It’s been a hectic few weeks here, with one of them living in a small tin box in a field, so I’ll try and keep this as brief as possible!
It’s the 28th July and I’m in the South Western. Beneath the stairs, a ramshackle bunch of musos ply their trade. On first glance, they are extras from Easy Rider, but on closer examination, beneath the hippy wigs and round sunglasses stands 71 Chain. Tonight was a 70s covers night and the band were styled as ‘1971 Chain’.
The outfits may have been somewhat tongue-in-cheek but the music was far from it. Chris, Paul and Ryan were sharing lead guitar, Mongo was his usual metronomic self on the drums and Adam had a tiny synth to supplement his fretless five-string bass.
The guys covered a lot of ground that night, with highlights including the ubiquitous Stairway, some Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. Alas, the end was nigh, and the crowd, some dressed up, some in civvies, were given the choice. Free Bird or Comfortably Numb. The merits of each song were discussed by the audience at great length and the inevitable happened. They played both. A great night came to an end, leaving me to get home, crack open a bottle of Scotch and start preparing for the next week.
Next week was Wickham Festival. My annual music pilgrimage that, whilst not a great distance from home, has to involve camping. There’s far too much good ale and good company to not indulge and have to drive home each day.
At Wickham, I camp with a group of friends from across the country – the Isle of Man, Petersfield, North Wales, and this year, Nottingham and Southampton. We set up our camp, the Manx Embassy, and keep everyone up into the night with after-hours sessions. This year, we were co-opted as staff, with the proviso that we would help setup and once the music started, we were done.
The festival started with an evening gig on Wednesday night, but we were set up on Tuesday. In the dry. Wednesday arrived and we turned up for duty in the sideways rain. We worked a ten hour day laying out the caravan and camper van field in conditions reminiscent of The Somme, then three changes of clothes later, made our way to the community centre for beer and some tunes for the early arrivals and staff.
Trudging into the warm, light community centre, wearing the only dry things we had managed to find, we immediately realised the community centre people hadn’t really understood what a folk audience drinks. Apparently they had some bottled Doom Bar. We saw one bottle. Luckily, they had draught Thatchers, which was sufficient for most.
The entertainment that evening consisted of Alistair Russell, singer-songwriter and compere of the main stage, someone I didn’t catch, and TRADArrr – a folk-rock band playing a lot of trad stuff with an almost proggy twist.
Lowlands of Holland was delivered with a female vocal harmony and Golden Vanity was given a Floyd-esque treatment. Their instrumentation included cello and cornet, and the set went down a treat with the gathered throng of bedraggled campers.
Soon it was festival proper. Four stages pumping out music from midday until midnight, there was a lot to see. A few highlights:
KT Tunstall – Got everyone to light the stage with the lights on their phones. This is becoming a popular thing. But it worked. Conscious she was at a festival, she permitted beer to be held aloft instead of phones, which caused great appreciation from the crowd. Whilst illuminated thus, Tunstall launched into Other Side of the World, with raw vocals and a simple guitar backing. Suddenly the bass drops in and an audio masterpiece is absorbed by the muddy yet merry throng still fighting to keep their phones and beer upright whilst singing every word.
Famed for her use of a loop pedal, the exclamation of ‘Arse!’ when it died brought a couple of roadies sprinting from the wings to wrestle the electronics back into some semblance of normality. Tunstall tells a joke. The technology soon does what it is meant to, and the looped ‘woo hoo’ begins Black Horse and the Cherry Tree which merges seamlessly into the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army, complete with kazoo. The loop is still going on in the background and it really works rather well.
The headliners on stage 2 on the Thursday were a three piece called Talisk. They played what can only be described as bloody good folky dance music (club type stuff) on guitar, fiddle, concertina and cajon. There may have been a few samples dropped in there, but I’m not sure. Either way, it rocked. Talisk are essentially a three-person Peatbog Faeries, with the crowd bouncing in the mud waiting for the beat to drop. It was a special evening. It could easily be described as a ceilidh band playing Ibiza club tunes, and I really got something out of it.
At this point, I was in festival mode. I didn’t make very many notes from here on in. This is largely from memory… Here we go, then!
Friday – Spooky Men’s Chorale – a great bunch of lads singing very silly songs (and some more serious) in the most polished, spine-chillingly tight vocal harmonies. Props were brought out for Don’t Stand Between a Man and His Tool – more akin to a visit to B&Q than anything dubious, and the conical hats meant only one thing – they finished with the traditional Georgian folk song, The Prophecy of the Three Brothers. Watch the video. It’s great.
