19th to 21st June 2015
There was a time when England was the very apotheosis of a failed state, as waves of invaders scratched a living in the ruins of an ancient civilisation. The land depopulated by famine and relentless epidemics, religious sects practiced trial by judicial torture. Public executions by burning or beheading were common. Scientists were heretics. Civil wars raged between absolute rulers, armies packed with foreign proxies. It was a haven for pirates and launched countless wars of aggression.
No one can be sure quite what triggered the quiet revolution, known as ‘The Age of Enlightenment’, that led England and Western Europe out of the dark ages. Thoughtful souls gathered in coffee shops and parlours and replaced superstition with science, bigotry with reason, and fear with knowledge. Maths, science and history; unravelling the mysteries of it all started with these small bands.
It is that salon movement, that restless curiosity, during the dawn of the age of reason, that Also festival’s curator, Helen Bagnall, sought to recreate as scientists, writers, musicians and artists all gathered in rural Warwickshire.
Also festival managed to assemble not only a guestlist of great variety and depth, but an audience to match.
Salon-London has been running for several years now, promoting events with science, art and psychology at the heart of the agenda. The movement has spread through word of mouth, eschewing commercial marketing models and defying received wisdom, using services from companies as Grasshopper to market their physical products.
The festival that grew out of those clubs is now in its second year, with the Capability Brown-designed landscape (the original, not the 1970s art-rock band) forming the ideal framing. Infrastructure is otherwise minimal; adequate, but never falling into empty spectacle.
On Friday, the excellent Mr Heart took to the main stage. Before that, though, came Matthew Morgan with a performance heavily influenced by Bauhaus (the 1920s German art movement, not Pete Murphy’s post punk poseurs).
Mr Heart’s Tamsin A is every bad girl’s punk fantasy: dressed in black, crushed velvet and DMs, she spat and snarled as the band launched into a full-on psycho waltz. Polyrhythms lay underpinned by the powerful, lyrical percussion of Helen Suzy, Amy Spray’s nimble bass lines thudding against your teeth like a gob full of vomit. In front of them, a dozen or so toddlers sat and looked on politely, their parents standing behind the tousle-haired moppets, reminiscing about Glastonbury ’04. Muscle memory soon took over, though, as another generation lurched sheepishly into Dad Dancing.
Mr Heart put on a good show – better, in fact, than the format they adopt allows. Songs were interesting and well-constructed; A’s lyrics often hinted at subtlety (and real rage) but were masked by the over-use of loops and vocal effects and by their sometimes-clichéd style. Arrangements were complex and interesting, with changes of rhythm and tempo. There was great use of the considerable dynamic range of the band to provide light and shade. A’s guitar was underused, with solos only rare teases and promises of Tom Verlaine-type soaring, spiky arpeggios unfulfilled (lock this girl in a room with a copy of Marquee Moon). The band’s set was mostly drawn from The Unspeakable Mr Heart, which is worth a listen. Keep an eye on this band and watch them develop.
As Mr Heart were wrapping up their tight and well-received set, the Bat Walk, led by Stuart Spray, went past, down to the lake in the dusk of a midsummer’s evening. Nearby, a cocktail bar in the Black Cab Coffee Co dispensed martinis and good cheer as Marcel Lucont, the Gallic comedy creation of Alexis Dubus, took the main stage to entertain a large and enthusiastic audience and bring the evening to an end.
Saturday, the longest day, dawned with festival goers in surprisingly good shape. This is a crowd that has a pint of water before it goes to sleep, refreshingly free of the usual mobs of testosterone-driven, pissed-up wankers shouting at the moon till silly o’clock. There was one man playing pipe and tabor to welcome in the dawn, and he is recovering well following rectal surgery.
This was a day for dodging the showers and wandering from venue to venue. Down in the disco bunker (made from straw bales, no less), DJ Steve Vertigo taught kids how to modulate EQ rapidly and produce a rhythmic effect. Couples were looking over the lake sitting on wicker settees. Strangers met and chatted about the appropriate uses of post-feminist irony and the modal structure of the first Velvet Underground LP.
The main stage was packed to hear David Tong’s talk on dark matter. A dedicated knitting tent was well attended, too, and everywhere conversations were breaking out as a community started to form. The very brave went wild swimming in the lake. Few people bothered climb to the top of the hill where there was rumoured to be 3G reception.
Joanne Harris entranced the crowd with her reinvention of Loki for the modern age as a sort of cosmic Arthur Daley. Singer-songwriter Matt Maltese, only 19, showed some deft touches in composition and arrangement; a little bit predictable but plenty of time to mature. Joana Parker gave an interesting talk on her book of maps, though possibly needing a map to show when Marcos Santana and the TRIBO samba drummers were going to kick off, we lost the last ten minutes of her talk.
It became more normal to engage your neighbour as barriers came down, and that’s when things started to get really interesting. Somehow, Bagnall had assembled not just a guestlist of great variety and depth, but an audience to match. Daniel Richard’s excellent talk on his book, Great British Songwriters, grew into a discussion of the intellectual and scientific basis of sythesthesia (seeing sounds as colours), with one member of the audience, Mr Heart‘s Amy Spray, talking like a consultant neurologist. Jamie Bartlett led a passionate discussion from the floor about the Dark Net, the internet and its abusers.
Cool and beautiful, Karin Fransson mixed her own sophisticated jazz-light compositions with traditional Swedish numbers to celebrate mid-summer, generously providing a measure of the Swedish ardent spirit snaps for each audience member before leading a drinking song and having three or four glasses herself; after which point she became rather less cool if no less beautiful.
The site was abuzz during the afternoon from those who had attended musical director Juliet Russell’s workshop and choir that morning. The main stage was packed for her show for which she had expected maybe a dozen people at most; in the end, 40 festival goers packed themselves in front of the stage to watch Russell give a performance of spine-tingling intensity and passion.
Also is a Marmite festival: you’ll either love it or hate it. If your idea of a good time is to get wankered on supermarket vodka to a deafening soundtrack of cock-rock bands and wake up in your tent covered in mud with a trainee accountant from Basingstoke snoring in your ear, then this festival is not for you, look away now.
Also is one of the few festivals to take genuine risks in pursuit of its aims; it has a soul and a mission and a confidence that embraces the chance of ridicule. This is a festival with no barriers between performers and punters. Artists were there as facilitators rather than entertainers, educators and not stars. The audience comprised poets and scientists, doctors and dreamers, teachers and dozens and dozens of individuals from all walks of life who came away with renewed belief in their own intellect and creativity, with more hope and less fear.
In Juliet Russell’s own words:
“Sometimes we need reminding
To take beauty where we find it
I am you and you are me
And my voice lifts my soul
And I set my spirit free.”
At the climax of the number, led by Russell and the massed choir, festival director Helen Bagnall gave a little jump, fist pumping the air. Agreed, Helen. You smashed it. Well done.
Check www.salon-london.com for more information on the Salon movement.
One of the few festivals willing to take genuine risks in pursuit of its aims