It takes a certain measure of gall to set up a birthday party and expect three thousand people to come. Most of us settle for a meal or an embarrassing round of karaoke, soddening ourselves with wine just to stave off the awful realisation that we’ve aged. But then, few birthday parties are headlined by Buena Vista Social Club, have their own radio station and feature a plot revolving around the kidnap of a local lord.
It’s fair to say that Standon Calling isn’t really like other birthday parties. Nor, really, is it like other festivals either, more the bastard offspring of a village fete and a Skins party, birthed through a surrogate of Midsomer Murders. But it works, the festival finding its identity in its eccentricities, from the fake currency – Binghams – and the secret passages linking the tailors to the bank, to the Dickensian figure riding his piano around the site by candlelight. In terms of size the site would barely register on the Glastonbury map, yet it’s staggeringly easy to get lost within its attractions, from solving a mystery to painting portraits, so much so that it’s a struggle to find time to see any music.
Which is something of a shame, because the music’s pretty great, an eclectic mesh of genres from latin to electronica, soul to metal, with a defiantly leftfield booking list that eschews the usual NME landfill. First up on Friday are Lazarus and the Plane Crash, who largely want to be Gogol Bordello with their vibrant gypsy rhythms and accented vocals. They’re diverting enough, although singer Joe Coles tries so hard to be a memorable stage presence that he quickly becomes irritating.
Much better is El Guincho, musician Pablo Díaz-Reixa’s Spanish take on Animal Collective at their most upbeat, psychedelica fused with samba and midi-loops formed from the crowd cheers. The caribbean sounds might jar somewhat with the festival dress code, but the dancing suggests that nobody cares.
The first real musical impression of the weekend comes courtesy of Fucked Up, their brutal riffage a startling counterpoint to the funkier sounds of the day’s earlier acts. But it’s singer Pink Eyes that forms the memories, three crew members trailing his microphone lead behind him as he roams the crowd for faces to scream into, offering a masterclass in audience engagement that’s simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating. By comparison, first night headliners Liars seem rather dull, their live performance lacking much of the nuance that marks them out on record, their sound drifting over the fields, far from our attention.
Esben and the Witch seem uneasy in a daytime slot far from their native witching hour, sunlight and happiness threatening to corrode their usual caustic gloom. Fortunately any smiles are soon banished by a terrifying Lucia At The Precipice, guitarist Thomas Fisher flailing and thrashing across the stage as though in the throes of exorcism. The highpoint comes with Marching Song, drums laden with grim portent amid Rachel Davies’ doomy cries. They’re still wrestling with the issue of being overshadowed by their pre-programmed beats but the three-piece are getting there, immeasurably more captivating and urgent than at their Great Escape performances in May.
Joe Gideon and the Shark are an excellent surprise, like a more abrasive, erudite White Stripes, brother-sister duo Gideon and Viva using words, drums, bass and keys to spawn bluesy narratives and noisy headaches that succeed despite numerous amp issues and false starts, most notably with a superbly laconic Civilisation.
Mainstage headliner Etienne de Crecy provides arguably the best set of the weekend, his Beats ‘n Cubes performance both a visual and a sonic masterwork. Essentially a right-angled version of Daft Punk’s pyramid, the French DJ performs within the centre of a nine-cubed structure, on to which various projections create the impression of movement and animation. Words, of course, don’t really convey it, but it’s stunning, perfectly choreographed patterns giving life to every beat and synth across the far-too-brief hour’s show. Musically it’s pounding, heavy electro that never really relents, but it’s the hypnosis of the cubes that make this special, the crowd lost within a maze of fluid geometrics that the YouTube clips utterly fail to convey but which need to be seen anyway. The best moments come in identifying the array of retro games invoked throughout, from Snake to Tetris to Doom, the latter slightly unnerving as we’re led forward through endless polygonal corridors, de Crecy looming from the centre as though challenging us to open fire. It’s the sort of experience that could easily be co-opted by the CIA for programming operatives, and it’s some time after before the world seems normal again and we cease looking for fractal patterns in the faces of everyone we meet. That said, days later the cubes are still there, dancing behind the eyelids on every blink, which is surely a mark of success.
Late on stage and playing past their finish time, Brooklyn’s Telepathe seemed ill-at-ease with the crowd and somewhat surly. The duo have some strong songs, though, their closing triplet of Devil’s Trident, So Fine and Chrome’s On It compulsively danceable yet darkly brooding, although the largely static live delivery needs some work.
Efterklang are that rare thing, a band that no matter your mood, however piercing your hangover or staggeringly painful that ear infection you’ve had since Liars on Friday night (who in some way must be responsible…), you cannot fail but be lifted by them. In large part this is down to frontman Casper Clausen’s unfettered joy at being on stage, every moment met with wide-mouthed smiles and unselfconscious dancing: it’s infectious, and an attitude quickly replicated by the crowd. They play a set heavily drawn from Magic Chairs, singles Modern Drift and I Was Playing Drums garnering the most overt response, but it’s their Parades material that affects the most, a shimmering, beautiful Mirador with its subtle glitches, layered vocals and delicate instrumentation foremost. Cutting Ice To Snow closes their set, fragile and minimal, the band’s voices rising in unison as the audience stands rapt.
Elsewhere New York anti-folker Jeffrey Lewis plays a loose set of lyrically-dextrous meandering tales, lo-fi and low key but undeniably entertaining, whilst over on the main stage Buena Vista Social Club are pretty much the opposite, filling every spare space with any Cuban musicians they can find. It’s quite a spectacle, and undeniably moving at points, although strangely disengaging, causing more than a few people to shuffle away to the bank, the art gallery or the barber’s shop, or to await Giles Peterson’s customarily eclectic set at Bakerloo Station.
Because, ultimately, this is a festival where the joy lies more in the details than the bands – they’re just providing the soundtrack to the party, not the focus. And despite the slightly underwhelming close it would be a challenge to find anyone left bored by Standon Calling, except perhaps the security teams (‘There’s just nothing to do…’). So whilst this year’s cake might yet to be digested, organiser Alex Trenchard should have little difficulty finding several thousand people to celebrate his aging with him next August.
Festival Rating: 4/5