Look in any broadsheet colour supplement around springtime and you’ll see the same tired old articles featuring supposedly secret festivals that in fact we’ve all heard of. I’ve never seen Wickham featured, however, a rare beast that despite winning awards has been flying under the radar since 2003. Though still a folk festival, it has of late (having no doubt reflected on its mature customer base) added heritage acts to the bill, resulting in a curious mix of genres that don’t always rub shoulders easily, but which make for a vibrant and eccentric weekend, where things are done just that little bit differently.
A case in point is the opening Wednesday concert held on the outskirts of town. Reached via a brief walk over stubble flecked fields, Wickham Community Centre is an unprepossessing building, but the warmth of spirit inside was immediately apparent. Rachel Newton’s beautiful voice was the equal of her exquisite harp playing, while Alan Burke’s patter was the equal of a stand-up comedian. Such was the convivial atmosphere that when headliner Rowan Godel invited the assembled on to a six mile walk on the Thursday morning it seemed perfectly natural.
That walk finished at the festival in time to see both Newton and Burke reprise their sets before Ian Matthews reprised his Southern Comfort, the first of many blasts from the past presenting retooled versions of previous bands. I found his set to be lukewarm, as if he was struggling with a festival that had yet to get into gear, something I sensed Graham Nash also suffered from. It was the youthful, rum swigging Skinny Lister on the alternate stage that got my party started on the Thursday night, proving to be the perfect support for headliners The Proclaimers. The boys from Leith attracted a huge crowd which stretched way beyond a performance tent that felt ill-equipped to deal such a big crowd, so that chair dwellers (sensibly banned from the arena) were forced to sit in orderly rows that radiated outwards from tent’s perimeter in defiance of a slope that must have obscured their view. I can’t imagine the chair folk could have heard much either, and while they seemed happy enough I got fed up at craning my neck, and so nipped over to Judy Collins just in time to catch her heartrending version of Send in the Clowns. She was performing to a much smaller audience, despite her star billing, an imbalance that would repeat throughout the weekend, and was illustrative of Wickham’s quirky scheduling.
It was a schedule that certainly pack the acts in, though, with a focus on acoustic performers during the day that allowed swift turnarounds, so that in short order we were treated to festival stalwart Hattie Hatstar, John Watterson’s tribute to Jake Thackery and the parodic Bar Steward sons of Val Doonican - the latter getting the first really big crowd of the day. There was a big crowd too, for the Spooky Men’s Chorus, who were hilarious and yet musically brilliant, and who heralded in a whole night of outstanding talent. Kathryn Tickell & The Darkening offered up an exhilarating set, full of energy and joy, while the extraordinary dexterity of Stanley Johnson beggared belief. The biggest surprise of the night, however, was headliners Level 42. The band was a guilty pleasure the first time around, let alone nearly forty years later, and I confess to squirming a little at the prospect of seeing them so many years later. I should have had more faith. Mark King’s thumb-slap bass technique may have been incongruous in what is essentially a folk festival with knobs on, but the undoubted, and undiminished, musical prowess of the band completely won me over.
Saturday had me exploring some of the minor stages. Home of spirited youth and local talent, there were gems to be found, with Orchid Thieves showing signs of precocious talent on the Quay West stage, while Maya Lane played guitar and sang sweetly on the acoustic stage, albeit while struggling to overcome noise bleed from elsewhere. I also enjoyed the many variations of Morris dancing on offer, but nonetheless the main stages always looked to be the safest bet, not least when occupied by a genuine living legend (a phrase that was frankly overused during the weekend). Little Jimmy Reed, name checked by everyone from the Rolling Stones down, was a huge treat and a box ticked. The last of his kind, I remain puzzled that he was given a slot so low down on the bill, as did his appreciative audience, who point blank refused to accept a shortened set, requiring him to unpack his guitar for one last song. Grace Petrie, who had been repeatedly recommended to me, proved to be a revelation. Angry, opinionated, yet utterly charming, she demonstrated that you can command a stage with just a guitar and your voice if you have the talent and charisma to do so. Just like the night before, it was if the switch had been thrown, someone turned all the lights on, and the festival had gone up a gear. A superb double bill followed, with The Elephant Sessions and the Afro Celt Sound system finally persuading the audience to dance like loons.
