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Supernormal FestivalSupernormal Festival

Day 1 - Bands in order of appearance:

Hákarl
Gertrude
Manflu
Cold In Berlin
Johnny Cola & the A Grades
Proxy Music

Brazier's Park, Oxfordshire
Friday August 19 2011

 

You'd never believe that we're only a few miles from the site which, next weekend, will host the ruthlessly corporate music biz beanfeast that is the Reading Festival. My Chemical Romance, Beady Eye, total tedium. But in this Oxfordshire field - just up the road, but definitely off the beaten track - something a little different is going on. This is the Supernormal Festival, an event about as un-corporate as you can possibly get in a western capitalist economy.

Brazier's HouseIt all takes place in what is effectively the back garden of Brazier's Park, a gothick country pile that looks like it should be the residence of The Count (no other names necessary: if you live in a gothick pile, you have to be called The Count. It's the law).

Alas, in reality, there is no Count. Nevertheless, Brazier's Park has a fascinating history. Once owned by the family of Ian Fleming, a little later the home of a young Marianne Faithfull, these days it's a counter-cultural educational establishment where you can learn everything from meditation to coppicing, beekeeping to Nordic walking (apparently they do it differently up there). And, over this summer weekend, Brazier's Park hosts a rock 'n' roll garden party in the field out the back.

The usual trappings of the rock festival industry are conspicuous by their absence here. There are no crowd barriers, no car parks full of Nightliner buses - not even any portaloos. If you require a crap, you'll find some long-drop earth closets in the woods. You see that contraption over there, that looks like someone's tried to build a replica of Stephenson's Rocket out of found objects? Those are the showers. Hot water, day and night, fuelled by hippy technology. Study it carefiully: after the final collapse of the economy, we'll all be doing it this way.

Looking for the VIP area? There ain't one. Bands and audience pitch tents in the same field, and prop up the same bar in the beer tent. The main stage looks like a haphazardly converted garden shed. The second stage looks like it should be hosting a Punch and Judy show. The DJ booth is a horse box. Fortunately, they took the horse out first.

Welcome to the Supernormal Festival, ladies and gentlemen. Like I said - it's a little different.

 

Supernormal scenes

 

Supernormal isn't just about bands. There are outbreaks of ART all over the field. Animated wanking-monsters are set up at strategic locations, performance art happenings take place among the trees, and you might even catch occasional appearances of a giant white rabbit cheerfully wandering about. Now that can certainly spook you when you catch a glimpse of him across the field when you've just emerged from the beer tent.

The band/art crossover point occurs in an open-sided marquee, handily located next to the organic burger stand. Here, an assortment of random musos bang and scrape an avant-folk racket. This is Hákarl, which is the Icelandic word for fermented shark meat (I bet you knew that already), but in this case is the name of Supernormal's bespoke improvisation project, created just for the festival. The band - whoever they may be from time to time, because anyone's free to join in - is in the early stages of creating a seamless piece of music that's scheduled to continue for the next 36 hours. And you thought Tubular Bells went on a bit.

Hakarl / Gertrude

 

Now let's stroll down to the garden shed and see who's lurking behind the lawnmower. Gertrude look like they've been interrupted in the middle of spring cleaning - they're all smocks and overalls and curlers, and they make an energetic garage-pop racket in which the rattle and bash of guitars and drums is leavened by occasional interjections of cello.

The singer holds up pictures of Rupert Murdoch and Nick Clegg - poor old Cleggy, everyone's brand new demon of choice - and invites us to join her in a cheerfully insulting song. Their targets might be a little too easy - c'mon, does anyone actually like Rupert Murdoch? - but Gertrude's bolshie-pop is a lot of fun.

Playing in the supper time slot, Manflu start in daylight and finish in dusk. That's Manflu, always lurking on the boundary between darkness and light. The band seem magnificently odd in this setting, this warm, benign afternoon. Because Manflu aren't warm and benign. They're all angles and jangles, teetering and metallic, the musical equivalent of collapsing scaffolding.

