It’s Off the Tracks’ weekend again - I can’t quite work out how many times I’ve returned to this event, but it’s my family’s favourite small festival, so I’d say about a dozen times. This year marks 30 years since the festival was first held in 1988; its big anniversary is favoured with the most beautiful late summer weather imaginable - clear, sunny, dry, not too warm. Not that a downpour would have dampened our spirits that much, as the event is held on a proper campsite with barns and marquees to shelter all stages, but still, it's a joy to be out in the sun in the big farmhouse courtyard, see the children play and have the chance to gather together in the evening without getting drenched. And I certainly drink a lot more cider when it’s warm outside!
After 30 years, Off the Tracks Festival is still small and it fits into a weekend in the neatest possible way, the music starts at 7pm on Friday and finishes around 6pm on Sunday, leaving time to pack up and go home (although there’s the option to stay until Monday morning if you wish).
30 years, yes. The organisers can hardly believe it themselves, although they have seen some of their regulars losing/sprouting grey hair and acquiring children and grand-children in those years. There are three generations of some families in attendance, and they all seem to have visited before. What an endorsement for Off the Tracks that must be. Anniversary T-shirts sell out within two hours on Saturday morning, but a reliable source informs me that more can be ordered through the website.
Friday evening opener These Wicked Rivers rock the Marquee Stage, great enthusiasm and some interesting riffs there. They are followed by the marvellous Aurora Dawn and the ScreaminSkulls. A small, slender woman with a great voice, energy and stage presence she and her band span a range of genres, definitely worth seeking out if a mix of rock and soul is your thing. We later see Aurora in the audience at Metal Fatigue’s special midnight session at the Black Barn stage. I wanted to catch a snippet of the Gilded Thieves, a young band who are playing the Black Barn stage at the same time; I remember chasing them across the camp-site car park last time they played here, to buy one of their CDs because I liked them so much, but I only catch the end of their last track, Gin Bar, a song about the down sides of gentrification. But there’s still Transglobal Underground to look forward to - they have brought Natasha Atlas along and her voice is still good. What a mix of genres in one evening. It seems to chime with the taste of the crowd, almost everyone must do an encore.
Social Ignition are rounding up the night at the Threshing Barn stage, well positioned next to the main bar, but we are off to the Black Barn again, to watch the amazing Metal Fatigue do mostly covers of famous rock tracks. The band spans the generations, the lead guitarist is a mere 19 years old, young enough to be the frontman’s son - or perhaps he is the secret love-(grand)child of Ritchie Blackmore? He certainly plays Highway Star that way!
It’s coming up for 2am and we've sampled more from the generous selection of real ales and special ciders than we care to admit, or remember. The large choice of local brews from smaller suppliers is one of the specialities of OTT. Rolling home to the tents, I’m grateful that we don’t have far to go. For the really hardy, there’s still a jam session going on somewhere near the main bar. One of the things that make this festival so interesting, but I’m spent.
On Saturday, there’s a large troupe of Morris dancers on the move around the courtyard and the Gobelin market, later the main stage opens with the delightfully named Treebeard. They play folk tunes and covers and some of their own and they are obviously pleased to be here. They're followed by Pons Aelius, a younger band that keeps the tradition alive, very good too. Shifting Rumours (New Introducing Stage - the acts are new, not the stage) hold up the flag of indie rock. Tom C Walker takes to the main stage his band, we remember him from the Great British Rock and Blues weekend where he won a best new band competition, deservedly so. And then there’s John Otway and The Little Big Band - an old OTT favourite. He’s got his musical comedy act honed to a T.
Now it’s time for the traditional Beer Break. What is a beer break for? We have a little disagreement about that. I thought it was about having a break from music to sample some more of the rare ales and ciders on offer without fear of missing out, my sparring partner thinks it is about having a break from drinking (as if!). Never mind, as we get to the bar in the barn, about a third of the little barrels are already empty. I can’t complain, I'm partially responsible for the quick disappearance of the Rhubarb cider - get in early, folks!
