Quite possibly the best-kept secret in Derbyshire this absolute gem of an event is now in its 12th year and still improving like a fine wine. This year the capacity came down by 1,500 to 8,500 (not that it has ever felt crowded) and the organisers apologised for the fact that there were many acts on their wish list that they just couldn’t afford.
Seriously? At Just over £120.00 for four days of music, this bash offers the best value for money bar none, with six stages and various other unofficial gigs & raves, happening around the pleasingly small & contained site. Catton Hall is also strategically placed in the middle of nowhere so the main stage can operate at an acceptable volume.
Taking place midway through those summer exams, it avoids legions of hyperactive students and mainly attracts a crowd ranging from the early 30s to early sixties with a fair few children catered for in the onsite school & circus tent. The bars sell good beers & ales priced slightly cheaper than the average small town pub. There is also plenty of choice for food and no restrictions on what you can take into the main arena or other venues. The security team are helpful & friendly and each year the organisers ask for feedback and then act on it. It is the perfect remedy for the corporate horror that is Reading & Glastonbury or vomit-inducing pretentiousness of Latitude & Bestival. What’s not to like?
Sadly as cloning technology is still in its infancy I’m only able to report a fraction of the 100+ bands & artists who make this festival such an amazing event. So here goes from yours truly & our crew:
Having pitched our tents on a sunny Thursday afternoon we head first for the Convoy Cabaret. This is a favourite stage, which pays homage to the free festival scene of the 80s & 90s with its crusty line up and performance artists who are a blend of gothic & exotic. The Blunders are our first band of the day and they don’t disappoint with their mix of anarcho rhetoric & punk. They are also possibly the hardest working band on site with no less than four gigs lined up over the weekend on a range of stages. Great start! Comedy hippies Dr and the Medics are up next but we opt for the Woodland stage instead where Faithless are playing a pretty amazing DJ set and we stay on the piss at one of the many affordable bars until midnight.
Friday begins with some hair of the dog at the main stage where Pattern Pusher are kicking things off with some gloriously camp disco rock which the bleary-eyed throng start gently swaying to in the summer sun. Somewhere between Depeche Mode & Kraftwerk the Devon based trio have a big sound for a three piece and bassist Ben G stages a perfect festival moment by finishing the gig in the crowd serenading a truly ecstatic gang of five year olds. I mean seriously, who couldn’t love a band that created a song and accompanying video like this?
Then it is back to the Woodland for our first proper Ska moment. The Social Ignition provide a thumping set of manic tunes that fills the sizeable area in front of the stage with very many gyrating loons among the bunting clad trees. Not content with getting everyone off their feet, the Hinckly skanksters conclude their set by handing out 50 free copies of their debut album to the grateful masses. What a truly splendid bunch of chaps.
On our way out we find ourselves being sucked back into the convoy collabaration to catch a bit of The Alcohol Licks. They are immense fun. Singer/guitarist Sam belts out a selection of protest tunes with a smiling warmth that counterbalances the very many serious themes that her songs explore. That is one of the best things about this gathering. It is not just about seeing your favourite bands. It is also a four-day opportunity to discover new music and this shouty bunch of brummies are now on our list of must-sees.
After the traditional Bearded lunch of vegan sausages garnished with baked beans, crisps and spiced rum we head back to the main stage to check out Hollie Cook. We’ve heard much about this lady from our campsite neighbours. She was the last singer of The Slits and her dad was a Sex Pistol but she is now producing a very different sound we’re told. It has to be said that she has a beautiful voice that sounds like no one else. Her blend of soulful-dub reggae-pop fusion is a perfect accompaniment to the summer sun, which is now merrily cremating the assembled crowd. Her dreamy tunes are the balance for what comes next on the Woodland stage.
Pulled Apart By Horses (as their name suggests) are not what you’d describe as mellow. It also comes as little surprise to hear that this lot have wound up in hospital as a result of their live shows. We feel like we’ve pulled several muscles & tendons just watching them as they catapult around the stage like a bunch of acrobats while still delivering an impressively tight live sound. Sadly we have to cut them short by a view minutes to check out the Oh Sees back on the main stage. They are a strange bunch. Two drummers, and bloke on keyboards to accompany the bass & guitar/vocals. Their music ranges from the utterly hardcore to the wigged-out guitar-driven psychedelic dirge previously produced by bands like the Butthole Surfers. Impossible to categorise and perfect for an eclectic event such as this.
