Review: The Port Eliot Festival 2019

The Port Eliot Festival
25-28 July 25-28

Port Eliot Festival

For the foreseeable future at least, the Port Eliot Festival will not return. According to organisers, the 10,000-capacity event, which has always been a labour of love, is no longer “financially viable”. Shame, but at least it went out with a magnificently eclectic weekend of music, talk, comedy, fashion, food, cabaret and, as this nervous parent looked on, his children receiving instruction in Viking-style axe-throwing. Port Eliot, held on a Cornish country estate, filled the senses – especially if you got downwind of anyone who had lately been swimming in the creek, scene of regular mud fights.

Aldous Harding, Port Eliot Festival

As for the musical heart of Port Eliot, it was the Caught By The River stage where, on Thursday night, Aldous Harding brought her intricate take on psych-folk to a tent rammed with people. But not without some soundcheck problems that had bassist H Hawkline looking pensive and a few members of the audience grumbling. There was nothing to worry about. A combination of Harding’s otherworldly stage presence and the eerie melodic strength of tunes such as The Barrel and Blend more than carried the day. In comparison to Harding’s May show at Bristol’s Trinity, which had some tentative moments, there was a sense here of an artist striving to get things right yet also able to roll with the punches, working with a band that’s shaken itself down on the road.

Friday early evening brought a chance to see Modern Nature, the new project fronted by Jack Cooper, formerly of Ultimate Painting and Mazes. This is studious music that seemingly strives for a mid-point between, say, Radiohead, Alice Coltrane and pastoral English folk. In practice, this means Modern Nature sounded a little like an updated Van Der Graaf Generator, which is of course a good thing.

Later that night, the band’s keyboard player Will Young was back on the same stage as part of Beak>. “My voice has gone,” complained drummer and singer Geoff Barrow (of Portishead fame) early in the set, but it didn’t stop the trio storming through a set that often seemed to teeter on the edge of chaos. Highlights included the band’s cover of Gary Numan’s Cars, first unveiled when Beak> performed an impromptu set during the recent Extinction Rebellion demonstration in Bristol, and the insistent, Sonic Youth-recalling Life Goes On. Frenetic lo-fi dance music that sounds like it’s played by people who have swapped drugs for beer or possibly, as one handsome wag put it, CAMRA krautrock.

On Saturday, it was the turn of Sheffield’s International Teachers Of Pop to play the same stage. Much dancing ensued even though, at a guess, many were encountering the band for the first time, evidence perhaps of how ITOP channel the spirit of the knowing yet politically engaged end of 1980s synthpop, a kind of updated Heaven 17.

Port Eliot FestivalElsewhere, The Park, which housed daytime comedy from the likes of Robin Ince and Shappi Khorsandi, was often party central at night, notably when Charlotte Church opened her Late Night Pop Dungeon. At the Idler Academy and the Bowling Green, learned but relaxed chat was the order of the day.

The sedate environs of The Church, meantime, brought the incongruous sight of Ed Hardcourt covering Iggy And The Stooges’ Gimme Danger beneath stained glass. Then there was the ever-loquacious Robyn Hitchcock performing solo, and rapping tall tales between songs about Bryan Ferry, hair products and a cat called Tubby. Hitchcock’s acoustic guitar playing, incidentally, is probably stronger than it’s ever been following a series of solo gigs.

At the Black Cow Saloon, on the edge of the festival site in the shadow of the St Germans Viaduct, the atmosphere was rather rowdier, especially when William The Conqueror performed. You can make what you will of the idea of a Cornish band playing music that draws so heavily on southern boogie rock, but it was catchy as hell. On Saturday, Vic Godard and Subway Sect brought the rickety spirit of the years when punk morphed into post-punk to the same stage. As Godard and co played the evergreen Ambition, first released on Rough Trade back in 1978, fuzzy, beery bonhomie filled the venue – a musical moment as near perfect in its way as any you could find.