It wasn't supposed to be like this. For months now I've been reading on social media and hearing from friends about how the U.K. is basking in a summer heatwave. And so I fly home from hot, hot Spain for a run of festivals and almost immediately the heavens decide to open. Lunar festival, the lovely little gig in Nick Drake's erstwhile manor has surrendered to torrential downpours and stormy winds. The brilliant, bucolic countryside, previously parched, is now turning into much more familiar fare; squelchy mud with lashings of woodchip put down to stop us sliding.
To be absolutely fair to the organisers of Lunar they seem completely prepared for this turn in the weather; much more so than the bulk of us campers. Some packed wellies and kagoules as an afterthought whilst others are prepared to slip and slide in their flip-flops and sandals all weekend. And the ground drinks the rain like it's going out of fashion; perhaps it is.
It all seemed so unlikely on the Friday when we pitched tent. The glorious sunshine showed no sign of abating. We sit in chairs in the middle of Lunar's main arena and are treated to a musical blast. It's a new stage set-up this year with the festival falling in line with its sister production, Moseley Jazz, Funk and Soul. Thus, we get two stages, positioned next to each other with fifteen minute gaps in between acts. 'We don't need to move from our chairs all weekend', observes somebody oblivious of what's to come.
Friday plays host to a lovely day of music. Boy Azooga have seen their star rising in 2018 and you can see why. Laidback, summery Welsh pop with texture and style that sits in that sweet spot occupied by Gorky's, the Super Furries and Sweet Baboo. It's wondrously warm music. Ditto 77:78 - a couple of members from the Bees, the much-missed Isle Of Wight blissed-out psychedelic popsters, returning with a similarly tuneful project.
As easy as it is to lounge in your camping chairs at Lunar, it would be remiss to avoid the wealth of other 'stuff' that's going on. New for this year is the Moonshine Barn, a neat wooden structure with bar that greets campers when they enter the site (after rigorous bag searches for beer and liquid). There are quizzes, talks, podcast recordings, films (Shirley Collins documentary anyone?) and a healthy amount of music, often local Brummy tribute bands, on offer here. I particularly enjoyed the happy, exuberant world beats from Shah E. Mardan.
We get a space towards the back of the rammed Moonshine Barn when The Unthanks sing the songs of Mollie Drake, Nick's Mum. It's a haunting, theatrical hour of folk interspersed with recorded spoken word segments read by Gabrielle Drake, Nick's sister. The absolute beauty within the singing melts hard hearts. The Unthanks just have that uncanny knack.
It's a somewhat different vibe when the 'Reasons To Be Cheerful' podcast rolls into the Barn early on Saturday afternoon. This is the show hosted by former Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband along with his sidekick, Geoff Lloyd. When we arrive (to shelter out of the rain), Ed is wearing a floral wreath around his forehead. Perhaps, I think to myself, if he had displayed such fashion tendencies during Prime Minister's Question Time the course of history might have run differently. The audience appears to consist of middle-class Mums, all keen to make their voices heard when the microphone is passed around. There's a discussion about how public services might be improved which all feels very asset-based and idealistic. Photographer Sarah, a teacher by trade, leaves in disgust to fight the rain but I stay to see Ed and Geoff interview Bethany Black, the comedian. To rapturous cheers, Bethany suggests that all men should be under curfew after 8PM unless accompanied by two women. It's a thought that gets me thinking. I also leave for more rain and to curfew in my tent.
Lunar has always felt like a well-heeled festival; it's not as posh as Port Eliot but it does have it's fair share of wannabee hippies. One suspects that the yoga, the knitting and the foraging for mushrooms is merely a fad for many here before they buy their new BMW. "Come on, let's get the cava and go hot-tub", is one of my favourite overheard lines of the weekend. The communications received about Lunar pre-festival are all about the seven different experiential areas you can indulge in. Thankfully, there's little evidence of such marketing claptrap on site.
