Greenbelt opens offering music, arts, faith and justice in the rain

Greenbelt Festival 2011 review

By Helen OSullivan | Published: Mon 5th Sep 2011

around the site (Friday)

Friday 26th to Monday 29th August 2011
Prestbury, Cheltenham, England MAP
£120; concessions £75; child 5-17 years £65; family ticket £310
Last updated: Fri 12th Aug 2011

Greenbelt is a family-friendly, boutique festival with arts, faith and justice at its core. It's a Christian festival but welcomes people of all faiths and none, has a liberal, open-minded questioning ethos and hosts talks, seminars, panels and workshops about applying faith in current times. For the social justice part there are plenty of opportunities for punters to get involved with campaigns on site during the weekend. The arts are well represented across genres of visual arts, music, comedy, dance, theatre, literature and film. The festival has been held at Cheltenham Racecourse since 1999 which means that as well as the outdoors mainstage, Big Top and various marquees, there are also indoor venues, protection from the rain and proper toilets.

around the site (Friday)
The line-up across all music genres seems to get better each year and there is plenty to look out for – Billy Bragg, Mavis Staples, The Unthanks, Duke Special, all on the mainstage, comedy from Mark Thomas, performing arts events such as Ockham's Razor and Flava. This year we are promised lunchtime mainstage gigs, a bigger Big Top (with a capacity of 3,200) and an improved children and youth programme. The festival is trying a radical new approach for kids this year. Previously there's been a completely separate children's festival where parents and carers would leave kids for morning and afternoon sessions. This year it is hoped that the children and their guardians will be more integrated in to the festival, with a number of venues aimed at youngsters and a full programme from 9 am till 9 pm with a team on hand to help. There's even a Parent Support venue where babies can be bathed and food heated up.

The theme this year is 'Dreams of Home' and, for many, Greenbelt Festival feels like home.

Iain Archer
The weekend begins with a special reception for Greenbelt "angels" – people who support the festival financially through the year – the Throng of Throngs. It's held in my favourite venue, the Performance Café. There are introductions from festival staff, a comedy routine from Miss Information's Booth, music from Iain Archer, as well as tips on what to see over the next few days. The serious message is that the festival is facing hard times financially as are other festivals – they made a loss last year and cutbacks have been necessary - and how Greenbelt relies heavily on its angels, as well as the vast ranks of volunteers.

I visit Lumia Domestica – an art installation by Willie Williams, a world-renowned stage designer who's best known for his work with U2. It's a collection of everyday glass objects (vases, tumblers, cake stands) made beautiful by coloured light filtered through them and projected on to the wall behind. Each object turns constantly and the light changes to create rainbow colours and patterns.

Show of Hands
Tonight's mainstage is being curated by Welsh singer-songwriter, Martyn Joseph who is also standing in as compère for 'whispering' Bob Harris who's cancelled his appearances at Greenbelt this weekend due to ill health. Show of Hands, stalwarts of the folk circuit, play an excellent set, including a song about the perils of social networking and the brilliant folk song about gambling at Cheltenham, 'The Galway Farmer'.

I head over to the star-draped (on the inside!) Performance Café to reserve a seat near the front for the 'Special Guest' headliner. I catch a bit of Atlum Schema, a four-piece indie-rock band with distinctive lead vocals. They've apparently toned down their set to fit in with the ethos of this venue where drums are "strongly discouraged." Next up is Jason Carter playing an intriguing twin-necked instrument which he explains is a harp guitar. He plays some beautiful instrumental pieces interspersed with stories of his travels in 'axis of evil' countries like North Korea and Afghanistan. Happily I've managed to miss the worst of the rain - many punters are now arriving drenched through.

The secret gig headliner is Duke Special, just one man and his keyboard tonight. He plays new songs and old, the newer ones taken from recent projects such as a collection of songs inspired by photos at the New York Met Museum and songs of Ruby Murray (Duke recently presented a documentary on the legendary Belfast singer). Jason Carter joins him on the harp guitar for a superb new song co-written with Boo Hewerdine called 'Condition'. A lovely, intimate gig and chance to see Duke Special up close (especially to witness his entertaining overacting skills in the portrayal of the songs) before his Sunday mainstage show.

around the site (Friday)
I head over to the late night magazine show, 'Last Orders' which is at capacity, although it's being held in the huge Centaur venue. The show usually features interviews, video clips, live music, and silly stuff. I manage to sneak in to see Grace Petrie, who is introduced as one of Billy Bragg's favourite songwriters, and she actually seems like a female version of him and labels herself a political songwriter. Artist Dan Thompson is interviewed – he's the guy behind the clean-up (pick up a broom) campaign after the recent riots. There's more music from Folk On, a spoof folk group with fake (least I think they are!) West Country accents, flat caps and daft, funny songs. Despite being a spoof band, they can actually play their instruments and sing and harmonise tunefully! The main attraction, comedian Milton Jones, is on near the end of the show and delivers a series of disjointed one-liners – "I tried to impress a girl by putting my foot down on the pedal... turns out she'd seen a bin open like that before." The late show finishes with a song by Luke Leighfield, who's the 'house band' for the duration of the weekend – a geeky looking lad who plays keyboards and gets under your skin quite quickly.

Walking back afterwards I realise there aren't so many lights in the campsite this year so it's pretty dark and also misty, I haven't got a torch, and my friend has switched his mobile off! So I'm very relieved to find my tent after a moment of panic, retracing of steps and 20 minutes of searching.
review by: Helen OSullivan

photos by: Helen OSullivan

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