Off the Tracks festival has now been running for about 26 years, it is still small, but perfectly shaped. With green credentials, a commitment to recycling and the free minimalist programme full of information, it has most of the things I really like about a festival. And that's before we even get to the eclectic music or the vast real ale & cider selection. Why anyone would be mean enough to hack the Facebook page of an event like this and spread false rumours about it being cancelled is completely beyond me, but apparently this is what happened in late August. Shame on whoever is responsible for that, it must have been quite frustrating for the organisers.
I started going to OTT in 2002, and so far I think I've got about 8 or 9 under my belt, but 2015 is in some ways a first for me, as I'd never taken my son John along before. What would it be like with an excitable 7 year old in tow?
We probably have to travel a good deal further than most of the people we are going to meet there. Being car-free Londoners, we take a train up to Loughborough and then a taxi from the station to the festival site at the Donnington Park Farmhouse, Derbyshire, where it's all happening in converted farm buildings surrounding a big yard. All stages are covered but permanent or temporary roofs - we need not worry about rain or chilly night air.
We're lucky enough to have friends who've got there earlier and pitched a tent for us, so arriving late on Friday afternoon, all we have to do is get the young one registered and wrist-banded (they have a good system in place to deal with lost children) before we storm the Black Barn to see Caravan of Thieves play their first set of the weekend. A kind of gypsy folk band from Connecticut, they provide an early highlight when the guitarist snaps an essential string whilst playing the solo of their track Eat You - he weaves the replacement process into the performance as a funny interlude. They finish their set with a cheerful version of Bohemian Rhapsody, of all things. Young John is suitably impressed - a good start.
Things get even better, after a generous helping of fish and chips from the Farmhouse kitchen, we go to see Here & Now at the main Marquee Stage. They are properly loud, and in good form, still crazy after all those years. Ear defenders are a must for John (we have a small argument over this, but mother wins) - he has never been to a gig with that noise level before! He loves it.
Afterwards, we take some time out to look at the colourful lights projected onto the buildings surrounding the yard check out the New Introducing Stage venue - this stage wasn't there last year, and Friday night the DJ in charge is mostly playing famous reggae tracks. John takes to the dance floor, and even has some energy left for the opening track of Banco de Gaia's Last Train to Lhasa (my favourite part of that opus, can't believe that 20 years have gone by since it was released), but then he is truly spent and sleepy. We snuggle up in our tent, swaddled in our sleeping bags and extra blankets - it is a very cold night.
Early start on Saturday, as kids do not believe in lie-ins. A fry-up breakfast from the main kitchen is big enough for the two of us to share. We take a shower (great facilities, as this venue is next to a proper camp site) and explore a bit before the music starts: it seems boutique camping has now arrived at OTT (ohhhhh) and the Energy Orchard tents (yoga, tai-chi, sound bath etc) have moved into another area right next to the food stalls.
At mid-day, Nottingham Samba run a family percussion workshop in the Black Barn, it's good fun. One of the most attentive and funkiest participants is a curly toddler still in nappies, surely the most precocious percussionist I have ever seen. The first of the Black Pig Morris Dancers appear in full attire and join in. John's jaw drops, although he quickly gets used to the sight. They perform in the courtyard later on.
At the main stage, The Noses couldn't make it, they have been replaced by Jasper in the Company of Others, an indie-folksy sounding bunch of guys from Worcester and a worthy replacement. They stepped in at short notice, one of them quips something about phoning musicians at 8.00am not being such a good idea. Indeed, who wants to be a festival organiser? Not me.
Jon Amor Band also had to cancel due to illness, so Heg & The Wolf Chorus and some other acts have been moved around to plug that gap. The full details of the revised line up can be found in efestival's OTT photo section. We catch a bit of Ushti Baba and their Balkan twists, We Steal Flyers (2 acoustic guitar masters), a little more of Caravan of Thieves, a few songs by Juneau at the New Introducing Stage......
