This summer’s festivals have been promoted in numbers not previously seen, and whilst we remain spoilt for choice the countless posters, billboards and adverts remind us of the commercialism that reeks within spending some cash on a few muddy days of intended entertainment. Through this kind of financial backing big name festivals can attach some even bigger named acts, but whether being able to see them actually outweighs doing so over a crowd of over 10,000, made up of those who ruin the experience is an unfortunate balancing act.
Numerous festivals still achieve heightened success with integrity in tow however, and perhaps one doing it best is the Larmer Tree Festival: ‘the best kept secret festival’, a secret I’m more than willing to spill. Named after the gorgeous gardens near Salisbury that play host to it, the five day music and arts smorgasbord recently concluded its 21st outing with startling success. “We have been offered corporate sponsorship on a number of occasions which we’ve always turned down, because there’s no such thing as a free meal” said festival co-director James Sheperd. “There are still people involved in the first festival working here which is fantastic, so it is an evolving thing and it’s great to see so many young people here enjoying the music, because they will take the festival on hopefully and make it last forever.”
The first day is traditionally attended mostly by local residents and those keen for one great evening and warm up acts to headliner Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra didn’t disappoint. Bringing the festival to life was one of Holland’s tapped musical talents playing throughout the week: CW Stoneking. The Australian blues player was a perfect first demonstration of the unique nature of the week’s music; his hauntingly nostalgic sound, vocal style and melancholic stage presence are all intertwined with the darkly humorous tales that bookend and inspire his songs. “Sometimes just by the nature of the music I try and sometimes strip it down a lot so a lot of what’s in my head doesn’t actually end up in the song necessarily” said Stoneking on his crowd pleasing, long-winded anecdotes. “There’s often a big story in my head or other aspects to it or images…you know, I used to be a real big drinker and you couldn’t shut me up.”
Compounding matters was beatboxer Vid Warren on the garden stage and just…damn. As one who’s easily impressed by anyone who can drop a beat I almost fainted watching him simultaneously beat box whilst playing harmonica, flute and even juggling. A crowd charmer and excellent convincer for those sceptical of the art, youtube clips of him doing his thing are there if you can handle them.
Jools Holland is the ultimate version of your Dad, and having performed for over 15 years at the festival the crowd no doubt see him as such. Though youngsters may have winced as he announced his next number as one you can ‘boogie on down’ to, the cries for him to continue on after a 2 hour set say enough. The bulk of the vocals were taken care of by acclaimed soul singer Ruby Turner, but a couple of songs were helmed by his 2011 tour’s special guest: pop legend Sandie Shaw. Holland’s enigmatic personality and relationship with the crowd, at one point christening them as Gladys Knight and Elvis Preseley’s respective Pips and Jordanaires for their backing vocals, have no doubt already secured him for future festival appearances.
The capping musical act of the night were the phenomenal Hannah Williams and The Tastemakers, thirteen funky souls empowered by their awesome backing vocalist and string trios, saxophone and keyboard solos and a leading lady with a voice that bleeds sass. Out of all the week’s acts their later set at the Arc tent had the most crowd members dancing and just letting go of their inhibitions.
Everything at Larmer Tree was of a very high standard, and being first on the second day’s bill makes you no exception, as demonstrated by Yorkshire based band The Little Unsaid. Lead by John Elliot, who wowed the open mike last year, the two month old band win with startling lead vocals and a ‘do it yourself’ attitude. “We’re control freaks.” Explains bassist and album producer Sonny “We got quite strong ideas of how we like things to sound like and we want to create a sound on stage that’s similar to how it sounds on the record and make it bigger than just the four us playing live, and add more damage and texture to what we’re doing.”
Fans of indie acts could find little better than Devonshire pop/rock band The Spree, whose progressive composition, well utilized dual gender vocals and European influence makes their upcoming debut album a particularly fresh piece of meat you’ll want to sink your teeth into.
On the main stage however two acts really outshone. The first, The Ukulele Orchestra of Britain, is unsurprisingly the first act of its kind I’ve seen, and with such a tongue in cheek concept going behind them the band drew well intended laughs with their distinctive on stage look and humour. With covers of “Anarchy in the UK” in the style of Simon and Garfunkel to Nirvana and Tchaikovsky it was some of the best fun had on the day.
Finally main stage headliner Imelda May was a spectacular apparition for the eyes and ears. With a brilliantly sourced vocal range (like a retrofitted Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), her thick Irish accent and distinctive look allow her to represent more than appears: in a time where music is dominated by auto-tuned, unoriginal idols, for a woman with local roots to sprout forth and grow big is a monumental achievement. Praise also be with her band, with Al Gare giving a superb slap double-bass solo in ‘Johnny Got a Boom Boom’, which was followed by her encore rendition of ‘Tainted Love’.
Thursday was also the first, and arguably most successful, night of comedy acts. Lead by compere Fergus Craig, first act Sara Pascoe used her dim-witted faux actually kinda clever observations to tap into the growing crowd’s funny bones.
Following her was troupe Late Night Gimp Fight, made up of quite simple minded sketches, they had great musical talent within them and way past watershed antics at their disposal. Headliner, Canadian raised Phil Nicol, may be a little too hyperactive and unpleasant for some but his off-kilter insertions and acoustic prowess made him an absolute winner of a set devoid of hecklers. I’m still not convinced his invitation of a front row sitter to the stage was planned, and constant comments to a young child to ask their mother about his more sexual driven humour could only have come from a true veteran comedian.
Keep an eye on rhythmcircus for coverage of the Saturday and Sunday and festival picture gallery.