I’m 31 and I had never been to a music festival until last weekend. I’m not sure how this basic rite of passage slipped past me. Maybe it had something to do with most of the festivals I’d heard of being unappealing and unaffordable (tonnes of mud, disgusting toilets, bands I hadn’t much heard of or didn’t much care for) or else appealing but many hundreds of miles away, and therefore also unaffordable (Burning Man).
For whatever reason, it didn’t even make the list of things to do before 30. Maybe I just never thought of myself as a festival-going type – which makes no sense, because I love live music and I love going camping. But I don’t much love being inescapably surrounded by thousands of people and I prefer small gigs to large ones, so there’s that. And I was cripplingly self conscious and terrified of being stuck with people right up until my mid-20s (I avoided group trips like the plague, missed many a weekend away through weak excuses).
So last weekend, after finding out about it quite by accident while looking up Imelda May gigs, I went to Beautiful Days, a small, independent, unsponsored festival held every year for the past 11 years by the Levellers. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before now. I saw the Levellers play ten or so years ago (Green Blade Rising era) and they were incredible, and their support bands were incredible – (Kovak and Nick Harper, in case you wondered). There was no way that a festival made up of them and acts they chose wasn’t going to be good.
The bands I had heard of that were playing were bands I love. The bands I hadn’t heard of were bands that now I love. There was drumming and poi and comfy hippy clothing, and basically all this stuff that I revelled in when I was younger but seem to have lost track of a bit over the past few years. It was nice to feel like me again, but better. An unself-conscious, content me (which is a feeling I get, briefly, at gigs occasionally, but this was a different level). It was lovely to chat to random people and be in a space big enough and small enough to bump into them again a day later and have another little chat. The whole thing was refreshing for the soul. And
This entry is four days late because, well, I a) didn’t have internet access until late Monday afternoon and b) had to recover a bit first. It’s been what I’m going to understatedly describe as ‘slightly hellish’ going back to work, so now I want to relive the very good weekend a bit in my head. That means the following words are going to be mostly rubbish for my amusement only. As usual.
I wouldn’t mind doing an entry on the very tribal nature of music and festivals as a whole, in future, and how maybe that’s why it felt so good to be there, but that’s something I’ll maybe cover another time. Instead, for now, you get this bunkum.
If you say you’re going to a music festival for the first time, people will give you an abundance of advice on what to take and it turned out to be spot on. Wellies, shorts (I didn’t take any and ended up cutting up my jeans), bin bags, loo roll, cereal bars, totally dry set of clothes – all relevant. Stuff that wasn’t mentioned, but that we wished we’d thought to take:
- Lighter. Nothing like getting the camp stove set up and then looking at each other blankly wondering who brought the fire. Thank you, little volunteer-run village shop with reasonable prices for solving this one.
- Solar charger. We managed to eke out three and a half days on our phones by limiting turning them on to when we’d lost each other. Downside – less photos (although actually I took a camera as well. I admit, I’m bad at remembering to take photos when I’m having a good time, so there’s a grand total of four pictures from the whole weekend).
- Watches. Because the phones weren’t switched on. It was nice to be out of the time loop, and wake up not really knowing or caring what time it was. Less useful when we wanted to get to a specific band and were guessing the time from the start/finish of other sets.
What else would you drink in Devon? In this case, the weekend was brought to you by Sandford Orchard’s Devon Mist, which is deceptively apple juicey and sweet. It had run out by Sunday afternoon, and I’m not surprised.
So much good music. So much dancing that I gammified my hip by the last day. Next year (yes, there’s going to be a next year) I could probably happily sit/dance in the Big Top exclusively, which is basically all folk music, for the entire weekend. For my memory preservation and your edification (I’ve provided links and everything):
The Levellers: opened the festival with an acoustic set. There wasn’t actually space in the tent for this one. Of course they were great.
I admit to falling asleep under a parasol for a while at this point. It was very hot. I was very tired. Then we drummed for a while with a drumming group on plastic tubs. Also food.
