Back again for AFOB, which seems to have found a permanent home at Uttoxeter Racecourse, albeit a little later in the year than its original ‘Mayfest’ would suggest.
Friday. Jon Hart. Bit late getting to the site and erecting tent, but caught the last couple of numbers. Did he have one of those toys that produces a harmony vocal? Unusual acoustic 6-string playing, but is it necessary or just showing off? Sons of Clogger. Jumpyupanddowny stuff, with the unenviable task of getting a 3.00 pm audience to do just that. Her Ladyship liked their mandolin-driven stuff, they went down well. So , back to the Real Ale Tent, which I assume was so named because it had had loads of real ale poured all over it. Morgan Bryan. Up-tempo, semi-pop stuff which for me seemed to be missing a lead instrument to flesh out the 3-piece bass, drums and strummed 6-string line-up. Couldn’t catch any of the banter (which was a common theme for the weekend for anyone in the rear half of the tent). One number was so off-key we had to leave. Went down to the Solar Powered Tent, where there were a lot of people standing outside listening to a girl singing ‘Wish you were here’.
Getting towards 5.00pm , so a good time to go for some food and miss The Outcast Band, but sadly we could still hear them from the tent. They are always here, always popular but always sound so bloody miserable! Back to the Real Ale Tent where Rodney Branigan was with some American bloke making strange noises into the microphone. Vocals not very audible, again, plus the Open Air Stage soundcheck was louder. He is a festival regular, his chum wanted us to song along. Open Air Stage, The Beautiful Sound. To me , they didn’t sound anything like their intended inspirors , The Beautiful South, but then again they didn’t some years ago in the Castlefields pub in Castleford either. And an encore of ‘Happy Hour’ didn’t sound anything like The Housemartins either! I had long since ‘switched off’ and decided to read the updated sleeve notes on Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ and ‘Gaucho’ cds, which I had just bought for £1.50 each. Organiser Mike Stephens has always succumbed to the request for copy groups , but limits it to one only (eg Counterfeit Stones). A bit ominous that this year’s copy act gets quite prominent billing. Tess of the Circle soundchecked in the Real Ale Tent, we went for a walk to the Solar Powered Tent, where Strumpit were playing some Stephane Grapelli-like stuff. We ended up listening to someone singing ‘Shenandoah’ and another old tune which Her Ladyship’s father and grandfather respectively used to sing (cue man-size Scotties). Her mother’s favourite ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ would have completed the set. Andrew Bazeley played his Avon Delta Blues in the Sessions Tent, featuring the likes of Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton , plenty of Robert Johnson, and Lead Belly. But there were two problems. 1. Mr Bazeley couldn’t keep time. At first we thought it might be just us (?) but he was later to reveal how his former group partners used to accuse him of speeding up, so we felt vindicated. 2. He was drowned out by the noise Big Country were making on the Open Air Stage some 200 yards away. I reckon they could be heard in the NEXT Country! (Wales). The adjectives ‘Acoustic’ and ‘Un-plugged’ for the festival were always tenuous but this was ridiculous! Final act in the Real Ale Tent, Acoustica. Tent by now full of pissnecks with larynxes in overdrive and eardrums in pieces after Big Country ( I actually didn’t mind them in the 80s) . Basically an ‘acoustic ‘ pub covers act, starting out with ‘Won’t back down’, ‘Make me smile’, ‘Horse with no name’, another version of ‘Wish you were here’ , ‘The one I love’ and other what used to be termed ‘FM friendly’ stuff. Her Ladyship had a quick groove to ‘Don’t fear the reaper’ but her shout for ‘Godzilla’ strangely fell on deaf ears. Once again, sound not enough for the back half.
So, what of the opening night? I reckon that if the star of Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’, the record shop owner who makes lists of anything to do with music, had made a list of Top Ten Opening Nights of a Festival, I would suggest that tonight might have struggled to breach the charts. But, each to his own, as they say.