But it does seem to have returned after a two-year hiatus with less certainty about what it wants to be. This identity crisis is far from a bad thing and I have fun throughout in the wind and the rain. Take the added immersive theatre bits. We experience the 'Journey to Nutopia' on Friday night. Ushered into a makeshift medical waiting room, we wait to get searched by staff (actors) for our 'sparkle'. Should we sparkle enough, we're given reflective, silver ponchos and navigate our way around all sorts of faux-scientific tests to discover how zesty we are. It all culminates in lingering stares into the eyes of actors and being given a word (I was the first moist one apparently). Your photo is taken and an identity card produced. You're given a pair of 3D glasses so that the various lights within this area split into fractals and you see a spectrum of colour. And then you head out into a bar area where you can dance. It's undoubtedly an enjoyable interlude but also an odd addition that does little to add to the whole. It's a bit like Lunar is dabbling with trying to be Shambala when it really doesn't need to.
Faring a little better is the small bar and DJ booth that you enter at the side of a bar that can seat one person. Compact it might be but when I wandered in the music got me going and the general atmosphere was one of fun. The same can't entirely be said for another new addition 'the misery saloon', a hut from which mournful Country and Western break-up tunes were played and a space in which smiling was banned. I managed to miss the whisky and gin tasting taking place within this wooden shack but did use it as a shelter from the rain once or twice. It was up my street in terms of music.
The food and drink offering at Lunar has always been impressive and this year is little different. Any festival that hosts the fab 'Burger Theory' is a winner to me. I'm pleased to report that their halloumi burgers still hit the spot. Pizzas from Tin Van Pizza had tasty toppings and the burrito boys know what they're doing. The beer, lager and cider range on site keeps us all quenched and the staff in the Crow bar deserve special mention for always serving with a friendly smile on their faces.
Lunar has built a great reputation over the years for the quality of the music it books. The wind and the rain stifles our enjoyment slightly but there's still more than enough to keep this junkie happy. Friends had previously told me that Plastic Mermaids are ones to watch and I braved a particularly sustained downpour to watch their joyful set. Also from the Isle Of Wight, their brand of visual psych-pop is all sorts of enticing. When their costumed choir take to the stage, glittering in gold tinsel, you're almost able to forget that you're getting soggy and damp. Dorcha play a psychedelic, free form thing that veers between jazz, classical and choral over Sunday lunchtime and it's completely exhilarating. They neatly extend their set when Damo Suzuki turns up late for his gig and then accompany the ex-Can man when he mystifies and excites in equal measure with his improvised vocal noodlings.
Many comment that the Basement Jaxx DJ set would have been a worthy Lunar headliner on the Friday. They certainly create quite a party atmosphere and mix in unexpected tunes to get us all smiling. It's a tough act for the solid and dependable Amadou and Mariam to follow yet they do so (solidly and dependably) without reaching any great heights. Saturday's headliner, Goldfrapp have been in this game for some time and their dreamy, eclectic aesthetic fits neatly in the Lunar chart. Arguably though, Alison and all had already been upstaged by the brilliant Crazy P who played earlier in the evening. Dani Moore is a captivating frontwoman who puts everything into her dance postures. Funky and fresh, it's definitely one of the sets of the weekend. It's left to the Stranglers to end proceedings as Sunday nights headliners. Many seem to have already succumbed to the elements and it's largely a die-hard crowd of men dressed in black watching their heroes. The Stranglers are good though and seem genuinely delighted to be playing the gig.
One of the key moments in the Lunar weekend is the procession and lighting of the fire. Few can forget the sight of Arthur Brown strolling through the field after finishing his set to light the wooden structure a couple of years back. This year, there is no 'star' or 'band member' on hand to light the fire but there's still a spectacle. We're thankful for an hour or two of respite from the rain. The wood, damp to touch, gives off some wavy smoke before the fire takes proper hold. A wicker ball is placed underneath the structure to give extra burn. We stand and watch, eager to predict what plank will next fall to the ground with smouldering allure.
Lunar continues to be a must-do festival. There's lots of fun to be had here even though the 2018 edition, with unpleasant weather, might not be considered a vintage year. With more than enough to see, do and enjoy, it's a place that can keep the whole family entertained. As it develops and transitions, it'll certainly be interesting to see what identity it manages to carve out for itself.
latest on this festival
The Lunar Festival 2018 review
line-ups & rumours
back after a year off