"Art in the Park" 2023Review
Thankfully despite the rain and despite some very disappointing sound (I made an incautious comment in the magazine some weeks ago about the current consistent high standards of live sound: I shouldn't have tempted fate should I?), I very much enjoyed the talent & performances by the various artists mentioned below. I'll keep my reviews short so that you have an article of readable length, but believe me I could write more..
There were many highlights: Let's start with Ace Ambrose singing in the rain, her first gig in many months and winning new fans straight away, mixing tracks yet to be released with old favourites like "Jukebox Time Machine" or "His Name Was Susie": in fact she stitched them all together into a continuous narrative for us, including a (post-apocalyptic version) version of Neil Young's "Hey Hey My My" of considerable harrowingness.
Then there was Hannah Woof, rather suffering for her art in adverse conditions (see below) but still turning in a characteristic performance of intensity and truth via plenty of new songs and a thrilling revisit of old favourite "Addicted To You". Afterwards, I mentioned how I had described current single "Rendezvous" as her best & how that conviction had only grown since writing that for you: not least in her rendition of it on Saturday when the stiletto barb of the last couplet slid in with particular force. She then said "wait ‘til you hear the next one..". So watch out for my review of a song its composer thinks tops "Rendezvous". Which is a very high bar.
The first band I got to see play in the shelter of the Archery Lawn tent was Liam Vincent & the Odd Foxes (playing as a quartet as guitarist Gregg Cave was on paternity leave having welcomed a new member of his family into the world: I'm sure you will join me in congratulations). Not that being a Fox down made any difference to their characteristic zest and obvious enjoyment of what they do (something they have in common with all the others in this article) let alone their musicianship. I just wish the mix had been less murky.
Orange River Remedy also battled the elements & the sound (at which they actually forced a victory) with their own considerable energy & delight in playing, which considering the conditions, was a very welcome tonic for those in the audience. I've not yet had the chance to submit a review of their playing with drummer Lottie Pennington (last time they had a deputy as she was away) but I can tell why they wanted her in the band: not seen too many play such high energy rock with such an economic style: she made every stroke count: and she adds a third (and complementary) voice to the arrangements.
I was very pleased to catch Antonia Kirby (though not for too long unfortunately given the issues of trying to review artists on different stages simultaneously) and that she was one of the worst affected by the sound issues was disappointing. I'm just glad that what I could hear told people the stories of her abilities as both composer & performer.
These were all Saturday performers (the only artists all weekend I was sorry to miss entirely were a two person Luna Kiss & Dan Sealey who were on later than I could stay for).
Apart from a downpour during Jake Rizzo's set, thankfully Sunday was drier weatherwise (though the footing was pretty treacherous in areas of higher footfall). He delivered a superb set with a band which had grown from the trio I saw him with at the Godiva Festival, being joined by bass maestro Harry Green. This new lineup really gives him great new options in which to present his excellent songwriting: the tracks have so much heft in them on these occasions let alone additional parts & as a performer, he is liberated to a certain degree to leave off playing his own guitar & express himself freely as a vocalist. They really do put on a great show & it's wonderful to watch as his career so obviously moves up another gear. As he's newly engaged, congratulations to Jake too.
The first significant act of the day on the tented stage was Abi Rowberry: I'd been wanting to catch her own set for a long time after being introduced to her last Autumn at one of our "Hush!" gigs into which she kindly stepped at no great notice. Despite the failures in between, I have now done so & it was worth the wait. A calm, transcendent presence onstage, she has a very pure voice (and great taste in how she deploys it) nevertheless with a most individual & unique character. If only the sound had been consistently up to the task of conveying this: I admired her resilience in carrying on regardless. Her set, given the audience, was a wise mix of originals & covers: the former being of excellent and again individualistic quality: I was pleased to hear that she's begun recording some of them.
I'd caught the end of Stylusboy's set just prior to this on the other stage & wish I'd been able to hear more of his storytelling,: my compensation I suppose is that I caught a full ‘Back in the Day' performance at the Godiva Festival: it went down so well that while I was talking to him afterwards, I had to draw his attention to a stallholder on an adjacent food stand who was trying to attract his attention to tell him how much he'd enjoyed him.
I've seen Rob Hodkinson of Chasing Deer in several configurations of the band over the years: trios, duos & solo, but never before had I seen him ditch his keyboards & fly totally solo. It was a revelation: he looked so at ease & like Jake, liberated in his stagecraft that you'd have imagined he'd done this for years. Not true. Breaking the bounds of the stage repeatedly, he even vanished from view into the crowd on occasion, delivering a set broadly based around the new album ‘Diamonds in the Rafters' with a few older songs, though playing "Perfect Storm" was a bit risky: and the rain did come back soon afterwards….
After this, unfortunately the implications of scheduling the more popular artists on at the same time on different stages hit again. As Wes Finch's set was also delayed past the advertised starting time, I caught even less than I wanted of his extremely passionate performance (even by his standards) before scuttling off just to catch the end of Levi Washington's: judging by what I heard, Levi (playing with saxophonist Joshua Rydell) was treating the crowd to his skills in building songs steadily & then exploring every nook, cranny & possibility of them in enthused extended improvisations.
Finally, when the sun really came out, Danny Ansell and band delivered their customary feel good, high energy set of old favourites & new material which had the customary effect on the crowd: though to be fair Danny, even by his standards, was in a particularly exuberant mood.
Unfortunately I need to end on a more sombre note. Last year, in summing up Art in the Park 2022, after reflection & consulting & at the request of musicians, I raised the concern that the disparity of conditions between the two stages was unfair. That year, under the harsh sun, those performing on the Archery Lawn had perfect shade in their marquee while those on the back of the old lorry were scorched with no cover to the detriment of comfort, performance & health. Regrettably the organisers had not addressed this problem at all: the facilities being precisely the same, only this time those on the Archery Lawn were protected from the rain while the others got wet, shivered & worst of all on the Saturday, water was either in close proximity to live equipment or on it. Absolutely no-one from the musical community to whom I spoke understood why performances went ahead under those conditions. Thankfully no-one did get electrocuted.
Art in the Park has the potential to offer excellent musical opportunities, but not if those are based on inequalities of facilities, well-being nor safety. It's a mystery why, if one needs two stages at all, both can't have the marquee approach. Otherwise, as I suggested last year, having one single stage with a high quality slate of performers would solve this problem & help with the issues of the range of quality (though to be fair, the concerns raised about this last year appear to have been taken into some account as the consensus was that there had been an improvement in this area) and also the problems this year with sound.
I saw some marvellous artists this year & admire their fortitude & patience: but they deserve better in 2024.