greenbeltThe original Christian music festival had a mountain of quality content this year as it continued its Faith, Art, Justice  strands.

Greenbelt Blog 2011 part 1
Where do you start when faced with a four-day event that has some 1,040 hours of programming, covering music, talks, worship, comedy, film, workshops, visual art, performance art – and plenty of miscellaneous festive fare that is, as they put it, “unpigeonholeable”?

When you’ve done it some 25 times already, it should be a cinch, so I thought, but there often comes a time about a day into the programme, when the planned timetable runs out and overload comes crashing in.

This was the Greenbelt Festival, held again on the Cheltenham Racecourse, which offered nearly 20,000 visitors plenty of quality, making it even harder to choose.

After the pleasures of packing, travelling and putting up a tent I was only interested in something easy, and hearing Show of Hands was something I couldn’t miss. They have a passion for the rural ways of life that probably only villagers and ex-villagers appreciate, but their defence of the commoner and human relationships in the face of big business or oppressive politics is easy for many to feel – and they do make you feel their music. It was a sign of the quality of the line-up that they were only halfway up the bill. “Youngstown” and “AIG,” both on their recently reviewed Covers 2 album, were welcome parts of their set, as was the old favourite “Santiago,” with extended fiddle work from Phil Beer. It was just a shame that they couldn’t play a longer one.

As the rain came down, I skipped seeing a bit of Martyn Joseph, who had curated the evening’s mainstage line-up, and headed to the Performance Café (a large, but comparatively intimate marquee) to catch up with Jason Carter, a harp guitarist long followed in the Tollbooth. On the way a passing stranger echoed my thoughts, telling a friend, “That sounds good over there!” It was the previous act in the Performance Café, who looked like four late teenagers with their Dad on a hard-to-hear keyboard.

Proving that you should never be fooled by appearances, Atlum Schema, the stage name of Andy Mort, offered a chiming and enchanting mix of shoegaze guitar, Jeff Buckley-esque vocals and some tight harmonies. One song was about someone frightened to travel and appropriately, it didn’t really go anywhere. That was fine, because I was very happy with where it already was. I closed my eyes and got completely lost in it. Mort is this year’s best festival discovery - expect Tollbooth to follow this one up...

Jason Carter had not had a good week. Six days earlier, he was in a stationary car with his girlfriend, when they got hit head-on by another vehicle. Using two trains and a car, he managed to get from his home in the South of France to the stage with only ten minutes to spare. Despite that, and his freshly-assembled harp guitar needing half an hour to settle in, he put in a good performance, starting with the fine “Shine On” and with a couple of his wonderful travel stories from the 'Axis of Evil' added between tracks. Not content with having 20-odd strings on his instrument, he used looping, hammered the strings like a dulcimer and brought on Verity Smith to sing on the final song.

As soon as he finished it became clear that the headlining ‘special guest’ was Duke Special doing a solo set with just his piano. There were some songs that his fans would not let him leave out (“Digging an Early Grave” and the somewhat overlong “Last Night I Almost Died”) as well as some of the new material created over the last eighteen months from projects and commissions. These story songs are where he is clearly finding a niche and composing at his best.

He played “Applejack” from his The Book, the Stage and the Silver Screen project and one from this year’s commission from RTE about the life of Ruby Murray, a young singer plucked from obscurity to find huge fame just before rock and roll swept her away. She died an alcoholic. The Duke had more time in this close setting to explain the songs and told us that Murray still holds the record for the most songs in the UK charts in one week, her five songs only equalled by Michael Jackson.

But the best songs were from a commission from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art to write about some early photographers ( and his songs about Alfred Stieglitz were not only witty and full of character, but included some cheeky rhyming. Stieglitz was an early art photographer, who was popular just before Kodak brought out a hand-held camera. As well as matching ‘ogle’ with ‘Vogel,’ the Duke wrote how, now that anyone could go into the countryside to take a picture of a cow with their own camera, Stieglitz was miffed that “any Tom, Dick or Harriet.... into the sticks they carry it.”

