Acoustic Festival of Great Britain. 25-27 May 2012. Uttoxeter Racecourse

When we first started going to music festivals in 2003, our no.1 criterion was the music. Over the years we have come to appreciate all the other variables, and it is these which put this weekend up with the best. Namely,

1. Ticket prices. £85 pp, incl camping, which makes it good value.

2. Bars. Friendly staff. Never had to wait more than 30 secs. Prices 50p per pint more than pubs, par for the course. Some ‘smooth-flow’  beer please?

3. Security. Rarely over-zealous.

4. Local police presence. Very friendly, but firm enough when dealing with odd individual who had been marginally overserved.

5. Food stalls. Decent fare, prices not unexpected.

6.Toilets. Probably cleaner than any others.

7. Organiser. Eminently approachable.

8. Communication/organisation. Always difficult, especially at earlier events where tents and stages have blown away. Comperes did their best with info available. How about some of the teacher-based clientele providing some redundant blackboards and chalk? Have one on each stage at the side, with updates.

Other variables, e.g. weather, distance to travel are more difficult to control.

Okay, the music. The big difference is that the above items are pretty much fact (i.e. a price is a price!), whereas the quality (and value for money) of the music is down to taste. So the following comments are an opinion only. After all, when we are born, we are entitled to two things…a hole in our bum and an opinion! So…

Friday.   Tracey Hunter. Four piece line-up – bongos, acoustic guitar, TH on vocals and another female vocalist. First impressions were that they were pleasant enough but would anyone pay to see them in their own right? And they’ve made more than one cd? Fairly innocuous original songs plus Buzzcocks and Hazel O’Connor covers. Second vocalist seemed surplus to requirements, trimming to a 3-piece would give them a 33% pay increase! She apparently has a famous father (Ian or Norman) but to her credit never mentioned it until the end, playing one of his songs. (Unlike Deborah Bonham, whose set is littered with the loud crashes of names being dropped).                       Next up, Slow Burn. Two males and one female, mainly cover songs. At least 1 out of 10 for not saying ‘began to pray’ in ‘California Dreaming’. It’s ‘pretend to pray’!  Started to note details (T.Rex, Doors, G.Rafferty), but after a while my interest started to wane. Too poppy for folk clubs, seemed almost ‘cruise ship’ material. The ubiquitous Swans in Flight were next. Blurbs are always full of who they have played with, supported, been on same stage as, etc. This very often means that they in their own right are crap. (I have been in the same stage as The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones, it doesn’t make me any good!)  All original material, to their credit, but is it good enough to put bums on seats? Went for a walk, came back 15 minutes later, was it the same song? Didn’t they once have a female singer?  Anyway, went to see Grassoline who were already playing their second spot. Traditional bluegrass line-up (from Derby!) and comfortably the best so far. Original songs and they wouldn’t disgrace a Kentucky Bluegrass Festival. First impression was that vocals were a bit weak, but Her Ladyship pointed out they were almost Dylanesque…and she had a point. Then they played ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’! I would pay to see them in their own right if they happened to come up north. First of the ‘names’ was next, Ian McNabb. Saw him many moons ago with Crazy Horse at The Duchess in Leeds, where they were great. And from the opening Em chord, his love of Mr Young’s work was obvious. The song could have been an outtake from Harvest Moon. (Anyone who mentions The Flying Burrito Brothers in a song is worth watching). Mixture of solo stuff, Icicle Works faves and some fest-friendly covers. Went down well.                  Headliners next, The Move. I loved them in the 60s, ‘I can hear the grass grow’ is an all-time favourite single.  So Mr Bevan and Mr Burton, plus three buddies, treated us to three singles straight up. ‘Flowers in the rain’, ‘Fire Brigade’ and ‘Night of Fear’. Okay, not the original flavour of the singles, but not the personnel to do it. Then, some sort of mass aneurysm transformed them into a cabaret act for the next 30 minutes. Slick cover versions of e.g. The Beatles and Bill Withers! Awful! What happened to that dangerous 60s outfit that made The Who, The Stones and even The Pretty Things seem well-behaved? (You may argue that they grew up, I suppose). But to ignore some great 45s, such as ‘Brontosaurus’? They are talented enough to do them. I don’t deny Bev and Trev the right to use the name to top up their pensions, and they did give us ‘Blackberry Way’ and ‘California Man’, but it’s a bit of a giveaway when Trev says ‘Here’s a Move song’! And they finish with a Spencer Davis Group song.   But they went down well, so in the final shake-up, that’s what counts.    Decided to wander off to a smaller tent, where some young Californian girl (whose name I missed) was one. Annoyingly-affected vocal style, featuring a song which seemed to try to find how many words she could rhyme with ‘mouse’ . Not for me, but only young, after all.                                        Caught end of an outfit called Wee Bag Band . 5-piece, accordian-based jumpyupanddowny end of the night stuff. But sadly, not the end of the night, as the programme was to confirm.   ‘Dismal’ takes on a whole new meaning when describing Big Fibbers. I know Mike Stephens, the organiser, wouldn’t deny he likes ‘value for money’, which means this dross must actually pay HIM! Forget their programme notes which would indicate they are deliberately quirky and appealing. People like John Otway and Eddie Tenpole have made a career out of appearing to be hapless (but actually are not) , these two are …I’m struggling to find a word. Safe to say, if euthanasia was to become law these two would be first in line. My heart sinks when I see them in any festival crowd, which means my heart has sunk many times. Went off to my tent to think positive thoughts about tomorrow. Oh well, the weather was good!

