Hop Farm Festival - By Volume

Holding on too long is just a fear of letting go, because not every thing that goes around comes back around, you know. QOTSA - ...Like Clockwork
The Tallest Man On Earth

Hop Farm Festival

Hop Farm Festival in Kent plays music off against its own history, creating a very special atmosphere. Author: on July 15, 2012
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Bob Dylan | Peter Gabriel | Ray Davies | Damien Rice | Jose Gonzalez | Tallest Man On Earth | Frightened Rabbit | Lianne La Havas | King Charles | Kool & The Gang | Billy Ocean | Dan Clews | George Clinton | Joan Armatrading | Patti Smith

“I’m not fatalistic. Bank tellers are fatalistic; clerks are fatalistic. I’m a farmer. Who ever heard of a fatalistic farmer?”

Let’s accept, firstly, that there’s nothing that can be said about Bob Dylan without sounding somewhere between tired and insane; personally, for example, I believe “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” which carries the plea, “If you see St. Annie, please tell her thanks a lot,” is prophetic of the coming of St. Vincent. Back in 1966, though, you couldn’t decode anything Dylan said, and so his odd interview with Playboy may have sounded like a rejection of everything American – the protest songs, the folk cause, and all the items of this icon’s past that have since been reduced to poetic narrative in biopics (more like, interpretative dance) – but what it stood for was nothing more than a man pissed with journalists playing games.

At the farm it sounded full of intent and far more sincere. Dylan has visited two years out of three since 2010, and he can now be forgiven for not evoking the muddy, crop-harvesting image of his glorious romantic days. He may not have been the most fatalistic of farmers -

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan at Hop Farm

who ever heard of one, indeed – but Hop Farm now has its version of Dylan set in stone: the ex-farmer visiting and righting the ship, shrugging off his place in our hearts as poisonously as the respite of Bringing It All Back Home. It’s in producing a generalised form of rock ‘n’ roll that’s more showmanship than craft, in the men suiting up grey-scale with guitars and drums, and the swirling keyboard that throws back to his days out on Highway 61. Lyrics were spat out at varying degrees, but rarely true to whatever form Dylan was moving through at the time; “Tangled Up In Blue” had its stanzas cut out and put back together, and “Ballad of a Thin Man” was played fast and loose rather than slow and furious. This was similar to the declaration of “Maggie’s Farm,” in which Dylan ceased to be that farmer; not in the sense of “going electric” at Newport, but likened to it for how Dylan continues to satisfy himself, moulding his music by rejecting what came before it. It felt as contrarian to hear, after all this time, as reading his Playboy interview

As our resident illustrator Christian Harrop pointed out, this is exactly how Dylan should be doing it: as he wants, and as he approaches it. What kind of musician would Dylan be if he was singing and believing the lyrics he wrote some fifty years ago with the same feeling? Of course “Tangled Up In Blue” felt rushed and rollicking, because Dylan’s divorce didn’t happen yesterday. The crowd, understandably, couldn’t quite let go, and went for a self-satisfaction of their own, putting the pieces back together in his meandering reinvention of “Like A Rolling Stone” and singing the chorus as it once was in ’65. It proved, in a way, that this was still seeing Dylan, with his cheeky grin recognising the crowd’s frustration, but also their joy: these songs are still his, and seeing him play them is now full of a sort of existential crisis of what it’s like to see your favourite musician play songs wickedly. It’s the sort of rock ‘n’ roll you don’t want him to do, and yet by the time “All Along The Watchtower” rolled out the show, it couldn’t have been more apt. It also couldn’t have been more disorientating.

And so a quote of Dylan’s that might apply more would be that of Desolation Row: “you may not look at him but he was famous long ago/ for playing the electric violin out on Desolation Row.” This weekend, the Hop Farm was a place for a generation of older musicians to play their piece. On Friday, Ray Davies played a show in stark contrast to Dylan’s night of song debauchery, playing songs straight to rear the crowd’s attention and calling upon a nostalgia bathing for his brother Dave and that band The Kinks: he called for a summery, acoustic version of “Waterloo Sunset” for the crowd to croon to, and played everything expected of a man knowing, quite diligently, what was wanted of him: “You Really Got Me,” “Lola,” “Sunny Afternoon,” and all the others that Dylan wouldn’t have had the feeling to play if he’d written them all those years ago.

Paddock Wood’s farm shone for Davies where it didn’t for Dylan, then, and it was enough for him to just be here while the garden of Kent instead roamed free in corners expected, and also less so. It was seen in the old folk with their chairs up and their crossword puzzles; in the

Dan Clews

Dan Clews at Hop Farm

dudes calling Richard Ashcroft a wanker after he decried David Cameron and the Tories; in Ray Davies’ boasting assertion that he went hop-picking on this very farm; in dudes with beards handing me their e-mail address to hook-up “psychedelic gigs near Tunbridge Wells,” and most pleasantly, in the humble-hearted performance of southerner Dan Clews, who handed out flyers inviting his crowd to a spot of strawberry picking out in the country.

