Red Rooster plays it safe, showcase some brilliant performers, but take few risks

Red Rooster review

published: Thu 9th Jun 2022

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Thursday 2nd to Saturday 4th June 2022
Euston Hall, Thetford, Suffolk, IP24 2QP, England MAP
currently £109.50
last updated: Tue 31st May 2022

It doesn’t seem like a year since my last visit to Euston Hall for the Red Rooster festival - but then, after all, it hasn’t been. Having cannily switched to September last year to avoid covid restrictions (did all that really happen?) it’s only been eight months since the festival’s mix of blues and country came home to roost. Unlike that wet and windy episode, this year’s festival enjoyed unbroken sunshine for its return to its natural home in May, much to the delight of the assembled crowd and their kerchief wearing dogs. As the rest of the nation looked forward to being entertained by Rod Stewart, Ed Sheeran and Elton John in celebration of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, it felt like a moment of impish contrariness to hide out in a quiet corner of deepest Suffolk with the likes of Old Baby Mackerel, the Loose Leaf Drifters and The Schizophonics.

East Angles Brass

Friday’s opening act was the East Angles Brass Band, and what a rousing introduction it was. As their name suggests, this eight piece horn and percussion outfit heralds from East Anglia, but cast aside any preconceptions about them being “only” a local band. Offering up an outstanding mix of funk and soul, they were quick to assure the assembled that, even this early in the day, you can dance to a brass band. If this was what we were being given bottom of the bill, what on earth did they have in store for later? The immediate answer was helium voiced Lucy Grubb, a performer blessed with such a sweet nature, that even countryphobes such as myself were won over. Had I cottoned on to the gender bias of the festival I would have hung on for the full set, such was the scarcity of female performers this year, but the pleasures of Red Rooster extends way beyond the entertainment, so I went for a wander instead.

This being my fourth Red Rooster, I am conscious of repeating myself. That said, the setting and atmosphere of Rooster is so key to its appeal I really have to talk about it. The festival is set in what is effectively Duke of Grafton’s back garden, bordered by the Black Bourne River, creating a natural barrier that obviates the need for a perimeter fence, so that an unobstructed view of the Suffolk countryside became a dramatic, spell-binding backdrop to the festival. Whimsically decorated with pink flamingos, the lake was host to giant swan shaped pedalos, children playing in the shallows, while adults swam in the deep end. Despite being a tiny festival, Red Rooster is spread over an extravagance of space, with paths cut through uncut lawns fecund with buttercups and cow parsley. No flags, no corporate branding, and absolutely no litter, the festival has the quiet confidence to let the natural loveliness of its setting to do all work.

siteimage

Walk far enough in all that loveliness and the Howlin Wolf venue comes into view. Pleasingly open and spacious compared to its previous incarnation, the organisers had clearly decided to confront a problem that has beleaguered it in previous years. Bluntly put, no one went there. So instead of a solitary DJ forlornly playing records to no one, I fell across a good natured, if somewhat chaotic zydeco dance class, featuring a fellow in a cowboy hat directing a circle of giggling people wondering quite how they got caught up in all this. What a clever and funny use of a previously unloved corner of the festival.

Back on the main stage, heavily pregnant Beth Rowley declared herself pleased to squeeze into a bargain vintage dress (£25 for one of the stalls), unconsciously cradling her tummy while singing a melancholy but soulful set, while out in the sunshine Alan Tyler got completely upstaged (much to his amusement) by a little lad dancing away in front of an otherwise hay bale seated audience. As is the way with Rooster, when the sun shines (notwithstanding last September’s outing it usually does) the Little Red Rooster stage got the bigger audience. Little more than a glorified shed, it repeatedly punched above its weight, certainly in terms of the audience it drew, which only served to highlight a perennial conundrum faced by the festival. The main stage is dark and cavernous, requiring Rooster’s mature clientele to either sit outside, where you can’t really hear or see anything, or stand - all ruddy day - while the sun beckons you to come out and play. Sister Suzie, in a crowd pleasing grandstanding performance, put on a fine show (insistent in her broad Geordie accent that she was anyone’s for a bag of chips and a brown ale) but wedged together inside that tent it was hard to jig about as keenly as she so desperately wanted us to. It was only one of the many times over the weekend I longed for an open air main stage, and though the weather gods would undoubtedly make sure it tipped down all day if we got one, I can’t help but think they are missing a trick.

Sister Suzie

Suzie was followed by a band that brought to mind the frenetic fury of Your Lordship last year. Packing the tent out with people who obviously knew better than me, The Schizophonics gave a blistering, hi-energy performance that you hope to see at least once over a weekend. Bringing a fever pitch level of excitement to the tent, this axe-wielding show only just teetered on the right side of chaos, and then left before outstaying its welcome. By way of contrast, The Smoke Fairies, a band I’d been very much been looking forward to, failed to ignite a sleepy crowd in front of the Little Red Rooster stage. I’ve seen them before, and know them to be better than this. Whether it was sound issues (a worried looking fellow wearing a Top Dad t-shirt fiddled and faffed thoughout) or it simply wasn’t their day is hard to say. An uber-fan sitting in front of me had his filters on and loved every minute, but on a day so dominated by guitar playing blokes singing about being jilted, it was a particular shame that they weren’t able to contribute an alternative.

