Friday night and there's a storm brewing. We're here, out of season, at Butlins Skegness for the Great British Rock and Blues festival. The North Sea is doing what the North Sea does best and the icy wind is positively bracing as we make our way from the brilliant, well-equipped chalet accommodation to watch our first band of the weekend.
We've already picked up on some of the grumbles of some of the punters. "It's not as good a line up as in previous years", they say as we chat away in the comfort of a wonderful self-service restaurant. But, I resolve to keep an open mind; for, Blues Rock is not entirely my thing and so the fact that some of the genres best and obvious shouts are missing from the line-up could well be comforting.
Indeed, some would maintain (and I tend to agree) that you don't have to be a fan of the genres of music on show at these Butlins live music weekends to have a great holiday. It's certainly true that Photographer Phil and I make the most of the ample additional entertainment on offer. Phil narrowly beats me at snooker whilst I destroy him at table tennis. Phil scores more than me in the bowling alley and then haunts me forever with a sight of his speedos in the Splashworld pool. All of these activities (except for the bowling) come at no added charge.
As was the case last year, there are four stages that make up this festival. There appears to be little capacity difference between the two main venues - Centre Stage (Blues) and Reds Stage (Rock). These are spacious halls. As somebody who hasn't graced Butlins for many a year, Phil expresses surprise at just how big they are. Jaks bar plays host to the Blues Matters stage. In this more traditional bar-room, made out to be spit and sawdust, we're able to brawl and be raucous with some dirtier blues sounds. An 'introducing' stage, within the massive marquee hub that acts as a central point for much of the entertainment, completes the offer.
The first act that I see is the Kyla Brox Band. This talented Mancunian, with an impressive vocal range, plays a solid set that whets the appetite for what is to come. Described in the free programme as somewhere between the grit of Janis Joplin and the smoky sweetness of Billie Holiday, Kyla and her band don't quite reach the heights of those two legends but do still manage to ensure the crowd are attentive and enthralled throughout. People even leave the comfort of their chairs to dance at the front.
In many ways, Friday night is reserved for Caravan. The irony of watching Caravan in a town where there are so many does not escape me. Arguably, their whimsical brand of soft jazzy prog is a bit of a diversion from the typical offer here. This doesn't seem to matter one jot though to the largely enthusiastic audience who lap up their songs of yesteryear. 'Golf Girl' has always been a favourite tune of mine and it's great to hear it in a live setting. The Canterbury collective throw their all into this gig. Spoon solo's and enthusiastic fiddling from multi-instrumentalist, Geoffrey Richardson, are just part of the joy and they reserve their pitch as one of the weekend highlights.
We ponder whether to wait around in this venue to see Martin Barre's Jethro Tull but plump instead for the intriguingly named, Girls With Guitars From Germany. The punctuation pedants amongst us wonder if this is an act of German girls playing guitar or girls from an unspecified place playing 'guitars from Germany'. We soon find out. There are three girls with guitars. They sound North American and omit the German reference to any introduction they provide. I feel a little bit conflicted whilst watching them. They're attractive, are dressed in short(ish) skirts and flirt with the mostly middle-aged male audience with dubious aplomb. The men respond by watching, tongues drooling, at the sex-charged display on stage. It feels manufactured and yet these girls can definitely play.
They're not the only all girl band we see over the weekend. Lez Zeppelinn are one of the last bands of the weekend. In this case, the best being saved for last rings true. Lesbians masquerading as Page and Plant ensure that those who had posters on their wall of the original Led Zeppelin are squealing with a whole lot of adoration. 'They were very photogenic' says Phil, as he shows me some of the many shots he took once their set had finished. Angled poses, rock stances and expressive face contortions are all part of their charm. See beyond the stage performance and you can't deny that they make some pretty complicated solos look easy to play.
