A short overview of Sunay at the 2002 Whitchurch Festival
Sunday 4 August 2002 (Afternoon)
As a heavily perspiring Rolf removed his equipment Keith Bell informed us that once again the second act was late in arriving so he would be playing a short set. The crowd didn't mind, some even shouting out requests between songs. This afternoon covered mainly different ground, though still harked back to Elvis at one point, and repeated a Peter Gabriel track, 'Mother of Violence', played on the opening night. Jonathon again stepped up a couple of songs into the set to provide some passionate mouth organ backing to Nick Drake's 'Northern Sky' and Sam Cooke's 'Bring It On Home To Me' before finishing up to allow the newly arrived Damian Wilson and party to set up.
With no band mentioned I assumed Damian would be solo with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. Instead he had his brother Paul, keyboard player Nik Slack and a shy young lady by the name of Hannah Townshend to back him. Until today I have to admit that I wasn't a fan nor particularly aware of Damian's history. As a relative newcomer to Landmarq I am familiar with the more recent female fronted version while the handful of solo tracks I'd heard just reminded me of the rather dreary and repetitive style of Lloyd Webber musicals. Boy was I in for a surprise.
From the off Damian seemed relaxed in front of a crowd and chatted as if we were all old friends, taking time to introduce his fellow performers before getting round to "having a singsong." Indeed they even performed the soundcheck after the introductory chat and invited the throng to join in with 'She's Like a Fable'. I realised from this initial song that the voice was far superior to what I expected and could see why Classic Rock Society members voted Damian 'Best Male Vocalist' in last years BOTY (Best Of The Year) awards. Heck, even John Dexter Jones admitted he understood being usurped and, as you possibly know, compliments don't sneak past those lips very often! The music and friendly chat continued with hints given as to the plant that was the subject of 'Homegrown'. Poor Nik was the subject of an unexpected solo early in the set when Damian explained that "Nik doesn't know this but he's going to entertain you for a minute." He passed the test. Reaching his favourite song Damian added "maybe I shouldn't say that about my own songs" but after he explained the tale behind 'When I Leave This Land' and the local interest of it being about "a cemetery not far from here" I think we were convinced it was very dear to his heart. So caught up in the back-story he forgot to swap guitars which resulted in a restart much too the amusement of band and audience alike. Paul was forced to cover with a tale of childhood brotherly japes and a saucepan attack that didn't work out as planned. With the song finally completed Paul and Nik departed for the bar while Hannah sat quietly watching Damian carry 'Nothing Left In Me' by the strength of his voice and some simple guitar though she did add some delightful harmonies to the chorus.
As Paul and Nik returned from their foray Damian strummed heartily into, then paused to "not deafen everyone" before resuming probably the highlight of the set, 'Naked'. He admitted that he "enjoyed that" before commenting that the beer was also enjoyable. I think the audience agreed with him. The quality continued through a couple more songs before they were called back for an encore of the soundcheck song that featured and amusing alternate couplet that ran "She Lives in a stable, drinks Carling Black Label" showing the man doesn't take himself too seriously which can only be a good thing. With that they made their exit without any plug for CDs which was admirable. As they packed up I couldn't help but feel that I'd probably seen the most satisfying new act (to me) of the event, possibly the best overall. CDs were actually available outside the other hall but I still think the voice has to be heard live to be truly appreciated. If there is any justice Damian will be back headlining one of the evenings next year. If he can provide such a powerful show with just acoustic backing imagine what a good rock band backing him could achieve.
Treebeard on the other hand covered a more folky area and with five musicians, Gordon Walker on fiddle and Chris Jellis on stringed devices, swelling the Haze line-up of the previous afternoon, provided a very full sound. The set covered tracks spread as widely as folk standards, covers of The Levellers and U2 plus even a couple of newly written tracks, most of which were to be found on the heavily promoted Treebeard CD. As they admitted, it had only been two years in the making but was finally available this weekend for the first time. Beginning with an acapella song the set continued with instrument changes at every opportunity including accordion and mandolin. Chris forgot the hat changes though and only donned his conductors' hat after they concluded the chugging 'Train'. He did however remember to wear the sheepskin rug that previously he'd been standing on the encore of 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' Not to be outdone Gordon donned and doffed a devils mask as he duelled with himself for the climax of the track. With so much happening in the set, again almost two hours, and too little space to do it justice I'll just say that having missed the show last year I understand why the audience provided such a loud cheer - heard in the car park as I arrived. Entertainment was certainly the name of the game and I don't think anybody present went away feeling cheated. Certainly the CD stall was surrounded by eager purchasers of a momento of the show.
