If focusing on the small is no bad thing (and we here at BandWagon certainly don’t think it is), then Hop Farm festival in Kent would appear to be the mini-festival fans dream. There’s just enough stuff to be going on for it to not feel like a travelling fair, and yet not so much that you get lost amidst swathes of dreadlocked mud-men who parade at the larger festivals. That said, after a rousing headline set it would’ve been nice for there to be something on offer something for those looking to dance a while longer. Without that option, there was either the sleepy acoustic camp or the at times bizarre, at times brilliant bloodbath of the comedy tent.
Sandwiched in between all of that though, was some excellent music. George Clinton perhaps suffered from being on early at a festival in the ‘just filling up’ phase. A few hours or so later, and he would of have had a much larger crowd that his infectious P-funk deserved. So it was then that I Am Kloot stole the plaudits for the first day’s proceedings. Shuffling out with no straps on their guitars, they wove together serenades with aplomb, showing talent and a love and dedication to their sound which was a pleasure to watch. They enjoyed it, and so we enjoyed it, and could all get on with the business of not watching Ray Davies. Which we had just escaped from doing. And alright, so Ray went for it. Alright, so he played all the hits (of The Kinks, that is). And, yes, alright, he was having a whale of a time. But Ray’s voice just isn’t up to it, and to close your eyes during his set was a disappointing experience.
Elsewhere the Future Heads gave a tight and polished performance with an excellent live sound, which was especially effective during a bold but unsophisticated bout of audience sing-a-long on ‘Hounds of Love’. However, they did lack bite, somehow missing that killer something and thus preventing them from being a take-home band of a festival. Ligers were the only band I saw of Friday’s contribution from the pleasingly makeshift Powers Bar, a stage which gave the feeling of a pub room gig at a festival. Add to this a jaunty blend of surf rock with a hillbilly skiffle, and all driven along by a funky Fender-designed bass line, and it all made for a perfect set, save perhaps their one glaring mistake. They played a slow one. Don’t bother. The set was flying along nicely, and everyone there was enjoying a very accomplished set. People were here to have fun, and even Liger’s die hard group of dancing admirers were forced to sway awkwardly, willing to cheer and move on to the next track.
Peter Gabriel’s Friday night headline show couldn’t have been more different. It was totally stellar, and the sight of the New Blood Orchestra was magnificent, and given extra gravitas when drenched in the immersive visuals on the big screens. The sun disappeared, the grandiosity grew, and the audience were right with him too, but as it all drew to a close the show veered off somehow into pomp. And so despite a great performance, just when you sensed the audience wanted a big close to the Friday night, we were instead served up something akin to a Disney-esque schmaltz fest.
Saturday started much more promisingly with Jean Genie’s MaSsIvE Hugs, and Chris’ pick of the festival, Race Horses. You think you know what you’re going to get, with Race Horses: Synths and a front guy who seems a bit like Morrissey. But alongside plenty of 80’s electro, they also navigate through dance, rock ‘n’ roll and some damned excellent indie pop music. What is most exciting about them is their mastery of these variations, granting each song its own personal sound and all the while performing with flair. We also caught Brucie (yes, that’s right as in Forsyth) on the way to Race Horses, and were temporarily mesmerised by the antiqued charm of seeing a triple threat entertainer (he can dance! He can sing! He can…do another thing!) performing in the old vein. Only temporarily though.
Elsewhere Slow Club played an extremely competent set, and their haunting yet uplifting sounds filled the Big Tent to the enjoyment of the gathered audience. But it felt like this audience was looking for something to grab onto and really get into, leaving you feeling that they’d have fared main stage. And that was where I found Joan Armatrading, her new work shining alongside re-workings of some old numbers, and giving a near faultless performance in the afternoon sun to a carefree crowd. On the Power’s Bar The Midnight Barbers were playing Lo-Fi to its most broken, sporadic and discordant best. Basically, imagine if Two Gallants met Captain Beefheart and decided to form a Death From Above 1979 tribute band. They’ve got great songs, endless enrapturing energy, and the personality that every two-piece needs if they’re going to fill a stage. The Joker & the Thief (Dylan excitement levels building) then gave us a sound that was full, unique, and disarming. You cannot help but watch. There are bold, defiant drums and a brass element that seems to tell a story all to itself, and shows how far off the mark bands like The Mars Volta have become.
After that Maximo Park were exactly what the Saturday night needed, a proper jump-around to a brilliant set. Thankfully, their new stuff is not all slow, and the title track of the album ‘National Health’ showed that Maximo can still play a blinder of a multi-parted track. They suffered from terrible sound problems so it wasn’t until about 15 minutes in that we heard the full set-up, and were a couple of ballad-y verses in there, but crowd and singer loved every second.
Patti Smith had everyone jumping as the sun went down before Dylan, in that inscrutable way, both defined and redefined the festival. Enough has been written about the man, about this performance. Suffice to say that the crowd, like Dylan himself, were constantly grinning – sometimes in bemusement, mostly in joy- and it was a euphoric sing-a-long ending to Saturday’s proceedings.
Sunday started early with the very talented and earnest Maia. My first instinct is to say that Maia were a playful band, but on reflection that would ignore the obvious fact that it was all so deliberately precise. There were many disparate styles, all thrown into a set that included breakout rock’n’roll and succinct three-part vocal harmonies. The perfect light soothing of heavy creativity. The Tallest Man on Earth gave perhaps the most breathtaking performance of the festival, and with a new album out which for the first time includes other musicians, it might be wise to catch him now before the kind of raw, spellbinding sets that I saw yesterday become a thing of the past. He sings every song like he’s just thought of it there and then. Incredible.
Plastiq give a very engaging performance through some very impressive gear changes and a set that really showed off their versatility. Even their slowest moments built into something impressive, although at times it felt like they could be making more of their own mark on the styles they were tackling (one track was too Muse-like not to mention). Nevertheless, when I heard one person say they were ‘awesomely fun’ I had to concede they were. Really fun, shot through with a great rolling rhythm.
One last swoop by the Power’s Bar, where according to their singer, Washington Irving had just been some 9 hours in a van having come not only from a festival in Scotland but from a drunken night before. There were no signs of lagging in this performance, and they held their normally-sitting-now-standing Power’s Bar audience in bobbing enrapture. Especially impressive was the raw-edge beauty to the vocals. There was plenty going on in all of the numbers in this set, both musically and lyrically, and so even when they were at their most still you could not help but watch them. It struck me that they’d cracked the key to keeping the most poetic and poignant verses as part of the rousing refrains, namely by running a galloping drum pulse right through the centre of them. It worked, and while I found myself wanting them to start to be a bit more startling and off-footing it was nonetheless a headbanging-ly, cheering-ly good gig.
Kool and the Gang is where the festival finished for us (we had to rush home to make sure the BandWagon’s wheels were still being oiled in our absence), and what a way to go. An uplifting a finish to a triumphant festival that is sure to go from strength to strength. Because small festivals, like small bands are great. And although we sometimes jealously guard them and don’t want them to get bigger because they’re ours all ours, we know that in the long run it’s usually better for them, and better for us too. And if Hop Farm does grow (which it should), perhaps with another area or two and a few more late night options, there should be no stopping it.
Robert Neumark-Jones, Christopher Birks, Maria Hayden