Wychwood Festival is a very civilised, very adult affair. Casting your eye over the sun kissed crowds under the Prestbury Hills by Cheltenham it’s easy to identify the significant number of families, the happy relaxed vibe, the lack of trouble, the lack of litter on the campsites, the picnic blankets and queues for the smoothie stall that are often longer than those for the bar.
“Welcome to the summer,” shout The Levellers during their unpretentious punk-folk headlining slot on the Friday night, and certainly Wychwood feels like the curtain being drawn back on a season of UK summer festivals. Of course with this country’s unpredictable climate patterns there is always a danger of rain, and for twenty minutes of madness on the Sunday a storm dropped huge droplets over the site, but other than this it was a case of blissed-out summer glory.
The core base of the Wychwood Festival musical programming is based around traditional instrumentation - be it folk, rock or world music, but searching through the site there are pockets of other genres from the rave-on indie-dance of Happy Mondays to the comedy ‘chap-hop’ of Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer. Mr B (pictured) draws a good sized crowd in the Big Top early on a Saturday afternoon to watch his comical take on hip hop where he overlays the beats with what he describes as “The most important instrument in the history of hip hop – the banjolele.” Dressed in a linen suit, fine moustache and glasses he rolls out rhymes in the accent of an upper class gent. There are tracks about Tim Westwood “dropping his r’s and talking about dropping bombs,” sexual disease “I thought you were rather hot, but you had a rotten bot,” and porn “why can’t there be more kissing in porn.” His schoolboy humour, comic mannerisms and dancing give bellyaches of laughing, and his timely rap about the forthcoming world-cup football “let’s get this over and done with, then we can get back to the cricket,” is a hilariously brilliant anthem of the dejected Englishman. Main stage next year perhaps ?
And on the subject of cricket the gritty, bluesy vocal of John Smith bats the small crowd who venture away from the sun and the Lightning Seeds into the Big Top on Saturday evening for six. Like a folk version of Gomez, his rasping vocal sounds like he has been knocking back the whisky since the day he was born. It’s powerful stuff.
Other highlights of the weekend were many. Early on Friday evening Wychwood hosted The Leisure Society. “It’s a glorious evening for music,” they announce and then deliver just that. With the crowds chilling on the grass or grabbing a cocktail from the Waitrose sponsored cocktail bar -maybe next year Reading Festival will be sponsored by Lidl perhaps - their Ivor Novello nominated Last of the Melting Snow is inappropriately titled for the season but is still exquisitely beautiful whatever the weather. Mixing violin, cello, keys, guitar, drums, flute, ukulele and xylophone, even the groups more maudlin tunes are a delight to the ears, perfect for a summer festival. The Leisure Society also highlights one small deficiency of the event – they ask if there is a Pieminister stall on site, and are greeted with a number of shakes of the head. A note to the Wychwood team next year maybe? No festival is complete without Pieminister and their mash surely?
For something of a more challenging nature Welsh indie band Islet provide the most physical and confrontational performance of the weekend. Playing to an audience that you suspect is not their typical crowd - with ages from six to sixty plus present - their blend of blood curdling off-mic shouting, instrument swapping and jumping from the stage to lay, sit and run amongst punters is met at first with a reaction of laughter and bemusement, but by the end they have won virtually everyone over and get terrific applause. If anyone thought that being an ‘adult / family friendly’ festival meant that the music would all be ‘safe’ then Islet is the counter argument. (Although admittedly the Beautiful South - now known as The South played as well) What the band lack in songs they make up for in high-dosage energy and noisy-diy-art values. If they manage to write a few decent tunes as well they could be very dangerous.
In terms of the headliners, The Levellers, Happy Mondays and Seth Lakeman (Dreadzone play after Seth Lakeman but Lakeman is listed on much of the advertising as the headliner) all produce good sets.
The Levellers may now be middle aged but they are still crusty idealists, who evidently believe and enjoy what they do – there are bags of energy in their music. One Way is a jubilant arms aloft anthem and The Devil Went Down To Georgia a Deep South moment of fury. No wonder they still maintain such a strong fan base, even though they are ignored by the critics.
Happy Mondays re-evoke the spirit of the Madchester scene complete with joyful ramshackle vibe and baggy grooves - with Shaun Ryder dressed in a white tracksuit top and shades. He is the ultimate ‘non-frontman-legend’ - his hand almost permanently in his pocket, not moving from the spot. With his wailing, mumbling vocals more coherent than they have been in the past he even manages to bark out the odd quip in between songs. “Andy Warhol the abstract artist? I’m an abstract artist.” The biggest irony here is that on the night when Simon Cowell graces the nations TV sets for the final of Britain’s Got Talent, one of his former X Factor protégés Rowena is the real star of the Happy Mondays freakshow, prowling the stage, wiggling her hips, commanding the audience and belting out her co-vocals as if her life depends on it. Many of their defining songs - W.F.L, Loose Fit, Step On are played. It’s pure hazy nostalgia for an audience of whom a significant number would have had these rhythmic jams soundtracking their formative years.
Mercury nominated, Seth Lakeman on Sunday is probably what you would call a ‘typical’ Wychwood artist. His fiddle laden songs are full of character and bring the hoe-down for a fantastic finale that gets the crowd jigging and bobbing, as the sun fades.
And as the light disappears, many of those present leave with memories of a feast of musical delights. Wychwood Festival 2010 was the perfect start to the UK Festival season. And it wasn’t all just about the music either. There was so much more going on site, which isn't covered in this (music blogs) review - one example of which can be seen below.