06 July 2008

The Last of the Famous International Playboys

Wireless Festival
Hyde Park
4 July 2008

On a bright and sunny American Independence Day I met up with Former Flatmate Al to attend the second day of the four-day Wireless Festival, which sprawled across a sizeable chunk of the eastern reaches of the park. As we walked from Hyde Park Corner northwards parallel to Park Lane in the early afternoon we could see that the venue was already lively, with some of the lesser-known acts starting at 3pm. The organisers had pulled together a huge line-up of performers, and each day of the festival was tailored to a particular audience - Thursday was clubby and chic, with Jay-Z and Mark Ronson headlining; Saturday was dominated by the house beats of Fatboy Slim and Underworld; and Sunday had a share of MOR rock with Counting Crows (they're still alive?) and Ben Harper. But it was the Friday line-up that drew our attention, and the indie crowd flocked to pay homage to the headliners, Morrissey and Beck.

The Wireless Festival is unashamedly corporate. There, I've said it. I don't have a particular problem with that though, as long as the hard-sell isn't wheeled out - after all, rock promoters have to make a profit to stay in the business, and sponsors are important. While the Wireless is sponsored by a mobile network and included one stage named after a manufacturer of USB data storage accessories (rock 'n roll, dude!), this doesn't affect the quality of the performances. Or perhaps it does? Because in the newspaper that morning there was a brief report of an overheard mobile conversation:

If Carl Barat's band Dirty Pretty Things aren't up to snuff when they perform at the O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park tonight, blame their bass player, Didz. 'I saw him on Chalk Farm Road opposite the Roundhouse last night, chatting away on his mobile,' reports a reader. 'He was complaining that he had been having guitar problems and moaned about being fed up with Carl Barat, though he didn't say why. He also said he couldn't be arsed rehearsing at the moment, but it didn't matter because "it's only the Wireless" (Source: Independent, 4 July 2008)

Indiscreet bassists aside, the Wireless was a great chance to see some quality acts and enjoy the sunshine and the warm evening that followed.

Our first act was the young Florida band, Black Kids, who I'd seen performing live on Jools Holland's show. They impressed with their indie pop verve and benefited from the harmonies on offer from their two girl members. A bit hard to take good pictures in a dark tent from about 50 metres away, but there's always the big screens alongside the stage, although the idea of going to a big gig and then watching it on TV has always struck me as a little counter-productive.

Wandering back to the main performance area we passed a crew of acrobats wearing spring-leg boots, leaping about on a trampoline stage and doing multiple backflips. Could be a good way of commuting, although I imagine the stopping distance might leave a little to be desired.

On the main stage the English band Guillemots, who are named after a seabird, delivered a set of their artful rock. The main focus of the group is the improbably-named performers Fyfe Dangerfield on guitar and piano, and Aristazabal Hawkes, who sings, plays a mean double bass, and looks superb at all times.

Next up there was a great opportunity to get up close to the rising New Zealand solo star, Liam Finn, eldest son of the great Neil Finn. I'd seen a teenaged Liam playing at the Albert Hall as part of his father's backing band on the Try Whistling This tour in 1999, and last year I saw him at Indigo2 in the Dome when he played with Crowded House on their UK tour. But now he's released his first solo album, I'll Be Lightning, which has been out in New Zealand for a few months and will be released here in the UK shortly. While he's been tipped as one to watch in the UK press, he doesn't have a big following yet, so we were able to take up a position five metres from the stage for a close up view.

Accompanied by talented Australian singer Eliza-Jane Barnes (daughter of rocker Jimmy Barnes) on backing vocals, percussion and autoharp, Liam made up for the lack of a full band by playing both lead guitar and drums. For several of the songs he performed he started playing the electric guitar until the bridge, when he set up a guitar loop and ran over to the drumkit for some Animal-from-the-Muppets pyrotechnics (see video below). I've always found drum solos to be entertaining yet faintly silly, but Liam is a deft hand and the drum-pummelling really got the crowd going. The half-hour set was rounded out with one of these solos, with Barnes crouched over a theremin like Jimmy Hendrix, generating a sci-fi noise-fest. The tent was full and Liam had won over a healthy crowd of Londoners with his energetic and talented performance.

