The days are getting shorter and the tops of the trees are changing colour from bright green to dirtier browns. As realisation hits that our summer holidays are over for another year, it's hard to resist that urge to reflect upon the 2017 festival season. And without doubt, some of the things that stick in the mind aren't positive. Tales of festivals expanding beyond their capacity are commonplace; stories about punters being placed into danger at the hands of promoters wanting to make a fast buck have surfaced. In Britain, it's not always been a vintage year weather-wise either. Of course, it's not all been like this and there's been plenty of success stories but the negatives still stick.
It's at times of reflection such as these that you have to thank your lucky stars for Off The Tracks. Solid and dependable, this is a festival that you can return to year after year, knowing that you're in good hands. Resisting the urge to change, grow or morph, you're not going to find hidden corners or new stages here. There'll be no rush to get in when the gates open, to reserve your own patch of land so that you can camp with your mates, because there's plenty to go around for all of us. Unless you're an Off The Tracks virgin (and judging by the plethora of faces I recognise from years gone by this isn't the case for most) you'll know exactly what you're getting at this festival. There's much to be said for the sense of easy comfort and community that fizzes across Donington farmhouse over this weekend. We've all come home. We can all take deep breaths and be calm whilst not having to rush about from stage to stage. These are our friends and we can celebrate being with them.
The approach is evident from the off. There's no complicated E-ticketing system here but rather a ramshackle caravan which you drive up to on an entrance lane. Smiling attendees do their best to find you on handwritten lists and then fix your wristbands on you whilst you're still in your car. You're guided to the car park field by helpful stewards though the truth is that this all runs like clockwork because the entry process hasn't changed for years. I amuse myself by thinking about what carnage might ensue if anything was amended here. The cars in the car park field are still parked in neat lines and facing the same direction as they always have. There's much to be said for routine.
I build myself up to the epic and long walk from car to camp-site but then remember that's not this festival. Even if you choose to camp at the edge of the site, you're unlikely to be more than a few minutes from your car. It adds to the relaxed comfort. Sarah uses the opportunity to bring her super-size tent complete with kitchen sink. But, that's OK and appropriate at Off The Tracks.
Once settled, it's time to peruse the programme. Again, this is no glossy magazine. It's not given to you in a cloth bag and there's no prohibitive charge for it. Copies of the paper leaflet are given out on entry or you can pick one up from the side of the bar. It's as elaborate as it needs to be introducing what's on with minimal fuss. There's enough space dedicated to the ethos of the place; recycling and the use of local produce is mentioned. Most of all what comes across is that this guide is written with the Off The Tracks community in mind.
Last year, I might have uncharitably pondered whether the OTT band booking policy had got a tad staid. It's certainly always going to be a line-up that breeds familiarity. The sense this year though is that, within the confines with which they operate, all of the stops have been pulled and favours accrued. The Friday night billing of sub-headliner, The Crazy World of Arthur Brown alongside headliner, Peatbog Faeries, mixes well with the Saturday night duo of Misty In Roots and the Dub Pistols. Truly, there's something for everyone within those four legends of the festival circuit.
For me, of the four of them, it's The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown that are the real stand outs. We're reminded that 'Fire' is coming up for its 50 year anniversary which gets us all speculating about Arthur's age. It's only because he still glides across the stage like a man much younger. Full of moves, he seems energised by his excellent backing band. Their youthfulness has bought a new vibrancy to this classic prog sound and it's all only amplified when the dancer joins Arthur on stage for Flamenco and Egyptian pieces.
The Dub Pistols do what the Dub Pistols do. Wildly, the crowd bounce along as they're encouraged by Barry et al to sing. It's a festival that this band have played at a couple of times on their rise towards the top and this is a sort of triumphant homecoming tonight. They're back amongst friends who've always supported them, safe and secure in familiar family surroundings. Misty In Roots play and we sway - so laidback it's pretty much horizontal. The Peatbog Faeries barely stop to take a breath as they frantically jig through their fiddling folk.
