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Ahmad Tea Festival
Hermitage Garden 
By Martin Richardson
It’s sometimes been observed that modern-day Moscow can feel a bit like the 80s, only with cooler gadgets. And there’s something in that: from many fashion trends (leopard print? In 2013? Really?) to the enduring belief that McDonalds represents a new and exciting approach to dining, a stroll downtown can feel like a trip to the recent past. And a new phone is every bit as much of a status symbol here as one of those clunky housebricks was among London’s Yuppies back in 1987.

But few things can evoke those hazy childhood memories as much as a sharp burst of a Roland synthesizer, crashing through those slightly blocky arpeggios. And that’s pretty much how Hot Chip chose to open its set at the Ahmad Tea Festival, launching into “How do you do?” with great gusto. Even without the girl in the day-glo lime green tights (and matching hair dye) grooving away on the grass, it could easily have been the opening of one of Jean-Michel Jarre’s epic son-et-lumiere cityscapes.

For a cynic this would be more evidence that music is stagnating: a new generation of bands which grew up listening to New Order or OMD have subsequently devoted themselves to recreating that sound, only using better quality technology than the early 80s could offer. That criticism isn’t entirely fair, however. Yes, the sound is a touch retro … but only in the same way that anyone plugging in an electric guitar is recreating the sound of The Beatles. And Hot Chip’s reinvention of electronica is effectively, blending the best of that 80s sound with the highlights of the club revolution – the moment which effectively broke down the boundaries between guitar music and synth music – to create something which remains fresh and contemporary.

On stage, it’s a high-energy show, perfect fuel for a summer festival set. Nobody’s going to accuse this music of being too deep, nor its lyrics of provoking subtle thoughts. Instead, they’re going to dance – this is authentic ‘hands-in-the-air’ fodder, even allowing for a set which was heavy on less familiar tracks from the recently released fifth album, “In Our Heads”. Happily there were enough old favorites – “Over and Over” being a particular stand-out – to ensure that long-term fans went home happy, while the new stuff lived up to its billing as a striking advance in the band’s quality.

By contrast, Alt-J had earlier struggled with the opposite problem – having achieved sudden success, their set demonstrated the pitfalls of becoming hot property almost overnight, and getting caught on a seemingly incessant cycle of tours. The electro-poppers shot to fame in 2012, winning Britain’s Mercury Music Prize with debut disc “An Awesome Wave” – and prompted headed out the road. The guys themselves admitted that they’d been on the road for 18 months, which has left little time to develop new material. It led to a show which was slick and well-oiled, but perhaps tended to the mechanical. Which isn’t to say there weren’t some thrills in there: some of the close harmony vocals carried a whiff of Simon and Garfunkel, justifying the ‘folk-step’ tag applied to the band’s mix of sampled beats and slightly rustic vocals. When Joe Newman and Gus Under-Hamilton combined on a cover of “A Real Hero”, an a cappella take on College’s dark synth-pop original the effect was powerful; interlinked swirling vocal lines suddenly created a contemporary reworking of “Sounds of Silence” – a striking moment which underlines the potential this band has if and when it can get off the touring treadmill and start to develop its own work once again.

That said, the band has developed a great deal already. Considering Alt-J started out in inescapably modest circumstances, rehearsing in a hall of residence where bass drums and bass guitars were banned so as not to disturb the neighbors, Alt-J’s current live show is a huge advance. There’s a bit more depth to the sound now, although it remains lighter than traditional rock, and those long months on the road have applied a polished sheen to the stage show, generating a great atmosphere at a sun-dappled Hermitage Garden. Now, with that notoriously ‘difficult’ second album (hopefully) on the horizon, the question remains: what next?
The same question applies to the festival, which has established itself as one of the principle dates in the calendar for Moscow’s sizeable army of lovers of British music. It’s steadily growing – this year saw an additional St. Petersburg edition, albeit on a smaller scale – and has cemented a reputation as a reliable judge of the more interesting acts emerging from the UK. Smartly steering clear of the chugging ‘Britpop by numbers’ guitar scene, the Ahmad Tea Festival manages to serve up a tastier brew than many. However, the event’s increasingly popularity also raises questions: Hermitage Gardens is a charming and compact venue, but the long lines snaking around every food or drink stall might prompt thoughts of relocating to a slightly larger space in the future. If the festival can make that transition successfully, and time it right, it might be on its way to ever greater success in the future.

03.06.13
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