By July the festival season is in full swing, with Glastonbury usually dominating people's thoughts this time of year. But look beyond the big festivals and there are plenty of small festivals out there. Coming only a week after Glastonbury is a festival that is one of the best of the smaller festivals. Tucked away in a little secluded corner of Hampshire is Blissfields, which over the last 14 years has grown from a private party for the organiser's friends to a four thousand capacity event, along the way picking up awards and plaudits, as well as helping to discover artists such as Mumford and Sons, Jake Bugg and Bastille.
As with most festivals these days, Thursday has become a day for everyone to arrive, pitch tent, and relax into the weekend, and as the gates opened the sun shone down on happy revellers loaded down with tents and beer. For me these early openings are one of the best parts of a festival, and those who don't arrive until the festival starts properly on Friday miss out on something special (not to mention the best camping spots!).
The Blissfields site is ever evolving, and those who are regulars will notice that, in its fourth year at Vicarage Farm, the festival is really beginning to fit into the environment with adjustments that improve the way all the stages fit into a relatively small space. This year the first addition that can't be missed as you enter the arena are hot tubs - offering a chance to chill with friends, with a little pampering, for those of you who may be thinking "eww, festival bodies", there are compulsory showers to be taken first! But many may find the cost a little steep especially in comparison to the posh wash facilities - even considering the inclusion of a glass of chilled champagne.
The other main change was the relocation of the acoustic stage, which last year suffered from sound bleed from the two larger stages that at times left you unable to hear the acts. In its new space at the far end of the field, far enough from the amplified stages to avoid problems, it also proved to be a great place to chill-out when the rest of the festival became too much.
The theme for this year is Walk on the Wild Side, and even at this early stage there were plenty of animal costumes and prints to be seen. In keeping with the theme, this year the festival has also chosen the Born Free Foundation as its charity of choice.
Over the winter the festival runs a competition in the surrounding areas titled 'the road to Blissfields', this gives a chance for local bands to win a place on the bill, and in the second stage (dubbed The Hustle Den) it was these winners that formed the main entertainment for the evening. First on stage were Brother Goose whose pop-rock sound was pleasant but marred by an erratic vocal from the lead singer, particularly noticeable during the high notes, and almost unbearable when they attempted a cover of Tears for Fears 'Everybody wants to rule the world', which was set at least an octave above what he could manage.
Far more comfortable with his vocals was the lead singer of Freeway Mad, a classic heavy rock band whose influences were clear in their Led Zeppelin/Free inspired sound. Lead singer Tom Rampton's performance was strong, but not strong enough to gather more than a few people into the tent - but rock and metal acts have always struggled to get crowds at Blissfields - which is a shame as I thought they were one of the best acts of afternoon.
One of the advantages/disadvantages of a group of competition winners is that the style of artists can change dramatically, and this was particularly noticeable with the winner of the Guildford heat. Erika are an act who've watched someone else and thought "I can do that" - in this case her idol being Florence and the Machine. Not that this is a bad thing, and Erika gave an energetic performance, even if her vocals suffered at the top of her range.
As previously mentioned the acoustic tent (dubbed The Larch) had moved into its own area, and taking a break from the main event we discovered the quirky folk band Edd Donovan And The Wondering Moles, whose energetic folk music had everything bar the washer board.
For some the festival experience is all about the DJs and at Blissfields there are two areas at cater for this, first the Blisscoteque - a double decker bus provides a classic Saturday night out experience all weekend. For those who like their dance a bit more hardcore there is the Hidden Hedge, a venue that started out as a small gap in the hedge at the original Bradley site that barely accommodated 100 people.
These days it is a major venue that feels like a separate festival on the site. The entrance - appropriately - is hidden between a woodcarving tent and a food stall, and after a short walk down a narrow corridor the area opens up into an arena that boasts three separate venues, connected by a series of demented sculptures depicting skeletal creatures driving vehicles straight from Mad Max's worst nightmare. During the day it is more a chill-out area, with sofas and campfires, but after dark the lighting and video screens come alive and the hedge takes on a life of its own providing after-hours excitement until the small hours of the morning.
Say the name Moral Panics and to my mind I was expecting a hip-hop outfit, but in fact they were a pop band in the mould of The Vamps or McFly, not that this is to their demerit, and although the crowd that had gathered was erring on the teen and female, their performance was strong and that some decent songs that got the crowd dancing, as did the next band Little Brother Eli whose blues and soul mix kept the momentum that Moral Panics started to build.
One of the big discoveries of the weekend was was Sam Brothers, who gave us a relaxed but confident set in The Larch. Looking like a long lost Weasley brother he had a very mature vocal that brought to mind Cat Stevens.
After an evening of unknowns, it has become a tradition to finish up the evening with a crowd-pleaser from previous years, and this year was probably one of the biggest crowd pleasers out there. Unless you spend your festivals sat in your tent with earplugs on, you could not have failed to stumble across the Dub Pistols at some point - and over the last few years this band have become a regular fixture on the main stage at Blissfields - this being their fifth consecutive appearance, they finally get promoted to a headline slot. As usual they do not disappoint, giving a typically energetic set that threatened to blow the roof off.
Frontman Barry Ashworth was seldom still, often going up to the crowd at the barriers, and even partaking in crowd surfing - much to the worry of the security and pleasure of the crowd. Ska is one of those musical styles that even if you don't know the songs they quickly become familiar, and so when a well known track comes on - such as their covers of The Specials 'Gangsters' or The Stranglers 'Peaches' - the result is an instant singalong moment. All too soon they came to an end, and you got the impression they would have played for another hour.
For us this was time to call it a night, but there were plenty more who headed off to the Hidden Hedge to continue the party into the small hours.
Although some of the music tonight was a little disappointing, this is a festival where the atmosphere is more important than the acts, and what we saw hinted that this year was going to be another fantastic experience.
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