Hard Rock Calling blasted off yesterday for another historic weekend of getting down in London Town! Like lightening, you can feel the festival before it becomes visible to the eye. The crash of the drum sound-checks in the distance rumbled underfoot as 35,000 of us excitedly herded into the venue, anxiously awaiting blistering sets from Britain’s best rockers: The Cribs, The Klaxons, Miles Kane, Paul Weller, Kasabian and more!
This year HRC left it’s long-time Hyde Park home in favor of East London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, site of last summer’s Ryan Lochte-Fest 2K12. We assumed it was Hard Rock’s revenge on park officials for infamously pulling the plug on Paul McCartney’s surprise duet with headliner Bruce Springsteen last year, yet we’re told that’s not the case…even though it probably deserves to be. It’s impossible to escape the rumors that Sir Paul will return this weekend to finish what he started, but the crowd was more than pumped for the day’s scheduled acts, stretched out over four (count ’em!) stages.
We arrive just in time to catch Kodaline’s set on the main pavilion. There’s a chance you haven’t heard of the Dublin-based group, but you will. Their debut album In A Perfect World gets its American release in September, but it’s already blowing up in Britain, where only Kanye’s Yeezus and Black Sabbath’s reunion record block it from number one. Not bad. Although new to the festival circuit, the epic grandeur of their tunes make them a perfect fit. First they make us weep with their single “High Hopes,” and then they raise us back up with the relentless beat of “Lose Your Mind.”
Heartbreak is a big inspiration for much of their new music, and when their track “After The Fall” was included in the the Season 3 premiere of VH1’s Couples Therapy, the band couldn’t help but laugh. “I’d say our ex girlfriends are looking at us saying, ’Oh, that’s hilarious,'” lead singer Steve Garrigan told us. Guitarist Mark Prendergast agrees that it’s very fitting.”We’re terrible with women, so when couple’s are breaking up and it’s all sad and it’s like, ’Oh, here’s a Kodaline song.'” Perfect!
After their set, we start to take in the scenery. Although still very much under construction (set to open in 2014), it’s hard not to marvel at how the development has been temporarily transformed into an awesomely surreal grown-up wonderland. Acres of astroturf carpet the area, reportedly put in place only five days before to cover up the nasty chunks of gravel that would have ruined the vibe (and Birkenstocks) of all in attendance. A wall of food trucks line the main stage area, offering beer, burgers and deep fried anything. Some kind of bungee ride straps concert goers into a metal sphere and launches them hundreds of feet into the sky, offering the truly bizarre experience of hearing today’s headliners while having their faces pulled back by G-Forces. Rock ’n’ roll! Oh, and there’s a hot air balloon. Because why not.
And don’t even get us started on the exclusive backstage area, which makes even the most absurd tales of Led Zep-era rock ’n’ roll excess sound like an 8-year-old’s birthday at Chuck-E-Cheese. Just for the weekend, Hard Rock had erected a full spa, a coffee bar, two regular bars, a Mojito bar, and a Red Bull Bar. There are two restaurants, including a Hard Rock Cafe complete with priceless rock memorabilia shipped in for the occasion, and a small stage for intimate acoustic performances. The legendary Rita, Hard Rock Cafe’s very first waitress and current figurehead, presides over the site like a queen, offering warm hugs to everyone. Love all and and serve all, indeed. 90210’s Shenae Grimes gets ice cream from a truck in front of us, but there’s also a fish and chips trailer and a full sizeLondon cab concealing a photobooth inside. We enter a Turkish tea-tent and ask the attending Tarot card reader about the chances of Paul McCartney showing up this weekend. She smiles and says it’s unclear.
Suddenly, the sound of an earthquake wakes us from our backstage reverie. For a moment we panic, but it’s just Miles Kane hitting the stage. He opens with “Taking Over,” and it’s a promise fulfilled: he is taking no prisoners. The co-founder of the Arctic Monkey’s side project The Last Shadow Puppets, he plays the loudest, crunchiest ’60s-tinged garage rock you will ever hear. Like the Who at their angriest, his sneering vocals of the followup tune “Kingcrawler” resonate like a rock rallying cry. “Don’t let me down” he screams from the stage, and the crowd hurls the song lyrics back at him. He’s going to get a Hyde Park noise violation despite being 10 miles away! But Miles isn’t out to antagonize. His catchy hooks owe much to British Invasion pop, whose influence he wears on his sleeve. The stage is a mass of mop tops, retro Gretch guitars, tight trousers, and military jackets. Paul Weller, his musical spirit guide from another generation, nods his approval in the wings.
Weller himself struts out next, taking his rightful place as the elder statesman of angry young English folks. At 55, his music is far more potent and deliciously nasty than you’d expect from a man of his age. Fierce guitar swipes slice through the English sunset as his hands flail over his Telecaster. After opening with “Sunflower,” he launches into “Wake Up The Nation,” spouting and stammering furious graffiti from the walls of Thatcher’s London. His 13-song set illustrated just how much he has changed with the times. He played “That’s Entertainment” and “Start” from his biting and politically-minded first band, the Jam. Then he launched into “My Ever Changing Moods” from his blissfully poppy ’80s group Style Council, which as the name suggests, was a little more style over substance. He closed with the US radio hit, “Town Called Malice,” and the crowd pup-pogo’d in appreciation as the sun’s evening rays exploded in the distance.
It was dark when English indie headliners Kasabian took to the stage. We were lucky enough to catch the some of the set from high above the world in the aforementioned hot air balloon, but even from that altitude we could feel the adoration from the crowd. It was hard to miss! Not content with merely crowd surfing, many audience members participated in the seemingly dangerous “crowd standing” as the local boys kicked into their new cut, “Days Are Forgotten.” Even lead guitarist Sergio Pizzorno seemed blown away by the reception. “I’m buzzing my tits off!” he said. We’ll take that as a good thing.
Kasabian weren’t alone onstage, as they were also had quartet called the Dirty Pretty Strings to give their songs an orchestral edge. It’s rare to see a band rock so hard with violins at their back, but these guys smashed it. On top of hits like “Club Foot,” “Fire”, and “L.S.F.,” they mixed things up with an unexpected covers of Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”, the Korgis’ “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” and the theme Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Whoa now.
But they also made sure to include tributes to HRC artist of the past. They played snatches of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” from last year’s performer Iggy Pop, and dedicated “Empire” to Paul Weller. But perhaps the most intriguing moment came at the very end of their encore, when lead singer Tom Meighan stood alone on the foot of the stage and belted some familar lyrics at the top of his lungs. “You think you’ve lost your love, well I saw her yesterday-ay. It’s you she’s thinkin’ of, and she told me what to say-ay.” Yes, he was doing an acapella version of the Beatles’ “She Loves You.” Is this a hint of what’s to come tomorrow? Will we have a surprise visit from Sir Paul, our favorite knight of the turntable? We’ll have to see…
But for now, we’ve been rocked so hard that it doesn’t matter. The slew of stellar sets ensures that we sleep easy, excited for Day Two!
[Photo: Getty Images]