The real-ale refreshed crowd then gets treated to more Rock&Blues by Blackballed - a 3-piece band founded by former New Model Army Guitarist Marshall Gill. I sneak over to the Black Barn half way through, though, because there’s Delphini playing, and the programme states that they are playing “psychedelic sounds”. A psychedelic band I’ve never heard of? How come?? Because they are new, although they are all seasoned musicians. It’s great if out of the ashes of some old favourites (such as Black Light Theatre) a new phoenix rises. An hour well spent, and another new CD for my collection.
Saturday is the day of clashes; even small festivals never fail to deliver them. Isembard’s Wheel are one of my folk favourites at OTT, they play here regularly, although this time there’s only 2 of them, every time I’ve seen them there’s been a different line up. Apparently, their fiddler had to cancel the gig with one day’s notice. A flutist joins them half way through and the front man, dressed like an Edwardian gent, pulls it off anyway. Alas, I have to wander off half way through to catch Talisman just as they bring their roots reggae to Marquee stage, can’t miss that.
Dreadzone are the headliners, and they start in great form as you’d expect. I’m pleasantly surprised when MC Spree, who now performs sitting down, mentions that people who want to have a chat should go to the back of the audience and let the others enjoy the music. Hear hear, this is something that has bugged me for ages, fine to exchange the odd comment but a detailed discussion of how your football team is doing, or how little Freddie’s birthday party panned out…. that’s just plain inconsiderate.
Anyway, I make the most of the first half hour, then I’m off to the Black Barn again, much as I love Dreadzone, here’s ZubZub, my favourite dance band - playing at the same time. When I last saw them at OTT they were up against the Dub Pistols! It seems a bit unfair, but I’m not the only with that dilemma, the Barn is still pretty full and we are all up for it.
There's more rock from Starscreen in the Oak Room, another festival regular, there’s also the Silent Disco in the big barn area, but I must admit that the choice of tunes there slightly grates on me and I’ve had my fill of good music, why not go out on a high instead? The party goes on until 4am, but the last 2 hours are without me.
On the up-side, I am in reasonable shape on Sunday morning and even catch the first act on the Marquee stage, Julu Irvine and Heg Brignall, a duo with lovely pure voices who are on a mission to unearth traditional songs featuring strong women and a happy ending. They readily admit that the pickings are slim, but they’ve found some.
And then the compere announces a special guest: Alice and Amber, 2 girls from the audience who have written a song about the festival will perform it on the Marquee stage. They are from one of those families who regularly attend together and have grown up with the event. Alice is in her early teens I’d say, Amber a few years younger. It is very touching, Alice’s mum is watching and crying - for all the right reasons, I hope. The girls have time for 2 more songs (Mad world and Zombie, in case you’re wondering), then their touching tribute is followed by Kasai Masai, who insist on getting the emotional and slightly weary crowd (it was quite a Saturday night) dancing with Congolese Soukous music. They got their work cut out, but they get us there in the end.
The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican are on next, they played last year and created so much mirth that they had to be booked again. I know their act of irreverent covers, but it’s still good and unexpected fun to see them improvise around the noise of the odd plane taking off from nearby East Midlands airport.
And then, the rousing final, Mad Dog Mcrea with a selection of strong songs. With some very emotional final words by Boz, one of the main organisers, the 30th Off the Tracks festival draws to an end. Most of us are a bit tired and emotional, I think, but that’s how it should be.
The main canteen kitchen in the Farmhouse that has served traditional fare (locally sourced where possible) all weekend is closed now, the market stalls are packing up but the food stalls outside are still happy to sell me a curry, a much needed foundation for the long journey home to London. For me, OTT is a great festival to finish the season with: proper toilets and showers, no long walks with luggage or between stages. A super chilled crowd. Enough children’s activities to send the offspring to - most of the hardships of festivalling just don’t apply here. The wristbands aren’t fancy. The programmes are still simple and free. There’s The Energy Orchard if any part of your body or mind needs soothing. The event and whole camp site are trying to be as sustainable as possible and recycle what they can. The price for a weekend ticket with camping is £80!
Their official motto is: “Most of us will never do great things, but we can do small things in a great way”. Indeed, we can, and Off the Tracks does.
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