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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan

Twinwood Arena, Bedford, August 29th, 20th & 31st, 2008.

No need to worry, Serge – the Whiskyfun van is back on the road, all cleaned up and as right as nine pence. We’ve driven it through the pretty Bedfordshire countryside, where I notice many fields of barley are as yet unharvested, to the Twinwood Stadium, home of the Rhythm Festival. We were so impressed by this unusual setting for a Festival last year when we just came for a day – it’s an old air-base with a wonderful semi-natural auditorium at one end – that we thought we’d come for the whole bash this time. At times I doubted the event would go ahead – it must have made a big loss last year, and with so many festivals this year and rumours of poor sales everywhere it wouldn’t have surprised me if this one got pulled like a number of others. But we’re here, nicely parked on what I guess was part of the old runway (now grassed over) with lovely views down across the valley on one side, and of our neighbours gathered around their fold-away table on the other.

Rythm Festival
As it’s Friday, and it’s almost four o’clock, they’re acting out the famous English Scrumpy Jack tea ritual, which appears to involve the consumption of several cans of the aforementioned beverage along with some of Mr Kipling’s Assorted Fancies. On the van we’re preparing dinner – but don’t worry Serge, there’s no signature dish tonight.
It’s an interesting line-up – no one exactly new or cutting edge – that’s not what the Rhythm Festival does, but an eclectic collection of vintage acts from both sides of the Atlantic, with a particularly strong American contingent over the three days.
Some were big hits – some less so, but all seemed a trifle bewildered by the relative paucity of the audience. Partly it’s because there simply aren’t that many folk here – and also because the site can easily swallow up thousands of bodies and still seem like one of those deserted RAF camps that used to feature heavily as sets for early episodes of the Avengers. There are three ‘stages’: the main auditorium which never feels more than about a third full; the Alternative Stage, mostly hosting the British bands such as Wilko Johnson, Hey Negrita, Stackridge, Neville Staples and Geno Washington, then the tented Marquee Club Stage, which at one point on Saturday hosted the smallest audience of them all. The principle attractions seem to be the bars, as almost every empty Nissen Hut (that is, those that aren’t decked out with period equipment and rather odd people dressed as Second World War soldiers and airmen) seems to be full of beer kegs, a few tables and chairs, an occasional DJ and hordes of people. It’s as if the organisers are on a responsibility-free mission to make as much profit as they can from booze, and many of the participants seem only too happy to join in. Rythm Festival
Talking of drinking reminds me not only of Scrumpy Jack and Scrumpy Pete, who disappeared in search of something called Gwynt y Ddraig, but also the feisty (or was it ‘kooky’?) Michelle Shocked – not that she was drinking since she doesn’t now, but she did in her bad marriage when her husband drank, and she drank, but you’ll be glad to know that’s all over (as, thank heavens, so was her set soon afterwards) and now she’s met a great guy and is very happy. Performing solo she also sang some of her nice songs (so that’s who played ‘Anchorage’), but probably should have followed her own oft-offered advice, “Don’t talk too much now, Michelle”.
She was by no means the best, or worst, of the US performers over the weekend. Sadly the latter accolade rested somewhere between Saturday’s Quicksilver Messenger Service and Sunday’s Jefferson Starship, both of course great names from the acid-tinged San Francisco of the late 1960s. The Quicksilvers, who I remember with some affection having been played their first album at great length (do you remember Dino’s song?) by a school friend who’d arrived in Oxfordshire from the West Coast with albums by them, Moby Grape, 13th Floor Elevator Company and others under his arm, were not much short of a shambles.
Michelle Shocked
Michelle Shocked
Faced up by original members Gary Duncan on guitar, who looked like a fully-paid up member of rock and roll’s walking dead, and Dave Freiberg (should that be ‘Friedhead’?), who Jozzer said reminded him of his Nan, they were woefully under-rehearsed and out of touch, inflicting lengthy latinesque guitar solos on a largely unimpressed audience, and eventually literally ground to a halt half-way through ‘What About me’. Later as we queued for tea we could see some arm-waving recriminations backstage between Friedhead and Duncan. But Friedhead had a second chance singing with Jefferson Starship, with the newly-recruited Cathy Richardson as the band’s latest Grace Slick replacement, led by a rather disinterested chain-smoking Paul Kantner.
