David Byrne, Spiritualized, Space Weather Sounds, Emmy The Great, Kathryn Williams

Simon Jay Catling 06/08/2009

The Big Chill- Day 2

Saturday appears, as it tends to do, and there's still sun beating down upon the Green campsite. At this point I realise that in my haste to set up on Friday morning I've neglected to notice that standing but twenty metres away from me are those great heels of the festival site- the portaloos. Thirty six hours of high temperatures have done the feisty green cubicles a wonder for their putrid odour, now spreading towards my tent. Rookie festival error on my part admittedly, what I need is a good sit down with the Guardian (apparently I'm taking to this middle-class vibe just as well as I'm taking to the hippy chill out vibe) in front of the Open Air Stage whilst Suns of Arqa soothe me through a cider-induced hangover with a range of ethnic styles from ragga to afrobeat.

It's back to the Castle Stage for Liverpool-cum-Newcastle lass Kathryn Williams. The singer-songwriter has attracted a surprisingly large crowd, particularly for 1:30pm in the afternoon. She looks visibly stunned by it, commenting in a decidedly non-Big Chill fashion that “I'm shitting myself!” Unwanted excrement or otherwise though, she needn't worry; Williams' voice is one of deceptive power, occasionally taking you by surprise with its sudden soaring emergence from her illusory fragile tones; and shaping and shifting her lovelorn and love lost tales. She also comes across with genuine warmth, regularly stopping to chat with the crowd; her rapturous reception is well earned. It's a bit of a contrast with Emmy The Great; lead singer Emma-Lee Moss is stand offish- “we've heard this is a quiet festival so we're going to play quietly”..well, yeah ok then, what did you expect Emmy? It's called the Big Chill. Nevertheless, her quality does shine through. New songs from upcoming EP 'The Wet And Windy Moors' sound even more stripped down than those of their debut album, of which 'First Love' is an undoubted highlight; rising and rising from poignancy to lustre in its four and a half minutes. You get the feeling though that there's a barrier between the band and the crowd that hadn't existed with Kathryn Williams beforehand.

Unlike yesterday evening, today's darkening hours feel more of a meander. A visit to Stop The City results in seeing two chaps wearing sailor hats and emitting a mixture of bird sounds and burbling frequency from their sound system. It transpires that the duo are called Space Weather Sounds and their brand of Fuck Buttons-meets-nature noises cause a definite split in the Stop The City environment. Me? I quite like it, but decide to move on nonetheless. The Big Chill Nights tonight is playing host to ex-Never Mind The Buzzcocks man Sean Hughes, and whilst old father time hasn't been kind to the comic's body, his wit remains as sharp as ever, right from his introduction when he spies a person leaving the tent and runs after before ordering her to sit down. Jokes centre in on getting older, with the odd barb thrown at a student down the front who says he's studying music production (“what? You ask them how they like their tea?”). Battling the constant bass lines from the nearby Coop tent, it's a battle to hear how fresh and energised Hughes is these days; but he still manages to become an unexpected highlight of the weekend.

Back on the Open Air Stage, Spiritualized are rumbling slowly through the gears to a moderately sized but devout crowd of fans. The sheer sonic vigour of their dreamlike space rock blows the audience away tonight; a vast amount of 'Ladies & Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space' receives an airing in anticipation of this Autumn's ATP dates, whilst 'You Lie You Cheat' from last year's 'Songs In A&E' opens up the set with spiked energy after the soaring 'Amazing Grace' introduction. It's an undeniably assured performance; Spiritualized sound like they've been intrinsically linked with the Big Chill for their entire career, and as the swooping sounds of their space rock drift out into the deer park, I feel like I don't even need to close my eyes to be taken on a psychedelic trip; it's all right here around me. Christ I must be wasted.

Day 3

The line up for Sunday reads a bit like a triple threat match between comedy Kings. The Coop sees Russell Howard, Noel Fielding and Dylan Moran follow one another in a battle to the comic death. First though it's off to the Open Air Stage again to wake up with a reasonably priced bacon and sausage buttie (3.00), a copy of the Observer (1.90 with yet another free bag) and a peruse around the Rough Trade tent. Oh yes, London's finest has set up store at the Big Chill opposite the main stage. This allows me to lounge on their luxurious sofa and catch the opening set of the day, that of North Dakotan singer songwriter Tom Brosseau. Shorn of his backing band, the bluegrass-influenced singer is a captivating listen; it's a smattering of people that have managed to get themselves up for his 1pm start but this noticeably begins to fill up as Brosseau's dulcet tones drift across the unclouded Herefordshire hills. Song topics range from growing up with friends to unrequited love, and are dealt out with a wonderfully tender voice that occasionally reaches for Buckley-like gracefulness before falling into a grittier rootsy growl. It's an early surprise that's followed by Ludovico Einaudi's White Tree Project. The Italian pianist teams up with Robert and Ronald Lippock- drummer and DJ respectively- to drape his affectingly simple legato piano over Robert's soft rhythms (the percussionist uses his hi-hat for a snare and often chooses to use just his hands to play with). With hazy, city-filled visuals courtesy of visual artists D-Fuse playing in the background, the music of the White Tree Project is a wonderfully immersive experience that manages to push Einaudi's minimalist playing into a new dimension.

