There are times when I wish I was eighteen again. Admittedly, these times are few and far between. I think back to those first fledgling festivals I used to go to. I partied with no sleep; I was drunk after drinking a few pints of weak lager; I'd live on burgers and chips and not much care for the music as long as my friends were around and about. I am sure that my teenage self would have lapped up a festival such as LeeFest.
That is not to say that this middle aged correspondent didn't find much to appeal in this small, compact and independent festival. My guess is though that I now have a different set of needs and my need for water, alcohol, food, sleep and personal freedom have developed. Let's get these LeeFest gripes out of the way and then I can get onto all of the positives.
Sense of personal freedom: We arrive after a hot and sweaty drive. We're held up in queues as we traverse the Dartford crossing. First impressions of the site are positive. The car park (£10 a car) is a field from which there are the most amazing views into a Biggin Hill valley. Who would have thought that such green and pleasant land could exist inside the M25? We're directed towards the site where we are met with the longest queue I've had so far this summer to get into a festival. You expect queues at Glastonbury. But LeeFest has a capacity of a couple of thousand people. Even if all of these had arrived at the same time (I don't think they had) there's little justification to being held up waiting to get in for longer than an hour.
It quickly becomes clear why it's taking so long though. Over zealous security guards are emptying everybody's bags who enter. We're told that this is for our safety and security. Looking at the average punter, I'm pretty sure that they are not the weapon-carrying sort so I'm not sure how this is helping my safety and security. We keep quiet and put up with it. Later, we return to our car to pick up the alcohol we'd left in it. Initially, we'd just queued with our tents. We are challenged by the security who tell us we'd already bought our allocation onto the campsite and are not entitled to bring anymore. We argue the toss and are eventually allowed to proceed but it sets a bad tone for the weekend. Later still in the weekend, I return to the car to pick up my anti-histamine tablets. I can get bad hay fever in these times of high pollen. I was made to feel like I was worse than Howard Marks when explaining what they were to the same austere security guard.
Alcohol restrictions: It was hard enough to get alcohol onto the campsite so we were never going to abuse the rule that said you can bring no alcohol into the arena. But every time we enter the arena, our daybags are thoroughly and scrupulously searched. If there was an abundance of alcohol choice at reasonable prices on site then I'd have less of an issue with this search. Beer sales are, after all, what help most festivals to survive. Until Saturday afternoon, things are rosy and though cans of lager and titchy cans of Rekorderlig cider sell at the exhorbitant price of £3.80 we remain reasonably happy because there are some local real ales selling at £4 a pint. The Westerham Brewery Summer Perle is a particularly refreshing Golden Ale that quickly becomes a favourite. But with a day and a half to go all real ale runs out and it's not replaced. The lager soon follows suit but a Sunday morning dash to the Supermarket (I presume) allows punters the choice of cans of Carling at £3.80 for the Sunday. For me, this, tied in with the stringent checks to get alcohol onto the site is a serious festival failing.
Water restrictions: It's a weekend where dehydration is a massive concern. To only have one tap providing water to punters across the camp site and in the arena is a considerable oversight. I'd hope that this is put right in future years of LeeFest. There are constant queues for this one tap but that doesn't stop it being turned off for half an hour in the heat of the Saturday afternoon sun – because the traders aren't getting enough water pressure for their taps.
Food restrictions: It's a small festival and so you realise that choice for food will be somewhat limited. As it is, it's not too bad. There's a 24 hour cafe in the campsite doing your standard burgers and chips. On Sunday, they do a special Halloumi burger. There's a stall selling fabulous pizzas for £6, a stall doing street Thai food, a stall doing Hog Roast type stuff and a stall doing Churros. I try all of these over the weekend and they're all of decent quality. The Pizza stall closes between four and six on the Saturday and then has run out of pizza on the Sunday. The Hog Roast is closed for most of the Sunday because of a technical fault. This seriously limits your food options. Thank goodness for the excellent ice cream stall selling odd Wasabi flavoured ice cream alongside the more traditional Strawberries and Cream. Whoever had the idea to make the fruit smoothies and juice drinks out of fruit that's heading to landfill is clearly onto a winner and in the absence of water and alcohol their stall is a delight.
