This On Blackheath article was written by Ben Duncan Duggal, a GIGsoup contributor
With the Indian summer in full swing, the crowds gathered On Blackheath Common for performances from Manic Street Preachers, Elbow and 808 State (amongst others). The festival was aimed squarely at families, particularly local ones – the line up could have been curated by any given 90’s student (i.e. any given parent), and the festival was sponsored by the edgy John Lewis (jokes). It’s probably fair to say that as many of this crowd were there for the day out as much as were there for the music, creating a challenge to entertain for both organisers and bands.
Anna Calvi largely failed to rise to this challenge. Her operatic brand of singing against a sparse, gloomy drum based backing was never going to suit a sunny, benign Saturday afternoon. Calvi, to her credit, made what was clearly exception to her usually icy persona in an attempt to involve the crowd, but they were having little of it. The problem for them may well have been not just one of the setting, but one of melody – it’s tough to interest people in music when they may not well have heard of the artist before and if your appeal is of rhythm and vocal prowess rather than stunning melodies.
The Manic Street Preachers did far better. They are basically two bands in one – sort of. Previous to rhythm guitarist and lyricist Richey Edwards’ disappearance in 1994 they were a blatantly political, relatively underground and uncommercial new wave/punk band. Following the disappearance – for a mixture of reasons, probably involving the experience of the loss, the desire to not be a tribute to a previous incarnation of the band and ageing – they became a subtly political, commercially successful pop/rock band. Out of the two, it was clear to the casual bystander and, thankfully, to the band which would fare better here, today. Duly the band Shut Up And Played The Hits without a hint of a threat to the establishment. Was it the best of The Manic Street Preachers? No – the first band was always more interesting, politically and musically. Was it they best they could do on that occasion and setting? Yes, most definitely.
Elbow, too, played to the audience. Their golden egg, 2008’s Seldom Seen Kid, was ploughed heavily in this consequently popular set. The band was so well suited to the occasion – relaxed and soft, tick, safe, tick, sing-a-long worthy, tick – that it would have been a stunning failure if it had indeed been a failure. Frontman Guy Garvey knew that, and excelled in creating a whole experience out of the open goal of an opportunity. He expertly talked and sung to the crowd through the band’s brand of gritty Coldplay-esque anthems, drawing them in. The only criticism, then, can be of the songs he was selling, which sometimes hit the sweet spot very well indeed – One Day, Grounds For Divorce, The Bones For You, in fact pretty much anything played off of Seldom Seen Kid – but were sometimes left to rely on string and brass based texture instead. These songs were dull, but thankfully they weren’t numerous.
The festival itself should also be considered an overall success. It offered enough individuality to become a regular tick on the yearly calendar for music lovers. It’s family appeal should also be commended but maybe with one of the two days being handed over as a family day and the other for the real music lovers next year? Seeing 5 year old children on parents shoulders, clapping to the Manics, still doesn’t sit particularly well. However, although the line up was top heavy, those attending would have had a great day out largely regardless of the music. That they received at least two solid, tailor made performances will come as an expected bonus.