Meanwhile, back in the woods, a sizeable crowd is growing in anticipation of one of those artists who has been here pretty much every other year since Bearded started. Justin Sullivan has left the rest of New Model Army behind to bring us a solo performance. With just a battered acoustic guitar he strums his way through a set of NMA classics & rarities, sharing many amusing tales of the road in between. His band will be 40 next year and when they do eventually get round to hanging up their clogs (won’t be for a while yet) you can rest assured that he’ll probably carry on doing this sort of thing until the universe eventually collapses.
Friday’s headliners turn out to be an excellent choice. Far from being a repackaged indy tribute act Suede have released a new album to great acclaim and the present line up remains largely unchanged since the mid 90s. Brett Anderson remains an utterly unique front man. Charging around every inch of the stage in all its vastness like a foppish pinball while delivering note perfect renditions of each and every Suede classic. Meanwhile, behind him, the band deliver the rawest and tightest imaginable accompaniment, managing to far exceed anything they have created in the studio. For those of us who missed this lot the first time round, we finally understand what all the fuss was about.
Did we mention the Magical Sounds dance tent yet? With its lazers, strobes and retro feel of those forbidden parties from decades ago? This year it has been relocated to the back of the arena, which is probably the furthest point from where anyone is expected to sleep. It runs each night ’til 3 am except Sunday, banging out a wide selection of sounds both old & new. Tonight we get a proper dose of 90s fusion act Transglobal Underground which was exactly what the doctor ordered before bedtime..
Saturday arrives and it’s already too hot to contemplate the main stage for a while so it’s back to the woods and what has to be one of the best located and most picturesque festival stages anywhere. Devon folkies Broken Bones Matilda help us start the day’s music & drinking with a bit of classic English folk song.
Then the congregation gets called to order for the one and only Rev Hammer. He is one of those artists that proves the non-existence of god beyond all doubt by enjoying none of the fame he deserves on these shores. He has worked with many of our favourite bands, he has a German Wikipedia page but no English one and has written some utterly jaw-dropping songs. He is also an extremely funny and engaging performer in between those tracks. Just as well, as tunes like ‘No one or nothing’ sends shivers down our collective spines and you can hear a pin drop in the woods when he plays it.
By contrast, Headsticks, with their brand of stripped down folk punk, are the first act to get things properly jumping. Front man Andrew bounces around the stage while belting out his revolutionary world view to grand effect. We get a load of new tracks from the recently released ‘Kept in the dark’ album. ‘My own war’ is a thundering folk anthem. ‘When?’ is a blistering call to arms played at break neck pace which gets followed by ‘I love you’, a groovy punk reggae tune that allows us to catch our breath before the haunting paranoia of ‘What if they’re right?’ gets us all swaying amid the trees again. They are a class act who manage to punch out a crystal clear message in the form of great songs. The final delivery of ‘You’re killing me America’ is a rallying cry that leaves me wondering how the fuck I never saw this band play before today?
Things then calm down a bit for the gentle melodies and frankly incredible musicianship of Seth Lakeman. He has been here before on the main stage but this setting with its shade and greenery seems to suit him better. His backing band are just as competent at multitasking in the instrument department as he is. Which is just as well given the rich tapestry of traditional folk instruments that gets woven into his set. A true master of his craft in every way.
Saturday’s headliners are one of the most hotly anticipated acts to have played here for a while. The Cult could easily just churn through a set of greatest hits but this year marks 30 years since ‘Sonic Temple’, the album that bridged between the classic psychedelic-goth sound of ‘Love/Dreamtime’ and the all out rock of ‘Electric’. So the first half of the set brings us all but two of its ten tracks just to remind us all what a great album it was. Ian remains a captivating performer strutting his stuff while keeping himself in check to deliver powerful vocals. Meanwhile, Billy Duffy reminds us all why he is considered to be one of the greatest living rock guitarists. We get a couple of surprise tracks from ‘Beyond good & Evil’ then it is a 3 song medley of sing-alongs with ‘Spiritwalker’, ‘Phoenix’ and ‘She Sells Sanctuary’. For an encore, Ian fucks up ‘Rain’ which has to be started again when he sings the words to the previous song. Then the finale is the mighty rock beast that is ‘Love Removal Machine’. Top set from a band with many years left in them.
