'Most of us will never do great things, but we can do small things in a great way.'
That's the tagline that proudly nestles on the front of the programme for this year’s Off The Tracks Spring festival. It captures much of what is so powerful about this compact event. Now entering its 26th year, this is a festival that could show some of the younger upstarts a thing or two. With a friendly charm full of community spirit, every punter I talk with enthuses about both the Spring and Summer Off The Tracks. They chat about making a twice-yearly pilgrimage to return to Donington farmhouse to renew acquaintances, to sample ales and ciders, to chill in the sun with relaxed folk music and to dance in frenzied fashion when the late night frivolity kicks in. Small things done in a great way.
The welcome that greets us on arriving on Friday evening sets the tone. Friendly, efficient stewarding and an easy, very short walk from the car to pitching the tent means that I'm cracking open a can of cider far earlier than anticipated. I've been here for less than an hour but already I'm feeling that the busy work life can be forgotten about for this Bank Holiday weekend. The nearby noise of the Superbikes at Donington racetrack combined with the low flying planes coming in to land at East Midlands airport initially distracts but soon becomes little more than background hubbub.
Set, as it is, within an established campsite, Off The Tracks is able to offer many benefits that other festivals with a weaker infrastructure can't. There's an abundance of camper vans and caravans pitched within the site and it's nice to note that family dogs aren't excluded. Portaloos make way for fixed toilet blocks and showers are permanent structures, wonderfully warm and powered by a £1 token. A connected warren of covered brick buildings, outhouses and barns housing a restaurant, space to eat, a bar and one of the venues means that if the weather ever turns nasty there's plenty of space with which to find shelter.
And at times during this weekend that shelter is needed. My tent barely felt a drop of rain last summer but the canvas has already shown its mettle this year (it's fabric) after taking a pounding late on the Saturday afternoon of Off The Tracks. I'm stood in the Energy Orchard, a mini healing field full of massages, Hare Krishna meditations and yoga when the thunder and lightning begins. Some quick-minded campers move a picnic table under shelter and those of us trapped away from the main buildings laugh, cheer and wonder what sort of a mud bath this site might now become as the storm descends with force. In truth, we need not worry. For this is a site that seems to drain well and a Sunday of glorious sunshine, punctuated with occasional cloud break, dries away any rainy memories. Judging by texts received from friends not far away at Glastonbudget and Bearded Theory, it seems that our boots fared better than some.
There are two (and a half) venues at the Spring Off The Tracks. Much of the musical entertainment centres on the outdoor courtyard that hosts the John Shaw stage. John Shaw was a friend of the festival who passed away last year and it's a touching tribute that he's remembered in such fashion. It's typical of the ethos of Off The Tracks though. This is a community that knows each other well. I talk to many people at the festival and it's only on the last night that I find somebody who has never been to Off The Tracks before. Indeed, they had never been to a festival before. I think they made a good, first choice.
The second stage is an indoor venue; a smart, refurbished, threshing barn that probably does a roaring trade in wedding parties when the festival doesn't take centre stage. We do get music in here but there's more besides. A Saturday lunchtime drum workshop does wonders for the Friday night hangover. I've never seen so many djembe's in one room. I kid myself that I have an incredible sense of rhythm as I try to keep up with the experts but all I actually manage to do is bruise my palms. Sunday teatime and we perch on benches to watch the German expressionist silent classic, Nosferatu. This take on the story of Dracula is projected onto three walls of the barn giving a heightened claustrophobic sense. Two musicians from Tang create electronic layers, mesmeric guitar murmurs and clockwork drums as a haunting soundtrack to the screen horrors. It's really quite impressive.
The 'half a' venue is the Oak Room - by day, this is where activities for children seem to take place. I venture in and see a hive of creative activity as youngsters prepare their costumes and art for Saturday afternoon's parade. At midnight, it turns into an acoustic session room. It's a relaxing way to end your day if you don't fancy dancing in the Threshing barn to the modern psy-trance of Hypnocoustics (Friday) or the ecstatic ambience of Eatstatic (Saturday).
