Sunday, 3 July 2016

Sumer is icumen in

British Summertime Festival, Hyde Park, Saturday 2nd July 2016

Disclaimer: The time listed on each of these photos is an hour behind when it was taken. Blame the clocks going forward for summer...

I headed out at just after 10am from my hotel in Victoria to walk to Hyde Park for my first ever festival.

Please don't get the wrong impression: It's not that I'm squeamish about being outdoors, getting muddy and sunburned, it's purely that I spent my formative years of gig going pogoing to Bis and Kenickie and dancing around my handbag to the Yummy Fur. I come from an all dayers tradition of gig going, and without exception, all of the bands I've ever liked enough to see live have either split up before they got to the festival headlining level of success, or else continued but didn't achieve that level of fame. Hence, no festivals.

That is one thing with being a Florence + The Machine fan: They have taken me out of my comfort zone, gigs wise. When I saw them at Manchester Arena last year on the British leg of the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour, it was my first arena show. The biggest gig I'd been to prior to that had been Siouxsie and the Banshees at Manchester Academy on my 16th Birthday in 1995.

Friends find all of this very amusing when I try to explain it, and because I am such a festival novice, I sought the advice of my own festival guru and expert before attending British Summer Time: My friend Paul, who has attended just about every UK festival going I think, and has gained a wealth of experience and wisdom along the way.

Being a novice, I paid extra for a Priority Entry ticket to British Summer Time as I thought getting on site an hour before most people do would help me get used to the site. This kind of worked, up to a point, but I'm getting ahead of myself now...

I wasn't the first to get to the Priority Entry gate, there were about 15 or so other people there by the time I arrived at half 10, all looking a bit higgledy piggledy, with lots of people sitting on the grass, others standing. The area was divided into runs, for want of a better description, and you just picked a run and queued in it. I think the number of early birds took the security, and organisers, by surprise: It sounded as though that hadn't really happened on the Friday when Massive Attack had headlined. Either that or they simply hadn't encountered a large bunch of quietly earnest floral crowned and glitter faced people in one place before, that is, the Florence + The Machine Army. We were very patient, and that probably just made it all the more unnerving.

After a little while we heard a ghostly wordless lamenting wail on the breeze and sighed happily: Florence was doing her sound test. There followed three goes at 'Queen of Peace', a song I never tire of, and the crowd by the gate was growing, attracting the attention of all sorts of interested and concerned parties. When we were eventually let in, there was a funny moment when the newly released Florence fans pelted across the field, hell for leather, like gambolling lambs as security called, forlornly, after them 'Walk, don't run!'

The festival didn't open for anyone else until 1pm, so, having visited one of the remarkably sophisticated loos I meandered around the site, taking in what was where. I had worked out my schedule prior to coming down to London, using a website we won't mention, and had discovered that I wanted to see a cluster of four acts very early on, and that after that I had a bit of a yawning chasm, schedule wise, until Florence was on. Well, that's not quite fair... I did want to see some of the later bands, I just wasn't as bothered about missing them.

At 1pm I adjourned to the Great Oak Stage to watch a showing of Florence + The Machine's The Odyssey, the film made to complement and accompany the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album. I do like The Odyssey, but it excites a series of very complex emotions and responses in me. I've seen it in it's entirety about four times now (it is available to watch online), and I find it very hard to write about because I'm still not sure how I feel about it.

What I will say is that it is a beautifully shot film, with a central theme of self discovery and exploration. Florence Welch worked on it with Vincent Haycock, the director, and they devised a narrative based around the themes she was exploring when she wrote the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful album, which has its roots in a central sadness of lost love and scary independence coupled with self discovery. There are a number of re-occurring motifs throughout the film: Dopplegangers, pressure, loving someone but being unable to be with them, immersion in water... It is a very powerful film, but because of its searingly personal roots and imagery, it's actually quite painful viewing in some ways.

At the same time, it also feels very truthful and luminous. The choreography makes more sense if you know that the inspiration came from paintings by Caravaggio (amongst others) and that this was then worked on and developed with interpretive dance (I'm not explaining this very well, but trust me: There is an interview with Florence and Vincent Haycock over on Facebook that explains it much better) and that this forms the language of the piece, along with the songs from the album. Once you start watching The Odyssey you're in for the long haul, and you are rewarded with a sense of catharsis at the end. I thought it would work really well on the big screen but, unfortunately, the ever changing light levels didn't go so well with the different light levels in the film, so some bits were hard to see.