Saturday. Jack Blackman. Another regular at Acoustic Fest. Acoustic blues guitar/vocals. Mixture of original songs and covers such as ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ and ‘Diddy Wah Diddy’. Also threw in a Jansch/Renbourn/Graham medley for a pleasant start to the day’s entertainment.    Next up was a somewhat tardy Robin Williamson with wife Bina. Quite a few old Incredible String Band fans there, and after 3 songs I realised why the ISB never did much for me originally. RW on harp, wife on overloud plinky thing and iffy vocals. We left (and so did quite a few more).    Spent the next 10 minutes being assailed by Morris dancers on one side and middle-aged belly dancers on the other. Like being in a latterday episode of The League of Gentlemen or that follow-up series.   Not much happening, sat down for a bit of ska from King Hammond. I’m not a ska/reggae fan but this stuff always goes down well. It seems to attack the buttock muscles of middle-aged adults who get up to strut their stuff.   Mike Peters up next. Lots of fans at the front early doors. As well as The Alarm stuff such as ’68 Guns’, some Big Country songs (he is currently on lead vocals with the new line-up). A guest duet with Glenn Tilbrook but I still can’t shake off the Bono comparisons. MP seems to be a thoroughly decent bloke, happy to chat and pose for photos throughout the day.   Then it’s Glenn Tilbrook. Have seen GT solo and Squeeze quite a few times, the only time I’ve been disappointed was his Fluffers era. On his own, he always gives the impression he is enjoying it, and is professional enough to give the idea that much is ‘off the cuff’.  Plenty of Squeeze songs, covers such as ‘Oh Well’ and a lot from his recent collaboration with Nine Below Zero. I wasn’t too happy with the naff audience participation on my favourite, ‘Tempted’, but only a small blip in a great early evening spot.   Headlining the main stage, it’s Joan Armatrading. Starting out with ‘Show some emotion’, we quickly get a couple of new songs in a jazzy noodley vein which set the tempo for the set. ‘Love and Affection’ came after about 30 minutes, and this and other hits such as ‘Drop the pilot’ and ‘Me myself I’ were much better as the arrangements were closer to the originals. But the general style was too jazzy for me (and definitely not worth the alleged £18,000 fee). So we wandered off to to see if there was anything at the tail end. Final piece of entertainment was by Jolly Jack , from Biggles Wartime Band. Very entertaining uke-based versions of the likes of ‘Addicted to Love’ and ‘Sunshine of your Love’. A good end to the day.