Spacehopper are taking the stage in back at Magical Sounds stage so it is back to the temple of trance for a few hours to worship those repetitive beats and see if it is actually possible for a person’s liver to possess a street value…
Sunday begins a bit late for us but kicks off with a bang to the sound of Matilda’s Scoundrels on the Woodland stage. Their punk-centric sea shanties get a commendable number of people who are looking decidedly worse for wear jumping up & down in no time at all. Several EPs and one album in they are certainly not mellowing with age, charging thorough a set of stomping tunes with barely a pause for breath. Those of us who had harboured noble intentions of taking it easy today are flying between the bar & the moshpit like it’s our last day alive.
A change of tempo is definitely required now, or some of us are going to crash & burn before the final day is done. The perfect remedy turns out to be The Monster Ceilidh Band back in the dance tent. They perform a soothing blend of cheerful traditional folks tunes mixed with dance beats for connecting with that inner joy that can be waning after four days on the piss. They are superb musicians and clearly having a lot of fun as they jig around the stage amid the beams of light. It is kind of impossible for your mood to not be lifted by this lot.
Continuing the good vibes we head to the main stage to pay homage to a band who are quite frankly nothing short of Bearded Theory royalty. Dreadzone have played here very many times before and always attract a large and loyal crowd. Their blend of dub reggae and dance music is perhaps the perfect sound to nourish the soul on a sunny Sunday afternoon after much excess and little sleep. The sight of several thousand people shouting ‘ahoy’ and swaying in time to their best-known singles from ‘Second Light’ demonstrates their enduring appeal no matter how many years running the organisers choose to book them.
Then the reggae vibe continues with Steel Pulse a band whose reputation & history is the stuff of legend. It is just over 40 years since this lot kicked the National Front in the teeth by playing alongside The Clash and Tom Robinson Band at the first ever Rock Against Racism carnival in East London. Original members David Hinds and Selwyn Brown may be in their early sixties but show no sign of slowing down. We get treated to a thumping set featuring old classics like ‘Ku Klux Klan’ mixed with newer tracks like ‘Don’t shoot’ from their most recent album ‘Mass Manipulation’. A record that along with being their twentieth LP also demonstrates that they still have plenty to say about the state of the world we live in. The rhythm section provided by Amlak Tafari (bass) and Wayne Clarke (drums) is a hypnotic pounding juggernaut of beats & low-pitched perfection that is simply impossible not to dance to. They are absolutely the original & best reggae act ever to come from this island or ours and it really does feel like the highest point of the weekend has been kept back until now.
So with a few hours left to enjoy the perfect (if slightly scorching) weather, we wander aimlessly around the site in a contented stupor, wishing that this event could go on for an entire week.
We head back into the Convoy Cabaret for a fab set from skanking crusty pioneers AOS3. They’re properly back after a decade of hiatus with Fraggle (Back to the Planet) on guitar and John’s ever pitch perfect vocals leading the charge. It is almost like being back at the Hackney Homeless festival somewhere around the early 90s. But thankfully without being perpetually pestered for spare change by the brew crew or clobbered by a cop in rehearsal for the soon to be implemented Criminal Justice Act. It is a great finale for all the top acts that have played this stage and they really should have a think about playing more often.
With an hour left we divide out time between the Woodland Stage where Jamaican Ska veterans The Skatalites are bringing things to an extremely classy finale and the dance tent where The Orb are messing with everyone’s heads one last time before reality brings us all crashing back to earth.
The thing that separates this festival from all the others is that it is not and never has been a commercial venture. It does not exist to line the pockets of promoters and agents. Or to fleece those attending with over-priced, piss-poor beer. It started off as a birthday party with a music license that went better than expected and has since evolved over a decade into the beautiful celebration of music and togetherness that it is now. It is run by music fans, for music fans and retains a spirit and sense of unity that its competitors simply cannot match. It is refreshingly uncool and therefore devoid of posers, while also persuading thousands of middle-aged punters to dress up and act like children for the themed Sunday morning costume bit. It has the feeling of those free festivals of old but with decent facilities, warm-hearted security and toilets that won’t kill you. It is an event like no other, and long may it continue.
By Guy Smallman & friends