Wickham is a big success in a time when some festivals are struggling

Wickham Festival 2011 review

published: Tue 16th Aug 2011

Bellowhead

Thursday 4th to Sunday 7th August 2011
Wickham, Hampshire, England MAP
£120 for full 4-day weekend
last updated: Wed 13th Jul 2011

A showman's set from Jools Holland backed by his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra kicked off Wickham Festival. The consummate performer entertained with the brand of musicianship better known from his television programmes. As we know from those shows Jools is not one to hog the limelight, on Thursday night he happily let it shine on his special guests, singers Ruby Turner and Sandie Shaw.

The crowd huddled under the shelter of an impressive marquee set up on farmland just outside this pretty Hampshire village lapped it up, but they weren't the sorts you'd expect to find as an audience at a TV recording or out for champagne and canapés at a Manor House gig. The distinctive costumes of Morris men and women, the raggle-taggle fashions of the young and the well-worn uniforms of their often bearded seniors gave away that this was actually a fairly folkie audience. But they were an easy-going lot, equally happy with a spectacular show from 80s pop-punk songstress Toyah, or a star turn from Rolf Harris as bands more firmly on the Folk side of the tracks like this summer's must haves Bellowhead, and The Spooky Men's Chorale.

Rolf Harris
Rolf Harris's Friday night show started off all 'Street' as the octogenarian entertainer was introduced by his MC with a choice, if senseless, line "I'm talking about a man who's two steps ahead. Why shouldn't he be, he's got an extra leg." When Rolf strode on to the stage with wobble board awobbling and a cheeky "G'day" the marquee was nearly lifted off the ground by delighted cheers. It was a set of full of hits, pure crowd pleasers from the get-go 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down' until the last - a version of the same song set to our national anthem. The crowd were pleased and then some; didgeridoos and inflatable kangaroos waved, near enough everyone sang along to 'Two Little Boys' and 'Delilah'. Most folks were even able to laugh at Rolf's appalling jokes. He asked for emotional involvement and boy, he got it in spades. What he didn't get was an encore, which was odd. As the crowd dispersed after realising there really wouldn't be another their tipsy renditions of 'Irish Rover' were testament to the work of a superb entertainer doing a great job, a real cool cockatoo.

Bellowhead
Bellowhead's performance was outstanding; intense, exuberant and playful. The eleven bandmembers danced and clowned, occasionally disappearing into clouds of dry ice but all the time keeping their tunes and rhythms going. In particular Benji Kirkpatrick was keen to show that on stage martial art known as 'Benjitsu' which he embellished with some mean wahwah bouzouki playing. Paul Sartin, Sam Sweeney and John Spiers weren't shy to join in the fun and neither were the four-man Horn section. With Hampshire being home to three of the band and the source of several of their songs perhaps they felt on home turf. The home crowd certainly reacted with plenty of pogoes, jigging and bawdy singing. At the show's climax many of the ladies in the crowd keen to show that Hampshire girls can dance the Polka, even if 'New York Girls' can't. Introducing one of the cornerstones of the set 'Cold Blows The Wind' frontman Jon Boden asked the question "Are there any sailors, in love with the undead, in tonight?" - even though we were pretty close to Portsmouth the answer was still a disappointing "No". However there were a lot of smiling Bellowhead fans and, despite once again terrifying everyone with the insane 'Little Sally Racket' the band will have made a fair few new admirers on the back of Saturday's show.

The Spooky Mens Chorale
When those mystic monks of mirth The Spooky Men's Chorale formed up on the marquee stage at Sunday lunchtime, frontman Stephen Taberner wondered if despite every opportunity there was anyone in the crowd who hadn't heard of the manly Australian choir, there was no reply. "We dream of mastodons, practice mysterious handshakes and we can grow beards if we want to" their incantations don't seem to lose any humour through almost weekly exposure at Folk festivals. The group's mission is to raise male self-esteem and emotional awareness based on 'The affirmations of Kevin'. As ever there were plenty of laughs, the absurdity of a male voice choir singing 'Boogie Wonderland' or Prince's 'Kiss' is wonderful. The thrill of tip-toeing to the tool shed, the guilt of drill bit envy and a plea to not "write us off as hardware lovin' fools" all struck a chord with a large part of the audience. It is a pretty strong message 'Old guys rule, OK', not what you could call politically correct, but as long as everyone is laughing no one seems to mind. Their workshop in the Groovy Movie tent packed it out to capacity; there was more testosterone than oxygen inside the marquee. The resulting flashmob performance of the Spooky ode to self-building 'Concrete' attracted an even bigger crowd out onto the Festival's Morris dancing stage. The Spooky Men are as much brand as an act, their T-shirts, badges and slogans to be seen all over the site. Wherever they turn up these guys make the day theirs, it's hard not to love them for that.

Kate Rusby
Kate Rusby is another one it's hard not to love. At Wickham the mellowly melancholic artiste played Nic Jones complex 'Blind Harper' all the way through without mistakes for the fifth time. To reward herself Kate shared with the crowd that she would now buy herself a Sindy horse and call it Sue, at last fulfilling a childhood dream. Heartmelting.

