Grey and wet, that typical image of the British summer is a world away from the sunny green pastures of Hill Farm in Steventon, Oxfordshire, where music lovers met to celebrate the 16th annual Truck Festival, Friday & Saturday, July 19th & 20th. The hot and sunny forecast for the weekend seemed more fitting for a Mediterranean beach than rural England, and for once, the weather held.
For me, it all started with The Physics House Band, whose frantic mid-afternoon set filled the Barn Stage with a stunning modern twist on the psych-jazz vibe of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Moving away from that cosmic experience, on the main Truck stage LA multi-instrumentalists Milo Greene crooned their brand of summery dream-pop to a chilled-out audience in the sunshine. Sweet vocals and the uplifting harmonies wafting over the crowd clearly proved that having four lead singers in one band wasn’t greedy, but was beautifully justified.
Amongst the rustic charms of the newest of the stages, The Great Western Whiskey Saloon and Blues Kitchen, surrounded by pictures of Clint Eastwood and other old western icons, Stevie Ray Latham and his jangly guitar played the blues like a young Bob Dylan. The Saloon, a perfect stage for music that felt so intimate.
I succumbed to the heat of the afternoon and made a break for the cool of the Barn once more, where Arcane Roots were blasting out an intricate blend of math-rock with raucous grunge-inspired riffs and surprisingly soft vocals in such a way that left me, as a first time listener, wanting to see what else they’re capable of. Next up, the blues-punk duo Wet Nuns blew me away with the thundering aggression of an untamed pre-Brothers-era Black Keys. Maybe that’s a bit unfair; it’s like comparing a leopard to a pet kitten. Anyway, less hillbilly than late-‘00s blues band Left Lane Cruiser, pounding out spectacularly heavy lo-fi riffs and wonderfully loud, if you wondered what blues-punk sounded like before it started selling out to TV beer ads, look no further.
The Computers presented themselves to the Barn in smart identikit suits that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Las Vegas lounge bar. If that’s what you expect when you see these guys, then boy are you in for a surprise. Starkly contrasted with their rural surroundings, it was like hardcore was reborn in a ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll diner, until the charismatic lead singer ended their energetic set by serenading his own band from middle of the crowd.
Upon leaving the Barn, and an obligatory diversion to the traditional burger and chips tent catered by the good folks at the local rotary club, I head to the other side of the festival site (a mere two minutes away) for Truck festival veteran Patrick Wolf on the Market Stage, which has expanded over the years to become the second largest on site. Fashionably late, with just a violin and cello for accompaniment, Wolf was delightfully eccentric with a mixed bag of old and new, the joy of his fans evident.
Over on the Truck Stage, in the cool of the evening, Ash did what every good festival band does, by playing a set comprised of everyone’s favourite pop-rock songs from “Girl From Mars” to “Burn, Baby Burn” (interspersed with a few newbies), prompting many a sing-a-long for those of us old enough to remember them at their best, but unfortunately gained them no new fans in the younger, more apathetic crowd. For those who stuck around, Friday night headliners Spiritualized were ready to journey into space, with a light show and extensive back catalogue designed to woo your senses. This they did, with a sound that reminded me why they were so deserving of their earlier critical acclaim, but perhaps lacking in some of the passion possessed by younger bands like Dry the River, who enraptured those lucky enough to witness their energetic set as the Barn’s headliners.
Saturday got off to a brooding start with Candice Gordon on the main stage at midday, perhaps reflecting the cloudy grey that threatened the horizon. Her husky voice may have been attracting Patti Smith comparisons like flies, but the buzzing was from her band’s guitars, screeching out riffs that were more Nick Cave than ‘60s art punk, and unfortunately a bit lost on a small and lethargic early crowd.
Taking a short break away from the plethora of stages and bands at Truck this year, the afternoon seemed a perfect time to explore the other things this year’s revamped Truck Festival had to offer. Between the Market Stage and the Veterans and Virgins Stage (showcasing bands both old and new to Truck), there was a bizarre competition taking place, run by The Bureau of Silly Sports, which was attracting kids and big kids alike with things such as blindfold boxing, human foosball and silly hat and pose race. There were also the usual activities in the Children’s Tent and the Oxford Playhouse pop-up tent with plenty of workshops and performances to keep the little ones occupied, together with the wagons available for tired toddlers, Truck stands out as one of the most family-friendly festivals I have ever been to.
Another of the new additions to the festival this year was a massive food tent (by Truck’s own standards), providing a welcome variety of foods from sushi to ice cream to a ploughman’s lunch. Definitely an improvement on earlier years, where the heroic efforts of the Didcot Rotary Club were more limited. The market place is much more compact than those at similar sized festivals, but perfectly adequate. More importantly there is always a bar nearby, ready to quench your thirst with tasty beers, ciders or even a cocktail or two. Which leads me to the Copacobarna.
This year, Alcopop and Big Scary Monsters conspired to turn the usually bleak interior of the barn into a tropical paradise, complete with an island bar and scattered with deck chairs. Here, in between bands, the musical mash-ups of Thrill Collins threatened to overshadow the main acts with their infectiously happy sounds.
On the Truck Stage, festival favourite Sam Duckworth played out a joyous set to a late afternoon crowd, accompanied by a brass band and other instrumentals from The Rumour Cubes, which could be described as extravagant for an artist who played previous festivals alone with an acoustic guitar. Energetic and upbeat as always, the rendition of “Rock the Kasbah” certainly rocked the crowd. At the other end of the musical spectrum, And So I Watch You From Afar was a growling ferocious beast, the Irish noise-mongers creating an unforgettable sound, and with an intensity more at home in underground rock shows rarely unleashed or experienced out in the open. Gaz Coombes followed as best he could, belting out a selection of his finest solo pop melodies, which pleased his stalwart fans, especially when that odd Supergrass track was thrown in.
Off to the delights of the Copacobarna once more, and Tall Ships thrilled as they blended jerky tempo changes with melodic whimsy, recalling ghosts of bands like Foals (who once stormed the roof off the Barn) or Vessels. Barely time to recover from that experience, Rolo Tomassi appear to turn up the volume and blow through the Barn like a hurricane. They tear through their own set like a band possessed, their signature feverish unholy vocals and hard hitting tempo setting them apart as one of the best experimental hardcore acts around.
Rounding off the festival, The Horrors did not disappoint. Showcasing some new and expectedly impressive material amidst the grooves of the old, Faris and co. play around with extended shoegaze riffs in a worthy performance from a band still fairly fresh from a break. They closed with a blissful rendition of “Still Life” before melting back into the cool summer night, leaving the crowd sated and happy.
Though small enough to fit into a corner of the Glastonbury site, nevertheless, with an impressive and diverse line up both on and off stage, Truck has grown up to be one of the best small festivals around.