Upon entering the gates of Cornbury Festival, my companion’s abiding emotion was one of great disappointment, but only because he had clearly lost an argument that had been droning on for weeks between us. Where were the stewards dressed in ermine? Where were the campsite champagne points? Why hadn’t we already fallen over a certain ex-Prime Minister? Cornbury’s reputation as Poshstock is a bit silly and certainly overstated. Universally friendly stewards, pragmatic sensible security staff and painless entry systems are surely hallmarks of a well-run festival, rather than indicators that the rich and famous are being catered to. Fabulously appointed showers with minimal queues, revolutionary foot pump operated loos, and spectacular campsite views of the rolling Oxfordshire Hills just brighten everyone’s day. Admittedly, there were an inordinate number of four-wheel drives in the car park, and the yurt I camped next to made my tent feel like the ground keeper’s cottage, but that doesn’t mean the festival panders to a particular income bracket. On the contrary, beer prices were the standard festival fiver, while a quick poke about uncovered a decent range of food outlets at sensible prices. Granted, the elephant(s) in the field were the Hairy Bikers taking £65 a head for a three course menu served on trestle tables, but you didn’t have to attend. Yes, I felt uneasy at seeing high street coffee shop branding on a minor venue, but in fairness that venue did offer the cheapest bacon roll sandwich on site.
Cornbury is an unapologetically family festival, with an age range that stretches from preschool to grandparent. Attendees are reserved but not unfriendly, and surely far too civil to be truly posh. It’s the sort of festival where reports of drunkenness (two people according to the steward I spoke to) are outnumbered tenfold by the twenty complaints that people had been talking after midnight in quiet camping. It’s the sort of festival where people apologise when you stand on their foot, where the litter pickers have absolutely nothing to do, and where people tut, but say nothing, if you obscure their field of vision. It also a festival that showcased some great music over three days, and while it’s not quite true to say this was over just two stages, they did dominate proceedings. With unusually joined up thinking, the Pleasant Valley and Songbird stages were programmed in such a way that, with a little fancy footwork, you could get to see and hear pretty much everything on the poster. The downside was a wearisome charge back and forth for completists, and very long waits for the considerable number of punters that plonked themselves down in a camping chair in front of the main stage and were not going anywhere.
And so to the act that opened that main stage, which was a great start, as Eddy Smith channeled Joe Cocker. Katy Hurt and Emily Capell followed, easily passing the quality threshold test, while Tom Speight, still flushed from his surprise success at Glastonbury the previous week, suggesting he is going to develop into something special. Already there, Holy Moly and the Crackers produced the first truly outstanding performance of the day. Determined to put their first appearance at the festival behind them (which I’m sure wasn’t as bad as they seem to think) it finally got the sun baked crowd jigging along to their infectious sound. Mention, too, for the Buffalo Skinners, one of several bands on the Riverside stage that deserved more attention than they got. Squeezed between the two main stages, there were all sorts of interesting noises to be heard here, but it was always on the way to somewhere else.
Day one closed with a triple bill of top-notch talent. First up, Echo and the Bunnymen charged through their considerable back catalogue in the brief hour they were allotted. They needed more time to build their set, and nightfall to envelop their doomy sound. Getting neither, the audience made do with cheery nostalgia and a competent, but disposable, performance. Beverley Knight was excellent, but what a shame she was sandwiched between the two main stage acts. In a pattern that repeated throughout the festival, the performance in this Songbird slot, both started and finished with a meagre crowd, as the audience turned up late but left early. It was a rare scheduling misfire that the organisers would do well to sort out, by either lengthening the space between acts on the main (with perhaps a DJ to keep the chair people happy) or by providing a genuine alternative at the end of the night on the second stage, so that folk have to choose, and then stick with it. There was no difficulty in choosing to see the Specials, with a set that had you slack-jawed with just how many classic songs the band turned out back in the day. With Terry Hall as droll, laconic master of ceremonies, this was a fitting close to an enjoyable, if uneven day.
