Last night’s exceptional Jack Johnson gig rang in the ears of several thousand Somersaulters as they yawned in their tents on Sunday morning, yet they still had one final headliner to look forward to: a local Devonshire lad called Ben Howard. Only a diverse closing day schedule intervened, cherry-picked by Howard himself and arranged like a series of support acts. But before his anticipated evening show, many of Sunday’s assembled cherries would have something special to offer the Main Stage themselves.
Where Friday and Saturday had opened with mellow midday offerings, 19 year-old Misty Miller burst forth instead, urgently and LOUDLY, heart worn on her Nirvana tee sleeve. While Miller’s name might misleadingly shout ‘more gooey ukulele faff’ when first glimpsed in a festival program, this woman’s sound is a deep and substantial brand of yowling rock. Her first ever live rendition of ‘Best Friend’ may not have helped hangovers, but it was certainly memorable.
Hiss Golden Messenger were up next to significantly increase the average stage-age with an easy-going mix of folk-rock and blues. The crowd’s respectful claps and nods turned to woops of excitement, however, when Catfish and the Bottlemen arrived. The Accrington representatives (‘we’ve never been this far south before’) zapped everyone in the ears with bouncing hooks (see ‘Kathleen’), gravelly vocals and enjoyable brusqueness. Frontman Van McCann’s blunt preview of the song ‘Fallout’, ‘It’s about me being a test tube baby because my dad can’t get it up’, led to some particularly amusing exchanges between parents and their bewildered young children.
Fourth in line were Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, selected ‘as a joke’ by Ben Howard because he didn’t know whether they were still playing together. This reviewer can confirm that they emphatically are. The All Stars’ dance music is designed to etch smiles into faces – quite literally, since they started out as morale-raising entertainers at refugee camps. And much smiling at the Main Stage there was. Their set, comprised mostly of songs from their 2014 album ‘Libation’, was punctuated by the catchphrase: ‘Are you happy?’ This was obviously a rhetorical question because the All Stars rendered it physically impossible not to be.
‘And now for something completely different’ was meanwhile the mantra of Montreal’s indie four-piece Half Moon Run. The gig was a multi-instrumental exhibition that ran with the tight efficiency of a clock manufactured by a neurotically obsessive engineer from Berlin. The band’s broad talents allowed for a varied sound that included a capella choruses and pounding drums, reinvigorating the studio version of ‘Call Me In The Afternoon’ with sharp intensity. Every song Half Moon played from their ‘Dark Eyes’ album was elevated to new heights by their live performance: a true weekend highlight.
A limb-crushing surge to the stage barriers meant that, at last, it was headliner Ben Howard’s turn. He emerged from the shadows dressed like Johnny Cash, eyes downcast, Somersault baying for his introverted charms. Silhouetted against strobe lighting, Howard was almost sheepish reciting his debut record ‘Every Kingdom’, as the crowd went crazy for ‘Old Pine’ and ‘The Fear’.
Perhaps Howard’s bashfulness derives from The Fear of negative criticism; at one point he mumbled: ‘I’m going to play as many new songs as possible to show that I don’t just play one type of music’. Howard’s modest comments on his evolving sound (‘some people like it, others don’t really care’) hinted that he doesn’t like the idea of being just another singer-songwriter with a guitar made of wood. Watching him play in 2014 feels much like watching a rock band, his post-‘Kingdom’ tracks pointing to a departure from acoustic string plucking. In newer songs like ‘I Forget Where We Were’, he favoured electric over acoustic, distortion over folky simplicity, and depended as much on India Bourne’s latter spells on the drums as on her cello – not to mention benefiting erstwhile from Bourne and the band’s stage presence.
It’s difficult to gauge how melancholy melodies like ‘White Lights’ will translate into Ben Howard’s next studio record. Will his new album capture the tangible live atmosphere he brought here, the emotional resonance that captivated this audience? Or will it be… boring? Time will tell; but as for Howard’s reception in this green valley near Barnstaple, the bashful Brit Award-winner seemed to underestimate himself. The mood Somersault was in, he could have played every song on a kazoo and they’d still have come after him like he was the Pied Piper.