Hardwick Live has been hankered after by thousands of festival loving folk this year, particularly in the North East. Boasting a line-up of big names, and with a couple of other festivals in the region no longer on the summer agenda, it's unsurprising that Hardwick was a sell-out. Set in the grounds of the smart Hardwick Hall Hotel in County Durham, and overlooking 120 acres of parkland, it was a pretty picturesque setting for a festival.
Weather-wise the one day event was very much a game of two halves (as they say in football). The first was unexpectedly sunny, with the second half seeing an epic thunderstorm right up until the final whistle. As it turned out, in my opinion the torrential rain was a positive game changer for the festival experience as a whole, but more on that topic later.
Despite the event taking place just down the road from me (being based in Newcastle), this was the first time I'd really fancied Hardwick Live, now in its third year. With notable acts in past years being of the poppier variety like Texas, Simple Minds and The Jacksons, the vibe this year was distinctly rockier with several indie outfits from the 90s filling the top slots. Lured in by impressive acts including James, Embrace, and Cast amongst others, I couldn't wait to give it a go.
The Hardwick site was well organised on arrival; the orderly queues for the drinks voucher system moved quickly, as other festival goers dispersed around the sun-drenched grounds to explore the various stages and stalls. It didn't take long to discover all the key areas including the Main Stage, the Discovery Stage and the number of bar options, as all the attractions were easy to spot within the compact site. In fact you couldn't miss The Dome, a giant inflatable UFO-like silver dance tent.
I also enjoyed the addition of street performers including stilt walkers and human starfish, who I spotted photobombing some other festival goers. They helped to temporarily convert the well-kept hotel ground into a fun, theatrical festival area.
After scanning the surroundings to check out the gin bar, dodgems, Bulmers Garden, hot tubs, fairground rides and champagne tent, we made a beeline for the Discovery Stage to see the band just starting their set.Glasgow group Randolph's Leap were an indie pop triumph with their interesting musical arrangements and equally unorthodox lyrics (including the amazing rhyme of 'chino' with 'jalapeno').
Heading across to the Main Stage for the first time, I was pleased we were going to catch some of Scott Matthews' folk- rock songs. Having bought 2014 album 'Home Part 1' off the back of some brilliant reviews, I was keen to experience this intelligent singer songwriter's work live on stage. I enjoyed his soulful vocals, and the way he put his whole heart (and lungs) into the harmonica in the last track of the set.
Back at the Discovery Stage, I did just what the name encouraged, and discovered Dexters who have got to be "the ones to watch" of the festival circuit. The London lads blasted through their first track until it was cut short by an unfortunate power cut. Taking the setback in good spirits, they played on from where they'd left off, before the same issue happened again.
Determined to put in a good shift, singer Tom Rowlett hopped off the stage and played a further three songs in solo acoustic format, providing one of those special "I was there" festival moments. However when they were eventually plugged back in, Dexters well and truly blew the socks off the Discovery Stage crowd with their pure indie perfection.
Meanwhile, the Main Stage was transported back to the 80s courtesy of Brummie band The Beat. I could see on the big screens that the front few rows of the crowd were bopping away to the 2 Tone tunes, with festival goers evidently loving re-living the vibes of this popular decade. Next up was Embrace, who belted out their hits including 'All You Good Good People' and 'Come Back to What You Know' to the delight of the sun-soaked crowd.
The Sherlocks are a band of two sets of brothers, who have recently made an appearance at festivals of varying sizes across the north of England. Hailing from Yorkshire, you could identify their splendid Sheffield twang a mile away. The modest audience who came to see them appeared to contain a small army of current fans, with several in attendance singing along to 'Live for the Moment' and 'Chasing Shadows'.
My personal highlight of the festival arrived around the same time as the torrential rain. For me Newcastle funk outfit Smoove & Turrell provided the best beats of the day and I loved the way John Turrell put his hood up in empathy for the drenched dancers. They even joked about how the band "like being underground", so shhhh don't be telling anyone about the North East's best kept secret!
We took a short pit stop to temporarily escape the monsoon like conditions as we squeezed into the packed out dance tent, The Dome. There was a warm and inclusive atmosphere in the tent, with many others having the same idea as us. A swelling crowd back at the Discovery Stage however, signified that 90s favourites Cast were due to play. Choosing to champion new music by headlining the smaller of the two stages, the band ensured they played to a packed house. Fans went wild for crowd-pleasers like 'Sandstorm' and 'Walk Away' and many an emotional moment was shared.
As a result of a slightly late start from Cast, it was soon time to hot foot it over to the Main Stage for Manchester legends James' headline slot. Thankfully due to the aforementioned torrential downpour (which was ongoing), most of the mass of camping chairs that had been blocking the route through the site all day had now moved. This was really the only criticism I had of Hardwick Live; the lack of control over the volume of chairs on site, which were a bit hazardous when the festival was at full capacity.
Anyway, back to the music and the most stunning set from James. Singer Tim Booth was instantly adored by the audience for his impromptu rendition of 'Singin' in the Rain' before they even played any of their own songs, then of course stonkers like 'Come Home', 'Sit Down' and 'She's a Star' were well received. The frontman didn't shy away from his trademark mid-song crowd surf too, despite the oppressive downpour.
The really remarkable moment came though when the band switched their set list around to match what was happening with the weather. Booth requested that the stage lights were dimmed for 'Sometimes', and as if under his power, the lightning struck right on cue as he sang "come on thunder, come on thunder". Absolutely electric stuff.
A few fireworks illuminated our exit from the festival, and although sad to leave I was pleased to be off home to a nice warm bed. I spotted the message on the big screens in the background that said "See you at Hardwick Live 2016 – Weather forecast 32 degrees and sunshine all day" and through chattering teeth I laughed at the organisers' wicked sense of humour. Thanks to top drawer headliners like James and Cast, a 'fine time' was certainly had by all at Hardwick Live this year.
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