Back to Larmer Tree Festival after a day’s reprieve (unfortunately missing the acclaimed Pheonix Foundation and Stornoway) I had little to complain about what I’d seen so far. If anything the bother was getting to and from the festival. Got a car or money for a taxi? You’re sorted. Otherwise it’s a train, obscure bus service and walk/hitchhike trek to reach the gardens. “We do have a bus service going back (on Sunday) so we’ll see, that’s a sort of toe in the water” said festival co-director James Sheperd. A tad expensive but the bus route was a Godsend on the last day. Regular goers, I abhor you to put a request for it next year.
Saturday and Sunday were what some long time goers refer to as the ‘real Larmer Tree Festival’. American performers weren’t frequent throughout the week but those that did hop the pond were always something special, hence the appearance by Tennessee based Caitlin Rose. With a positively familiar country sound, enchanting stage presence and startlingly splendid backing band she’s one of the festival’s true unsung gems.
The same can definitely be said of my personal pick of the Arc tent: Gabby Young and Other Animals. Sporting operatic vocals, lavish costumes and a personality like Miranda Hart (just not so grating) the leading lady makes even a small show feel like an unavoidable event. Their album ‘We’re All in this Together’ comes loaded with 17 tracks, making it value for money in quantity and quality.
Outside of the music/comedy acts there was much to enjoy: didgeridoo tutorials, kid’s workshops and theatre ranging from quirky street performances to zombie outbreak survival talks. A favourite was leading film critic Mark Kermode’s film club. Screening forgotten classics like Grace of my Heart, recent feasts Once and Chico and Rita and even longstanding classics like Singing in the Rain, music was very much the centrepiece of the showings. Kermode explained: “Last year we did a silent film: the Louise Brookes movie ‘Beggars of Life’ and did a live musical accompaniment to it, so what we’re trying to demonstrate was that if you’ve got a music festival, a film festival sits very nicely alongside it cause music is such a big part of film.”
Speaking of the doctor, his skiffle band The Dodge Brothers’ set on the Garden stage was a total knock-out. Stylish, nostalgic and almost too appropriate for the festival, the reviewer’s long outspoken love of the understated genre is right on the money when it takes form in such brilliant music, loved by a crowd who love the old school.
Throughout the week there were impromptu sets in the social tent, great for bringing a more toned down relationship between performer and crowd. One act who did so, whom I tragically missed on Friday were full-on indie band My First Tooth. “Ten minutes after getting on site we were like ’10 out of 10 for larmer tree’, cause everything’s so efficient and everyone’s so polite.” Said drummer Gareth. The band are big lovers of 90’s music and instrument-swapping experimentation. “It’s difficult because we have a lot of different ways of playing our songs” said singer/multi-multi-instrumentalist Sophia Sparken. “We’re not the kind of band who thinks it has to be the same on the record as it is live.”
Perhaps the biggest departure of the line up, Saturday headliners Asian Dub Foundation was a huge hit with the younger crowd. Mixing electronica with rap-core and ragga, the band still manage to fit in with their anti-commercialism attitude and heavily culture embedded music. Taking to the stage with relentless energy and mixing a variety of playing styles it was something rewardingly different and a blast just to watch. An interview with lead guitarist Chandrasonic will be up soon.
With time spent interviewing, only a handful of acts on Sunday were seen, but they were arguably some of the best. First are leading bastions of UK folk: Show of Hands. Enjoyed by an audience of all ages, the deep and contemporary issue song writing of Steven Knightley coupled with the unparallel multi-stringed work of Phil Beer and double-bassist Miranda Sykes was made better by hilarious banter ranging from the fall of Murdoch to the peacock attempting to make love to Phil’s car. Speaking of the latter we also got a fantastic interview with him coming to you soon.
Playing a further two sets on the last day, it’d be criminal not to bring your attention again to Australian habbadabba man C W Stoneking. His incredible voice, demeanour and attitude make him the target of comparisons to other similarly inspired acts. “Over the years I’ve really had to occasionally push against the stigma that’s become attached to the word ‘blues’” Stoneking said. “I don’t really feel like we do too much blues now, I got a lot of song titles with blues stuck on the end but that’s just…you know my imagination runs out when it comes to naming the songs a bit.”
Partly the reason many went to Larmer Tree at all was last day main stage headliner; American folk musician Seasick Steve. A true legend for his back-story of being homeless, a carnie, a producer of bands including Modest Mouse and finding new fame through Jules Holland, his stage presence is both charming, sweet natured and yet commands high respect. Playing in front of a fantastic banner drawn by his son Didrik, he also brought out his many famed homemade instruments, comically mentioning some additions that had no function. The highlight was him bringing a young girl to the stage and seducing her Seasick Steve style: with a rendition of ‘Walking Man’.
It’s difficult for any band booked the same time as such a name, but final music act 3 Daft Monkeys may have been worth missing part of Steve’s set for. “(Larmer Tree) wasabsolutely gorgeous” said guitarist/vocalist Tim Ashton. “We were a bit worried playing against the main headline act, but we had a great crowd, really happy vibe. Even in the rain and mud people came up with positivity and Lurv! “And it felt like were on a ship at one point” chimed in percussionist Richie. “So we all felt quite seasick!” Heavy festival players, their world inspired folk music and outfits are a true site to behold.
So here’s the crunch: if you’ve dismissed Larmer Tree Festival or others like it because it’s not advertised,well known or full of overblown acts that’s probably a good thing. Posed between going to attend another long-spoilt big name festival I wouldn’t hesitate to return to a site with uniquely inspired music, diverse entertainment, friendly people and a double-decker bus converted into a tea shop. And neither should you.