The beautiful surf

All Tomorrow's Parties at Pontins, Camber Sands is the greatest festival on the planet. In every respect. (Except, unfortunately, for the music.)
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The Independent Culture

"Y'all call this a beach?" Brian McMahan, the American professor of post-rock who fronts The For Carnation, sneers curmudgeonly, presumably unaware that, yes, to Brits who discard their inhibitions upon reaching the seaside, this is definitely a beach. Three thousand punters have paid their hundred quid to stay in a Pontins chalet at Camber Sands, Sussex, and are determined to have a good time, no matter how po-faced the turns are.

This festival, the belated follow-up to last spring's Bowlie event (named after the haircuts favoured by the most feeble members of the indie-pop community) is, like its predecessor, a potent blend of cutiedom and hedonism. Every night the main room runs out of draught beer about six hours before closing time and vodka shortages are not unusual, yet punters are actually spotted performing Belle and Sebastian numbers on the seashore on flute and guitar. Couples happily shag on the accommodation block roofs, yet remarkably, even with bars open until 5am, no one sees fit to greet some of the most self-indulgent performances ever seen on a British stage with the rain of bottles that would surely shower down at more traditional outdoor summer events.

In short, this is a festival like no other. Where else can you run into the man who sold you your stereo who confides that he reckons it's now safe to grow a beard, because there are so many on display? Or see everybody sporting a T-shirt with some kind of slogan on it, usually representing some kind of blue-collar occupation or pastime, yet never see the same one worn by different people? No fights, no injuries - remarkable. It's a pity the music is so awful.

That's a bit harsh, but at last year's event, the bill chosen by headliners Belle and Sebastian, featured big names such as Mercury Rev, Teenage Fanclub and Flaming Lips, alongside interesting unproven talent like Cornelius and Godspeed You Black Emperor!

The curators this time around, Glasgow's Mogwai, may well have come up with an excellent weekend of television, piped straight from their tour bus to the chalets (and Stuart Braithwaite's movie synopses in the programme are a scream), but there's so much drab white-boy instrumental mediocrity on offer that by Sunday night you'll pay hard cash for a handbag house tape to listen to on the journey home.

Of the headliners, the generally wonderful Super Furry Animals seemed a little tentative, their new Welsh language album as yet unfamiliar to the audience, though 'Northern Lights' was the weekend's most melodic moment, while Stereolab were unexpectedly, and refreshingly crude in approach, something the Delgados could learn from, as once again their beautifully crafted, string-laden arrangements were lost in a big venue.

The wisdom of putting the ever uncompromising, if perversely enjoyable, Sonic Youth in a headline slot on Saturday was always doubtful, and they succeeded in killing the mood with their first 22 minutes of feedback. The stragglers were later mollified by the deranged pub rock comedy of Bobby Gillespie's Hair, a drunken cover band who actively encouraged missile throwing, and provided just about the only humour all weekend.

Generally, whenever you see an orchestra on television, the string section appears to be evenly divided between the sexes and ages, yet whenever rock bands like Mogwai haul in a few violins, they inevitably seem to be played by attractive young women. Are they provided by an agency? Though undeniably impressive, Mogwai seem to be unsure whether to resort solely to bombast, or develop the more subtle structures of last year's Come On Die Young album. Their next record should answer that question.

Art-punk relics Wire, who preceded them on Sunday night, won some hearts with their shameless pandering to those who want only to hear their late Seventies work. Some people pogoed, even.

What else? Austin, Texas's "And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead" performed like Sonic Youth c1987 to great acclaim, Papa M, led by David Pajo (Slint, Tortoise, every other such band ever), may have made one of last year's best records, but here sounded like a gang of jazz musicians down on their luck, busking outside Macy's on Christmas Eve, while the heroically noisy Bardo Pond surprised everyone by not drowning out their vocalist, Isobel, for once.

And Professor McMahan's For Carnation, makers of the year's best album so far, were superb, their gloomy post-post-rock textures (alright, bluesy songs - with tunes) actually silencing the general hum of conversation for once.

But if a holiday consists of having no choice over the music you hear for the entire period you're away, as a friend suggests, then this was definitely a holiday weekend. Hopefully next year's hosts, Tortoise, can select a more varied bill. This was great fun nonetheless.

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