Later that day, Cornwall’s own Fisherman’s Friends took the main stage and gave the landlubbers some shanty treatment. They have been a great influence to my band, Shantyhead, and were a pleasure to watch. They finished with a cover of Show of Hands’ Cousin Jack, a song about the demise of Cornwall, for which Steve Knightly of Show of Hands appeared and joined in on vocals. something to behold, I thought, until Show of Hands had their own set that evening, which culminated in the obvious return of favours – Show of Hands playing Cousin Jack with all the Fisherman’s Friends joining them on backing. It’s something I saw many years ago before the Fisherman’s Friends were famous, and it was electrifying then. It’s something else now. Astounding.
Saturday was an early start to see the chap who was camping opposite us singing with his shanty group on stage 2. Very well executed, but incredibly slow-paced compared with what Shantyhead do. And full marks to the sound guy who had to deal with a singer who was unaware that you have to be somewhere near the microphone for the sound to pick up, preferably facing it. I hate to think how much gain was wound up on that channel, but it worked.
Later in the day, I listened to Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston from the comfort of the embassy, which was located a little way behind the main stage. I have very fond memories of the set from Coventry ska giants The Selecter, who followed Miranda and Rex, playing all the old favourites, and their new track, Frontline.
The day finished with Dhol Foundation, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Oysterband and The Levellers. All bloody good bands. I spent most of my time dancing like an idiot, soaking in as much of the atmosphere (and the contents of the bar) as I could. Highlights of the aforementioned bands? All the festival favourites were played. Everyone sang. Everyone danced. Everyone had a good time.
Sunday was a little more subdued in my part of the world. A great comfy night’s sleep in the small aluminium house on wheels, late breakfast and donning of the kilt. Every Sunday at Wickham is Kilt Sunday. It has to be done. I bimbled around all day, not really staying on one stage too long to take much in. Today was our day. At 7:40, the acoustic stage belonged to Shantyhead.
This time we were joined by Debs from The Courtiers on fiddle, and from what was coming back over the monitors, bloody hell, it sounded good. Maybe the countless days of excessive drinking swayed my opinion somewhat, but the verdict from those out front was equally positive. We threw caution to the wind this year and played a couple of our numbers usually identified as ‘filth’ during an ordinary set. Lollipop Man, ironically taught to me last year at Wickham, and A Dogging went down really well with the gathered crowd. The hurdy gurdy got its festival debut with a certain Clash cover, and we all rolled up and rolled down then got drunk in Tilbury town with Rollin’ Down the River.
After locking everything away in the small aluminium shed on wheels, it was a quick dash back to stage 2 with festival buddy Mell to see Ferocious Dog. Still as mad, loud and evocative as ever, you could feel the ground shake with a combination of the bass and the bouncing of the crowd. When they’d finished, myself and Mell went over to stage 1 to catch the last act of the festival. Peatbog Faeries, delivering their own brand of heavy folk trance. We gradually wormed our way in from the outer edge of the crowd until we were close to the front. Not for the first point in the weekend, the eyes glazed over and I was lost in a world of music. Pure bliss.
It took a few days to get over Wickham. The smile was difficult to shift for quite some time. The weekend came and it was catchup time. I was getting to the stage of thinking I’d have a week off the ‘music every week’ thing and get some things done. That’s what I started doing, until one task was cut short by mechanical issues and I found myself at a loose end on Sunday afternoon. Ah! I saw something on good old Bookface.
Half an hour later, I was sat in the Dolphin in Botley listening to TheRealRaj play a gig that unusually wasn’t in the middle of Southampton. I only caught the second half of his set, but Raj was his usual self – a really talented guy doing what he loves. It comes over very strongly in the music and through his modest stage persona, the calibre and depth of Raj’s musicianship shines like a searchlight pierces the night sky. Wow. That was a bit poetic!
Raj was set up in a corner beneath the big screen TV which was showing a football match, thankfully with the sound off. With a harmonica on a frame round his neck, a tambourine on his foot and a guitar in his hands, only the occasional upward glance to check the score and a coffee perched on a stool next to him, the small yet appreciative crowd were treated to a set of self-penned songs. I am taking great pains to mention, as per request, that HE DIDN’T PLAY ANY COVERS!
There were a couple of tunes I don’t recall hearing before (I probably have, but I was getting over a heavy week…) – one with a great, smooth, Celtic twist, in some kind of Johnny Flynn-esque style, then a song called Mayfly – written about the insect, that only lives its life in the open air for a single day – with the line ‘this is our day in the sun’. A lovely tune, but a little ironic that we were all sat indoors while the sun was, as is so rare this summer, shining beautifully outside.
The session finished with me tuning the most argumentative mandolin I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with, then a good discussion about Land Rovers and how what they now call a Discovery is nothing like a Discovery.
Until next time, keep rockin!