It is quiet in Butterley’s Golden Valley Caravan and Camping Park on a blue-skied Saturday morning. The silence as we wake inside tents is slowly broken by humming birds, crickets, and the sound of a cooked breakfast being fried from afar. The Indietracks site in Butterley, near the old town of Ripley in the Derbyshire countryside, is beautifully spaced-out. The Golden Valley site, where the majority of Indietracks people are camping for the two nights of the festival, features duck ponds, swans, gardens (with a variety of blossoming bushes), and a picturesque, winding country road that leads into a quaint and charming steam railway station.
26 Jul 2008: Midland Railway Butterley, Derbyshire, England
The music begins in earnest when Silence at Sea’s delicate folk-pop is enhanced by the visual treat of a man in a giant cat suit walking earnestly across the main locomotive shed stage with his acoustic guitar. It’s an Alice in Wonderland moment, but the rhythm the giant cat injects into his band is of more earthly beauty. Silence at Sea are where Talulah Gosh meets Rimbaud, a band of slow folk grace with the magic of pop poetry playing at its lips. Accordion floats over the sweetest melodica melodies, and the lyrical bent reaches its height when singer Laura sings the beautiful line, “The greatest thing that the singer sings is that love lost lingers between her fingers.” It’s these quintessential, beautiful pop moments that Silence at Sea excels in. The opening lines of “DeadCowboyTown” (“Young lovers like gun runners”), which captures a Jean-Luc Godard / Bonnie and Clyde-esque romanticism; the typewriter rhythms of “Typewriter Song”; the radio-waves that run alongside Laura’s plaintive vocals at her not-quite rhyming cue of “My signal in the noise / You told me / I had a choice”; and the canned laughter that pops up alongside the slapstick “Banjo Song” (“Did she have nice teeth? / Did she have nice eyes? / ‘Cause I bet she’s ugly and I hope she dies”). Silence at Sea are a band to treasure. It’s the intelligence of the poet and the writer preserved in pure pop wonder, and it makes the heart miss beats.
Silence at Sea were such a show-stopping act so early on at the festival that it’s a little dififcult to decide who to see next. The sun is baking outside so, after a short deliberation, it’s a walk around; a browse through the retro sweets included at the hot dog stall; a first ale of the day at the stationary rail carriage bar that sits nearby; and then to the outdoor stage, where a country-inflected noise hovers like nectar.
Slow Down Tallahassee are a sultry Southern dream in the sun. Fronted by two immaculately pouting ladies, one with guitar, the other with keyboards, their lipstick running in a straight line through them. And even if it’s just too hot to lie here and listen with maximum attention, the surface noise that emanates is enough to suggest there’s more to be found beneath the beatific sun-drenched caresses of now.
Shrag take to the stage looking like indie heroes wired to the stars. This is not a fleeting, general impression of Shrag either, as they sound like this as well—indie heroes wired to stars—a pulsing, cut-glass cool sound shimmering from them and reverberating around the shed to a backdrop of drooling from the indie faithful. Shrag really are a stylish and good-looking band, and tracks like “Pregnancy Scene”, an ode to not becoming part of it, are glamorously irresistible.
Outside, the Butterley station sprawls in the sun like a hazy dream, a Thomas the Tank Engine cartoon in real time, but a recommendation to see the “Belle and Sebastian with balls” sees us scurrying through it to the site’s prized stage for the first time (via the first stop at a red light I’ve ever experienced at a music festival… the gates come down at the crossing for a train to come past, delaying us somewhat). The railwaymens’ church is a stunning little thing, shining a pristine dark purple in the sun. Playing inside, The Just Joans are indeed akin to “Belle and Sebastian with balls”, their female singer singing with balls aplenty, belting out fulsome, wistful, dreamy and witty lines coupled with asides from her male co-singer’s comical and intelligent verses. It’s an absolute treat, and the crowd is hooked on their every lyrical and musical ebb. At times The Just Joans are like a ‘60s girl group (with boys) busking on the streets of Glasgow; cute, sharp as tacks, and musically fantastic. Beautiful songs and evocative lines just keep coming (“Dolly Mixture home-made T-shirt / Woody Allen six-disk box-set / Marks and Spencers V-neck jumper / Any chance I can get your number?”…“NHS prescription glasses / Glasgow art school evening classes / Murakami first edition / Any chance we could do some kissing?” from “Hey Boy, You’re Oh So Sensitive” being particular favorites), and “Walk Home On Your Own”, the track that they end with after winning our hearts, is a million indie crushes, daydreams, and heartbreaks squeezed into the sweetest of pop songs.
