With a stronger line up than ever before, on paper at least, Hardwick Live changed its format to a two-day full weekend festival in an attempt to up the ante again following last year’s successful expansion.
With a noticeable breeze and one or two spots of rain, the weather was not as warm as the UK has been enjoying of late but it was fine and certainly not going to spoil the day for the long line of people queuing for entry. With adult single day tickets costing £49 or £89 for the full weekend it’s reasonably priced (compared to the nearby Great North Run anyway) and with this line-up offered a chance to see some of the defining artists of the last four decades of indie and pop live at a North East festival.
Located in the grounds of Hardwick Hall, the festival comprised of two stages, with numerous diverse food and drink stalls, fairground rides as well as the hotel itself. The site is relatively compact – put it this way unless you have overdone the much loved festival drinks voucher system or are just particularly directionally challenged you are not going to get lost but, Hardwick Live definitely has a ‘proper’ festival feel rather than just that of an open-air gig.
Anybody who attended the event last year will have noticed the addition of a red double decker bus bar, very cool Britannia, and also the fact the organisers fenced off the lake from view of the stages. If this was in response to complaints last year about people being able to watch the festival without paying from the other side of the lake or just the fact it is a public walkway then either way it detracted from what had previously been such a highly scenic setting.
Saturday’s line up was the weaker of the two days in my opinion, and I didn’t expect too much other than a good day out with my brother. After breaking on X Factor in 2012, Lucy Spraggan was the first act we caught and she stepped onto the Main Stage with a smile. I didn’t recognise many of her songs but she is a likeable performer, has a good voice and nurtured a decent rapport with the audience, constantly chatting between songs.
Kevin Phillips look-a-like Jake Shears was next on stage after releasing a self-titled solo album earlier this month but we didn’t stop long as, although he undeniably has a stage presence and entertains, I’ve never been a particular fan of the Scissor Sisters music or Jake’s voice. The sizeable crowd who turned up to watch suggest many others disagree with me on that though.
I’ve owned a few of Ash’s songs over the years and so was looking forward to their performance but I have to say I was slightly underwhelmed with the Northern Irish indie rockers. They made all the right noises but the sound levels just didn’t seem right to me, with Tim Wheeler’s voice hard to pick out over the guitars and only their most well-known hits like ‘Shining Light’, ‘Girl From Mars’ and ‘Burn Baby Burn’ really seemed to lift the crowd beyond happily spectating.
I’d not heard of Vintage Trouble before but did an immediate double take as soon as they appeared on the Main Stage. I’d seen the lead singer somewhere before, but I couldn’t work out where it was. Then as he started to sing it hit me! I’d been a big INXS fan back in the day and Vintage Trouble’s lead singer, Ty Taylor, had competed, eventually reaching the top 5, in the 2005 reality TV show Rock Star INXS. He could certainly belt out a tune in that show so this could be interesting.
Vintage Trouble are all out Rhythm and Blues and that’s never been a bad thing and when they play it with this much energy and with a front man that grabs your attention and stubbornly refuses to give it back then you know you are in for a great set. The non-stop Taylor is the undeniable star but he is expertly aided and abetted by the rest of the band who, sharply attired in a clear nod to their 60’s roots, give him the platform on which to perform.
And perform he did, making several forays into the welcoming crowd and at one stage body surfed his way back to the stage all the while continuing to sing. If you get the chance to see them, grab it with both hands – they are simply an outstanding live act.
The Kaiser Chiefs headline the Saturday and, although they are much maligned these days – perhaps due to front man Ricky Wilson's time as a judge on The Voice UK, they remain a great live act with a long back-catalogue of anthemic hits. Ricky excitedly plays the crowd, bouncing around the stage and leading them through a set that plays like a cracking greatest hits album including rousing renditions of ‘Ruby’, ‘Na Na Na Na, Naa’, ‘Everything is Average Nowadays’, ‘Never Miss A Beat’, ‘Everyday I Love You Less and Less’, Oh My God’, ‘Modern Way’ and ‘I Predict a Riot’.