As ever with Off The Tracks, there'll always be something on the undercard grabbing at your attention. This year, it's hard to avoid Goldwater. Making waves in the Leicester scene (and beyond) for a couple of years now, it was only a matter of time before other festivals picked up on their charms. They open the main stage on the Saturday and do their best to clear the hangovers from the night before. Their thing is a dynamic, progressive blues thing led by a mad loon of a lead singer, Grant. Like a court jester, he jumps into the crowd immediately breaking any barrier between band and audience. He sings up close to punters. Some who arrive late seem genuinely terrified by the prospect. The rest of Goldwater look on in calm awe, sometimes chuckling at their vocalist's manufactured breakdown. All told, it's an impressive performance piece from fine musicians and one that gets the crowd talking.
A bit later on the Saturday and the audience are won over by the very different charms of The Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Doonican. I'd never before seen this Northern musical-comedy act but will certainly be checking them out in the future. It's hard to miss them in their brightly coloured sweaters and ill-fitting toupees. Like a modern-day version of the Barron Knights, they take popular songs, amend the words and twist them into hilarious folk parodies. I'm bent over double with laughter when they make the Stones classic into 'Paint 'Em Back', a well-observed piece about the state of some women's eyebrows. From Barnsley, they mention their rivalry with the Lancashire Hotpots and you can see it's that market that's being tapped. There's enough laughter required on the circuit for both bands to be successful.
One of Off The Tracks' many charms is the real ale and cider provision it offers. Only a sad man would count all of the barrels they stock but I'm reliably informed there's a choice pushing up to the seventy mark. It's CAMRA paradise and another real feature of OTT's enduring success. Hailing from a range of largely local breweries, my tactic is to pick a beer of mid-range strength and stick with it until the barrels run dry. I settle on the 'Fools Gold' and a fine pint it proves to be. Others go for more of a random approach simply and vaguely waving their arms towards a barrel when asked what they might want by the really helpful and happy staff. Either method does the trick it seems. Should ale and cider not be your thing there's plenty of other choice within the on-site farmhouse bar.
I'm sure part of the reason why we'll keep returning to this solid and stable place is because all of our comforts are met. Much of the site is paved with stone and under canvas so we rarely notice should rain fall. There's no excuse for unpleasant festival odours because the site, sometimes a wedding venue on other summer weekends, has flushing toilets and warm showers in cubicle blocks. It's even possible to eat with more variety than you might at other festivals - the farmhouse providing a different menu of produce each day should one of the stalls not satisfy your hunger. Our mental needs are also catered for with an impressive array of massages and therapies on offer in The Energy Orchard, a healing field.
If it's late night entertainment you want, you're unlikely to be disappointed at Off The Tracks. As the headline acts finish, bands, DJs and solo acts take to the stage in other spaces and rooms around the farmhouse complex. On Friday night, we stumble upon Kev Andrews, described modestly in the programme as 'an engaging, funny guitar virtuoso'. He’s that and much more. An extra-ordinary player, he achieves almost impossible things on his guitar keeping bass lines alive whilst picking at the melodies. His version of 'Bohemian Rhapsody' is something that all should see. On Saturday night, we follow tradition by dancing at the silent disco in the Threshing Barn. That runs until 3 in the morning but we’re long gone by then; the ales and the ciders having worked their magic.
As I rest my head down in my tent, I hear nearby frivolity from a campfire. Friends of many years standing are enjoying the last days of the summer, catching up over a can or three. It’s a happy, chirpy sound and one that I’d like to bottle to open as required over those darker, wintry days that rapidly approach. I know that I’ll be leaving at Sunday lunchtime and so will miss the afternoon of music that the festival has scheduled for then (Photographer Phil might add an addendum).
I console myself with the thought that as long as Off The Tracks keeps being what Off The Tracks is, there’s always hope. It’s been a vintage year.
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