There's a lot of love for Farmfest. Growing organically, this small festival taking place in Bruton, Somerset, puts some of the larger ones to shame. You're not likely to see this one selling out to a conglomerate and losing its fiercely-protected independent status. This remains a festival put on by a small team and influenced by the punters that attend. Capping numbers at 5,000, the 2017 edition has again sold out. There's a lot of love that develops when you've got a good reputation.
It's a reputation that's bounded in earthy, honest simplicity. There are quirks (the much feted Saturday afternoon hat competition being one) but mostly this is about stages and tents that host bands and DJs across Friday and Saturday. The main stage, which has grown in size since my last visit here, still sits at the bottom of the bowl meaning that good views of it can be had from across the Farmfest field. The other main tents, the Big Blue, the Sett and the Den, one yellow, one red and one blue, all line up, like neatly parked cars, at the bottom of the field as well. Elsewhere, there's a wooden train structure, a shapes Takeover dance tent complete with a Massey Ferguson DJ booth, a tent hosting comedy and theatre (the palladium) and a tent hosting acoustic music. The food offering, mostly put on by the landowner, Gilcombe Farm, is wide-ranging and sits along one edge of the field. It's compact - people like Farmfest because it's like a village fete. You can get from A to B, the furthest points of the arena, in no more than five minutes.
Dotted around the site this year - and perhaps Farmfest's one concession to sponsorship deals - are a couple of spaces dedicated to local craft ale specialist, The Wild Beer Company. Based nearby, this is a new organisation for me but, over the course of the weekend, I manage to try their complete range. From the bibble to the pogo, each beer had a distinctive and interesting taste. Served by well-briefed bar staff, there was enough choice at reasonable prices (for trendy craft ale provision) to label this intervention a definite winner. Elsewhere on site, you could still get your farmhouse ciders at ridiculous percentages or the more sensible Stowford Press if that's your poison.
It's not that Farmfest 2017 did anything wrong particularly; indeed, all of the components were in place to make it a cracking, little festival. It's just that, for a number of reasons, it didn't really manage to hit the heights you might expect. It would be easy to blame the precipitous weather for such an outcome and, without doubt, the rain did play a part in hampering enjoyment but there's more to this not always glowing review than that. It all just felt a little shabby around the edges and a tad too laidback for comfort. Let me explain....
The main issue I had was a genuine difficulty in finding out what was happening when. I realise that set times needed to be changed at the last minute to avoid the downpours (and the organisers deserve much credit for having the flexibility to achieve stage and time switches) but my problem started way before this. Early on Friday afternoon, I bought a programme for £5. In truth, I wouldn't mind paying for a programme if it actually told me what was on. All I received for my money was a cloth bag (the first 500 purchasers of a programme got this as a free gift) and an adequate programme listing some highlights I should watch out for.
It wasn't until Saturday afternoon when chatting with another punter that I realised my programme wasn't the full ticket. Most had a yellow card wrapped around the outside offering stage times on each of the stages. The very helpful person selling programmes at the merch stall did give me a new one when I complained. But, given that this festival finishes on Saturday evening, much of the damage was already done.
Perhaps, I wouldn't have been feeling quite so lost if the chalk boards outside each of the music tents had been updated with what was on. The best of the tents made valiant attempts to do so and it was in these that I found most comfort. There's something horribly disconcerting about reviewing a festival and watching a band who are brilliant (sometimes awful) and not having the foggiest who they might be. There's only so many times you can shout out at a band or DJ 'who are you?' before your behaviour gets interpreted as loutish in the extreme.
The issues ran a bit deeper as well. Seemingly, for great chunks of the Friday and Saturday, I'd walk the admirably short distance between Farmfest tents to find very little on. Bands would either be setting up, just finishing or there'd be no discernible activity at all. When I did venture between tents when acts were on, you could bet your bottom dollar that there'd be something interesting clashing elsewhere. Of course, I realise that clashes are unavoidable but there seemed to be no attempt to stagger at Farmfest at all. The overall sense I got was that bands would play when they were ready to do so in somewhat haphazard fashion.
And whilst I'm being critical - I'm really glad that I'm not a woman. When in the Farmfest arena, especially at busy times of the day and night, it wasn't unusual to see a queue for the toilets snaking back excessively. Toilet queues are, to a degree, to be expected at festivals and I'm sure that most people don't mind having to wait a bit. You get into conversations with other punters and it's all part of the fun. But, blatantly, there weren't enough longdrops for the numbers attending; the ratios had gone awry. For a small festival, capped at 5,000 people, there was a tad too much queueing. I heard some people moaning about missing whole sets from acts because of it. There was a space at the bottom of the field for gent's urinals so us blokes had less issues.
I'm being critical but I'm not describing a car-crash of Y-Not or Hope(less) and Glory(hole) proportions - nowhere near and nothing like I suspect. By and large, although a bit rough around the edges, Farmfest 2017 was a success. More than anything, It succeeded in introducing me to some fine new music (when I was able to find out what it was).
Plume of Feathers, seemingly a side project for Lonely Tourist, played in The Sett at Friday teatime. With distinctly Scottish vocals and an intriguing level of indie-twee, their songs document the closure of traditional pubs. With fine storytelling tradition, they tell of intimate liaisons and first dates that once occurred in venues now mournfully missed. Graphic representations behind the band bring the stories to life in greater detail. I loved it and was very nearly tempted to buy a CD (but went and bought another pint of pogo instead).
We were camped near to Bristolian band, Two Day Coma, and had laughed from the comforts of our tent as we watched them trying to put their tent up in the windy rain (I did offer to help). Whilst this new band might have lacked in camping skills, they definitely didn't struggle with soul. Up in the acoustic tent on Saturday evening, we relaxed and sat attentively as they produced a set of intense beauty. In lead singer, Tom Harris, they have a vocalist who has the ability to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention. Lyrically, they've got gentle phrases that slap you once you realise how loaded with sadness (and happiness) they are. They offer a very modern wistfulness and I'd suggest they might be ones to watch as their career develops.
I had some prior knowledge of IDestroy having seen Bec from this three-piece playing a mean guitar earlier this year during a set from The Blue Aeroplanes. On Friday evening, they energetically thrashed and rocked their way through a set full of angry, punk-laden excitement. I made a note in my imaginary notebook that I ought to make an effort to see them again.
It wasn't all about the smaller and less well-known though. Every time that I've seen Beans On Toast play this festival season the weather has been less than pleasant and at Farm Fest the rain again obliged. Jay's made of stern stuff though and he doesn't let this affect him as he puts in another set of classics. He charms when he sings about the love he has for his wife and captivates when he makes pertinent political points. You can't help but be enthralled.
Friday night's headliner is Shobaleader One. I've only paid fleeting interest to the music of Squarepusher before but Tom Jenkinson makes sure that this full band give the tunes extra emphasis and oomph. Visually, it's also a triumph with each band member achieving the impossible by wearing a robot-style helmet with visors whilst the rain lashes down and obscures their vision. I guess that Saturday's headliner, Roots Manuva, must have played though I was either too disorganised or too blotto to remember.
Farmfest is taking a break in 2018 and will be returning with batteries fully charged in 2019. I simply cannot comprehend how challenging it must be and how much effort it must take to put on an endeavour such as this. In difficult conditions, the show still went ahead and for that, the organisers deserve much credit. Competent and solid rather than a life-changing weekend, I look forward to seeing how this small festival might take stock, refine itself and return with all guns blazing in a couple of years.
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