There’s no let up in the warm weather and Red Pony Clock treat us to a set of skewed summer bliss. There’s a tinge of the Beach Boys to Red Pony Clock alongside hints of New Orleans jazz, and as their songs roll out with more and more festivity, the big truck they’re playing atop of that comprises the outside stage begins to resemble a Mexican beach hut. Red Pony Clock really are a jazz-pop dream encapsulating all the magic and festivity of two fantastic genres.
We escape to the railwaymens’ church again to be met by the most terrible of surprises… Darren Hayman, the undisputed king of indiepop and Indietracks, is on now, even though it’s an hour earlier than his official set time. It’s a bit of a dilemma to say the least. Strains of “Caravan Song” float out from the holy church, but there’s not much chance of us getting in there, as it’s packed out. We wait though, with the patience of Aurobindo disciples, and eventually get our reward—a side door opening like a miracle to let us into a pew to see the second half of the set. Hayman’s dog sleeps fast behind him on stage, and the wait to get in is more than worth it. As always, Hayman brims with romantic lyrical magic, and he treats us effortlessly to songs old and new that hang our hearts from chandeliers. “Painting and Kissing”, with its rolling guitar crescendo and quintessentially lustful Hayman poetry, has the whole place euphorically dancing, as does the classic Hefner ballad “Good Fruit”.
After the revelation of Hayman, it’s back to the outside stage for The Kabeedies. Lead Kabeedie Katie has a feline quality about her, and her boyfriends are sharp as tacks. When it kicks off, we drool in the fashion of Darren Hayman’s dog. Katie’s stage-manner reminds me a little of Life Without Buildings’ Sue Tompkins, it’s like she’s plugged in electronically to the band’s sound, and honestly, these Kabeedies tracks are so stylish, compelling, and intelligent that they’ll drive you crazy; whirling indie nuggets that set us alight. Guitar lines fly in a dual assault from left and right stage, Katie sings and dances with a brilliant absorption, and as the band depart I half expect to see burn marks left where they’ve been standing.
Day two of Indietracks begins again with the chirping of crickets, the cooing of woodpigeons, and the pecking of woodypeckers. (In the name of anti-twee, I’m tempted for a moment to pick one off with a pea-shooter.) The Just Joans are camping next to us and have been treating us to live music since six in the morning, but when I go across with my baseball bat, they’re so nice that I end up buying a CD for £3. It’s the magic of Indietracks.
Late last night, here at the campsite, we were treated to an exclusive Jimmy (Bobby McGee’s) gig, which is always something. Songs like “Love Song for Kylie” and “A Dog at All Things” (five dogs go walking in the Welsh hills, four meet ghastly fates and only one comes home) happily float about our heads and make the walk up the country road to the steam railway site that much more amusing.
At the end of the country road, the Butterley station is just coming to life, and the first band on at the locomotive shed, The Colliding Lemons, are a morning delight for sure. There’s something charming about the Lemon’s lead singer beyond her sultry looks (she’s a sight for sore eyes at this early hour, a lithe, brunette stunner in a pink dress), and also something charming about their music, which is a sweetly quaint ‘80s indie confection. We stand here absent-mindedly picking off Alphabet sweets for a bit, and while we secretly long for the kick that’s going to make us fall in love, when we come round, half an hour seems to have drifted by like nothing. A touch of corrosiveness here, a chip on the shoulder there, and an Indelicates record or two in the pocket, and next year The Lemons could be capturing hearts.
The outdoor stage basks again in glorious sun, The Foster Kids are on next, and beyond their lead-guitarist’s maniacal self-put-downs, they have a touch of glamour and otherness that captures the imagination. The Foster Kids’ female vocalist has a touch of noir about her, a touch of the femme fatale, a bit like a less-wasted indie Amy Winehouse if you like, and her voice is really something; relaxed, laconic, and natural over lyrics that are sometimes a bit awkward, a bit verbose. At their best though, The Foster Kids evoke a kind of indiepop Black Box Recorder, and that, of course, is some fantastic thing.
Back at the locomotive shed, Kate Goes, dressed in stone-age gear, is harder edged than the last time I saw them in Cardiff. The Kate Goes twee-ometer is relatively low today, there are no cartoon characters on Kate’s shirt for instance, as there were in Cardiff, and the band are so much better for it. Kate’s Kimya Dawson-esque wordsmithery combines with avant garde-ish melodies to make our heads spin in summer madness, and it’s a grandly surreal thing.
Spreading a whole lot of informed indiepop happiness and magic, The Smittens start with a scuba-diving twirl from the giant, baritone-voiced keyboardist at their helm, then the melodies come in via stunning summery rays. The Smittens are an all-action band that play their starry indiepop with bundles of emotion and affection, and a dollop of outsider poetry, and by the end of their whirlwind set we’re all part of the same brilliant adrenalin rush.
