Deepdale festival describes itself as small but perfectly formed. A moment's thought reveals that to be quite some claim. It is certainly small - with a capacity of only 500, it is dwarfed by other festivals in the region. The leviathan that is Latitude is eighty times as big, but even Red Rooster is ten times bigger, with Folk East not far behind. A far harder question is whether it is perfect. Is anything absolutely perfect? The price of admission is perhaps a good place to start. At £75 for 3 full days plus an evening, you have to wonder if some sort of financial wizardry has gone on. Granted, should you wish to camp, there's more to pay, but I'm still scratching my head at the quality and quantity of entertainment offered over a long weekend at a price you'd be lucky to spend on a day ticket at a bigger event. Before diving into that entertainment, it's worth emphasising what we mean by camping. The festival takes place within the curtilage of a permanent campsite. If you've deep enough pockets, you can sleep on site in a room with a bed. Failing that, there is room for campervans a plenty, and even those happy few brave enough to camp get proper toilets and showers.
For all these mod cons, rolling up in the car and setting up my tent next door took me back to the festivals of yesteryear. I'd forgotten how easy it makes things, and what a pleasure it was to leave all the stuff I didn't really need in the car. But then, according to Lewis Bunton, I'm “the last of the old schoolers, an archivist of the musical, magical and peculiar”. Just who Lewis is, and why he felt the need to tell me this, we'll come to later. For now, it’s about the only thing I do miss, and the considerable comforts of Deepdale quickly swept away foolish nostalgic notions.
So how do you squeeze a festival into an existing site? Inventively is the key word. The festival notionally offers three stages, but it would be a mistake to imagine you are spoiled for choice. Although there is some overlap, the abiding idea is to provide entertainment continuously by alternating between stages. A handsome brick barn was home to many of the bigger acts, including the headliners, while the courtyard outside hosted sets that leaned towards the more intimate and acoustic. Punters could happily flip flop between the two all day, and I'm sure many did, but a third stage beckoned, all of five minutes’ walk away, in the orchard. Looking much like an unprepossessing wedding marquee from the outside, the Orchard Stage proved to be a treasure trove of some of the best performances of the weekend. We would have to wait until Friday for those treasures, however, as Thursday's fun revolved entirely around the barn.
Imagine the love child of Lucy Spraggan and Robin Ince and you'd be somewhere close to Matt Watson, who opened the festival to a receptive audience in the Courtyard. Bouncing with boyish enthusiasm and blessed with a fine voice, he rattled through a set of his own material that quickly won over a crowd unusually respectful of an artist low down the bill. It was the first of many times I had cause to notice how attentive the punters were, something appreciated by both the artists and those of us who came to listen, not chat. Afterwards, Polly Paulusma performed a selection of her own material before Kathryn Williams joined her for a mesmerising set that captivated the audience. During Polly's set I noticed Michele Stodart weaving her way through the crowd, filming as she went, just like ordinary folk do, and not at all how you expect one half the Magic Numbers to carry on. As the weekend progressed, it proved typical of an event where audience and performer, all members one of another, mixed together in one great familial pot of friendliness. When Stodart subsequently joined Polly and Kathryn on stage it was still a thrill, but already felt exactly right.
With the music kicking off just before midday Friday, I took the opportunity to take a brisk walk along the North Norfolk coastal path. If that seems an odd thing to include in a festival review I can only say that having done so it felt very much part of the Deepdale experience and not one to be missed. As the pink-footed geese few overhead in giant v formation, their cacophonous squawk echoing off the impenetrable marshlands that were threaded with inlets punctuated by long abandoned boats, it proved the perfect overture to the first full day of music.
The day started with The Rhythm Travellers on the Orchard Stage, a lovely seated venue nestled within the trees. The Travellers eased their audience into the day with a delightful mix of roots and blues. They were only the first of a dozen bands I saw on Friday, the seductive proximity of the stages combined with nifty scheduling making it all but impossible to resist taking a peek at as much as possible. Highlights for me included Good Habits' winning combination of accordion, cello and good natured banter, John Ward and his Trio earnestly bashing out protest songs and Georgia Shackleton's delve into the East Anglian folk archive. The fact that all these acts played on the Orchard Stage suggests to me a helping hand. Sound engineers rarely get enough credit (or condemnation!) but they can make or break a performance. It can't have been easy to modulate band after band in what was really a glorified tent, so full marks to Joe, name checked repeatedly by artists throughout the weekend, and deservedly so.
