Truck Festival 2012
Photos by Meg Jenkins
Bearing in mind Truck's legendary status among the more discerning of British festival-goers, my previous non-attendance of said event, and this year's exemplary line-up, I nearly shat kittens at the news that I was being sent to attend Steventon's chief exponent of that lets-all-watch-bands-in-a-field malarkey we seem to go nuts for every summer. This is Truck's first year since the founding Bennett brothers (still playing in The Dreaming Spires, who graced the 2nd Stage with their presence on Friday evening) stepped down from management, to be replaced by the team in charge of Derbyshire-based Y-Not Festival. Sat on a haybale and chatting to an old friend and Truck veteran, I'm told that the festival has been scaled down somewhat this year. It's true that devotees of, say, Latitude's polished wackiness or Reading's filth-encrusted, commercialised hedonism might feel a touch deprived of the decadence and sensory overload that a larger festival can provide. For me though, Truck's scale is just another of its strengths. It means that you don't miss bands because you have to trudge through acres of stinking morass to get from one stage to the next. It means that when your phone petulantly decides not to play ball, you're bound to bump into a whole bunch of people that you know. It means you stop worrying about whether you should have those noodles or the ones over there, that you just have a burger (or veggieburger or pizza or one of many Indian foodstuffs, as it goes) provided by Didcot's Rotary Club and stop being spoiled, quite literally, for choice. This isn't about 'making do', or anything else that patronising, it's about being at a music festival to listen to music, and on that front, Truck knocks the absolute bejesus out of many events twice its size.
In the spirit of taking joy in the thoroughly local, the first band we catch are those irrepressible Oxfordian pop tykes Alphabet Backwards, who open up the Truck Stage on Friday afternoon to the dreaded light drizzle that is so often harbinger of the biblical downpours that scar our summers. But as the happiest cliché goes, music this grinning and exuberant simply won't budge for a bit of wet, and by the time the band leave the stage, after the bouncing squelchtone stomp of 'Elton John', the soggy spits have stopped and things remain decidedly clement for the remainder of the weekend. Laws of nature be damned, I'm happy to credit Alphabet Backwards with this.
Then it's over to the infamously shitsmelling Barn to see Steventon natives Poledo, who are totally named after that Dinosaur Jr. tune and totally warrant a favourable comparison, even if they've already prodded you in that direction before you've ever heard them. Their crowd go batshit crazy, crowdsurfing, circle-pitting kids who are definitely still a few years off their first legal beer, but hot damn, do they love Poledo. Auteur Evan Clements wrangles distorted squeal like an imagined teenage Mascis, and bassist Sammy makes those fuzzy, rolling, Barlowesque runs down his instrument's neck, but the tunes themselves are more like Malkmus and co. in their skewed pop and muffled wordiness. Whichever branch of the alt rock family tree you feel like comparing Poledo to, this is pure, ecstatic, coming-apart-at-the-edges rock 'n' roll joy.
Thanks to the Clubhouse Records contingent, there's a plenitude of quiet (and largely boring as hell) Americana at Truck this year, but Michele Stodart handles whiskey-warm regret as well as the most weathered of old hands. Somewhere in her set, I glance over at the clutch of Truckers next to us, a toddler in massive luminous ear protectors wardered by two supine blokes, eyes closed and a can of Tanglefoot apiece that rests on their bellies, gently rising and falling. "Believe me," coos Stodart from the side of the flatbeds, "we're better off this way."
A word about beer, then. I like beer. And without wanting to sound like a sanctimonious stinge-artist, being able to purchase a tasty pint of said hoppy beverage at a music festival for £3.50 is fucking (pardon) brilliant. I drank a paleish, bitey brew dubbed Jester all weekend, and after my first trip to the bar tent we head over to the 2nd stage, to find that Boat to Row has metamorphosed from the lone acoustic musings of helmsman Michael King into a broadly-smiling, twelve-legged folk beast since we last crossed paths. With the addition of brass, keys, strings and the obligatory banjo to King's voice and heavy use of natural imagery, there's a Decemberists comparison to be made where I would never have imagined it before. Boat to Row aren't quite as wilfully genre-busting as the Portland troupe, but they're equally not content to get stuck in a Mumfordian rut. For 'Dreaming Wild Flowers', drummer Lloyd downs sticks and whips out a mandolin, while on the following 'Ode to Work a Day' all the smiles and birdsong are shouldered out by syncopated chording and King's proclamation that "everything around me is sinking and untrue." Halfway through the set the band launch into a joyous 'A Boat To Row, To Row, To You', wherein King intones the central mantra of perseverance, "I'll stay until your heart I have won." Judging by everyone shouting the chorus back at him, he's done alright on that front.
