Thursday, September 6, 2007

connect - sunday, 9/2/07

i needed four cups of tea to feel even remotely human sunday morning, as the mud and the stench of inveraray irrevocably became part of me, and i realized the cuffs of my carhartts weighed more than the rest of the fabric put together, just from the mud that was wetly wedged inside. previously, i had made the foolhardy decision to go without rubber boots (or "wellies," as the brits affectionately call them), and my shoes are still caked with mud, sitting in my hallway. fields that had been lush and green on friday were muddy minefields, and, bereft of insulating rubber goodness, i had to carefully pick my way through millions of boot treads en route to every stage. final numbers for connect show that over 16,000 tickets were sold, and at least three-quarters of that were to campers, so the festival was pretty damn packed. and while connect did have some pitfalls and blunders, for a first year festival, it was pleasantly arranged, well-apportioned (especially in the food department), and enjoyed the rare virtue of absolutely stunning surroundings, as befits the estate of the 13th duke of argyll. but we'll leave any talk about connect's grounds to our grounds post later this week. on to music!

the day opened, oddly enough, with patrick wolf, who had just come from electric picnic (along with about half of connect's lineup), playing a very early set at 12.45 (see nialler9 for electric picnic reviews). i've come to realize festivals can be funny things, with bands flying in and out for just a few songs, playing at most arbitrary times for no discernible reason. such must have been the case with patrick wolf, who was popular enough to make thousands rise from their sleeping bags for his half-hour time slot. he told the heaving crowd that he and his band were running on four hour's sleep, and warned us in advance that this show would be less frantic and exuberant than it regularly is. despite this handicap, wolf put on a lovely, sweet show, playing six songs, nearly all off the magic position. clad in a tartan blanket (more for fashion than protection), wolf's showmanship was muted - a concession, no doubt, to his lack of sleep and the earliness of the hour, but his performance was spot-on, and much too short.

we stuck around at the oyster stage for seasick steve, an american bluesman who now calls norway home, and enjoys much popularity on this side of the atlantic. virtually unknown in the united states, seasick attracted an even larger crowd than wolf, who charmed us with his homespun drawl, busted guitars, and mammoth beard. his past is littered with mishaps and adventures kerouac would be jealous of, including several stints as a busker. located in oakland at the beginning of the 1990s, seasick steve opened a recording studio that was visited by modest mouse, twice, to record their first albums. he released his solo debut dog house blues last year here in the uk, but he hasn't found a home in the us yet, sadly. his set was raucous and gritty, with more cursing than i heard from all the other acts put together, and dank, old-timey blues, the like of which we haven't heard since tommy johnson. no surprise to learn, then, that steve was taught guitar by one of johnson's bandmates. rocking out on three- and one-stringed guitars, as well as his "mississippi drum machine," a foot-operated thumping box. he told stories as well as sang songs, an all-around entertainer, who deserves a label in america and some well-earned respect.

we were so taken with seasick steve's set that we stayed until the end, then headed over to see the kissaway trail, the much-hyped danish sensation. with reviewers like nme making references to the flaming lips and arcade fire, we had high expectations. tearknee had seen them before and had liked them, but i found the comparisons, especially to the flaming lips, to be quite overstated. to be sure, songs like their single "smother + evil = hurt" are wide and expansive, but they rather miss out on the lips's joyousness. i don't know if the world needs another arcade fire soundalike, but check them out if that's your thing. it's not mine.

tilly & the wall were up next, and we stuck around mostly because tearknee was so taken with the idea of tap dancing percussion. their kitsch value had worn off for me about a minute and a half into bottoms of barrels, their sophomore effort released last year on moshi moshi, but there was nothing more exciting going on, so i tried to be as open-minded about their brand of folk pop as possible. when it was all said and sung, i was actually more impressed than tearknee - i thought their live show had much more relevance than their over-cutesy recordings - she, a former tap dancer herself, was woefully dismayed by tilly & the wall's dancer, who seemed to be merely a beginner (her tapping can be called basic at best). and while i enjoyed their frenetic indie folk, their enthusiasm and joy (and the fact that they are from the midwest), reminded me a little too much of overzealous young christians, proselytizing through music. on the other hand, their propensity to scream "fuck" at random intervals hints at a darker side to tilly & the wall. regardless, their performance was well-rehearsed, energetic, and, on the whole, fun. i don't like their music enough to want to see them again, but they were good entertainment in the middle of the afternoon.

after tilly, we hustled back to the oyster stage for the anti-folk princess, regina spektor. i had never heard her music before, and i will be the first to admit i don't actually know what anti-folk means, but wikipedia supplies this somewhat bulky definition: "in anti-folk, self-mockery and self-aggrandizement have somehow fused," which doesn't actually explain all that much. there wasn't much "self" in spektor's songs, but plenty of mockery. her song structures bend to her whim more than any conventional approach, an endearing and attractive (as well as unique) sound in contemporary songwriting. the crowd went wild as she strolled out on stage in her flower-print wellies and green dress, and barely stopped yelling their enthusiasm even in the middle of songs. performing songs from both soviet kitsch and begin to hope, spektor charmed the crowd on her grand piano and guitar, and her set ended far too soon. a lovely performer and innovative songwriter, she was one of my favo(u)rite discoveries at connect, to whom i will pay much more attention to in the future.

festivals have a way of really taking it out of you, whether from the incessant standing, indeterminable weather, or simple music overload. tearknee and i suffered serious fatigue after regina spektor, so we took a pass on m.i.a. (whom neither of us really care for anyway) to grab some food from the lovely circuses and bread tent, which featured only argyll produce. our next stop, then, was back to the guitars and other machines stage for the polyphonic spree, for whom i had deservedly high expectations after their epic performance at warsaw earlier this summer.

