Truck Festival 2008 (Steventon, Oxfordshire) review

Truck Festival

Truck Festival – Photo: Gina Policelli. 2008 marked the eleventh Truck Festival in the normally sleepy Oxfordshire village of Steventon. Not to be mistaken for an event celebrating all things of the vehicular variety, Truck represents one of the precious few independent music festivals …

Truck Festival
Truck Festival – Photo: Gina Policelli

2008 marked the eleventh Truck Festival in the normally sleepy Oxfordshire village of Steventon. Not to be mistaken for an event celebrating all things of the vehicular variety, Truck represents one of the precious few independent music festivals still going strong in the UK and has grown in fame and prestige over the last decade. No corporate slogans for this event; rather you can expect to see the local vicar pouring pints as the Didcot Rotary Club serve you up a burger and chips.

Founded by Joe and Robin Bennett, Truck is a truly unique affair: a mixture of the village fete and the music festival, it celebrates some of the finest music – new and old – you can possibly expect to enjoy over two days. Past years have seen acts including Garth & Maud Hudson, The Futureheads, Regina Spektor, The Magic Numbers and Mystery Jets do their thing on the stages, one of which is comprised of a truck (hence the name), another a barn.

For 2008 there were some new stages, including the Village Pub and Pavilion, offering even more choice than before at this loveable boutique festival. This year was my sixth Truck and I arrived on Saturday pleased that the weather was one of those wonderfully English summer days – no, not rainy you joker you – a genuinely lovely sunny day with a mild breeze and fluffy white clouds in a picture book blue sky. Which – given last years floods – was no less than a miracle for an event that was postponed after entire marquees were swept down the fields in 2007.

As usual the punters were spoilt for choice, with established artists like The Lemonheads doing sets alongside up and coming artists such as Noah and the Whale and Stornoway. Truck line-ups are never anything less than idiosyncratic and that’s why it’s so thoroughly charming.

Where was I? Ah, Saturday. Aside from a mildly shambolic set from Television Personalities there were plenty of highlights. These included an energetic set from Little Fish, a rock duo whose singer Juju has an intense, PJ Harvey vocal style and a whole lot of charisma to boot; and an utterly magical performance from Emmy the Great.

Emmy The Great
Emmy the Great – Photo: Lindsey Davis

As the breeze ruffled her hair and bubbles floated across the sky and into the fields beyond the stage, Emmy had a rapt audience at her disposal – a rare feat for an artist on so early in the day. As she stared into the sunlight, I am sure I wasn’t alone in wondering how big she would be this time next year – the girl has star quality whilst never seeming cocky. The enchanting voice, the looks, the likeable presence … Her folky music is married to winning lyrics which have a humour and self awareness that prevent anyone from making accusations of her being twee or overearnest. And boy has she got fans! Even at this early stage in her career, a hardcore group were eagerly standing at the front and bantering with her, which she clearly relished. She’s one to watch that’s for sure.

The Ralfe Band had a hard act to follow on the Truck Stage but acquitted themselves well, their brand of quirky pyschedelia going down well with the audience. From them we wandered off to the Market Stage for the nostalgia fest that was Dodgy. Anyone who was a teenager in the mid nineties will recall with fondness (or minor irritation) the jingly jangly indie pop produced by the Brummie threesome, and it was on this basis we found ourselves in the crammed circus style tent singing along to classics like “Good Enough” and “Staying Out for the Summer”.

Dodgy – Photo: Gina Policelli

The band sheepishly knew their audience and kept new tracks to a minimum, drummer Matt getting highly into the spirit of things. You can’t keep a good Brummie down! It was all very good fun; the band were consummate professionals and played a polished set which you’d have to be pretty curmudgeonly to walk away from and criticise.

I then stayed behind to catch Martin Simpson, whose name readers might recall from his days supporting Steeleye Span but who deserves credit on his own terms. One of the finest guitarists I’ve seen play in a long time, I was lucky enough to bag a place at the front of the audience and watch his precise, skilful fingers as they worked their magic on his guitar.

I should also add an apology to Martin here, for forgetting to turn the flash off my camera and inadvertently letting off a blinding light only a few songs in. The picture was unfortunately blurred so that’ll show me to be so inconsiderate! Sorry (hangs head) … Anyhows, back to the music. It was fascinating to watch him play and I adored listening to the wonderful tales his songs relayed, including “Highway 61” and the moving “Prodigal Son”, which he dedicated to his father. My own father recommended Martin to me and after seeing him live, I’m very glad he did. Martin had a warm stage presence and seemed comfortable to casually chat away to the audience, telling us that the previous night he’d played a town hall and was off to play the Royal Albert Hall the next night. What a wonderfully diverse triad of venues to do in the space of three days – evidence if any was needed of his love of playing no matter where!

The Market Stage then played host to Noah and the Whale which, having returned to it after grabbing a drink, we found so crammed it was impossible to get in. We headed off to see Okkervil River instead. Although they initially sounded like they were rattling around the large Truck Stage a little lost, things soon picked up and as the dusk fell, the band gave an increasingly assured and sprawling set. Their ornate folk rock and multi-layered instrumentation was perfectly pitched against the clear velvety skies and backdrop of whispering corn fields; and singer Will Sheff’s yelpy vocals were seemingly unaffected by his frenzied jumping around the stage.

