26th-28th August - Rhythm Festival 2012 Live Review @ Old Warden Park (Bedfordshire)
Photos: Simon Godley link
Johnny Cash once invited us all to get rhythm. Yet despite the festival of the same name having moved some 12 miles south east this year to the beautiful surroundings of the Old Warden Park in Bedfordshire and what appears to have been a far more vigorous and extensive national publicity campaign, judging by the numbers present there are thousands who do not. And of those who did attend, if the festival website's forum pages are anything to go by, many don't seem to have much enjoyed the experience. These mealy-mouthed, moaning miserabilists bellyaching about anything and everything from the weather to the state of the latrines and the texture of the tuna baguettes seem to have forgotten that this is, in fact, England; that it was, after all, the August Bank Holiday weekend; and that this was actually a music festival.
Now in its sixth year the Rhythm Festival's key element has always been the music. The bill can no longer attract such names as Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner and Jimmy Page (even if the two latter-named failed to show for the inaugural event and in Mr Turner's case, if memory serves me well, for the next one too), but there is still much to enjoy this year especially if your musical tastes lean towards punk, post-punk and rhythm and blues. OK, some of it veers dangerously towards the end of the pier (Toots and the Maytals). Some of it even belongs in another era altogether (Curved Air). Some of it survives without any assistance whatsoever from the men who gave the bands their name (Ronnie Lane and Ian Dury). And some of it even narrowly avoids the tag of tribute band by virtue of having just one surviving original member (The Animals). But some of it is a joy to behold, life affirming in its execution and, just occasionally, absolutely spellbinding.
Take Nick Lowe, for example, a man who defies style and convention, primarily because he has written some truly magnificent songs that can transcend time itself. His set was tragically shaved to three quarters of an hour because of earlier sound check problems, but he still packed more into those 45 minutes than most people do in a lifetime. "Cruel to Be Kind" sounded just as fresh as the day it was written. Pete Shelley, unlike Basher, is a man who looks as if he has been living on a staple diet of pies and mash for the past thirty odd years. Nonetheless he and his fellow original Buzzcock Steve Diggle manage to roll back the years, again with the assistance of a back catalogue of perfectly crafted, killer pop tunes and with a collective smile on their face. Under leaden skies, Hazel O'Connor, of a similar vintage and for whom the passing of time has been noticeably kinder, infuses her early Friday evening graveyard slot and the entire "Breaking Glass" album with energy, passion and a still remarkably strong voice. Claire Hirst's saxophone solo on "Will You?" further brightens the gloom. Jack Bruce fills the same berth on Saturday. He chooses to open his set with "Sunshine of Your Love" whilst sporting a pair of aviator shades and with the rain pouring down. He may be bloody-minded and look every single one of his 68 years but sympathetically supported by the Norman Beaker Band his talent, like the early evening sun eventually begins to shine through. By the time he gets to Booker T and William Bell's "Born under a Bad Sign" and Cream's "White Room" the eyewear is off and he is very much taking care of business.
But it is not all about old has-beens and those who quite never were. The 23 year old Californian CoConi, whose theatrical performance and ethereal sound is at odds with all around her but who wins over the small Friday evening crowd at The Le Mesurier Stage with sheer spirit and perseverance. And then there is Saturday's headliner Imelda May, who despite appearing to drive her rockabilly vehicle for long periods with the handbrake on goes down a treat. "Big Bad Handsome Man" stands head and shoulders over the rest. And Sandi Thom is something of a revelation with her gutsy take on "House of the Rising Sun ", even overshadowing The Animal's version some twenty four hours later. But the highlight of the weekend has to be Terry Reid's set early on Sunday evening. The man who would have been king and whose life ending up being Robert Plant's (after famously turning down the gig as Led Zeppelin's singer), does not seem to harbour any regrets and still continues to go his own sweet way as this occasionally shambolic set shows. Songs take sudden and dramatic detours and bum notes on his vintage Gibson are abound. Yet there is a painful honesty and vulnerability about his performance and during both Marty Robbins' "The Bend in the River" and the ensuing "Raging Storm" in particular he releases the shackles from that mighty, wondrous voice of his and you wonder quite why this man is not one of the biggest stars in rock's firmament.
In what may be one last-ditch desperate attempt to break even on their Rhythm adventure, the organisers intend to promote a three festivals in one package at the Old Warden Park next year. They promise us Blues, Americana and Rockin' Rhythm across three main arenas. It may be an experiment that doesn't work, and plenty of the aforementioned forumites have already taken a view on this. However, if this year and the previous five are anything to go by it should still be pretty damn good and should be a date you are already putting on the 2012 calendar.