Saturday afternoon and the crowd want to have fun in the sun. It could have been a triumphant moment. "Bracknell, let me see you dance", shouts out Gareth Gates mid song. But Gareth's call to arms (and legs) is met with slight embarrassment and awkward laughter. For we are not in Bracknell but rather 150 miles away at Uttoxeter Racecourse, a fact blazoned across the stand that's clearly visible from the main stage of the Acoustic Festival of Britain. I bet if Gareth had gone to Brit School he wouldn't have made such a geographical cock-up. Gareth attempts to make amends by stating that he's going to be playing 'one of his own songs' next. Pete, who's accompanying Gareth on guitar, starts to play 'Spirit In The Sky'. Norman Greenbaum turns over in his grave (and he's not even dead yet!).
This is the 8th Acoustic Festival of Britain. Looking at the line up, it has a sense of not knowing where it wants to be. It's not quite a folk festival and it's not quite a 60's/70's and 80's rewind like festival. But it is evidently clear on chatting to people over the course of the weekend that it's a festival with a fierce and loyal following. For many people here, this is their destination of choice, their one event of the summer. It's a diversion from a caravan holiday, a seaside break in Rhyl or a weekend spent tidying the shed.
One of the things I could get used to about this festival is the fact that you can park your car right next to your tent. There's lots of space in which to camp and all cars are guided into a slot by some excellent stewarding. The campsite facilities are excellent and though there's always a queue for them it's great to have free, hot and powerful showers. Most people have taken the opportunity to load their cars and trailers high and my perfectly adequate three berth tent finds itself dwarfed by some of the other constructions around. Seriously, I've seen bands perform at some festivals in smaller tents than there are in this camping field. But as becomes apparent, this is a festival all about staking your space.
We head into the main site and have a quick look around. It's a compact, well laid out space with five performance areas. Most people seem content to alternate between the open air stage and the real ale tent where performances don't overlap but further back from these areas are the Dome, the Big Top and a Workshop Marquee. There's quite a few festival clothing stores, costume jewellery places and musical instrument/ CD outlets but they've clearly done their homework for it feels like this is a generally affluent crowd who are keen to affirm their place in this field by treating themselves to the 'latest' in tie-dye fashion or a new ukulele.
We strategically position ourselves outside the real ale tent so that we have a view of the main stage and take in a bit of Northern Quarter. This acoustic band from Loughborough band try hard to engage with those watching and in their better moments mimic The Beautiful South but in truth this is little more than pleasant background music. We swivel on our chairs and watch Chris Chambers in the Real Ale Tent. He plays a competent mix of covers and tunes from his own repertoire. It's neither memorable or terrible but perfectly adequate music to chill to with a pint in the sunshine.
There are two bars on site. They're run by a company called UK Bars who seem to specialise in Steam Fairs. The one that we're sat outside now has eight or so real ales to choose from. The menu is heavily dependent upon Edinburgh's Caledonian Brewery with Deuchars IPA and Caledonian 80/- going down well. There's also a range of three or four Scrumpys and Ciders. It's always good to see Old Rosie at a festival though I decide not to try it until later. If draught cider and lager is your thing you can also choose between pints of Fosters and Strongbow. There's no price list for punters on show but most prices seem to be reasonable at about £3.50 a pint.
The Wee Bag Band take to the main stage and we take in some food. I'm glad to see The Furnace at this festival, advertising its endorsement from eFestivals above the entrance to the tent. I have one of their gorgeous Chickpea curries and realise that it probably won't be the last time I do so this summer. Elsewhere on the site, you can get Pizzas and Pastas from the Italian Kitchen ( I seem to be following them around), Fish and Chips, Burger and Chips and Indian cuisine. The Coffee Bug is also on hand to serve up quality coffees and muffins. It's a decent range of food and the punters seem to appreciate the diversity on offer.