Back on the main stage, Marcus Bonfanti was demonstrating his prowess on the electric guitar and showcasing a fine voice, but it was Robert Finlay, helped onto the stage he subsequently commanded, that really got the crowd going, proving that a winning personality and a voice to match is sometimes all you need. The North Mississippi All-stars (essentially Alan Tyler, the mates he played with earlier and a drummer) took the tempo up yet another notch, providing a cracking set in a day that had offered plenty already. A shame, then, that Seasick Steve took things back down again.

Seasick Steve

I’ve never been that bothered by his backstory, and whether it’s all nonsense. Neither have I found it impressive that he makes guitars out of hat stands and dustbin lids. To my mind, it’s all smoke and mirrors, dressing up a relatively pedestrian performance. What he does is fine as far as it goes, but in an uncomfortably packed tent, you’ve got to really love what’s going on to stick it out (and in fairness a lot of people did). After half an hour, I sneaked off to see Cedric Burnside, another bloke playing a guitar with nothing but drums to accompany him, but nonetheless arresting in his quietly assured way.

I have to concede I struggled with Saturday’s opening acts. Caught in a pincher movement between a run of country based performers on the second stage, and a protracted, if well meaning, tribute to John Prine on the main stage, it was mid-afternoon before PM Warson upped the tempo with a winning blues set that shook off much of the melancholy that had gone before. Afterwards, I nipped over to the Little Rooster stage, just in time to catch The McGuilty Brothers’ witty set of pop tinged country songs. It’s more years than I care to admit to since I last saw the Farmers Boys, so it’s good to see they are still going, albeit in this new incarnation. I was disappointed that the ironing board didn’t make an appearance, though.

PM Warson

By now I was getting a little fidgety. It’s late afternoon and, while individual performances have been fine – have, in fact, been of a universally and unusually high standard – I can’t help but think something is missing. Red Rooster has never apologised for being a country, blues and Americana festival, and that – in spades – is what we’d been given. Yet the festival has often been at its best when breaking its own rules. So far, I’d been impressed, but not surprised. I’d admired and appreciated, but not yet been astonished or amazed. In previous years, the festival seemed to take great pleasure in finding room on the bill for Parisian chanteuse Sarah Olivier, the hessian masked Three Scarecrows, the hurdy-gurdy of Muddy Gurdy, the dark ruminations of The Budos Band, the gravel voiced Paul-Ronney Angel, or the astonishing virtuosity of The Filthy Six. Not all were successful – headliner Budos Band cleared the tent – but they were interesting, brave bookings that brought variety and spice to the day. I can’t help but observe, by way of contrast, that Saturday’s acts were all a little safe, and (whisper it) I came as close as I’ve ever been at Red Rooster to being a little bit bored.

Thank the Lord, then, for Oh! Gunquit, though tellingly this extraordinary force of nature was actually a last minute replacement for Awkward Family Portraits. With no disrespect intended to the latter, I was very glad to see them on the bill. Making a marvellous racket, lead singer Wanda Slazzy played trumpet, crowd surf, hula hooped, and generally upstaged all about her. Theirs was a noisy and frequently discordant descent into madness, and couldn’t have come at a better time. Lady Nade, over on the second stage, couldn’t have been a greater contrast (she kept all her clothes on, for one thing) showcasing a beautiful voice and haunting melodies, before Red Hot Riot rockabillied their way to the biggest dancing crowd I’d seen at either stage, stomping what was left of the hay bales with wanton abandon. The day had finally got going.

Sugaray Rayford

I had been tipped off that Sugar Ray Rayford was a man worth catching, and so he proved. His infectious good humour, his excellent band, his superb voice, and a fabulous back catalogue of soul tinged funk combined to make for a brilliant Sunday night headliner. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the headliner, even though it felt like it when he left the crowd stunned with an astonishing cover of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb. In the words of the compere – I wasn’t expecting that. It was an unenviable act to follow, and not a challenge Nick Waterhouse rose to. Had they been on the other way around, I’d have happily got behind Waterhouse’s perfectly competent roster of tunes. After Rayford, however, it all just felt a little flat.

So, has Rooster fallen into terminal decline? Of course not – the weekend was still a pleasure and frequently a delight. But it taught me a lesson. It turns out it really does matter to me what’s on. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the people attending didn’t see more than a handful of acts. With camper chairs and picnic blankets as far as the eye could see, I don’t think could have. And if that is what floated their swan shaped boat, all power to them. For me, however, that’s what back gardens and parks are for. I want to be entertained, thrilled, surprised and moved, and I’m surely not alone in that. It is something that only happens when presented with a musical line up curated with care, imagination and boldness.

camping chairs

To be clear, there wasn’t a single performer I saw that didn’t deserve their place on the roster, but there were an awful lot of blokes, in hats, playing guitars, and as a consequence little elbow room for the eccentric and surprising acts I’ve come to expect as part of the Rooster package. And as well as those best described as straightforwardly bonkers, I would have liked to have seen more female performers and more ethnically diverse performers. I do hope the festival has the confidence to present more challenging acts in the future, and resists the temptation to play it safe. Such a strategy, in the long term, may not prove safe at all.


review by: David Vass

photos by: Ian Bunker

Thursday 2nd to Saturday 4th June 2022
Euston Hall, Thetford, Suffolk, IP24 2QP, England MAP
currently £109.50
last updated: Tue 31st May 2022


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