Monday, 11 August 2008

Summer Sundae Festival @ Leicester

The Summer Sundae Festival may not on first glance have much to sell itself against some of the appeals of other UK Festivals. It does not have the big name headliners of V or Reading, the quirkiness or colour of the likes of Secret Garden Party and Bestival, the cultural styling of Latitude or the shear scale of Glastonbury; yet this festival rates as one of the best in the UK.

Why? Because Summer Sundae has some of the best infrastructure, management and organisation of any UK Festival.

What makes Summer Sundae unique is the way in which it runs. Rather than all stages running at the same time, when an act is playing on the main stage all the other three music stages are silent. Then when the next act is being set up on the main stage, the other three stages play. This is because the stages are so close together, being only two or three minutes walk apart ,that the sound from the main stage would drown out the sound on the other stages.

The Festival itself is sited in the park and gardens of the Leicester De Montford Halls which is a 2,000 capacity venue in itself and forms the ‘Indoor Stage’. This must be the only UK Festival where you can take a break from bands playing in the open air and large marquees and instead go and sit on the balcony of the De Montford Hall to watch a band. After three days of full on activity the balcony offers a soft, comfy chaired welcome respite. Using the De Montford Halls as part of the Festival also means additional indoor bar facilities and nice clean non portaloo type toilets with warm water to wash your hands.

There are many other benefits to Summer Sundae. The security and stewards are the most friendly and helpful I have ever met at any festival I have ever attended. The main site is only two minutes walk from the two campsites; Victoria and the family friendly Regent. There are also no security restrictions on bringing your own drink into the main arena area, except for the balcony of the De Montford Halls which you can’t take drinks. The nature of the line up means that it appeals to a wide mix of ages yet doesn’t attract the more undesirable types you find at the big corporate festivals like V and T in the Park. The viewing at the main stage is excellent due to a neatly sloping and slightly bowl shaped site. The place is well drained meaning that despite heavy rain on Saturday the place never becomes a mud bath. The festival also properly attempts to deal with green issues rather than just being tokenistic. Set in a city centre location, the festival has a good sustainable transport policy, with a well used bike park and being close to the rail station. Besides the usual recycling bins the festival also recycles vegetable oil from food traders to recycle into bio diesel, the bars and food stalls use compostable glasses, plates and cutlery, all waste paper is recycled, the number of generators has been reduced from 11 to 3 with the remaining power being supplied from the Councils provider which is on an eco tariff (and is carbon offset). Finally by giving each punter a free energy saving light bulb, the festival effectively went carbon neutral.

But enough of the merits of this 6,000 capacity gem. What about the music? There really is something for everyone here. From left field indie to mainstream Britpop to dance to folk to pop. In one evening you can sample everything from the Bleeper dance floor madness of The Count And Sinden Soundsystem to New York anti folk art punk with Jeffrey Lewis to the soulful acoustica with loops of Foy Vance shown in the video below, playing a short set in the BBC 6 Music 'Hub' beside the main stage. The highlights were often surprising and wonderful.

The performance of the weekend was undoubtedly the bewitching Rachel Unthank and the Winterset who played twice, once in the De Montford Halls, and then again in the Hub Tent as a recorded session for BBC 6 Music Radio. Fresh from their Mercury nomination, their often dour, sparse folk was truly spine tingling. Simply accompanied by piano and fiddle Rachel and Becky Unthank’s untainted Northumberland vocals reached out and pulled at your heart in a ghostly mesmerising way. Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk was the saddest but most beautiful moment of the whole Festival. I suspect a very large number of copies of The Bairns will be sold this week in Leicester. They were astoundingly astonishingly good. And if you haven’t got a copy of The Bairns yet, do yourself a favour and add it to your collection.

Orphans & Vandals

Other surprises came in the form of Macy Gray who headlined the main stage on Saturday night and won over cynics with great showmanship, personality, strong vocals and an amazing cover version of Radiohead’s Creep. Orphans & Vandals were also an unexpected highlight in the Poetry Tent, playing a blend of arty evocative eloquent spoken word pop reminiscent in places of The Tindersticks and James more leftfield songs. Fine stuff indeed. The Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir also won over a chilled out early sunny Sunday afternoon audience with their banjo fuelled blues and ragged gospel that sounded like Seasick Steve and Gomez sitting out in the yard with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a rocking chair.

Lykke Li

The Rising Stage also played host to some great performances. Lykke Li demonstrated star qualities, bashing out rhythms, clanking cymbals and singing through a megaphone whilst stomping her way through her debut album like a tribal witchdoctor on heat; with added cover versions of A Tribe Called Quest and Vampire Weekend. The Howling Bells returned to the fray with Juanita Stein sporting a new haircut and a more confident stage presence, her voice still astounding both on new and old songs. And Noah And The Whale celebrated Top 10 chart hit status with a big community sing a long on Five Years Time to a capacity crowd.

So Summer Sundae was full of musical treats. I will most certainly be back next year.

And to finish, here is a clip of Simian Mobile Disco and their flashing lights on the main stage, sorry it's not the whole track but my memory card ran out !

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