You could feel the sense of place in this festival, a quaint old Kent ten minutes from my middle-England hometown, and its bizzare crowd: a mixture of families and dope-smokin’ hippies, of teenagers and bold rock dads, seeming to reflect the musicians filling the stages. “This is the closest I’ll ever get to playing with Bob Dylan,” Damien Rice remarked as he played immediately before him, noting that his stuff was half set-up behind him. And Damien Rice seemed like the perfect thing to placate the unsettling performance that followed it. Rice’s albums, which put on display tenderness and disastrous angst, were played seamlessly on the festival’s main stage, and proved that a man and his guitar can silence a crowd reeling back miles.

“Elephant” was as sparse as it got all week, with so much of it up to Rice’s voice, dangling off the edge as it is prone to, and it epitomised Hop Farm’s dedication to the new generation of folk singers. He played on a stage that graced Jose Gonzalez the day before him, culminating with his greatly anticipated covers, the menacing, nylon-stringed rendition of “Teardrop” and

Bob Dylan

Jose Gonzalez at Hop Farm

the more affectionate love-fest “Heartbeats.” Gonzalez began the quiet tradition of song-writers stripped down and simplified, with others to come over the weekend performing songs and often sets of little more than a guitar and a voice to hold over a crowd. Lianne La Havas, whom I was dragged to by our intently hip illustrator, began her set in kind, with “No Room For Doubt,” her duet with Willy Mason, sounding stronger and more singular without him. Her set, while becoming structured with rock convention, felt very much hers, and its best moments were those where she played spacey, melancholy riffs and won with the power of her voice.

All of this felt like a narrative centered around the festival’s lightweights, and on the Sunday, that arc found a finale. King Charles played a bombastic, cartoonish show with mad, twee pop theatrics, and their grand closer – a synthed-up rendition of “We Didn’t Start The Fire” with a new set of histories and a pumped-up, punky chorus – only piled up more momentum for The Tallest Man On Earth to burn back down. Matsson’s music was lauded by Justin Vernon after the release of The Wild Hunt for how it reinvented the way a musician plays acoustic guitar music, and here he played a show both of mind-blowing complexity and heart-melting simplicity: this was just a man sans-band, with nothing but a few different guitars to choose from per song. The crowd, packing the Big Tent to its back and protected from the rainstorm shaping up, stood in thrall of Matsson’s quieter, less explosive songs, allowing for new performances of “Criminals” and “To Just Grow Away” to wash over as the work of a legendary musician working out little nuances for himself. His closer, however, signified just how much Matsson can do with the limitations he sets himself: “King of Spain” was a solitary musical moment, sure, but the way it made the crowd realise its scope was a sight to behold. The reaction to Matsson’s set at Hop Farm became a marking point for his career, something that seemed, in my mind, to be the place where he stepped out of obscurity and became as ready for a legacy as the man he has been so exhaustingly compared to. In his performance of “Like The Wheel,” Matsson proved that the craft of song-writing is the most precious gift in music.

Kristian Matsson

The Tallest Man On Earth

Matsson was able to prove that music is a momentary thing, and that the musician contains and controls their atmosphere. Frightened Rabbit were able to do the same in what seemed like impossible circumstances; the ‘least attractive’ headliner on a night that promised indie stalwarts Suede and the (allow me to quote myself) “surprisingly sensual” music of My Morning Jacket, the Scottish band seemed doomed to a tent of about twenty fans doing them a solid service, which is how it seemed ten minutes ahead of their set. The tent eventually filled to a sizeable number of loyal followers, and the band came on upbeat about the place they occupy in music – to be a small band with a group of people avid about your songs is no bad thing, as lead singer Scott Hutchison made clear: “I know we’re small in number tonight,” he said, before tearing into “Nothing Like You” and refusing to slow down with “The Modern Leper.” They began with two relentless tracks, propelled by guitar work, but even as a band playing an onslaught, Frightened Rabbit carried the most unique crowd experience of the weekend, with sing-songs for “Good Arms Vs Bad Arms” and, as Hutchinson requested, a performance by every member of the audience in which we played the “human accordion” to accompany “Swim Until You Can’t See Land.” The set was a perfect closer to a weekend that

Scott Hutchison

Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison at Hop Farm

often seemed romantically entangled with the underdog, taking an indie Scottish group and putting them into the festival’s smallest tent stage, and having them rally their crowd like playing big band.

