Friday, December 28, 2012

Hop Farm Festival - 30th June 2012

My stamina for festivals keeps fading the older I get, but Hop Farm was more bearable than most. It is held conveniently close to where I live in England's South East and goes for 3 days, though I only attended one. There's no branding, no corporate sponsorship and a line-up very much aimed at middle-aged hippies. It was one of the most chilled out festival experiences I've had. Though this combination resulted in a pleasant day, it did not apparently result in financial success. The company behind it is in trouble and the Hop Farm Festival is unlikely to go ahead in 2013.

The Jezabels are one of the few bands out of Australia in recent years who have interested me. It was good to see them play an impressive set to a decent sized, enthusiastic crowd, so far from home. It helps that the lead singer is super hot and somewhat hypnotic to watch. I challenge anyone to watch her perform and not fall a little bit in love.

After their set I headed to the main stage to watch Patti Smith. Watching her perform, I came to the conclusion that Smith is seriously underrated. It was clear from the outset that she was genuinely happy to be there. She comes across as being perpetually stuck in the 70s and she clearly approves of Hop Farm's rejection of big business. She belted through a range of old and new tracks (though not the guttural Summer Cannibals, which I love to bits), her voice unchanged from the sound it had on 1975's Horses. I was depressed by the fact that there were several groups of music fans (from a generation or two before me) who were standing around me and didn't seem to know who they were watching till Smith started singing Because the Night. She's an amazing musician who is overlooked by many. Festival goers who are there to see Bob Dylan should at least know who Patti Smith is. 

Damien Rice was the name on the line-up that prompted me to part with my cash. I was surprised by his inclusion on the bill because he's yet to release a follow-up to 2006's '9'. He delivered a sparse, heartfelt set, commenting on the way at the remarkable focus of the crowd's attention on him. For many who's conversations I overheard, Rice was the stand-out performer of the day. My only complaint? I Remember was absolutely blistering and if a song can be that powerful with just an acoustic guitar and vocals, I'd like to hear Rice with an entire band behind him. Lisa Hannigan's vocals were missed, particularly on 9 Crimes which sounded unfinished in her absence  Though their split resulted in her brilliant solo albums, I regret not seeing Rice live when she was in the backing band.

Bob Dylan sucked.

If Dylan had been a major draw-card for me, I would have walked away disappointed. Though I am a Dylan fan, enough of my friends have seen him live in recent years for me to be adequately prepared for his live performance. His singing voice was never particularly strong, but he COULD sing, once upon a time. He can't any more  Glass half full - his band are wonderful and he still busts out the harmonica. But his vocals are appalling  He rasps his way through the tracks, so dramatically re-arranged that they are unrecognisable  They were over 2 minutes into Tangled Up In Blue before I realised what song they were playing. There's an episode of Friends where Phoebe tries to teach Joey to speak French and Joey approximates the sounds and spews out total gibberish. That's how Dylan sounds now.
I wonder how Bob must feel, watching his contemporaries like Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Paul Simon and Springsteen, all touring and singing with practically the same voices they had 40 years ago. I wonder how he still performs knowing that his ability hasn't lasted the way theirs has. I actually left halfway through his set. Bed was a more attractive prospect than hanging around to hear him murder Like A Rolling Stone.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Grand Slams

I love tennis. When I was growing up we'd visit my grandmother in the summer holidays and the Australian Open would always be on in the living room. I don't remember at what point I started really paying attention to tennis, but by the time I was finishing school, I was spending two weeks in the winter living nocturnally, watching Wimbledon. My first actual visit to Wimbledon was back when I was eighteen. My fellow GAPS and I managed to get to a day of the tournament. I wasn't as obsessed with the sport back then as I later became, but I remember a great day and the realisation that watching tennis live is much better than watching it on the TV. There's so many elements of the game that you just don't get to experience through the TV.

Since I've been able to afford it, I've been travelling from Canberra to Melbourne every January for the Open. I've been lucky enough to attend four of the last five years. The trips have been getting bigger each year and last January involved seven nights in a two bedroom apartment and nine of my closest family and friends. There's something really special about Grand Slam events and I've been dragging newbies to Melbourne Park every year.

One of the wonderful consequences of meeting J and extending my stay in the UK was the opportunity to have a second year here and do some of the things I couldn't afford to do last year. Top of the list were Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Last year's French trip was scrapped pretty quickly when I realised how hard it was to find ongoing work in Oxford. By the time Wimbledon rolled around, I was approaching the end of a three month contract.  The price of a day at Wimbledon consisted of travel costs, ticket costs, and the loss of a day's salary. Though I'd had full time work for a while, I was facing the lengthy summer holidays without a wage and I couldn't justify the cost.

This year has been different. I've been in work since I returned so I could afford to get to both. Add to this the week in Melbourne at the start of the year (which I'd planned before I knew I'd be returning to the U.K) and somehow I've made it to three out of four of 2012's Grand Slam tournaments. 

