Red Rooster - a game of two halves

Red Rooster Festival 2018 review

By David Vass | Published: Tue 5th Jun 2018

Red Rooster Festival 2018 - around the site
Photo credit: David Vass

Red Rooster Festival 2018

Thursday 31st May to Saturday 2nd June 2018
Euston Hall, Thetford, Suffolk, IP24 2QP, England MAP
£59.50, children u12 free - SOLD OUT

It's not unusual for festivals to take place in the estates of grand houses - I dare say it's how many of the country houses of England help make ends meet - so it's not really news to say that Red Rooster festival takes place just off the A11 past Thetford, at Euston Hall, home to the Duke of Grafton, descendant of King Charles the Second's illegitimate son. You're probably imagining something like Latitude in Henham Park, or perhaps the Big Chill at Eastnor Castle - a fenced off area where the sheep are usually kept, with sushi vans and burger bars crammed into every twist and turn, as a cacophony of sound spills from conflicting stages. If so, you should swiftly erase such thoughts and images from your mind. Rather than imposing itself on the landscape, Red Rooster deftly integrated itself into the considerable beauty of the estate in a way that was sympathetic to its surroundings and quietly revolutionary in its approach.

Due to an entry system that, depending on your disposition, was either refreshingly relaxed or annoyingly chaotic, I camped up far later than intended, but was pleased to find ample room for everyone, picking a peachy spot right next to an octagonal temple. The arena itself was approached by using a make-do bridge spanning an 18th century ha-ha ( I promise I'm not making this up) which led to the extraordinary vista of twilight's last gleaming reflecting off of the shining surface of a distant lake, with avenues opening up to the left and right, lined by yew tree and ancient Lebanese cedar. It felt like I had entered a magical kingdom and I was tempted to explore, but already late to the party, I hurried along to main marquee, where The Bonnevilles were half way through their punk blues set, banging out a marvellous racket on drums and guitar like Northern Ireland's answer to the Slaves. Packed with sweaty bodies, and surrounded by others basking in the dimming sun, the main stage was already well and truly open for business. Darkness came stealthily, and with it Alabama 3, drawing yet more undercover for an acoustic set that many I spoke to found underwhelming, but which I felt provided the perfect soundtrack to a weekend that was already feeling quite special.

The following day, from up by the temple, I could see the sweep of the whole site, but not the detail. Covered in a milky early morning mist, it was as if it wasn't yet ready to reveal its treasures. Only slowly did the jaw-dropping beauty of the surrounding countryside theatrically reveal itself, tempting campers, in spite of sore heads from the previous night's revels, to come explore the site. Music was already coming from deep in the woods, through which I wandered, eventually coming across the little Red Rooster stage, where the passionate Ruby Jean Rose was performing to a surprisingly substantial crowd for the time of day. A lovingly crafted mini barn, the stage was not much bigger than an ice cream van, and proved to be typical of the attention to detail I would go on to see all over the site. Perched on hay bales in the late morning sun, it would have been easy to stay there all day, as I'm sure many did, but while I kept returning to see first Lauren Housley's fusion of Soul and Country, followed by the good humour of Banjo Jen, the urge to explore further was eventually irresistible.

The lake I had glimpsed the previous night is fed by the meandering Black Bourne River, creating a natural barrier that obviated the need for a perimeter fence, so that an unobstructed view of the Suffolk countryside became a dramatic, spell-binding backdrop to the festival. Whimsically decorated with pink flamingos, the lake was host to boats punting up and down, children playing in the shallows, while adults swam in the deep end. Retracing my steps I realised that, despite being a tiny festival, Red Rooster was spread over an extravagance of space, with paths cut through natural meadows encouraging guests (and that's what you are made to feel like - not punters, or customers, or ticket holders) to go see what they can find. I turned a corner to be confronted by Euston Hall offering up yet another dramatic vista, with innumerable inviting food stalls set out on what is essentially the Duke of Grafton's back garden. With no flags, no marketing, no fancy pants sculpture from recycled aeroplanes, and certainly no branding, it was as if the festival was almost belligerently swimming against the prevailing tide, allowing space to breathe and having the confidence to let the natural loveliness of its setting to do all work.

Back in the gloom of the main stage, both the Worry Girls and Graham Shipcote played to crowds noticeably smaller than its tiny counterpart, highlighting what must be a conundrum for the organisers. When the weather is as glorious as it was on the Friday, why ever would you want to be stuck in a marquee, especially when the site was so lovely? It was a great shame for both performances and attendees that the allure of the sun meant modest audiences for the main stage acts, many of whom would have been perfect for a sunny day. That said, it was May, and it was supposed to chuck it down - had it done so we would have all been delighted at the wisdom of a main stage under cover.

