Three men lying on a gingham blanket, eating stuffed olives and peppers, swigging sparkling wine from plastic flutes. A group of 30-somethings clad in white, making a fair fist at a game of badminton between a circle of hay bales. A family excitedly embracing the Truck Monster, posing for photos in the welcome, yet slightly alien July sun. An Oxford indie-pop band playing to hoards of excited local teens. Looking back, the sights and sounds that greeted our arrival at Truck 15’s Hill Farm location turned out to be a pointedly accurate barometer of the weekend ahead.
Having taken the reins from the festival’s founders after they ran into financial difficulties last year, the folks at Y Not decided against reinventing the wheel. Helped by an interesting, if top heavy lineup, some canny pricing decisions (£4 a cocktail and £3.50 a pint) and the reappearance of the artist formerly known as summer, they gave the masses, for the most part, what they wanted. Their inaugural Truck can be viewed as a success but there are, of course, lessons to be learnt.
The decision to renew the local Rotary Club’s catering residency was a nice touch, given that all proceeds went to charity. But if ever a festival lent itself to some boutique, healthier food vendors, then surely it’s Truck – one of the politest, tamest festivals on the calendar. This stomach in particular was groaning under the weight of burgers, fried eggs and pizza after three days onsite. Were a few olives and a baked spud too much to ask?
The local thread was spun through the lineup, too. And while we’re all for encouraging local musicians, Y Not might consider casting the net slightly wider next year – stylistically and geographically. Perhaps naturally, given that many of them were of similar ages, from the same city, there was a familiarity among many of the Oxfordshire acts that by the end of the weekend bred a small degree of contempt. It’s been a while since these ears have entertained such a volume of jangly indie-pop and / or math rock.
But it wasn’t all bad. In fact, it was mostly very good: starting with the aforementioned ‘Oxford indie-pop outfit’, Kill Murray. The questionably named four-piece have the same Nineties alt-rock bent as one of last year’s highlights Yuck, complete with Mascis-lite riffs but slightly more coherent vocals. An interesting wailing sound midway through threatened to send the crowd into an early afternoon frenzy, before the guitarist realised it was his car alarm, squealing away behind the second stage. An interesting digression on what was an enjoyable set.
Former Magic Number Michele Stodart, playing on the Truck Stage, was an altogether more sedate affair. Sister of Romeo’s voice hasn’t suffered at all since we last heard from her, but a promisingly jammy introduction soon yields to a rather forgettable stew of stripped back folk and whiney lyrics. “When is it over?” she asks mid-song, clairvoyantly. If nothing more, Stodart showed that if you strip a Volvo of its shell and trimmings and leave the engine running, it indeed remains a Volvo.
Vadoinmessico’s appearance, then, couldn’t have been more welcome. They’re a five piece, but at times on Friday afternoon, it felt like there were 50 of them bouncing around the stage. Given that they come from four different countries, the international nature of their music shouldn’t have been a surprise. What was impressive, though, was that they managed to play half an hour of high-octane, Euro-friendly folk without anyone within an earshot saying ‘Gogol Bordello’.
Most of the non-musical action took place around the second stage and so the tail-end of Boat to Row and a fair slice of Josh Kumra were squeezed in amid a couple of delicious local IPAs, a trip to the Tea Tent and a midafternoon stab at the limbo (don’t ask). The former’s lead singer has a touch of Colin Meloy about him and he combined with some gorgeous harmonies, a trumpet, an organ and some strings to make sure every Decemberist fan in attendance was nodding in approval. The latter, however, left no such impression, the highlight of his set being an unimaginative cover of MGMT’s ‘Kids’, which rounded it off pretty appropriately.
Many regulars onsite bemoaned the absence of an actual Truck. The Barn, then, stepped up as the most appropriately named stage of the weekend, being, as it was, a barn. Having had our ears stung by a quick jaunt in for the disappointing John J Presley earlier in the day, it was up to the excellent Spring Offensive to convince us of the outhouse’s charm and they did so with some aplomb. The band jerked about the stage like something out of an Ok Go video, with the towering lead singer Lucas Whitworth especially captivating. His performance drew a wayward line between Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker and was utterly spellbinding. The raucously received set was a highlight of the weekend; with new track ‘Worry Fill My Heart’ a decent contender for the festival’s best moment.
By the time Villagers took to the Truck Stage, most people seemed to have arrived and for the first time, the sold-out festival seemed to be in any way busy. The space afforded by the low number of ticket sales (only 5,000 were put on release) had many good points (no queues, civilized campsites, easy to navigate), but occasionally, it made generating an atmosphere difficult. Despite playing a stirring set, the Irish band failed to cause much of a ripple among the crowd. The haunting ‘Set The Tigers Free’ and Ivor Novello winning ‘Becoming A Jackal’ were standout moments of a set that premiered some interesting, if not completely immediate new material. The electronic leaning ‘The Waves’ alone represented something of a change in direction ahead of the band’s second record, expected late this year.
Upon arriving on the stage, Tim Minchin announced that he was unafraid to offend anyone present. The laughter with which his set was greeted suggested he came nowhere close to doing so. ‘Woodyallenjesus’, named for the obvious connection between the pair (“Short and Jewish and quite political/Often hesitant and very analytical”) was hilarious, though, as was his repatriation of the word ‘ginger’ (“Only a ginger, can call another ginger ginger” – ‘Taboo’). Minchin’s ability to produce genuinely funny music places him in a small minority. Hats off to Truck for having the balls to put him in such a prominent slot.