Draping myself over an empty Barn's front barrier (this happened quite a lot), the silence and murk is a little disconcerting after Boat to Row's sea of smiles, and the sun through the 2nd Stage's brightly coloured roof. As Delta Alaska winnow into their set with building volume, though, the setting begins to make sense. They make a furious noise, a fireball caught in a wind tunnel, all delay, reverb and distortion, crystal stalactites of guitar that come crashing down as one gigantic, monstrous shard. I'm caught up and rapt in the swirling maelstrom when the apron billows and lifts from the front of the stage to be sucked in and billow out once more, and afterwards I realise that it could only have been the wind, but to me hung there wide-eyed over the front barrier it was set in motion by noise and noise alone. Movement serves this band well – one minute they're stationary and the next they're screaming, mics or no, stamping so hard that dust floats from the surface of the steel deck and settles softly again. When we're told that it's Jack's birthday, what I thought was an empty Barn erupts in song behind me, and I yell the words along with them.
At 6pm the first few beers have set a glow in my belly and I'm happy to be watching Spring Offensive, the discontented twentysomething's great white hope, the finest purveyors of literate self-loathing this side of the Atlantic. From 'A Stutter and a Start's angular opening salvo, Lucas, Theo and Matt writhe and jolt like broken marionettes, and by the time 'Worry, Fill My Heart' jitters its way in on waves of postgrad doubt, the packed Barn is swaying too, hundreds of open mouths yelling "all I need is just a couple of hundred" like they'd do anything for the dough. Two kids are stood next to me at the side of the stage (I discover the next day that they're half of Yellow Fever) and they're singing along too, and up until now 'Worry…' felt like a desperate confession born from a wretched state of play. But at Truck 15 I'm at the side of a stage and scribbling illegibly on a filthy and dog-eared pad, and Spring Offensive and everyone else who knows that they can be so much more are clawing their way into fierce ascent.
By the time Turbowolf bowl onto a darker Barn stage in a reeking blur of sweat and hair, some spirit I just learned about called 'rum' is dancing sparks all through my grey matter, but it doesn't really matter, because they're Turbowolf, for shit's sake. Singer Chris Georgiadis is the spit of Zappa, stalking around the stage in a noisome paisley shirt that'd make lesser men blow chunks, while guitarist Andy wrings roaring, scorching, honest-to-goodness riffs out of his Firebird, not least on 'A Rose for the Crows' (a lick so gnarly it could just about make Raging Speedhorn piss themselves in acquiescence) and 'Read and Write', of which my patchy memory has allowed me one distinct vision of sneering along like a twat to. There aren't many bands who could get away with yelling "make some fuckin' noise!" as twixt-song banter, but from Georgiadis it feels like a command that shouldn't be ignored, as the band launch into another Fu Manchu-gone-glam belter.
The review I found in my notepad for The Barn's Friday headliners Future of the Left was credited to one Campbell Austin, a gentleman, a scholar, and a friend. It contained pithy insights like 'No Kelson bad. McLusky tune good' and 'p.p.s. ride cymbal lightsaber technique = winner'. Falkous and co. don't need good press – Future of the Left seem to have everyone aware of them largely convinced of their bats-as-fuck brilliance, and if you think otherwise, you're as a rule branded a tasteless cunt and shunned by the rest of the guitar-loving populace. For me, the jury is still out on Future of the Left's recorded output. But while the quartet don't need good press and they sure as hell don't need me to give it to them, I don't feel right reducing Future of the Left's set at Truck 15 to Campbell's 22-word summary. If the worst crowd of my cumulative gig-going so far was Mogwai's at the O2 in Bristol, February 2011 (how the fuck do you talk through Mogwai?) then Future of the Left's at Truck 15 ranks among the best in its cultish devotion, and the electricity is catching. 'Failed Olympic Bid' locks into its fuzzing, staticky swing like a lurching robot, arcing wires protruding from its slashed midriff and causing untold damage to the upholstery. 'Beneath the Waves, an Ocean' lends laser-sighting to the razoredged hooks that Falkous is so good at suggesting, and they cut all the deeper for their scarcity. I'm beset by a rum-induced bout of baby bladder and heading for the portaloo when I hear a thudding bassline that pounds me back to fourteen again, and it's 'To Hell with Good Intentions', and I forget any need to urinate and run back into the crowd. For someone who's not sure about Future of the Left, I am pretty fucking excitable.