I am sat on a straw bale. Broken off bits of bale litter the carpet all around me. It'll be a bugger for the cleaners to hoover in the morning. Butlins has its very own cider bar and it's the place to be. A small section of the massive marquee area is given over to this 'experiment'. Judging by its popularity, this space could become a permanent part of the live music festival set up for years to come. A cheery member of the Butlins team tells me that this was, by and large, his idea. "I realised that cider's a popular festival drink so I asked my boss if we could try something. Shepton Mallet Cider Mill were happy to supply a branded gazebo and some of their best boxes of Natch Special (6%) and Somerset Tree Shaker (7%) so we thought we'd give it a go." There aren't any boxes left by the Sunday evening so I guess this makes it a resolute success.
The straw bales provide a decent vantage point from which you can watch the bands playing on the 'Introducing' stage. 'Butlins is committed to promoting and providing performance opportunity for new and breaking artists', declares the programme. This is the best stage on which to see that commitment. Four acts each day play here between four and half past seven. As an added incentive this year, we're encouraged to pick up a blue voting token and post it into the box of the act that we'd most like to see return to play on a main stage in 2016. I watch all four bands on the Sunday afternoon (Stark, George Shovlin And The Radars, Struggle Buggy, and The Della Grants) and would, in all fairness, watch all four again. But, I'm a Leicester lad and proud to see the way that the band from this neck of the woods, The Della Grants, have begun to outgrow our local venues. Pretty much unique this weekend for having no band members with grey hair, they put in an energetically sweaty, accomplished and varied set. I'm not surprised to see the queue of punters wanting to post their blue token for the Della Grants at the end of their slot.
If Somerset cider drinking isn't your thing, then there's no shortage of other places to have a drink or four. Each of the music venues are well stocked with some well known brands of lagers and bitters. There are also some less well known bottled ales to keep you content. With prices per pint coming in between £3.50 and £4.00, these are in no way designed to rip you off. If you want a break from the music whilst continuing to drink, you can venture into one of the pubs on site, The Front Room or The Sun And Moon. Food options are plentiful. We pile on the pounds over a set-time breakfast and evening meal in the premium-dining Yacht Club. But, if we missed these times, we had the option to cook in our chalet or eat from a selection including Italian, burgers, fish and chips and Cornish pasties in the main concourse.
There's a stalwart programming clash on the Sunday evening. Dr Feelgood are on in Reds and they're pitted against The Blues Band on the centre stage. I consider doing a bit of both and begin to watch the 72 year old veteran of Manfred Mann and Radio 2 fame, Paul Jones, strut his stuff with The Blues Band. 'He definitely must have a picture in his attic', mumbles one punter to me whilst another counters with, 'Nah, he's just got God on his side.' Whatever his secret might be, there's no denying that the young looking Jones is a man on a mission tonight. Ably assisted by the rest of the band, he proves why he's considered one of the best harmonica players in Britain today and does so with good grace and decent banter. I lose all sense of time and an hour and a half later realise I've missed Dr Feelgood.
We flit in and out of the spit and sawdust Jaks bar. On the Saturday afternoon, the ever-so-popular Roadhouse Jam is in full swing. It's a regular highlight now that punters will bring along their instruments to form impromptu bands. The music they play might be formulaic but this session doesn't fail to put a smile on the face for both musicians and those simply there to watch old and new friends. Later on the Saturday, we stagger and drunkenly dance as bands, led by people called Sharon and Jed, merge together to form one great, big party atmosphere.
On concluding this review, it's worth drawing attention to the fabulous Butlins staff. Nothing seemed to be too much trouble for any of the friendly, chatty and smiley staff that we met around and about. The threatened typhoon of Friday night doesn't materialise. Indeed, for much of this weekend, we're welcomed by blue skies. Some might think it mad to go to Butlins Skegness in January but I think it's just as mad to stay at home when you can have a weekend as good as this. The Butlins infrastructure pretty much guarantees that you'll have a great time and there are enough musical delights scattered around the site to cement that feeling. Thumbs up for another Great British Rock And Blues weekend.
latest on this festival
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indoors at Butlin's Minehead in January
line-ups & rumours