It may seem odd to begin a festival review with talk of a particular act, but I’m only following Sunday Sessions’ lead. For reasons unfathomable, as soon as the gates opened, poor Nelson Graf Reis, who must have been delighted to have been promoted to the main stage, was required to perform (under his trade name of We Bless This Mess) to an audience of exactly nobody. The security folk ushered people through in a timely and efficient manner, and impressively so, given the generous policy of letting folk come in with just about anything they wanted (if it was in a picnic hamper, and it wasn’t booze, you were waved through) but it all still takes time. The five minutes I caught of this set (and I was one of the first one’s in) seemed perfectly fine – who knows what the rest sounded like. Afterwards, the stage fell quiet for forty five minutes while a fidgety crowd twiddled their collective thumbs. It was a very odd start to the day.
Eventually, local Norwich heroes Ducking Punches appeared and made a pretty good fist of it for so early in the day. Rather sweetly describing themselves as punk rock (they’re not, as proper punk rests in piece) they nonetheless demonstrated a surprising depth to their music, way beyond the ferocity of their sound might suggest, tackling tricky subjects such as male suicide, a song inspired by and dedicated to lead singer Dan Allen’s sadly absent friend. Part way through the set, Dan implored the audience – to his eyes sitting an inexplicable distance away - to shuffle closer. Nothing then happened, which must have been a blow, but it wasn’t through the indifference of the crowd. In the first of what proved to be a number of peculiar policy decisions, the organisers had banned sitting down. I know this because previously I had I sat down, as you do early in the day, to read my overpriced lanyard in what was an almost entirely empty arena. Within moments I was approached by a member of staff who, very courteously, asked me to stand. When asked why, he replied:
“This is a standing only zone. You might prove a hazard.”
“But there’s no one else here,” I replied, genuinely perplexed.
“Health and Safety regulations,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
It was utterly bonkers, but also a shame. Bands early on in the day frequently enjoy meagre crowds, and those that do venture forth like to bank their energy for later revels. Lounging around at the front of the stage, taking a punt on an unfamiliar band, while soaking up the sun and half listening is one of the great pleasures unique to festivals, and yet here it was something both bands and audience were deprived of. An unintended hangover from the previous days festival perhaps, with its radically different demographic, but someone really should have thought it through.
To be fair, aside from this quibble, things thereafter worked out well, with the main stage alternating with the smaller, but perfectly agreeable, Sessions Stage. It meant there was always something on, with no need to miss anything. For me, it was the second stage that held most promise, though not before Lucy Spraggan quickly dispensed with any lingering memories of her appearance on the X Factor with a winning performance that combined the energy and attitude of KT Tunstall with the wit and wisdom of early Kate Nash. Immediately afterwards, in a ping pong manoeuvre that became the template for the day, it was then over to Goldie Lookin' Chain, down to only two because, as Eggsy insisted reassuringly “the rest of them are all dead” They proved to be just right for the intimate Sessions Stage, with a hilarious selection of their greatest hits which seemed to confound the younger folk in the audience, and were the first of several acts to crowd out what had previously been a thoroughfare to the toilets. Why the stage should be sited in such a singularly unfavourable spot it was hard to fathom. It did no favours to the artists, the audience or, for that matter, those who had to weave their way through the crowd on the way to the loos.
And while on the subject of toilets, why were there so few of them? The unacceptably queues that developed later in the day perhaps explained why some wise heads had bit the bullet and paid out nearly twenty quid for “posh” loos. Actually very similar to the ordinary toilets (in the spirit of journalist rigour I persuaded a security guard to let me check them out) the price of admission was obviously more to do with when you needed to go, rather than what you sat on, but having to pay a premium to queue jump a deficiency elsewhere really isn’t right. It was one of several instances of penny pitching that didn’t change the day enormously, but still colours the view. It can’t be right to charge a fiver for a few pieces of cardboard with little more than a list of the times the acts are on, yet that’s what the “souvenir lanyard” cost. Had it been given away, it would still have been disappointing, but would at least have been a nice gesture.