To the consternation of regular attendees, Saturday’s weather was cold and damp. I was told that it had only rained once before in the festival’s history, so the when it came, it was met more with disbelief than disappointment. Fortunately, it held off for what proved to be a highlight of the festival. After competent showings from Joe Slater, Houndstooth, and Wildwood Kin, Trevor Horn took to the stage, greeted by an unusually large crowd for an afternoon. They obviously knew more than I did, as Horn took us on a hugely entertaining tour around his production back catalogue. With Lol Crème riding shotgun and a wealth of session talent, he treated us to the work of Frankie goes to Hollywood, Grace Jones, 10cc and even, Lord help us, Yes. So much more than a covers band, this was a joyous celebration of his work, and a mini history lesson in 80s pop.
Rain then did come, however, so I took refuge to the only undercover venue available, a quirky little comedy tent showcasing uneasy comedians swiftly tailoring their acts on the hoof to suit the kids they found staring back at them. Ahir Shah did a pretty good job, though tellingly his Brexit routine divided the room. Headliner Josie Long once told me off albeit very sweetly for not laughing at her, so I welcomed the chance of making amends. She still seems very nice but I still didn’t find her very funny so instead I braved the weather just in time to see KT Tunstall, and what a superb performer she is. Personable, charming, and straightforwardly good fun, her crowd pleasing hits from way back were sprinkled among more recent, and just as good, material. I don’t understand why she isn’t a huge star. Elkie Brooks is another name that has perhaps faded a little in the memory, but what a powerful voice she has. Again, she suffered from an unattractive time slot, but those smart enough to go see her judiciously curated songbook were given a treat. The night closed with Keane, delivering a polished and assured set - as if they’d never gone away. Tom Chaplin seemed genuinely touched at the crowd’s reception after their protracted hiatus, and there’s no denying the resonance of their back catalogue. I almost felt guilty sneaking off to watch covers band Little Moscow in a late-night venue set aside for campers, but they were more fun.
As the final day saw the return of sun, I realised this delightful little festival was really starting to get under my skin. Once again, the early afternoon offered small pleasures – The Kingdom Choir, Tommy Stewart and Bare James – before sending me reeling with the bonkers experience of the Fun Loving Crime Writers. The likes of Mark Billingham and Chris Brookmyre covering crime related tunes could, and properly should, have been a self-indulgent horror show, but they performed with such good-natured, self-aware humility it was impossible not to smile at the preposterousness of some of UK’s finest writing talent having a go. The site of Val McDermott pretending to be a choo-choo train during a Johnny Cash number is one I shall forever treasure. Afterwards, things got a bit family friendly for my tastes with Alfie Boe’s faux operatic voice neither one thing nor another. As folk settled down to Paul Carrick’s easy listening offering, I scuttled off to watch some inspired lunacy from Spencer Jones, best known for his Ricky Gervais’s impressions on Upstart Crow but here content to demonstrate his whistling bellybutton. Back at the Songbird stage, most of Cornbury’s audience were absent and so missed out on what was, in my view, the outstanding set of the weekend. Yet again suffering in the mid table slot, the Hothouse Flowers were mesmerising, delivering powerful music that deserved a bigger stage and a better audience. That bigger stage and better audience was instead waiting for the Beach Boys, who garnered the one truly huge audience of the weekend. The tunes are beyond reproach and were duly appreciated, but there was something very odd in their delivery. Flanked by competent musicians and backing singers, the last two men standing seemed almost subsidiary to the note perfect band who delivered a competent, but lifeless, set that I was pleased to excuse myself from. The excuse given was Steeleye Span, playing to a small, but keen crowd. While it’s not a habit of mine to listen to music about elves or witches or hats, their refreshing authenticity proved to be a welcome respite from the anodyne noises on the main stage, and a fine way to bring my festival experience to a close.
One thing Cornbury does lack is choice. If you’re thinking of going, take a long look at the poster, because that’s all you’re getting. Compared to other festivals in the same price bracket there is far less to see and do. But having said that, you can only ever do one thing at a time, and there was always something happening. If you are comfortable with being led, rather than to wanting to forever poke about and explore, the festival can be an unusually relaxing and stress free experience. With no hassle, no crowds, no trouble, and no queues it offers a genuine alternative to edgier, kaleidoscopic experiences to be found elsewhere. I’ve certainly found a place in my heart for the festival, something I confess comes as something of a surprise.
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