Music sound bleed: Am I now being too harsh? This is a small site after all. There are two main stages where bands are playing – the main stage and the tent - the Colin Denny Lava Lounge. Looking at the schedule in the programme, it seems to be the plan that when one band finishes on the main stage another kicks off in the Lava Lounge. There's a bar positioned between the two stages and I lose count of the times that I have to move away from the bar because of sounds competing between the two stages. On the Friday night, I'm keen to see Fiction headline in the Lava Lounge. This Moshi Moshi band write clever pop songs of interest and intrigue. Their most recent album, The Big Other, is a big favourite of this fan of Postcard records. Delphic are headlining on the mainstage and have started twenty minutes behind schedule. Fiction come onto the stage on time and battle gamely with the noise bleed. You can see though that the noise from the mainstage is distracting them. At times, they make reference to it. They are not the only band who seem to suffer in this way over the weekend. I resolve to watch Fiction again in different surroundings.
It's sounding like I had a bad time at Leefest but I didn't. There is much that this small festival does really well and ultimately it has a good heart. It feels like we're in the middle of beautiful countryside and it's easy to forget that we're only a few miles from Croydon. Let's look at the positives....
An excellent spirit and ethos: Few can fail to be charmed by the back story that accompanies Leefest. A sixth form party held in Lee's back garden when his parents were holidaying has grown and morphed into this. Friends from back then now volunteer in key roles around the site. Bands that play seem keen to return again and again. This festival is not lacking in the goodwill it attracts from others. It has excellent charitable credentials and around the site it's clear that it cuddles those credentials closely. Bins are clearly laid out to encourage maximum recycling. A cheap 'Big Lemon' bus that runs on chip fat is subsidised to encourage more people to arrive on the site by public transport. Leefest actively supports the London Kids Company and gives space to this Charity to let punters know about the work it does. There's also support for Communities in the Gambia from a craft stall/cafe on site. This is not some hardcore money making exercise or a slush fund for the organisers and the independent nature of this festival deserves much praise.
Some inspired music bookings: This garden party is never going to be able to compete with larger festivals so the fact that it pulls of a musical line up of credible up and coming and on the wane acts is something to behold.
By The Rivers are a band I'm familiar with having seen them develop across Leicester's pubs and clubs. After a triumphant performance on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury, they've been marked as 'future Pyramid stars' in a BBC article. Their set of new age reggae on the mainstage here in the sweltering Saturday heat certainly lives up to that hype. Tight harmonies, stunning brass and a decent dose of humility ensure that, by the end of their set, Nile, Jordan, Sam and the boys have a crowd up and dancing and fully engaged. See them at a smaller festival if you get the chance.
Public Service Broadcasting have featured in many reviews from festivals around the Country this summer and will probably feature in many more before Christmas comes. They close the Lava Lounge on the Sunday with a near-perfect set. J. Willgoose Esq has no need to apologise for any 'technical difficulties'. This is a set where images, sound and lights mesh perfectly. As light aircraft navigate the skies overhead on their way to Biggin Hill airstrip, Spitfires dominate this tent. By the time we welcome back PSB for their Everest encore, the packed out tent realise they've just seen something very special.
There's many other musical highlights over this weekend. London Grammar are in the ascendancy with their XX like sound and as day turns to night on the Saturday their chilled out pop tunes are a big hit. Later, Lulu James again shows that there's mileage in being a Geordie Grace Jones. The Noisettes are perhaps one of those waning bands but I wouldn't dare put such a suggestion to lead singer Shingai after their headline mainstage set on the Saturday night. She puts in an energetic, consummate performance and I'm impressed. The crowd singalong to 'Don't Upset The Rhythm' and 'Never Forget You' like we're back in 2009.
Much of the music on Sunday seems to draw influence from Mumford and Sons. It's with a certain sense of relief that we stumble upon Gaybum in the Lava Lounge tent. This anarchic, comedy duo delight in singing songs that are the wrong side of right. Their tale of celebrating their 16th birthday desisting the approaches of a neighbourly paedophile is not what you expect on a Sunday afternoon but they soon lighten the mood by slamming cream cakes into their faces. Interesting. Ultrasounds go down a storm when they open the mainstage on the Sunday. This collective of medics sing the hits barber shop style whilst dressed in blue surgical gowns. They back this up whilst performing carefully choreographed dance moves.
