“I did write to The Sundays a number of times,” confides Stuart Murdoch, “That would have been quite something.” In the Crazy Horse bar, where he has just been reading extracts from his newly anthologized writings, Belle & Sebastian’s urbane frontman ponders the inevitable knockbacks faced by anyone curating their own festival. If Murdoch speaks like an old hand, that’s because he rather is, these days. Lest we forget, with 1999’s Bowlie weekender at Camber Sands, it was Belle & Sebastian who invented the left-field holiday camp takeover, setting a template for subsequent events helmed by the likes of Pavement, Matt Groening and – just a week previously – Godspeed You Black Emperor.
For all of that, it’s still faintly surreal to see the post C86 indie generation congregating around the arcades, hot dog concessions and waterslides of this unreconstructed holiday camp. This is surely what the earth would look like if the meek had inherited it but hadn’t got around to making it over. Among the line-up, some are more guessable than others. Played by Dean Wareham and his band, a set of songs by his old band Galaxie 500 is all but suffocated in a show of workmanlike competence. The Zombies get a rapturous response every time they play anything from Odessey & Oracle, though Rod Argent struggles to understand why his grisly 1972 air-puncher Hold Your Head Up fares less well. Saint Etienne beef up the beats for Only Love Can Break Your Heart and Nothing Can Stop Us and, in doing so, warm up the place for a The Go! Team performance that looks and sounds like insurrection in a kindergarten.
Other inclusions on the bill, however, are less predictable. Even if Bob The Builder and his team were doing a shift at the Builder’s Yard bearing his name, they would be comfortably drowned out by Santa Cruz’s Howlin’ Rain. Their dense riff-rock hurtles along with the improbably majestic velocity of a Sherman tank, amply illustrating why Rick Rubin is such a fan.
Over at the arena-scale Skyline Pavilion, curiosity as opposed to any outward sign of enjoyment is keeping a modest crowd before Brooklyn’s Dirty Projectors. A version of Dylan’s As I Went Out One Morning is a funk of screeching organs that unfolds over a time-signature comprehensible only to mathematicians and Frank Zappa obsessives. They’re much better doing their own Stillness Is The Move, not least because of the off-the-scale deranged vocal pyrotechnics brought to the job by Amber Coffman.
You would, at this stage, be forgiven for thinking the Bowlie throng a conservative bunch – but that wouldn’t explain why one of the weekend’s sensations turns out to be Mulatu Astatke. There can’t be more than 30 people present when the 67 year-old Ethio-jazz godfather stands behind his vibraphone and pilots his Heliocentrics along the inscrutable undulations of Yekermo Sew. The catalyzing effect of myriad tweets and texts telling friends what they’re missing means that from Astatke’s vantage point, it must all rather resemble time-lapse footage of cells multiplying in a Petri dish. Cells, at any rate, with an undeniable fancy for floral print skirts, duffle coats and DIY bobs.
Back at the Crazy Horse bar, Cynthia Plastercaster has brought a bag of her finest work to remind us that the true completist can always find an outlet beyond merely owning the records. She asks if anyone would like to come to the stage and hold Jimi Hendrix’s erect member in their hands and seems surprised when most of the take-up is from men. It’s unlikely that Julian Cope would have been invited to Butlins on the basis of anything he has recorded in the last decade, and his set reflects that. The captain’s hat, Ray-Bans and Neu! t-shirt don’t quite erase his unlikely resemblance to a countercultural Gillian McKeith – but that’s mercifully forgotten when he sits at the Mellotron to deliver a time-stoppingly beautiful version of The Great Dominions. Directly afterwards, he gazes down at a setlist which also takes in Upwards At 45 Degrees, Head Hang Low and Double Vegetation – and rightly surmises that “the songs I see there are classics.”
The resurgent Edwyn Collins would have reasonable cause to make the same claim. Teenage Fanclub have stuck around an extra day after their Friday set to act as his backing band. Norman Blake is a picture of wish-fulfilment singing blithely along to What Presence and sharing vocals on Falling And Laughing. A mere rehash of old Orange Juice glories would have been fine, but the extraordinary thing about Collins’ set here – irrespective of his 2005 stroke and its subsequent effects – is that nostalgia has no place in several of its finest moments. Complete with a vocal turn from Ryan Jarman, a high-voltage canter through What Is My Role, from current album Losing Sleep, eclipses even a Franz Ferdinand-assisted A Girl Like You.
The proliferation of Scottish indie alumni spanning several eras – Franz in their own right (covering The Sonics’ The Witch!), Sons & Daughters, The Vaselines, Camera Obscura and an hour of exquisite lysergic freak-folk from Trembling Bells – means that, at any time, you never quite forget whose festival you’re attending. To watch Isobel Campbell alongside Mark Lanegan dispense a hangover-soothing afternoon set is to boggle that she was ever in Belle & Sebastian. Lanegan – ever the unlikely muse in this alliance – sings the back-porch lullabies written for him by Campbell with the focus of a schooled actor. Elsewhere, Belle & Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson gingerly reveals his light from the bushel where it resides and reels off a series of startlingly good originals: among them a piece of Nilssonesque whimsy called Where Do All The Good Girls Go and a Jonathan Richman-like thing called Press Send, which ponders the agony of declaring your feelings for a girl via email.
No musician has ever looked more like a Julian Opie painting than Jackson, who avoids performing any of his band’s songs “because they remind me of work”. It’s almost certainly a joke, although it has to be said that there are moments during his “proper” group’s headlining set that rather come across that way. Ironically, given their early reputation for shambolic live performances, the problem might be just how well-drilled the the 21st Century Belle & Sebastian sound – a point somehow brought into relief when Murdoch momentarily goes off-piste during Step Into My Office, changing “burned out after Thatcher” to “burned out… actually by the present administration… I’m sick of it!”
Being Belle & Sebastian in 2010 means that the venues you play are bigger than ever, but the songs that still go down best of all are the ones that date back to an era of church-hall rehearsals and home-made Super 8 videos. A clangorous Lazy Line Painter Jane still floors you for its ability to find common ground between the worlds of Bill Forsyth and The Velvet Underground. Massed clapping greets a vertiginious sprint through Sleep The Clock Around, which ends with Murdoch handing out Jim’ll Fix It badges to a hand-picked coterie of on-stage dancers. An avowed fanboy like Stuart Murdoch is savvy enough to know that Belle & Sebastian will forever be important to a generation of fans for whom they came at precisely the right time. Why shouldn’t anorak-attired indie loyalists have a Grateful Dead of their own? And why shouldn’t that gathering post be Belle & Sebastian? No reason. No reason at all. But it remains to be seen if that’s ultimately all that Belle & Sebastian wish to be.