4 August 2002 (Evening)
Hmm, Henry Fool was a new name to me and I had no idea what to expect. They certainly didn't compete with swift time changes or powerful instrumentals. Instead they provided a fairly samey set of quiet, evenly paced introspective songs that featured quiet and sometimes almost inaudible lyrics that could have been written in any students bed sit. Playing material that spanned their debut Cyclops album, exclusive tracks from the labels samplers and new songs any change of direction seemed lost in the almost tedious slowness of the set. A couple of songs were played up as being "us with our Metallica T-shirts on" ('Dreaming of Babylon') or the audience being asked to imagine Axl Rose singing but they rocked less than at least one of the other tracks. The set started interestingly enough with an acoustic guitar following a familiar Floyd scale but soon the instantly forgettable music began to merge into one. Much of this may have had something to do with drummer Fudge Smith not being present, Richard Groom taking his place at short notice, but a guitarist having to double for a missing keyboard player probably didn't help much either. In fact several mentions were made of previous partnerships those on stage had been part of but ultimately maybe they should have stuck with them, as I'm afraid I found nothing of lasting merit in the performance. I thought maybe that I was alone in this but talking to the Focus fans congregated towards the stage they seemed of the same opinion. Perhaps Damian Wilson and Henry Fool should have been switched for a better bill. Certainly Damian deserved the larger crowd and would have elicited a better response.
And so to the headliners and I guess main attraction of the festival. Certainly they would have been the only band present that a random member of the public would have heard of. Playing their first UK gig in well over twenty years what should probably be called Thijs van Leer's Focus as he is the only remaining original member the band were greeted by the largest crowd of the weekend. The leather coated heavy figure of van Leer reminded many present of Tom Baker's Doctor who as he walked across the stage, bottle in hand, to take his rightful position behind the wooden bulk of a Hammond Organ. It took more than five minutes for the band to actually start playing but when the Leslies, then flute, kicked in the wait was worth it. In what was just a basic school building Thijs surprisingly introduced 'House of the King' as "appropriate for this beautiful room". Still the acoustic guitar of Jan Dumee and flute certainly sounded majestic. Following a band introduction, Bert Smaak and Ruben van Roon comprising the rhythm section, it was on to the first of many imaginatively titled tracks 'Focus 2'. Moving almost chronologically they continued with most of a piece that covered the second side of Moving Waves, 'Eruption'. 'Focus 3' was followed by the most recognisable track of the set, 'Sylvia' which certainly pleased the overly drunk woman stood next to me. She spent the remainder of the set sat on a table in front of the stage - facing the audience. The other noticeable thing was that van Leer sang just the low register "la la's" while the guitarist covered the yodelling. 'Focus 5' preceded a track written in memory of the Strasbourg bells that made a huge impression on van Leer as a child.
Humour followed as van Leer introduced 'Focus number 9" which isn't in their new album Focus 8 (a limited edition of which was available exclusively at the show), but was promised for the follow up. Surprisingly the other well-known Focus track, 'Hocus Pocus' concluded the set though the band returned quickly with 'Brother' from the new album. It slotted nicely among the older tracks and though proving the band may not have progressed too far it maintained the musical standard. The final couple of tracks were also from Focus 8 and brought the show and festival to a fitting conclusion. Having gone in as a sceptic about the virtues of Focus I have to say they were thoroughly enjoyable and the hour and three quarter set flew by which is always a sign of a good gig.
Once again the Whitchurch Festival proved very good value at £35 for a weekends worth of entertainment. As usual I was impressed by many of the bands, surprisingly so in some cases. Others I expected to enjoy proved less entertaining but I didn't feel cheated as others lapped them up. Roll on Whitchurch 2003.
Find out more about the normal version of the Focus 8 album at Musea.