Picture the scene, it's January, you've got a serious case of post-Christmas blues and are flicking through your photos remembering what a great time you had last summer sitting in a field listening to your favourite bands. Wouldn't it be great if you could beat those winter blues and have a festival to tide you over the winter months?
The answer to your problem seems to be coming from an unexpected source. For the last few years Butlins have been throwing open their holiday camps over the winter to host music weekends, providing a weekend of artists from a specific era or musical style. As well as the music you get indoor venues, bars and restaurants, access to the side amusements present at the resort, and most importantly a warm chalet with flushing toilet, shower and a comfortable bed - far better than slumming in a tent!
Rockaway Beach, based at the Bognor Regis site, is spread out across three nights, starting at 4pm on Friday and offering a full programme from 12 noon on the Saturday and Sunday. Having checked into our apartment and settled in we set out to explore the site. For those of you who have been to a Butlins you'll know the set-up. A range of hotels, chalets and apartments are spread out round a central building complex containing a mix of bars, venues, arcades, swimming pool, bowling alley and play areas. Bognor has two venues - the main 'Centre Stage' venue, and a smaller more intimate club environment called Reds.
The music is spread out across these two venues, with Reds providing the afternoon music while Centre Stage opens in the evening for the headline acts. One of the advantages of this system is that there is only a single act on at any time, meaning that you don't have to flip-flop between stages to catch the bands.
Away from the music entertainment is provided by a rolling programme of films showing in the central pavilion, as well as quizzes and interviews held in bars. As the films were in a public area, headphones were provided to listen to the audio tracks, and although we never settled down to watch one there was a reasonable group of people sat in the deck chairs provided enjoying the shows.
In addition to the programmed events there was also a selection of more traditional Butlins style entertainments, including mini-golf and go-carts. This was one area where which let the weekend down. While it is understandable that Butlins need to maintain and renovate the site for the summer season, but with the fairground area closed, and several parts of the site closed off for new paths to be laid as well as a new swimming pool development, it left the site with a slightly run-down feel.
For those who didn't fancy going self-catering, as well as a couple of national chains you could pay a surcharge to eat at the parks restaurant. Open twice a day for breakfast and dinner, the restaurant worked on an all-you-can-eat buffet, providing a range of hot food as well as the opportunity to have a fresh meal cooked in front of you by one of the resorts chef's. We were pretty impressed by the quality of food on offer, with a range of dishes for all tastes and diets.
Musically Rockaway Beach stands out from the rest of the events by switching out the 'greatest hits' formula of only featuring established bands to include up-and-coming acts alongside the big names. As such it gives it a feel far closer to the smaller grass-roots festivals out there. During the day the afternoon showcases up and coming acts.
Friday saw standout performances from garage rockers Chupa Cabra and Benin City, whose set, delivered with clear joy by the band who built on dance sound with elements of soul and pop. At times reminding me of Faithless, frontman Joshua Idehen gives a hypnotic performance switching between poetry, rap and singing as he tells tales of club-life in London.
Moving on into the evening and the Centre Stage venue, there was an odd choice in programming. The opening act, Laetitia Sadier Source Ensemble, while certainly talented, lacked any real engagement with the audience, and failed to make an impact. Goat Girl improved things but too much introspection in their performance again lost the wider audience. This left the headliners with a difficult job to capture the audience, fortunately Maxïmo Park are just the sort of band you need to get a party going, where the previous acts were quiet and restrained, Maxïmo's show is all bombast and energy, and set us up nicely for the rest of the weekend.
Saturday was another strong line-up and, as the festival hit its stride it was the evening acts that really shone out, with the nights performances open by Barry Adamson - one of the best acts you've never heard of. With a heritage that includes artists such as Nick Cave, The Buzzcocks and Visage, his solo work draws heavily from Scott Walker's dark lounge singer schtick, one that seems perfectly at home in the lounge bar of a holiday camp. They were followed by a competent set from The Orielles, but the evening, and probably the weekend belonged to Gary Numan.
His show started earlier in the day with a Q&A session in the main pavilion, but it was the evening show that he truly shone. With his band arriving on stage dressed like refugees form a Mad-Max apocalypse - something further reinforced by the desert videos that played behind him. He launched into a frenetic set that created a wall of sound from guitars, cut through with synths and Gary's own distinctive vocals.
Gary Numan is someone who has quietly become a fixture of the British music scene without even trying, preferring to tread his own path rather than pander to the fame game. His reputation as a live performer has sustained him, and tonight it was easy to see why. Even if you are unfamiliar with his work, it wasn't difficult to be swept up with the theatre of the event. And when out of the electric fuzz the distinctive keyboard riffs of Cars and Are Friends Electric? cut through - the excitement of the crowd goes into overload.
This is the last night of a 130 date tour for his latest album, and Gary himself seems visibly affected by the crowds reaction to him, and maybe it was just my interpretation, but as he sings the last line of Are Friends Electric? he appeared to modify it, as he put his hands out to the crowd as he sang "You see, this means everything to me", at the same time his voice cracked slightly, giving an impression that he really loved performing to them as much as they enjoyed watching it. Genius is bandied about all too often when reviewing, but this time I really do think it applies.
The comedown from Saturday seemed to permeate through the site. Sunday's are usually slow getting started at festivals as two days of partying takes its toll, but it was noticeable that the day was significantly quieter, as a lot of people had only come for Gary Numan, and were leaving again. The best thing I find to shake the Sunday cobwebs is to find something loud to wake you up, and fortunately The Luka State were willing to provide just that. Lead singer Conrad Ellis rasping vocals backed by the band's feverish guitars brings to mind early Stereophonics (more 'Bartender and the Thief' than 'Maybe Tomorrow'), and this is not a bad thing.
The rest of the afternoon similarly belonged to the livelier bands with great performances from Yassassin and The Filthy Tongues. While the stripped down and darkly humorous acoustic performance from ex-Auters frontman Luke Haines made for a nice change from the rockier trend of the weekend.
Ultimately again it was the headliners that stole the show, with a humorous and dynamic set from Art Brut who are having a bit of a revival recently, and given their performance this evening it's not hard to see why - Eddie Argos self-mocking and occasionally rambling monologue over catchy rhythms make them an easy band to like and engage with. Hopefully we'll get to see more of them in future.
The evening, and the weekend was closed by Echo and the Bunnyman, who performed a set that seemed almost unchanged from previous sets. Despite having an album of 'reinterpreted' songs, they chose instead to perform the classic versions everyone was familiar with. Most surprising Ian McCulloch was in exceptionally chatty mood and talked freely with the audience between songs - perhaps old age is mellowing the usually taciturn singer out.
For those of you who are familiar with festivals the Rockaway experience is completely familiar and utterly strange in equal measure. The levels of comfort are certainly welcome - especially in the middle of winter, but away from the venues themselves there is an air of quietness that is unexpected - maybe it's just walls thicker than tent canvas provide better screening, but you don't get the same vibe and atmosphere that you grow to accept as being part of a festival. But if you can look past this then Rockaway Beach more than delivers, providing an out of season festival fix and a way to combat the post Christmas blues.
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