National Music Festival: Don't stop the carnival: the hotspots in flami ng June

Gregory Isaacs

The Cool Ruler rules, apparently with indefinite tenure. Can it really be 20 years since his garlanded roots reggae added a new coloration to the tonal palette of Jamaican music and, as a consequence, began to infiltrate the rock market as the punk's remedy to the late-night blues? Certainly, Isaacs' best cuts, on Virgin, GG's, Pre and African Museum in the second half of the Seventies, still stand as the apotheosis of reggae as a music of intimacy. They are minimalist in form and restrained in delivery, and though there are more technically gifted and extravagantly endowed singers to be found on in Jamaica, not one of them has the ability to get as close to his subject as the Ruler. When Gregory sings, you feel his breath at your ear. A recent album recorded for the British label Acid Jazz enabled Isaacs to revisit his rootsy Seventies style with some success. But for the most part, the past decade and a half have seen him wrapping the latest Jamaican sonic fashions in the parchment of his extraordinary voice.

21 June, London Forum

NC

SLEEPER

It's taken a while, but people are starting to pay attention to Sleeper's songs. When Sleeper first appeared a couple of years back, the music press centred on the band's allegedly controversial singer, Louise Wener. The reality is that Louise isn't quite the banderilla-brandishing toreador to the sacred cows of the politically correct she's been painted as: she's just a bit brighter than most musicians.

She's also improving as a songwriter. Sleeper's new album, The It Girl is patchy, but less so than its predecessor. Sleeper's stock in trade is the wryly-observed kitchen-sink drama set to the well-crafted pop song, a combination that has made many bands enormously popular in the last few years but few more than them. Support comes from intermittently acclaimed orthodox indie rockers Longpigs, and hitherto little-known new concern, Octopus.

7 June: Brixton Academy, London

AM

EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL

Pop rehabilitations come in all shapes and sizes, and from surprising angles - that's partly the point of them. And no rehab in recent times has been more welcome than that of Everything But The Girl, who have returned from the pop Siberia of the Wogan show a mere couple of years back (or was it Des O'Connor?) with the best work of their entire career and a tightly coiled spring in their step to boot. The new Virgin album, Walking Wounded, is sharp, modern, jungloid, cybernautical. But for all its surface gleam, there is room within the lattice of its beats for Ben and Tracey's anguish to shape-shift softly and without hindrance, arguably with greater freedom than ever before. The album is, above all, a measure of contemporary pop's formal flexibility, but it's also a testament to the abiding integrity of EBTG's preoccupations, which are still recognisable from the introspective bedsit ramblings of their early Eighties. In mid-1996, Everything But The Girl already look like one of the groups of the year.

19 June, Middlesbrough Town Hall; 20 Leeds Town & Country; 21 Manchester Apollo; 24 Wolverhampton Civic Hall; 25 Cambridge Corn Exchange; 27, 28 London Shepherd's Bush Empire.

NC

LEFTFIELD

Paul Daley and Neil Barnes, collectively known as Leftfield, are the most anonymous 200,000-album-selling, Top-30-occupying, Mercury Prize and Brit-nominated outfit in pop. This is probably because their hits have tended to feature the vocals of guest singers (most notably John Lydon and Toni Halliday) and lurk in the soundtracks of great films (Shallow Grave, Judge Dredd and Trainspotting), rather than doing anything so crass as seeking public acclaim.

Nevertheless, there are few who have heard it who don't proclaim Leftfield's debut album Leftism a modern masterpiece.Watch out for support act The Aloof, a stern, unflinching sub-industrial dance combo to be reckoned with. Incidentally, Leftfield will not be taking the stage till some time after 1am. Don't say we didn't warn you.

15 June, all-night show at the Brixton Academy London

AM

MASTERS OF MUSIC

The first major rock concert held in Hyde Park for 20 years will feature pretty much exactly the bill you'd have expected to play such an event back in 1976. Even 1966, come to that. The only concession to contemporaneity is the presence of angry singer-songwriter du jour, Alanis Morrissette. Her aside, the day is an exercise in unabashed nostalgia, but should prove worthwhile none the less. Organisers hope that the concert, which will be filmed for worldwide television, will draw the largest ever crowd for a rock gig in London.

