Reading Festival, Melody Maker Stage

SO HERE I am, it’s 12.15pm, the f***ing cab driver’s turfed me out onto the street. I’ve got miles to walk to the flamin’ festival and it’s started to pour down. The last thing I need in my life right now is a bunch of Pearl Jam wannabes fronted by Ian Astbury’s dustman, but, lo and behold, CANDLEBOX are here with their low-rent Marquee metal, guitar solos that seem to last several centuries and a “love song” that includes the words “f***in'” and “bullshit”. No, really.

What quirk of fate or nature has brought these people together with us? Did they actually sit down and arrange to produce the most appalling, indulgent fret-wanking cover of ‘Voodoo Chile’ imaginable? “We are from Seattle, Washington,” they chirp. In the real world, this gross display of geographical misfortune and mind-boggling cheesiness would be met with a firm “Get outta here” and a handful of shotguns, but this is not the real world. This is Reading. People clap more forcefully, they pogo harder, they do everything they can to do my bleedin’ head in.

I need a break already but instead I get Andrew Mueller ranting on about the Chelsea result (while it lasts, mate, while it lasts). Oh and DIG, whose punky-spirited rock metal comes as a refreshing surprise after all the posturing of the previous act. Mueller, that is. Lordy, they’ve even got some Good Songs. Dig, that is. But hold on… those rousing chords, those earnest political lyrics, that walloping drumbeat. They’ve turned into Simple Minds! Which makes the fact that they have a “song about loving relationships” called, impeccably, “F*** You” all the more confusing.

Hardly anybody watches SCRAWL, probably cos they coincide with a rare burst of sunshine and the appearance of Whitesnake or somebody on the Main Stage. A shame, cos their delicate but punchy blend of Muses, Au Pairs, tight red mini-skirts and way, way soulful vocals is most palatable. Something’s gotta give and JEFF BUCKLEY gives it loads. ‘Grace’ is much rawer than usual, ‘Kangaroo’ is simply lust-crazed. “When I first saw you” — he sounds almost disgusted with himself — “you had on blue jeans”. He spits out the line as if blue jeans were the utmost in degradation. I swear the sky’s turning red and molten electricity is swirling around our ears. And is that really Liz Fraser jumping up and down in the front row or am I finally succumbing to Festivalitis? I dunno, my hangover’s turned into nervous exhaustion, someone’s given me a strange pill and there’s a champagne cork popping inside my stomach.

Now here come MORPHINE with their dark and haunting “lo-rock”. Outside, the sun’s shining and a girl has some kind of metal ring in her arse. But in here we’re in a late-night bar. Orson Welles fronts an avant-jazz, two-string-bass Birthday Party, Sherlock Holmes sips quietly in a corner and the smells are of fast sex and slow Gauloises. ‘Thursday’ plagiarises ‘TV Eye’ (cool) and the melancholy vibe of ‘Candy’ suggests they’ve got more strings to their bow. If not their bass.

About now I fall asleep. I dream that THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS are onstage and that Carl Puttnam has left the floundering CUD and embarked on a solo career as a Las Vegas entertainer and is being taken seriously but I am dreaming. Aren’t I?!

There’s a delay before ECHOBELLY cos they’ve forgotten the chords to ‘There Is A Light…’ When they finally appear, there are two Echobellys. (That’s just the echo — Sonics Ed) The first are great. They have a warm, charismatic singer and stirring, intelligent songs about drugs and abortions and ego. But the second, f***. Scrape away the veneer of the first and you get a hoary rock beast with interminable solos and boots on monitors and meetings with poets forsaken in favour of lunches with A&R men. Songs that could be written by Battle Of The Bands entrants from say, Derby, but seem destined for America and a vocalist like Toyah Wilcox on helium. They’re muso but they can’t play ‘Bellyache’. They’re popular but a section of the crowd thins. I wait patiently for the reappearance of the first Echobelly of the first four numbers. They never return.

Instead, Mark Eitzel of AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB gives the most committed performance of the festival. His songs are peppered with words like “phony” and “charade” and they cut through rock’s pretensions like a knife through shit. The intensity of Eitzel’s performance is remarkable. One minute he’s all deadpan, the next joking with the crowd, the next hurling down his guitar lead and exiting the stage because some security guy looked at him funny. Psychiatrists call them mood swings; I call it the sincere temperament of a genius. ‘Firefly’ fizzes and crackles, ‘Western Sky’ is gorgeously poised and they do this odd punk song that could be Johnny Thunders. I could die listening to this group.

But here we are, light years away from the bad HM of the opening acts and listening to TINDERSTICKS: music played by men in suits which owes as much to old music hall, working men’s clubs, Scott Walker and Jacques Brel as it does to rock music. Sadly, no ‘City Sickness’, no ‘Marbles’, but still I marvel at Stuart Staples’ voice, which sounds like the last 10 per cent of all his syllables have been surgically removed, giving him an intoxicating, clipped croon. Of course, some of the time he does sound worryingly like Steve Wright’s Pub Singer and has an awkward, hunchback posture that certainly wasn’t the result of a childhood footballing injury, but what the heck. A new ballad called ‘No More Affairs’ (right!) is well storming and although they bore me by playing too long, they bore me with style…

Can I go to bed now?

© Dave SimpsonMelody Maker, 3 September 1994

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