Heading back outside, we caught a few songs by the popular English guitar band The Wombats, including their top 20 hit, Let's Dance To Joy Division. Sorry though, Wombats - you sound fine, but you have a silly band name and your logo looks rather too much like a pig.

After that short interlude, there was time to see a little of Siouxsie Sioux's performance in another big tent. This was jammed full of punters keen to view a punk legend in the flesh, and for a woman of 51 she scrubs up very well in a figure-hugging silver lycra number. The former lead singer of Siouxsie & The Banshees has had 18 top 40 UK hits over the 17-year period from 1978 to 1995, the two most prominent of which were Hong Kong Garden (#7 in August 1978) and a cover of the Beatles' Dear Prudence (#3 in October 1983). She went solo in 2004, and while I admit I don't know much of her work, it was great to see such a classy performer still pulling a big crowd after 30 years in the spotlight.

As the day turned to dusk, the evening's second billing emerged on the main stage - Beck, purveyor of quality slacker-rock since 1994, when his single Loser ('Soy un perdedor / I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?') brought him considerable fame, particularly in America, where it achieved similar zeitgeist-encompassing ubiquity to Radiohead's later-disowned single Creep ('But I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo / What the hell am I doing here? I don't belong here').

His follow-up album, Odelay, spawned a clutch of funky slide-guitar space-cadet singles like Where It's At, Devil's Haircut, and the superb New Pollution, but in the years afterwards the muse took Beck in different, less commercial directions. His album releases were always greeted with interest though, and there was some fine work amongst them, including the moody, introspective break-up album Sea Change, and the return-to-form Guero.

His live performance at the Wireless showcased all of the popular old material, but also relied heavily on songs from his 2008 album, Modern Guilt, which was not well known by the lively crowd. While his performance was technically of a high quality, and his backing band played a good set, Beck's appearance at the Wireless was somewhat undermined by his wooden stage presence and minimal interaction with the audience. It was a workmanlike but not inspired performance, but it was still enjoyable to hear the early singles and the great track Girl from Guero performed live.

As an interlude before the final act of the night we wandered over to see another hugely influential act, the New York Dolls. Harbingers of both the glam rock and punk movements in the early 70s with their outrageous hookerish outfits and makeup, the Dolls introduced a great sense of theatre and danger into short snappy rock songs. Lead singer David Johansen, who briefly dallied with the charts as ironic solo artist Buster Poindexter, is a natural rock frontman. The Dolls' cover of Janis Joplin's Piece Of My Heart was a crowd-pleaser and ensured that the performance tent was standing room only throughout their set.

One major fan of the New York Dolls then took to the main stage with top billing. Steven Patrick Morrissey, the crowd is yours! A great number of chaps had already declared their affiliations that morning by donning Smiths t-shirts, in strict contravention of the Cool Rule that states that thou shalt not wear a band t-shirt to a gig if there's a connection to the performers.

Morrissey has been a solo artist for more than 20 years now, and has scored a massive 32 top 40 singles in that time, but the years he spent with Johnny Marr in the Smiths are still a powerful lure for concert-goers keen to cavort to the tunes of an indie legend.

He strode on in a Playboy t-shirt to perform the opening track, 1989's Last Of The Famous International Playboys, and was soon pronouncing archly on last week's investiture ceremony in which Kylie Minogue was awarded an OBE, claiming disingenuously that she thoroughly deserved the honour. To underscore his point, he then donned an ironic American Idol t-shirt.

His voice is still in top form despite years of performing, and he seemed to relish the spotlight more than ever. In a set peppered with crowd-pleasing Smiths numbers here and there, it was the solo material that really stood out, with the cracking 2004 single Irish Blood, English Heart raising the pace and the fantastic Marr-esque guitar loops of 1988's Suedehead getting the whole crowd jumping. Closing his performance by throwing his sweat-soaked shirt into the baying crowd, Morrissey capped off an excellent day's entertainment and showed that there's still plenty of life left in his career yet.

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