'Can you tell me what percentage the Bullbeggar is?' I ask the slightly squiffy looking barman. 'It's about half a percent less than the Black Rat, which is somewhere around 6.5,' he slurs back. 'Hmmm, have you got any ciders that are less potent?' I mumble. The barman looks at me as if I've said something silly.
I probably have. For here I am in the heart of Somerset on a farm. Farmfestival is an earthy, laid back, tiny delight. It's a lo-fi event where you're more likely to get cheese rolling than the Rolling Stones. And yet, just like it's larger near-neighbour, it's a mighty fine festival (with longdrops).
'Can you tell me where the main stage is, please?' I ask a helpful and jolly, looking security guard after I've put my tent up. 'You're looking at it,' smiles the guard. 'Oh really?', I say, somewhat taken aback by just how tiny the main stage looks. 'Yes, this isn't Glastonbury, mate,' he chuckles.
The main stage looks like it’s handmade out of wood and bits that are found around the farm. It’s painted in bright colours and though it’s small you can’t help but appreciate the decoration that’s gone into its design. This is true of the rest of the site as well. You can walk around the Farmfest site within minutes. It's a well laid out arena, a field that slopes so that from pretty much anywhere in this field you've got a good view over what's happening. Most of the stages and tents run in a line at the bottom of the field. You’ve got a tent which is largely undecorated and plays host to a variety of local bands and talent; the Wicked Thicket is a dance tent where the DJ's play to a fake forest setting from the confines of a combine harvester; the large beer tent where the Bullbeggar and Black Rat are going down so well has a decent sized stage for some decent sized acts; Right in the corner of the field, there's the small and compact High Grade Rockers dub tent.
We're keen to watch Ghostpoet headline the main stage on the Friday night. We’re probably keen to take a look because he’s one of the names that we recognise on the bill. There’s a decent sized crowd assembled. Obaro Ejimiwe is undoubtedly a talent and tonight his hip-hop lite is a hit with the masses. It's old tune, 'Cash and Carry Me Home' that draws the biggest cheers but recent single 'Meltdown', fresh from being playlisted by Zane Lowe, also gets many raising their hands in a frenzy. I find myself wondering why Ghostpoet has a habit of ending every line of every tune with a pronounced 'er'. As the set goes on, this vocal tick begins to really get on my nerves. I'm sure it's less pronounced on the records.
‘Excuse me sir, have you seen the ‘E’? asks a young girl. She can be no older than ten. It takes a while to work out exactly what she means but then I see that she seems to be marking things off in a programme. It appears that there is some sort of treasure hunt going on and dotted around the site are letters that spell out Farmfest. You can interact with these letters, sit inside them, shelter from the rain (should it arrive) and have your photos taken with them. I hadn’t seen the E at this point of the weekend. Neither had I seen a programme.
Farmfest is a small festival but it’s nigh on impossible to find out what’s going on when without a programme. By the side of each stage a blackboard proudly announces the acts that are about to play but that’s all there is to guide you. You get a sense that this is a deliberate ploy by the organisers to encourage you to wander, to check out things you might otherwise not watch. Programmes were apparently on sale and being touted around the campsite but I saw no sign of this. All proceeds from the programme sales went to a charity, Practical Action. On the Saturday (and after a rapid trip to the photocopying machine no doubt), the gazebo hosting Practical Action was selling paper copies of the programme. Unfortunately, the weather on Saturday was so inclement that the programme is now a soggy mash in my pocket. This, along with the strong cider on offer, has made this reviewer's life hard.
Here's some wonders that I see on those wanders. Gouranga are a Nirvana like act playing in the local bands tent. This three piece make a derivative but confident grungy sound that goes down well with the assembled scrumpy-heads. There's moshing a plenty and it's a fine way to spend half an hour watching flagons of cider explode as those in the pit bounce off each other with hardcore grace. Go Go Cult are a Fifties surf psychobilly thing. They play the beer tent on Saturday dressed in blue and white striped T-shirts and theatrical face masks. The singer attempts to hypnotise us with optical illusions. I don't feel hypnotised but I am captivated. I've never seen live wrestling at a festival before and for a moment on Saturday afternoon, I was transported back into the days of World Of Sport, Dickie Davies, Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy. A ring is set up in the festival field and various wrestlers introduced. This is pure theatre but as people jump from the ropes and embrace in arm locks, there's no doubt that adults and children are entertained. I manage to miss the Farm Festival Farmyard games which is a major disappointment for a time spent mangold hurling, wife carrying and veg bobbing sounds great to me but I do catch the end of the best hat competition. Punters have tried to make elaborate hats in the hope of winning tickets for next years festivities across a range of categories – the edible hats are my favourites.
