Alison reviews the UK's biggest Christian-type festival, Greenbelt.
Greenbelt is one of the lesser-known festivals of the summer and distinctive for being Christian-based. As well as musical entertainment, it also provides a large assortment of seminars from "Was Jesus off his trolley?" to "More 'E' vicar?" (a debate about the glamorisation of drugs by writers and film-makers), and many opportunities for reflection, prayer and worship. There are also bits of theatre, and arriving early to see an amalgamation of four of Shakespeare's history plays - The War of the Roses, I encounter my first musical experience of the festival in a Ugandan group called Streams in the Desert. They delight those present in the venue - a small courtyard surrounded by farm buildings - with their enthusiastic, bounding songs featuring traditional drums, clapping, grinning and dancing. Later that evening they appear on the main stage and the whole crowd get carried away. On one particularly buoyant song (meaning "tremble" in Ugandan) everyone waves their hands, turns around and bounces up and down in a synchronisation that's astounding to watch. This group are no Oasis, no stagnant pool in the desert, but bountiful flowing streams refreshing its very sands. Later, folk rock band Eden Burning, in what is billed as their "last ever gig", disappoint all but their most loyal fans in a rather lame set from which many of their old favourites, usually guaranteed to get the crowd jumping up and down in time with their stringed instruments, are notably missing.
Saturday - I seem to miss most of the bands in sheltering from the rain and attending seminars and workshops on subjects as diverse as poetry, advertising and pop culture. I find a couple on the bandstand, though. The first are a lively folk group whose name I fail to catch, who spoil their set by failing to end on a strong song and going on too long. The next band - Dr. Sam and the Fish, play just four songs between two of them - pleasant political numbers, though with a slightly timid delivery contrasting with the forcefulness of their message. Afterwards I go to one of the larger tents to experience the jazz of Courtney Pine, which some dance to, some lay back and fall asleep to, and I find not to my taste so leave after a short while.
Sunday morning, with thousands of others, I attend the service on Main Stage led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and afterwards crowd outside an over-packed seminar entitled "Killing me softly: Is love an illusion?", before wandering off to the tent known as Charlies (all the marquees are named after angels...) to see Jocasta on their way home from Reading. Their single 'Change Me' is them at their most Beatlesesque and the rest of their set is entertaining Beatles-ish-ness. We catch a bit of Ben Okafor's danceable, sometimes amusing, reggae roots music as we wander through the Gallery. In the evening I realise how immensely silly the organisers were to place the bandstand at the top of the hill, just in front of the Main Stage. I'm trying to hear Peter Brazier's pianistic solo performance on the bandstand, but he's drowned out by Ricky Ross's unimpressive solo performance from Main Stage. Even 'Radio On' leaves me indifferent. A much more moving songwriter is found in the Halo tent in the form of Martyn Joseph. He's been hovering on the verge of stardom for a while now with one single, 'Dolphins Make Me Cry', smashing into the charts at number 28. But he deserves even better as he deeply moves, amuses and entertains. The subjects of his songs range from God through domestic disgruntlements, to not having enough change to pay to cross the Severn Bridge.
Monday - I take a break from persuading people to write postcards to East Timorese political prisoners to go see Bennet. They impress me much more than I thought they would with their quirky guitar pop, geeky glasses, well-co-ordinated dual male vocals and amazing ability to forget the first line of their new single. You'd call them another American band in the spirit of Weezer and Green Day if they weren't from Reading... Main Stage features 808 State and Moby - apparently Melody Maker's gig of the night, but I by-pass both and join the large crowd round the bandstand to witness the infamous, mohicanned Grif Pilchard who jumps around insanely to a backing group that includes a talented Harmonica player. His quick and catchy songs are equally mad - the lyrics of one discuss the relative merits of parrots and hammers, another one features the line "I'm a bicycle - ting-aling-aling-aling", and a Blur cover ('Barlife') begins with the word "constipation". His most popular, much shouted for song which he does as an encore has a chorus that goes "Fishy fishy fishy fishy fish" lots of times. Grif even produces a real life dead one from a Tescos carrier bag, with which he jumps around to illustrate his point. At 1am we make it to Halo to relish in Steve Apirana's Maori spiritually-inspiring blues, but we're too tired to enjoy it properly so return to our tents for the night.