Day is almost turning into night on Sunday. It's been a glorious day and I'm waiting in the open courtyard for Seas Of Mirth to take to the John Shaw stage. I vaguely recall their pirate presence at a festival I went to at the back end of last year but in truth nothing prepares me for what follows. This highly energetic ensemble whips us up into a trembling tornado with their theatrical tales of life on the high seas. The John Shaw stage becomes their Black Pig from which they battle a crazed red octopus who dances around the astounded audience. This is a set of folked-up sea shanties and Pugwashed Polkas that encourages audience involvement and, though we might be jaded from two days of drinking and dancing, we duly oblige. Things build to a crescendo and a mass tug of war is encouraged. Follow that Jesus Jones!
Bradford On Avon's finest, Jesus Jones, are the Sunday night headliners. Seeing as they're a band 'of my era', I'm saddened to admit that I'd never seen Mike Edwards and co. live before. They provide a relevant, 'right here right now', explosive climax to the festival. The band have clearly kept themselves in good nick and the years have been kind so much so that punters wonder how many of these 'International Bright Young Things' on stage are original 'real, real, real' members. To my knowledge they all are. This is pop history done well and their sound still feels relevant. Sadly, the same can't be said for Friday night's headliner, Big Country. They bluster their way through hits from their day and recently released newer tracks. There's undoubted technical expertise and there's no doubt that these musicians on stage put in a shift but, to my ears, these bombastic reminiscences would be better left alone. As a sum, it lacks charm. We know what we're going to get from the Neville Staple band as the Saturday night headliner. With bucket loads of charm, he rarely disappoints. The crowd skank away their worries as newer tracks merge into classics from his Specials and Fun Boy Three back catalogue.
Aside from the headliners, there's plenty of quality across the musical programme. Every act seems to be on the bill based upon the quality of their musicianship and you'll struggle to find a weak link. There are many highlights. The Moulettes show off tracks from their forthcoming album, 'Constellations' to a damp, Saturday afternoon crowd. We marvel again at their perfect harmonies and the bewildering array of styles to their bow. The Saturday afternoon parade marches across their set but the Moulettes are incredible musicians and they simply join in with the chant that the youngsters (and adults) sing to provide a moment of unity. Hot Feet were a new act to me but I sat captivated throughout their set of fragile, sixties-influenced, dream-folk. Lead singer, Marianne, has the voice of a ruddy angel. There are nods to some of today's cool, young folksters but enough of a distinct sound to not feel the need for lazy comparisons. On paper, a band described as instrumental jazz-rock would do little to grab my attention but King Capisce are simply stunning when they offer us their sound live. A true hotchpotch of styles and textures amalgamated together with mind-blowing effectiveness.
For more mind-blowing effectiveness, we head off to the famed bars of Off The Tracks. I don't attempt to count the number of ales being served up from the Real Ale tent (the programme says there's about 80) but I know my valiant attempt to drink from each of the barrels is doomed to fail. Most of the ales are solid, session-drinking types with only a few being sold at a percentage above 4.5%. Festival prices here are exceptional with some of the weaker beers selling for less than £3 a pint. Over in the separate cider bar, such concessions to ABV are less obvious and accordingly the prices are higher and the ensuing hangovers heavier. Choice diminishes across the weekend as boxes and barrels run dry but the organisers do a brilliant job in ensuring there's enough to keep us going until the very end. For those not keen on the delights of cider and real ale, the more traditional bar within the warren quaffs your thirst with a fully stocked range.
Overall, I'm left in no doubt that 'Off The Tracks' is a small, fully stocked, great festival. They've been doing this for enough years to get it right - and that's exactly what the organisers have achieved. There must be much hard work and thankless endeavour that goes into helping this festival feel so effortlessly calming. I don't know to what degree competition from Bearded Theory (and potentially Glastonbudget) might have diluted the size of the audience but it does feel that loyalties here run strong. For many, there is no choice to make. If your tent needs an airing or your caravan a dusting then the Spring bank holiday at Off The Tracks is the place to do it.
latest on this festival
festival home page
Off the Tracks 2019 Review