It’s evident that this is a festival that pushes its charity credentials. Skirting the edge of the arena are stalls from the charities that are being supported by Farmfestival this year. Practical Action aim to tackle poverty in the developing world through the innovative use of technology. The British Stammering Association is the only national organisation for adults and children who stammer and I guess that the Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance needs little introduction. There’s a very real sense around the site that at Farmfest’s core is a desire to do some good and to stand up to the growing number of over-priced and overly corporate festivals dominating the U.K every summer. Big ticks in my book.
There are two other stages that I've not mentioned yet. The Den is billed as an open mic space but apart from a wonderful bunch of yokels, finding the middle ground between Mumford and Sons and the Wurzels early on Friday evening, I see nobody else performing here. Instead, this area is a space where people sit to eat their food and to chill. The other main area of entertainment is accessed through a boudoir. I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it's to give the Civilisation Of Rough venue (COR) a seductive, secret feel. Here dance music is played and people party well into the night.
I need to declare an interest. The farm that this festival takes place on is my cousin's. This could make things particularly awkward, especially when it comes to a review of the food – for Gilcombe Farm seems to have a monopoly on the provision here. Fortunately, the offer is fine and I can write in praise of the food. The Organic Hog Roast stall, positioned in front of the Den, seems busy all weekend with people getting their fix of good meat. The Belly Buster, packed to the brim with a pork and beef combo, is something I want to try but never manage to get around to. Instead, I find myself drawn to the cheeseburgers. Generous slabs and chunks of cheddar are placed on top of the tasty, home cooked beef to make quite a meal. Next to the Hog Roast stall is a concession to vegetarians. You get the sense that this sits awkwardly on the farm but it also does a fair trade throughout the weekend. Elsewhere, a stall selling pizzas and pancakes has a queue snaking back through the field for most of the weekend.
Some people are anxiously checking the weather forecasts on their phones. We're told that this part of Somerset gets more than its fair share of rain and though it stays bright on the Friday, there's a sense of doom in the clouds on the Saturday. After 2PM, the rain that has threatened gushes down. Apart from a Thursday evening downpour a month earlier in Somerset, this is the first rain of the festival summer I've experienced and I remember how much I hate it. The rain doesn't stop until the Sunday morning and although the ground underfoot gets soggy, it mostly holds up to the drenching. The main stage is less fortunate though. Perhaps it was too exposed but for most of the afternoon, bands playing there struggled with audience numbers and beating rain in their faces. The excellent Laid Blak did their best to get the poncho wearers in the crowd dancing to their reggae fuelled dance beats but as evening progresses we hear that the main stage has had to close. Bands such as Art Brut and Black Strobe are rescheduled to the Beer tent.
Before those two bands we get the charming The Lovely Eggs. I've seen The Lovely Eggs a few times before doing their Northern twee, pop, punk thing. I've never failed to be charmed by their 'Half Man Half Biscuit' approach to lyrics, amenably delivered by husband and wife team, Holly and David. Tonight though, they take it to another gear. With a blow up dinosaur, left by an earlier band, crashing around our heads, The Eggs launch into a 'this should be a hit' fuelled set of classics. 'People Are Twats' gets us all dancing like fools. 'I Just Want Someone To Fall In Love With' bounces along with optimistic splendour and 'Don't Look At Me (I Don't Like It)' is singalong heaven. Holly chats between the songs, telling us all that Farmfestival means a lot to her and David. It was here last year that Holly discovered she was pregnant. The Baby Egg is being looked after in the Van by Holly's Mum. Holly's Mum has never been to a festival before and a call goes out for anybody who might have some 'international herb' to share. Brilliant.
The rescheduled Art Brut take to the Beer tent stage next. I last saw Eddie Argos and his gang of charming Art-Poppers on Saturday 13th August 2005. I know this because I still have the poster for Summer Sundae in my room. On it, they are billed above Hot Chip and Editors. I remember chatting to Eddie on that day and thinking he was a bit of a gobshite but maybe age has mellowed us both for tonight he is incredibly charming and one of the best frontmen I've seen this summer. He jumps into the crowd and sings from the audience. He snarls with charisma as he speaks his artfully entertaining lyrics over the riffing guitars and energetic drums. I declare myself a fool for not having seen Art Brut for eight years and missing the good times this band can provide. One of the sets of the summer.
Black Strobe come highly recommended but for me don't reach the heights laid down by The Lovely Eggs and Art Brut. Maybe, it's the fact that they've had to change their stage from main to beer tent or maybe it's just their electro-rock style but they come across as a little bit grumpy. Moodiness is not what we want now as the rain continues to lash. My pacifist friend tells me that the lead singer of Black Strobe has a face he'd like to punch. It's perhaps time to leave the beer tent.
This is a festival that does exactly what it says on the tin. It offers an alternative to the large and medium sized events around but still does it with enough grace and style to feel like it's a player in the festival season. There is a sense that it ends abruptly seeing as it just runs for the Friday and the Saturday so perhaps in future years there is scope to expand across another day. This might lead to an increase in the cost so I guess this will be a conundrum the organisers have to balance. For now, I doff my hat to the small and yet perfectly formed Farmfestival.
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