Prize for bass tone of the weekend goes to Robots With Souls, who opens the 2nd Stage on Saturday morning. There's no restorative tonic quite like watching a hairy man called Steve smash and scrape away at a horizontal, mutilated Fender Precision with a drumstick/some kind of flashing plastic wand (or was this just my broken eyes?), and then layer the resulting glutinous noise up into a hot, filthy groove before beating holy hell out of his kit over the top. When his gear starts shorting out and he shakily proclaims "there's something weird going on here, man" it's less technical difficulties, more twisted micro-odyssey into rock'n'roll's uncharted territories, something like the instrument playing the man…I'm dragged groggily back to the present afterwards, when he's replacing the offending lead and we all have a great big ruddy laugh about patch cables.
Dubwiser have swapped sets with Very Nice Harry, and as such we catch them by happy accident, just as weathered and wise frontman Jonas is dishing out seasoned advice to an early, wonky Barn crowd. "I don't care what time it is, I want you to move your backsides and be happy", he orates, eyes wide, his words falling on the ears of already-swaying tigers and pirates and lord knows what else. "Make the most of it," he continues, "it's all you've got." We all pitch and yaw to Dubwiser's elastic groove as the man suggests, and it helps.
Hailing from Winchester's picturesque avenues myself, it's nice to see local stalwarts Co-Pilgrim outside the murky confines of the Railway, and their dreamy, luminescent brand of country translates perfectly to a sunny Truck Stage, where they blossom from a gentle hush to a glimmering swell. I'm shivering in the brightness and starting to feel sick when I glimpse in the relative gloom of the stage's recesses a fuzzy bulk somewhere between a bear and a highland cow. It's accompanied by a man in fairy wings, a fez, and a full face of makeup that looks like it's been applied by an overenthusiastic child. Both sway arm in arm to Mike's soft intonations and Joe's glowing lapsteel. This definitely happened.
By 3pm, last night's rum has poked holes in my brain and I'm dried out and shaking from too much caffeine, so the prospect of 'ambient drone pop' in a cool and shadowy Barn seems like a fine one. From the opening bloom of Flights of Helios's set, I'm pretty confident I've made the right choice, and settle in for the trip. Two songs in, that hat/snare disco beat crashes over something more propulsive than I'd expected, and with the glut of 'spiky' pop that's punctured the airwaves over the last however long, I'm ready to chalk Helios' initial beauty up to a one-off. But something happens, insidious and inexorable, and half an hour later I'm hanging off the front railing with a gormless drooping maw and eyelids stretched apart as though with toothpicks. Something happened there in the quiet barn, something involving rayguns being pointed at both my ears and fired in tandem while the individual rhythms of their blast snaked in and out of each other, something that loosed a mournful moan which drifted around my skull like a lonely ghost called to limbo before its time, something that eventually culminated in a near-indescribable drone hymnal that (according to my notes) I can only equate to being baptised in sound. Further words fail, and I wobble back out into the sunlight.
An hour later the Barn is again largely empty, and I am front and centre once more, hacking and feeble and slumped against the barrier. But it's going to be OK, because I am watching Crash of Rhinos set up, which means that Crash of Rhinos will be playing shortly. Before long they jerk into 'Red and Gold' from last year's longform emo joyride Distal, and I start grinning like a dick and nodding my head and twisting my right foot around on its toes. They then stop playing 'Red and Gold' from last year's exemplary Distal and it was just a soundcheck and I look around to see if anyone saw. No one is watching me, of course, everyone is watching the stage, and after a short time the 5-piece once again launch into the rangy clank of 'Red and Gold' from last year's rickety, life-affirming Distal, for reals this time. The grin reaches optimum stretch on 'Lifewood', which sounds utterly fucking triumphant in its build from Jim's soft chording to exuberant, air-punching noise. When Biff, Jim, Draper, Oli and Beal all step up to their respective mics and start yelling it out, it's like being hefted up on five sets of strong shoulders and carried away to congratulation or safety or whatever the hell you feel like being carried away to. Set ends after four songs. Wish there were more. Still grinning like dick.
Somehow, I've managed to go this long without ever seeing Tellison in the flesh, which is odd considering their tour ethic, and that last year's The Wages of Fear was the best collection of sad, clever guitar songs, of any songs, that I heard in 2011. They come out swinging with 'Horses' off said record, and blast the barn with bookish power until the end Stephen's final declaration of 'Get On', that it's been a bad year and we lost everything. We also learned again that his codename's disaster, that it's really no good if you've got no blood on your hands, and that someone's gonna get hurt tonight. That a band can sing pain of whatever degree this loud and this unashamed and this fun are marks of the greatest and best for me, and rum has again found its warm way to my belly and it might be that but it's probably not. It's definitely not.
