A couple of weeks ago I saw a post on Twitter which offered two out of three things this summer. The options were: 1 – World cup victory; 2 – Stable government; 3 – Hot summer. Given that options one and two are not on the table at the moment, it seems that instead efforts have been redoubled into providing option three, with a summer approaching temperatures and conditions that would put the Mediterranean to shame. This glorious hot weather provides perfect conditions for an outdoor event, however for a festival it does provide its own challenges.
The ongoing dry conditions led organisers of this year’s Rhythmtree Festival to take the step of banning not just barbecues and open flames, but all stoves and other heating devices, fearing the extremely dry fields would cause fire to spread quickly. The dry conditions also provided an interesting challenge for campers at the festival, as the parched earth stubbornly refused to accept tent pegs without some serious brute force behind it.
Rhythmtree festival is an event that probably falls into the category of ‘boutique festival’ – all the elements are there: nestled in a quiet and gently picturesque corner of the Isle of Wight, the self-described world music festival has plenty of space to camp, with a good range of food and drink, a wide range of music on offer; and plenty of activities around the site. However to call it one is to do a disservice to the negative, upper-middle class connotations that seems to accompany the phrase these days.
In fact Rhythmtree comes across as a wonderfully unpretentious and relaxed festival. The food on offer, although high quality, still caters to those who just want a burger and chips. The music is diverse and has something to almost every taste, with mainstream sounds comfortably mixed in with the more ethnically diverse acts across the stages. Of particular note is the way that the children’s area is integrated with the site – spread out across a strip along one side of the main arena it provides a mix of activities, some paid for, but mostly free, and is close enough for parents to keep an eye on their offspring, without having to miss out on the performances on the main stage or in the café.
New for this year was the Carnivale area which, when we arrived on the Friday, peaked our interest as the closed gates, and cherubic and tarot-inspired decorations hinted at an area similar to Bestival’s Caravanserai stage. And once it was opened on the Saturday it clearly carried a debt to its larger brother, with a small stage, bar, and discreet, semi-private, seating areas round the edges. Whatever ambitions the organisers had it seemed underdeveloped however – during the day it was lively enough, but as evening came, the entertainment dried up. Which was a shame as the atmosphere of the themed area could have made an interesting hub for ‘after hours’ revels.
The music itself is spread across four stages, with most of the action taking place on the main stage and the Didge Café tent. But nestled away in the woods behind the arena are two further stages, the main ‘Jill’s Wood’ stage and a smaller acoustic stage deeper in the forest. Across these stages audiences were treated to performances from a mix of larger mainland acts and the cream of the local music scene. The three headliners understandably stole the show - Friday’s performance form Britpop veterans Space set the weekend up nicely, providing an exuberant show every bit as eccentric as their music. Lead singer Tommy Scott literally climbed the walls and jumped in and out of the crowd as he performed a set filled with hits from their heyday such as Neighbourhood, Avenging Angels, and Female of the Species. Saturday saw the Brand New Heavies up the ante when they took to the stage with their trademark mix of Acid Jazz and Soul.
If Space and Brand New Heavies set up the weekend, then the Sunday performance by Morcheeba truly did knock it out of the park. With a set that sounded like an elongated James Bond theme – menacing and sweeping guitars, overlaid with soaring vocals from lead singer Skye Edwards, who arrived on stage in a flowing red gown. Alongside the band’s own material, one of the high points of the show was a cover of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.
Away from the headline acts there was much to enjoy through the weekend, and personal highlights included shows from the Isle of Wight’s own premier Reggae band – The Ohmz, and an energetic set from country rocker Katy Hurt; while The Southern Companion’s and Xylaroo’s stripped back, thoughtful, acoustic sets sat perfectly in the afternoon sunshine.
Cover bands can be a bit of a risk, as it takes a brave band to try to improve on the original, but both Samba Stones and the London Astrobeat Orchestra proved themselves up to the challenge – the former performing a Brazilian interpretation of the Rolling Stones, while the latter stormed it with a performance of Talking Head’s seminal album ‘Stop Making Sense’, reinterpreted as an Afrobeat epic.
It was also good to see the return of (some of) The Bees to the stage, even if they have morphed into 77:78. Despite the new name, the laid back California-tinged pop/rock, and close vocal harmonies were unmistakeable, and fit nicely with early evening sunshine on the Sunday evening.
Closing the weekend out in Jill’s Woods were festival stalwarts Tankus The Henge, whose catchy singalong anthems are part cockney knees-up, part gypsy folk, and completely hypnotic. Drawing you in with a cheeky wink and natural humour, lead singer Jaz DeLorean knows how to start (and end a party), and it’s not long before the whole audience are bouncing along with him. Last year this group had a slot on the main stage, and some questioned moving them to a far smaller stage, however this proved to be a shrewd move, as the stage gave the set a more intimate feel, even if it meant that Jaz’s trademark leaps from the top of his piano had to be curtailed.
I’ve tried to think how to close the review off, but everything I’ve tried to write doesn’t seem to do it justice, all in all Rhythmtree is a cracking little festival, and certainly worth checking out if you’re after a small friendly event with fantastic music and atmosphere.
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