It's a Sunday afternoon at Butlins and Ray Dorset, lead singer of Mungo Jerry, has been entertaining those gathered here at Reds, the Rock Stage, for forty five minutes or so. Some of the crowd note his likeness to football pundit, Chris Kamara; others comment that this 67 year old must surely dye his jet black curly hair. But the majority of those watching are having a bit of a singalong. Mungo Jerry are playing 'In the Summertime' in the wintertime and the Skegness massive at the Great British Rock and Blues festival are having a blast. "A friend of mine told me not to come to Butlins because it was shit", suggests Dorset. Before the crowd are allowed to object too much, he counters with, "That friend was clearly wrong." Nobody here seems inclined to disagree.
Butlins weekenders such as this have been growing in reputation for some time. Aside from a stag do to a 90's related Minehead weekend, this is my first foray into these winter festivals. Like Catholics on a trip to Lourdes, my good friends, Paul and Claire, consider this rock and blues weekend to be their annual pilgrimage. When the opportunity presents to join them at this 5,000 capacity sell out event I jump at it. This might not be my music of choice but I am determined to have a good time.
We're staying in a chalet overlooking some tennis courts. The freezing air is bracing when we arrive and we turn our radiators up to 11 in our bedrooms to dismiss the cold mist that forms when we breathe. We're getting our breakfasts and evening meals provided so the kettle and TV's in our bedrooms provide the basic luxury that we need. The Ritz this is not but neither is it a soggy tent after a torrential summer downpour. This is a festival for those who aren't suited to camping or perhaps now feel that those times have passed them by. It's comfortable for the older punter and fully accessible for people with disabilities so it's not surprising to see more pensioners and mobility scooters than you would in a sodden, muddy field.
I have a look through the programme. It's a well constructed line up spanning across four main venues. Centre Stage is classed as the Blues Stage for the weekend and the aforementioned Reds is classed as the Rock Stage. In truth, it's not always an obvious distinction to make with many of the acts performing this weekend crossing both genres. Under a fixed, permanent marquee, The Skyline, one can watch acts on the 'Breaking Acts stage' and the dimly lit, smoke-filled 'Jaks' bar plays host to a 'Blues Matters stage.' Centre Stage, Reds and Jaks neatly split their music offerings between afternoon and evening sessions. The break gives guests ample opportunity to dine in a restaurant, to self-(medi)cater or to watch some of the emerging talent in the Skyline.
I've known Lee Spreadbury since he played keyboards in the excellent and, for many years defunct, Dirty Backbeats. I wasn't expecting to see his fair, flowing locks and psychedelic shirt on Friday evening whilst queuing for some sticky toffee pudding in Coast, the self-service restaurant, that'll provide my breakfast and dinner this weekend. Lee tells me that he's now playing in the Rosco Levee band who are on that evening on the Blues Matters stage. "We're a bit like the Allman Brothers", says Lee. I resolve to check them out.
I'm in no way disappointed that I did. There’s definitely a Southern Rock style to the Rosco Levee band. Wild hair is confidently tossed whilst strains of blues and even jazz come to the fore. It’s a tight performance that doesn’t lack in energy or sweat. Space is built within for each of the talents on stage to break into their own improvisations. In places, it’s not unlike The Temperance Movement although the added dimension of Spreadbury on keyboards gives Rosco Levee the edge in my book. It would be a foolish man to bet against Levee’s stock rising in 2014.
With its grungy bar-room feel, Jaks becomes the place to go when the delights on the main stages don't attract. I never see it less than heaving. Paul and Claire tell me that it's a tradition to spend Saturday afternoons in this bar watching the Roadhouse Jam session. This seems to be a glorified open mic. Punters register their interest letting those in charge know what their instrument of choice is. From this, makeshift, temporary, unrehearsed bands are formed. They merge in with more defined, practiced bands and take two songs each to display their talents. Maybe it's only possible to do this because of the formulaic nature of the music on show but you can't help being impressed by the improvised randomness. Some of the vocal performances here at least match some of those on the main stages.
I have no idea what the capacities of Reds and the Centre Stage are but it must run into the thousands. In these big ballrooms, seats are laid out in an ordered fashion surrounding a dance floor and stage. There's a rush for the best seats at the start of each session. Some punters seem to delight in strategically placing coats over chairs and thus reserving dozens for their imaginary friends but look carefully enough and you can usually find spares if sitting down is your desire. On Saturday evening, we stand amongst a bulging crowd to watch The Yardbirds. This is a confident stroll through 50 years of music history. Top Topham, their original guitarist before being replaced by Clapton, Page and Beck (Jeff), is back with the Yardbirds tonight. His interactions with younger guitarist, Ben King, are something to behold. Lead singer and harmonica player, Andy Mitchell, has an understated yet confident calm about him as he introduces songs from the back catalogue such as ‘Shape Of Things’ and ‘Five Long Years’. This calm belies his powerful voice and helps to make this spectacle one of my weekend highlights.
