Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Days, In Fields

It seems like hardly any time since the first Field Day passed with less of a whimper and more a death rattle, plagued with volume and technical problems and chronic shortage of the necessary facilities for ten thousand-odd people on a baking summers’ day. From my perspective the main failing that first year was the problem with the bars – the weather was gorgeous and all that was needed to make a slightly off day seem much better was cider, something which never materialised thanks to two hour long queues.

Four Tet’s set on the absolutely tiny Homefires stage at the end of the day was, nevertheless, an experience worth waiting for. The best part of a year before the release of his techno-influenced Ringer EP,
Kieran Hebden managed to craft a hypnotic hour, drawing in his own previously released tracks and some unreleased new ones (one of which, an all-encompassing oceanic symphony of fuzz underpinned by a 4/4 kick, has never emerged, at least not the version he was performing that summer – I can always hope it will yet see the light), and taking liberal mixing influence from his own moonlighting as a DJ at James Holden’s Border Community nights. It was a magical end to an otherwise disappointing day and was ultimately the clinching factor in the decision to return last year.

So fast forward a year, redesign the site, fit in a whole lot more people and sell the event out – and suffer from monsoon rains throughout. Across the course of the day the majority of people were heading for the tents in droves leaving fairly meagre crowds for the main stage acts. In the case of Of Montreal they were right to have not bothered – despite Kevin Barnes and company’s best efforts volume restrictions and a high crosswind took all the nuances and high camp out of a set premiering pieces from Skeletal Lamping and the best of Hissing Fauna... Over the course of the next few hours, Modeselektor walked offstage in the Bugged Out tent due to almost total lack of bass and The Field was moved to a painfully short half-hour set on the main stage, which finished only as soon as it had really begun. Once again though, the day was rescued – this time by a staggering turn from Les Savy Fav with Tim Harrington on typically acrobatic, confrontational form, and half an hour of glorious pulsing minimalism from Richie Hawtin before being forcibly dragged away by friends.

And so to 2009, in an incredibly unusual British summertime twist the rain is forecast to come down in droves, and Sian Alice Group are opening proceedings on the Adventures In The Beetroot Field stage. First encountered at ATP in May, their debut album 59.59 has been a recent slow burning discovery, one of those records which gradually sinks under the skin and only really begins to reveal its hidden subtleties over numerous listens. Unfortunately, due to mobile phone issues, I manage to do a good job of missing three quarters of their set on the hunt for a missing friend. The launch gig for the new record, Trouble, Shaken Etc, which looks set to be even better than the first, is happening on Thursday at Hoxton Square Bar & Grill - attendance is thoroughly recommended.

After Final Fantasy’s spellbinding performance at the Union Chapel in May it is unreasonable and unnecessary to expect today’s to reach the same sort of heights; on such a large stage it is almost inevitable to lost much of the complexity inherent in Owen Pallett’s carefully layered symphonies. Yet surprisingly the main stage sound holds up well from a vantage point near the front and Pallett is on charmingly self-depreciating form, apologising for playing a set weighted so heavily with new material. Still, when the songs are this good it barely matters – many pivoting around stammering polyrhythms and Phillip Glass/Steve Reich inspired spiraling minimalism to add a hypnotic undercurrent bubbling underneath deft pop songwriting. He finishes with ‘The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead’, poignant and sweetly melancholy in the light drizzle, and everything is right for three minutes.

Suffice to say the forecast is right, the heavens open repeatedly over the course of the afternoon and low volume in the Bugged Out tent ensures Fake Blood sounds a little strained over the voices of a thousand extremely talkative hipsters sheltering from the rain. By way of contrast, Christian Fennesz’s softly building choral drones should not work in these conditions (six o’clock on the main stage with intermittent heavy showers) but are utterly captivating, at least from reasonably close by where it remains loud enough to be immersive. Whilst not the most visually engaging performer, it matters little – although the disrespect from the sound techs, busy setting up the equipment for Santigold around him, is frustrating – layers of hiss ebb and flow to almost deafening crescendos, occasionally broken by starkly affecting strummed guitar, itself looped and broken into fractal shards, a measured disintegration to usher in the next build. Yet listen closer and buried deep within this outer shell of feedback are hulking slabs of tectonic melody, grinding against one another to generate seismic eddy currents which ripple forth and tear great holes in its surface. Half an hour disappears in an instant.

After only managing to watch two acts the rain arrives, in full force this time, managing to cause a significant amount of hell for the technicians attempting to get the main stage working properly. Much to my disappointment, due to the damp and a swine flu recovery in our midst the tough choice is made to miss Mogwai and head home for warmth, tea and bed. Yet despite the same sort of problems as ever – sound restrictions, overcrowding in tents and a sea of ‘fans’ who seem to think that whatever they’ve got to say is far more important than listening to the acts they paid to come and see – I leave feeling oddly hopeful for next year. If global warming hasn’t entirely put paid to the concept of a dry weekend by then it may just manage to achieve all it promises to.

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