Red Rooster Festival 2023 Review

A weekend of freezing nights and red-hot performances

By David Vass | Published: Wed 14th Jun 2023

Red Rooster 2023

Thursday 1st to Saturday 3rd June 2023
Euston Hall, Thetford, Suffolk, IP24 2QP, England MAP
currently from £129.50 + fees for adults inc camping, £50 + fees for teens, under 12s free
Last updated: Mon 24th Apr 2023

This was my fifth Red Rooster, and considering how perfect it struck me when I first attended, there have been a surprising number of changes. Let’s start, however, with the bits we’ve grown to know and love. Euston Hall is home to Red Rooster, but it’s also home to the Duke of Grafton, descendant of King Charles the Second’s illegitimate son, and the festival deftly integrates itself into the considerable beauty of the estate in a way that is sympathetic to its surroundings. Should you parachute in blindfolded and then open your eyes, you could be nowhere else. How many other festivals can say that?

 

Having camped in spacious surroundings, punters enter the festival over a bridge spanning an 18th century ha-ha leading to avenues lined by yew trees and ancient Lebanese cedar. The jaw-dropping beauty of the surrounding countryside theatrically reveals itself in a way regular attendees have to remind themselves is not at all usual at a festival, largely due to the meandering Black Bourne River creating a natural barrier that obviates the need for a perimeter fence, so that an unobstructed view of the Suffolk countryside becomes a dramatic, spell-binding backdrop to the festival. At the point that the river becomes a lake, giant swan shaped pedalos pootle up and down, while children playing in the shallows and brave souls swim in the deep end. An extravagance of space, with paths cut through natural meadows of cow parsley and buttercups encourage folk to meander in what is essentially the Duke’s back garden. With no flags, no marketing, no fancy-pants sculptures, and certainly no branding, it is as if the festival is almost belligerently swimming against the prevailing tide, allowing the natural loveliness of its setting to do all the work. 

Red Rooster 2023 - Natural Setting

All the staff, all the performers, and all the guests were lovely, friendly people. The conversations with strangers came easy, the banter was always good natured, and (despite being an unapologetically boozy festival) outward signs of belligerent drunkenness practically non-existent. The food was of a universally high quality, the site was kept an immaculate, litter-free pleasure garden, while the toilets were attended to with an enthusiastic relentlessness that bordered of the fanatical. I’ve never heard so much chatter about the sparkly cleanliness of the toilets – folk would emerge from them with beatific smiles. Everything about the festival was a testament to the organisers, but also to attendees, and proof of the power of self-policing by people keen to demonstrate a mutual respect for each other and their surroundings. 

 

So if those were the things I’ve got used to, what has changed, and why? The first thing to note is the schedule of entertainment for Thursday night. Although Red Rooster remains a two-day festival, there is more than enough to keep campers who turned up before the Friday happy. The evening kicked off with Dylan Kirk, knocking ten bells out of his piano in a way that compared very favourable with Jerry Lee Lewis. It’s always crowded on Thursday – there’s nothing else to do – but he really deserved the numbers he got. These were numbers, incidentally, with more elbow room as they’ve finally moved the bar out from the arena. It was easier for the drinkers, better for the crowds watching, and not before time. Us ripped into an all too brief half hour slot with the confidence and enthusiasm of a band determined to make their mark. Reminiscent of the glory days of Southend's pub rock scene, they rivalled the sadly defunct Strypes in channelling the likes of Dr Feelgood and Eddie and the Hot Rods. Afterwards, I went for a wander, and happened across Big Joe Bone, playing his steel guitar with astonishing virtuosity to practically no one in the now empty dining area of a Cray fish stall. Not sure what he was doing there but give that man a stage next time. The evening’s headliner was Daddy Long Legs, returning to the festival after their outstanding set in 2019. They delivered much the same this time, with exhilarating bluesy-punk that somehow managed to sound traditional yet contemporary.

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Us

Saturday started around midday with a great set from Bobby Lee playing spaced-out guitar instrumentals. If you can imagine country music played by Hawkwind you’re getting somewhere close to his mesmerising performance. The Take Me to the River All Stars that followed put on a real show, with something like twenty musicians taking it in turn to sing or play. It was a grand standing performance in every sense. Couple it with Bobby Lee’s hour, and you’re looking at nearly four hours for the audience to keep on their feet. I say it every year, but why do the organisers of this wonderful festival insist of hiding their main stage in a cavernous tent? Add to the mix the seemingly ubiquitous theatrical haze that makes one act visually indistinguishable from another and all but those at the front get poorly served. If it had rained, I suppose we’d have been grateful for the cover, but it didn’t rain, it hardly ever does, and while it wasn’t great weather on the Friday, the festival is all the poorer for a stage that offers watching in the dark, standing up, when all you want to do – even when the sun doesn’t come out to play - is lie back and soak in it all in.

