It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly two and a half years since the Red Rooster festival last took place in the grounds of Euston Hall. After being cancelled last year, the organisers pushed this year’s iteration back to August, to give the festival the best possible chance of going ahead. It meant that regular attendees had to be all the more patient, though on the plus side they could at last take solace in the idea that chilly rain speckled May had been swapped for the sweltering heat of late August.
Sadly, it didn’t really turn out that way. This year’s Red Rooster was the wettest, and certainly the coldest, I’ve experienced, so it’s a testament to the festival that despite the inclement weather, the weekend was such a resounding success. This was, not least, due to the roster of superb performers gathered together last weekend, in spite of the restrictions placed on international travel. Admittedly, things got off to a shaky start on Friday night, with Sister Cookie, and Iraina Mancini struggling to energise the crowd. Their shortcomings were similar – poorly mixed sound and pitchy vocals. It was only when Holly Macve, had similar troubles that the penny dropped that the problem might be the sound system, rather than the performer. Either way, let’s cut them some slack - it’s been a long time since anyone did this sort of thing. When Jade Bird, finally got the crowd going it started to feel more like a party, one that Hank JD Sleek moved into top gear with a pleasingly eccentric Country based DJ set.
It was loud, though. With the rain and cold impinging on this year’s festival, the advantage of a tented main stage needs little further explanation, but there was a price to pay. Blasting the music out loud enough for those circling the tent outside requires a volume that is bound to distort, if only your eardrums. I get that rain might stop play, but I do wish the Rooster folk would have stuck to the plans of last year and given us an open air stage. Lord knows, they’ve got the space. Not only would that allow for a sound system that could be better calibrated, it would solve the uncomfortably cramped conditions that seemed to emerge before the end of each night. More of that later, but for now it was a case of crossing our collective fingers, and hoping things were better the next morning.
They were certainly wetter. No one expected rain on Saturday morning. It hadn’t rained for weeks in East Anglia, it wasn’t forecast, and frankly it wasn’t fair. It didn’t exactly stop play, but it could have impeded it, such is the importance of the casual stroll to Rooster. The expansive grounds of Euston Hall (designed by no less than Capability Brown) are one of the great pleasures of Red Rooster – it would be a delightful place to visit without the music. It was still lovely, but journeys were purposeful rather than leisurely. No one could sensibly resist having a poke about, however, if only to take in the stunning countryside vistas, the swans on the lake, or the whiff of Lebanese cedar in the woods. Although there were noticeably less traders and food stalls – a sober reminder of tough times – the spirit of the place very much remained.
Something else that remained intact from previous years was the state of the ablutions. I can’t imagine any festival wants to be best known for its toilets, but they really were fabulous. Spotless throughout the event, it’s the sort of thing that makes a huge difference to a festival where camping on site is very much part of the experience. Having experienced the horrors of Beautiful Days the previous weekend, I can personally testify to the unalloyed joy a pristine loo brings. There was no mystery to it, either. The good folk that looked after them were forever at it, beavering away with professionalism and good humour. It can be done, and it makes a difference.
Back to the main stage, life was beginning to stir – I approached it with some trepidation after Friday night’s lukewarm start, but got there in time for what proved to be one of the highlights of the weekend. The Future Shape Of Sound offered up an intoxicated cocktail of gospel and blues, blending musicianship and theatricality perfectly, with the extraordinary presence of Debbralee Wells belting out lead vocals. They left the audience begging for more, which was hardly surprising given the meagre half hour slot they squeezed their set into. They were one of several early morning acts that barely had time to settle in. Hats off to Red Rooster for trying to fit as many acts in as possible, but with change over taking as long as the acts themselves, perhaps it might have been better to showcase fewer bands and let them play longer.
The downtime on the main stage did encourage exploration, however, and the second stage – a faux barn called the Little Red Rooster stage – rewarded making the effort. It really upped its game this year, offering far more than stocking fillers to mark time while the main stage opened up again. Paul-Ronney Angel, the gravel voiced singer from The Urban Voodoo Machine gave a wilfully eccentric solo performance, followed by an outstanding turn from The Coalminers performing what they chose to call Swamp Soul. Fronted by a giant called Tommy Hare, who seemed in constant danger of banging his head on the stage’s roof, this was crowd pleasing stuff. Channelling, rather than mimicking, Joe Cocker he fronted a band that deservedly won a huge audience, rising as one from their hay bales to rejoice in their showmanship. The Filthy Six were an entirely different proposition, but just as good in their own way, playing jazz, blues and funk with an astonishing virtuosity. The Little Red Rooster stage was by now struggling to contain, not only the number of people squeezed into its tiny performance space, but the talent on show. It was such an unassuming structure, I wonder how many people missed out on what it had to offer because it just didn’t look that promising. It boded well for Lady Blackbird, and I was reliably informed by others she was excellent, but Richard Hawley was beckoning me back to the main stage.