of all of the bands around these days, so many of which are truly amazing, the polyphonic spree are really in a class by themselves. even as absurdly large groups are becoming the fashion du jour, the 'spree remain unique both in their size and approach - two dozen members, including a choir, two keyboardists, and two drummers, playing music so exuberant in its recital that you can't help but leave their show feeling emotionally rejuvenated. even after three long days of standing and listening to music, the polyphonic spree filled me with a new energy and joyfulness. their performance was much as it had been at warsaw, though greatly condensed, yet it still came as a surprise when they launched into "the championship," their outro anthem, with ten minutes left in their time slot. my initial fear, that they would be as fickle as the hold steady were the day before, was ameliorated when they burst back on to the stage, clad in their white robes, to launch into the closest they could get to an encore, nirvana's "lithium" and "light and day." tearknee and i left their show filled with an indescribable happiness and optimism, the likes of which i have rarely before experienced. a polyphonic spree gig is good enough to be a once-in-a-lifetime event, yet the fact that they tour frequently should be cause for much rejoicing. imbuing their performances with an unparalleled level of sheer wonder and plain ecstasy, the polyphonic spree are simply one of the best live acts around today.

we walked away from the guitars and other machines stage for the last time in a fog of joy, on our way to the oyster stage for the rest of björk's set. this in itself was another blunder by connect: björk was sunday's erstwhile headliner, yet unlike fellow headliners beastie boys and primal scream, her set would not be ending the night (and, therefore, the festival); instead, her set started at 8 pm, forcing festival-goers to choose between her and the polyphonic spree. for some, this would seem to be no decision at all, and for us it wasn't - we saw the 'spree. we rushed over to catch the last half-hour of her set, and fought our way through the crowd as she sang "army of me." backed by a dj, a percussionist, a pianist, a harpsichordist, and a ten person brass band/choir, björk was in full control of the stage, even as she ran across it, her white dress and pink shawl flowing behind her, wailing into the microphone as the bass resonated over every other sound. i'm not a big björk person, so i didn't know most of the songs, but her stage presence alone is mesmerizing. like beastie boys, she really is a professional, with well-articulated designs, entrancing costumes, and an obvious love for performing, and her show, though obviously not unique, came off without any feeling of tiredness or repetition; it seemed as fresh for her and her band as it was for us, and even if the music wasn't always to my taste, she was really a joy to watch.

the act that closed connect for us was the one that i had been most looking forward to, the man that changed my mind about dance music, inspired me to write a (mostly) regular feature on excellent albums, the band that immediately stood out as my first choice in the entire connect lineup: lcd soundsystem. although i have been enjoying sound of silver for months, i had not yet had an opportunity to see the man in action, and had no idea what to expect. a drum kit and a turntable at most, i thought, and so was almost floored when an entire band appeared onstage, complete with guitar, bass, upright piano, a table of electronic gadgets, a kit, along with some extra drums, and, of course, james murphy. as scruffy as ever (i wonder how irregularly he shaves, so he can always have that two-day growth...), i was surprised to see him, sans instrument - apparently, when lcd performs live, he only rocks the mic.

lcd opened with "us v them," one of my favorite bangers from sound of silver, but it was lacking something. "daft punk is playing at my house," the next song, also lacked it. tearknee and i, after much post-show consultation, worked out what it was: enthusiasm. even as the (extremely) large crowd went wild, murphy and co. seemed lackluster at the beginning of their set, due to exhaustion, boredom, or disinterest, i don't know. but it poisoned their set from the start, a hurdle almost too large to overcome - even "north american scum," the song i identify with so much i made a shirt for it, was lifeless in their hands. which is not to say the songs were poorly executed or full of mistakes - it was the banal perfection of every note that alienated it, and turned it from a performance into a recital. though still somewhat mechanical, "all my friends" and "tribulations," their next two songs, showed promise, and lcd soundsystem transformed, in front of our eyes, from mere musicians to true performers, so that, once they moved into "yeah," they were just as excited about the show as we were.

"yeah" is where lcd soundsystem's set really came alive: fantastic during the song, which stretched on into epic dimensions, but truly disappointing as it was the end of their set. i was able to take a photo of their setlist after it was over, and was really upset that they'd skipped so many songs i wanted to hear, for no reason i can guess at. in my mind, there was never any doubt about what the encore would be, and i was gratified to hear "new york i love you" echoing off the castle behind us, but it was as if james murphy had reverted to his previous, unfeeling self - his crooning, so heartbreakingly true in the studio, sounded limp out here in scotland. there's no doubt in my mind that i would see lcd soundsystem again in a heartbeat, but it would be to disprove this performance, to quell the voice in my head that worries they aren't really that good. i hope this set was a fluke, because i want lcd soundsystem to be good, really i do.

and that was it. the end of connect, three days of mud, a bit of rain, good food, good music, and sleeping on hard ground. as hot chip played until midnight (another odd scheduling mix-up there, putting lcd soundsystem and hot chip on at the same time), tearknee and i headed back to our tent, ready for bed and excited about showering the next day. for its first year, connect went off with few hitches and virtually no hang-ups, and while there were some odd (foolish?) scheduling decisions made, i suppose that's all part and parcel of a festival, having to race off in the middle of one set to catch another. for what it's worth, i had a great time, and would happily go next year as well. enjoy the videos below.

patrick wolf - "the magic position"

seasick steve - "my donny"

the kissaway trail - "smother + evil = hurt"

tilly and the wall - "rainbows in the dark"

regina spektor - "poor little rich boy"

björk - "declare independence"

lcd soundsystem - "all my friends"

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