Larmertree Festival , Dorset
Thursday 5th July 2001
Originally published in Wavelength magazine
The Larmertree festival is a completely idyllic setting in the 18th century gardens, surrounded by beautiful trees. Even the festival food concessions are good, and even the portable toilets were clean(ish) . Of course being summertime in England (not a song title from the setlist), it rained, but that should have made a Belfast man feel at home. It was gentle rain. Great atmosphere, great crowd, but a mediocre performance from Van. He has retained the fourth-rate Red Hot Pokers as the basis of his band, kept the additional good horn section and replaced Linda Gail-Lewis with a decent organist. When I looked up and saw them take the stage, I groaned, ‘Oh, no! He’s got the plonkers’. I’ve said it before, this band just can’t get the light and shade of Van’s material. It’s the third time I’ve seen them. They’ve improved, but they’re still strictly a bar band. The bass player is straight out of a dull 60s/70s blues boom Brit band. The guitarist must be unable to believe his luck.
It started out with the usual dullish jazzy workouts like Goin’ Down Geneva / Brand New Cadillac, Outskirts of Town/ The Right Time / Long Distance Call and we got little or no Celtic mysticism I’m afraid. The band’s limitations are highlighted by Cleaning Windows which they really can’t play. They couldn’t play it the last twice either, so I don’t know why he persists with trying to drag them through it. Van concerts are characterised by a rising curve. He kicks about some jazzy R&B to warm himself up, so I don’t begin judging for at least twenty minutes. When Van picked up acoustic guitar for Tore down a la Rimbaud and When the Healing Has Begun it looked as if he was sufficiently warmed up and about to make the run for some genuine Van music. In the Afternoon wasn’t up to standard, because this band doesn’t know how to get quiet and contemplative enough then come back and roar, as past Van bands could. It was getting hard to judge from where I was because two bankers in red braces (this is Cockney rhyming slang rather than a job description) were having a loud and hearty conversation about their respective city jobs mainly with their backs to the stage, compounding the insult by turning and applauding loudly at the end of each song.
So then Van announced that Georgie Fame had turned up, and on walked Fame in shorts and floppy hat (the band were wearing stage suits). This looked unplanned, as the organist switched to piano, and there wasn’t a piano stool for him. He had to stand, then eventually perch himself on an equipment box with his back to the audience. They went into a jazzy Moondance, which this band still isn’t good enough to play, and the glimmer of an approaching spell was instantly broken. Some will find this darkest heresy, but for me Georgie Fame is and was a negative influence on Van bands. Sure he can play, but he’s boring, makes everything sound the same, and the real magic has always come with other line-ups. Back into How Long Has This Been Going On and Ain’t That Loving You Baby which is easy musician messing about, ‘Hey, wanna do a solo?’ stuff. Georgie Fame went off and they bizarrely did When You’re Smiling which was the vaudeville signature tune of British comedians Morecambe & Wise. Just as six months earlier, Van broke into some crowd pleasers – a nice Jackie Wilson Said and Bright Side of the Road then that dull, boring version of Help Me which he has to do every time he appears. Two short encores – Brown Eyed Girl and Precious Time. I thoroughly enjoyed the place, loved the atmosphere of the evening, but this was one of the weaker Van performances I’ve seen. His voice is impeccable, but he was coasting. As in December, he didn’t break sweat once. The setting is so magical that you can’t help but hope for that transcendental Van experience. No one can turn it on like a tap, but the choice of material and the choice of musicians makes it unlikely to happen.
In my last review, I did a long opinionated critique of the Red Hot Pokers. I note that this time the drums had proper mics and balance had improved. They’re no longer playing the material they were hired for, and they’ve experienced a learning curve. But in the end, Van is playing to the weaknesses of his band. Their weaknesses are dictating the set list, and he definitely needs a couple of strong backing singers in his band, if not in addition to the band. In my last review I suggested that cheapness was the reason for this band, wondered why Van wasn’t being accompanied by the best any more, and listed some super-sidemen. It may be that they’re great guys and superb company, virtues which have kept many a mediocre musician in work (aka the Ronnie Wood factor).
The support act was Gordon Haskell, with Hamish Stuart (ex-AWB, Paul McCartney) quietly accompanying on guitar. He was an unbilled last-minute replacement for Robbie McIntosh, and was there because he’s local. Hamish Stuart is in a different league to these guys. Bet he’d cost more too! See also Mick Green, Brian Kennedy, Pee Wee Ellis …