Elsewhere, the Ray Davies rebellion to the suited-up Dylan rock was what the farm lived on. Kool & The Gang appeared for a dance-off with everyone watching them, playing an hour-long set that seemed to bear all four of their hits and nothing more: a twenty minute version of “Ladies Night” which tired the boogiest of boogies, and a never-ending, stomping closer in “Celebration,” which seemed to show exactly what the gang were there for: the sense of the universal and the swathes of nostalgia. Billy Ocean was almost taunting of the crowd with his blast-from-the-past set, only stopping for conversation to howl back his history: “Would you get into my car?!” he demanded, much to the amusement of the two By Volume hipsters sent to enjoy the festival. “Would you get into my car?!” he continued, and launched into yet another of his ‘70s moments. George Clinton united his famous acts, Parliament and Funkadelic, to create a show that begs the phrase “batshit insane” for its theatrics, including a man doing acrobatics with a Pinocchio nose glued to his face, and a backing singer dressed as a nurse on roller skates. They might have even played their hits; who knows. Bruce Forsyth performed, by the way. Bruce Forsyth. This was a nostalgia bloodbath.

It didn’t work for everyone – early on Friday, Gomez were like a band spoiling a party with their dull, NME award-winning indie rock, a show they claimed was “the greatest fuckin’ hits” – but those who arrived ready for a cross-generation celebration generally seemed to delight in the Kentish fanfare. Joan Armatrading, in particular, played with brilliant pride, presenting “Love and Affection,” as backed by a booming bass, with affection for her old craft. Patti Smith, too, was able to dedicate a set to her past and her present; she screamed “say it with me, BANGA!” with all the passion in the world for her 2012 record of that same chant, and then played her old political thriller, “Gloria,” like it still resonated today. Smith carried the same sense of revolutionary and poet she always has, but carried herself with the same joy as Armatrading or Ocean, and the same loud pride as Ray Davies.

It was Peter Gabriel, though, who eclipsed this sense of tribute, this attachment to nostalgia or worse, the abandonment of one’s own music, and turned, eyes widened, to carry his old material towards his musical future. Gabriel’s set was one built around its own intensity, with an epic, technicolour light-show shining around it and a set of disturbing video accompaniments playing the metaphor game for Gabriel and his Blood Red Orchestra; maggots and scissors were prevailing themes set to the music, which returned, similarly, as a grandiose event. Introducing his orchestra with a cover of Bowie’s “Heroes,” Gabriel continued to present the unsettling avenues of his career that made his approach to pop music so exciting: the

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel at Hop Farm

creaking “Intruder,” played on violins and cellos and with brash classical percussion, felt its enormity reinforced. Gabriel did not shy away from playing to his moments in time, with classics “Red Rain” and “Solsbury Hill” played back to back, but this was not as simple as a love-letter to other times: the Blood Red Orchestra, Gabriel said, kept extending their tour beyond its original end-date, and even at this, one of the supposed “final shows,” it was easy to see why: Gabriel remains a man of experiments and is dedicated to finding new space for his songs, even those of long-forgotten protests. “Biko,” the original show’s closer, existed in the same space but the rendition as classical music was striking. Leaving the rest to the crowd and the percussionist, Gabriel left the stage for the fists to be pumped wildly into the air as a declaration of humanity continued some thirty years on. “Biko” was a striking, beautiful moment for the festival, and whether this has happened at a hundred more meaningful venues- Gabriel has played the song for special Amnesty gigs against Apartheid- this felt wholly its own moment, and placed Gabriel’s set as the most intense of the weekend.

If I’ve sought no chronological detailing of Hop Farm 2012, it’s because there was none to speak of: the rise and fall of this festival felt entirely unique, with the theatrics of Gabriel on Friday and the humblest Frightened Rabbit on the Sunday, with a whitewash of nostalgia separating them. It made the festival seem like it was coming down from itself all weekend, and in no bad way. And then there was that big, mythical feature that fractured the whole thing; Bob Dylan, for better or worse, was the only signifier I had to make something of Hop Farm with. He sold Hop Farm, but he didn’t epitomise it. He was Hop Farm, but he really wasn’t. In anything but a chronological description, the festival is a celebration of anyone who wants it; the kids carrying around beer cups they find on the floor, the picnics on the floor and the dudes smoking mind-numbing amounts of weed during every set. The festival was Lianne La Havas, Kristian Matsson, Scott Hutchison, and also Ray Davies, Joan Armatrading… er, Kool. People playing their songs like they were new or maybe they just were; either way, this was a Kentish festival. That doesn’t mean it was necessarily quaint. The ex-farmer will tell you that.

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