There's a certain symmetry about my decision to end this summer of festival-going by heading along to the second 'Off The Tracks' of the season. It was here, barely more than three months ago, that my tent had its first airing of the year. In the weeks between, there's been rain, sun, smiles and tears, a bucketload of memories and a ton of fun. Now, as August turns into September, this adventure is book-ended at Donington Farmhouse. The tent avoids the shed for another week.
There's no doubt about it. Off The Tracks Summer is a fine way to end the season. This is comfortable, special and relaxing. It's not particularly stressful, bustling or loud. Based around a campsite that's open most of the year round, this is a festival that has the infrastructure in place to accommodate the grumpiest of campers. Permanent, fixed shower and loo facilities; caravan pitches with hook-up points; a car park within easy walking distance of the campsite; lots of undercover space should the weather turn unpleasant in 'proper' buildings that haven't 'popped up' a week before. This is a festival that has been running for decades and it's not hard to see why it still holds such a special place in the heart of the many regulars who attend, almost religiously, year in year out. It's an easy, lovely festival to get around; a main marquee tent and the black barn hosting most of the music; the threshing barn that's employed to such fine use during the spring festival just employed for later night entertainment - Wille and The Bandits on the Friday night and a good old silent disco (which was incredible fun) on the Saturday.
We're met with some sad news as we peruse the little, effective programme handed out to us as we drive onto site. We'd already realised that one-time headliner, Ozric Tentacles, had been replaced by a band they recommended from Finland,Hidria Spacefolk, so it's not this that disappoints us. Rather, there's an announcement that there'll be no spring OTT next year and just one big summer September one. One surmises that this is a consideration made because OTT doesn't want to compete with near-neighbour, 'Bearded Theory' after the latter moved their weekend to clash. Some would say it's simple, market economics. People who utter such drivel are often twats. I simply find it a bit disappointing that these elder statesmen of the festival circuit will not be producing two festivals next year.
The Orb might be considered elder statesmen of the festival circuit. It's hard to comprehend that it's now 25 years since Little Fluffy Clouds was sending us ravers into a prog-dance ecstasy. Alex Paterson and Thomas Fehlmann (I think it's them on stage) have been doing the festival rounds this summer but I don't think I've appreciated their set quite as much as I do in the headline slot on the Friday night at OTT. Perhaps, the real ale and strong ciders have taken hold too much or perhaps it's the contained nature of this marquee in which they play. The customary film clips and psychedelic projections leap off the screen that's positioned behind the DJing duo and for the hour that they play, I stand and stare in a state of bliss.
Any review of OTT is not complete without reference to the wonderful real ale and cider bar it hosts. Priced reasonably, I count at least 40 different ales (session, golden and darker) and at least a dozen ciders. The programme says that there are more than 70 to choose from. This is a festival for punters who like a tipple or five. As Saturday afternoon turns into Saturday night, choice becomes increasingly limited as barrels and boxes are bled dry. By Sunday, the bar is boarded up and redundant; but it's only to the most hardened drinker that this matters. The bar within the farmhouse hotel buildings is well stocked and keeps serving throughout the weekend.
Chemistry Lane are worried, really anxiously so. I chat with the five members of this Chester based band on the Saturday afternoon of Off The Tracks and surmise that this is a bit more than pre-gig nerves. This is their first ever festival set. "We're going to be dressed all in white", says one of them to me. "We make use of samples and electronica", says another. "We're hardly your obvious band to play at a festival full of folkies, Morris dancers and real ale enthusiasts", observes a third.
I try my hardest to reassure Chemistry Lane that such concerns are unnecessary. My experience to date of the Off The Tracks audience are that these are a tolerant, open-minded bunch. They're not fixed into liking one genre of music and actually quite enjoy having their minds expanded by new avenues of sound. Indeed, when Chemistry Lane eventually take to the stage, their white outfits dominant amidst the black barn, the initial 'WTF' moment soon turns into respectful nods. The genre isn't easy to pin down but there's enough prog within the electronica to keep the head tapping; enough 'convention' within the shoegazey guitar work to keep the folksters smiling. When lead singer, Simon, launches into an odd yet compelling dance towards the end of the set that invokes the spirit of Ian Curtis if wrapped in Kate Bush's body (circa Wuthering Heights), most watching are captivated. "At least, there were no bottles of piss", jokes a sweaty band member on leaving the stage. But, there was never any danger of this. The Off The Tracks crowd are open minded and Chemistry Lane are too good for offence to be taken.
The night before in the Black barn, the open-minded sensibilities of the OTT crowd are again challenged. Serpentyne are an act that are new to me. For sheer spectacle, I'd probably go and see them again. Some would argue that this bringing together of renaissance and medieval over a contemporary beat is a bit too much and there were times when these harmonies from history were horrid. But, when the female singers threw themselves into their energetic dances, flailing and flapping across the front row of the audience, it offered a visual treat. Ultimately any band that has a hurdy-gurdy on stage has to be alright.
Off The Tracks is the sort of festival where you'll see bands employing all kinds of instruments that mightn't be typical. Treacherous Orchestra are clearly capable folkies but there's something about the sound of the bagpipes that jars with me on the Friday evening. The Rotten Hill Gang come from that well-known genre 'Dickensian Hip Hop', the clash of styles merging much better than it might on paper. The Monks from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery play and bang all sorts of sacred things before marching us to a pond to watch them burn something. For each band doing something a bit different, there are acts playing it straight but letting their musicianship do the talking. Big Tent & the Gypsy Lantern appear earlier on the Saturday afternoon than the programme states but impress all gathered with their indie-folk clever songwriting and jovial banter. Gordon Giltrap shows that when you can play guitar as well as he can you don't need gimmicks.
Up at the Energy Orchard, the Sound bath experience is in full swing. I wish I'd taken part. People are looking so peaceful, so relaxed and so out of it as the sound from a variety of instruments washes over them. I look around this area a bit more. I promise myself that I ought to indulge in some Shiatsu or some reflexology later in the weekend. I nip into the Oxfam stall in this area and buy myself a bargain pair of red Converse. I use one of my shower tokens to let some water wash over me. And I forget about my earlier promise to myself.
Off The Tracks Summer 2014 is an awesome, absolute success. I take the tent down on a warm Sunday afternoon and can't help feeling a little bit sad. There are to be no more nights under canvas this summer. But then I begin to reflect; this friendly, small festival with a non-corporate vibe and top-notch facilities incorporates everything I love about festivals. As I drive off site, knowing that a hard weeks work is on the horizon, I can't help but smile a broad grin. 2015? Bring it on.
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