A visit to Roland Garros turned out to be more complicated than I'd expected. We found decently priced Eurostar tickets and went ahead and booked our trip for the first weekend of the Open. Afterwards, I headed to the Roland Garros website to purchase a couple of grounds passes for the first day and was devastated that with several months to go, they were all sold out. I naively assumed that ticketing for the event was similar to Australia. It never occurred to me that the grounds passes would be difficult to get. Thankfully, the official ticket re-sale website works really well and insists that tickets are sold for the face value amount. Watching it closely for a couple of months ended with me securing two tickets to the opening day. The cost of the grounds pass was comparable to a grounds pass at Melbourne Park. 

Transport and crowd control approaching Roland Garros were all well managed, but once we were inside, I was surprised at the quality of the facility. The grounds are not designed to deal with the sheer number of people who attend the slam. After watching most of Casey Dellacqua's game, we realised we'd spent way too much time sitting in direct sunlight and were both in desperate need of water. At Melbourne Park, banks of water fountains are set up immediately outside major courts. At Roland Garros we wandered towards the shaded area with food vendors and found a single water fountain with a single tap, and a queue about forty people deep. As far as I could tell, this was one of only two water fountains in the grounds. With both of us feeling dizzy, we opted to buy overpriced bottles of water instead of waiting in the massive queue.

Courts 2 and 3 were fairly small and lacked the features I've come to expect (multiple scoreboards so everyone can see the scores, cycling through scores on other courts during breaks, displays of the speed of serves). Also, the bench seating instead of individual seats doesn't maximise the amount of spectators who can get a seat for the game. The biggest disappointment was the amount of courts in play. The first day of a Grand Slam is usually good value because you've got one half of the entire men's draw and one half of the entire women's draw in action. It's my fault for not researching it, but the first day of the French Open only saw about a quarter of each of the draws played. Out of sixteen outside courts, only about five of them had games. As it turned out, the next day of the tournament would have been much better, but how was I to know?

Despite these disappointments, it wasn't a total bust. We saw a couple of really great games. I gained a better understanding of the clay surface by watching how it plays, close up. Watching how the players slide on the surface, and seeing the sheer amount of dust that gets kicked up was fascinating. I cheered an Aussie girl far from home with a sparse number of fellow vocal Australians, and got a little overly-excited when Todd Woodbridge walked into the stands and sat in front of me.

Wimbledon begins just a couple weeks after the French Open ends. Wimbledon's ticketing system is confusing, but is a long-held tradition and guarantees a certain amount of ticket availability to ordinary fans (who are prepared to camp out all night, or get up super early in the morning). I hadn't applied for any tickets  in the initial ballot and again, unlike the Australian Open, grounds passes are not available for purchase ahead of time. I decided to attend on the first Thursday, choosing the sides of the draws with a few Australians, with the intention of watching their second round appearances. They immediately all got knocked out in the first round. Wimbledon attracted huge crowds this year and to get in when the grounds opened, you had to join the queue very early in the morning. I discovered that every morning, a small amount of tickets for Court 3 are released through ticketmaster for the next day. My ticket was quite a bit more expensive than a grounds pass, but the cost was acceptable because I saved a huge amount on train fares by travelling up to London after 9am, instead of before 6am. Not to mention avoiding hanging out by myself in a queue for several hours. I find it a little frustrating that you can't secure a grounds pass before getting to the venue. I was able to queue for several hours if I needed to, but that would be an unpleasant undertaking for families wanting to spend a day at the tennis.

Once you manage to get inside, Wimbledon is wonderful. It's well organised, the grounds are beautiful and the spectators are generally very civilised. There's certainly a fair amount of alcohol consumed but the behaviour doesn't become loutish as it sometimes does at the Australian Open. The food is reasonably priced, even the strawberries and cream which everyone has to eat while they're there. The merchandise wasn't obscenely priced either. I wish I could have attended the whole first week. I think grass court is my favourite surface to watch.

There's aspects of Wimbledon that I wish the other Slams would adopt. When people with show court tickets leave the grounds for the day, their tickets get electronically scanned. As long as there's still play going on, those tickets are then available to buy for 5 or 10 pounds, with the proceeds going to charity. Late in the day people with grounds passes start queuing to get into the show courts for cheap. There may be just a set or two to go, but if you go in early in a 5 set match, you'll get more than your money's worth. It's just a shame that it's so hard to get the grounds passes in the first place.

I realise I'm biased. I love my country, and I particularly love Melbourne, but I really, honestly think that the Australian Open is the best of the three, from the perspective of the spectator experience. It's easy to get tickets,  and because it's easy to settle down in Margaret Court Arena for the day and see some quality games, the grounds pass is better value in Melbourne than it is elsewhere. It's damn hot, but there's shade-cloth and lots of water fountains. The show courts are pricey,  but at the moment, only two courts are individually ticketed. The other slams have 3 or 4 individually ticketed courts. I hope Australia never loses their slam. As long as Melbourne has it, I'll be doing whatever I can to spend some of January down south.

The U.S. Open started this week. I'm left wishing I had the cash to return to New York this week. It's silly, but it would have been awesome to say that I made it to all four Grand Slams in one calendar year.
Flushing Meadows will have to wait. Three out of four ain't bad.