Escot Park, Devon
Beautiful Days was the brainchild of the Levellers, named after their (not really) hit single. They must be doing something right, as it’s now been going sixteen years and expanded to 17,000 people congregating in a field in Devon. There’s an unashamedly hippy / family atmosphere, with no corporate branding or sponsorships, and with seven stages all told, there’s plenty going on. I did this one en famille, and there was plenty to keep my almost-eleven year old entertained. Not just the bands, but performance art around the site, activities, stalls, all manner of contraptions, and a theatre tent. Throw in plenty of decent food stalls and bars run by local brewery Otter offering some fine beers for a measly £4 a pint, and you’re in for a treat. Plus giant illuminated ambulatory bird skeletons.
Things kick off on Friday with Levellers doing an acoustic set in the Big Top tent. I’ll be honest, at this point I’m a bit Levellered out. Had a lot of fun with them over the years, but I’m increasingly bored of the way that, despite having around a dozen albums in their catalogue now, their live show has for years relied on the same pool of maybe twenty songs. This isn’t any exception. The addition of strings and extra percussion make for some interesting rearrangements, but it’s fundamentally the same old thing, and they’ll repeat a lot of these songs in their electric set on Sunday. Next for me was Justin Sullivan, the New Model Army frontman, doing an acoustic solo spot. The polar opposite of the Levellers’ set, this is a deep dive into some of the unexplored corners of the recent NMA catalogue, with not the sniff of a hit or a singalong anywhere (well, a little bit in Bad Old World). It’s super intense and passionate, and I love it, while recognising that there isn’t a lot here for the uncommitted. Over on the main stage , we catch a bit of My Baby, who are very promising. A Dutch trio with a brother and sister rhythm section laying down a pulsating hypnotic groove while the guitarist plays psychedelic riffs and bluesy slide over the top. Good stuff. Vintage Trouble are my next appointment. Their blues/rock/soul isn’t really to my taste, but my God, what a spectacular frontman. Ty Taylor is all over the stage, working the crowd tirelessly, quite often in the crowd, climbing the sound desk in the middle of the field and crowdsurfing back to the stage. Top quality entertainment. Deciding to leave Feeder back in the 90s, it’s back to the tent to catch Les Negresses Vertes who offer perhaps the most purely enjoyable set of the day. Unconvinced by the pedestrian garage rock of the Hives on the main stage, after half an hour I opt for Suzanne Vega. She’s good, and goes down well with the crowd in the tent, but it’s all a little too thoughtful for a Kid who by this time is on the outside of a healthy amount of cider. And so to bed.
First act on the Saturday is festival stalwarts Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs, whose punk skiffle is really just a vehicle for a series of jokes. They have been flogging these jokes around the festival circuit for at least ten years now, but, yeah, they’re still funny. Elephant Sessions are one of my discoveries of the weekend, traditional Scots folk with a very active rhythm section. There’s definitely a fair bit of Shooglenifty in their sound, and if you ever enjoyed them then these are well worth a listen. Also, the mandolin player doesn’t half look like the late seventies Jerry Garcia, which can’t be a bad thing. I wanted to see Nadine Shah next but turns out she’s had to cancel due to an emergency operation. Yikes. Get well soon, Nadine. Instead it’s British Sea Power over on the main stage. I dunno about this lot. I want to like them, but somehow it never happens for me. Tonight is no exception. There are occasional stirring moments, but it’s mostly uniform plodding porridge. Eric Bibb together with his bassist and drummer make a lovely acoustic blues three piece, gentle and warm. Unfortunately there are four people on stage, and the extra one has an electric guitar and is very keen for us to know it. Without him, it’d be great, with him…not so much. Manic Street Preachers are the main stage headliners, and they play a set for the occasion. This is the Manics in full arena rock mode, all singles and singalongs, plus a Cure cover (In Between Days). It’s entertaining, but just a little bit too slick for me. Correctly surmising that they are not going to serve up “Die In The Summertime” or “The Intense Humming Of Evil” to ten thousand happy punters, I go to catch the last forty minutes of Calexico, who are their usual excellent selves.
Sunday starts with The Bar Steward Sons Of Val Doonican who specialise in outrageous knitwear and parodies of songs you all know. They are fun but having already seen them at Bearded Theory this year, the novelty gets exhausted pretty quickly. They are a genuine hit, though, with the tent (capacity 3000) absolutely rammed at midday. It is not quite so full for the next act, AW favourites (ish) Curse Of Lono. I hung around to watch these on the basis of reviews here, and it paid off. An enjoyable set, but it did leave me wondering what we call things like this these days, now that no one says alt-country anymore? Americana doesn’t quite seem to fit this lot, plays down the rock influences too much. Anyway, they were good and went down pretty well. Skinny Lister are a riot. Hugely uptempo, with a frontwoman who is a relentlessly enthusiastic, constantly moving, force of nature (she might be brilliant on stage, I bet she’s a nightmare in the Transit on an eighteen hour drive between gigs, like Father Noel Furlong organising his Riverdance competition in Ted’s caravan). Doubleplus fun. Jah Wobble And The Invaders Of The Heart are much more relaxed over on the main stage. Those fluid Wobble basslines and dub explorations go over very well, as does his stream of consciousness rambles likening various instruments to animals of the jungle. Not so hot when he tries to sing properly, however. Next up is The Wildhearts who simply blow it out of the water. Maybe the set of the festival for me, their high energy guitars and big choruses push all my buttons. It’s good to see Ginger well after his troubles, and he seems to be having a blast on stage. The setlist is largely drawn from the “Earth Vs The Wildhearts” album, and why wouldn’t it be? The band just drop hook after hook after hook. Superb. Sadly, back in the tent Oysterband don’t fare so well. This is a much more sedate version of a band I used to love, lacking all the fire and energy they once had. It’s all very polite, and even the once-riotous Blood Wedding comes over as a drivetime Radio 2 number. This was the first time I’d seen them for years, and it’ll probably be the last. Following them was some geezer called Richard Thompson, but I figured no one here would be interested in that, so off I went to watch Gogol Bordello who are still knocking out their gypsy punk schtick. And then the festival closes with Levellers playing their main stage slot. As above, there are no real surprises in the set list, mostly the same songs as last year in a different order. They’re into it though, and it’s the last night, and I’ve had a drink, and they do throw in one or two more unusual numbers and what the hell, I enjoyed it. A few fireworks and a final late night mosey around the site, and it’s all over. Another smashing weekend. The last thing my daughter says to me on Sunday night is “When do the tickets go on sale for next year?”
Goddam longhairs and commies
It made me think..
I love festivals. Three or four days away from real life in a field with loads of like minded people is a pleasure