So with summer well and truly blazing a brand new festival hits North Devon, an area that's traditionally been overlooked by the industry despite the South West's keen music going crowd and high numbers of summer visitors. The four day event was hosted at Castle Hill a rather well to do stately home with a gorgeous expanse of land, ample for entertainment and camping.
It's beautiful, surrounded by trees the chosen valley, which has a small river meandering through and an ancient looking bridge crossing it, is a photographers dream.
The event itself feels like a heavily marketed experiment, there are lifestyle and well being options including off site excursions to the nearby coast to try surfing and coasteering, whilst the music programming covers everything from (extensive) acoustic guitar, to world music and techno. Jack Johnson is on the line-up aimed at surfers maybe but in my experience it tends to be the aspirational surfers music. That is, the city dwelling folk with their Volkswagon campers who sit in their sweaty office dreaming of living by the sea. Those of us who actually do live by the sea were perhaps a little sick of hearing those first two albums a long time ago and few of us have the VW despite the VW orientated paraphernalia that south west tourist shops push.
So on arrival there are no queues, nothing, not one car in front. I wondered if my friends and I have a arrived at the correct site. But no, there is the camper van field will it's extensive array of VW's (no sinks for washing up though). Even the tent area is spacious. None of that ripping other people's tents down by tripping over the guy ropes like festivals such as Glastonbury where we are all hemmed in like battery farmed chickens, campers could have definitely packed their cats to swing had they chosen.
So set up, my friends and I ambled to the site in the brutal sun. Every part of the festival image has been carefully crafted in the run up to the event. The lifestyle photos, even the muted colours of the branding lends itself to the soft instagram filters that people use on their phones. So on arrival I see a very photogenic Somersault sign with a trapeze and children's area nearby and on the other side a river with a wonderful looking stone bridge with the typical wellbeing tents and people doing outdoor yoga beyond.
Already baking hot the site organisers had forgone their original plan to stop people entering the river and instead to monitoring their behaviour and safety. A good move as it became a feature of the festival with people jumping in and bathing to cool off.
Orientating myself with a walk around the whole site the stalls were very interesting. It was quite boutique and there was very little in the way of tack. I liked a lot of what I saw and I expect the stalls had higher prices. In fact I think the items of clothing and accessories sold added to the image of the site when photographing it (perhaps carefully planned by the organisers?) and the food stalls were reasonably good with at least one high end eatery that at £35 per person was never going to serve average fodder. In fact in the spirit of the modern world the £35 banquets were almost entirely booked up for the whole weekend weeks before the festival gates opened. This was a whole new world for me and while I can see the benefits and uses of online booking it took any sense of spontaneity away that I'm accustomed to at most events. I actually enjoy turning up and being surprised by what there is to offer rather than thoroughly researching each aspect of an event. I'll know for next time though!
So onto the music, as with most festivals it's the main feature. There were at least 7 small venues with entertainment and then a main stage. The small stages all very small, some unsheltered but the big outdoor stage can fit thousand of fans in front of it.
The music programming seemed slightly disorganised and sporadic. The average entertainment by early in the day was a person with an acoustic guitar which few people seem interested in and the minute numbers of people actually on site already left traders grumbling about a lack of business. I kind of get the feeling that they think this is a surf festival and surfers just sit around listening to acoustic guitar and I can tell them for a fact that if they think they need to look at some of the line-ups in south west venues to see the hot bed of talent in the form or ska, hip hop, rock and punk etc touring here. Yeah acoustic music can be heard on the beach but perhaps partly because it's a little more difficult to take amplification not because that's all we listen to.
So as I began to yawn with those around me with suddenly I heard a shocking and startling noise. An electric guitar, with distortion. Like an electric shock to the brain The Computers (from Devon) stepped up to the plate and got people up actually dancing, no, more than dancing, moshing, smiling and having fun. These great liberators sounded like Elvis was resurrected and had become lead singer of the Hives. Organisers please take note they were simply the most exciting thing on the Friday and book them for next year! Simple.
By Saturday with audiences slowly arriving now the atmosphere began to take form. I still couldn't quite figure the clientèle. It's all a bit confusing it's hippy, surfer, yuppy, city weekend surfer, family, perhaps more than music lover or generic festival goer.
Musically there was still almost nothing until 1pm each day and often I'd wander during main stage gaps and find nothing on at the other stages. When music was on there could be ridiculously short sets from from people such as Matt Costa who talked nonsense between songs and was flummoxed when his electronic guitar tuner broke so he could only manage 5 or so songs. There were a few major(ish) acts, most notably Jack Johnson, then a 'forest party' with what seemed to me to be outdated electronic music that only went on until 3am which was just as well with it's lack of atmosphere. Chai Wallah's only had DJs who play great party music but nothing as good the great live music they've been bringing to us for many years. All in all it felt like an identity crisis, a little bit of quite a few things and not a lot of anything, I was perplexed that the Communion stage (often man and guitar) ended each eve with a quick bit of drum & bass.
The main acts for the Saturday weren't bad acts. I really like Nick Mulvey's music and admire his guitar playing, Jack Johnson will always do what's expected from him. Amadou & Mariam play lovely happy music and Fink is cool. They all had something to offer but nothing surprising and massively different and with the exception of Amadou and Mariam not a lot to dance to. Bombino were apparently wonderful and I'd been so keen to see them but unfortunately engaged elsewhere. They played during the only rainfall of the weekend, a quick deluge that sent people scrambling for shelter which was few and far between.
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