“A day once dawned and it was beautiful”. These are the words – lovingly carved into the trunk of a sculpted tree – that welcome you into the very heart of the Umberslade estate. The opening line of ‘From The Morning’ – the track off Pink Moon, the third and last album that he was to release during his lifetime – affirms the presence of Nick Drake at the Lunar Festival.
From the festival’s location on the lip of Tanworth-in-Arden, the beautifully picturesque Warwickshire village where Drake spent his childhood, to his large painted image – an adaptation of the one that adorns the cover of his posthumous compilation album Way to Blue – hanging gracefully in a tree at the rear of the site, the fragile, doomed English folk musician’s spirit is everywhere.
Nick Drake’s essence – a warm, gentle and pastoral serenity – is the thread that weaves itself through the Lunar Festival and it is fitting that his memory is kept alive through this event as it returns for its third annual edition. And whilst Lunar boasts a dazzling array of entertainment for all the family – activities that embrace all manner of sports and games, feature a variety of truly excellent arts and crafts workshops and contain the vibrant presence of those magical characters from the wonderful Florifercity and Circus Raj collaboration – it is music that lies at the very heart of the festival.
The Allah-Las bring some of their Los Angeles’ sunshine and 1960’s guitar drenched psychedelic pop to the early Friday evening. It is a set that builds slowly towards its own momentum before gliding off into a glorious finale that features a marvellous cover of The Human Expression’s ‘Calm Me Down’, ‘Catamaran’ from their eponymous debut album, before they sign off with ‘Every Girl’.
Mark E. Smith remains as uncompromising as ever. His voice remains totally incomprehensible – something that the judge in a recent Fall copyright dispute case confirmed when he described Smith’s lyrics as being “hard to hear” – and the band still kick up a most terrifying din of squalling guitar, drums and keyboards, but there is no denying their rightful place in the pantheon of contemporary music. That they still have the capacity to shock and amaze is evident when Smith leads his troops through a death-defying ‘Auto Chip 2014-2016’ (from their 31st and most recent studio album, Sub-Lingual Tablet) before he promises to “sacrifice the blood of the lead singer of Franz Ferdinand”.
The festival headliners Tinariwen – those Tuareg musicians from the West African desert of Mali – are pretty much the perfect fit for Lunar Festival. They are bold; they are enchanting; and their music speaks of freedom. It is a magical blend of their more traditional roots, ethereal blues and more modern Western influences; a sound that crosses cultural borders and one that brings to a wonderful close the first day of Lunar Festival 2015.
Jane Weaver continues on her journey of exploration as she moves even further beyond her folk nascence in search of new psychedelic space. She asserts her pioneering independence with a clutch of songs that add an even greater warmth to Saturday afternoon’s sunshine. ‘Mission Desire’ and ‘Don’t Take My Soul’ – from last year’s excellent album The Silver Globe are particular highlights – as is the concluding, euphoric blast of ‘I Need A Connection’.
Canterbury’s Syd Arthur shift the day even further along a mystical path as they meld together the central elements of psychedelia, folk and early 70’s progressive rock into one intoxicating blend of sonic spirituality. My Brightest Diamond live up to their name as Shara Worden – the Detroit-based singer, guitarist and all-round cult artist – glitters and shines. Her dynamic voice swoops and soars, showing the most remarkable versatility across a raft of songs that vacillate easily between chamber pop, rock and the baroque.
Men who know one hell of a lot about the art of rhythm and blues are The Pretty Things. Now into their sixth decade in the industry, they show absolutely no sign of letting up as original members Phil May and Dick Taylor lead the quintet through a set that positively bristles with energy and class. Early single ‘Don’t Bring Me Down’ still sounds every bit as fresh as when it first charted in 1964 and a brace of songs from their landmark album S.F. Sorrow illustrate their capacity to entwine their R&B heart with a psychedelic soul.
Another man who knows something about survival is Wilko Johnson. Diagnosed with an inoperable pancreatic cancer over two years ago, he subsequently underwent radical surgery and has since made a most remarkable recovery. We celebrate this miracle with him and his truly fantastic rhythm section of Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe as the band tear through ‘Going Back Home’ and the old Dr. Feelgood standards ‘Back In The Night’ and ‘She Does It Right’, before bidding us a fond farewell with Chuck Berry’s ‘Bye Bye Johnny’.