Due to watching The Odyssey, I missed most of Kelsey Lu, who was doing a short set on the Barclaycard stage. I saw enough to know that I preferred her mournful, stark pieces with cello more than I did the songs with guitar, but she has a beautiful, pure, sweet and mournful voice. The songs weren't there for me yet I don't think, but that might just be me.

Blood Orange, from afar...
I watched a bit of Blood Orange from the field behind the enclosed area, then headed back to the Barclaycard Stage in search of a vegan food stall I thought I'd seen en route to Kelsey Lu, but in fact, never actually found again. I enjoyed Blood Orange, who were sort of soully with an edge, but a bit too cheerful for me at that moment as I was feeling a bit restless, and a bit hungry.

Georgia was bloody amazing though, as I knew she would be. She was on my 'Must Watch' list from the get go, and delighted in screaming at intervals during the first song, which shocked those lounging in the grass: Clearly this is not a girl you can lounge too.

It was just her on drums and vocals and her friend H, a girl whose calm smileyness belied Georgia's intensity, on keyboards and backing. They made enough noise for six people, and it's hard to describe what she sounds like musically, but she has an air of post grime about her: Very glitchy and aggressive sounding, sort of angry and slightly vulnerable at the same time.  She made reference to the pro EU march going on next door at Green Park and some anti Boris comments, both of which went down well. It seemed wholly appropriate, in the circumstances, that she finished her set with the storming 'Move Systems', making it sound harder and angrier than it does on her album. A storming set. The sound of Angry Young London.

Georgia (left) and H (right)
Poli├ža were on the Barclaycard stage next, and I took the opportunity to get some food before their set. They were a very cool band, there was a sense of ennui to them somehow, coupled with a polished and crisp sounding left of centre electro pop. It tipped towards industrial sometimes, probably on account of them having two drummers, but this only enhanced their sound in my view.  The singer/synth player was wearing a black hoodie with a McDonalds logo crossed through on the back and huge mirrored sunglasses. When she took the shades off, I was disconcerted by her uncanny resemblance to Gina McKee.

Jamie XX was doing good stuff on the Great Oak Stage, but I decided to watch from afar and retreated to a corner by one of the coffee shops to observe the way that entrance to the pit in front of the stage was being handled. It was so full that the security were operating a one in, one out policy, and people leaving couldn't be guaranteed to get back in. Not everyone took this well, and some people tried to get back in via the out route and were unceremoniously hauled out.

Then, part way through the set, it began to absolutely bucket down for about 10-15 minutes, before stopping as abruptly as it had begun. At this point I silently but fervently thanked Paul, over and over again, as I stood in my newly purchased waterproof cape and dubbin'd boots. Actually, the dubbin was my idea: I was fucked if I was wearing wellies.

Kendrick Lamar was up next, marking a time of recurrent queueing for me: The women's loos, the queue to which was so long that entire subcultures were good naturedly forming as we waited, then the fish and chip stall. I had in mind Paul's advice re how to ensure I got in near the front for Florence + The Machine, which was basically to get in two songs before the end of Kendrick's set and move forward as people leave. This was sound advice in theory but, alas, Paul had underestimated the tenacity and determination of the average Florence + The Machine fan.

I'd been keeping an eye on the queue for the pit for a while, and it was getting longer and longer and longer, much to the despair of security and despite the sign being held up by one of their crew, informing all and sundry that the pit was full. As such, having done two queues consecutively, I joined a third one and calmly ate my fish and chips as security tried to reason with us. I got in about two or three songs to the end of Kendrick's set, and the point at which his fans began to leave and the Florence fans began to surge into the pit represents one of the most frightening gig going moments in my life: A maddened horde of people pushing in different directions, each side getting ever more frantic because they couldn't get to where they wanted to be and were just being swept along - quite literally - on a human tide. One girl voiced her fear of falling and being trampled on to me, and I daresay she was not alone in that thought.

Eventually it subsided, and I ended up about five rows from the stage but, alas, at such an odd angle that it might as well have been 15 rows back. Well, you can't win them all... Of course, those who have seen Florence before know that she likes to venture into the crowd, hence the fevered push to get to the area in front of the centre of the stage. The pushing and negotiation of space (some people were nicer about it than others, it has to be said) continued for quite some time. Meanwhile, the security staff at the barriers were handing over cups of water to anyone who needed one, and instructing us to hand the ones we didn't want backwards to other folk in the crowd.

At about twenty to nine, the band began to slowly filter out onto the stage: Well, there is a lot of them. Florence emerged last, clad in a turquoise diaphanous dress that flowed around her in ruffles in the breeze. She had her hair hanging loose down her back and glided elegantly across the stage in a distinctly otherworldly manner, like a psychedelic dryad or fairy from a Maxfield Parrish painting.