Despite the best efforts of the Barn's unlucky stage manager, there's a number of us intent on watching Tall Ships' rumbling, loopy madness from the side of the stage, and like that Big Train sketch with the jockeys and the firemen, we're shooed away but always reconvene until he gives up or pretends not to notice. Ric and Matt storm across the steel deck, busting through the wreckage of strobes and smoke while the singer's voice echoes out bodiless over the crowd. The crashing, martial crescendo that closes 'Oscar' sees both on their knees, smashing away at pedals with their fists. That this then breaks down into 'Vessels' ghostly beginnings via a wall of grinding feedback is thrilling and masterful. That the crowd then lead the charge in chanting "THE VESSEL THAT CARRIED YOU AND ME NOW SITS AT THE BOTTOM, THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, IT'S FORMED A NATURAL REEF UPON WHICH NEW THINGS HAVE GROWN, THINGS SO WONDERFUL THAT I HAVE NEVER KNOWN" to close the set, while Jamie leaves his stool to stand up front with his compadres and sing the lines back is as close to a perfect 'live music experience' as a human could want.
We strike out into a warm and golden Oxfordshire sunset as The Low Anthem's Ben Miller is introducing 'Matter of Time' and its advocation of love through laziness, and the evening and the light seem to slow alongside the song's easy drone. By 'This Goddamn House', whose back story is wonderful whether it's true or not, minutes and seconds and people move so microscopically as to appear frozen, those on the stage the only humans with power to function in real time, and the words 'don't forget to comb your hair' become one of the most aching, poignant things I've ever heard anyone sing. The Low Anthem close on a glorious, crashing 'Boeing 737', whose devastating rawness shatters the intimate peace spun about us. Time begins to tick at a normal rate again, and we walk back to the Barn.
Johnny Foreigner have decked out their stage with inflatable palm trees, the cheeky scamps, and have the Barn yelling along to 'Feels Like Summer' before it's even started. Kelly's bass amp fails sharpish ("You can tell we're Johnny Foreigner because our stuff just broke!"), but the crowd seems unfazed, and someone fires off a synth rendition of the riff from American Football's 'Never Meant', which keeps me happy. The bass amp replaced, Alexei picks the chords that kick off 'With Who, Who and What I've Got', and we're all swept up in the whitehot surge of the chorus' rolling distortion and vocal tradeoffs. The rest of the set goes without a hitch, and Alexei is shining, soaked and lank of hair by the time he breathes the last "…but you still carry on" of 'New Street, You Can Take It'. You kinda always know when it's over.
We decide to bypass British Sea Power, instead trekking toward the 2nd stage, down the dust and stone path that runs between the main enclosure and Hill Farm's hulking outbuildings, in hopes that we'll get there before it gets too rammed, because we like Frightened Rabbit, and we're pretty sure other people do too. We make the centre of the red and yellow tent fast and fine, but within 5 minutes we're hemmed in on all sides by a feverish mob who cheer every time a techie rears their head onstage. When FR do make their entrance, to billowing and baffling coughs of dry ice, the crowd are ecstatic, and the band rattle out a rapturous 'Nothing Like You', and that moment when we all realised that some other person isn't everything about us comes rushing right back and we smile and sing the words and move our feet and heads. In this setting 'Old Fashioned', a lamely bouncing, soppy slice of indie-kitsch in the context of Midnight Organ Fight's wilful salting of wounds, becomes a rambunctious chantalong hoedown. We get turned into a human accordion for 'Swim Until You Can't See Land', which Scott Hutchison can't contain his excitement about, a grin splitting his bearded face and astonished chuckles issuing from within. Later there're quiet, swelling chords which I recognise, and I think "no, fuck this, it can't be this, can it?" but it's 'Backwards Walk' and it builds from a gentle, reverberant start to a full-on ragged rock scrap that has me as close to falling over as any song I ever saw a band play before. Frightened Rabbit close on 'The Loneliness and the Scream', and after the last bars have faded away and the band have long left the stage we still yell the song's whoah-oh-ohs and clap our own rhythms until they dissolve among smiles and men dressed as cows who I lift from above the crowd to the floor and we take our leave of the tent's primary colours and disperse outward into the roaring night.
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