A duet with Carter climaxed the set, arranged only as they exchanged places on the stage. It was hard to imagine in advance how their two styles would mix, but the fit was fine. Carter’s trebly harp fills changed the mood, adding an extra poignancy to a list song (“Condition”) about the contradictions of being human, co-written with Boo Hewerdine. The line, “I’m a pin-drop, I’m Phil Spector,” stood out above the rest and exploded an appreciative grin across my face. It was one of the Duke’s.

That just left a quick catch-up with the Last Orders magazine show, featuring highlights from the days’ events. I had had to miss Milton Jones’ hour of comedy (as well as Adrian Plass’s arty observations) so I was pleased to hear a bit of his work, a mix of old favourite one-liners and a few new ones. He inserted a section from his 10-Second Sermons book, more one-liners, but with some serious meanings behind the humour. I understood him wanting to offer some depth among the zany surrealism, but felt it fell a bit flat in comparison. Maybe it worked better during a longer show.

The first full day offered the whole Greenbelt experience, with theatre, music, visual art and teaching.

Catching the theatre was accidental. I wandered into the Centaur (a part-seated indoor venue that can take 3,000 people) just as Ockham’s Razor – a trio of actors who only perform aerial work – were starting their half-hour work The Mill. Everything was done on a ‘stage’ seven metal rails by three, which they unclipped halfway through so that it could flip through 180 while they were still on it. Impressive as their balancing skills were, and the strength of their arms, I found it hard to get into emotionally.

The exhibition that was half of The Methodist Collection of Art was far more stimulating. The collection is entirely of paintings of Christ by modern painters, such as Norman Adams and Graham Sutherland. The free audio tour gave plenty of background without being too long (I had to pause it several times) as it took the viewer through the life of Christ, starting with a Dalit painting of the Virgin and Child.

I was particularly struck by The Raising of Lazarus, which translated the raising of Lazarus to an English Churchyard, adding a time tunnel, distorting the perspective and superimposing present over past like something out of Dr. Who. Finished only this year, Christ Writes in the Dust by Clive Hicks-Jenkins was one of many that bore long, meditative viewing – and it embodied the festival’s key strands of faith, art and justice.

The two talks I caught were very different. The much-vaunted Rob Bell – plainly a big draw, judging from overheard comments – was largely disappointing. There were plenty of anecdotes to illustrate that with God, failure is never final. It seemed very much padded out generic motivational talk for a long while, until he fleshed out what it means to take on a new identity. It was a section of what jargon-users call being ‘in Christ,’ but by using a fresh approach, it hit home more powerfully. It left me wondering how much top-billing speakers have to be general in their talks to reach the wide range of people that they draw in.

Paula Gooder was the opposite. Without much anecdotal content, she was explaining what the Bible says about what happens to us after we die. I had already been struck by a talk in a small venue at a previous Greenbelt, where she insisted that heaven is neither postponed nor private as folklore tends to make it seem, and gave background on the Jewish understanding of heaven, so lighting up the ‘many rooms in my Father’s mansion’. That was so impressive and thought-provoking that I had to catch this one on what does happen after death. It left me inspired to re-read the whole New Testament in its light.

The range of music I came across on this one day was terrific. Centaur hosted a string orchestra that included Palestinian Oud player Nizar Al-Issar; Gungor played an anthemic worship set; and mainstage headliners Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly blasted out some inspirational Indie based around ideals that may have been indirectly inspired by the Festival (front man Sam Duckworth revealed that his father was once a Greenbelter).

But the most dynamic set was a Performance Café set from Folk On, who have developed even further since their word-of-mouth success at last year’s late night show. Their song “I Can’t Marry You as my Horse has just Died” was the funniest thing I have experienced in months. On top of the surreal situation, lines like, “Don’t make that long face, it just reminds me of him” sent tears down my face. Hilarious.

Read Part two here.