As I begin to pull together my thoughts about Off The Tracks, I find myself temporarily distracted by news reports coming through from North Wales about the despicable state of the Festival No. 6 car parks. And I realise, in a flash, that Off The Tracks is the polar opposite of the Portmeirion farce. Solid, sturdy, not wanting to be a trend-setter but completely comfortable in what it is, Off The Tracks is a little and tiny gem. Here, at Donington farmhouse hotel, on the flight path from East Midlands airport, there are no grounds for any sort of customer complaint (and if there were you could probably raise them directly with Andy or Boz, the two organisers). Despite some pretty ropey, wet weather, the infrastructure of the site stands up to the test, as might be expected when holding a festival on a year-round established camping site. There's plenty of space to shelter and none of the stages are open to the elements. Put simply, this is an example of the small, safe and down to earth beating the boutique.
I was last here two years ago. Indeed, I missed last year's Off The Tracks because I was at Festival No. 6. To be fair, little seems to have changed in the set-up. In its 26th year, this has a tried and tested formula. Stewards with smiles pleasantly welcome me into the car park and familiar faces from previous years greet me in the campfield as I pitch my tent on the Friday afternoon. There's not many punters here who have never been before and the same can be argued about the bands. We're all excited by what the weekend might offer even though we've seen many of the acts scheduled to play this weekend at previous editions of Off The Tracks.
Part of the magic is in chatting to the people and listening to their memories of other times spent at Off The Tracks. As we sit in the threshing barn on Friday evening, slowly drinking a pint of ale, we strike up conversation with a chap who first came to this festival on his stag do. Now, years later, his whole family attend. We learn about how romance blossomed for two band members (in separate bands) two years ago and how they've now returned to the place where they first met.
One of the many things, over and above the camaraderie, that keeps drawing people back is undoubtedly the excellent range of ales and ciders that are on offer. This is a place that pretty much doubles up as a beer festival. The promotion claims that there are seventy-plus to choose between. I don't stand and count but there's certainly an impressive range of goldens, ambers, porters and stouts. It's a slight mystery to me how a festival with quite a small number of attendees always manages to clear these barrels so that choice by the Sunday afternoon is pretty limited. But this is a crowd that drinks big and with such a tasty selection at great prices (£3.00 through to £4.40 for the strongest), the consumption shouldn't confuse.
Judging by the buzz on the campsite, many are here to see Ozric Tentacles headline on the Saturday night. They're a perfect sort of band for Off The Tracks. Swirling, hypnotic repeating rhythms over which epic and proggy guitar solos rise and fall. A significant portion of the crowd drift off into a world of their own making whilst watching and standing under the marquee. Before the Ozrics, the largest crowd of the weekend (just) had turned out to see The Neville Staple Band. You know that you're going to get a solid, upbeat show with Neville. He plays the hits you'd expect him too whilst showing his surprise that some youngsters down the front know who he is. "Did your parents force you to listen to my records?" he might or might not say.
The other 'legend' to play is Hugh Cornwell. He takes to the marquee stage on Friday evening alongside his three piece band. It's a functional, perfectly acceptable set where Hugh re-imagines the obvious and the more obscure from the back catalogue of The Stranglers in very power-pop fashion. He brings us up to speed with more recent efforts but doesn't mention future gigs he's got lined up with John Cooper Clarke (which should be interesting). Simon Friend (from the Levellers) completed the set of headliners by overseeing a rare outing of his Seismic Survey at Sunday tea-time but we'd already packed up and headed home by this time.
This has never been a festival where you're encouraged to rush from stage to stage. In fact, although it runs from Friday to Sunday, it only really gets to full speed on the Saturday. Friday eases you in with a couple of stages running and Sunday prepares you for work on Monday with a set of afternoon acts in the Marquee forming the bulk of the entertainment. On the Saturday, there's the main stage, the black barn, an introducing stage and an open courtyard where Morris dancers can strut their stuff. All of this is compact and tight, making use of the former farm outbuildings and space that now make up the hotel. Should you not want to visit the real ale bar, you can always get a pint from the hotel bar (great for lager drinkers or if you're wanting wine or spirits). Donington farmhouse hotel also do a continuous selection of food - full English breakfasts, venison burger and fish, chips and mushy peas being the reasonably priced options to tempt me over the weekend.
Food (as per previous years) is also served in the Energy Orchard. In this mini-field, slightly adrift from the main hotel complex, you can get Thai or Vegetarian based falafel options whilst looking around the other stalls in this area. The excellent Oxfam second hand stall returns and I spend a bit of time seeing if I can find another clothing bargain to add to my collection. There's also an assortment of healing activities and yoga-based pursuits. The grey and rainy weather prohibits my trip to this open air arena more than it has in prior years.
I'm told that Off The Tracks is a fab festival for youngsters and I see no reason to argue with this. As with the general ethos elsewhere, there doesn't seem to be a jam-packed, action-fuelled programme of activities for your kids. But they all seem content; there are places to paint, to be creative, to watch films and to climb and run around. Surely, this is all that's required?
Outside from the headliners, the musical offering is mostly roots based and often local to the Derby, Leicester and Nottingham scenes. The Della Grants catch the eye on Saturday afternoon with their traditional take on blues music; competent songwriters and enthusiastic performers, they're perhaps the band that most get the crowd buzzing. Just before them, Lil Jim & Z Theory (Jim's not little at all) from Derby give us a sonic swamp tour around their Louisiana holiday pics. Seas of Mirth, return to Off The Tracks to gee us up on Friday night with their pirate based shenanigans and The Jar Family show great restraint (and considerable talent) by playing two shows at the start and the end of Saturday, perfectly book-ending a fine festival day.
The second of these shows from The Jar Family take place in the second venue, the Black barn. Frustratingly, I spend more time watching soundchecks in here than I do listening to full sets from bands. But, I guess given the size of the festival, it's best not to stick to rigidly to scheduled times. Husband and wife team, Oka Vanga, impress with their complex acoustic pickings whilst Chemistry Lane demonstrate that their heavily layered electronica (with guitars) does have a role to play at this festival in the build up to the Ozrics. With falsetto vocals and rumbling menace, somebody comments that they're only an e-bow away from Sigur Ros. Bands in the barn on Friday night seem hampered by a sound set up that makes listening for more than five minutes a challenge. Erica were highly recommended but it's perhaps best not to judge them on this performance, such was the terribly misplaced sound coming from the drums.
I'm packing up the tent on Sunday and thinking about making a quick exit. "You do know that you can bring your car here so that you don't have to trudge back to the car park, don't you?" asks Photographer Phil. I'd forgotten that this was an option and given that my car was less than five minutes walk away, I wasn't really dreading the distance. Nevertheless, I get my car and have one of the easiest takedowns of the summer. I ponder that this might be the final airing for the tent in 2016. Within minutes, I'm able to drive off site and hit the country roads. My car's under-carriage is free from mud and I reflect that I've just had a simple yet great weekend. Festivals don't have to grow year on year to hit the heights and to win our hearts.
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