Caught by the River is reminiscent of the early days of festivals, when they were more like gatherings at which multiple interests were represented, where fashion and showing off are abandoned in favour of relaxation, and letting it all hang out. All ages, all cultures are represented in the crowd and the offering.
The local area isn’t just a backdrop, but a feature, with a special series of talks and activities given over to river hobbies and conservation. Literature and film are represented with seminars, talks and viewings in the elegant and historic Palace building. Farm stalls, Friends of the Earth Save the Bees campaign and The Simple Things magazine are interspersed with high end food and refreshment stalls.
The crowd drift in throughout the day, this is a friendly and courteous crowd who even as strangers are comfortable to chat, play games and share recommendations. Couples and families group escape the streaming sunlight under the shady spots in the secluded meadow of the Palace Walled Garden.
The music schedule has an equally broad appeal for the first day. First on are Algerian rock outfit Imarhan. This complete band bring together North African Tuareg beats and Western rock force. The jogging drums are overlaid with riddles of complex guitar picking making it the kind of music to give your full attention to. Imarhan are serving up a different kind of summer music treating the early festival visitors to desert fantasy recalling the heat and adventure of the Sahara, complete with their drummer styled out in a traditional Shemagh head wrap.
The bright heat of the mid morning is cooled momentarily by the ensemble BE Play ONE. This 12 piece orchestra’s music is more like an immersive theatre experience. Ambient melodies drift over the air peppered with birdsong and the droning hum of bees. The sounds are a soothing accompaniment to the full bloom of the pastoral surroundings.
Changing pace slightly with mildly psychedelic stoner rock from US artist Ryley Walker. This is an old school feel from Illanois based singer songwriter Walker, right down to his tie dye fractal T-shirt and bushy mop of hair. More than just head bobbing jangling rock, Walker’s lyrics are quirky, witty and warm-hearted. Lifting above the music is heard the lament, “I’d buy you a drink, But my credit is shit, So we’ll drink tap water and laugh!”
One of the most unexpected inclusions on the bill are Ethiopian jazz collective Mulatu Astatke. Their sound is a blend of dreamy lounge woven with sultry sax rhythms, chiming effervescent xylophone, all under pinned by slinky bass. This is beautifully structured music with exotic melodies, reminiscent of a classic film noir soundtrack.
If Low are the music headliners, then the literary headliner is Ted Hughes award and Mercury Music Prize winner Kate Tempest in interview with Miranda Sawyer. Kate Tempest is the Real Deal. Her demeanour, her look, her accent; all of it is honest, unpretentious and open. Adding to the tone of no airs and graces, owing to technical fault Tempest and Sawyer are left without microphones, but decide without fuss, to shout to be heard. A fitting metaphor for women in the arts.
Prompted by Sawyers smart questions, Tempest gives a run down of how she progressed as a rapper, to a lyricist, playwright and now novelist all before the age of thirty. Tempest gives eloquent descriptions of how her ideas go from concept to form and how her increased bravery challenged her to spontaneously change the gender of one of her central characters. Winding up a slightly drifting audience Q&A Tempest performs a section of her long-form poem Progress, when her memory of what comes next dries up she shifts effortlessly into another poem, then another. The passion of her delivery is breath taking, it’s as if the thoughts have freshly sprung into her mind. It would seem as if she’s spontaneously channelling her poems but for her pause to count herself in on an imaginary beat enacted by her raised and pointed finger.
Back outside in the fresh, warm air Beth Orton is wrapping up a set which started with hit tracks like Touch Me With Your Love and pop groove 1973, her gentle mix of folk and electronica brought back from the 90’s with a sparse band consisting of just a guitarist, drummer and herself on vocals, additional guitars and keyboards. Orton’s voice is still filled with her familiar optimism and beauty.
Rounding off a day of blissful musical escape, delicious foodie treats and leafy green retreats is 1990’s Sub Pop American “rockers” Low. As the ground cools and the sun sets Alan Sparhawk’s soulful voice guides the audience through tales of modern longing and sadness. Tracks like In the Drugs with waves of lush guitars and the minimalist march of No Comprende play like warnings against poor morality, regardless of their disapproving lyrics the music makes them strangely comforting, but may be best revisited on a cold winters even when the mood is more solemn!
Songs like Plastic Cup, once again act as a warning against the excesses and addictions of drugs and lazy conveniences, “Now they make you piss into a plastic cup, and give it up. The cup’ll probably be here long after you’re gone, what’s wrong. They’ll probably dig it up a thousand years from now, and how”… This environmental message it seems is a case of preaching to the choir, as this is a remarkably clean and civilised festival with a with many green campaign messages.
No one here seems too upset with a little confirmation bias, especially when it is delivered with lead singers Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s elegant harmonies. Even heavier tracks like Monkey are infused with such raw beauty that it defines the connection between every band on stage, from Algerian beats, ambient soundscapes, stoner rock, exotic jazz, to electro folk, the clear relationship is quality.
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Caught by the River Thames is a two day festival of arts and culture.
Live Review by Sarah Sievers and Photography by Belle Piec.
Caught by the River Thames @ Fulham Palace Saturday 6th August 2016