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Culture Reviews
Afisha Picnic
Kolomenskoye Museum and Park 
By Martin Richardson
When is a gig not a gig? At Afisha Picnic, when it turns into a therapy suggestion. With its arts and crafts, sports and food, the Moscow all-dayer is more than just a music festival – but it took the intervention of Courtney Love to transform it into a hitherto unexpected episode of Jerry Springer – albeit one with musical interludes.

It didn't get off to a great start, with Love strutting on to stage only to confess that Hole hadn't really been doing much for a few months and were "a bit rusty". And how. Before long we were into uncomfortable territory - fluffed lyrics and rambling monologues between songs, which gave the impression that in Love-world it's still roughly 1994. Her solo album, "America's Sweetheart", from 2004, was slammed as druggy babblings, and it seems that this is the version which came to Russia.

Even where the music was OK - and there were fleeting glimpses of the song-writing ability which makes her more than Mrs. Kurt Cobain - it was hard to escape the sense of watching a car-crash in slow motion. Picking out the Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" as "the second song I ever wrote", before conceding that it was not, in fact, her work but merely "felt like it", set the tone for an astonishingly self-referential set which might have been better suited to the psychiatrist's chair than the festival stage. The bitterness of the long-forgotten row with Billy Cogan, evoked once more in her preamble, highlighted the extent to which Love is living in her own tortured past; a long riff about how weird it was to see Kurt's face on a t-shirt in the front row just came across as absurd: it would take an improbably sheltered life not to have seen a Nirvana shirt at a gig any time in the past 15 years or so. And, as we all know, Love is not the sort to live a sheltered life. Troubled? Clearly. Ready to perform? Sadly, not.

On a day overshadowed by the death of another troubled star, Amy Winehouse, Hole’s set was overshadowed by two other female vocalists who polarized opinions among festival goers. On the Galaxy Stage controversial US electro-clash star Peaches produced what many described as the performance of the day. Everything about her is spiky – from music to dress sense to attitude – and her show got the audience going from the start. The only disappointment was that she was shunted away on the second stage and not given a spot in front of the biggest audience.

At the same time local hero Zemfira, back on stage after almost three years of virtual silence, was given the main stage headliner slot, and delighted her army of fans with a premiere of a new song – ‘Dengi’ and a run-down of the hits. But the new, slick arrangements robbed her sound of the raw edge that characterized those early days in Ufa; even as her devotees went away happy she left the uninitiated slightly unconvinced.

Happily, the great thing about a festival is there's always something else to listen to: while Courtney was tumbling into a deep Hole, Russia's own Mujuice was showing why some regard him as the future of local rock music over on the other side of Kolomenskoye. With the release of his "Downshifting" album earlier this year, the electro wizard found himself being compared with the likes of Mumiy Troll's Ilya Lagutenko and even the great Viktor Tsoi of Soviet-era legends Kino. If there is a flaw with his music, it is simply that it has a downbeat, autumnal vibe: not ideal for a festival crowd on a baking summer's day. But the set did just about enough to overcome that.

Over at the Big Gig stage, Russia's love of Britrock was getting an airing: while London's New Young Pony Club and The Wombats were the star attractions, the likes of local hopefuls Brandenburg, The: Paisley and 19:84 betrayed a love of the sounds of the Cool Britannia era, along with an idiosyncratic approach to punctuation. But it was back on the main stage that the real thing was enjoying a triumphant afternoon.

Marina and the Diamonds, followed by Kaiser Chiefs, displayed two contrasting yet wholly successful approaches towards tackling the festival challenge. From the Diamonds' distinctive sound, blending indie cred with pop sensibility, to the Chiefs' anthemic barnstormers, the two bands delivered precisely what the audience demanded.

In the case of Kaiser Chiefs, despite the recent release of "The Future is Medieval", that meant hits, and plenty of them. Sensibly keeping the new material to a minimum, they were on top, riot-predicting form with Ricky Wilson demonstrating that he is a frontman on top of his game. It's not just the blast of potently shout-along choruses, it's the stagecraft and - especially with the crowd stretching halfway up the hill, the camerawork. Wilson, well aware of the need to keep the big screens busy, was always well aware of which lens was trained on him and played up to it with aplomb. Reeling out all the old favourites - Ruby, The Angry Mob, Every day I love you less and less, Never miss a beat, Modern Way - they produced a crowd-pleasing hour which topped our party's poll for gig of the day. It's a far cry from the band's first Moscow appearance, seven years earlier, when with one single under their belts they found themselves, somewhat bemused, whisked off to Kitaisky Lyotchik for an improbable one-night stand. Both they, and Moscow's scene, have grown impressively since then.

Earlier Marina and the Diamonds delivered a set long on charm, if short on focus, leaving with promises to return and play a full gig. If it happens, it will be worth listening to: with a sound influenced by the likes of Kate Bush and Florence and the Machine, Welsh-born, Greek-rooted singer-songwriter Marina Diamandis is carving out a reputation for merging indie cred with a fine pop sensibility. It's early days, and more confidence in the detail of her arrangements would have enormously, but the potential is clearly there. Tracks like "I'm not a robot" and "Drinking champagne" grab most attention, but beneath the poppy melodic tics there is evidence of some carefully worked orchestration waiting to be unleashed. Keep listening...

With organizers hailing the biggest crowds yet at the festival, Afisha Picnic has established itself as a don’t-miss event for any serious Moscow culture vulture. And the 2011 edition completed the event’s transformation from self-consciously ‘alternative’ to musical behemoth, creating a vibe more closely associated with the likes of Glastonbury than the chin-stroking pontification of a Krasny Oktyabr bar or the beery excesses of Nashestviye.

26.07.11
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