“Supersonic, are you ready to Rock?” Yes bab, yes we are. The atmosphere in Boxxed for today’s first set is pretty electric. Local youngsters HAQ123 are playing their first gig to a pretty full and expectant room. They’re so young two of the band are still at primary school. People have brought their own youngsters down to the show and Supersonic’s generally warm sense of communality has tweaked up a notch or two. They’ve an elderly bass player as well but it’s clearly a classic case of ‘in the band ‘cos they’ve got a van’. They’re brilliant. ‘Sabbath super charged on haribo’ is a fair enough description of their feisty punk doom. The faintest glimmers of any stage fright are soon banished by some foot on the monitors, pointing into the crowd, rock ‘n’ roll shape throwing. Their confidence can only grow and what we might see them bring to this stage in years to come is anyone’s guess but for now they’re huge fun and, as I’m told the youngsters say, they smashed it.
Later on The Space Lady, who is older than all of HAQ123 put together, will also charm us with all the warm feels over in The Crossing. Essentially a drug battered old cosmic hippy with an equally aged and charming casio keyboard wheezes through a selection of covers and a few originals. On paper it has ‘kitsch fun’ and ‘outsider art’ scribbled in all the margins but that’s to underplay the sweetness of her voice and miss her personal warmth on stage. By about midway through only the most embittered cynic would not have wanted to hug her or adopt her as their mom/grandma. ‘Born To Be Wild’ and “psychedelic cowboy song” ‘Ghostriders In The Sky’ are the highlights for me. At one point she even sets aside her keyboard picks up a guitar and leads us through a sing along about healing the earth. So throughly won over is the crowd that we do it. It’s like a magic trick, the song deals in the most naive and simplistic of hippy eco platitudes and yet she sings it with such openhearted sincerity, so free of the usual earnest, preachy tone that comes with that stuff that you have to go along with her. Everyone’s having such a great time that we let her do another song and she goes and spoils everything by doing ‘Imagine’. “Damn it Grandma, take yer medicine!”
Still buzzin’ from my haribo-HAQ-high I make it into the shed to see what grampa’s been building in there. Pierre Bastien creates his own amazing mechanical musical machines and teases some unique sounds out of them. The pairing with Tomaga is a genius one because the results are often not that far from their own explorations. It’s a gently captiviating set. For all that they’re machines he gets some remarkably organic sounds from them. The general feel is of a soundtrack to a lost Oliver Postgate series, maybe an aborted spin off show for The Clangers’ Iron Chicken. Lovely stuff.
The market place has a small stage tucked in the corner and flanked by shimmering cabaret curtains. It’s an oddly ineffectual performance space, a transient audience using the tea room, mooching the merch stalls or heading past to elsewhere but it hosts DJ sets and talks and such over the weekend if you grab a table near enough to pay attention. we’re gathered around debating whether it’s too soon to start drinking and listening to The Sunken Hum Tape Splice, which is Natalia of Woven Skull mixing four tape decks of found sounds and field recordings. It’s a multi-coloured ambient patchwork, there’s sounds of nature, a gloriously feisty american evangelist and a sweetly burbling child that turns out to be Natalia herself. It could do with being a bit louder but then, as the name insists, it works beautifully as an always changing, surprising, background of sunken hum. As I cave to the call of the bar I catch Mohammad finishing one monolithic slab of drone and leaning into another. En route to my frosty refreshment I pass a patron remarking “If they were playing anywhere but here they’d get fucking bottled”. He may have a point. I do love a bit of drone but, perhaps aware of the lack of onstage drama in their performance, they’ve taken to wearing cowls and wizard hats that seem to undercut rather than underline the weight of their sound. It’s like a poundshop Sunn O))). I’m also curious as to how the name has failed to cause them any grief yet. Essentially though Mohammad is not for arms folded, back of the room, ‘impress me then’ types or dilettantes popping to the bar, it requires commitment. Get in there and get lost in that giant sound or don’t. There’ll be no hooks to pull you in.
To be honest Snapped Ankles are wearing even more ridiculous stage outfits, although happily not quite as much as last time I saw them, when it was even hotter and I feared they would collapse from the heat at any moment. By rights their ‘Jack In The Green makes pulsing electro out of logs and moss’ stick-schtick should make me really want to throw bricks at them for being useless hipster twats but their music’s not bad. On today’s evidence it’s not captivatingly great either though, so let’s call it a score draw.
Casual Nun are a strikingly hirsute, double drummer powered, heavy psych-punk beast of a band. They’ve only been around two or three years but they’re really getting into their stride now. They claim inspiration from the hairier, freakier end of krautrock and similarly wild Japanese sonic warriors but the double drum churn still makes me think of The Butthole Surfers. Not the pantomime clowning and parody songs but the deranged heavy psych freak outs of stuff like ‘Jimi’. Since I saw them last summer they’ve put out a couple of records and obviously spent time honing and sharpening their sonic weapons because they are SO much better now, and they were pretty good then. About a third of the way into the set they shift up a couple of gears and from there on in it’s just immense. They’re a highlight in a festival of highlights and leave having secured themselves a raft of new fans.
Which sadly you can’t say for Princess Nokia. Beforehand excitement is tempered by a worry that hip hop artists have, well, a bit of a history of taking a half assed approach to live performance. With heart sinking, head shaking recognition we realise this turns out to be the case. She hasn’t brought a DJ, a local one is doing her best with no rehearsal playing Nokia’s recordings for her to rap over. Not working with backing tracks or loops, just straight up playing the records vocals and all. It gives weird sibilance on the S sounds and Nokia a chance to drop out on some lines although she’s bang on it, to be fair. The flipside of that is there’s no room to stretch, move or freestyle anything when you’re constantly hitting the same flow as the record. Karaoke has more room for expression. Princess has other ways to express herself though. ‘Tomboy’ is fierce and we’re collectively shrugging and rolling with it but a couple of tunes in she decides that what the programme calls an ” ambitious artist who creates a universal language that will talk to all kinds of people” is not so keen on the age range and ethnicity of the crowd she can see from the stage, that we don’t know what she’s talking about. A little hissy fit sours the mood and pointlessly gives away all her power as a performer. It’s possible she’s feeling as tired as we are, she picks a fight with the DJ, she doesn’t want to be here. Those among the crowd who stick with her try to warm the mood as things wear on but Nokia eventually leaves mid song and someone has to come on and let the DJ know she won’t be back.
Back in the big room with the grown ups Oxbow have found a way for noise rock to age gracefully. It’s no small achievement. For tonight’s show they have pulled together a local choir, with conductor, who range across the back of the stage as Eugene prowls its lip shedding his dapper outfit and rolling his shoulders. Ten years in the making ‘Thin Black Duke’ sees them add classical nods, strings, piano and allsorts to their dense, literary rock swagger. You can almost feel the dread hand of prog itching to get in but they’ve shut its fingers firmly in the door. There is no indulgent bloat, the songs are taut and keenly crafted, and the choir is beautifully integrated into the music making it all the more effective. It’s a masterful performance, not a note out of place but still living and breathing and dynamic. All this and fronted by the most authoritative, take no prisoners stage presence of the weekend. Seriously, you wouldn’t mess would you? Even some of the choir look astonished/nervous to see him in full flight. Incredible end to another incredible Supersonic weekend. Let’s not leave it so long this time.