They were more than a match for headliners The Lemonheads, who as a certain special guest argued very sweetly the next day, just didn’t seem like they wanted to be there. After deserting the silliness of hyperactive Klaxons-esque Munch Munch for Dando et al, I was left cold by the band’s absolute minimum of engagement with the audience. Their choice to play the entirety of album ‘It’s a Shame About Ray’ proved to be a bit off – with the eponymous song played early on in the set, there was no ‘favourite’ for the crowd to wait for and the band seemed oblivious to all notions of whipping the crowd up. They were good, yes, but ultimately left no greater impression.

So although Saturday ended a little flatly with the much-feted headliners detached from spirit of Truck – i.e. the sense of fun and inclusion which artists and audiences rightly love it for – Sunday more than made up for it. By this point I’d already seen Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers wandering around the site and been so excited I could barely speak, and spent most of the day eagerly anticipating his set.

Whilst I waited and tried not to embarrass myself by approaching him, I took in Tristan & the Troubadours, Indigo Moss and Luke Smith. T&TT are a bunch of GCSE students whose age belies their evident knack for a tune. Their sparkly pop, backed by piano and violin amongst other instruments, is amazingly accomplished and these teens really are too cool for school. They seemed impressively comfortable on stage and put me in mind of a less geeky Belle and Sebastian. They even have their own backing singer! And a good name. Which is immeasurably helpful given the raft of crap names teenagers give their bands. These kids don’t need me to tell them they will do well – they seem to know it already.

Engaged couple Trevor Moss and Hannah-Lou, who go by the name Indigo Moss, also played the Market Stage. Their cute rockabilly music takes in bluegrass along the way and their set mesmerised the audience. They were an apt match for the festival’s bucolic setting and were timed perfectly to gently wake people up after Saturday’s excesses. They drew some of their own peers too – Danny (of Danny and the Champions of the World) and Magic Numbers members all sat spellbound by the set. I must single out Hannah-Lou’s voice especially for praise; she’s got a pretty special sound and I want to hear more of her!

It was then off to see Luke Smith in the new tent the Village Pub. Canterbury-based Luke Smith specialises in cabaret style, piano led observational songs rich in wry humour and bearing titles like “I Like Being Cosy”. Now some would say he is irritating. Not me; I love him! I was charmed by him at a previous Truck and made a special effort to see him this year, where his attempts to get the packed audience not to join in drew much laughter. He’s lovely. From one hirsute wonder to another, I made sure I had a good view of the nicest man in music, Romeo Stodart. Yes, he was the special guest who along with bandmate Angela Gannon performed on Sunday evening.

Romeo from The Magic Numbers
Romeo from The Magic Numbers – Photo: Gina Policelli

Romeo is an artist who totally gets the Truck ethos and who, having mingled – or in his own words – been ‘led astray’ – by the punters the previous night, happily bantered with the crowd. And yes, it was him who very politely suggested that a certain Mr Dando could have thrown himself into the sprit of things a little more. He gave a lovely set of pared down Magic Numbers tracks with Angela providing accompaniment and showing off her angelic voice, which could honestly make grown men cry it’s so pretty. Danny of Danny and the Champions of the World joined for a song and a bit of a mutual appreciation society was formed which proved utterly heart-warming.

I then made a fantastic new discovery in the form of the politicised and impassioned Frank Turner, formerly of Million Dead. Wow. His lyrics are something else. And he has the tunes to back them up too. Combining the star quality of Bruce Springsteen with the polemics of Billy Bragg, he gave a magnificent performance which at the point in the day when revellers could easily flag as they wait for the main acts, drew a big crowd and made me and many others prick their heads up with immediate interest. Turner has a voice that urges you to listen and honest and powerful things to say, and delivers his messages with a conviction and intelligence weighted with authority and panache.

Laura Marling headlined the market stage and after much debate I decided I would eschew Get.Cape.Wear.Cape.Fly for the Berkshire-based songstress. The tent was spilling over with people and expectations were high. After what seemed like an age she finally came on and my first impression was: wow, she’s teeny! Followed by extreme jealousy of one so young and talented (yeah, she’s 18, yada yada yada … Enough about her age now!).

She exhibited remarkable composure in the face of such adulation and the complete purity of her voice hit me anew upon hearing it live. Sounding immaculate, she proved the beauty of her vocals on record is no engineered fluke. She delivered a set comprised mostly of songs from her debut ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, plus a new track (Rebecca) and an encore of Five Years’ Time, that Noah and the Whale track on which she supplied backing vocals.

The set was, in short, sublime. Unperturbed by the idiots talking for the beginning of her set, who totally ignored the subtle and growing intensity of “Shine”, she projected a calm aura which soon transmitted to the audience, which was amassed of hyper kids, older folkies, and mid twenties former hyper kids like your good reporter. Everyone was transfixed a controlled yet delicate performance from Marling and her band, who live, lent the songs a greater thrust and body than on the album. As the drums and piano kicked in on My Manic and I and Night Terror, carving out a powerful backdrop for her clean and resonant voice, she treated the audience to some memorable hairs on the back of your neck moments. I’m sure those who saw her headline will agree that it is not overstating the matter to predict that it will become much harder to see her in a few years from now. If she’s this good before she’s out of her teens (I know, you can’t avoid it), what will she be like in Five Years Time (sorry – couldn’t resist)?

In all, Truck 11 was another wonderful weekend with wonderful artists. Although there seemed some underestimation of the popularity of some bands and a subsequent mismatch between stage and artist (Laura Marling in the Market Stage?), this is a minor gripe. The sun shone benevolently upon the festivities and topped off a weekend of quality music which introduced new artists and also reminded us of how great some of the established acts are – in short, it did exactly what a music festival should do. An event which is all about community, passion for music and a relaxed attitude to life, long may the Trucking continue.

By: Lindsey Davis