The Selecter: Ska. Bloody fantastic. Lots of bouncy dancing. Also comically height-mismatched horn players, and Pauline Black is just a whirlwind of charisma and smiles.
Spiers & Boden: Folk duo. Fun with jigs – I ended up stood next to some pretty good folk dancers who were going for it and suddenly I missed Manx dancing a lot.
Clannad: actually, kind of a disappointment. Chose Clannad over Ocean Colour Scene because… Clannad! They were professional to the core, even when the equipment was being dodgy, but they were a bit mechanical – didn’t seem to be having much fun.
Not music – but I did have a crack at inversion therapy, which is basically being hung upside down from the ankles to stretch your back out. That was fun. Lost Coffee Monster to the dozes, so I wandered off and watched the next two bands on my own.
The Emily Brothers: rock (borderline metal) folk from Germany. Loud and fun, and I have no idea which song it was but one of them was basically a mixture of lines from classic folk singers (Joni Mitchell, for a start – needle guns and grass, lots of laughs).
Hudson Taylor: Irish brother-duo who are being touted as similar to Mumford and Sons. They look decidedly more boy-bandish though. Also, they reminded me more of Simon & Garfunkel – and props to them because just as I’d thought that they encored with Mrs Robinson.
I should add that it’d been raining throughout this. Had a nice conversation with a bloke in a dressing gown about why a dressing gown is good wet-weather attire. Then it stopped raining and Coffee Monster woke up. Then it really started raining again, so we went and listened to Brother & Bones and Molotov Jukebox from the relative dryness of our tent (camping behind the main stage – bonus). Went back down specifically to watch…
Treacherous Orchestra: See them, see them, see them! My absolute favourite band of the weekend, without question. Steampunk-styled, talented folk players with a fine sense of drama and showmanship. Really a group to check out. Love them.
The Staves: Supposedly a group of sisters from Watford, they’re quite clearly some land-bound Sirens that have chosen to form a band. And I mean that as a massive compliment.
Tail-end of Primal Scream: Errrm. Might have been better if we’d seen the whole thing, but mostly they seemed not to be at their best – self-indulgent springs to mind.
Main stage camp-out…
Electric River: very decent rock band with enough stage presence to get the midday hungover Sunday crowd dancing at the front. From Watford so hoping to see them play again in London.
Citizen Fish: massively political punky ska band. Good to dance to. Also band #1 to swear: “…motherfucking… oh,sorry, family festival…”
Dodgy: I could only remember one song by them before they started, but it turns out most of them were lodged in my memory. And they were good. Band #2 to swear “…shit! Oh, sorry kids. Don’t repeat that.”
Babylon Circus: Manic French ska/reggae – brilliant all round. Lots of dancing, lots of translating.
To the Big Top…
Heidi Talbot: Delicate and beautiful singing, to a quiet tent, because at this point people were filling up the main stage ready for the night’s show. The intimate atmosphere worked well, though. Lovely to just lie back and relax and occasionally sing along. Also worth seeing if you get the chance.
The Chair: Orkney band – fast and skilled and brilliant. We left ten minutes early to get a good spot for Imelda May (who was, after all, the reason for buying tickets in the first place) – but this is the band that gammified my hip with crazy dancing. Brilliant.
Back to the Main Stage…
Imelda May: Superb. Watched her look the men in the front rows in the eye throughout Big Bad Handsome Man, and they all melted. Winking and smiling and charming and sassy (with a great band) and all on six-inch stilettos. Also a beautiful cover of Blondie’s Dreaming which made me cry, but then I’m a sap and I even cry at the Muppet’s Rainbow Connection.
Levellers: The closing show. Total madness. I can only say they started out fast and hard and then built up until they ended with an Ozfest-style cover of The Devil Went Down To Georgia. That about sums it up.
What other small festivals are worth checking out in future? Any suggestions?