Having seen The Hummingbirds in their hometown of Liverpool a few weeks before, I'm keen to see if their sound will convert to a festival field. They're due to play the main stage at five on the Friday and I take my place near to the stage. With minutes to go, the face-painted, purple top-hatted, jolly compere announces that there's been a programme change and instead we get The Rubber Duck Orchestra. The Rubber Ducks play a happy Balkan, Klezmer, Gypsy folk thing. They seem a little surprised to have been moved from the Dome tent where they were scheduled to be playing but their promotion is no bad thing and they get the audience smiling. I do get to see The Hummingbirds for they're on next (replacing Jenny BelleStar) in the Real Ale tent. It's not as strong a performance as the one I saw at the Cavern but it's still evident that they have the tunes, the looks and the harmonies to be Scouse contenders this summer. Another young band, Rusty Shackle, complete this early evening trilogy of up and coming folk-based acts with aplomb on the main stage.
Friday night, most of Saturday and much of Sunday is a feast of nostalgia. Some of the acts that we see have endeavoured to make themselves relevant in 2013 but many are living on the royalties of their one (or two) hits. John Otway goes down a storm in the Real Ale Tent. His act is remarkably similar to the one I first saw years ago when I was a student though he's now had two chart hits. You can't help but grudgingly admire how he's spent years climbing on monitors, messing about with guitars and drumpads, blaming sidekicks for errors and generally being an incompetent clown. I like his style. On the Saturday night, Ed Tudor Pole can be filed in a similar category although I'm surprised how well he can play his guitar. It's a shame that for most of this set, Ed's vocal is inaudible. Ed clearly feels that those at the back of the beer tent are being raucous because of the old Rosie but they're simply trying to alert him to the fact that he can't be heard. I'm sitting behind Rory Mcleod who takes it upon himself to stride forwards to the Sound desk and gets it sorted for an enthusiastic finale of 'Swords Of A Thousand Men' and 'Who Killed Bambi?'.
Rory McLeod plays one of the sets of the weekend in this tent early on the Sunday afternoon. A 45 minute set is frankly not long enough to see this travelling troubadour with a political awareness, some great stories and no hits. I first stumbled across Mcleod on a Cooking Vinyl compilation in 1995 and then went to see him at the Fleece and Firkin in Bristol. Almost twenty years on and he plays many of the songs that he played that night. There's an added poignancy this afternoon when he plays the love song to his Mum, 'Shirley's her name' because Mcleod tells us that she passed away a month before. 'Huge Sky' brings a lump to the throat - a protest song about a Kurdish refugee - Kemal Altun, who jumped from a window to his death rather than be deported from Germany. Mcleod ends with 'Farewell Welfare', a tune played on spoons, guitar and harmonica and a protest about the increasingly privatised state of our welfare system. Mcleod is the only act I see all weekend getting 'political' and whilst I love what he does I'm not sure that others in the crowd, the Daily Mail readers, concur.
It's Saturday evening and we approach the main stage with our chairs. There isn't a great deal of space but this isn't an area crowded with people. It's full of empty chairs and blankets. I suspect that most people have reserved their piece of England whilst they watch Curved Air in the Real Ale tent. I accidentally dare to tread on one of the blankets and get barked at by a man in a deck chair for temporarily invading his space. I know that this marking out of territory goes on at all festivals but it seems like an integral part of the Acoustic Festival of Britain. People seem to gain enjoyment from having their space. It forms part of their purpose for being here. The very best festivals are those where you get a sense of communion, a sense that strangers will be looking out for you and that lifelong friendships can be formed from chance meetings. I'm certainly not naïve enough to tar all with the same brush (and I did chat to many decent people during this weekend) but far too many people here are experts at focussing on number one.
