There may be no Glastonbury this year, but the UK is hardly wanting for music festivals—there are no less than 390 taking place in 2006. Such fierce competition has led promoters to shake things up. Dance music festivals, for instance, are suddenly less dance-y. Not so long ago, the only guitar you’d see at an event like Lovebox would have been the one Keith from Prodigy was desecrating; now they’re everywhere.
Lovebox is organized by Groove Armada, one of a few electronic outfits that have managed to stay successful in the face of dance music’s post-millennial meltdown. Clearly they know a thing or two about survival, and broadening the music on offer at Lovebox is a smart move.
The festival is held in lovely old Victoria Park, a sprawling oasis of greenery in the middle of London’s careworn east end. I live just around the corner, so I went to last year’s event as well: with its assortment of insipid electronic acts and not-so-superstar DJs, the event was a drab, lifeless affair. This year is a marked improvement, though a cursory look at the line-up suggests it is business as usual. Groove Armada headline the first day (if you can’t headline your own festival, what can you headline?), and Jamiroquai—the band who put the bland into boogie wonderland—holds down the second. But, elsewhere on the bill there is spiky art-rock, self-sampling maniac fop, and raucous gypsy punk.
The first day provides all the usual festival clichés—huge toilet queues, people in ‘wacky’ headgear, and some truly horrible concessions. In addition to the main stage, there are nine tents of music run by various promoters. The site is big, busy, and boiling hot. London is in the grip of a heatwave, so profuse sweating is the order of the day.
I arrive to the sound of “Stairway to Heaven” as played on dueling flamenco guitars. Cult Mexican duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela (two ex metal mavens gone surprisingly soft) are on stage, and they could not be more pleasant. No doubt they are already soundtracking middle-class dinner parties across the land.
Hot Chip, another band I’d expect to hear at such soirees, play to a large late-afternoon crowd. They are this year’s big dance-music success story, its great white hope, and songs like the incessantly fun “Over and Over” seem custom-created for the sunny main stage. They’re colorful and energetic, but there’s an occasional disconnect between the band and audience, as dry, self-deprecating lyrics float over our heads into the hazy ether.
A bad bit of scheduling means that while I’m watching Hot Chip on the main stage, I’m missing Jamie Lidell in one of the tents. I eventually wander over—Bugz in the Attic are due on next. Thankfully, technical problems have so delayed Lidell’s set that, when I arrive, he’s a still a few minutes from starting. I say “thankfully” because Lidell, dressed in a silk smoking jacket and NHS glasses, is an astonishing performer. A one-man science-fiction band, he has the charisma and pipes of a seasoned Motown crooner but the appearance and maniacal zeal of a rabid cartoon lunatic. This strange duality resonates in his music.
Some songs, like the heartfelt “This Time”, are delivered straight and sincere. Others explode. For “When I Come Back Around”, Lidell beatboxes, scats, and wails into his microphone, then pummels the results through a series of samplers and sequencers. In an instant, he has created something frantic, fractured, and wonderful. His vocals soar from the middle of this maelstrom, and the audience swoons. At the end of the show a wired, jittering Lidell is helped into a jacket by his sidekick, the fabulously named Pablo Fiasco, much as a spent James Brown would collapse under a cloak—the difference being that Lidell’s jacket has several meters of industrial fairy lights wrapped around it.
Bugz are cursed by more delays, so the first night ends with a trip across the park to see Jim Noir. Except, he isn’t there. Instead we have the magnificent Hot Club de Paris, an arrow-sharp trio of Liverpudlian art-rockers. They bang out two-minute masterpieces like “Shipwrecked” and banter sarcastically with the crowd. They steam with real attitude, which makes their brief forays into three-part a capella harmonies all the more unlikely, but no less thrilling. “I love your pretty pink wheelchair,” they sing. “I love you paint it by yourself/ and those diamante stars you’ve got/ I love to let you out your room.”
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Sunday starts with the Guillemots, another band whose stock is fast on the rise. Their sumptuous, brass-augmented sound swoops around the site with songs like “Trains to Brazil”—- positively anthemic, in a twee sort of way. Arch-hipster Mark Ronson is next with his soul revue live show. Britney’s “Toxic” and Radiohead’s “Just” are covered enthusiastically, but in a manner more reminiscent of the Commitments than the Meters. MySpace princess Lily Allen is wheeled out for a version of Kaisers Chiefs’ “Oh My God”, but really, it’s more of the same.
Wandering around the park it becomes apparent that a very different crowd has shown up for day two of the festival. Though Lovebox describes itself as a weekender, it is really two day-long concerts, each with a 10:30 pm curfew to appease local residents. This, and the kind of acts that headline, means the event appeals to affluent thirty-something Londoners who used to go raves but, these days, have to be home in time to pay the babysitter. These fine people were here in abundance yesterday, and are here again today, but this time they’re joined by a legion of skinny teens congregated around the Kill All Hippies and Rumbleteaser tents. It’s in the latter, that I see ska-rock urchins the Holloways and calypso hillbillies Larrikin Love perform boisterous, sweat-drenched sets. The two bands are clearly good friends and join each other on stage at various points. This bonhomie reaches all the way in to the crowd.
It is here that things begin to go awry. I see a bit of M Craft, a bit of the Bees, and a bit of Cash Money and DJ Spinna. They’re all just fine, especially the last two, who perform a fantastic tag-team beat juggling routine. I hear a rumor that Jamiroquai have 300 people on their guestlist while I spend an hour queuing for the toilet.
Then I go watch Gogol Bordello, the purveyors of the gypsy speed punk I mentioned in the first paragraph. It sounds better than you could ever imagine. They’re a riot, a tsunami of accordions, fiddles, and high-kicking dancing girls. Frontman Eugene Hutz spends as much time in the crowd as he does on stage, driving the audience into a frenzy. Hutz sings a song extolling the virtues of punk rock and the crowd go even wilder. “If you don’t see no punks in downtown/ you know this town is dying quick/ it’s just no good/ I guarantee you in this town/ you’ll have a problem finding a prostitute!”
I stagger out and hear our old friend Jamiroquai belting out banalities on the main stage. Within half a song I’ve made it to the Faith tent where Chicagoan techno don Theo Parrish is DJ-ing. There’s something magical about the way Parrish loops and builds the music he plays, so I’m surprised to find the tent half empty. I’m told the crowd left after the soundman was forced to turn the sound—and worse for Parrish fans, the bass—down. The tent speakers are set up directly opposite those at the main stage so when Jamiroquai’s set began, down went the volume. For a weekend which pitched the marvelous against the mediocre, it seems an appropriate ending.