Mike Heron is a man who is a festival veteran. He did, after all, play the original Woodstock in 1969 as part of The Incredible String Band. One song they played then was ‘This Moment is Different’, albeit “rather limply” as Heron suggests. It is not an accusation one can level at him tonight in The Bimble Inn – Lunar’s second stage, a quite unique tented structure whose entire electrical supply is sourced from solar panels – as he and fellow Scots psych-folkies Trembling Bells do the song great justice, something that they repeat on the concluding ‘A Very Cellular Song’.
Joined on stage by JF Abraham on bass guitar and flugelhorn, their usual set designer Mr B, a three-man horn section (during the incredibly powerful and deeply moving ‘Gagarin’) and a dancing astronaut, Public Service Broadcasting’s core duo of J. Willgoose, Esq. and Wrigglesworth show that there really is life after their 2013 debut album Inform-Educate-Entertain. Splicing material from that record and its follow-up The Race for Space, their performance under the stars conjures up the true sense of wonder at mankind’s achievements.
Sunday kicks into gear with the unexpected addition of Föllakzoid to the bill. Standing in at the very last minute for Zun Zun Egui they entrance the crowd with a dizzying exercise in how best to perform cosmic space-rock. Their set is one of the weekend’s absolute highlights, perhaps showing that living in Santiago does mean that you really are that bit closer to the galaxies.
To watch RM Hubbert perform is not a comfortable experience. The Glaswegian guitarist – his prodigious style embraces flamenco, folk, samba and pop – writes songs about Buckfast fortified wine, spousal abuse and his own depression. As he himself points out he has yet to be picked up by 6 Music. But if you stick with it and join with him in the catharsis of his performance, you can see his deep love of humanity shining through. His ode to his ex-father-in-law ‘For Joe’ and the valedictory ‘Car Song’ – which he co-wrote with Aidan Moffat – are emotional triumphs.
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn are Sylvan Esso and together they create a delicious, off-kilter form of quirky electro-pop that fits ever so nicely with the idiosyncratic vision of Lunar Festival. And another rather unique individual who should sit rather easily with the festival’s blend of bohemianism and bravura is Julian Cope. But the man who can list pop success with the Teardrop Explodes, antiquarianism and author among his many remarkable achievements in life fails to deliver today. His set is big on talk – long, rambling self-indulgent monologues that veer erratically between tales of recreational drugs, thwarted ambition and foreign travel – but, sadly, lacking in the many wonderful tunes he has written over the years.
Another rock’n’roll outsider, Robyn Hitchcock, fares a little better shortly afterwards, making a pretty reasonable fist of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’ but it is then up to the Sun Ra Arkestra to re-ignite the festival’s musical flames. This they do with an irresistible fusion of out-there otherworldliness; a colourful recreation of avant-jazz, blues and funk. Celebrating the 101st year of their leader – the cosmic jazz legend Sun Ra (who died in 1993 at the age of 79 but whose pioneering spirit lives on in the Arkestra’s music) – and the 91st year of their current bandleader, alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, theirs is a sound that defies time, space and categorization.
Whilst there is still time left for The Bootleg Beatles to skilfully manoeuvre their way through the Fab Four’s 1967-70 back catalogue, it does feel as if the Sun Ra Arkestra leading of the procession round the festival’s main arena and then setting the scene for the ritual burning of The Crow in a mock-pagan ceremony is really this year’s festival’s true finale.
This spectacular piece of grand theatre brings to a close what has been a nigh on perfect three days at the Lunar Festival. It has been 72 hours of the most wonderful entertainment and fun, enjoyed in the most relaxed, friendly and safe of environments. You do strongly sense that Nick Drake would be very happy to have his name associated with such an uplifting experience.
Photo credit: Simon Godley
Photos from Friday at Lunar Festival 2015 can be found here
Photos from Saturday at Lunar Festival 2015 can be found here
Photos from Sunday at Lunar Festival 2015 can be found here