Those doing so missed out on Frank Turner, probably the big draw of the festival, and as one of them I couldn’t say for sure we made the right choice, just as the night before I wondered about missing Dreadzone. While it’s admirable that the organisers want to offer choice it was unusual that quite so many of the headline acts were set up against each other. This was largely due to Wickham’s decision not to have one main stage but two and to share out the talent between them. It was clear that much thought had gone into who played where, with one tent dedicated to those wanting a jig about while the other encouraged gentle swaying, but it did mean clash upon clash in the later hours of each day. It’s their train set but surely with so many sedentary punters one big stage that can be comfortably viewed from a seated position and packed the big-ticket items would have served the audience better. I might have thought differently if it rained, but with only one stage allowing chairs (albeit with impossible sightlines) and both dwarfed by the phalanxes of seated folk watching an outside screen, most of them would have got wet anyway.
Sunday was an altogether quieter affair, with a noticeably smaller audience. Whether the festival cannily programmed knowing that people would drift off early, or the people drifted off early because of what was on offer, it is hard to say, but there was a consensus, at least among the folk I spoke to, that this was the lesser of the days. This was a great pity, and not for the first time, I wondered if the money spent on four days revels might be better distributed over three. Ryan Young was a brilliantly talented violinist promising great things start of his career while Martin Carthy (and I say this with regret and respect) revealed the dangers of outstaying your time in the spotlight, while Ralph McTell was the last of the “legends” that I watched out of duty while being secretly underwhelmed. Thank goodness for Symbiosis and the Treacherous Orchestra, who both put an exciting and invigorating modern spin on traditional Scottish folk music, injected much needed life into a day that was in danger of descending into torpor. The closing acts of Lindisfarne and Gilbert O’Sullivan were pleasant enough and there’s nothing wrong with a dose of nostalgia but it did mean the festival ended with a whimper rather than a bang, though O’Sullivan did at least wind the festival down gently and direct us all to bed early, which was perhaps no bad thing.
There were so many good things about Wickham, but there were odd things too. The shower and toilets were excellent if you didn’t mind a walk to the farm shop (an asset in itself) but there were otherwise two few portable cabins, many of them perched at perilous angles in odd places. The punters the staff were universally friendly and considerate, but were unusually quick to moan that things weren’t what they used to be. There was a clear and palpable desire to offer value for money, though this meant missing half the acts at the top of the bill. Hosted by a farm it was a little rough and ready, which I thought had a certain charm, but which I guess isn’t for everyone. The entertainment site was small and lacked charm or personality, while its rock hard clay surface discouraged excessive lounging. But it never felt crowded, I saw not instance of trouble or one item of litter, and I certainly appreciated nipping back to my tent in five minutes. The festival needs to sort out its stage configuration, which strains to cope with the numbers and the demographic of the people attending. It certainly needs to sort out its traffic management (never have I been so glad that I came down on quiet Wednesday and not chaotic Thursday). While I loved parking a stone’s throw from my tent, the double and triple parking that followed was irresponsible and hazardous. Cars, tents and people mixed in a way that I haven’t seen since the 1980s, and however personally convenient I found a more relaxed attitude to H&S something grim happening as a consequence really does need to be considered.
These are minor quibbles and gripes, but for a festival that has been going as long as Wickham it does seem strange that some of the basics still seem in a state of flux. The shout outs from the stage implied the organisers felt they had taken the festival to the next level and I understand much of the infrastructure had been shuffled around this year, so perhaps a lot of this was simply a case of getting used to being a new size and shape. My abiding memory is of a jolly, unpretentious event that relied heavily on people getting along with each other and being pragmatic and sensible. I cannot recall the organiser of a festival name-checked so frequently by the artists on stage, which is surely testament to the regard in which Peter Chegwyn is held, and there is something rather admirable in going your own way, however quirky that may appear to newcomers.
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