Apple Cart Festival, Victoria Park, London

The Apple Cart Festival was a welcome respite from a bleak week

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:31
Bright star: Sarah Cracknell and Saint Etienne were fitting headliners to the Apple Cart Festival
Bright star: Sarah Cracknell and Saint Etienne were fitting headliners to the Apple Cart Festival

If I made it up, it would be corny: a hackneyed attempt to crowbar some meteorology-based pathetic fallacy into my review. But, the moment that The Magic Numbers take to the stage at the Apple Cart Festival, the torrential downpour genuinely ceases and the sun comes out.

With every passing year, proclaiming love for this band feels more like a faith to be maintained in the face of indifference, and the general perception that the Gannons and Stodarts are "so 2005". If heart-melting, emotionally restorative melodic pop-rock is an anachronism, then just call me H G Wells. The rain recommences the moment they leave, prompting quick-thinking Guilty Pleasures DJ Sean Rowley to play "Gimme Shelter" as the entire festival runs for the trees and the tents. I see what he did there.

Apple Cart is a newcomer to an already crowded calendar, and at first glance it's difficult to discern exactly what it's about, other than an excuse to fill unused capacity: the marquees and fences are already up, so something has to be done with them. Roughly speaking, if Underage Festival, held in Victoria Park on the Friday, is for the tweenagers, and Saturday's Field Day is for the students, then Apple Cart – "a new London festival for music, comedy, art, cabaret and magic" which "aims to create a kaleidoscopic, colourful playground for adults and kids alike" – is a Sunday stroll for the mums and dads, who can leave the toddlers at the sandpit while they watch some indie folk. Hardly a unique selling point, in the Bestival and Latitude era, but at least you can do this one without the horrors of camping. Which, in today's monsoon weather, is an incalculable bonus.

It's all a little self-congratulatingly bourgeois, as though a little bit of Crouch End has been scooped up and plonked down in the East End. The hog roast-heavy food court is full of chalked-up signs reassuring us that all the flaming flesh comes from beasts which were hand reared on organic meadows. It feels like Borough Market with music programmed by the Heavenly Social.

Which is, as it happens, not necessarily a bad thing. I'd say Patrick Wolf was a revelation, were it not for the fact that I've watched him countless times and I'd be more surprised if he didn't single-handedly put all other singer-songwriters to shame. The outlandishly talented androgyne, hooded and caped, steps out in measured, monastic paces, blowing something that looks like a fusion of a hand-held church organ and a weapon out of Flash Gordon. He whips off the cowl to reveal a splendid suit as scarlet as the dye in his hair, which runs in red rivulets of perspiration down his cheeks in a set which runs from the folk-pop of his early material through to the pansexual Springsteen of his current Lupercalia album, culminating in the storming "This City", which inexplicably didn't become an enormous hit. There's a touching moment when he dedicates "Black is the Colour" for his friend Amy Winehouse and a butterly, a red admiral, dances around his head. For the second time today, I wonder if nature is trying to write my column for me.

There's an uncomfortable stand-off when Chilly demands an apology from a stage manager who has cut him short by signalling for a beret-wearing Brummie to play a CD. Gonzales might not have been so dismissive of "the next musician ... I mean DJ" had he realised that the DJ concerned was a living legend.

Kevin Rowland is, to the delight of Dexys fans, working on a new album with a team of former Midnight Runners (including Mick Talbot and Pete Williams). While we're waiting for that, his occasional DJ sets are a thing of absolute beauty. Spinning soul and disco classics, from Chairmen of the Board to Odyssey, he frequently grabs a microphone, steps out from behind the decks and croons his own handsome a capella codas to tracks such as AWB "Let's Go Round Again" and The O-Jays' "Love Train". At the end, the whole tent is chanting the "Jackie Wilson Said" refrain in tribute.

Soul II Soul's set is heralded by the unmistakable silhouette of Jazzie B behind the console. He once chased me down an alleyway for urinating on his back door, so I make a swift exit in case he recognises me.

Saint Etienne, arguably the most "London" band alive, are the perfect headliners. Reunited with former Dolly Mixture Debsy, whose rich tones dovetail exquisitely with Sarah Cracknell's higher register on "Who Do You Think You Are", they deliver a hits set which showcases their magpie-like, retro-futurist aesthetic. There's something about watching aeroplane lights rising against a darkening indigo sky to the sound of elegiac Europop which elevates the soul.

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Like any good festival, the day has been an oasis from external reality. Over at the far corner of Victoria Park, Hackney is burning. But nothing upsets the Apple Cart.

Next Week:

Simon investigates Stetsoned, arena-filling phenomenon Brad Paisley

Rock Choice

Green Man Festival, the much-loved indie-folk gathering on the Welsh borders, this year welcomes Fleet Foxes, James Blake and Villagers to the hillsides of the Glanusk Park Estate, Powys, (Fri to Sun). Meanwhile, Death In Vegas, back after a seven-year break and with a new album imminent, play a warm-up for their December UK tour at The Wedgwood Rooms, Portsmouth (Thu).

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