Whether it was yet more miserliness, or just the house style, but the Lockdown stage was an unprepossessing marquee that felt both austere and unwelcoming - I’m used to having my dance tents decorated with luminous butterflies and the like – this was a grim, forbidding place, devoid of decoration and wholly out of character for what was otherwise a really rather jolly festival. I can understand that the organisers wanted to reflect Lockdown festival – if that’s what was going on here - but what could have been a welcome alternative to the live acts on the outside stages, seemed to me to focus far too much on hip-hop and garage for a family festival. When under 18s were, midway through the day, banned from entry it begged the question - whatever was going on in there? I never got to find out.
Instead, I was back at the Sessions Stage, eagerly awaiting Reverend and the Makers, a band that will liven up any crowd. Sadly, before the Makers appeared, the rain started. Not forecasted or foreseen on what had been a beautiful day, the assembled masses could only stand there crest fallen, in their t-shirts and sunglasses, getting soaked. Some huddled under hastily reversed picnic blankets, while others wore hand crafted hats made from carrier bags, or macs made out of bin liners. It was a pitiful scene.
Well the Reverend Jon McClure was having none of that, and soon had the crowd bouncing defiantly to the infectious beat of one of the very best festival bands you could hope to see. Despite the incessant drizzle, this was one of the highlights of the day, with the crowd just getting bigger and bigger. Right up until the end of the set, folk dressed incongruously in Hawaiian shirts and skimpy tops, dripping not with sweat as they might have imagined, but with rain, kept on jumping, knees up and head held high, something that seemed to genuinely move McClure.
You’d like to think that sort of energy would drive the clouds away – especially ones that aren’t supposed to me there – but unaccountably, and despite blue sky clearly visible in the distance, one ruddy great cloud the exact same size as the park stayed obstinately above us, gently draining the spirits of those it doused. It’s hard to tell how much this affected the performance of The Bluetones but their insipid delivery of bygone tunes felt like a low point in the day. British Sea Power tried their best afterwards, but played to a tiny audience, and looked crushed to be doing so.
“Sorry about the weather,” said Neil Wilkinson, before adding forlornly, “Though it isn’t our fault.”
It was all going horribly wrong.
By the time Tom Odell came on it was after three hours of grotty, niggling rainfall, there were tentative signs of improvement, but by then a lot of damage had been done. This was a day festival. If people had brought a coat it was in the car parked miles away. People couldn’t nip back to their tent to change because there was no tent. With the heat now gone out of the day, and little prospect of those t-shirts drying out, folk just weren’t in the mood to reflectively listen to mellow piano playing, however well done. Regretfully, the most noticeable thing about the festival was how many people were now leaving it.
So thank the Lord for the Kaiser Chiefs (something I’m not accustomed to saying), who pretty much rescued the day with a fine rabble rousing set with ringmaster Ricky Wilson doing his thing like his life depended on it. His on stage antics are not everyone’s cup of tea (they’re not mine, to be frank) but whether you consider Wilson a consummate showman or a bit of a knob, it was just what the crowd needed and they responded in kind to the unarguable quality of their back catalogue. I parted company with the Chiefs a few albums back, but listening to "Oh My God", "Every Day" and "Modern Way" it was impossible not to be impressed by how good the album "Employment" was back in the day. Clever without being pretentious, catchy without being clichéd, and most importantly, straightforwardly fun, the band salvaged the day, and pushed the rain as far back into the memory as wet socks will allow.
Considering this was the first Sunday Session, and how it suffered the considerable blow of terrible weather, it went ahead remarkably smoothly, attracting a relaxed, friendly crowd, while offering a varied mix of musical treats. It played fair with families, catered for a wide demographic, and scheduled its acts with a canny eye on keeping folk entertained. With a little tweaking here and there and better luck with the weather, it has every chance of growing into a perky addition to the festival scene, particularly for day trippers not yet ready for the horrors of a long drop. Next time, however, whatever Alex Dolan says on Look East, I’m taking a plastic poncho.
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