As the sun shines and gives us respite from a day of chill and damp, Aldous Harding has set out to unnerve us. She plays beautiful folk music with a throwback 60s vibe, accompanied by a band of mellow players. She mostly sings in an unearthly soprano but has the vocal dexterity to sell the flat alto beloved of Nico fans. She also spends the majority of the set pulling faces and menacing her audience. From her seat with her acoustic guitar, she sneers and leers, glowering from behind her microphone with a hard, accusing look.
Her band are all in on the joke, staring down or blankly ahead when not playing. They’re waiting for the audience to catch up with the joke, which some do with immediate laughter. It is the most engaging set by a person sitting down playing an acoustic guitar that we’ve seen in a long time. You could argue that Aldous’s performance methods detract from the beauty of her music, but quite plainly there are enough earnest singer-songwriters out there. There will never be enough weird.
Since our encounter with Sonic Boom at Alice a month or so ago we have been eagerly awaiting seeing his former Spacemen 3 bandmate Jason Pierce with his second legendary band (seems almost unfair to be allowed more than one), Spiritualized. Where Boom was minimalist Pierce is much more a maximalist, arriving on stage with a fivepiece backing band and a gospel trio on backup vocals. What emerges from this is a cathartic wall of space rock incorporating everything from Stooges-era garage to gospel and psychedelia. The noise is undercut by the fragile figure of Pierce himself, sat down hunched over his guitar, his foot nervously trembling over a wah wah pedal. It’s a captivating combination that distills 50 years of rock history into a plaintive cry that makes grown men openly sniffle as they headbang.
We’ve had mixed success getting into Gloria this year, so we queue up early for Yves Tumor. It proves to be a good strategy; the room is packed for the artist and his band. The set is more straightforward rock than expected, with shades of glam rock (or properly eccentric hair metal) squelching out a lot of the electronics he is more commonly associated with. There’s something very Velvet Goldmine about the performance, and through the dark lighting on the stage we can see singer Sean Bowie hopping and thrashing about, his garment flowing around him. Better lighting might give us more of the effect compared to the silhouettes, but from our perch on the bleachers we can see bodies bobbing in time, sucking energy from this short set. As a festival set, it’s good, but it makes us want to see a performance that represents the full range of Yves Tumor’s catalogue.
After the warmth and darkness of Gloria, the chill in the air and the brightness of the sky on the walk to Pavilion for black midi are little disorienting. black midi are a slightly mysterious, incredibly young four-piece from the UK. Until very recently they were just a name you’d hear about from the odd music journo at the Quietus, with absolutely no music online. Today at the Pavilion stage the reason for the hype becomes immediately obvious, with a blistering set of dexterity and musical exuberance. The band themselves, young as they are, are looking considerably more serious, possibly annoyed at the mixing of the vocals, but by the end, thanks to an impromptu call-and-response with the audience, they are grinning away and feel more at one with the calculated silliness that accompanies their technical proficiency. Think Don Caballero mixed with a touch of Les Claypool and you begin to get the idea. And with their debut album so recently released, it seems inevitable that black midi are going to go far indeed.
A quick run back to Orange Stage gets us to the Wu Tang Clan, a name that promises so much, possibly too much. After the puzzling introduction of the trailer for the RZA’s new movie, it’s immediately apparent that the sound is going to be absolutely dogshit for the rest of this set. The vocals are often inaudible, the samples mixed so oddly that half the time all you can hear is kick and snare. But the songs themselves are undeniable, anything from 36 Chambers is going to sweep the floor even if the sound quality is worse than an iPhone stuck down a toilet. But not wanting to have our musical memories tainted too much, we move on.
We move from one set of gristled veterans to another sort. Underworld are blessed with a markedly better sound at the Arena stage, which they use to its fullest to deliver their euphoric, rather campy style of house music. The tent is jam packed, lasers are flying all over the place, and the kick is powerful enough let you forget that the two people producing all this look like retired accountants. You can’t help but feel the pressure for them to end with their monument of a song, “Born Slippy”, which they milk for all its worth and deliver the almost definitional festival experience.
The energy of one dance band into another dance pop act will keep you riding high. It’s on this wave that we float over to Robyn’s headline slot on the Orange Stage. The Swedish pop queen is an old hand at festival performances, and she knows she could come out at full force with hits. She doesn’t do this. Robyn knows how to pace a show. It’s a slow build that includes a dancer and a costume change before she blasts into full Euro pop mode. She hits her stride on “Between the Lines,” shimmying and strutting and playing off of her backing dancer. The sound isn’t quite right and her vocals are too quiet, but the audience is into it, they’re warmed up, they’re in a peak festival state of mind.
We’ve been hearing “Dancing On My Own” all day. It’s come from various sound systems, out of phones, from passing groups just singing it. In many ways, this feels like the moment the entire festival is building up to. So when the opening chords of the song stream out, the crowd predictably goes nuts. Robyn silences her band and has the audience sing back the first chorus; she looks overwhelmed by the results.
It’s kind of Robyn to bring this song out before the 2am mark, but a sign of her artistry that she doesn’t save her biggest hit for last, but rather where it fits best. Because even though the crowd thins at a faster rate when it’s done, the emotion is heightened for those who remain. Two girls shriek with joy for “Call Your Girlfriend,” and amorous couples willfully misunderstand the lyrics. But she brings us down slowly, so that when the last band member has left the stage it feels like a natural conclusion; of course we must now all drift on our own ways.