Greenbelt Festival has lifted the spirits, given succour and encouragement despite being a little more cold and damp than the last few August Bank holidays. However, there is much to celebrate about this year's edition.
Even from the way the site was laid out, alterations to various locations and the schedule it was clear the Greenbelt team have made many changes that are, overall, for the better. It did seem there were less traders there and also organisations exhibiting in the G-Source marquee, of course that may be because of ongoing financial restraints in these tricky times economically. Regardless, the feeling of greater space and more elbow room was comforting, exemplified by the area in front of the Jesus Arms fellowship station... and there is a new winner for the best on-site food! The Southern Indian Vegetarian cuisine stall just to the right of the Jesus Arms, absolutely amazing and a great story of how they created the business via Twitter.
Despite always reminding myself to not try and take in too many talks the rest of the time I failed yet again! The talks were particularly good this year, thank Greenbelt you can catch up on the ones you miss because of schedule clashes, so much going on with 50 venues, will just mention some highlights:
Brian McLaren's talk on Christian Identity in a Multi-faith Context on Monday was the best talk for me over the weekend. I would vaguely categorise it as Analytical and Practical Theology rather than Theoretical Theology. Also I managed to get a ticket for the filming of his Greenbelt TV slot which succinctly summarised his concerns for the future. I have to say I find his talks easier to assimilate than some of his books but will give his latest another try once I can get through my current reading matter!
As someone who had immensely enjoyed reading Sisters of Sinai it was another joy to sit through author Janet Soskice's outline of the book from both a content perspective and her brilliantly engaging presentation.
I always like to go to a seminar that seems as though it will be opposed to my faith journey. My choice was Pádraig Ó Tuama's talk 'Our Lady of Greenbelt' which included an exploration of Roman Catholic Marian dogma. Having had a strict Exclusive Brethren upbringing and subsequently been immersed in Protestantism this seemed a scarily suitable selection! I have never, ever prayed 'Hail Mary' before, yet during the shared Liturgy at the end of his amazing talk I was readily able, albeit a tad wet-eyed, to join in the prayers with genuine conviction.
Even as a musician myself, I have focused on the talks more than the music offerings. However, this year one of the most noticeable changes was the substantial improvement to the choice of musical acts, particularly those chosen for mainstage appearances. This was evidently more acute after many of the artistes featured at Greenbelt 2010.
Friday night started cold and damp, then a rollicking mainstage set from a very much on form Show of Hands had everyone smiling again. This was followed by home favourite Martyn Joseph and Billy Bragg closed the bill with his passionate 'one man Clash' performance. Somewhere and somehow in all that I managed to nip over and check out a couple of minutes of Adrian Plass' irreverent take on church attitudes and behaviour over in the Big Top... note to self, add that talk to my download list!
Saturday was topped and tailed with rain showers and my musical attention was drawn to the Performance Café, both as listener and player for the Rob Halligan set... The 7pm time slot meant I missed Willie Williams' Big Top presentation along with most of the mainstage, only catching a bit of the enigmatic 'Get Cape Wear Cape Fly' set.
Sunday was overcast and cool, great music from Duke Special who chose to end his set with a moving version of Joy Division's classic anthem 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Then after the start of Idelwild's set it was time to leg it back to the Performance Café for what turned out to be my out and out favourite band of the weekend.
Hope and Social are absolutely brilliant! To me they represent everything that is Greenbelt in a musical package. Joy, exuberance, fun, great songs, thoughtful lyrics, great band rapport, great singing and some wonderful 'moments'. There was no-one there that would not have been won over with such an engaging and charismatic performance.
Hope and Social also played the mainstage on Monday (pictured at the top of the post), but at 2:45pm, and with a schedule clash with in vogue comedian Mark Thomas elsewhere, the audience only grew from a relative handful after the set was past the half way mark. On mainstage the band had a full line up including a brass section and were in top form. Another cracking 'moment' ensued when singer launched into a gentle version of 'Don't Cry for Me Greenbelt Festival' narrating a woeful tale of the band's pre-festival stomach disasters due to a 'paltry' (their word!) Kentucky Fried Chicken encounter... one word: priceless!
So it was onwards through the rest of Monday's strong mainstage bill featuring folk fave Kate Rusby, Canadian Ron Sexsmith then The Unthanks. Whilst on a usual warm, balmy August night it would have been delightful to listen whilst languishing on the grass recovering from all the cerebral stimulus of the festival, in the relative cool it was only really Kate who connected with the Greenbelt congregation. This was in stark contrast to the final mainstage act, the legendary Gospel singer, Mavis Staples. Monday nights at Greenbelt must always represent a programming challenge to try and persuade as many as possible not to delay their departure. Well, if you left early you missed an amazing treat!
Everything about it was excellent... I loved the stripped back band, just drums, bass and guitar. The musicians were top notch, playing with fantastic groove and feel, great to watch up close, too. As I said, everything was splendid... lots of light and shade, for example, they started with an a capella piece and worked up to some serious rhythm and blues (old style!).
About half way through the set something clicked. Performers and audience engaged more, the band started smiled broadly, everyone then had an even better time, especially Mavis, who readily took us there...
So well done Greenbelt, the music, and particularly the mainstage line-up, is a visible flagship which represents the artistic side and, often, the faith component, too. One of the differences betwixt this and the previous year is that some of the GB10 artistes, whilst often protesting about injustice, were simply anarchic rather than challenging. It's a subtle, yet important, difference.
On the Sunday morning everything halts for the service of Holy Communion. It is incredibly tough to curate a service that will be loved by everyone and encompass both some orthodox and new elements. Reading through the service sheet now it is clear the content of the service was excellent. I have to confess I am a Still Small Voice person rather than an Earth(quake), Wind and Fire person when it comes to music in services of worship. Rev Vince Anderson was excellent technically, you couldn't fault the quality of the music but... it was SO loud! Everyone who experienced the delight of the unaccompanied singing at the start of Brian McLaren's seminar on Christian Identity will know what I mean. However, it is a joy to share the Eucharist with that once a year congregation.
There is one conclusion I would like to make. I am uncomfortable with the notion that Greenbelt is a church in itself... that implies an institution. I notice there were some events appearing which contradict much of the teaching we hear in the seminars. In fact, one such event I found deeply disturbing, representing a legacy of all that is bad about church, colonialism, Victorianism and empire. Of course, it is us as human beings that make up the church, not the practices, denominations or personal preferences. Long may Greenbelt continue to be a celebration, a feast, a coming together of people to experience the divine in a human way...
(and I haven't even mentioned the wonderful Methodist Church Art collection, half the bands I saw, the discussion panels I managed to get into, the drama, the brilliant conversations with friends old and new...!)