Umbria Rock Festival, review: Spectacular setting made for surreal event


Umbria Rock could well provide the ideal combination of cultural location and great live music

More famous for its Jazz Festival, which has been in existence since 1973, this most picturesque area of Italy welcomed a host of British musicians to help launch a rock event the ambitious organisers intend to make a yearly fixture.

The setting, with a 14th century church – the Chiesa di Santa Maria – and verdant hills as backdrops, was certainly spectacular, while the stalls selling satirical magazines and bar prices 1/3 of their British festival equivalent made for a refreshing change and for the non-appearance of Basement Jaxx who pulled out of the opening night at the last minute.

Not to worry, Elephant 12 made like it was 1992 and they were Rage Against The Machine, or 1967 and they were the Jimi Hendrix Experience, which turned the presence of Hendrix producer Eddie Kramer in the busy backstage area from unexpected to appropriate.

Moved up to the headline slot, Peter Hook & The Light provided Back To The Future moments aplenty with a strong set making the bassist's claim to the combined legacy of Joy Division and New Order as genuine as that of his former compadres. Being old enough to have seen both Mancunian groups in their prime, I can state that Hook has certainly recaptured the collision of Krautrock and garage rock that made Joy Division such a visceral post-punk proposition, and proves as decent a vocalist as Bernard Sumner.

Hook's khaki bermuda shorts and his over-reliance on the right hand over the head gestures might have made some cringe but his heart was in the right place. He even played melodica to recreate the icy grandeur of ''Your Silent Face''.

On the Saturday, The Charlatans recalled their heyday as the band that bridged the gap between Madchester and Britpop but failed to time “the sun going down” lyric from opening number ''Just When You're Thinkin' Things Over'' to the gorgeous sunset. The vespas parked by the washhouse across the Chiesa bore testament to the fact that Paul Weller was making a pilgrimage to the spiritual home of mod culture.

However, his blunt “Grazia” – sic – betrayed an obsession with the celebrity mags and tabloids that have always annoyed him when a “Grazie Mille” would have done just the job. The Modfather has recovered his mojo by adding a dash of Krautrock to recent albums Wake Up The Nation and Sonik Kicks, but still conjured up all the Steves – Winwood, Marriott – with secret weapons Steve Cradock on guitar and Steve Pilgrim on drums.

He was at his best on the blissful ''Going Places'', the sole Style Council selection, the soulful ''My Ever Changing Moods'', and the Jam crowd-pleasers ''Start!'' and ''Town Called Malice'', the latter featuring Burgess, more animated as an encore guest than he had been during The Charlatans' set.

Best was the Sunday, especially the utterly charming sunny indie pop of BMX Bandits, the Glaswegian group led by Duglas T. Stewart, a Robert Wyatt lookalike with the melodic flair of Brian Wilson and the childlike sensibility of Jonathan Richman, who also happens to play a mean kazoo. After that, The Cribs looked and sounded like the bastard, fuzzier, offspring of The Ramones, before James weaved their magic spell.

More monkish and shaman-like than ever, frontman Tim Booth made light of in-ear monitor problems during ''Ring The Bells'' as the septet combined highlights from the recently released La Petite Mort album and career highs ''Born Of Frustration and ''Come Home''.

James had not played Italy in over two decades and received a rapturous, well-deserved welcome, and set the bar so high that nominal headliners Kaiser Chiefs struggled despite the all-round-entertainer antics of frontman Ricky Wilson. Some Italian fans had travelled hundreds of miles to see the Leeds band whose lyrical preoccupations came across as rather parochial in this grandest of settings.

As a black and white silent movie flickered on the silver screen erected by the campsite, I dreamt of sending Wilson to confess his sins to Booth in the nearby church. Umbria Rock was that kind of surreal event, and could well provide the ideal combination of cultural location and great live music that would make it a must event in the calendar.

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