An easier one to solve, perhaps, was the scheduling of music, which to me was the only misfire. Resolutely uncommercial, the festival didn't sell a program, preferring to give the information away for free on blackboards. This was civil, but unless you'd done your homework it left those of us with distinct preferences floundering as we had to second guess what kind of music was up next. Red Rooster claims to cast a broad net, with a mix of R&B, Americana, Blues, Soul, Roots and Country - of those it was R&B, Blues and Soul I was banking on cherry picking, but you had to find it first. Friday, to my untrained ears, seemed dominated by Country and Bluegrass and by late afternoon I was longing for something else. Kashena Sampson's powerful voice brought personal and heartfelt songs to life and should have been a highlight, but I felt she suffered from being preceded by a series of similar sounding artists. Salvation, to my ears, came from Great Yarmouth, of all places, the home of Vagaband, putting some much needed acerbic grit into the mix with their distinctly British spin on Americana. When they passed the baton to superb soul singer Yola Carter, who delivered a set that had the charisma and heft of a headliner slot, it finally felt like the night was up and running.

What a pity, then, that all that energy would so quickly dissipate in the face of Pokey LaFarge's understated performance. There's no doubting the man's talent, and the crowd offered due deference to the biggest act of the night, but there was a palpable sense of disappointment at such a restrained and muted performance. Determined to not end on a whimper, I then went exploring and was delighted to fall across the immaculately presented Howling Woods, a dance tent dressed as a vintage record store. Perched on the very edge of the lake it was packed with bright young things dancing to everything from Northern Soul to Edwyn Collins - the perfect venue for making a fool of yourself at the end of an imperfect day.

I woke on Saturday in a quandary, still dwelling on the surfeit of Country music I had digested the day before. I so wanted to love this festival. All the staff, all the performers, and all the guests were lovely, friendly people. The conversations with strangers came easy, the banter was always good natured, and (despite being an unapologetically boozy festival) outward signs of belligerent drunkenness practically non-existent. The food was of a universally high quality, the site was kept an immaculate, litter-free pleasure garden, while even the toilets, despite being the sort of plastic toilets that makes your heart sink, were a thing of wonder. I've never heard so much chatter about the sparkly cleanliness of the toilets - folk would emerge from them with beatific smiles. Everything about the festival was a testament to the organisers, but also to attendees, and proof of the power of self-policing by people keen to demonstrate a mutual respect for each other and their surroundings. I just wish more of the music had been to my taste.

But what a difference a day makes! It slowly dawned on me while watching 4D Jones - the finest Rhythm and Blues band north of the river Waveney - that, unless I had been extraordinary unlucky the day before, all the music I had been looking forward to was yet to come. Sure enough, with a distinct change of gear, the festival then delivered a cracking line up of high octane big hitters that kept the main stage pumping from late morning to midnight. Dana Immanuel & the Stolen Band's version of Viva Las Vegas owed more to the Dead Kennedys than Elvis Presley, while Parisian chanteuse Sarah Olivier delighted the crowd by handing out whisky while singing 16th century opera. Utterly bonkers and joyously entertaining, she was followed by further eccentricity in the shape of Thee Scarecrows AKA who (while wearing hessian sacks over their heads) treated the audience to the third (and best) version of Folsom Prison Blues I had heard that weekend. They also parodied a Gary Glitter song, but perhaps the less said about "Do you Want to Weed in my Land?" the better. Spain's Los Chicos kept the energy levels up with their punk tinged garage rock, followed by Slim Cessna's Auto Club's outstanding, and extremely dark, spin on the gothic side of Americana.

The day was flying by, the greatest challenge being when to take a break to stock up on fuel. It was while queuing for my Deadgood Burrito that I shared with the folk behind my enthusiasm for what I considered an outstanding day of music. Devoted Country fans they sheepishly demurred, confessing to feeling as short changed on Saturday as I had on the Friday. We agreed we were just horses looking for different courses and that Red Rooster offered more than enough for everyone - they just needed to mix it up a tad more and everyone would be happy. I returned, content in this epiphany, to find the biggest crowd of the weekend, expectantly waiting for New York blues machine, Daddy Long Legs. Resolutely lo-fi, they were outstanding, and the biggest hit of the festival for all of an hour, before Eli Paperboy Reed topped them with his 10-piece High and Mighty Band, with a stunning set of brass fuelled blues. On crutches from an earlier injury, Reed was nevertheless determined to give the crowd what they came for, finishing a full half hour after his allocated time. As far as the audience were concerned, it was still too soon.

Afterwards there was a good natured, if shambolic, dance contest where no one seemed to know the rules, but the weekend had all but come to an end. Determined to not go gently into the night, I headed off to the Howling Woods for one last bop, but on the way was distracted by the sound of a band coming from deep in the woods. Confident there was no stage anywhere near - certainly not one open at midnight - I followed the sound until I fell across three blokes playing to no one on the side of the path, presumably just because they wanted to, and no one was inclined to stop them. Typical of this easy going festival, it was one last surprise in a weekend full of them. If I have one abiding regret it is that I didn't start coming to Red Rooster years ago - I guess I shall just have to be content with the cheery thought than I will certainly be returning next year.

review by: David Vass

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