Highlights: The Big Chill, 1-3 August 2008

Seb Perry | Thursday, 07 August 2008

Highlights: The Big Chill, 1-3 August 2008

The Big Chill has expanded so much since its creation in 1994 that it scarcely makes sense to call it a music festival anymore. Programmes are in short supply, and few people here seem to care who’s playing or when. You don’t come to the Big Chill to see your favourite bands; you come to dance to the early hours while DJ upon DJ unleashes a slew of thumping beats.

Alternatively, you come for the comedy (Bill Bailey and the Mighty Boosh easily pull in the biggest crowds of the weekend), the cinema, the literary workshops and the night-time art installations, or for the bongo-beating hippie commune and the holistic therapy sessions. This isn’t a festival, it’s a department store.

On the other hand, the lack of emphasis on the bands does mean you can get to see an eclectic and unpredictable line-up at unusually close quarters, be it the Senegalese swagger of Orchestra Baobab or the spectral Newcastle folk of Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. A special treat for the lucky few to stumble across it is an intimate unplugged set by The Leisure Society. But the weekend’s musical highlights come mostly from a succession of compelling foreign frontwomen.

From her fumbled lyrics and slurred speech between songs, it seems that Martha Wainwright has been enjoying the Big Chill a little too much in the run-up to her Friday evening performance. Fortunately any fears that we’re looking at another slow-motion car crash (like Amy Winehouse at Glastonbury) prove unfounded, as she delivers a set by turns soaring (the anthemic 'You Cheated Me') and searing (the anguished howl of 'Bloody Mother F***ing A*****e').

Lykke Li, by contrast, is a model of self-discipline. The Swedish singer flounces and struts around the stage with the disconcerting relentlessness of an aerobics instructor. But it perfectly suits the workout her songs are given – where the album versions are sparse and minimalist, here they’re thrillingly bombastic. However, her coquettish delivery wears thin after a while, and it’s telling that the most exciting moment in her set is a fleeting cover of Vampire Weekend’s 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa'.

You would never have expected a Parisian a capella singing group, whose instruments of choice are two human beatboxes, a bag of coins and some sponges, to win the hearts of sodden festival-goers impatient for Leonard Cohen. But, seemingly as much to their surprise as ours, Camille and her troupe do exactly that. The award-winning songstress is about as far from the stereotype of a Gallic chanteuse as can be imagined, building songs out of handclaps, high-pitched shrieks and animal impressions that somehow manage to be melodic and utterly mesmerising.

She performs tracks from her latest release, Music Hole, and her brilliant 2005 'concept' album Le Fil. She even reprises her Nouvelle Vague cover of 'Too Drunk To F**k'. She concludes with 'Money Note', a scabrous and not exactly subtle satirical jab at the shameless commercialism of Celine, Mariah and countless cash-in divas – for which she dons a sleek black satin dress with a hole cut out of the back, gleefully exposing her derriere to adoring onlookers.

The smell of crisp banknotes, of course, is what's coaxed 73-year old Leonard Cohen out of his Buddhist monastery to go on tour again for the first time in fifteen years, after his former manager swindled him out of $5 million. Though he's a frail and shy stage presence, his voice has hardly altered – after all, it's not as if he ever had to worry about hitting the notes – and you're reminded just what a priceless, incomparable lyricist he is.

His set spans classics like 'Suzanne', 'So Long Marianne' and 'Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye', guiltier pleasures like 'First We Take Manhattan', a spine-tingling 'Tower of Song' and a climactic, poignant reclaiming of 'Hallelujah'.

The only gripe is that he's given a measly hour-and-a-half to perform what's supposed to be the crowning act of the weekend, despite the audience's desperate clamours for more.

And nothing brings home the organisers' strange indifference to their musical line-up more than the fact that they choose to launch a flurry of noisy fireworks during the quietest moment of Cohen's set, before setting light to an enormous bonfire (also a vivid demonstration of the seriousness of their environmental credentials).

But as any die-hard Big Chiller will tell you, it's not about the music, man.