It's easy to laugh at Bob Dylan these days, which is why so many people do, but rock's most enduringly feral presence can still rise to the big occasion, as any survivor of the Woodstock 94 fiasco will gratefully attest. His shows do tend to be either ferocious and inspiring wrangles with his incomparable back catalogue, or half-asleep trundles through the greatest hits, but you'd be ill-advised to miss him.

A group not unlike The Who will follow Dylan, staging the first ever live performance of Quadrophenia, the rock opera and movie which defined much of the iconography for the recent Britpop renaissance. Messrs Townshend, Daltrey and Entwhistle will be joined on drums by Ringo Starr's son Zak. Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels has been roped in to narrate and will be joined by an as-yet unnamed all-star cast in various vocal roles.

Eric Clapton and his band will headline, doubtless scattering crowd favourites like "Layla" amid his beloved blues excursions and rather more demure ballad offerings. He can still do it, old Slowhand, when the blood rises, so we must hope that the occasion gets to him, and that the spirit of Robert Johnson ambushes the crossroads of his soul - or whatever part of Eric it is that first prompted him to become the hardest hitting bluesman in Surrey.

29 June, Hyde Park London.

AM

EMMYLOU HARRIS

One of the surprise albums of last year was Wrecking Ball, which, aided enormously by Daniel Lanois' haunting production, gave Emmylou Harris a new lease of life. The two of them followed this with a superb concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in the autumn which only stopped when they ran out of encores. There is no Lanois in Harris's brief British tour this time. Buddy Miller will be on guitar at Cambridge, Liverpool and York. But Emmylou will be delivering most of her last album, and if she is canny, which she is, replicating the Lanois sound. The same back-up band of Daryl Johnson and Brady Blade should help. Harris's insistence on exploring new directions have bewildered country fans in America, and she is rarely to be heard on country radio there. But this independence of mind tends to ensure that Emmylou concerts are never less than fascinating.

8 June, Cambridge Corn Exchange; 9 June, Liverpool Philharmonic; 10 June, York Barbican.

DL

GEORGE BENSON

It was during the mid-Seventies that George Benson stopped playing straight- ahead jazz and set about pursuing a career in jazz-funk and soul. After a rhythm and blues apprenticeship, and jazz experience drawn from stints with grits-'n'-gravy Hammond organists, it was probably always inevitable that dance music of one kind or another would figure prominently in the Benson repertoire. The purists didn't like it, but 20 years later Benson's mellow, bluesy influence continues to inform the work of the UK's own trend-setting jazz-funk guitarists, from Tony Remy to Ronny Jordan, and influences the proceedings just about any time jazz meets R&B.

His sweet and soulful singing style remains a feature of any George Benson project, but these days he does seem to be placing increasing emphasis on the guitar. His latest album, That's Right (GRP), recaptures some of the punchy, vibrant energy that saw him feted so enthusiastically as the greatest jazz guitarist of his generation. Partly recorded here in the UK and occasionally borrowing musicians from Incognito, it is a nice collection of bluesy, groove-based jazz funk, and points the way for four rousing live dates in Birmingham, Glasgow and London.

29 June, Academy NEC Birmingham; 1, 3 July Royal Albert Hall London; 2 July Royal Concert Hall Glasgow

LC

THE FLEADH

Now in its seventh year, this popular Irish-dominated knees-up marks the start of London's summer festival season and the traditional flattening of the grass at Finsbury Park. The perennial Sting calls on his Celtic roots to warrant headlining over twenty established and up-and-coming acts featured on two stages: highlights include Christy Moore, Mary Black. Gavin Friday, 10,000 Maniacs, John Prine and Sean O'Hagan's High Llamas. Expect a stampede when most of the boys are back in town: the regrouped Thin Lizzy will perform a tribute to Phil Lynott after the acclaim which met their Dublin show in January. "Philip's spirit lives and that's what you will feel at the Fleadh," says original member Scott Gorham, and with the quantity of creamy brown liquid on offer, anticipate a few sightings as well.

Last year's revellers downed a staggering 54,000 pints of Guinness, accounting for 10 per cent of the UK's yearly intake. "We've gone on record for selling the most Guinness in any one day at any event ever," says Mean Fiddler impresario Vince Power proudly. With the Worker's Beer Company, he intends to top this figure in 1996 with extra queue-reducing, crack-inducing bar facilities. But the Fleadh remains, he says, "a great family day out," with a specially-designed children's area. There's the usual array of festival food and clothing stalls, with the latter offering the chance to purchase the mandatory tie-dyed number that always seems a good idea at the time.