The band began with 'What the water gave me', which only enhanced this thought. While the songs are the same songs, more or less, that the band have been playing throughout the How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour, there was a sense of the set having been worked on extensively and honed to within in an inch of it's life, so that it was both confident and vibrant, enhanced rather than tired.
Audience members following Florence's urging to 'Get high with us' during 'Rabbit Heart (Raise it up)'
Florence went to great pains to connect with the audience, whether by slipping over to our corner of the stage to wave and smile, by having the audience act as the bands choir during 'Shake It Out', by descending into the crowd during 'Rabbit Heart', or by delivering an eloquent plea for the audience to let off the filming and photography during 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful'. She explained that she'd realised while travelling just how much time she spent looking at her phone rather than her surroundings, and added that she wanted to connect with us, the audience, on that particular song because it was a song that meant a lot to her personally, that it was a song she wrote while falling in love, the kind of falling in love that transfers itself to everything around you; places, moments, everything. And she wanted to share that with us. She asked us very nicely, and we were happy to comply, for which she thanked us enthusiastically at the songs end.

Following this Florence introduced 'Various Storms & Saints' by confessing that it was a song that she had campaigned to have taken off the album last year "Because I felt it was too sad". The band hadn't performed it at all on the English leg of the tour, so this would be the first time they'd played it at home. She wanted to do it because, she said, hearing the song sung back to her gave her a sort of strength to draw on, which was a sentiment I liked a lot. It is an incredibly sad song, but it's also very atmospheric and I'd been secretly hoping that they would do it live at some point, so it's inclusion here pleased me a great deal.

The surging 'Queen of Peace' took an unexpected turn towards the end of the song when about ten dancers slowly emerged on stage and, along with Florence, who had done singing at that point, performed a staggeringly good choreography sequence to an extended version of the song.

OK, my photography skills could do with some work... I gave up taking pictures after this one because it was distracting me from the gig and that was making me unhappy. Think Florence has a point re all the phones/cameras... Leave it to the professionals. There are some nice pix in this article
Just prior to 'Spectrum' she suddenly departed for backstage and the harpist had the limelight for a minute or two until she returned, now clad in a red version of the same dress she'd had on earlier, carrying a a rainbow flag. 'Repeat after me' she said 'Love is love is love is love...' The band then launched into 'Spectrum', and the crowd went berserk. It was exhilarating, and this sense of performer and crowd as one was enhanced when Florence pre-empted 'You Got The Love' with a very heartfelt speech on the theme of love and geographical variation: She said that she knew how far some people had travelled to be at Hyde Park, and quipped "some of us came all the way from South London", and asked that we take the love were were sharing and expressing tonight back out into the world afterwards, and share it with the world. Mid song, she made a peace sign. She didn't mention the EU referendum, or xenophobia any more than she'd mentioned the Orlando shootings before 'Spectrum', but in both cases, there was an unspoken understanding: She's not an overtly political performer, and I don't think we the fans really expect her to be. She makes her own statements in her own ways.

Just as we were still taking this in, the band launched into 'Dog Days Are Over', and we went berserk again, a blissful end to a blissful set.

The band left the stage, and the audience cried 'FLORENCE, FLORENCE, FLORENCE' until they came back on again, minus Florence who, in a nod to The Odyssey, was carried back on by one of the dancers from earlier, hanging limply in his arms. She was set down and began to intone the beginning to 'What Kind Of Man', a particularly electifying performance of which then followed, during which she made another foray into the crowd. At this point, a girl somewhere behind me in the audience lost her head completely and started shoving and charging her way through the crowd. Me and another girl let her through, but she didn't make it through to the front. Her sense of hysterical frustration was palpable.

The second encore was 'Drumming Song', which always goes down well and represented a suitably charged ending to an absolute blinder of a set.

Earlier, Florence had seemed a little startled and overwhelmed by the size and passion of the crowd, which only highlighted her incredible politeness on stage when we applauded and screamed. The set ended with her taking Rob the guitarist by the hand and dragging him forward, along with the rest of the band, so that they were all in a row, getting the applause together.

Getting back out of the pen wasn't quite as bad as getting in, though it wasn't fun. I was able to leave Hyde Park the same way as I'd come in, along with everyone else it seemed as we tottered blinking out into the bright lights of Hyde Park corner.

I can honestly say that I have never attended a gig as mindblowingly brilliant as that Florence gig, and I've been to some fantastic gigs in my time. Maybe not big, famous ones, but little brilliant ones that will always be a source of dewy eyed nostalgia nonetheless. But Florence + The Machine at Hyde Park has taken it to another level entirely: This was performance as Art.

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