After a two hour drive through persistent rain it was a relief to arrive in County Durham in dry weather. Unfortunately it didn’t last. Previously known as Hardwick Live, this year the event’s been re-branded as Hardwick Festival. My last reviewing venture was to a government covid test / research event at Tramlines in Sheffield so I’d come prepared with proof of vaccination / lateral flow tests etc, but in the event there were no covid checks at all. A little surprising really as future festivals that I’m due to review have already sent details of requirements. Maybe this was a world where a pandemic wasn’t happening?
My first live music of my day was the curiously named, Dennis; best described as a semi local band playing folk / pop with links to ex Durham miners groups with leftish political leanings and boasting a back line comprising elements of a brass band. Personally I enjoyed them but couldn’t help wondering what the rather subdued audience around me made of them both musically and politically. I was after all in Sedgewick, a place with generational Labour Party support and Tony Blair as ex MP, but now also re-branded; part of Boris Johnson’s blue Brexit wall.
More local music followed in the form of Andrew Cushin and his band; very much a 90’s / early C21 throwback with songs bearing comparison to more melodic Oasis and early Jake Bugg. The young man’s had endorsement from Noel Gallagher who played on and produced a recent single and many in the crowd were familiar with songs toward the end of his set. There was nothing ground breaking here but he clearly has talent and there’s undoubtedly a market for the genre. It was a nice touch to see the band coming off stage after playing and mingling with family and friends in the audience.
Beyond the main stage, music was focused more on DJ’s. “Glitterbox,” with its own bar in a covered courtyard was busy when I visited at around 3pm and operating a queuing one way system for entry. By five those queues were snaking their way through the fairground area for well over a hundred metres. Elsewhere, The Treehouse Arena – DJ’s in trees; belted out old skool house music. It didn’t seem too popular until later in the evening when small children found it a great place to splash and slide in the mud while their parents did their “adult” dancing. There was also a “Soul Tent” resembling an overgrown yurt. Bodies could be seen cavorting amid dry ice which billowed from the sole entrance. It looked like a perfect environment for coronavirus contagion to me; I didn’t venture inside!
Back on the main stage it was time for some Liverpudlian soul in the form of Rebecca Ferguson. There’s no doubt that she has a great voice but the performance seemed a little stilted and didn’t really work for me. Beginning with some of her own material she was politely received but when she began augmenting Bob Marley with excessive soulful warbling it was time for me to wander.
Walking back toward the fairground area in search of food provided surprises and something slightly surreal. I’ve come across executive boxes at football stadia but here for the first time I encountered the executive tepee. Stretched out in a neat row with their own gardens behind white picket fences and with a view slightly elevated above the masses were several of them; each guarded by burley security. A brief glance inside showed tables adorned in white, serving food and drinks way beyond normal festival fare. I later encountered the somewhat wasted inhabitants of one of these, boorishly demanding that I photograph them from behind their picket fence as I passed with my camera. I declined and hurried on.
Arranged in a rough semi-circle were food outlets interspersed with various fairground attractions; dodgems, a waltzer, along with tamer fare for children. Above them whirred a couple of aerial rides that swooped and swung with customers emitting screeches and squeals. A miasma of dry ice hung in the air, while the rides transmitted their fairground sounds of pop classics from the past. Adding to this cacophony, the Treehouse DJ’s blasted out their retro House. Yet sat central to everything was a brass band, dressed in full regalia, earnestly doing their thing while the snake like queue for the Glitterbox DJ’s weaved its way through it all.
Until this point the weather had been tolerable; dull with light showers. But as Imelda May began to perform the downpour became torrential. Walking on stage she looked quite demure, in keeping with her recent album of slick, soulful well produced songs. For around thirty minutes the band delivered pleasant but largely uninspiring material mostly from this offering, but then something snapped. I don’t know whether it was the tepid crowd response or simply Imelda’s innate rock n’ roll spirit but she’d had enough. Abandoning the stage until near the end of the set, she joined the audience in the torrential rain to sing and dance from the front of the pit barrier. To quote an old footballing cliché; “It was a game of two halves,” with the second half infinitely superior. As the rain intensified it just seemed to motivate her more and more. What began as something fairly ordinary turned into a great performance.
I’d forgotten how impressive Maximo Park can be live, but they didn’t take long to remind me. Combining melodies, singalong choruses, great riffs and above all Paul Smith’s energy, theatricality and charisma they delivered the performance of the day. Playing material from throughout their career, old favourites like “The National Health,” combining institutional praise with political venom proved even more relevant now than when it was written 9 years ago, were unsurprisingly well received. Yet it was some of their recent material that really shone. Newish album, “Nature always wins” released during lockdown has some great tracks and this was the band’s first chance to showcase it for a big audience; they didn’t waste the opportunity. The performance would have been a triumph in front of any crowd but the response was probably amplified by what was effectively a home gig; although in the fiercely tribal North East, hailing from 30 miles away possibly doesn’t count as local.
For entertainment, Chic featuring Nile Rodgers really can’t fail. Musically, they’re flawless, well-honed instrumentalists, accomplished vocalists, topped by the signature guitar and the on stage charisma of Nile Rodgers. Delivering the formidable canon of material that Rodgers has written, co-written and produced creates an atmosphere of uplifting good vibes that’s hard to beat. Early in the set we were treated to Chic hits Everybody Dance, I Want Your Love and others before they moved on to Diana Ross collaborations I’m coming out and Upside Down. At this point the usually smooth Nile Rodgers banter was brought to a halt by protestations of love for one of the female vocalists by a guy at the front of the audience. Decorum partially restored, they launched into Madonna’s, “Like a Virgin” at which point I was distracted by activity on the accessibility stand. The reference is obscure, but I was mesmerised by the wheelchair dancing – the best I’ve seen since a Remmy Ongala gig in the mid 1990’s.
So on it went with through Sister Sledge, Duran Duran’s Notorious and the more recent Daft Punk / Pharrell Williams collaboration, “Happy;” all interwoven with classic Chic material.
I’d made a decision to leave slightly early to try to avoid a quagmire in the car park and knew when the band launched into the Bowie collaboration, “Let’s Dance” that we were heading for the finale. Making my way back through a sea of smiling faces it dawned on me just how mixed the audience was; ranging from their mid-twenties to mid-seventies. Yet here they all were, brought together by music, so many of them singing and dancing in the rain. Approaching my car, the inevitable sounds of Le Freak drifted through the air; and even here there were people dancing their way through the long grass to their cars.
latest on this festival
line-ups & rumours
festival home page
Hardwick Live 2021 review