Not exactly well-known for their Irishness, the likes of Sting, Lloyd Cole and Jools Holland are appearing because, says the Co Waterford-born Power, "I started the Fleadh with purely Irish acts, but as it's gone on I've had to broaden it out to survive. It's now the most established annual festival in London, and I hope, will continue so for scores of years to come."

8 June, Finsbury Park, London N4.

JC

DEAD CAN DANCE

The sound palaces of Anglo-Irish duo Dead Can Dance have been sampled by Black Grape and Future Sound Of London, danced to by the San Francisco Ballet and incorporated on soundtracks from Heat to a car chase scene in Miami Vice. After traversing times, genres and geographies with anthropological fervour for nigh on 15 years, Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry have, they say, arrived at "music which has taken on an identity of itself." Living on opposite sides of the globe - Perry in a converted church in Co Cavan, Gerrard in Australia's Snowy Mountain range - hasn't deterred them from coming together annually to mix styles and influences. "What we do is nourishing," Gerrard says. "People need to be given strength."

Bullroarers, birdsong and their trademark other-worldly vocals feature on their seventh studio album, Spiritchaser, a recording which focuses on the more percussive, tribal side of cult label 4AD's biggest selling international act. "We were searching for something which had meaning, something where you hear the spirits talking," Perrys says. Songs inspired by Shamanism, Haitian invocations and elemental forces ensure that they're positively chattering away. With a two-hour set and a seven-piece touring ensemble, these architects of noise promise anima-stirring stuff.

30 June Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London.

JC

RAY CHARLES AND VAN MORRISON

Van Morrison, in common with many of the best British singers of the Sixties, counted Ray Charles among his greatest influences. So it will be fascinating - at the very least - to hear what alchemy the two achieve together in their series of concerts in different parts of the country this summer.

Like a great chef, Charles made use of a variety of ingredients in the Fifties, from rhythm and blues, gospel, jazz and rock 'n' roll, to create the recipe for soul. Across the Atlantic, all five styles were to Morrison's taste, and from his earliest days in Belfast he was quick to let their impact show.

On the album Them Again (1966), he sang Charles's 1954 hit "I Got A Woman" with gritty conviction, and seven years later Ray's "I Believe To My Soul" was a highlight, admittedly among many, on Morrison's electrifying It's Too Late To Stop Now double live album.

Now well qualified for his bus pass, Ray Charles hasn't exactly slowed down. His records tend to play safe, yet there are moments in every live show when the spirit is with him, he digs deep into his soul, the gospel roots vibrate with life and, yea, the lame dance for joy in the aisles.

Morrison, whose outings since 1988 have often been with the Georgie Fame band, is an enthusiastic collaborator with those he venerates. He investigated the Celtic portion of his work in cahoots with The Chieftains, and now his "other" soul tradition will get refreshment.

For sure, Morrison won't be able to kick as high as he once did, and Charles's screams do not tingle the spine quite so shiveringly or frequently, but there will surely be no greater experiment in soul telepathy to be had this summer than the meeting of Van The Man and Brother Ray.

15, 19 June Wembley Arena; 21 Manchester Lynex Arena; 23 Birmingham NEC; 24 Newcastle Arena.

GB

COURTNEY PINE

There were plenty of exciting British saxophonists around long before he arrived on the scene, and a number have turned up since, but none have captured the public imagination quite like Courtney Pine. Young and dedicated, always ready to argue the jazz cause and blessed with a prodigious technique on both tenor and soprano, he was integral in the music's reversal of fortune during the Eighties, and helped an entire generation of jazz musicians on their way.

But this latest band is probably his greatest achievement. With the help of award winning DJs Pogo and Sparkii, he has put voice to the most interesting vision so far of jazz fused with hip hop. Instead of simply mixing instrumental improvisation with standard loops and samples, Pine's new music continues to be driven by a genuine jazz rhythm section, but uses turntables and computer as a kind of futuristic percussion section.

It's a scratchy, off-beat commentary, but it works brilliantly. Pine himself is as strong as ever, rattling through fast, extrovert solos and writing catchy original tunes. This is a free event, with a good array of jazz funk support bands. Courtney Pine doesn't play here too often, so come early.

28 June, Jazz On The Waterfront, Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds.

LC

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