she's allowed to sing. I do feel a few times during the set that she's just there to look nice, especially when she's not really singing but just standing there swaying to the music and trying not to get blown off her feet by the slightly hilarious wind machine which blows constantly in her face for the first few songs. With her ‘Lady of the Lake’ white dress and gold Diana-esque tiara, she’s quite a striking presence, especially with the flowing golden locks, which in their windswept state strangely resemble some kind of Viking helmet once they've been through my crap iPhone photography.

Oh, I remember now, there was a sax player - he was very good.

Photo: Mike Evans -

All in all, IOEarth are a fine start to the day, and as soon as they’re done, I head over to the acoustic stage (which is helpfully pointed out from the stage by Bob, reprising his MC role from last year), to see Mark Spencer, but unfortunately everyone else has had the same idea. Which is a very good idea – unlike the half-baked plan to move the location of the musicians on the acoustic stage from the middle of the room by the bar to right over in the far corner over by the comfy sofas.

Last year's set-up was perfect –you could stand around the musicians while they played, or you could go and chill out on the settees and listen, or, critically, you could stand up on the raised balcony section and still see and hear perfectly. Well, not so this year – there is basically one place to see and that's right in front of the musicians. Sadly not only does the balcony position  no longer offer a good vantage point, but the PA is so quiet and weedy up there, it's positively annoying, like that guy at work who talks really softly and quietly and you keep wanting to ask him to speak up, or slap him round the chops.

Photo: Mike Evans -

I therefore try to listen a bit from the balcony, but a few people start chatting around me and pretty soon I decide to just join in and catch up with a few people before heading back next door for…

District 97

… who are making their UK debut, and what a debut it is. The youngest band at the festival by a country mile, their energy and passion are second to none, and it makes me pay attention as soon as they stop soundchecking, announce that they’re just going to go for it, and launch right into ‘Back and Forth’ from their latest album.

Now, I've said a couple of times that I don't generally enjoy the whole genre of "Ooh, see the pretty lady, do not look at the men behind the curtain", and I'm a little bit concerned that D97 might turn out to be one of these bands – but I'm immediately relieved to discover that as well as being a pretty lady, Leslie Hunt is an absolutely amazing vocalist, and with the stage presence and swagger to put her firmly in the ‘Kick-arse Frontwoman’ category instead. Let's just say after hearing her screaming "You can go to hell..." repeatedly at the end of 'Who Cares?', I wouldn't want to piss her off.

Ok, I can go to hell, I get it...

Photo: Mike Evans -

She’s not alone in the band either, as all the players are absolutely mesmerising to watch, from guitarist and second vocalist Jim Tashjian with his tight metal-ish riffs and blistering solos, to drummer Jonathan Schang, who is clearly what Tinyfish's Leon Camfield would have looked like if he could have played drums like he plays now at age 12. Bass player Patrick Mulcahy is rock solid and crunchy throughout, and keyboard whizz Rob Clearfield plays solos like his life (or maybe his plane ticket home) depends on it.

Just when it can’t get any better, they pull out a cover version of King Crimson's ‘Great Deceiver’ which defies all belief, being completely D97-ised, following which they announce that they're on tour in Europe right now with John Wetton himself, and will be playing more Crimson numbers. Beg, borrow, or steal a ticket. Or just buy it, actually.

If I were to have one criticism, it’d be some of their quite obtuse material  – although they're an amazing live band to watch, with infectious energy and joy, I’d trade one or two solos or riffs here and there for a touch more melody – when they do play what Leslie describes as "A little pop song" in the shape of ‘Can’t Take You With Me’ from their debut album, it’s a fresh, tuneful breeze, preparing us for the next prog onslaught. But their very rhythmic and complex approach makes more sense to me now, having just learned that drummer Jonathan is the main writer of the music - and he certainly plays like he means it.

Photo: Mike Evans -

I have to hand it to Leslie though, being able to sing in such a soulful, melodic style over such complex music. It mostly works extremely well – apart from when they finish their stoppy-starty penultimate number and Leslie has to explain that the song actually has really finished now, and that we could perhaps clap now if we felt like it. It’s a confident and assured performance which deserves the praise I hear from everyone I speak to afterwards, and once it’s over there are more goodies to behold on the acoustic stage, but after having been caught out last time and desperately wanting a good spot at the main stage, I decide to go and grab a place at the front for…


... instead. I might have mentioned Frost* and Jem Godfrey once or twice before, so I don’t think you need to hear much from me on this occasion. However, there's always some angle with a Frost* gig which makes it unique. Maybe John Mitchell is stuck in traffic on the motorway and they have to play a setlist which is completely devoid of his guitars or vocals. Or perhaps they've not had any soundcheck and they can't hear themselves onstage. Or maybe they’re filming a DVD and someone forgot to check the sound levels, so the whole thing has to be scrapped.

This time, Jem has become the victim of his own bizarre gardening accident and dropped a concrete trough on his finger, so is playing the set one handed (or at least 9 fingered on a couple of songs, which apparently hurts him more than it hurts us.)

Photo: Mike Evans -

What this means is that there are some nice surprises in the set which rely a little less on Jem's keyboard wizardry, such as the Peter Gabriel sample heavy version of ‘Snowman’ which is performed mostly by Jem's left hand and John Mitchell, as is new song ‘Lanterns’ which goes one better and has Jem and John singing along to what seem to be the new album recordings on his laptop. It's a fine song, and nobody cares that Jem sings his heart out whilst mostly leaning idly on his keyboard.

When the usual big Frost* numbers do come out, they're slightly re-arranged, including an outstandingly exciting electronica-intro to ‘Hyperventilate’, and a jazzy middle section which relies more on John Mitchell since Jem's not really able to do a lot apart from standing about and reading a book about gardening.