The Webb Sisters were just as delightful. The sincere pair have been touring with Leonard Cohen for a while and it's easy to see where that affinity lies. The girls are gorgeous, the songs poetic and skilfully played on a 1905 vintage mandolin called Henry and a beautiful little harp. Less easy on the eye guitarist extraordinaire Martin Simpson's feel good mix of Americana and British Folk was nonetheless very easy on the ear.

Damien O Kane
Richard Thompson suffered for following Rolf Harris on Friday but the master musician stuck it out through the inevitable exodus and got several crowd pleasers of his own in – most notably 'Johnny’s Far Away'. The man had some cahonas to stay at his task despite such a poor reception, and got payback as the remaining crowd did eventually get into it. Damien O'Kane's on stage banter left many feeling cold but he and his band soon warmed them up with fast and fun instrumentals on bass, banjo and bodhran. Kathryn Tickell was a much better entertainer. Somehow she orchestrated the crowd to a flamenco style clap along in two different time signatures. Although she said her set was full songs and tunes about of death, desolation and smoking piles of rubble with rats going past there was enough hopefulness to make it a positive experience if not the "Cheery tartan heaven" she ironically described.

Peatbog Faeries
Wickham did seem to have become a temporary tartan heaven over the weekend. The Treacherous Orchestra's crazy cacophony of bagpipes, whistles, drums and fiddles closed the festival on Sunday night. Peatbog Faeries supporting set on Saturday night was equally as energetic if less anarchic. The band's characteristic set of Gaelic tunes played over a background of four to the floor House rhythms, electro squelch and funky horns is a surefire hit with any party crowd, and Wickham certainly shook its folkie stuff. Kan gave us a great phrase from the Faroe Isles 'Manga takk' which roughly translates as 'kinda funky'. The band featured Brian Finnegan from Irish band Flook on whistle and flute and prog-folk-fiddler Aidan O'Rourke of Lau alongside a great drummer called Jim Goodwin who really did have the manga takk going on.

The Shee
The Shee had that thing too, their catchy tunes driven by especially funky harp playing and livened up with Amy Thatcher's clog dancing show. Eddi Reader was perhaps less funky but undoubtedly great fun. Charming and touchingly personal, she made a strong connection with the audience. Of course the Sunday night set included 'Perfect' but there was plenty to choose from, my pick was Rabbie Burn's 'My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose', it was so beautiful. Orcadian fiddle and guitar duo Saltfishforty were an absolute blast, their Saturday late night spot filled Wickham Community Centre for a terrific hoe down. The two chaps reappeared the next evening in the Marquee as part of eight-man band The Chair.

The Chair
This band was properly loud, like folk meets Motorhead, with added fiddles and accordion. A few tunes into the set frontman Brian Cromarty asked those in the audience who somehow had remained seated in the ubiquitous fold-up chairs to get on up and get down. As the low evening sun shone into the tent and onto their backs most didn't need much encouragement, it was a magical moment. Overall the Scots contingent accounted for about a third of the bill, it's a fair distance from Scotland to the South Coast, but music travels well and the audience seemed pleased the musicians had made the journey.

Whilst Rolf was wowing the crowds on the Friday night there was another show going on in the Wickham Community Centre, one with considerably more bite and much less fancy dress. Accompanied by folk stalwart Roy Bailey aristocratic socialist Tony Benn gave a moving talk on people's protest against oppression and servitude. The talk was overtly political, recounting moments and slogans from a millennium of class struggle with its anger against injustice and hope for a better world. Tony laced his discussion with great quotes from the Peasants Revolt, the English Revolution (Civil War) and the ongoing Industrial Revolution. An extract from Richard Rumbold's speech before he was hung, drawn and quartered in 1685 illustrated the gist of it "None comes into this world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him." Roy's songs were just as stirring, he did the 1970's resetting of the proto-communist True Levellers manifesto 'World Turned Upside Down'. One of Roy's best songs was 'Bread and Roses', on the theme that people need more than just what is necessary to subsist in order to live.

Near enough everyone in the Hall joined in, each harmonising in their own partkey. The talk was really inspiring, showing that even in leafy Hampshire the firebrands of yesteryear can still draw a supportive crowd. The Men They Couldn't Hang were the only band to bring the moral crusade to the main stage; they certainly roused the rabble with an impassioned, if raucous, performance. This band and others with a strong political message can come across as preachy and slightly deranged, perhaps that is why politics seems to be so out of favour with the big names in the current scene.

around the festival site (people)
It's certainly fair to say that in the beer tent next to the main stage politics wasn't the main talking point, it was more along the lines of "What shall I try next?" With its impressive fifty foot, three storey high rack of barrels holding real ales from local breweries like Upham, Oakleaf and Botley. We started off with ten choices, by Sunday night that was down to two, but in the meantime a bewildering variety had been served. Often the chalk hadn't dried on the slate before the barrel had been emptied. A proper festival beer tent. Lager, Cider and Pimms drinkers were catered for separately, but the trade for them seemed slack, the Pimms bar packed up and left.

