Hop Farm Festival - Kent (06/07/2008)

Seb Perry | Tuesday, 08 July 2008

Hop Farm Festival - Kent (06/07/2008)

With so many festivals sprouting like mushrooms across the UK these days, you could be forgiven for not having noticed Vince Power’s single-day, single-stage event at Hop Farm in Kent. Only an hour out of London, it’s an ideal draw for music lovers reluctant to subject themselves to the squalor and indignity of three days in a leaky, mud-spattered tent.

Or at least it would have been ideal if only Mr Power hadn’t decided to hold the event on a Sunday, with the last train leaving a good 45 minutes before the headline act was due to finish, and the parking arrangements so asinine that frustrated drivers were left trapped in the grounds for two to three hours before being able to exit the farm and head home.

Fortunately not even the bad planning and miserable weather could detract from the pleasure of Neil Young’s performance, a triumphant finish to a line-up that struck a satisfying balance between indie and the mainstream. I arrived too late for midday openers Everest, but Laura Marling’s melancholic alt-folk fitted perfectly with the chill winds and intensifying drizzle. She’s a rather demure stage presence, but then again it’s not long ago she was being refused entry to her own gigs for being under age.

It’s getting increasingly difficult to justify to my friends why I rate the Guillemots so highly. With their second album Red low on tunes but high on grating falsetto, the band’s recent live strategy has been to bludgeon the audience with the force of their enthusiasm alone. While that might be enough for an enclave of devotees, in the open air of Hop Farm they’re a self-indulgent mess, the melodies lost in waves of pointlessly thrashy guitar and ugly splodges of keyboard. This was easily the worst gig I’ve seen them do, though it was just about redeemed by the manic wig-out of set closer 'Sao Paulo'.

Rufus Wainwright, by contrast, managed to be brilliant without even trying. Fresh from a faultless but complacent performance the night before at Kenwood House in Hampstead, he proved as self-assured and effortlessly charismatic here as in front of his natural constituency of bourgeois picnickers. With only a piano and his voice’s unwieldy but mellifluous drone, he shunned his more familiar 'hits' in favour of songs from his 1998 debut, and a couple of languorous, lethargic ballads from last year’s Release The Stars.

Having participated in Gay Pride that weekend, he also delivered a gleeful rendition of 'Gay Messiah', though it's doubtful whether that song’s depiction of performing fellatio on the homosexual saviour of mankind (¨baptized in cum¨) won him many new converts. His only populist moment was a final cover of Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah'. Wainwright is no Jeff Buckley, and you could call the choice of song arrogant to the point of hubris, but at that very moment the clouds parted and the sun made its first appearance. Even the heavens, it seemed, were won over by his self-confidence.

Supergrass must be one of the few bands to have emerged from the whirlwind farrago of Britpop without splitting up or becoming a laughing stock (although the moustache Gaz Coombes is currently sporting does make him look like a comedy version of Nick Cave). New tracks like 'Bad Blood' and 'Rebel in You' are pretty forgettable, but most of their set reminded you just what a great singles band they were in their prime. 'Caught by the Fuzz', 'Moving', 'Sun Hits The Sky' and 'Pumping On Your Stereo' still sound fantastic, and when they generously opted to play their career albatross 'Alright', suddenly the audience were bopping like it was 1995.

Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than fade away" (words that haunted Kurt Cobain so much, he scrawled them on his suicide note). But though now in his sixties, Neil Young doesn't seem in danger of doing either. His two-hour set was just astonishing in its volume and ferocity, and when he did relent midway for a series of beautiful acoustic numbers, you got the impression it was so we could take a breather, not him.

Naturally the old songs received the most rapturous welcome - 'The Needle and the Damage Done' and 'Oh Lonesome Me' being particularly heart-wrenching - but even new tracks like 'Spirit Road' stood up well alongside them, because (as Young wrily admitted at one point) his style hasn't changed a great deal over the years. Indeed, there wasn't a single moment where one felt "He must have been better in the old days" - not something that can be said about most musicians of his generation that are still touring.

The only real blemish on the performance was when he took to a church organ to perform a pious environmental paean to 'Mother Earth' while the video screens showed a panning shot of the audience's faces. It was a nauseatingly saccharine misfire, and made me want to empty the contents of the nearest recycling bin over his head. But then perhaps my subsequent ordeal in the car park was Vince Power's punishment for my callous indifference to our planet's plight.

Rating: 4/5