Straight after The Yardbirds, we head across to Centre Stage to see Geno Washington give an exquisite, hypnotic performance. I’d been warned by a friend that there are two Geno’s – the hand clapping, foot stomping, funky butt Geno and the cabaret Geno. Here at Butlins, Geno is forgiven for the occasional descent towards cabaret for mostly this a soulful, punchy set full of smiles and energy. He’s just turned 70 and yet his movement suggests he’s a much younger man. Quality.
It’s a quality that reaches across the weekend. I dip in and out ofPaul Lamb & The King Snakes, Chas Hodges (from Chas & Dave), Jefferson Starship, Rev Ferriday & The Longdogs, The Animals, The Quireboys, and Dr Feelgood. Whilst none of these are acts that I have on my I-pod, they all bring something extra to the camp. Those more fanatical about this music than I are clearly in their element.
Chatting to many people over the course of the weekend, their must-see act is Wilko Johnson. Butlins cotton on to the potential overcrowding and disappointment that might ensue and give the Wilko Johnson Band two shows on the Sunday afternoon, one in Reds and one in Centre Stage. It’s almost a year ago now that Wilko announced he had untreatable pancreatic cancer and those gathered at these shows are clearly aware that this may well be one of their last opportunities to see a true legend of the British music scene. He appears to be in rude health. His eyes still threaten to pop out of his head as he duck-walks around the stage using his guitar as a rifle to shoot at us with bullets of sound. He sings well and seems full of energy. When you have musicians of pedigree such as Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe on stage with you, you can be pretty sure that the ensuing noise will hit the heights. Words in songs take on extra meaning. Every mention of leaving, sleeping and farewells are not lost on the audience. Ending his set with ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, we wave our arms in the air and shed a few tears. Legend.
Whilst most of the acts over the weekend probably do their merchandise sales no harm at all, there are a couple of exceptions. Carl Palmer, drummer with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, shows no concept of time as his set over-runs by more than an hour. This polite audience are pretty much booing when I have the displeasure of stumbling upon an indulgent, epic drum solo that seems both pointless and arrogant. Eddie and The Hot Rods don’t take to the stage until way past midnight as a result even though Palmer had taken to the stage at quarter past nine. Somebody should have a word.
The same is also true with the Groundhogs. The programme suggests that Tony McPhee may be the godfather of grunge and yet on this showing he’s not even the second cousin twice removed. Frankly, this set is a mess (or at least the first four songs are – I can bear no more and make a swift exit after this). McPhee has passed the singing duties to Joanna Deacon who seems more intent on whirling around atmospherically than singing in tune. McPhee attempts to take his share of the vocal duties but is even more hampered by tunelessness. I will not find my nirvana here.
In some ways, even if the music was duff throughout (which it’s not), it’s still pretty easy to have a great time at Butlins. They have the infrastructure in place to deliver a fine experience. Paul, my friend, is a competitive sort and we spend our mornings playing table tennis and snooker. The aircraft-hanger like, snooker room at Butlins holds at least a dozen full size tables. Once we have embraced our embarrassment and agreed that it looks so much easier on the telly, we compete over three close frames. I take pity on Paul and let him win. If you’ve had too much rock and blues but still fancy a pint there are bars on site that can mostly meet your requirements. Butlins in Skegness sits alongside the beach and we’re not alone in briefly leaving the site and taking a bracing walk along the seafront. Fantasy Island remains boarded up for the winter. Off site and out of season, you’re never far from a desolate, almost romantic ghostliness amidst the architectural gloom. You can’t help considering how much worse it might be without Butlins contribution to this local economy.
The staff at Butlins are certainly their most valuable resource. Without exception, they seem keen to help. Their customer service credentials are unquestionable. On our initial visit to our restaurant, Coast, we are welcomed by the service manager who guides us through the set-up. Each day, we are welcomed by chirpy, cheerful front of house staff who seem to take a genuine interest in our wellbeing. The bar staff at the various bars are clearly busy but always seem to find time to smile and engage. At times, we find ourselves in queues but staff always seem alive to this and both apologise and look for fixes. I find myself thinking more than once that some of the more established summer festivals could learn a thing or two from this approach.
I have packed my swimming kit. Paul and Claire have raved about the flumes within Splash Waterworld and I can’t wait to try them out. It’s disappointing to discover when we rock up (see what I did there?) to the pool on Saturday morning that the flumes are closed for ongoing maintenance. It’s a minor criticism but it would have been good to have been alerted to this before arrival. I amuse myself by wondering if this is a deliberate action by Butlins as a response to Health and Safety fears – for it is fair to say that a number of the punters on this Rock and Blues weekend are carrying a bit of excess baggage and it could prove mightily testing if somebody was to get stuck in a tube. There’s a cinema on site but I don’t try this out because the films on show don’t interest. Maybe, in future years, the organisers of this festival could use the cinema to show films that would appeal to this market. A screening of Oil City Confidential would surely have made better use of this space.
But these are minor complaints that barely register when you consider what else you can access on site. If Rock and Blues is your thing and if you want to experience it within a comfortable setting then I can heartily recommend the Great British Rock and Blues festival. Ray Dorset, your friend was truly wrong.
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