London, Sunday September 30, 2018
It’s a mild, partially sunny Autumn day and I’m on my way home walking past Spitalfields – the old market which no longer feels like a market, just a bunch of food stalls, corporate pop-up shops and boutiques pretending to be ‘authentic’, selling overpriced items tagged as ‘vintage’ or ‘artisan’. You know the kind. I do stumble upon one authentic ‘item’ though – not inside the market but just outside in the square, where a stage has been erected to facilitate the several singer-songwriters who are playing throughout the day at this year’s Upstart Crow Festival – ‘the UK’s only songwriter festival’.
I had no idea there was such a festival, even less so close to home, but I’m lucky enough to pass by as a trio of musicians – bass, violin and guitar/vocals – play an Americana-styled song of longing. I walk past, not intending to stop, but something makes me turn around and go back – I feel the song pull me back, and I watch the rest of the concert with this singer who I’m soon to find out is named Gabriel Moreno, a poet and songwriter, and his two band members.
The songs share DNA with Leonard Cohen, Nick Drake and Johnny Cash, sung in a Spanish accent. Moreno commands the stage and is equally good at telling anecdotes, as he is singing his songs. Some bands are concerned with being detached and ‘cool’ – this is not one of those bands, this is warm and inclusive and I’m not the only one who feels this way – the other people sitting and standing around seem to like it as much as I do; the children running around and playing, those people sitting down and watching attentively, those laughing loudly at the funny stories between the songs, and the couple who dance passionately, joined closely at the hip, to each other and to the music.
One song, Love or Fire, is introduced as being about, ‘when you meet someone and don’t know whether what you feel is something physical, or something a tiny bit deeper.’ It’s a catchy song about desire, with a strong dose of melancholy.
Before one song, Moreno tells the audience, ’We started together in the underground scene of London. No one wanted to listen, so we just played to each other.’ And that’s very much what this festival seems to be about; a bunch of bands and singers who get together to play ‘for each other’ – and whoever may happen to pass by, and stay to listen for a while.
Upstart Crow Festival 2018, Spitalfields
After the concert there are stil four or five performers left on the bill, but I’ve had my fill for the day. As I continue my delayed walk home, I think about how Spitalfields has changed over the years. It used to be a recreational ground – a hospital – for people from London who needed to get out of town and recover in more natural surroundings. That’s hard to imagine now that Spitalfields is part of the centre of London and there are hardly any trees, and certainly no fields, in sight these days. But the name stands firm: ‘Hospital Fields’, or Spitalfields.
Spitalfields may no longer be a place of rehabilitation, but when you stumble upon a music festival in the middle of an overpriced mall masquerading as a ‘market’, the beauty of the music can feel like a counter to the disease known as capitalism – and I guess that counts as some kind of recovery.
Gabriel Moreno setlist