September 2023 began with some golden late-summer days; this couldn’t happen to a nicer event than Off The Tracks, the boutique festival that takes place every year at Donington Park Hotel and the campsite that borders the adjacent race track. With a proper campsite that caters to all regular needs and a venue that provides cover in all weathers, this is the perfect event for punters who find the full-on festival experience a bit too full on.
Unfortunately, Friday 3rd September had a train strike scheduled, so my bus from London got stuck in traffic, meaning for the first time in my 20 odd years of attending I arrived late – though just in time to catch These Wicked Rivers on the main stage, who are a personal favourite, sounding like a band from the Mississippi delta when they play, but talking with a Midlands twang in between songs. It meant putting up a tent very late in the dark, but hey ho. Still managed to catch most of Friday’s headliner: Elephant Sessions, who have won folk awards in their native Scotland despite – or because of? – blending a lot of modern day bass and electronica into their sound. Good stuff and well received it was.
As always, the main stage had a midnight curfew, but DJs and acoustic music provided entertainment until 2am at the smaller stages: Black Barn (Dr Trippy), Threshing Barn (DJ Edgie) and Oak Room (Sugartree).
Now in its 35th year, this festival continues to be a potent mix of eclectic music and local breweries showcasing their produce. The Real Ale (and cider!) bar was in its usual place, but had a new payment system, only tokens accepted. And to buy tokens, we had to queue at a separate cash register, then queue again at the bar to trade the tokens in for drinks. Is this really more efficient? Not from the punters’ perspective. I’d rather spend my time at the stages. Plus I had to try and calculate how many pints I would have on the day, which is tricky - or queue again. Never mind, by Sunday most of the barrels were empty.
Donington Park Farmhouse complex, which is big on sustainability, keeps evolving and there is a newly covered area next to the Oak Room now, meaning the late night Oak Room sessions have moved to a more airy and spacious setting. During day time, the Oak Room is still the place for children’s entertainment and activities.
Making up for the late arrival, come Saturday I was up and ready in time for the first band on the main stage, Fat Digester. There are early yoga and other healthy activities to be had in the Energy Orchard, but having a very good time on a Friday night usually means my Saturday mornings are for resting. Fat Digester filled the stage with about 10 people (I really have no idea how bands like that manage to break even) and theirs is a super dynamic blend of jazz with hip hop and a few other things and it’s great for blowing away the cobwebs from the night before.
In the courtyard, there’s proper Morris dancing and the Dreams Stage showcases new local talent, but my daytime highlight were Xander and The Peace Pirates (why settle for 2 guitars if you can have 3 in your line up?) and An Dannsa Dub (that’s Gaelic for The Dub Dance), who are really innovative and unusual, merging Scottish folk with dub and dance and some reggae and using voice tracks from people they have worked with. Mesmerising.
In the evening, Kissmet’s rousing bhangra set was followed by Dreadzone, who after many years on the scene now have a very different line up, but it works well. In between those two, I manage to check out The Telephones at the Black Barn stage, they play tunes close to west coast sound, there’s really something for everyone here.
ZubZub finished the line up on the Black Barn stage with a great dance set accompanied by an eclectic live guitar. Would expect nothing less of them, they too are regulars here.
There’s also a Silent Disco until the small hours, if that is your thing, and impromptu live music session in the bar area, I remember walking past a rousing rendition of Whisky in the Jar, people are welcome to bring their instruments and jam.
Sunday... was a slow start in recovery mood, and The Canny Band were just right for that, combining accordion, piano and bodhran to perform a selection of folk tunes that soothed and roused my spirits at the same time.
Goldwater were listed next on the line up, alas, they had to cancel due to an injured drummer, what a pity. The Skarantinos stepped in at short notice, followed by fabulous Kasai Masai, who brought us infectious Congolese dance music. Finalists were The Noble Jacks, as spirited Roots & Folk band from Brighton. And then there are goodbyes and it’s time to pack up the tents. OTT always finishes around 6pm on Sunday. It is short and small, and pretty much perfect in its way, though this year the festival had a warm up session on Thursday evening. I couldn’t make it, but perhaps it will become a regular feature.
The 2023 programme opened with: “We can’t believe it either, we’ve been here for 35 years. Families have grown up in that time and now second generations are coming.” Probably an understatement. I am sure I have seen at least three generations of some families attending together, and that must be a ringing endorsement! It’s the kind of place where you see lots of familiar faces, many people are coming back year after year.
Early bird tickets for next year’s event will go on sale in October, snap them up while you can.
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Late-summer sunshine brightens this lovely end-of-season festival
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