Away from the Festival's hub around the main stage Wickham has a spacious site. There was a second field with stalls and a stage for Morris dancing. In this field the solar powered Groovy Movie Cinema was pitched, this is a fantastic addition to the Festival showing cartoons and kids films during the day and more edgy material into the night. On Friday they screened 'Message To Love' the documentary film of the 1971 Isle of Wight Festival. Watching the film laid out on a carpet with fifty so others in varying states added to the film's unhinged feeling as it charted the Festival's shambolic descent into chaos when six hundred thousand turned up to see the big names of the day like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Joni Mitchell and the rest. When the titles rolled we applauded, it was a great film to watch socially.

around the festival site (Morris sides)
The cinema was popular with the children during the day but there was plenty else for them to watch, make and do in the second field. Painting plaster blanks, and often themselves, with bright poster paints was very popular as was the storytelling tent and mobile Punch and Judy show from Ticklish Allsorts. The problem of boys of a certain age having to spend time away from their consoles was solved by EA games who had a flashy trailer set up for those addicted to hitting, racing and fighting things. Next to the EA trailer, and in front of a particularly impressive Unimog truck on a 1964 registration plate, Boredbrands provided more creative, less corporate entertainments with cycle powered Space Invaders and a great game called 'Smackbottoms' - although judging by the position of the mannequins whose bottoms were smacked to score points this game was aimed at adults. On the main site there were still further distractions for bored kids; face painting street theatre and the like.

With a dozen or so sides performing on site and in Wickham village the Morris presence was very noticeable. On the campsites their Caravans set up in corrals like jingle-jangle gypsies. The Isle of Wight's Bloodstone Morris were the most striking with their faces painted black and wearing black and red outfits embroidered with spiders, skulls and the like. The stick-whacking and shouting in their performances accompanied by much beating of the drum was a hit with the crowds in town and on site. Of course these folks look a lot scarier than they are, often being very friendly and forthcoming about their fascinating traditions. The dances continued through Saturday and Sunday and always attracted a decent crowd of onlookers – including passing motorists in the town.

around the festival site
About half of the campsite was taken up by Caravans and motorhomes, often belonging to Morris teams and frequently displaying Festival passes from a variety of Folk festivals. As it rained heavily on the opening night the cornfield turned very sticky and was badly rutted. Campers fared better provided their vehicles did not get stuck in the parking field, indeed many opted to pitch up in the parking field perhaps hoping to avoid carting the masses of gear which seem to be required for a four night stay. Judging from the number of airbeds discarded into skips the corn stubble did for several whose owners had perhaps imagined them to be puncture proof. A strong wind on Sunday tested the moorings and pole strength of many of the budget oversize tents, and the common sense of some of their occupants. The sight of a six-man tent being blown towards a commercial sized camp kitchen where the morning bacon was frying had me looking to my tent to see how quickly I could get my gear out should there be a fireball. Luckily there wasn't. Announcements were made between shows to advise people that their tents had collapsed or taken off.

around the festival site
A walk around the campsite indicated a fair amount of money was likely in the average Festival-goers pocket, and there was quite some competition to relieve them of it. At mealtimes there were over a dozen food stalls serving anything from Cajun jambalaya to Fish & Chips. It was the same for coffee with four options, all of them serving a terrific cup. The Red Bus was favourite though, just because it's nice to drink coffee upstairs on a double decker bus. Queuing to put food and drink in, and for that matter to let it out, was not an issue at Wickham.

Stalls selling pretty shiny things, blankets and other tat were very well represented but there was some good stuff to be had. 'Loud as you Like' sold brightly coloured imported Tanzanian material and clothing which were good value. An importer of Peruvian scarves and jewellery had some wonderful items with fantastic price tags – but if you had the money it was probably worth it.

around the festival site
An instrument stall selling stick dulcimers which can't be played out of tune was a tempter. Perhaps the most interesting stall holders were a couple of very friendly Shamen who offered to upgrade folks DNA by cleansing the junk left over from past lives, using seven glass jars. Their backstory was amazing and featured crystal skulls, visions and more serendipity than you could shake a Shaman's stick at. They also offered a drum massage which did help my 'Old Cooperage' hangover, if only temporarily.

Having one main stage with food and drink stalls close by does please the fold-up chair dwellers of the festival world. Luckily it doesn't need everyone to be on their feet to make a decent Festival atmosphere and Wickham did have that. If people want to pay their money to sit doing puzzles or reading books whilst a band is playing in front of them then so be it, although more demarcation would be good to let people move around more freely in the marquee. There were plenty of other places to sit around the site, notably in front of the caterer's concessions.

In a time when some of Festivals are struggling Wickham sold forty percent more tickets this year than last, so their formula clearly works. The bands were varied but high standard, the sun shone and the beer was great – Wickham had the three elements of the festival trinity covered, a big hit.

around the festival site (people)
review by: Ian Wright

photos by: Ian Wright / James Creaser

Thursday 4th to Sunday 7th August 2011
Wickham, Hampshire, England MAP
£120 for full 4-day weekend
last updated: Wed 13th Jul 2011


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