Something feels different this year. The hedgerows and footpaths, the River Dart and its estuary inhabitants – cormorants, guillemots, Quietus founder John Doran, osprey – the pervasive scent and sight of turmeric and tie-dye: it all feels closer somehow.
I’m back at Sea Change again, and while there’s the usual eclectic mix of bands across town, some are stationed over at the new Offshore stage in Dartington, across from the campsite. Ah yes: this year we’re in a tent, the trickle of music coming from a nearby field, and all of a sudden it feels like a classic festival.
Some things haven’t changed. St Mary’s Church is still one of the most divine venues for live music in the country, and much of the afternoon and early evening is spent skittering between there and the Civic Hall just up the high street, where the wonderful Bella Union label have once more set up stall.
Penelope Isles are one of the hall’s first showstoppers, blending the kind of ambient and fuzzy textures that can be ponderous in the hands of so many acts, but which are rapturous here. Channelling beauty out of delirium has long been Bella Union’s forte, of course, going back to the days of label founder Simon Raymonde’s days in Cocteau Twins. He’s back with his new band this year, Lost Horizons, and they’re tricky to pin down: at least three lead vocalists take turns across the band’s set, with each style bringing a slightly different quality to the song’s characters.
But it’s Ed Riman – AKA Hilang Child, who opened proceedings down the road earlier in the afternoon – who steals the show late on with a stunning performance of album track ‘The Engine’, one of those beautiful sights where a performer appears absolutely lost in the song, and I only notice my jaw is gaping as it ends.
I return to the church and, as usual, there’s something miraculous about to happen. Hatis Noit’s deconstructed classical showcase is astonishing; tonight, though, it’s all about Jane Weaver, transforming her 2017 album ‘Modern Kosmologie’ into something she’s billing as ‘Kosmologie Ancienne’, a divine creation fleshed out by the orchestral work of Immix Ensemble. Combined with the beautiful visual backdrop, it’s one of the most peaceful experiences I’ve ever experienced in a live music setting.
It seems unlikely, then, that Apostille’s set could possibly steal the night – but it does. “I AM FROM PAIGNTON,” Glasgow native Michael Kasparis screams into the night. “TOWN OF PAIN!” Between these kind of proclamations, wire-strung forays into the audience, and an impressively tight sound that finally bridges the gaps between Talking Heads, LCD Soundsystem and Whitehouse, it’s one of those sets that you immediately feel privileged to have witnessed. I just hope they get closer to recreating that level of vitality on record next time round. And keep the bassist.
Saturday’s program seems like a great opportunity to explore the festival’s other cultural delights. Laura Snapes’ discussion with The Quietus founders John Doran and Luke Turner proves to be particularly eye-opening, providing an oral history of the website that detours through lengthy discussions on music journalism at large, the fallacy of idolising the past, and the contents of Mick Hucknall’s walk-in wardrobe.
Back at the church, Group Listening put together an eclectic set of seemingly improvised instrumentals, and there are contrasting but equally powerful sets from folk legend Shirley Collins and Gwenno over at the Civic Hall, the latter’s live renditions from ‘Le Kov’ particularly mesmerising.
But it’s upon return to Dartington, home of the festival’s new Offshore stage, that Saturday night peaks. I’d never fully understood the appeal of Hookworms on record, but my god, they’re eviscerating live. Considering there isn’t an enormous crowd in Dartington tonight (it’s a shuttle bus ride away from the livelier town centre of Totnes, which does unfortunately mean less people willing to pop over), the band play like it’s their last night on earth, wheeling out guest vocalists, saxophonists, seemingly whatever they can get their hands on. Breathtaking stuff.
James Holden & The Animal Spirits provide a softer electronic atmosphere, before Rival Consoles cap the weekend off in glorious fashion. As Erased Tapes’ very first signing, it’s remarkable that London-based producer Ryan Lee West hasn’t come closer to Jon Hopkins’ international success; certainly everyone present seems to be lost in the moment, as ecstatic as one could hope to be in a field in south Devon on a Saturday night.
For a Torquay boy who grew up getting drunk in Totnes fields, that’s pretty happy.
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Words: Matthew Neale
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