Beth Ditto is sliding on her stomach in the rain, in front of the most sparse festival crowd The Gossip can have seen in years. The grim sky and near-deserted field don't augur well for Creamfields' 10th anniversary. But step inside the nearby Cream tent, and you enter a different world. DJ Hernan Cattaneo stands high above a heaving crowd that rises towards him under swirling lights, and for just a moment, the old promise that dance music would sweep rock aside seems credible again.
Creamfields has outgrown the now-shut Liverpool super-club Cream, into an international festival brand. But this celebratory, first two-day event emphasises rock connections. Ian Brown is greeted as an elder indie statesman to the rave generation by the fist-waving crowd. He responds in buoyant mood, and relatively excellent voice. There's gloom and paranoia in his solo work, but here, the exultant, cinematic sweep of "Sister Rose" is followed by the Stone Roses' "Waterfall". Its psychedelic guitar solo and fey beats are pure 1989, when pilled-up young Manchester bands fused old rock with rave's first flush. Kasabian will later try to recross that bridge, with old statements of intent such as "Processed Beats". But they're better at introspective, musicianly drift.
The bands, despite being on the main stage, are largely a sideshow. The much-hyped Hercules and Love Affair bring their pastiche disco minus their album's vocal star, Antony Johnson. He is ably covered by two female singers, and a trumpeter and trombonist giving a pre-disco taste of jazz's socially urgent New Thing. The couple of hundred people who bother to listen love it. Soulwax's adherence to house-style beats picked out on old synth-pads, while dressed in white suits and bow-ties like a seedy show-band, is far more popular. But it is disco veterans Chic who prove the validity of live dance music here. Playing intensively joyous pop in bright afternoon sun, their rhythms and personalities exemplify a spirit of loving community.
Cream's attempt to revive the more legendary Hacienda club on Sunday falls flat in the hospitality tent, where New Order's Peter Hook climaxes a splendid DJ set with a euphorically housed-up "Blue Monday", to four people dancing. "Are we full-time, or are we part-time?" Shaun Ryder asked on Hook's previous selection, "24-Hour Party People". But by Sunday afternoon, Creamfields' remaining full-timers are falling in the field, or still dancing in the dark of less exclusive tents.
Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, remains the acceptable face of the superstar DJ. Wearing his usual Brighton beachwear, with a glowstick between his teeth, he still looks keen, and an earlier backstage summit with Chic's Nile Rodgers shows his wide musical net. But, for all the tightly sprung brilliance of "The Rockafeller Skank", his sound has grown tired. Paul Oakenfold, here alongside Pete Tong, Sacha, Eric Prydz and all the rest, typifies a deeper problem. The house heartbeat never really stops in a set dramatised only by slick visuals of American dreams, lancing laser-light, and remixed "anthems". Body and mind are left undisturbed. In the gap between Chic and this, something humanly important has frozen.
Underworld, though, show that dance music is far from dead. Karl Hyde's gold lamé jacket is almost as startling as the cavernous echo to his ranting voice. Rough slashing sounds cut across music animated by a nervous energy and a wish to unsettle that would terrify most DJs. The mournful chords of "Born Slippy" are, of course, greeted triumphantly by the crowd, but Hyde, an ex-alcoholic singing about drinking, shakes his head, even as he soaks in the affirmation. Rave's partial roots in punk are visible here.
Creamfields' widening of its remit has been a gently encouraging success. But its true heart beats in the small hours of Saturday night, when I walk between thunderous beats from half a dozen tents, inside which the dance goes on.