Which is not to say there weren't pleasures to be had elsewhere. Toast Poetry provided a welcome sorbet from the music, with Daisy and Lewis sharing their work. The two of them had been beavering away all day, writing poems on the hoof and on demand. It was just the sort of extra ingredient I kept stumbling across, offered not because it had to be there, but because it made the festival just that bit more interesting. Perhaps this was what Lewis Bunton unconsciously meant when he wrote, for me, that “we were all villagers building new families”. The spirit of that statement was captured wonderfully by Jacob and Drinkwater at the close of a set that unfortunately overlapped with Toast, but which i was lucky enough to catch some of. In what appeared to be a genuinely unplanned encore, they walked among the crowd, serenading the like-minded in a magical moment of unity, something Michele Stodart returned to repeatedly in her headlining performance. Technically, Morganway would close the day in the barn, entertaining far and away the biggest crowd of the weekend, but for me Stodart's delicate melodies and elfin voice was a very hard act to follow.
What better way to start Saturday than lying on the ground while Niki Gregory resonated her singing bowls? Hopelessly ill prepared, I self-consciously did my best to make myself comfortable before one of the countless lovely folk attending Deepdale took pity on me and generously lent me her coat to lie on. You'll be all right to start with, she warned, but you soon get cold. It was an early indication that this was going to go on for rather longer than I assumed. Fortunately, Niki's consummate ability to calm even a fidget knickers like me with all manner of resonant charms meant the time drifted pleasantly, notwithstanding the occasional quizzical look shared between me and my coat benefactor's labradoodle.
Music started, once again, on the Orchard Stage, with Bryter Than, a family band featuring violinist Helen, who appeared to be one of the happiest people on the planet. I wonder if that's because she now shares a stage with not only singing hubby Mat, but the preposterous talented keyboard player, 12 year old Geno. Preposterous talent was not, in turned out, in short supply, with Nic Zuppardi fronting a band made up of bits of other bands. In the end, they'd all come together as Kitewing, with Georgia Shackleton and Aaren Bennet returning to the stage alongside Christine Alden and Alex Paterson from Nic's previous outing, showcasing an inspirational sound inspired by nature.
I enjoyed the Americana inflected folk of Norwich based Tin Heart Troubadours in the barn, but I loved the uncompromising fearlessness of the act that followed. Jason Wick tortured strangled noises of anguish and despair from his guitar while Polly Wright first whispered, then declaimed, then screamed of dark shadows and menace lurking within the Waveney valley. As a result, The Feathered Thorns managed to clear the barn of two thirds of its audience in the first ten minutes of their extraordinary set. To paraphrase Marty McFly, I guess the good people of Deepdale aren't ready for that yet, but hats off to the festival for a brilliantly bonkers brave booking that proved to be the highlight of my day.
I'm guessing that for a lot of other folk, their highlight was the Cut Throat Francis. Oddly scheduled in the Orchard, the exuberance they brought out in the liveliest crowd of the weekend was mitigated by the stoicism of those seated either side of a modest area cleared for dancing. Nonetheless, what room the dancers had was made full use of, as increasingly bizarre dance moves eventually led to a prize for the salmon spawning crew - I guess you had to be there.
Just before the main headliner, I squeezed in yet another eccentric treat. This part of Norfolk is famed, I learned, for the lack of light pollution. Frankly, one needed only to look up at the diamond encrusted sky to see that, but Deepdale had laid on, in a far corner of the site, the King's Lynn and District Astronomy Society, who had set up all manner of telescopes for our viewing pleasure. I marvelled at the surface of the moon, the rings of Saturn and the entire Andromeda galaxy. I'd have seen Jupiter, if only the shower block hadn't been in the way.
I'd seen a fellow sketching throughout the day, not least in the front row of Chris Cleverly's winsomely charming set. I'm sure I wasn't the only one keen to sneak a look of the drawing discreetly left at Cleverly's feet, before sloping off. The mystery was solved during The Leisure Society's set, when each song was accompanied by his artwork, created before our eyes and projected behind the band. It was a simple, but effective visual cue that offered a key to their unique brand of indie folk pop that occasionally teetered dangerously close to prog rock.
