Off The Tracks is back! After all the other festivals I had planned and hoped to attend (Bearded Theory, Glastonbury, WOMAD, Boomtown, Shambala) had to cancel because of Covid-19 related problems, I hesitated to make firm plans, but this one did happen. Who wants to have the headache of organising a festival at the moment, with all the insecurity that entails? Andy, Boz and team OTT are dedicated enough to throw themselves into it anyway, and I am very grateful to them.
Once we get to the site, almost everything is just as it always was, and as it should be. The Donington Park Farmhouse Hotel and camp site are well maintained and some areas are improved with new lay out and road cover. The festival programme is still a no-nonsense piece of printed paper with friendly and concise information, but this year a sheet of Covid-19 advice has been inserted with crisp and clear safety instructions regarding masks and sanitising and a firm: "if you demonstrate any symptoms of Covid-19 while you're at Off The Tracks please go home". One should hope so. Punters have also been asked to get tested before arrival.
Many regulars returned, but it is a somewhat younger crowd this year - probably because some people do not feel safe to mix and mingle yet, and who could blame them. All in all, attendance is good and the venue is big enough to allow people to keep a bit of distance. Mask wearing is encouraged, but not compulsory. Not that many people bother with masks, but the weather has finally turned for the better and we all spend a lot of our time outdoors anyway. The big inner courtyard is a thing of beauty with new planters and seating areas.
The line up is varied and eclectic again, a great range for a small festival, including some old favourites like Dub Pistols, Ferocious Dog, and John Otway as well as new local bands on the Introducing stage (Marseille are sounding remarkably like Oasis!).
After setting up tents on Friday afternoon our little group sauntered over to listen to a bit of Max Bianco & the Bluehearts at the Black Barn stage, then over to the main Marquee stage for Talisman - an early reggae highlight for me. A few years ago the band got back together after a long break, they recently released a new album (Don't play with Fyah) and are in great form. So are the Dub Pistols who follow them as headliners, my 13 year old son particularly loved their energetic performance. A new young fan for them! After midnight there's the silent disco to be sampled and a great set by Two Man Ting in the Oak Room.
Our Saturday starts with the mighty Goldwater's performance at the Marquee. Their spirited sermon could really be a bit higher up on the bill - or would make a great opener for Sunday! I am sure they will be back. Afterwards, there's a man with a sitar at the Black Barn, he goes by the stage name of Omni Vibes, I love a sitar and he really rocks it with a mixture of traditional ragas and crowd pleasing standards. The Social Ignition delight ska lovers on the main stage, and after the beer break (this is also a beer festival where you can sample many local ales and ciders that rarely make it into mainstream pubs, let alone supermarkets), my son and I both really enjoy Ushti Baba's set. The programme describes them as "a gypsy jungle turbo folk step, foot stomping Balkan Beatbox mash-up". Well, who am I to argue with that description.
We stick around whilst The Troy Redfern Band rocks it and then move over to the Black Barn for some light entertainment from Misty's Big Adventure and after midnight, the incredibly dancey live electronica from ZubZub, who fortunately stepped in at short notice after Astralasia had to pull out. ZubZub clearly enjoy themselves as much as their audience does.
Saturday night is also dressing up night, a spectacle I am more inclined to watch than participate in, but the best outfit wins a pair of tickets for next year's festival, something to be considered if you love dressing up.
Our Sunday starts with Kasai Masai who showcase Congolese sounds made fit for a worldwide audience. They really do want everyone to dance, and they get even a somewhat hangover crowd onto their feet - another highlight, loved by everyone in our little group. They are followed by funny old favourite John Otway, and Kissmet have the honour of closing the the stage - this event winds up around 6pm on Sundays. If you think a Bhangra version of Whole Lotta Love is strange idea, think again. It is inspired. They end on a high note by asking women from the audience to dance with them and the organisers on stage. Can the stage take it? just about.
Throughout the weekend, the energy orchard offered workshops, some of them required booking because of distancing rules this year. Popular children's activities are taking place in the Oak Room and an arts and crafts tent on the camp site. Traditional food (now with a better range of vegan options) comes from the Farmhouse kitchens, currys and crepes can be sampled at the little market area.
There's hardly a band that did not acknowledge how great is is to be back and have a chance to play to a live audience again. Many bands stayed for the duration of the festival, which made for some lovely encounters - Ushti Baba had pitched their tent near ours and kindly signed us their CD whilst packing up on Sunday. I believe everyone there appreciated their good fortune, to be able to get together again, to see old friends and acquaintances, although many of us now look a bit greyer (and a little wider!) than we used to. Perhaps we got wiser too, and appreciate good things like this little festival even more. I am so glad it survived and is back.
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