You have to hand it to Butlin’s. Their out of season festivals offer quality in the extreme; whether it’s folk at Skegness, rock in Minehead or boutique indie from Bognor, every year they’re appealing to a growing number of genre-fanatics who are eschewing the dubious delights of canvas and muddy field for the comforts of chalet living and big weekends.
This year I’ve plumped for the boutique indie of Rockaway Beach at Bognor Regis. Apart from a flying visit to some non-league football a few years ago, this part of the world is relatively unknown to me. First impressions as I get off the train from London are of a typical British seaside town, one that has probably seen better days when Kings and Queens regularly visited but is now having to settle for seagulls, fruit machines and redcoats.
The Butlin’s complex nestles on the edge of the town, an easy meander from the railway station via a couple of pubs selling tasty ale. Check in is remarkably easy. All weekend the Butlin’s staff go out of their way to make this stay as comfortable as possible. “You’re in the Shoreline Hotel”, says a cheery chap on the day entrance gate, before directing me towards the building.
Butlin’s hotels are a new thing to me. I’m used to the chalets and apartments that typically make up the accommodation on their sites but have never before used the hotels. There are a few dotted around this complex; styled in faux art-deco, they’re perhaps both a nod to the 1950’s heyday of holiday parks and a reminder that Butlin’s is very much of relevance in 2020.
The hotel room in the Shoreline is tidy and efficient. There's a towel made into a crab and everything that you need for a comfortable stay. Balcony doors (though sadly no balcony) look out onto the entertainment dome below. There's a sea view in the distance though we never make it onto the beach - the January winds are too bracing and the acts on stage too exciting.
These sites constantly adapt and renew themselves; any preconceptions you have about Butlin’s should be thrown out of your ‘hotel’ window. Rockaway Beach is testament to that. Bands that play seem shocked by the novelty of playing at places where they once had holidays as children. And yet they are venues ready made for excellence. The sound quality is never short of superb. Mostly you can get a view of any act you want to see; the only challenges to that perspective being made by the bands themselves (and it wouldn't be the Jesus and Mary Chain without smoke-drenched effects).
There are no band clashes at Rockaway Beach; the programme is designed in such a way that you could catch every act on the bill should musical overload be your thing. For some obsessives this is evidently a great bonus. And there are clearly many obsessives here. The downside of it all is that if a band doesn't entirely catch your fancy you don't have other alternative music options whilst you wait for them to finish their set. Hardly a problem as you can spend this time exploring some of Butlin’s other delights; you can win tickets in the arcade machines that you can then exchange for tat (or Angry birds stationery sets to be precise). You can have a beer at the indie disco. You could browse the vinyl in Sunday's record sale or you could simply eat your own body weight in food. More on that later.
The demographic of the audience surprises me a little. No spring chicken myself I still feel on the younger side of the crowd. I'd understand this at the blues or folk festival but within this line up, alongside some true musical legends, we have the cream of 2020's crop. Do the kids of today no longer get excited by emerging bands, breakthrough acts and alternative weekends? Or do they get their kicks from elsewhere? Here we now have punks, who saw things the first time around, with bigger bellies and balding pates. We've got an overload of band t-shirt wearers and a mass of obscure pin badges. Over there, a fanzine writer does his best to sell his wares whilst Steve Lamacq looks on wistfully with cider in hand. What unites this thoroughly decent crowd though is their obvious love of live music. And because of that each band gets a fair hearing.
There are two main music venues; Reds plays host to bands during the days from midday (four on Friday) whilst the slightly larger Centre Stage sees us through the evening stint. Both rooms are cavernous with seats around the edges. If you don't mind standing it's possible to get pretty near to the front at both sets of gigs.
Let’s deal with the ‘legends’ first. Saturday night’s headliner are the Jesus and Mary Chain. They’ve been around for long enough to know how to work a crowd and that’s what they achieve to perfection. Straddling between nonchalance and genuine appreciation of their fanbase, they stand still behind dark light and a mass of smoke. Jim Reid’s vocal is arguably better than it ever was. You could probably argue the same for David Gedge who has learnt the art of holding a tune and finding a melody as the year’s progress. The Wedding Present sock it to us fair and square on Sunday evening in the penultimate slot. Peter Perrett is something of a revelation (to me at least). His band are great and the songs he plays from recent records worthy of a listen when the festival finishes. He tells all that today is his fiftieth wedding anniversary before satisfying us with those hits from his Only Ones past. I don’t get to see Brix and the Extricated and have succumbed to the most almighty toothache on the Friday night when the legend that is John Cale headlines. I hear that he was very good when he decided to play three minute pop songs but a bit bloated (in terms of song length) at other points in his long set.
Oh that toothache!! It came on fiercely whilst watching SOAK (interesting if aloof folk-soul from Northern Ireland) and touched so many raw nerves that it was tear-inducing. I’m reserving this interlude in my festival review to praise the NHS and the emergency dental service at St. Richards Hospital, Chichester. A Saturday morning appointment saw me slightly anaesthetised but able to again function. We’ll miss such service when it’s gone.