But being so pleasantly distracted, we somehow miss all the kids' activities that take place in the Oak Room, so later that afternoon, I finally do get a complaint: "We did not play enough!" Really? What about the drumming workshop? What about all the dancing we did? And the time you spent practicing with your new diabolos? "That's not playing!" Isn't it? Listen, son, everything that isn't work (or school) is play! But boring adult logic is getting me nowhere here, so off we go just in time to gate crash the children's parade, and afterwards to the Clay Play tent, to make a shark-sand-sculpture. It's "beer break" time for the stages, anyway, and having to act the "responsible adult", I can't take much advantage of the booze on offer. Although I would have liked to spend a bit of time hanging around the little jamming stage, where people seem to turn up and plug in, some are pretty good.
With the precious sculpture finished and safely stored back at the tent, we are ready to start the evening. Isambards Wheel play the Black Barn stage. I remember seeing them last year in the Oak Room and they were alright back then, but this year they are great. Some very old tunes re-worked, plus some of their own, and fabulous singing, one of their songs is made up of 2 different sets of lyrics sang against each other, it sounds like what (I think) is commonly called Elizabethan, but I am not an expert - do check them out, if you're interested.
Over to the Marquee stage to see part of the Dub Pistols' set, great vibe, the whole place is jumping, but we have a firm commitment to catch ZubZub at the Black Barn, so we tear ourselves away. The line-up seems busier these days, with more over-laps. So ZubZub have it tough going up against those Dub Pistols (for me, that was the most annoying clash of music this weekend); they are also blinded by the stage lights and say that they can't see their crowd, but they can hear us at least, and the Black Barn is indeed full. Perhaps not that surprising - the programme declares them to be epic, the MC calls them epic. Young John calls their brand of dance "Awesome!" and spends most of their set jumping up and down in front of the stage, waving a precious glow stick.
Afterwards, he is so exhausted that he sleeps through Dreadzone's set, snuggled up to me at the very back of the crowd. No disrespect to Dreadzone, theirs was a fine performance as always and they made the crowd very happy. The silent disco turns out to be surprisingly loud with an enthusiastic crowd singing along, so we are off to our tent for some peace and quiet. Alas, we do have noisy camping neighbours. John sleeps through most of it, but I'm finding it hard.
Come Sunday morning, I can feel the lack of sleep, but Star Circus, the children's play group, come to my rescue. They are setting up a big display of easy to play instruments in the courtyard, and John takes advantage of this, leaving me to get over my sleep-deprivation blip on my own - much easier. The music also helps, there's Firefly Burning's arty-experimental folk (they really did bring the Gamelan), the lovely Calaita Flamenco Son's set (what it says on the tin - Spanish flamenco), and then Martin Barre Band do a great final. Only people who don't like the Jethro Tull sound could object to them; I have been told that such strange people exist, but they are fortunately elsewhere that afternoon.
The music finishes around 5pm, and I have to rudely interrupt some impromptu play session that grew out of watching house martins feeding their young; the birds have taken over one of the porches in the courtyard and built nests. Fascinating stuff for a city child, but we have a train to catch, and the music is over. Boz, one of the main organisers thanks the crowd, whilst we are rushing to get our taxi to the train station.
So now I can safely say that OTT is a great little festival for adults, but also great to do with kids. Missed out on some of the really late stuff, such as the Saturday night jam session led by Caravan of Thieves (see pictures, must have been fun), and I can't say much about the variety of tipples on offer, as I only managed to sample a handful, but so be it.
As for John's highlights: Camping! The music (Caravan of Thieves, reggae disco, Isembard's Wheel and ZubZub in particular), the Clay Play tent, meeting other kids. And, wait for it: "Catching 5 angry wasps in my empty bottle of apple juice." Ah. Whoever said it was difficult to entertain kids?
There used to be two OTT events (May and late August), but this was consolidated into one this year. It isn't clear whether the spring event will be back; whatever the organisers decide to do, I hope it goes well. This festival has a great atmosphere.
Any suggestions for improvements? Print more T-shirts next time. Not that I'm complaining, I got one, but you probably could have sold a few dozen more!
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Off the Tracks 2017 Review