Saturday. Mike Stephens said that advance ticket sales this year were the same as last year. Maybe the none-too-brilliant weather forecast had affected the ‘walk-up’ trade, there didn’t seem to be as many here. On/off showers, stayed in our tent to listen to Fred’s House. No strangers to AFOB, they seemed o.k. for the k.o. slot. Got changed and headed off for Moulettes. More festival regulars, they are very musical, very together but ‘strangely strange’. Another of those festival acts of whom I get the impression that not many would pay to see them in their own right outside of a festival setting. (Apologies if people do!). Weather changed from bright sunshine to a torrential downpour, by which we were in the Real Ale Tent. Moulettes soldiered on. I was busting for a CrosbyStillzen, but soldiered on too. Nell Bryden. Seemingly one of Mike Stephens’ coups, she came on to big intro from her fellow musicians. Massive black cloud emptying its contents made the afore-mentioned sound (which pretty much stopped at the mixing desk) even more difficult to pick up. I did pick out ‘Hard to Handle’ though. Entire crowd , not surprisingly, now crammed into the tent, bringing with them the ‘Chair Police’ (see note at the end). As if the bad weather wasn’t enough, spotted the duo Big Fibbers wandering about. Open Air Stage. Demon Barbers XL. More jumpyupanddowny stuff, girls on stage dancing with hankies. They almost reminded me of a Vic n Bob folk outfit, but they went down well. Her Ladyship enjoyed them, but her appreciation of this genre was to wear thin. Hunter and the Bear. Another act Mike S was chuffed to have booked, 4-piece with 2 big beards, 1 small beard and a singer with no beard. Described as ‘folk-rock’, they were…ok. Maybe I was expecting something phenomenal, but we left after 30 minutes, only to be confronted by a horde of Morris Dancers! Her Ladyship has an irrational fear of them, especially the black and white painted variety. I think the technical term is sadlonelytwatophobia. Not interested in yet another festival omnipresent, Hazel O ‘Connor, I went down to check out King Size Slim. Her Ladyship had some idea of it being a Fat Boy Slim tribute DJ act, but she was very wrong! A manic one-man blues stompfest, there were actually more there than I expected, especially in view of Ms O’Connor being on elsewhere. And he was absolutely excellent! Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’ got the works, and anyone doing John Martyn’s ‘May you never’ deserves a hearing. Genuinely ‘unplugged’ finale brought audience participation, and I am sure the Grateful Dead will have been smiling somewhere at ‘Iko Iko’. Get him back Mike! Best of fest so far. Paul Carrack. Have been a fan since the days of Ace, I still have their 3 lps down in the cellar. I won’t do a blow-by-blow set list, as he is playing Cropredy and Weyfest, and there are those who don’t want to know his repertoire. A mixture of his recent lp, with characteristically soulful rendition of the likes of the Young Rascals, Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye. Is that giving too much away? Obvious inclusions from Mike and the Mechanics and, of course, Ace, the only disappointment was the omission of…a certain Difford/Tillbrook ditty. And maybe a bit too much sax. But that is nit-picking, he was head and shoulders over any one else on the bill. One of our finest vocalists of the last 4 decades. And just to further expand on a previous point, the crowd was definitely smaller than previous years .Terry and Gerry. Some end of the night silliness in the Real Ale Tent.
Sunday. Honey Ryder. I had booked tickets as soon as Paul Carrack was announced, but I was really looking forward to this lot. I turned on Bob Harris’s Country show just a bit too late to catch them recently, so got a good early seat. I was just thinking that we had had dozens of ukeleles, groups with mandolins and fiddles, but not a banjo or pedal steel to be found!! And Honey Ryder didn’t have any either! But what they did have were great songs, great playing and great vocals. Her Ladyship commented that it was almost like watching the tv show ‘Nashville’, which is great. I agreed , but without all the hats , all the rhinestones …and all the cheese! And then they played a song they had done in Nashville! The Prince cover wasn’t too far away from their own songs either. Managed a couple of encores too, they even brought the sun out. Great call, Mike! (Point deducted for the sound man having the snare far too loud). From the Jam. Formed in 2007 by Mssrs Buckler and Foxton (two thirds of The Jam), Buckler left in 2009 and Bruce Foxton with Russell Hastings has toured since. Augmented by keyboards today, playing acoustic guitars, they played pretty much all the Weller-penned Jam hits, plus Foxton’s own ‘Smithers-Jones’. Covers from the Jam’s repertoire eg The Who’s ‘So sad about us’. The Kinks ‘David Watts’ and Martha and the Vandellas ‘Heat Wave’ also got an airing. (Did I hear ‘That’s entertainment’ twice? And are The Jam the only act to have the word ‘world’ in 3 consecutive singles?! A good quiz question there somewhere). A good response from an enthusiastic crowd. Mark Radcliffe’s Galleon Blast. (Or as Mr Radcliffe pointed out, Paul Radcliffe if the T-shirt is to be believed!). A piratic piss-up might be a good description. Plenty of banter, appropriate cover of ‘Shakin’ all over’ by Johnny Kidd and the ( yes, you got it). They had cds for sale, which at a guess might not be ahead of ‘Bat out of Hell’ in the all-time charts but hopefully will outsell and be better than the rest of Meat’s canon of work. And ‘Bat out of Hell is sh*te too!). But they are essentially a live act. And , Mr R, the Captain Pugwash rendition was very enjoyable and indeed the references to Seaman Stains, Master Bates and Roger the Cabin Boy are total urban myth. His creator, John Ryan , successfully sued a couple of newspapers for saying this, I believe. So let others beware! Predictable