King Charles, To Kill A King, The Skints, The Other Tribe, Man Like Me , Misty Miller, and Clean Bandit are other acts that I catch over the course of this weekend who all put in a shift. There's nothing ground breaking about these sets but nothing particularly unpleasant either. They are all acts that I'd go and see again if the opportunity arose. In percentage terms, that's a pretty good return from this sunny weekend.
A beautiful looking site: Thought has clearly gone into how to make this small site attractive. Seating areas are made out of straw bales (which gives rise to a conversation about the difference between straw bales and hay bales – we are none the wiser). Gazebo like tents are installed to provide some shelter from the hot, hot heat. Punters are encouraged to stick papier mache over a wire mesh so that by the end of the weekend an art installation of a man appears. Slap bang in the middle of the site is a beach area, the wonderland wondersands. Throughout the weekend here, people are entertained with games, DJ sets and paddling pool frolics. It's here on the Sunday afternoon that a communal paint fight, inspired by the Hindu Festival of Holi, is kicked off by Lee himself. Punters delight in getting messy as dry paint bombs explode around them. It really is a sight to behold.
Plenty of activities to see and do: It's Friday night and we chance upon the musical bingo that's happening in the Clocktower tent. "I hope that DJ plays Umbrella soon", I whisper to another punter for I am about to win a prize for having three lines on my bingo card. Rihanna is played and it seems that I am not alone in rushing to the front to claim my prize. "It's a tiebreak", announces the compere and I find myself with an After Eight on my forehead. This is a skill I was not aware I had but with relative ease I ensure that the chocolate mint slips down my greasy brow and into my mouth. "Yes, Sean is the winner, choose a box", shouts the compere and I choose the smallest. I try not to show my disappointment as six cherry bakewells are produced. Result.
Across the weekend, the Clocktower plays host to plays, poetry, comedy and dance. I dip in and out and perhaps on reflection wish I'd spent more time around here. Renowned for my two left feet, I wonder if I should have given the popular Swing Dance lessons a try on the Saturday evening. I might have had another moment of After Eight realisation. Talking of dance, there is a Temple of Boom that plays host to a quality line up of DJ's across the weekend. I am sure that many here appreciate the efforts of Stanton Warriors, No Artificial Colours, Dark Sky, and Mele but for me it's far too humid to be dancing under canvas this weekend. Strict rules around late night sound limit arena activities after midnight to a silent disco. I'm reliably informed by those who put down a deposit for the headphones that this disco broadcasts across the site, something that seems to be becoming more of a trend at festivals this year.
There's a communal campfire in the camping area that's busy when I chat to people late on Friday night/Saturday morning there. Punters are encouraged to bring their instruments and some try to get singalongs going on their acoustic guitars.
We're sat at our tent on the Saturday night having a cheeky glass of red when we hear the opening strains of Joy Division's 'Transmission' emitting from the nearby campsite cinema tent. We wonder if it's the excellent 'Control' that's being shown but settle for '24 hour Party People' and join others sat around in this space reminiscing about all things Madchester. I scare myself with the thought that for many in here this is a history lesson about a time that happened before they were born.
95% of the crowd are decent: Nobody appreciates being woken at 5AM by a fool in a wizard hat thinking he's Jamie T as he makes up one chord tunes for people passing by. Nobody appreciates being woken at 6AM by a gaggle of girls gassing and gawping about how they've just left their underwear in a young lads tent. Do people really find it entertaining to still be looking for 'Alan' late at night? These are all thoughts I ponder as I lay in my tent desperately trying to sleep before the sun comes up and renders that impossible. I realise that I'm being a bit of a grumpy old man here. This is what I used to do as a teenager (though I never left my underwear in a young lads tent). Mostly, over the course of this weekend, I chat to a fine crowd of young people (and some not so young people). Every time I go to the bar(s) on site, the volunteer staff could not be more friendly in their approach. At times, they seem apologetic that the lager is such an expense. There's an overwhelming sense of decency and friendliness around the site and it's this which will be the main memory I take away from this weekend.
Leefest – it's a festival that's still learning but it has an excellent spirit and that should see it through.
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