hoping that Totnes Sea Change Festival becomes a permanent shift

Totnes Sea Change Festival 2016 review

published: Thu 1st Sep 2016

around the town

Friday 26th to Saturday 27th August 2016
various venues, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 5QH, England MAP
£45 weekend tickets + camping £10
last updated: Wed 20th Jul 2016

At some point I got old, not quite sure when but I traded in dancing like a loon in a sweaty mass of hair and limbs up the front with a bottle of tequila perforating the sky to sipping a plastic glassed pint of fizzy cider at the back by the bar thinking the whole venue is too hot whilst enjoying some intelligent music my teenage self would not have liked as it didn't have enough riffage.

I'm in Totnes, funnily enough my teenage self also spent time here, but this time around whilst inhabiting the bustling town on a bank holiday weekend I'm also attending a festival. One where I won't get muddy, but I do get sweaty, even if I try hard not to move and visualise icebergs I'm still perspiring. Much like at a festival in a field cut off from the outside world I'll eat great street food from vendors, wander markets looking at tranklements. But here I do not have to queue for the loo, or get drenched were it to rain. For, I'm at Sea-Change an indoor festival spread across the town in indoor venues including pubs, the arts centre, civic hall, and a church. It's a weekend that offers the independent flavour and feels at home in the  infrastructure of a town that's not full of corporate shops or grill houses.

A sea-change, means "a profound or notable transformation" and having got back from the inaugural event of the same name held last weekend,and I have realised I've undergone a sea change since I first started going to festivals decades ago.

The festival reminds me a bit of Festival No.6 with it’s use of buildings and programming, or Exeter's Vibraphonic, although many of the attendees are also visitors to Port Eliot, and again I can see the similar appeal. There's luminaries in conversation, talks, a bohemian art theme, and a lot of older people behaving well. Actually the advantage of getting old is that we can enjoy this festival and have a laugh about it because we feel where escaping from our daily world into this festival landscape. It's as though the narrow streets of Totnes offer some kind of Harry Potter like escape into a Diagon Alley in a hidden musical landscape instead of wands it's the dayglo wristbands we're all wearing that grant us entry.

Again, I guess it's that time shift from my youth that means I'm less frenetic about seeing as many acts as possible. Instead the great weather means I can enjoy the hubbub of the Bay Horse Inn's Beer & Cider Festival and their beer garden selling burgers for £6 and offering 6 half pint for £7.50, or 13 tokens for £15, and a wealth of nationwide beers and ciders, plus a spot of live music all in strolling distance from the main venues. Making for a great diversion during band changeovers at other venues, and being half pints mean you're not distracted too long.

When I first arrived the first person I notice (meaning the festival is likely to be good) is Bristol's Big Jeff (Jeffrey Johns) in front of the stage, throwing his fuzzy yellow hair in time to the music. A regular on the gig scene and usually at events where the choice of programming is going to good. Seeing Jeff reminds me of my teenage self more than a little bit.

As many of the venues are small I realise there will obviously be a limited capacity on the indoor venues, particularly the Barrel House a local pub with a ballroom for live acts and an outdoor beer garden under the castle's walls offering DJs and a chance to enjoy the  warm Devon climate and hospitality. I opt to get to venues in plenty of time, sticking to halves of cider at a time, and never end up waiting in a queue.

The festival has been put together by the local Drift Records independent shop and members of local band Matthew & Me among others, and their choice of music is eclectic. I don't know a few of the acts on the bill, and the whole line-up topped by a deliciously on form British Sea Power, and Toy, plus Rival Consoles, and Bo Ningen draw a wide age range. Best described as looking like a better dressed audience than you'd expect at a folk festival. There's a lot of people my age and older and less of the younger audience of my youth. There's a few but they tend to be the type who buy vinyl and look for something more intellectual in their music than the usual kind of fare festival's billed at them usually provide. There's not a lot of pop to be heard over the event's two days. Which reminds me, having it on Friday and Saturday of a bank Holiday is a great idea for us older festival goers we have 2 days to recover before returning to work.

Another sign you're getting old is reading the programme of a festival. In my youth I went with the flow, rarely knowing who I would see before I went. Nowadays the line-up is often out in advance and I plan our weekend's like a campaign. At Sea Change I make conscious effort not to do that instead being guided by others recommendations and where my mood takes me. It works well, and reminds me that perhaps I should endeavour to do it more often.

There are various surprises over the weekend that I make a note to uncover more of. Acts like the wonderful voiced Holly Macve, and the electronic genius noodlings of Howes (joint favourites for my act of the weekend). The supergroup The Pure Conjecture consisting of many of the acts showcased on stage including the foyer's delicious gin seller, the gravelly and highly likeable BC Camplight, crowd favourites The Wave Pictures, locals Magic Bus, and the creative The Diamond Family Archive (a replacement for Lux Harmonium).

Alongside these are acts I've seen before but always deliver a good set, these include The Membranes, Ultimate Painting, our hosts Matthew & Me, and likeable local Thirty Pounds of Bone. I also enjoyed the selection of Bizarre Ritual DJs, and wish I'd got to see a few more of the talks from the likes of Sylvia Pattersonm Mark Leahy, John Doran, Jude Rogers and others.

Then of course there were our headliners British Sea Power, and Toy who both delivered fantastic headlining performances in an intimate setting, the former even has an IPA beer on sale we can drink whilst we enjoy their 'machinations of joy'. We didn't even venture as far as the South Devon Arts Centre which was a bit of a walk away showcasing more acts. I may have done had I a younger pair of legs. But just window shopping in the independent shops of Diagon Alley on the way to the cider tasting kept me happy. 

I think I'd have preferred organisers to have considered an outdoor stage a bit nearer to the other venues rather than the Art Centre. My main reason being the weekend was hit with a heatwave and everywhere I went to watch acts I boiled up. Although each venue had it's own bar selling a rudimentary set of options as coolers for around £4 a pint.

It would seem most locals either liked having it there or hated it being there depending upon you asked, but were typically friendly regardless of their real opinions. The audience were friendly and sociable and various. Some had come from further afield to be here, and many were BSP fans. I think overall it was viewed as a positive thing for the town, there was no trouble on the streets and I heard volunteers offer to clear up the rubbish after the event ended.

Many of those I spoke to had found accommodation in the town (with some hilarious stories of sheds being offered on AirBnB) or camping nearby with the yellow Community bus service Bob The Bus connecting the site at Dartington to the action. The programme offering train times, dedicated buses, and taxi numbers to attendees. One of the many indicators that made it clear organisers were thinking of festival goers wants over the weekend.

The festival certainly felt a lot different to the more usual summer in a field events. I quite liked having the infrastructure of a town around me, which felt surprisingly like a festival with character rather than a bunch of generic marquees. It reminded me of those out of season folk festivals that take over villages or literary weekends, and offered predominantly a programme of music to listen to rather than dance to. Certainly it attracted an older crowd, but being Totnes (which has a reputation for being quite alternative) also a colourful crowd.

Thanks to all those that helped put this event together and the friendly stewards, bar staff, and security. Personally I’d love the event to happen again and become a regular event on the calendar, I’ll certainly be back. It’s a well curated thoughtful event that presented new and eclectic music in a wonderful setting with more than a little magic down that Daigon Alley. I hope it’s a sea change for Totnes that’s a permanent shift.


review by: Scott Williams

Friday 26th to Saturday 27th August 2016
various venues, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 5QH, England MAP
£45 weekend tickets + camping £10
last updated: Wed 20th Jul 2016

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