Enough of this classical music bobbins though; it's comedy time. I find it hard to review comedy, as the old adage goes: you had to be there. Let's have a go though. As I walk to the far end of the site I notice that a good few others are as well; in fact The Coop tent is filling up sharply as I arrive, and by the time compere Stephen Frost appears on stage there's hundreds sitting outside the Coop as well- no mean feat considering the large big top apparently holds a 7,000 capacity. I estimate close to a quarter of those in attendance at the Big Chill are here. There are problems though; the incessant bass lines of the Coop from last night have switched to the Big Chill Nights stage meaning that there's a steady reverberation throughout the three acts performance, and hearing anything from a beyond a few rows back is really quite hard. Russell Howard however is by now a seasoned performer despite his youthful appearance. With only the slightest reference to the noisy clamour surrounding him, Howard roars through a forty-five minute long set that deals in bizarre tangents- creating speaking characters for his testicles in the bath and scaring off burglars by bouncing on a trampoline naked being the most pertinent- and somehow manages to involve the entire throng watching him despite the obvious difficulties. That a lot of his stuff has been on Mock The Week at some point or other doesn't really matter; Howard's set is a success for consistency over occasional flourish.

If only someone had told Noel Fielding. If possible the crowd's even bigger for the Mighty Boosh man; the front couple of row made up of- you guessed it- screaming girls. The trouble is Fielding hasn't prepared anything; this was probably to be expected- the big-haired trendster is a man who normally thrives on abstract reactionary comedy- except today he has nothing to react against. The cavern he preaches to is so big, he can't hear anything and so resorts to the biggest mistake in the book- ignoring your audience. Fielding spends most of the forty-five minute (how did he manage to stay on so long?) chatting with those in the front row. A brief spiel about having the legs of a ram falls on deaf ears, and by the end of the set he's had kids on stage to have their photo taken with him, had a drunk person up on stage (who gets a bigger laugh than he does all set) and asked twice- without turning his microphone off- how much longer he has to stay on stage for. It's an embarrassment in truth and even the most shrill cheers can't overcome the large rounds of booing that are aimed his way at the end. It's clear where the comedy from the Mighty Boosh comes from, and it's not the floppy-haired, attention-seeking ball of fluff that we see before us today. Get out Barratt whilst you still can.

Dylan Moran's probably a reluctant saviour, but compared to those before- even Howard- he's a cut above. Despite nursing a sore throat, the Irishman is in top form; his well-known drunken delivery as well-timed and effective as ever. Subjects get brought up before being led down the garden path and off into the ether before another swig of wine is taken and the comic barks “so! Where was I”, before rambling off into talk of fearing the opposite sex. It all ends too soon after an hour when he announces “I should stop now, how can you all listen to one man for so long?” A question I'd been asking myself when watching Noel Fielding, but strangely with Moran didn't crop up even once.

Three hours watching comedy sure has left me in the mood for some music; back at the Castle Stage (stage of the weekend? Yeah probably), American multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird is kicking off a set that takes in a lot of latest album 'Noble Beast'. The Chicago-born singer is a revelation live; looping his violin, playing guitar, managing to whistle and play violin at the same time. If that's not enough, his drummer is also playing the piano with his left hand whilst keeping rhythm with his right. It's a stunning performance, 'Fitz And The Dizzy Spells' is a harsher, bass pounding effort live, whilst 'Oh Ho!' and 'Oh No' meld seamlessly together. To top it all, Bird possesses a wonderful voice, capable of both poise and power. In a tale familiar with the Big Chill, a moderate crowd becomes larger by the end of the set; testament to a fine live performer.

Contrast this to Broken Records who suffer the fate of being staged at the same time as the very much in-vogue Amadou & Mariam. The Scottish gypsy-stomp band are right to feel a little under whelmed at the crowd they see before them, but to their credit they don't let it affect them and the straining violins of 'Nearly Home' remain a thrilling set opener that releases tension its in the barnyard frenzy of 'If The News Makes You Sad, Don't Watch It'. Two new songs show a darker, blunter side to the Edinburgh-group and lead singer James Sutherland's voice finds itself far more suited to the live environment; his throaty Scottish tones almost bursting out of him like some unkempt energy. You can't argue with my contribution to the cause; final song 'Slow Parade' is tributed to the “cut of his [my] jist” (in truth some decidedly shabby attempts at dancing). It's another story of slow burning success though as the placid Big Chill crowd slowly comes alive to the Scots own take on Eastern Europe traditional music.

Which leaves it all set up rather nicely for Talking Heads front man and all round real-life legend David Byrne to take centre stage. Possibly the sparsest headlining crowd are in attendance tonight and a great deal of those seem mildly curious as opposed to feverish with anticipation. Thankfully Byrne doesn't take too much notice of this and concentrates on filling the stage with his shifty, twitching persona; it's a style that matches the tone of the Talking Heads songs rolled out tonight perfectly, as well you might expect for a man who at times doesn't seem to have aged once in the past thirty years or so. Personal highlights are those off the seminal 'Fear Of Music'- 'Life During Wartime', 'Air' and 'Cities' are all delivered with the jerky, startled demeanour that they still retain on record.

So The Big Chill then. Chilled most definitely, and whilst seeing families mixing with stoned students may not be the cup of tea desired by those more used to running around giving free hugs and drinking Aftershock at Leeds & Reading; for me it was one of the most gratifying sights of the weekend- a festival that really did encompass everyone. Eastnor can count on my presence next year. Get The Guardians at the ready.