There’s been a mix up in times after a delay to the start of today’s affairs on the outside stage, but a hot tip takes us into the acoustic tent by the outside stage, where Little My throw a party gig that shimmers with smiles and melodies. Kazoos, melodicas, and handclaps go off with easy festivity, the dual vocals of lead singer Nicola and Silence at Sea’s Laura play about the top of it in crazily sweet harmony, while Silence at Sea’s Gareth (sans cat suit) injects a now-trademark brilliant spurt of rhythm guitar to propel it beyond the merely twee. There’s a satisfying compositional edge that makes Little My the fascination they are, melodies fly all over the place, bouncing off the walls and back through the band, and they send us back out into the sun with a further skip in the step.
It’s a short walk to the outside stage, and the crowd here buzzes in anticipation for Dave Tattersall’s The Wave Pictures. Even Darren Hayman’s dog is here, waiting with the patience and curiosity of Krishnamurti. Then it starts, and The Wave Pictures take us to painterly indie moons. Tattersall’s lyrics are brilliantly evocative and satisfyingly literary, and his guitar playing is something else; starry, emotional and wonderful. There’s hints of Jonathan Richman, hints of Darren Hayman and Hefner of course, and hints of Ritchie Valens’ rock ‘n’ roll. Huge anthems like “I Love You Like a Madman”, “Kiss Me”, and “Leave the Scene Behind” leave us pumped with poetry and shimmering, shimmering music. It’s robust, subtle, sensitive, and brilliant all at once, and we even get Hayman joining in joyously on rhythm guitar at the end.
The look on the stagehand’s faces as The Deirdres walk onstage with an ironing board is one to behold, and the next half hour is split between watching them and Esiotrot in the railwaymens’ church. The Deirdres are the smiliest band on the planet, playing songs with a sheer DIY pop mischief and ingenuity you just have to love. A big hometown crowd has gathered for them, and a real party atmosphere prevails. At the church, Esiotrot play a set of shambling poetic indie brilliance reminiscent of Hefner with a horn section.
A train is leaving the Indietracks station for the final time this year, and we still haven’t been on one to see what it’s like, there’s just been too much going on on-site to commit to leaving for an hour, and you know what it’s like, if we get on one we’d just be pulling off as someone good starts playing a secret gig on the platform. Outside the railwaymens’ church a Scottish man in dungarees prowls the grass area with glitter in his beard, and it can only mean one thing, it’s soon to be time for The Bobby McGee’s.
Jimmy McGee has changed quickly into an immaculate, elaborate, shiny joker’s outfit. El, his immaculate accomplice, is resplendent in quaint ‘60s second-hand chic, and they play off each other like a barbed romantic dream. The church is full to the brim, and the McGee’s are on top form. The Bobby McGee’s draw on the most tender tensions of the best love story you’ve ever heard in songs that shut you in and lock the doors. Blinding banjo, ukulele, sax, and bass nuggets ooze indie romance, and are archly contrasted by the torrents of crowd abuse and mock-bravado that make up the Jimmy persona. “Albert Camus/Audrey Tattou”, with its references to outsider love and French cinema, is just beautiful and immense, while “Bambi Eyes” is outlandishly lyrical and affectionate. Jimmy pours cold water over a lovely solo song by El by announcing “right, ciggarette break over” immediately after it ends, and they go at each other in “Morrisey Said to Tori” (with its joint refrain of, “Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself NOW!”), with disturbing lustre. It’s religious experience number two, or sacrilegious experience number one, in the railwaymens’ church.
A triumphant Jimmy and El are down at the front for Ballboy half an hour later at the outdoor stage, giving it some frenzied dancing as Darren Hayman, his dog, and everyone else at Indietracks looks on. And Ballboy are on form, their huge songs pulsing away with rhythmic wonder as singer Gordon McIntyre weaves his terrific outsider-dreamer narratives. The sound itself is poetry in motion, especially the way the keyboard rises so beautifully in all of the fissures, and the whole meaty combination is essence of indie heroism that makes the hairs stand on end.
Los Campesinos! round off the festival at the locomotive shed with a set that catches fire with swirling anthems such as “You! Me! Dancing!” and “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks”. And then we all begin to shuffle off in various directions. For us, a ‘60s disco back at the acoustic tent is a perfect way to end it all. For others, the Moogie Wonderland disco in the indiepop shed awaits. In a short while, Butterley station will cast its indie visitors back out into the wilderness for another year. And I swear, on leaving, I hear Oswald the talking engine whistling the chorus from “Talulah Gosh”.
// Notes from the Road
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