Review: Hop Farm Festival 2012
12:44 02 July 2012
Three days and more ageing rockers than you can shake a stout walking stick at
The Hop Farm Festival faced the very real risk of being a victim of its own success this year.
Twelve months ago, it fired a cannon of intention which hit the critics and increasingly demanding audience right between the eyes and did so with such clout it elevated the festival’s reputation sky high.
Morrissey and Prince delivered greatest hits sets so splendid that cheers were almost drowned out by the collective thunking of jaws on the ground, of awe-struck festival goers.
By the time you’d blended in the likes of the Eagles, Brandon Flowers, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, and the weekend felt like it had a well-crafted air about it, uniting the influenced and the pioneering with running orders which worked and reached a real peak by the time the final encore had been belted out.
All of which led to anticipation around the 2012 Hop Farm Festival reaching something akin to fever pitch.
Until, that is, the line-up was announced.
Those noisy jaws were replaced with shoulders slumping if only because some of the big names were so familiar to the event.
Ray Davies had been here before, ditto Patti Smith and, jumbo ditto, Saturday night headliner Bob Dylan.
And where last year Prince reigned on the Sunday night closing slot, this year it was Suede. It wasn’t quite the same.
Yet by the time Brett Anderson had stomped off the stage on a chilly but clear Sunday night, the Hop Farm had proved that while it was indeed unable to quite hit the mountainous highs of last year, it could still reach base camp quite comfortably.
There were, of course, some stand out performances. Primal Scream provided a Dylan Saturday night alternative which was hailed a triumph, while Kool & The Gang surprised many on the Sunday afternoon.
And just when it needed a real kick up backside to finish with a flourish, Richard Ashcroft emerged and single-handedly changed the mood – and apparently the weather too – of the event.
The Sunday had been interspersed by heavy downpours to send the audience scattering, but by the early evening the former Verve frontman took to the stage and suddenly the sun came out. And there it stayed for the rest of the day.
A greatest hits selection drawn from the vaults of the Verve and his solo material, delivered with a voice bristling with power, clarity, intensity and conviction, it made it impossible to dislike. From the opening Sonnet, through the Drugs Don’t Work, History, Lucky Man, Song for Lovers and rounded off with a rousing version of Bittersweet Symphony, for many he took the festival crown.
Perhaps, just perhaps, he would have made for a better headliner slot than Suede. But that would be being harsh on Brett Anderson and crew who ripped through a greatest hits set before an audience pondering whether or not to have made a dash for the car park in order to miss the queues had time to think.
Peter Gabriel had headlined the first day, following in the diverse tracks of funk lord George Clinton – in bright blue suit rather than multi-coloured shock wig – and the Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies, packing a suitcase full of classics.
Gabriel’s dazzling display of lights and video screens providing a sumptuous treat for the eyes, with the power of a full orchestra supporting him making it something of a spectacular.
His performance, however, for the casual observer was perhaps best summed up by one audience member who quipped “it was alright if you like Peter Gabriel”. A danger this festival needs to guard against. But more on that later.
Saturday’s noticeably bigger audience were warmed up by sunshine and the slightly odd sight of Sir Bruce Forsyth making his first festival appearance at the tender age of 84.
The crowd which met him was huge and it proved a Marmite performance. You had to be pretty hard hearted not to raise a smirk though and assuming you weren’t taking it too seriously, it was a chance to see a man whose ability to work an audience, no matter how big, was only too apparent. It was, indeed, nice to see him, to see him nice.
Randy Crawford chuckled her way through her set, and Patti Smith cranked up the atmosphere with what pretty much everyone here wanted on an early Saturday evening – a bit of a rock out.
For many, however, the weekend was about one man – and for the second year running it was a diminutive singer-songwriter from Minnesota.
But while Prince has realised to command big bucks and big crowds he needs to play the hits, Bob Dylan has taken the opposite approach.
Musically, the set was polished, the occasional well-known hit well disguised, but for the casual observer, the sound of his vocals (as if someone has run a lawnmower over his vocal chords) is difficult to square with that of his past. It becomes a distraction which is difficult to pull your ears away from.
But we all knew that. You don’t come for Dylan to expect a crowd-pleasing smorgasbord of classic, faithfully reproduced, hit after hit. No. You come to see one of the music industry’s great legends and tick them off your ‘must see’ list.
Whether that is sufficient for a festival to hang its hat on, however, remains to be seen.
The Hop Farm Festival is a great event. It is well-run, it is nicely located, and it does provide some real star power. But, it needs to guard against being a little too self-indulgent.
Peter Gabriel, Suede and Bob Dylan are uncomfortable bed fellows, and while the blend of audience ages and tastes are often its strength, it can create an eclectic line-up which sometimes has the hint of the artists’ names going into a big hat and being drawn at random as to where they’ll perform and on what stage.
However sophisticated the palate of the audience, 99 per cent of a festival audience want nothing other than to be entertained – to have a few beers, let their hair down and have a dance to songs they’re familiar with, or at least be manipulated by someone who is such a master of stage craft you end up under their spell.
Star power, established by achievements some 30 years ago, are worthy of note, certainly. But a festival needs a little more, it needs to create a buzz; needs to give the folk who go there the impression that they were at something special, something everyone was talking about.
The Hop Farm Festival achieves that rarest of things in the over-crowded festival marketplace and that is of a point of diffence; providing legendary names to an audience who appreciate real music by real musicians. It is exploiting that niche well but it should not cover its ears to concerns over the fact many of the big names had been there so recently. If Van Morrison and Paul Weller are included next year then I fear a backlash.
For now, though, let us rejoice in a weekend which managed – for the most part – to avoid the rain which has dogged many events this summer year; to rejoice in the big names but, perhaps most of all, rejoice in the fact it is right on our doorstep.