We came late to the Rhythmtree party, having only started to attend three years ago. But in that time it's fast grown to be one of the highlights of our festival calendar. Like all the best festivals, it delivers a familiar experience, but is not afraid to take risks and develop the site to improve what it offers. Once more this year the weather gods smiled on the festival, bathing the site in sunshine. Fortunately the site provides plenty of shade, with plenty of trees dotted around, and if it still becomes too much, then the woodland behind the main areas provides a shady spot to escape the heat of the day. This area named Jill's Woods in memory of one of the organisers of the festival has seen the biggest changes over the last couple of years, expanding from a single clearing with a stage to a complete network of paths leading to stages, art installations and places to rest.
One of the festivals biggest changes was not to the layout, but in its approach to litter, ditching the plastic and paper cups in favour of giving punters a reusable cup instead. After paying £1 for a cup you then carry it about with you for the weekend. At any point you can swap it out for a new one - useful if you change drinks, and at the end of the weekend you get to keep it as a souvenir of the weekend.
Much was made of how much cleaner Glastonbury was this year, but it isn't until you actually experience how dramatic this simple change affects a site that the impact is truly felt. Previously you get used to navigating round the detritus - particularly near the stages, now the site is noticeably clean, even after three days there was barely a piece of paper in sight. Granted Rhythmtree is a small festival, and keeping it tidy is far simpler than it's larger cousins, but it's noticeable that this one change seems to set the mindset of attendees that they clean up all their litter far more readily than before. It's still a long way from the kind of changes we need to make to our lifestyles, but a good start nonetheless.
The basic layout of the weekend with most of the action centred round the main stage and the Didge Café, while between these two are a selection of food stalls, traders and the kids activities - helpfully placed to allow families to enjoy the music while keeping one eye on their children. One other change this year was the Carnevale area, which last year promised much but shut down too early in the day. This year as well as the dance classes and fitness moments, it boasted a few live bands and ending each evening with a silent disco - add in a gin bar serving cocktails as well as the usual lagers, ales and ciders.
Rhythmtree classes itself as a world music festival, which while it may bring visions of plenty of kaftans and obscure instruments is really just an excuse to draw from a wide variety of musicians and styles, although there is a noted lean towards reggae and afrobeat in the line up. This variety in acts is one of the festivals really strong points, as within a small area there is a variety of acts to suit almost every taste.
Highlights of the Friday were ska/pop band Tenderhooks, whose upbeat performance fit perfectly with the sunny afternoon and Alabama 3, who despite losing founder member Jake Black (aka Rev. D.Wayne Love) have taken the decision to continue to perform. Their decision to simply omit Jake's vocals from the songs they perform is an interesting one, however it leads to some odd blanks in songs such as 'Hypo Full of Love'. Despite this they are still one of the great live bands and well worth watching. Headliners The Orb gave a fairly methodical and underwhelming set, so we left them to it to get a spot for Didge headliners 77:78. The ex-Bees members gave a great show to a packed tent, even dipping into their old bands catalogue for a performance of 'A Minha Menina' and setting us up nicely for the weekend.
Saturday's music continued the mix, with some great performances from the likes of the Yiddish Twist Orchestra and afrobeat band Yabba Funk fitting perfectly into the afternoon sunshine. One other act of note were the oddly named The Spooky Men's Chorale - a mix of close harmony signing and humour from the Australian group. Festival goers had two chances to catch this band over the weekend, with performances on both the Didge Café and Forest stage, the only downside was that they are a pretty quiet act, and sound bleed form other stages made it difficult to hear them sometimes. The sound bleed in the woods was a bit of an issue at times, as when the Didge Café and Main stage were in full swing it made it difficult to hear the quieter, more acoustic acts in the forest. While it's good to have plenty of stages to choose from, as the festival grows it may need to consider it's layout to prevent this from happening.
Like many festivals Rhythmtree does sell day tickets, and on the Saturday it was noticeable that many have taken advantage of this to come for the day, and most likely one act in particular. Saving Grace are an interesting proposition for a headline act; they have yet to put out an album and have no internet or social media presence. What they do have however is a stone-cold legend in their lineup - Robert Plant. His presence alone is sufficient to propel them to instant stardom.
What they also have is bags of talent, Robert Plant's abilities are a given, but add in co vocalist Suzi Dian's sweet, yet powerful harmony, and a backing band of multi-instrumentalists and you get something truly magical. Performing covers of obscure Bluegrass and American folk songs, a few self-penned tracks and a cover of Nat King Cole's 'Nature Boy' so fragile and beautiful that it stopped the entire crowd dead. The crowd came for Robert Plant, but by the end of the set it was clear that the whole band had been taken to their hearts. That Saving Grace are performing at a few limited shows made their presence here something truly special, Rhythmtree, and its ticket holders were a lucky group indeed.
Closing the Saturday were Reggae veterans Misty in Roots, who's gentle reggae sound was ok, but a noticeable come-down after Saving Grace. Fortunately for those wanting something a bit more vibrant Mark Chadwick (of The Levellers) was giving a barnstorming acoustic trip through his bands back catalogue. Chadwick was clearly taken by the festival and drew favourable comparisons with the bands own festival Beautiful Days - I suspect that we may see the full band make an appearance at Rhythmtree in the near future.
Sunday is traditionally the quieter day at a festival, as days of revelling, alcohol and insufficient sleep take their toll. And after the packed Saturday a noticeably smaller crowd were in attendance. Those who did attend were rewarded with more great music from the likes of country singer Katy Hurt, Afrobeat band Natty and The Rebel Ship, and some great blues/rock guitar from Roosevelt Collier. Best acts of the day were again the Main Stage evening acts. First from industry legends The Zombies, who despite over 50 years performing still sound as good as they did in their heyday. Colin Blunstone's vocals are as strong as ever and the tour through their hits, culminating with the classic 'She's Not There'. On the way a personal treat was a dip into keyboardist Rod Argent's later work with Argent's 'Hold Your Head Up' (one of my personal top ten tracks) getting an airing.
Closing the main stage was Britpop stalwarts Cast, who performed a breakneck trip through their back catalogue - although only on for an hour they packed plenty in, and finished with a firework finale. For those seeking to extend the party, Jills Woods was host to festival veterans Tankus The Henge, although the small location was rammed, and we were unable to get near - surely next year they would do well to give them a spot on the main stage.
Rhythmtree 2019 has yet again been an amazing weekend, the music program gives you plenty to enjoy and discover, topped off with some amazing legends. Despite this growth, it still manages to maintain the small boutique feel. Sometimes festivals that get a whiff of success are tempted to grow themselves, but I don't think Rhythmtree needs to. For it's size it's pretty near perfect, and represents a great value weekend for festival goer's of all ages and tastes. We're looking forward to see what 2020 will bring already.
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