This was on a damp Sunday afternoon and the crowd was shrinking by the minute. The set was divided between their classics (“We’ll try not to fuck up White Rabbit for you …”) and material from Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty (“we’ve got a new album out of folk songs and other old shit …”). Time has not treated their songs well, and much of their their new material also seems very dated in a clichéd Californian way - faux radicalism combined with sentimental environmentalism and piano riffs designed for TV golf shows makes pretty sorry listening. The worst moment was when Kantner left the stage (“I’m going to look for MI5 agents in the audience”) and Friedhead sang the maudling ‘Cowboy on the run’ – “Sometimes I dream of a world without war: people laughing in the sun…”. Ugh!
Paul Kantner
Paul Kantner and Cathy Richardson
Far more to the audience’s liking were New York’s Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, who, with not a grey hair amongst them, kicked off on the main stage on Friday and Sunday. The early morning rain hadn’t cleared when they started their second set, but they patently won the hearts of the damp and characteristically weather-defiant audience with their eclectic selection of Irish jiggery, swampy country and western and the odd King Crimson tribute. And as they played their final song, ‘Alice inside’, I was tempted to wonder if every American singer didn’t have a Neil Diamond somewhere within them.
Stax veteran Steve Cropper, partnering with the Animals, also won some spurs, although he was almost upstaged by Blockhead and sometime Animal Micky Gallagher, who certainly showed he had a Booker T somewhere inside him. Gallagher’s keyboard playing (he’d played briefly with the original Animals when Alan Price left) was absolutely outstanding, and as he and Cropper gelled during their Friday night set, Cropper blasting out his trademark riffs, they gradually left original drummer John Steel, bass and vocalist Peter Barton and guitarist John Williamson firmly in the shade. They were followed by Big Star, fronted by the legendary Alex Chilton, all floppy hair, creased chinos and sports shirt and sports jacket. As one of the real highlights of the weekend Chilton was justifiably puzzled by the diminishing crowd that almost evaporated in front of his eyes in favour of the timeless cockney charms of Chas and Dave. After all, this is the man who brought the world the fabulous Box Tops, with songs like ‘The Letter’, Cry like a baby’ and ‘Soul Deep’. Big Star was his commercially unsuccessful venture into power-pop but now regarded as hugely influential on a later generation of musicians.
Steve Cropper
Steve Cropper and Micky Gallagher
This all seemed to be lost on the Twinwood audience, and thus, not surprisingly, the band lost a bit of interest themselves. A shame, as they had apparently played a blinder at Shepherd’s Bush a couple of nights before.
But it was a real elder statesman who made the final transatlantic contribution to the Festival. A man whose remarkable contribution to Woodstock (have you watched it recently?) must nonetheless follow him around like an albatross: Richie Havens. It was Sunday afternoon, and by this time the clouds were dark and low, but in his short set Mr Havens just managed to keep them at bay. He was gracious and charming, engaging and egregious, accompanied by a wonderfully sensitive guitarist, Walter Parks, and for a few songs, cellist Stephanie Winters. I was astonished to watch his guitar playing close up – a most unorthodox technique, but simple and effective. I understand from the Rhythm Festival Forum that some people didn’t like it, but we thought it almost an hour of perfection, with an eclectic selection of songs including ‘All along the watchtower’ (and an amusing story about its composer), ‘Freedom’ (of course), ‘Won’t get fooled again’, ‘Licence to kill’, and as an encore his unlikely and unintended disco hit (as recorded by Odyssey) ‘Going back to my roots’.
Richie Heavens
Alex Chilton and Richie Havens
And as he sang his final song, the long-threatened rain (the forecast had promised hurricanes, hail, a plague of locusts, toads etc.) began to fall, and we retreated to the comfort of the Whiskyfun Festival van. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate and Nick).
Richie Havens MySpace

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