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Take Me To The River All Stars

It’s exactly what you could do at the Little Red Rooster stage, where The Men Who Fell to Earth really got the crowd going with their Booker T inspired covers of David Bowie songs. That may sound a puzzling booking for Red Rooster – when I spoke to a band member he was surprised – but it was just the sort of unpretentious silliness to get a sedentary crowd up and jigging. On the main stage, King Salami and the Cumberland 3 were a hoot with their infectious mix of blues and punk, while the attraction of outdoor music quickly pulled me back to Hank Wangford, a gynaecologist whose witty songs and mordant patter confirmed his national treasure status. 

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Hank Wangford

Ashley Campbell, daughter of country legend Glen Campbell, wowed a packed crowd despite the cold, with her cut back solo acoustic set. Her expert banjo picking, combined with unusually witty lyrics had the crowd laughing as well as cheering, while her version Gentle on My Mind - her father’s greatest hit - would have done him proud. The evening closed in the company of Shardé Thomas, who I’d briefly seen playing the fife during the Take Me to the River set. Together with Rising Star’s drum, she delivered an arresting performance that showcased her extraordinary vocal range. A brief trip to DJ Scratchy’s set in the Howling Woods – a venue that is either embarrassingly empty or uncomfortably packed – followed, but sleep beckoned, notwithstanding the coldest June night since records began.

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Ashley Campbell

The Clouds rolled away on Saturday morning to reveal a day that trumped Friday in just about every way. Make no mistake, Friday was a great day, but Saturday was even better, and it couldn’t have started any better than with 4D Jones. This Norwich band pops up most years at Rooster, so I suppose their aggregate contribution is substantial, but I do wonder at the meagre half hour they were given at midday. They are a talented bunch, who knows just how to work an audience, as evidenced by the joyous abandon with which the crowd in front of the Little Rooster Stage danced. Perhaps it’s some sort of master plan to get sleepy folk up early, in which case it worked. If so, then at least give them more time. They would assuredly spend it wisely.

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - 4D Jones

Thereafter, I struggled to break away from the Little Red Rooster stage, and not just because the sun had come out to play. In 2018, I likened it to an ice cream van in size, and I’d have been amazed it could host such a wide variety of talent. Back then it seemed little more than a diversion for the picnickers, of which there were many, content to sit by the lake while music drifted over their heads. The picnickers are still there, but I’m guessing their attention is now forever drawn away from their cucumber sandwiches. Ever since the stage gained an extension big enough to hold a drum kit, it has hosted some of the most interesting acts appearing at Rooster. Perhaps it was the heady atmosphere that pervades the Norfolk/Suffolk border, but it seemed to be that the acts on this stage just got better and better. Honkeyfinger came across like a stripped down John Lee Hooker after a psychotic episode, somewhere on a line between Bob Log and The Butthole Surfers. 

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Honkey Finger

Another stage that has really grown in stature is the Swamp Shack, a venue that previously featured pot luck performances for those waiting to take a dip, wild swimming in the Black Bourne River. Now, it even has its own blackboard, with the likes of Racoon Jane, Lucy Grubb and Norwich based Mally and the Hay Burners amongst the best I saw perform there, before returning to check out The Deadbeatz. This duo upped the ante with the unique combination of harmonica, double bass and drums. Sounding like a whole band, they brought the crowd to fever pitch with punk flavoured blues, all the way from Austria. I had seen The Filthy Six on the main stage backing soul singer Francesca Belmonte, an adventurous gambit I didn’t think quite worked, but they were back on firmer ground here, with a heady cocktail of jazz and funk that properly showcased their musicianship. Astonishingly, things got even better when Michael Messer’s Mitra took to the stage, mashing up western and Hindustani sounds to truly mesmerising effect. Easily one of the best performances of the weekend, or indeed any weekend, they were a testament to how much the stage has grown in ambition.

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Deadbeatz

I had in mind to go see  Christone ”Kingfish” Ingram, and did for a bit, but a headline act of that calibre was always going to pack out the main tent beyond the point of discomfort, so instead I opted to close on a set from Scott H. Biram, a one man Texan phenomenon. I made the right choice. A brilliant musician, a very funny (and very profane) man, he ripped through his set, so much so that ninety minutes went by in a flash, as he assailed the crowd with an extraordinary mix of blues, country and straightforward rock n roll. What a great way to round off the day.

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Scott H. Biram

In the spirit of balance, I should really come up with some problems, but I’m struggling to do so. There was a significant shift away from Country music, which suited me but perhaps not everyone. Taking place so early in the year, the nights were absolutely freezing, and even during the day Friday was nippy. And I did weary of the aforementioned use of the smoke machines that pumped the damn stuff out during every act. One of (many) things I love about Rooster is the stripped down, no nonsense focus on the music. Rooster fans surely come to see artists, not special effects that just get in the way.

 

But that’s all I’ve got, does it mean this the best Red Rooster to date? It was as far as I am concerned, and I didn’t meet a single person who didn’t have a great time. Perhaps as significant, many of those people had travelled far to get there – the furthest I talked to had travelled for five hours from Newcastle and he intends to come back next year. The word is out - those of us that have been coming for years will just have to accept that it’s no longer the best kept secret it once was. 

The full photo gallery can be viewed here: Red Rooster Festival 2023 Photo Gallery

Red Rooster Festival 2023 - Crowd


review by: David Vass

photos by: Ian Roberts


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