Up until Saturday night, we had been blessed with good weather, bearing in mind that a few days earlier three days of rain had been forecast. It was silly to think it could last, but it was wind, rather than a downpour, that tested my tent pegs. Emerging on Sunday morning unscathed, but largely unslept, the quietude of Alton Wahlberg's emerging-talent slot was just right for my delicate state. No mean performer himself - his essay on prison life was particularly moving - his promotion of Phoebe Austin and Brooke Telling was both generous and deserved.
Over in the Courtyard, witty Dali's House entertained with anything from Spanish love songs to Bananarama covers. They were followed by Chad Mason, a Norwich based singer that combined a ready wit with fine vocals to winning effect, but it was Sakaash that really caught my attention. I thought that my session with Niki Gregory's singing bowls had been unusually melodic, so perhaps her beautiful singing voice shouldn't have surprised me, but replete with hat and sunglasses it took me a good few songs before I was sure her band was fronted by the same person. The duo offered up a pleasingly eccentric sound coupled with a positive message that nonetheless ushered in the melancholy that often comes along on the last day of a festival when the sad realisation dawns that its nearly all over. Thankfully, the Toast poets were on hand with their infectious good humour. Tasked with writing poems based on audience suggestions, Daisy did exactly that, while Lewis shamelessly cheated time and again, stretching the connection between title and poem to breaking point. No one seemed to mind though, or even notice, and a good time was had by all.
A good time is something I imagine Robert Vincent specialises in, despite the unremitting misery he cheerfully admits is his song writing trump card. Apologetic that he had the temerity to bring Americana to the folk party, he needn't have worried. Quite apart from being a welcome contrast - there's only so many mandolins you can take in a weekend, however expertly played - his super tight band delivered in spades just the right energy and drive needed on the third day of a festival that by now had filled my brain to bursting with an exhaustive, and exhausting, roll call of excellent musicians.
There was more to come, and thankfully Mishra continued to be divertingly different. Fusing folk with Indian and African influences, and showcasing an astonishing musical dexterity, they blended delightful harmonies with an infectious beat that brought to mind Micheal Messer's Mitra. After performing a set of their own material they were dragged back on stage for a genuine encore, a sublime version of Penguin cafe's Found Harmonium and a more perfect end to the festival I found it hard to imagine. So, with apologies to The India Electric Company, who may well have been very good, I quit while I was ahead, not least because the prospect of another grim night in a tent was hanging over me, and might have spoilt what had been a brilliant weekend.
It's not often I leave a festival on a Sunday night, but then it's not often I go camping during the last week in September. Realistically, for those of us not lucky enough to own a campervan, the harsh reality on gambling with the autumn weather is not something to be lightly dismissed. The weather was actually pretty good, with hardly any rain. But it was cold. More than cold, it was freezing, the toll to be paid for clear sunny skies during the day this late in the year. It's not a surprise, and certainly not the festival's fault, but it is a reality. Another reality is the preponderance of folk at a folk festival. But if at times I wearied of yet another solo singer songwriter, I was surely outnumbered by those would have happily gobbled up more. The point I'm making is that the weather and my patience with folk music are the only two things that even began to dent this superb event, and neither go beyond blind luck and personal taste.
The event itself was run faultlessly by people as friendly as they were on the ball. The beer was cheaper than my local pub. There was a cafe round the corner if you wanted a treat and a supermarket next door if you preferred parsimony. Not only was the performance listing free, so was a charming daily newsletter with hints and tips for the day to come. When start times occasionally drifted, the day would be sensibly rejigged to ensure nothing would be missed. When an act failed to show, another seamlessly stepped in. When an encore was demanded, it was given. Staging and sound were impeccable. I could go on, but in short, absolutely everything within the festival's control was done well, with the best of intentions and good humour. It's not something I say lightly, and not something I can recall ever saying about a festival before. So to return to the question we opened with, I think it might just be perfect after all. To quote the last line of Lewis Bunton's poem, I suspect I “will be coming back, year after year”.
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