It doesn’t bode well when getting into a festival requires being towed through marshland by tractors. Less still when, having waded knee-deep through fields laden with bags late on Thursday, it becomes apparent that the site isn’t finished. Add pretty much unbroken downpours, at a festival with very, very few undercover areas, and it’s unsurprising that at least a third of attendees had fled by Saturday afternoon, trails of mud dripping behind them.
Those that remained were rewarded by a lineup that seemed to diminish by the minute, with Norman Jay, The Dø and both the headliners on Saturday night, the Phenomenal Handclap Band (who, to be fair, had just split up) and comedy sketch-troupe Pappy’s, amongst the no-shows. With the weekend’s programme already fairly sparse in places to begin with, considerable tracts of time were left with little to do bar cowering beneath trees or staring with rising envy at the few people who could afford the hot tubs.
Poor Nova. And the press releases/website design promised so much. And, to be fair, there were loads of nice ideas here, from the ‘arty’ golf course – Hitler’s arm raising to a Nazi salute as the ball passed through his body was a highlight of, well, this year – to the Post Office that delivered anonymous letters to other campers. But these little details can’t really do much when you’re hunting for a toilet in the campsite and realise there aren’t any – the ‘poo woods’ were, at times, more populated than the main arena – or when, by Sunday, you’re genuinely not expecting any of the scheduled acts to turn up.
It’s easy to feel sorry for the organisers. But then we didn’t pay to get in. Long before the weekend closed message boards and Facebook pages were swelling with comments from those who had, who felt a little bit, well, cheated. And they have a point. With tickets selling for £139 they’re not actually far off the prices for Latitude, and the lineups just don’t bear comparison. Sure, Nova was aiming for something different – a stripped-down, more organic experience, shorn of the corporacy, the crowds, the fashions and the branding – and had the weather have been on-side they may have achieved this, but as it was there simply wasn’t enough going on to make the conditions worth bearing.
But hey, there were some moments. One of them, apparently, was Mercury winner Speech Debelle’s Friday afternoon set, although few people could attest to that given that most of us – OMH included – were still queueing at the entrance trying to work out how to attach towhooks to our cars. Headliners Fink were fun, though, their indie-folk made far more interesting through the shades of post-rock and minimalism that fleck their sound, hinting at Interpol or even Bon Iver at their more experimental moments.
French three-piece We Were Evergreen enliven a dispiriting Saturday afternoon with their hyperactive, sugar-laden pop, even if at least half of their appeal comes from trying to work out what instruments they’re playing – banjos, toy pianos, ukeleles, glockenspiels and trumpets all contrive an appearance – whilst Irish singer-songwriter Fionn Regan imbues a touch more bite into his decaffeinated Damien Rice fare than usual. This year’s next big thing Jessie Ware puts in a spirited performance, all diva vocals against a palette of synthy indie electro, although – Running aside – it’s tough to get too excited when it’s a struggle to avoid sliding over and drowning. The unquestionable day’s highlight, though, was a member of excellent comedy group The Beta Males channeling a deranged Buzz Aldrin, bereft of clothes and writhing in the liquid mud around the audiences’ feet, arms flailing and face contorted into a blur of mirth and rage. He seems an apt symbol.
By Sunday only the hardest of core remains, the exits to the festival a churn of ground and bits of car and the stewards pretty much outnumbering everyone else. At some point in the afternoon the container storing the contents of the main arena’s compost toilets explodes, showering those nearby in urine and god knows what else.
It’s a tough act to follow, but the Mercury-nominated Ghostpoet does pretty well, his noirish mesh of beats and melodies coming off somewhere between a drowsy Roots Manuva and a more jazz-inflected Massive Attack. Certainly he deserves a much bigger crowd, although there’s no half-measure in his performance, and little indifference from those assembled: hypothermic and past the point of caring, people dance barefoot and down whisky from the bottle, their laughter tinged with mania.
Nobody’s really expecting Nova’s biggest name to turn up, and no-one – no stewards, security guards nor the long-since-vacated Information Tent – can say with any confidence whether they made it on-site. Even when the stage is being set up for tUnE-yArDs we refuse to quite believe it, suspecting a final cruel trick as we patiently array before it – still, tellingly, the largest crowd of the whole event.
But she’s pretty hard, that Merrill Garbus, in her wellingtons bought just the day before – which is fortunate as we’re relying on her to salvage the weekend. Which she just about does, her gnarled and erratic folky-jazz-pop an apt soundtrack for the sleep-deprived and under-stimulated assembled in the pit before her, from opener Party Can – its Do You Want To Live? refrain met with something near indifference as we neck more whisky – through to favourites Gangster, Es-so and Powa. She really is a mesmerising presence, a blur of motion as she multitasks ceaselessly between drums and ukelele, vocals and an array of loopers, and her saxophone section perhaps more so, intertwining brass rhythms hypnotically on set highpoint Bizness. Set closer My Country even gets a flashdance, people mounting the stage to drunkenly amble through a routine learnt a few hours before, although their efforts are brutally curtailed midway through when the sound-desk cuts the power for breach of curfew. A few boos ring out, the last-gasp before the spirit breaks, but most just shuffle away, the temporary elation of the last hour already fading fast.
En-route to the gates, scraping muddy boots against anything vaguely above the waterline, a friend commented on her experience. “I…” she begins. There’s a very long pause. “I think I had a good time.” Possibly not the precise legacy that the organisers might have hoped for, but hey – let’s chalk this one up as a learning experience.