It is a mark of the ecology of British summer festivals – or perhaps just a mark of the peculiarity of this British summer – just how many oddities the Larmer Tree audience were prepared to welcome. They clapped along with the psychedelic Bollywood of The Bombay Royale, lush with swooning sitar, a saxophonist dressed as a naval officer, and a half-size elephant on sticks parading across the lawn. They jumped to their feet to chant along with the peerless anthems of Keston Cobblers Club, who seemed to have detoured to raid a fancy-dress shop with their eyes shut. They hummed along with the Vaughan Williams-cum-Arvo Pärt bagatelles of 3 Cane Whale. They gave a standing ovation to Steve Knightley, the folk equivalent of the Conservative politician who knows just how to flatter a party conference.
The Scottish (or at least Scotland-based) supergroup Lau went about things differently: in terms of stagecraft, their offering consisted of three seated men, two bearded, one bald, playing mostly instrumental tunes. Their only rival for the crown of Britain’s best folk performers, Bellowhead (also, as it happened, appearing at the festival on the Wiltshire/Dorset border) pile on 11 performers, synchronised dancing, frontmen in top hats, breathtaking bawdiness and giant sousaphones.
From the very first notes of “The Burrian”, Lau’s music swelled up like a hot-air balloon straining against its tethers. From moment to moment, any of the musicians (Kris Drever on guitar, Martin Green on accordion and Aidan O’Rourke on violin) might take the lead, or carry the rhythm. The mood was as changeable as Highland weather: summery fiddle jigs would darken with a mumble of electronics, or Drever’s wordless vocalisation.
“Torsa” saw Drever playing echoing broken chords, while the melody periodically seemed to snag and then break loose again, until the bass notes of the accordion settled into a rising bell-like peal. Drever sang the next song, “Ghosts”, in sympathy with migrants and refugees.
The set moved up into top gear with “Save The Bees”, O’Rourke’s violin lament joined by a counter-melody from Green that suddenly broke into power chords on the guitar, the accordion skirling as the music accelerated. The three men were transformed, O’Rourke swinging his whole torso from side to side, Drever somehow nodding and shaking his head at the same time, Green bobbing up and down like a tiny jockey barely controlling his horse.
Their version of Lal Waterson’s “Midnight Feast”, a hidden jewel of the folk repertoire, replaced Waterson and Oliver Knight’s simultaneously languorous and barbed blues with an energetic attack, O’Rourke’s repeated bowed semiquavers blurring into a Reichian pulse. This made an atonal transition into “Althys and Kris’’, ending with an accelerating fiddle reel. The audience exploded with a roar that could be heard across two counties.
“You’re kind,” said Green, acknowledging demands for an encore. “But stupid … we actually peaked there, so now we’re going to be pretty rubbish.” Not so: “Hinba” ended with a crescendo hum from the audience, adding a touch of 1960s freak-out. If there is a better festival set to come, from anyone, anywhere, we are in for quite a summer.