Photo: Mike Evans -

Mind you, he proves elsewhere what he can do with his left hand (ooer) by playing some of the solos as a southpaw, showing once again just what a versatile player he is. And yes, alright, the rest of the band are as stonkingly good as usual – including funky and precise bass man Nathan King and Craig ‘Blunderbot’ Blundell on drums outclassing the competition yet again and proving just what can be achieved with an acoustic kit.

The rest of the set consists of stalwarts ‘Falling Down' and 'Dear Dead Days’, B-side ‘Forget You Song’ and the same two new songs which we heard at Christmas, ‘Heartstrings’ and ‘Fathers’, only this time the soundman doesn't have courgettes rammed in his ears so we can hear something other than distorted mush, revealing both tracks to be a nice progression in the band's sound rather than the ‘Pocket Sun'-alikes hinted at last time out.

In fact the sound for the whole set is great, especially (and ironically) since I can actually hear Jem's keys loudly enough for the first time ever at a gig. Top marks to the sound guy, and may your ear canals remain ever free of cucumber-related vegetation.

Photo: Mike Evans -

The now traditional band intros allow us to worship Nathan “Your love is” King and Craig “Blunders style” , along with actual legend in his own lifetime John Mitchell, playing the first of two sets this weekend (he'd get bored otherwise, I assume) – this time greeted not only by the Toreador’s march but also a ’JOHN!’ T-shirt which Jem reveals at the opportune moment.

Fan-favourite ‘Black Light Machine’ closes the main set for the first time that I can remember, and also prompts the appearance of the ‘Big Banana’ (a fan joke based on the ‘Big banana’ riff in the middle of the song) – an inflatable toy which has travelled some 25,000 miles around the globe to be signed by Frost* fans and the odd celeb too, and is presented to Jem just before the song as a get-well soon gift.

"So, um, how many people's germs did you say were on this?"

Photo: Mike Evans -

A short encore of ‘The Other Me’, and they’re away, with the minimum of fuss, nary a bow or curtain call. I do hope Jem's not fed up with the performance, as against all odds, the band is still improving with every gig. Still, he can’t fail to notice that MC Bob thought it was ok, given his use of the word ‘amazing’ precisely 13 times in his "Wasn't that amazing? Give it up amazingly for the amazing Frost*" speech once they've left the stage.

"Now then, now then, ladies and gents, how's about that then, wasn't that amazing?"
Photo: rjforster -

Although Simon Godfrey's "Shineback" album now starts playing over the PA and sounds absolutely immense, the acoustic stage beckons, as Knifeworld are about to play a set, and I've heard great, great things about them. However (and I’m kicking myself now that I've heard their track on the Celebr8.2 CD) – I suddenly notice that there are lots of people around that I'd like to chat and say hello to, so I start on that with the intention of popping along for the end of the set, but then something magical happens.

Over by the Merch Desk, there’s Greg Spawton from Big Big Train, hanging about chatting to Nellie. Regular readers will know I have a running “joke” about him being a great mate of mine despite not actually having met him, so I decide it would be entertaining to actually go up and introduce myself. Well, imagine my surprise when he spots me first. “James!” he says (which, luckily is my name or this would have been a very odd story.) After I've checked behind me to make sure there's nobody else he could be talking to, we shake hands and have a very nice chat indeed. And I'm not just saying that because the first 5 minutes basically consist of him talking to me about this blog and how much he likes it. (although I am perhaps just a little.)

Photo: Nellie.
Neither photographer nor subjects seem particularly at ease with the situation.

But don't worry, I soon repay the compliment with regards to Big Big Train's meteoric progress over the last 4 or 5 albums and quite soon it becomes an embarrassing mutual appreciation society, so we move onto something else and pass a very interesting 15 minutes or so chatting about all sorts of things. None of which I can remember, obviously – it's a bit rude to pull your phone out and start making notes while you're talking to someone (I think.) You should see what this blog would look like if I didn't make notes during gigs – or maybe you'd thank the lord for the merciful brevity of such entries.

Anyway, chatting and buying a copy of the programme which I lugged down to my car this morning by the boxload take up the entire of the time before Threshold, who you really can’t fault – they’re tight, they’re heavy, and Damian Wilson (who I promise I do not have a man crush on) is an amazing vocalist. And he has lovely, lovely hair. Ok, maybe I do have a man crush on him.

Photo: Mike Evans -

Prog metal isn't really my usual cup of tea, but I enjoy the first few tracks until my back, feet and stomach all begin to complain at exactly the same time that I spot some friends popping off for food, so I gatecrash their party and get to check out some Lebanese food for the first time. It's basically a kebab and chips, but I'm certainly not complaining about that. It *is* a really good kebab and chips.

Returning back to the venue, Threshold are just finishing, and I have to choose between going back in to say goodbye to everyone I've met or seen again today, and sloping away quietly back to poor Karin who's stuck looking after her mother this weekend rather than enjoying a fine weekend of music along with me.
I decide slopage is the best option in the long-term, and head back through the rain, simultaneously overjoyed at the great experiences I've had today and gutted that I'm missing tomorrow completely.

Still, you won’t miss out – the “other” James has promised to review Day 2 in great detail… Head on over and check it out (man.) 

We are promised that Celebr8 will return next year (and perhaps in a venue without day-glo cogs on the ceiling), so go and make sure you like and follow them on Facebook and Twitter respectively so you don’t miss out.

Missed the festival this year? Never fear, you can still get the glossy programme complete with 2 excellent CDs containing great and/or rare songs from all this year’s artists from . It’s genuinely a great compilation (and I’m not just saying that because I carried them all down 3 flights of stairs), and making it sell out will ensure the festival can return next year. Dooooo it.

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