Picking out the highlights from the ‘emerging acts’, it’s hard not to talk about LIFE. With new album, A Picture of Good Health, released in the last few months, they’ve had time on the road to hone their stagecraft. Any fears about how this mighty band from Hull might transcend to the bigger Butlin’s stage quickly diminish with Mez’s first hip-shake. There’s more than a nod to Jarvis Cocker in his movement. LIFE seem to love being here at Butlin’s; they put their all into the Sunday afternoon gig and the crowd respond with rapturous appreciation. By the time that the last bead of sweat has fallen, Mez has dived from the stage whilst uttering truths about Tories and single parenthood. The rest of the band have posed, postured and had us all along for the ride. Generous with their time, you see them hanging out with fans and mates afterwards. There’s no pretence here and that’s all part of their considerable charm.
Self Esteem are another to impress. It’s a minor criticism but the ‘emerging’ line up at Rockaway Beach is quite guitar-heavy and so this blissful, out and out pure pop girl group are something of a relief when they arrive. Rebecca Taylor has previously crafted her performance skills with Slow Club and knows how to hit the heights. Vocally immaculate and full of cheesy dance routines, the sum is enough to put a smile on any serious face.
Surprise act of the weekend has to go to Nova Twins. Listening to their releases in advance of the festival, it’s challenging to see why they’ve been billed so highly. Nestling between Peter Perrett and the Jesus and Mary Chain, the organisers must have heard something from this ‘Prophets of Rage’ support act from London that I hadn’t. Or probably the organisers had just seen Georgia and Amy put on a live show. Their energy is contagious, the performance compelling. Lithely twisting and turning through all sorts of rock cliché, Nova Twins put forward a pretty strong case that 2020 could well be their year. Back at the start of this Saturday, Pagans SOH open the Reds stage with similar conviction and genre. Rap and rock work well together for these lads from the Black Country; they succeed in blowing away any cobwebs from the night before with their RHCP riffage and strutting energy.
Black Country, New Road are an altogether more sedate proposition. But you can see from the way that their tunes build and fall like The Fall taking us down jazz, post-punk and krautrock avenues that their musical grounding is strong. It’s been barely a year since their first release came out but this six piece from Cambridge and London have taken a burgeoning rise in profile in their stride. The streets are now their oyster and the lanes their solace. Watch them if you can before they go all Arcade Fire on us.
Adwaith impress as Sunday openers. It doesn’t matter that you can’t understand 70% of what’s being sung about unless you are a Welsh speaker. The charm is there for all to see. They sing a song translated as red lipstick, inspired by a date that Gwen, the bass player went on. It’s one of their best but then I’ve always been a sucker for a bit of jangly C86-like pop. Melys also hail from Wales; they could almost be added to the list of legends given the length of time they’ve been around. Favourites of John Peel (and regular support act for The Wedding Present), their indie-pop glistens with intent on the Sunday afternoon. Like a heavier St Etienne, they’re a fine way to pass the time before evening dinner beckons.
Food, glorious food. The structure isn’t for everyone (the times can seem too rigid) but if you’re going to a music festival at Butlins, I’d heartily recommend the self-service dining experience on offer. For breakfast (served between 9 and 11) and evening tea (5 to 7), we congregate at the Deck, the premium dining service in these parts. The choice is extensive, the quality excellent and the service second to none. Tasty food to cater for all dietary requirements, we gorge on soups, beef hotpots, cheese and crackers, bread and butter pudding and that soft, creamy Mr Whippy like ice cream. And then we go back for seconds. There are many other places to eat should the Deck not be your thing. Any New Year’s resolutions made to reverse Christmas weight gain will be seriously challenged for this weekend.
After dining, we retire to Bar Rosso for a leisurely pint. There are many bars on site, all well-staffed, and so you don’t ever wait long to be served. With pints coming in at around the £4.50 mark, you don’t ever get the sense that Butlin’s are capitalising on their captive audience. Prices are fair and people spend accordingly. You’re able to take drinks between venues which helps those of us who like to sip at their pints (not me obviously). Just beside Bar Rosso where we can listen to playbacks of albums, enter into pub quizzes and watch ‘celebrity’ DJs spin their records in the Skyline. We sit and watch films on the big screen at this stage realising how thoroughly wrong ‘Airplane’ is and how thoroughly dull most Q&A’s with bands can be.
Fontaines D.C. have come a long way in a really short space of time. Just eighteen months ago, a thoroughly lovely afternoon of drinking with them in Barcelona offered little indication that they would now be headlining festivals of this stature. And with all of the ‘legends’ that the festival can draw upon, it’s a brave move to give the Sunday headline slot to the relatively untested boys from Dublin. It’s a move that’s been vindicated with the amount of ‘album of the year’ awards the Fontaines have collected in recent months. And it doesn’t backfire. Surely now, many other festivals will be announcing these lads are 2020 headliners. It’s hard to see the juggernaut stopping any time soon.
A perfect mix of new and old, of legend and breakthrough. A knowledgeable crowd who know much about music and won’t rest until they know even more. An infrastructure that is made to help events like this succeed and staff willing to always go the extra mile. Tickets for Rockaway Beach 2021 are already on sale. Try stopping me getting mine. I’ll make sure I take my trunks then so that I can experience the renowned pool party as well.
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Rockaway Beach Festival 2020 review