Overall a typically energetic performance from a great live band and the Kaisers closed Saturday with a bang to raise expectations ahead of Sunday.
Similarly, mixed weather welcomed us to Hardwick for the Sunday and there definitely seemed to be fewer people on site, especially earlier on in the day. Was this the result of most having work on the Monday, or the increase in cost to attend two days rather than one and a half – who knows but it will be interesting to see if it affects the organisers future plans.
The first act we caught was up and coming Bolton four-piece Jordan Allen. These lads can really play, with just a hint of the Libertines about them and they quickly got the crowd going, especially when the band urged the crowd closer to the stage.
The band played ‘110 Ways to Make Things Better’, a poignant tribute to Jordan’s late father but my personal favourite was the rousing ‘Rosie’, finishing their set with deserved backing vocals from the enthusiastic crowd.
The eagerly-awaited Public Image Limited (PIL) were next up with John Lydon and the band celebrating their recent milestone of hitting 40 years of playing together. Love him or hate him, Lydon’s on stage charisma has not diminished over the years and ‘the king of the punks’ spat his lyrics out with the attitude you’d expect.
We headed for the Discovery Stage after a couple of songs to see the New York Brass Band, who describe themselves as ‘North Yorkshire’s only contemporary New Orleans inspired brass band’. As well as being good musicians in their own right, the band guarantee a good time with brass band covers as well as a few of their own songs. Be prepared to participate fully though or you may well be picked out!
It’s back to the main stage to watch Feeder next, a band who like the Kaiser Chiefs from Saturday’s line up, boast a huge back catalogue of hits which hints at their longevity – it’s easy to forget they formed in 1994. Hits such as ‘Buck Rogers’, ‘Come Back Round, ‘Just The Way I’m Feeling’, ‘Just A Day’ and others keep the crowd thoroughly entertained.
Next up were the band I expected to be the highlight of this festival for me, the incomparable Echo & the Bunnymen. Ian McCulloch was never going to be as energetic as Ty Taylor or Ricky Wilson but when you get to perform the quality of songs this band have released you really don’t need to. Like The Cure, the Bunnymen have always had the confidence to flirt around the borders of punk, pop and indie with equal success and the list of hits played was unrelenting starting with ‘Lips like Sugar’ and including ‘Killing Moon’, ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’, ‘Seven Seas’, ‘The Cutter’, ‘Rescue’ and the simply magnificent ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’.
Were they good? Without a doubt, how could they not be with McCulloch’s voice just as good as ever and with the band playing pretty much all my favourite tracks. Did I expect a little more? In honesty and, perhaps unrealistically, I have to say yes.
Shed Seven were never my favourite band from the Brit pop era but they released some great songs all the same and the crowd lapped them up as the temperature started to cool. ‘Chasing Rainbows’, ‘Going For Gold’, ‘Getting Better’ are classics that deserve their place in any Britpop playlist and somehow ‘Disco Down’ seems to sound better now than it did back in the day.
Finally, we are treated to the chaos that is the Happy Mondays and Shaun, Bez, Rowetta and the band take the more than willing crowd straight back to that Madchester era. Bez is still Bez, and still the undisputed king of dad dancing and remains the bands on stage cheer leader (which is much needed given Ryder’s is pretty much static throughout).
At times, they seem to be making it up as they go along but somehow the whole package that is the Mondays still really, really works and they are a fantastic act to watch. Their manic performing style is backed up with some great songs too though and standout tracks were always going to include ‘Step On’, ‘Dennis and Lois’, ‘Donovan’, ‘Hallelujah’, 24 Hour Party People’, ‘Loose Fit’ and ‘Kinky Afro’.
In summary, a great two days with some unexpected highlights with, in the main, many of the bands I grew up listening to delivering to expectations. Hardwick Hall is a fantastic location and deserves a successful festival. There is still some room for improvement but in the words of Shed Seven - It's getting better all the time!
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Hardwick Live 2018 review