Which brought us to the Mystery Jets: cited by some as a bizarre choice of headliner, given that their fame was at its height around the time of the superb Twenty One in 2008. Spearheaded by one of the best cuts from this year’s Radlands, ‘Someone Purer’, though, they just about warranted their place atop the bill. ‘Two Doors Down’ inspired the kind of mass singalong you might expect, but the rapture with which tracks from Serotonin were greeted was pleasantly surprising. A fine set from a band determined to prove that they still have plenty to offer.
Truck won’t guarantee you a good night’s sleep, but you stand a much better chance than you might at most other festivals. Still, no amount of Zs would have prepared us for Robots With Souls, who opened proceedings on the second stage. For one man, it was an impressive amount of noise. Unfortunately, that was the only thing to impress from his mainly monotonous set. Each song was moulded from an identikit toolset (deep bass line, primitive tubthumping, some Tourette’s like outbursts over the top) and each song, funnily, sounded pretty much like the last. Way too little melody, way too much misplaced, shouty angst, way too early in the morning.
‘You’re too polite,’ said the frontman of Yellow Fever to the modest ripple of applause that greeted ten seconds of mid-set guitar tuning. The scenes were indeed more civilised than average. A mass of people had, by then, descended on the main green to take advantage of the scorching sun. To our left, someone was rifling through a Cormac McCarthy novel. To our right, a couple were devouring the FT Weekend + supplements. Yellow Fever provided some pleasant, unobtrusive background music. With remarkable foresight given the changeable nature of the weather this summer, this was the first of a litany of jangly, sunshine indie bands to be booked for the afternoon. In terms of quality they lay somewhere in the middle of the pile, bringing to mind that most forgotten of indie bands: the Dead 60s.
Co-Pilgrim, too, paid homage to the sunshine, but in a style more akin to southern California than central Merseyside. The countrified ‘22’ was positively Byrdsian and the gentle ‘A Fairer Sea’ lovely. The harmonies throughout weren’t dissimilar to those of UK alt-country heroes Redland Palominos Company and their set was a welcome change in tone and pace, on an afternoon remarkable for its homogeneity.
The text for ToLiesel on the second stage could have been transposed with that of Yellow Fever. ‘It’s nice to see so many people here who aren’t our friends,’ exclaimed the delighted, if slightly surprised frontman. Black Hats raised the tempo a bit, but there was little to remember from their Bloc Party-aping Truck Stage set. Over in the half full Barn, Flights of Helios at least tried something a bit different. Their reworking of ‘Dynah and Donalogue’, a traditional-sounding folk song, was fantastic, with the lead singer’s ornamentation particularly impressive. The track was drawn out, drenched in drone and, eventually, spun off in a gauzy mess of guitars. They’re an interesting band, worth keeping your ears peeled for.
Dog is Dead struck a chord last year with a series of excellent singles and their Truck Stage set proved to be one of the weekend’s unexpected highlights. It’s an influence not immediately apparent on record, but live, they come over as a poppier version of Modest Mouse: there’s a whiff of ‘Float On’ about the groove on ‘Do The Right Thing’. With a few good EPs under their belts, the Nottingham band’s show whetted the appetite for something more substantial.
Truck has always rolled out the carpet to returning bands. On their eleventh appearance, we can only imagine that 65daysofstatic were given the keys to the farm. ‘This might now be a party,’ said Paul Wolinski as the band’s opening numbers jolted the crowd into life. Watching a band as busy as this is always entertaining, but 65dos’s professionalism was remarkable, too. They were the first band of the weekend to really try to work the crowd, and they did so magnificently. By the time their set finished, there was barely a sinner left lying on the grass: almost everyone had taken to their feet.
And while, stylistically, they couldn’t have been more different, The Low Anthem managed to keep the momentum going. Fans of the Rhode Islanders would have spent the weekend praying that the weather maintained and sure enough, in the low evening sunset, their performance was exhilarating and beautiful. The title track from last year’s ‘Smart Flesh’ and ‘Lover is Childlike’ from the Hunger Games soundtrack both sounded marvelous, fleshed out with saw, cello, trumpet and an uncategorized woodwind instrument. But it was the subtle, heartbreaking ‘This God Damn House’ from 2007’s What The Crow Brings that stole the show.
The finest performance of the weekend, though, was saved until last. The second stage was heaving by the time Frightened Rabbit took to it. ‘Sing along,’ said Scott Hutchison between ‘Modern Leper’ and ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’. ‘That’s what it’s all about.’ By the time they left, the tent was reverberating to a hundreds-strong chorus of the ‘Loneliness and the Scream’. A blistering 45-minute set spanned, mostly, their latter pair of albums, with ‘Old Fashioned’ and ‘Living in Colour’ ensuring that there wasn’t a stationary pair of feet in the arena.
And so, they departed in what proved (for the festival) to be uncharacteristically raucous fashion, leaving delighted revelers to dance the night away to the chimes of Paul Simon et al at an excellent after-show disco. A successful, if unspectacular weekend, then, but the potential to build for next year is present in abundance.