It has been two years since Calling Festival lost the Hard Rock sponsored monnicker and moved out from Hyde Park to Clapham Common, with the formerly weekend spanning event being curtailed to two days in 2013 (where it spent a year at the site of the Olympic Stadium) and now to a single sunny Saturday in 2015. It would be tempting to suggest that the inner-city festival has fallen on hard times (sic); an event which can boast of past headline acts such as Bruce Springsteen (3 times), Neil Young, Aerosmith (twice) and Paul McCartney was this year struggling to sell tickets – even with the assistance of £10 “flash sales” – with Noel Gallagher’s name on the top of the bill.
Not that any of this was on the minds of the 15,000 folk who elected to spend their fourth of July on the couldron like Clapham Common, in spite of distractions elsewhere in London such as AC/DC at Wembley Stadium, the Wireless Festival and Andy Murray’s bid for a second title at Wimbledon. The site, on the southside of Clapham Common, baked in an unrelenting heat – the sunshine like an extended guitar solo from the Gods.
Early acts on the site’s two stages found themselves playing to sparse crowds who often seemed to have had the misfortune of a rock show intruding upon their picnic, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of Elle King, whose bluegrass stylings and big voice evoked comparisons with Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Over on the second stage young English rockers Vant proved to be more photogenic than musically memorable – although that may be enough to get them onto the cover of the NME. Sunset Sons, meanwhile, offered a pretty fantastic slowed down version of the
The layout of the arena and the stage timings meant that – if you wished – you could see all fourteen acts on the bill. With bar queues growing through the day in accordance with the rising temperatures I elected to linger in the vicinity of the main stage, securing prime spots as the main support acts began to appear.
First up were Echo & The Bunnymen, Ian McCulloch swaggering onto stage with a tumbler of bourbon in hand, bowing to the sweltering conditions as his trademark black trenchcoat made way for a suit jacket and a zipped up jumper, his first act to demand a packet of cigarettes from a roadie before launching into Lips Like Sugar. This was a stagger through one of the finest back catalogues in recent British music, performed through a cloud of smoke and a haze of whisky with a certain – earned – cockiness from the Liverpudlian. Statements like: “You can sing along to the chorus of this one – the only way you won’t have heard it is if you were in prison” while introducing Bring on The Dancing Horses; proclaiming The Killing Moon “the greatest song ever written” and The Cutter as the second greatest. On this evidence, though, there could arguably be some truth in those claims.
There was no shortage of self-assurance in the next set either, though with The Hives a certain amount of it is undoubtedly showmanship. The Swedish five-piece produced an outrageously energetic and enthusiastic set, their pristine white suits no match for the blazing mid-afternoon heat and their desire to bound and karate kick all over the stage. The Hives put on a show quite unlike anything I can recall seeing, finally turning the picnic on Clapham Common into a bold rock and roll concert. Despite being absent from the mainstream psyche for some time, songs like Walk Idiot Walk and Tick Tick Boom have endured. They held a swelling audience in the palm of their hands with an entertaining blend of humour and hits, compelling an entire field of people to squat on the grass before bringing them to their feet in a frenzy with the opening chords of Hate To Say I Told You So. It was quite a sight to witness.
Modest Mouse were amongst my most anticipated bands of the afternoon, having never seen them before. Unfortunately they were somewhat of a letdown – to me, at least. I’m not sure whether they had simply drawn the short straw by having to follow the extraordinary Hives or if I was becoming distracted by the prospect of Ryan Adams – or if it was perhaps down to the story that they were playing on borrowed equipment with their own still stuck in France, but they were a little underwhelming. Certainly their eclectic blend of styles is appealing, and Float On was a real highlight of the afternoon, but I left this set with the lingering feeling that it could have been so much more.
Though, as mentioned, the looming appearance of Ryan Adams on the main stage may very well have been occupying my thoughts. This was the 20th time I have seen Ryan perform and I am convinced that he is on the best run of his career. His new band The Shining click perfectly with him, and he seems so much more at ease now as the frontman than he did shouldering the burden of a solo acoustic tour. This was a slick and professional set where Ryan’s guitar playing really shone. There were moments – particularly on Dirty Rain and Peaceful Valley – where his solos produced actual gasps from people around me in the audience. He was that good. Kim and Shakedown on 9th Street – a Heartbreaker song I’ve been hoping to hear live for twelve years – have been recent additions to his set since the early Spring UK tour, while Come Pick Me Up (even minus the female backing vocal) remains a highlight. To hear a good number of the 15,000 crowd singing along to the chorus of the harmonica-led Heartbreaker classic is something I never thought I would experience.
Fresh from their debut album charting at number two and a critically acclaimed set at Glastonbury, Wolf Alice found themselves top of the bill on the second stage, occupying the 45 minutes between Ryan Adams and Noel Gallagher. A generous crowd forwent the bar queues and crammed into the tight area in front of the stage to see what the fuss was about the much hyped North London alt-rock quartet. There’s no doubt that Wolf Alice have a captivating sound, alligned perfectly with the charisma of lead singer Ellie Roswell. The comparisons with Garbage and Hole have some merit, and it’s easy to see that they have the potential to go far. Bros and Moaning Lisa Smile ae genuinely big songs. They’re touring the UK in September and are simply must-see in a smaller, more intimate setting.
And so it was on to the headline act of Calling 2015: Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. After a full day of sunshine, beers and a fine collection of performances from the undercard, I would admit that I wasn’t particularly fussed about Noel’s biggest UK show to date; though it might be unfair for my lackadaisical approach to the headline set to colour the opinion of everyone else. For me Noel is a decent songwriter (I disagree with Ryan Adams, who proclaimed him “the greatest fucking songwriter of our lives” during his own set) though his solo work will forever be overshadowed by his time with Oasis – and it was clear that’s what a sizeable element of the audience came to Clapham Common for. They were in luck, as six Oasis songs made the setlist, most popular amongst them Champagne Supernova (which sorely lacks Liam’s vocals) and Don’t Look Back In Anger, which was the defining moment of the set. In between times it felt like people were waiting for the next Oasis hit, and Noel, for all his charisma and arrogance on stage, comes across as a lacklustre frontman.
Calling Festival has changed drastically in its ten years and while Saturday – for me – ended in vague disappointment, it cannot be argued that the day wasn’t a great success. The atmosphere was welcoming, the weather was exceptionally kind and there was a day full of quality acts on stage. Considering that many venues were charging upwards of £65 for Noel Gallagher’s UK tour earlier this year, to see Ryan Adams, Modest Mouse, The Hives, Echo & The Bunnymen and Wolf Alice – as well as Noel – for the same price at Calling represented excellent value for money. This was one of my favourite days in a long time.