For festival goers on the acoustic spectrum Uttoxeter Racecourse was the place to be over the midsummer weekend. Out of a field of fifty plus Blues, Folk and singer/songwriter acts, there were some clear favourites and few interesting each way selections which were enthusiastically backed by the festival's punters.
The festival-going demographic was apparent from the front gate where rows of obviously high end caravans and motorhomes were pitched on chalky-white hardstanding. The camping fields were absolutely chock-full of campervans, caravans and motorhomes of all varieties most with recently issued licence plates. The exceptions being collector's items rather than junkyard dodgers. These were the weekend homes of Middle Age Travellers, the prosperous travelling fanbase which dominates this part of the festival scene. The organisers could hardly have picked a better site for them. The racecourse infrastructure is set up to handle caravan and horse box traffic, so easy access from the dual carriageway, no tight turns in the approach and roadways across the site must have made it a dream for drivers of even the most oversized, six wheeled behemoths. Of course once ensconced the difficulty is to tempt the Middle Aged traveller out from their home from home. And there seems three things which, weather permitting, will work – beer, music and somewhere to sit down.
Acoustic Festival of Britain covered the bases. Their 'Real Ale Tent' –kept the pints flowing and the giant marquee doubled as a second main stage whilst acts changed over on the adjacent 'Open Air Stage'. Though the range of beers was underwhelming, it was sufficient to keep the crowd going, especially during the mid-afternoon pirate-themed fancy dress drinking session led by Radio 2 DJ Mark Radcliffe's band Galleon Blast. Their show filled the marquee to leave standing room only for late arrivals, and that just for those who could to navigate a way through the maze of folding chairs.
The folding chairs had to be moved a just a few lengths over to the Open Air Stage where the festival had some booked real winners for their mains stage. From The Jam must have had the biggest interest of the weekend for their Sunday lunchtime show. Original Jam bass dude Bruce Foxton in collaboration with frontman Russell Hastings produced sounds dripping with the driving, edgy quality and lyrical sophistication that made the bands name in the 80s. To judge from audience reaction, it was entertainment.
Another sizeable crowd was tempted out of their wheeled palaces for Paul Carrack's show on a beautiful Saturday evening. The keyboard maestro gave us soulful versions 'Aint No Love in the Heart of the City', 'Harvest for the World' and 'Groovin'. Describing himself as mechanic turned acoustic, his vocal style was so persuasive even the shyest voice found itself singing along to his song from the Mike and the Mechanics days - 'Living Years'. Still packing an emotional charge after endless plays on MOR radio stations, this song clearly made a connection with many in the audience, who'd perhaps had occasion to contemplate their own father's departure.
However it was Show of Hands who literally took home the trophy from this Festival, a Lifetime Achievement Award which will no doubt take its place in the cabinet alongside their other gongs, which apparently includes one for being the Greatest Ever Devonians. Show of Hands are possibly the ultimate acoustic act, the depth of sound these guys produce between them from a few stringed instruments is extraordinary and compelling. At times contemplative, at times mirthful –Steve Knightley wove in impressions of Bruce Springstein, Bob Dylan, Mark Radcliffe and William Hague into a set featuring 'The Blue Cockade' about enlisting for Waterloo, the anti-war anthem 'Crow on the Cradle' as well as crowd pleasing hits like 'AIG', 'Country Life' and 'Cousin Jack'. It was a perfectly fitting performance to headline the Sunday night.
In my view though, King Size Slim gave the standout performance of the weekend. His fat roots boogie sound just blew me away. One man and a steel resonator guitar which he worked mercilessly to produce an irresistible groove to back his big bluesy voice. Hard for any audience to resist, and in the confines of the Festival's compact third stage – the Solar Powered Big Top – it was overwhelming. People sang and stomped along joyously. Slim responded by unplugging and doing his thing old school style, without amplification, which took the whole experience up another level. Judging by audience reaction and the queue for his CDs, I wasn't the only one to feel the set fill my heart and touch my soul. This was the real deal, authentic acoustic roots music.