But there's a groove lurking in the band's clangourous edginess, a beat you can dance to - or at least flail around to on the grass, while Manflu's vocalist gives the field an appraising glare. She's wearing a cut-up beige shirt with 'More' painted across it, and while I'm sure there's a concept in there somewhere, I'm just rather impressed at the way she can look like a supercool avant-punk diva while wearing beige.

 

Manflu

 

The sun's gone down, the lights are on, and Supernormal's garden shed stage is bathed in that peculiar Pepto-Bismol pink which, it seems, is the default colour of LED stage lighting. All that technology, just to soak everything in an over-saturated pink glow that plays merry hell with photographs and makes the bands look like blobs of undercooked sausage meat. Just think, back in the days of old-fashioned tungsten lighting, we simply couldn't do this.

Cold In BerlinAnd here comes Cold In Berlin, pinked-up under the lights but raging from their spiky black hearts. I always think of Cold In Berlin as an urban band, a band of bricks and concrete, a band of hard stares and hard surfaces.

Maybe that's because I normally see them in some Hoxton beer hall, the world the band came from and still, to a great extent, inhabit.

But here Cold In Berlin whip up a spooky storm like a sabbat of new wave witches, a whirl of caterwauling rhythm that stretches out into the gathering darkness and brings people hurrying across the field to see what's going on.

When the band hit their nightmare anthem 'Total Fear', and send the chorus cry - "TOTAL FEAAAAR!" - out into the night, that benign afternoon seems a lifetime ago.

It's probably just as well that Jonny Cola & the A Grades are along next to cheer us up with some amiable glam-pop. They're a ramshackle bunch, decked out in scruffy threads and incongruous eyeliner. They look and sound like their influences are pulling them equally towards Cockney Rebel and Mud, Suede and Chas and Dave.

It's almost as if the band hasn't quite decided how glam they want to be. Louche lounge lizardry, or pretty brickies? Doomed romantics from the bad side of town, or just a buncha lads from down the pub having a kickabout? Jonny Cola & the A-Grades are all the above, in bits and pieces. A few more band meetings needed before they fix a direction that's all their own, I reckon. But as a low-stress rock 'n' roll festival experience, they do the job.

Jonny Cola / Proxy Music

 

You know what you're going to get with Proxy Music. As with most tribute bands, their originality begins and ends with their name. Except that's not quite so in this case. The Proxies mess with the blueprint somewhat by not bothering to reproduce their source material with too much slavish devotion, by including Brian Eno songs in their Roxy repertoire, and playing everything with a ragged-edged punkish feel that I dare say would have Bryan Ferry covering his eyes in an elegantly restrained gesture of resignation if the old smoothie dared to risk his Crockett & Jones Chelsea boots by traipsing across the field to check out the racket.

Proxy MusicEverything Proxy play is drawn from the early years - back when Brian Eno was making odd little glam-pop songs, equal parts gnomic intellectualism and deadpan wit, and back when Roxy Music were good. The Proxies give the old classics a good seeing-to, and it's a bit like hearing Roxy Music's greatest hits played on an old pub jukebox after someone's booted in the speaker. Which is probably a more entertaining experience than hearing Roxy Music play them these days.

Judged in conventional tribute band terms, the band's Bryan does a creditable impression of the real Ferry's mannered warble, although the Eno has entirely too much hair - but what the hell, nobody's being picky like that tonight. Everyone's too busy rocking to Roxy by proxy.

I'll say this, though. Proxy Music really should've had a go at 'Seven Deadly Finns' in the Eno section. I mean, if you can't yodel in an Oxfordshire field at midnight, when can you yodel?

Now for a swift burst of that traditional festival game, 'Try To Find Your Tent In The Dark', and we'll be back tomorrow for some more field sports...

 

 

On to Supernormal Festival Day 2 here.

 

Proxy Music: MySpace | Facebook

Jonny Cola & the A Grades: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Cold In Berlin: Website | MySpace | Facebook

Manflu: MySpace | Facebook

Gertrude: Website

 

Supernormal Festival: Website | Facebook

For more photos from the Supernormal Festival, find the bands by name here.

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