I was wary of Hawley’s performance – he is such a big name I knew the tent would be packed and jockeying for a decent sightline is not my favourite way to experience a gig at the best of times. In theory we had all tested negative and that tent was safer than a supermarket, but I can’t have been the only one that felt a tad nervous when cheek by jowl. Nonetheless, there were windows to be found in-between the shoulders of braver souls, and even from outside the curtilage of the tent, this was a mesmeric performance. And not only was he a giant talent accompanied by a brilliant band, he proved to be a thoroughly nice bloke.
But then everyone is nice at Red Rooster. People always say that of their favourite festival, but it really is true of this delightful gem. What was particularly noticeable this year was how far people had come to get there, and how many first timers I chatted to. Small festivals usually attract local interest, and I’m sure those people were there too, but I spoke to people from Scotland, Lincolnshire, Newcastle and even Berlin. Whatever their reason for coming, they were all delighted to be there, delightful company, and were determined to return.
That said, it was local interest that drew me back to the arena on Sunday for a late morning start. Norwich based Louisa Sadler seemed nigh on overwhelmed to be playing a festival she had attended as a punter. Wearing her heart firmly on her gingham sleeve, she performed poignant songs with infectious enthusiasm that drew both applause and tears from an appreciative, if sleepy headed audience. On the main stage, Norwich’s 4D Jones entertained one of the biggest crowds of the afternoon - no mean feat at noon. They were, as folk from around these parts already know, unimpeachable, mixing mordant wit – “I’d like to thank Richard Hawley for supporting us” – with a cracking set of blues standards. I’m still not sure if this was clever scheduling – filling up the tent so early in the day – or a missed opportunity to properly showcase an obviously popular local act. Either way, they were, like the charismatic Black Cat Bone who followed them, another act that seemed to finish just as they were getting started. Their swift departure did at least afford me the opportunity to catch Tommy McLain on the Little Red Rooster stage. Now in his eighties, he has written for countless star performers and only latterly is having his time in the sun. Accompanied by Tommy McLain, CC Adcock,, his voice may now be a little frail, but there is no doubting the power of his songs.
On the home run now, but first a word about Howlin Wolf, the festival’s dance venue. It’s a lovingly dressed tent, complete with retro booths, record cover collages and a motorbike. Sadly, for most of the day, it’s also empty. I popped in twice, but notwithstanding the enthusiasm with which both Jamie Jones, and Hank JD Sleek did their thing, they were doing it to no one. One solitary fellow, clearly away with the fairies, was Dad dancing to Jamie James’s set with abandon, but embarrassed by the vast emptiness, I sloped off furtively, just as I imagine others did before and afterwards. I felt rather sorry for the DJs doing their best for little feedback - perhaps no one wants to dance to records at three in the afternoon, or seven in the evening, but it was a lovely little venue that deserved more than an after hour crowd. A rethink of how to fill this venue during the day is required - I’d suggest remodelling it as a quiet daytime retreat before it bursts into life at midnight.
Rooster offered up a cracking line up to close the main stage, starting with a force of nature called His Lordship. With a fury and passion reminiscent of the original Dr Feelgood line up, they tore up the stage with a frenzied set that promised great things to come from this exciting new band. Urban Voodoo Machine, brought some welcome eccentricity to the stage, drawing one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, before Little Barrie settled into what proved to be an outstanding set.
All of which leaves me struggling to find superlatives to describe Ian Siegal’s headlining performance. I couldn’t have imagined anyone could have topped Richard Hawley, and I suppose there is no need to put them in order, but Siegal was brilliant from the outset and throughout. Like so many performers over the weekend, he was obviously delighted to be playing to a live audience, and that delight was infectious. As the fire pits that surrounded the main stage roared into life, the last vestiges of a soggy weekend melted away, as he put on a stunning showcase of a lifetime’s work.
It remains something of a puzzle why Red Rooster is so appealing. Granted its surroundings are pleasant, and there are diversions beyond the music – swimming in the river, table top football, a prehistoric man skinning a deer with flint – but it’s still essentially two stages, largely populated with acts I hadn’t heard of before turning up. The conclusion I draw is that it takes the idea of a festival back to its roots, where music provides a backdrop to meeting like-minded people and taking stock. David Byrne once said that lyrics were a trick to make you listen to music for longer. Perhaps music is a trick to make you spend time with friends, and friendly strangers, longer than you otherwise would. With Rooster returning to its usual slot in May next year, there is – thrillingly - only eight months to go until the next one. I am, of course, in
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