Swanvesta Social Club seemed an unlikely prospect in the programme, but turned out to be a big winner in the Big Top. How the St Albans based band squeezed upright bass, horn section, percussionists and a guitarist onto the tiny stage, still leaving room to perform for frontman Chris Cojones and backing singer/flautist Anneliesa Annaconda was a mystery. But they did and boy, it worked a treat. Soon the tent was heaving, and on a sultry June night the atmosphere did get especially 'Hot, Hot, Hot' inside the tent. It was so good no one, least of all Mr Cojones, wanted it to end. The band kept striking up, time and time again proving the principle that everything sounds better in Latin, even 'the Final Countdown'. At last we had to accept the inevitable and, all, the band and its appreciative crowd went their separate ways, dripping with sweat and still singing the chorus of what really was the last tune of a wonderful Saturday night show 'Can't take my eyes off of you'.
In terms of bands then, the Festival had a strong roster, and certainly one which appealed to the punters. If you'll forgive me stretching the horse racing pun just a bit though, I think on a few matters there were grounds for a Stewards Enquiry. Firstly, the real ale bar didn't offer anything more than most town centre pubs. With Burton upon Trent, the spiritual home of British brewing, just down the road, I was shocked to see no local independent breweries represented. Instead the choice was limited to beers from Courage, Deuchars or Theakston and a few Weston ciders. Perhaps I've been spoilt by experience elsewhere, but this really was disappointing. Then there was the Solstice Sunrise celebration, which the promotional material made out to be quite a thing. It turned out to be a very quiet thing; no music, no drumming and no fire. Instead a very nice lady led the twenty or so of us gathered at the furthest end of the racecourse through some gentle yoga. At a certain point a chap gave an unenthusiastic, druidic style blessing to the cardinal points after which most everyone packed up and left. When the sun actually appeared over the horizon and gleamed off shiny white motorhomes I found myself working through my salutations solo as the morning's rays gleamed off the shiny white motorhomes back on the campsite
For a Festival advertising itself as unplugged, the absence of people playing acoustically was surprising. King Size Slim did, and as a double whammy, the Big Top stage he played on was powered by the iconic fire-engine mounted solar panel power system of the REsource guys. So Slim was both unplugged and off-grid. I didn't see any other performers following suit. There was intermittent Djembe drumming in a lovely little yurt, and these put a sign up inviting buskers to play outside. It wasn't effective. In the bars and around the site there was noticeably little in the way of sessions, except drinking ones. That said back on the campsite there was playing until the small hours on Saturday night, and of pretty decent quality. I was pleased to be able to hear some late night music, other tent dwellers might have been less keen to hear yet another version of INXS's 'Never tear us apart'.
For all the instrumentals played on the stage, it struck me as strange for there to be only two instrument stalls on the site. I was expecting a whole tents' worth.The other stalls were piled high with eye watering amounts of tat. If you wanted rag rugs or tie dyed tops, garlands, candle holders, second hand books and records, glass decorations, felt trinkets or even a floral patterned bucket it was heaven. If not, well there was always the REsource fire engine or a nice Shepherd's hut to admire. Also worth admiring were the ladies who roamed the festival, painted from head to toe as peacocks, satyrs and the like. A persistent cool breeze did little to keep their nipple plasters in place and their modesty protected, though I don't think this was an issue for the festival's mature audience.
The demographic probably explained the low numbers of kids at the festival. For those there were, a Make and Take stall and freestyle painting tent was about all on offer in the way of activities. Oh, and of course the ubiquitous Ukulele workshop. The Acoustic Festival's version gave workshoppers the chance to go from scratch on Friday to a main stage show on Sunday morning. The resulting show was fabulous with more than 40 players filling the stage, many of whom were under tens. Their version of the 4 Non Blondes hit 'Whats Up' was memorable and surely a great experience for the young stars of the Uke troupe.
The festival was much more about appreciation than participation. And hopefully I've shown there was a lot to appreciate. The festival organisers seem to understand the needs of their target market, so most everything is made convenient and accessible – which included being able to park on the campsite. Mention must go to the luxury loos and showers, which were absolutely amazing – as plentiful, clean and well stocked as I've seen. In fact the racecourses facilities were superb in general, which helped to cope when the weather wasn't too kind to the event. The Moulettes barnstorming Saturday afternoon set claimed to open up the 'universes of the imagination' but in doing so the sound magic might just have provoked the elements into a series of torrential downpours. These required the monitor dudes to patch repair the leaky tent with gaffer tape, bin bags and even a piece of corolux. At one point it seemed they might lose the battle and acts would have to play acoustically on the main stage!
So, sensible it was, and overall really rather enjoyable. Acoustic Festival has got a lot in common with festival like Cropredy or maybe Warwick, but with Blues as well as Folk. Certainly it's a great festival for those who like their music musical.
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