Live Report: Umbria Rock Festival, Italy

Sultry, summery Italian micro festival…
Tim Burgess at Umbria Rock

The solar-suffused setting of Massa Martana, a handsome village nestling in the winding forested foothills of the Etruscan region, plays host to the inaugural Umbria Rock Festival. It’s the brainchild of multi-millionaire, summer-only expat Yashant Bajaj, a man who has coupled his childish enthusiasm for music with the blessings of the local mayor and community to create an event in his own backyard.

From the outset Clash is treated like veritable royalty, staying in a five-star palace (literally) in the nearby town of Perugia, where the gallery has a Gentileschi exhibition, stylish teenagers swoon in the squares eating gelato, and we try to maintain a modicum of decorum and minimal hair frizz under the scorching sun.

There’s a theme, tenuously linking the modish British sound to its birthplace of sorts. As such, it’s inspired several well-dressed gents from the UK to attend, alongside Fred Perry sporting couples, young families and ‘can’t quite believe it’ locals. Teething problems appear over the weekend for sure – there are small numbers due to the overwhelming heat and the fact it’s the first week of the Italian holidays. These elements, in conjunction with a super-relaxed attitude to organisation, are negated by the fact this is all being done for love, not money. And you can certainly feel the love.

The festival site itself is small but idyllic, the necessary elements of bar, food stall, merchandise stand and entertainment situated less than a five-minute walk away from each other. A single stage beckons, a magnificent old-school beast of steel, which towers over an impressive natural amphitheatre surrounded by trees. Add to this one of the best sound systems we’ve ever heard at an outdoor festival and it makes for an intoxicating beginning.

The news that headliners Basement Jaxx have pulled out due to unfortunately timed illness does nothing to dampen the mood on the first day. Apache Darling charm the early afternoon audience with their garrulous Glaswegian pop and strong vocals, followed by the energetic, Elephant 12. They’re hardly a cutting edge proposition, playing early ’90s crossover Rage Against The Machine-style hip-hop-influenced rock, but they give an impressively energetic, earnest performance that shakes up the crowd sufficiently for the newly appointed, bumped-up-the-bill headliners.

We disappear briefly for dinner and come out to a massively increased crowd to see Peter Hook & The Light dad-rock it through a set of Joy Division classics. New wave’s most famous bassist’s intentions are no doubt noble, but he eviscerates his former band’s back catalogue. Without Ian Curtis’s gravitas of tone, it’s nigh on impossible to carry these songs off. In an ill-advised singlet and shorts combo, he creates an incongruous, wonky, Wurlitzer, scream-if-you-want-to-go-faster, messy mash-up of his own material and well-loved classics. However, these points don’t seem to matter much to a crowd standing in adoration, creating an electric atmosphere and a fine ending to the evening.

Saturday’s unexpected pleasures are Chinese act Rebuilding The Rights Of Statues who play a feisty set of angular, Gang Of Four-inspired, Pixies-style call-and-response post-punk discordance. We’re not sure how well it goes down with the tiny swell of people but it’s the most engaged Clash has felt since arriving. It bodes well for The Charlatans who play a well-judged set, keeping their standards invigorated with humour and exhibiting obvious pleasure at being here. We still can’t quite get our heads around Tim Burgess’s weird, bleached Much Ado About Nothing pageboy haircut, but he’s a laconic yet engaging frontman. Amidst much mojito drinking, laughter and dancing, Clash is genuinely having a ball.

Saturday's headliner is Paul Weller, whose set is mildly underwhelming. There’s a feeling that he’s just going through the motions, even from the fans who have travelled to see him from the UK. It’s at times a testosterone-fuelled sword fight, but there’s no denying his able band is as tight as a drum skin and work the stage immaculately.

‘You Do Something To Me’ is elegant and emotive, but the evening’s double highlights are an unexpected ‘Ever Changing Moods’ – one of The Style Council’s very best songs, imbued with much verve and flair – and the encore, a brilliant rendition of ‘Town Called Malice’, with a surprising guest vocal duet from Tim Burgess (pictured). It’s an ebullient ending to day two.

By Sunday we’re definitively sunburnt and lightheaded, which makes for a pretty forgettable set from The Cribs – we would have loved a pop up from Johnny Marr, which sadly wasn't to be. But the younger elements of the crowd seem to love it.

James are universally well thought of, yet remain underrated for some peculiar reason. They play a storming set – so sincere, so heartfelt and emotional it almost brings tears to the eyes. Tim Booth acts as a conductor, a holy man dancing his weird dervish dance in Japanese-style culottes.

Congratulating the audience for being at the birth of a festival he feels sure to be a future success is deeply appreciated. Playing half forgotten, but once heard instantly memorable classics, alongside tracks from their new album, ‘La Petite Mort’, the bass eventually become so heavy it blows an amp. Something that would fluster a lesser band only leads Booth to tell a joke and engage in some banter with the audience. Consummate professionals that they are, he rides the laughter like a wave and segues into a poignant alt-country ballad. Surprisingly, they don’t play monster hit ‘Sit Down’ – but perhaps they don’t need it anymore. James have literally transcended.  

No one would probably have predicted it, but this was, hands down, the best set of the entire weekend, and a super hard act to follow. This was played out by the last band of the evening, Kaiser Chiefs, who are… Kaiser Chiefs.

Overall it’s been a muscular, musky, machismo-tinged weekend of mullets, big guitar sounds and moments of magnificence. Umbria Rock is a dishevelled linen suit of a festival – fresh, a bit creased and informal, but ultimately charming. We look forward to them upping their game next year. 

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Words: Anna Wilson

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