The Hollies take to the stage to headline the Saturday night proceedings and we get an altogether different sort of focus on Number Ones. It doesn't really matter that only two of the original members are part of the band now. Lead singer, Peter Howarth, has had the job since 2004, and he does a great job in sounding like Allan Clarke and Graham Nash. This is a whistle-stop tour through the back catalogue of a band that have released many great tunes over the years. 'Carrie-Anne', 'Bus-Stop', 'The Air That I Breathe' and 'Jennifer Eccles' all help to get the crowd swaying and bouncing before they inevitably launch into the crowd singalong that is 'He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother'. It's a thoroughly professional set and I surprise myself how much I enjoy it.
The Hollies are not the only headline set that I enjoy. The night before, The Proclaimers show their class. In recent years, I've seen The Proclaimers complete with full band and good though this is, their set here stands out because it's a back to basics showing. Craig and Charlie have a stage presence that fills the stage and their tight vocal harmonies sound better than they ever did back in the eighties. They do play some songs from recent releases but draw heavily from their first two albums. It's a treat to hear songs such as 'Misty Blue' again. I think I might have sung along a bit too energetically.
The programme for the Festival suggests that The Quireboys are one of the UK's finest Rock 'N' Roll bands but this correspondent begs to differ. We amuse ourselves by playing a new festival game, 'What is the point of the Quireboys?' We decide that you could play a drinking game of 'sip when you hear a cliched lyric' but then agree that this is too dangerous for our livers so we leave the mulleted, Rod Stewart wannabees to their indulgences and head off elsewhere. It's sad to report that The Quireboys are not the only act guilty of such musical crimes this weekend. Simon Townshend, younger brother of Pete and sometime performer in The Who, should have been better than he was but his clumsy power-chord riffing, weak vocals and meaningless lyrics leave you with a whiff of him only being invited here because of his surname. Nick Welsh (The Ska Man) has, according to the programme, performed with many of the Ska greats but his set on the Sunday afternoon seemed to be more of an exercise in releasing his singer-songwriter demons. Phil Cool announced in his set that at the end of this tour he was planning to retire but one could be forgiven for thinking that he did so twenty years ago with his reliance on Bill Clinton impressions for laughs.
For every weaker, outdated act though there are some joys to behold. There's a rumour going around the site that Martin Stephenson hasn't shown but this isn't true and we're lucky enough to catch a half hour set of his in the small Dome tent. Like Rory Mcleod, here is a man who should have had longer to woo us with his charms. He's chubbier than he was back in the days when the Daintees rivalled the Commotions and The Smiths to be Indie Poster boys of choice. He amuses his crowd by comparing them to pop stars of the past. 'Are you Clodagh Rodgers?' he asks a glamorous Grandma at the front. 'Robin Trower is doing my sound', he stresses about a technician. 'Captain Beefheart has returned from the dead', he says about an older gent with a great moustache. This isn't a set harking back to his Kitchenware heyday but a set of new tunes showing off his incredible guitar playing ability. He's mad as a box of frogs but still full of the joys of music.
It might be that performing with Erica Nockalls has given Miles Hunt a new lease of life because their acoustic set over the Sunday lunchtime is also brimming with inventiveness. New songs are mixed in with old Wonderstuff classics. These stripped-back guitar/violin combinations of 'Size Of A Cow' and 'Welcome To The Cheap Seats' sound fresh and invigorating. Biggles Wartime Band have been working festival crowds for years and their fishy jokes, elaborate covers and Oompah based sounds will probably work in festival crowds for years to come.
The Acoustic Festival of Britain has confused me. I came away from it knowing that I'd had an enjoyable time. For every act that's stuck in a land of former glories, there were acts that enticed with something new. For all that I hated the need for punters to mark out their space, I really liked the comforts that being able to camp next to your car provided. Whilst Phil Cool didn't really provide me with any laughs, Gareth Gates did. Whilst it felt odd that all entertainment had finished by midnight, I welcomed the chance to sleep well and wake fresh the next day. Clearly, this is a festival with hard working organisers and a loyal, repeat customer base. It's certainly more fun than a caravan holiday, a seaside break in Rhyl or a weekend spent tidying the shed.
review by: Sean Tizzard
photos by: Sean Tizzard
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