Welcome to the house of fun! Fairground rides actually rival the number of beer tents and a weighty proportion of the crowd is sporting Madness-themed fancy dress – something tells me no one is taking anything too seriously today at this family-friendly festival.
Madstock 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of London’s self-proclaimed nutty boys Madness. Despite having loved their music when I was growing up, I’ve never seen them live and so I’m really quite excited. But with three stages and several acts before the headliners, there’s a lot to be entertained by in the meantime.
With the sun shining and the crowd slowly increasing, Jerry Dammers and his Spatial AKA Orchestra take to the main stage. The former founding member of The Specials presents jazz-tinged, extremely mellow music, which seems ideal for a summery day. A gloriously smooth instrumental version of ‘Ghost Town’ with special guest Rico Rodriguez (who also played with The Specials) raises the stakes. However, for a band with so many people on stage and a bizarre proliferation of props (mannequins, wooden masks, palm-tree backgrounds), the mostly static and seated band is not visually captivating and it’s easy to lose attention. Definitely one to lay back on the grass, close your eyes and chill out to.
Hayseed Dixie, on the other hand, grab you by the scruff of the neck in an attempt to provoke laughter and stomping. An American blue-grass acoustic four-piece, with a mix of strange and sometimes crudely funny songs and well chosen covers (such as a banjo-led version of Green Day’s ‘Holiday’). Entertaining, but not enough to stay for the whole set. Instead I search for and eventually find the elusive third stage and catch the last 30 seconds of The Anomalies who mix electric guitars with turntables. The packed tent seemed to be dancing and happy, so we’ll have to take their collective word for it that it was fun, having not seen enough to tell.
Wandering back to the main stage, the DJs are playing some wonderfully infectious classic ska. It’s funny to see people skanking whilst trying to do other things – from things you might expect like drinking (and therefore spilling) beer to less obvious pursuits. For instance, I’ve been to many ska gigs but I’ve never before seen anyone try to skank whilst pushing a child in pushchair across a field.
The Blockheads are the next attraction. Whilst you can’t help but wish Ian Dury was still around to head up this classic band, the group nevertheless belt out a fitting tribute to the legend. All the old favourites are there: ‘Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll’, ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’, ‘Clever Trevor’ and ‘Reasons To Be Cheerful’. A tight but relaxed set draws to a close as the clouds overhead gang up on the festival goers and give The Pogues, who are next on stage, a watery welcome.
However, the weather can’t dampen the soulful calamity of these Irish rovers. Shane MacGowan is tantalisingly understated, like some kind of gypsy vagabond, unsteadily drinking and smoking his way through an impressive set that includes “Rainy Night in Soho” and “Dirty Old Town”. The Pogues are a truly impressive live act with a weight of history and experience that seeps into every song, winning over new fans (myself included) and satisfying the diehards.
Madness triumphantly take to the stage and, with a break in the rain, the audience seem finally to get properly warmed up and rowdy. Suggs proudly announces: “It’s a London thing!” to an audience that is probably from all over the place.
But who cares, this is clearly one of the best-loved bands this city’s produced. We get the hits, including ‘Grey Day’, My Girl’, ‘Night Boat To Cairo’ and the knees up that is ‘Baggy Trousers’. But Madness are not just looking back and a fair number of new songs are aired between the classics. Jerry Dammers is invited on stage for the encore to play on their theme song ‘Madness’. Suggs tells us that without Jerry Dammers there would never have been Madness. Without Madness and their rampant, sometimes wonderful silliness over the years, London would be a slightly drearier place on the musical landscape. Long may they continue to take us one step beyond…