COVID-19 – there’s no getting away from it at the moment. Rates are sky-high, hospital admissions are up, and everyone is only one lateral flow test away form a 10-day break in your house. It would take a very brave person to stage a festival in the face of all the uncertainty the virus creates. And yet, there are crazy fools who do just that. So having had our vaccinations and boosters, and with facemasks and LFT tests in hand we went down to see what a festival looks like these days.
Rockaway is held at Butlins in Bognor Regis - a place that exists in a time-bubble permanently locked in the 1980s - everywhere is a kaleidoscope of bright colours, neon signs and ‘hi-tech’ architecture. There’s something familiar about it’s unique flavour – I never went to holiday parks as a kid, but the collective consciousness has imparted a social memory of the place that feels comforting when you arrive. So after a quick check-in and unpacking in our hotel room we took a look at the schedule for the weekend.
When we booked in we were recommended to download the Butlins app on our phone, as it was the best place to keep track of the changes to the programme. And comparing it to the line-up on the website, we saw almost a third of the line-up had changed, and continued to do so over the weekend. Usually at a festival, I’m a big fan of just wandering into a venue and seeing what’s playing - a kind of music roulette. At Rockaway this became the normal pattern. There was no point in worrying about it, and just go ahead and see who did turn up.
Kicking off the weekend were October Drift, a new band to me but a worthy starter to the weekend – setting the tone with a hi-energy set filled with songs that deserve to be heard in a big stadium. They were followed with similar punk frenzy by Grandma’s House. It was a good start that was sadly bought down by Wu Lu who took the strange decision to follow this with an opening track that was downbeat, miserable and just moaning to music. Much of the crowd, ourselves included, took this chance to get something to eat and left him to it. Thankfully the evening was recovered by a set of reggae classics by ex Bodysnatcher and Special AKA member Rhoda Dakar.
Rockaway is a festival that is effectively built on a single stage, with the acts starting the day in Reds Bar, then moving to the larger Centre Stage for the evening. This creates a laid-back feeling to the proceedings. Knowing you can settle in to a single venue without having to worry about relocating to catch everyone you want to see. As we moved to the larger venue, the changes to the line-up were more noticeable, of the original billing only Tricky remained. Unfortunately he was the one act who shouldn’t have bothered, choosing to play in near darkness, barely performing and leaving it to his band to do the real heavy lifting in the set. Thankfully he was bookended by two great acts - opening the evening were The Buzzcocks (standing in for The Futureheads) and Do Nothing (replacing Working Mens Club). The former gave a solidly gutsy show, while the latter were the first of many surprises of the weekend for us, where lead singer Chris Bailey’s world-weary performance balances nicely with the funky rock backing track from the other members.
Day two and we’ve found our rhythm: Get up; do a LFT test; have breakfast; see whose dropped out today; then wander down to the main area to chuck some money into the 2p shove machines; before settling in to watch the bands who have arrived, break for dinner at one of the restaurants on offer, before joining the queue to get a rare seat in the Centre stage for the evening. It makes for an easy day and after the chaos of Christmas it’s a nicely chilled way to wind into January. Highlights of the second day during the day included Italia 90, a punk band with an undercurrent of new wave melody and basslines, and Maria Uzor whose soulful vocals overlaid a smooth electronic soundtrack.
The evening again was victim to COVID, with only headliner JARV IS… surviving to perform, although technically a band and not a Jarvis Cocker solo project, it’s still very much his show, with plenty of offbeat conversation in between the music. Pulp fans were treated to a couple of obscure tracks, including ‘My Legendary Girlfriend’ as a closer. Again though it was the replacement acts that really impressed us; opening the evening were the linguistically challenging TTRRUUCES whose eccentric folky psychedelic pop sound bounced along at a merry pace. Recently reformed Thousand Yard Stare meanwhile weren’t treading any new ground with Britpop era indie rock, but they worked the crowd well, and quickly filled the floor.
Day three and the biggest surprise was that only one act had dropped out, however the organisers had clearly run out of bands, thankfully Friday openers October Drift were around to play a second set and plug the gap left by Odd Morris. Blowing away the cobwebs on Sunday were TV Priest – a rock band following the current shouty trend set by IDLES. By contrast the acoustic set from Lonely Tourist was a pleasant change - Rockaway leans towards full bands, so the break was welcome, and the gently humorous musings of Paul Tierney made for a good change of pace.
Another welcome change was that Sunday saw the rain give way to some pale winter sun, after the cold rain of the last two days. It was just a shame that most of the outdoor elements of the site were shut for renovation, as I’m sure they would have done a roaring trade from festival goers on the rides.
Back in the music and the chance to relive my youth with a fantastic set from 90s band The House of Love - it’s been almost 30 years since I last saw them live, but ‘Shine On’ is still a banger of a track and was good to be back in a crowd singing along like it was 1990 again.
Moving to the centre stage we were impressed by The KVB whose sound answered the age-old question – what would Kraftwerk sound like if they’d allowed a guitar into the band. They were followed by a rousing set from A Certain Ratio. Finishing up were Porridge Radio who struggled through guitar string issues to deliver a decent close to the weekend.
A festival during a global pandemic is a tricky thing, and although we were surprised how few people were wearing masks, at no point did it feel unsafe because of it - there was an acceptance among everyone that you ‘did what you needed to’ and everyone accepted everyone else’s choices - whether that meant just going for it like nothing was awry, wearing masks, or staying out of the way. If this is what living with the virus means, the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from here of how to go about it.
This is only our second time at the festival, but I feel it may well be a regular event for us - friendly people, comfortable beds, good food, great bands make it a fantastic, if quirky, addition to the calendar.
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