Sunday.  Fred’s House are first up. 30 minutes from a pleasant enough 3-piece, which finished at 11.00 am. We then had to wait 45 minutes for Rusty Shackle to start. They had been sitting on stage for an hour. Why?!                                       So, Rusty Shackle started up their hi-energy folky-rocky stuff. Can’t agree with any bluegrass description (not with drums and electric bass) but they went down well, even getting some pre-noon dancers up. (Mind you, some looked like they hadn’t been to bed.   Next we got an early appearance by The Animals. OK, we get the usual start from Mr Peter Barton ‘ The year is 1964, The Club a Gogo, the first hit single, Baby let me take you home’, and they are off. It may be the same every time but it’s their job. It’s no different to every factory worker clocking on at the same time every day, getting a cup of tea, sitting down, then going off to start up his machine. And unlike The Move, they do exactly what it says on the can. Both groups have had a similar number of hit singles , but whereas The Move only played 50% of theirs, The Animals played almost 100%, and the rest of their set is made up from their 60s setlist too. Good pros who always put on a good show, although I have to dispute Mr Barton’ s comment that ‘Boom Boom’ got to no.1 in 1964. Maybe a slip of the tongue.  We then spent about half an hour outside a crowded tent where T.Rexstacy were playing. Marc Bolanalike with a bongo partner doing a bizarre recreation of the Tyrannosaurus Rex era but with glittered face, none of that era’s songs and doing audience singalongs which Marc Bolan wouldn’t have been doing in 1968. I know, I saw them at Stockton Billingham  Tech. Tribute acts should be a zero tolerance zone.  Next on the main stage were Justin Sullivan and Dean White from New Model Army. Plenty of fans and T-shirts at the front but I have to hold my hands up and beg forgiveness, as NMA passed me by so I can’t give any info on the set. But they went down very well.  Thunder’s Danny and Ben followed Bolanclone in the beer tent. I always reckoned that Thunder (and FM) were Free wannabees and sure enough we got Bad Co’s ‘Seagull’ for openers.  The set was a mixture of Thunder stuff plus covers of e.g The Who and Chuck Berry and some dodgy story-telling.                 Her Ladyship and I were then off down to the front of the main stage for Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams…at last! I suspect there were more people that had never heard of them than there were fans, but by the end of their all-too-short set there were lots of new fans. No new songs but old faves like ‘Pushing up daisies’ and ‘ Look ma, no hands’ and a rollocking ‘Trans-Slambovian Bi-Polar Express’ had the audience giving the best reception of the weekend, only to be disallowed an encore by the jobsworths. So, I have to wonder, why were Rusty Shackle sat round twiddling their thumbs earlier?! An earlier start could have given us more from this lot!              And even better, if that could be possible, next up were Katrina (ex-The Waves) and her new group. We got an absolutely brilliant acoustic treatment of KATW classics such as ‘Red Wine and Whisky’, ‘Going down to Liverpool’ and ‘Lovely Lindsay’ as well as the expected ‘Walking on Sunshine’ and the Eurovision song.  Shame there was no room for ‘Honey Lamb’, a lost ‘cracker’. The final act on the main stage were the Outcast Band, and my theory is that the best are NOT put on last (similarly at the Butlins weekends) as organisers know that a lot of people will have to leave early for work on Monday. This must be the case here, because the Outcast Band are just plain AWFUL. Terrible vocals delivered in in a semi-spoken , off-key manner . And the next song sounds just the same! So do all of them. Even the programme notes say ‘although characterised by a distinct lack of optimism’. Somebody’s got a B.A. in Euphemism Studies, I suspect, because they are just totally MISERABLE! And they are always here!  I couldn’t let this be the end to a gloriously sunny weekend, especially as Katrina and Gandalf had been the absolute highlights, and fortunately yet another appearance from Adrian Nation meant I didn’t have to go back to the tent feeling like slitting my wrists.  He’s okay, but not really worth so many spots.  Ukelele-based fun from the Re-entrants meant the weekend finished on a high. Twin ukelele versions of classics from the likes of ELO and Motorhead were reminiscent of the charm of Hayseed Dixie and Boss Hoss, who would both be made most welcome should they return.

So, Mr Stephens, thanks for a great weekend. As you can see (!!) it’s not just the music!   Photo gallery, courtesy of Lady B.

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