Waterboys song, they finished with ‘Raggle Taggle Gypsy’ which set Her Ladyship off again, as it reminded her of her mother (see earlier references to father and grandfather). Merry Hell. Ok, enough is enough. At the risk of upsetting any Irish people by using ‘Paddy’ , we got yet another bunch of Plastic Paddies. ( Even worse, Big Fibbers were sticking up fliers. Are their two members joined at the hip? ) FOS Brothers. Real Ale Tent. Actual Irish person singing (NB. I have checked out my own name, definitely Irish somewhere). We were sitting halfway back, so by now you will predict my comment. Show of Hands. Apparently it was disgraceful of me to comment at a festival some years ago that this lot were not ‘a name’. So we sat quietly and listened… They are popular and good at what they do. I spent many teenage nights in folk clubs and have paid to see acts such as Fairport, Lindisfarne and Oysterband who would fall somewhere under the ‘folk’ banner, but I wouldn’t pay to see Show of Hands . And, yes, you are already shouting ‘It’s sold out anyway!’. Went back inside, soon to be confronted by Radio Mary. Yet another mandolin/fiddle based outfit, Her Ladyship was getting fed up of the same stuff and went off to check out another tent, only to come back saying it was the same sort of stuff! It was starting to give me a vision of the Cambridge Rock Festival’s obsession with female singer/bass/ drums/keyboards/ guitar groups. Quill. Final act of the festival on Open Air Stage, I counted about 100 in front of the stage, with maybe another 200 sitting down. This is not a big crowd. The applause was polite, the group played covers such as ‘Say it ain’t so’, ‘Duelling Banjos’,’Galway Girl’, ‘Jig a Jig’, plus songs by Gretchen Peters and Emmylou Harris/Buddy Miller. After about 20 minutes, people were packing up chairs and leaving. Bev Bevan on drums!? They played ELO Pt 2’s ‘Whisky Girls’, and I was thinking that for a group who have been going for some decades, they rely on a lot of covers. Then I realised Paul Carrack plays a lot of covers! So where next? Big Fibbers. No chance, I would rather watch Harold Shipman and Peter Sutcliffe , they would be funnier. (Would they be called Big Killers?) Spent about half an hour in the Solar Tent, then came back to Real Ale Tent for the Cheesecutters. They are back again, with Old Crow Medicine Show, ‘Monkey man’, ‘Alberta’, Saw Doctors, Waterboys (again). The sound seemed better ,then seemed to dip at 10.55. Curfew? Possibly. Anyway, these sort of people are ideal end of night entertainment. And it was all over.
So, scores on the doors?
1. Beer was good. £3.50 a pint not too expensive. Good service, but aided by fewer people wanting serving.
2. Food. Her Ladyship got a handful of chips , in a burger bun tray, with a dollop of mayo. £4.00!! Disgraceful.
3. Toilets. Clean, and indeed clean every morning when I went. BUT…Monday morning , 7.45 am most had been cleaned and were locked when Her Ladyship went! WHY? Do they expect campers to have a dump in a bloody skip! Needs mentioning, Mike. Fortunately, I was awake at 6.00 am , and was able to go for a Pink Floyd’s Richard before lockdown.
4. Chair Police. OK, the Real Ale Tent did get crowded, but for a steward to come to me, as I was sitting up against the tent wall, and ask me to stand up and fold up my chair as it was a hazard in an evacuation?! I asked her to point out who would be behind me to trip over it, as I was against the tent wall!? Maybe next year’s tickets should come with a Stanley knife, or just a small razor blade, so we can slash the tent to make our escape from the holocaust (or maybe they were afraid of a flood?).
5. Noise levels. A lot of sound bleeding from one stage to another. Obviously the event cannot be genuinely ‘unplugged’, but is there not a risk of complaint from locals? Especially when Big Cacophony were on.
6. Sound quality. Open Air Stage very good , the team last year ‘had problems’. But the Real Ale Tent needed a better system for the rear half of the tent.
Finally, 7. The line-up. Please note, I am NOT going to express my opinion for a change, but here are what others thought. Her Ladyship, who likes mandolin/fiddle stuff, thought there was far too much of that one genre, especially on Sunday and especially as they all seemed to be groups from the Midlands or North. I was chatting to a couple of AFOB regulars from Whitwell who didn’t think the line-up was too great, and Her Ladyship spoke to an Irish woman, (a regular) , who doubted she would come back next year if this was to be the calibre for the weekend. (Weren’t Medicine Head on the poster?)
And here is an interesting observation. Before the weekend, I showed a flier from this year, along with details of the line-ups from 3 of the early years, to 3 friends. None had ever been to a festival, and I asked them to put the 4 in order of which bill they thought the best. All I can say is that this year didn’t make it into the medals with any of them. And this is not my opinion, but then again, de gustibus non est disputandum. (Loosely translated, ‘you can’t argue about matters of taste).
Paul Carrack, Honey Ryder and King Size Slim took the honours this year, I would thoroughly recommend them all .
We have been to every one of these festivals, we think it is one of the best. We are at the sad old age where criteria such as parking next to our tent, short distance to the arena, a crowd of a few thousand and being able to sleep at night are very important, but ultimately it is the line-up that is of paramount importance. Maybe just a bit of a thoughtful look at the big picture, when all is packed away and the till roll counted, wouldn’t go amiss. But I suspect any of my comments (and those given by people to whom I spoke) may well be taken as representing a tiny minority, as there will be loads of social media activity saying how ‘ So and So’ was wonderful.
There is a review of the same festival on the AFOB Facebook site, you wouldn’t think we had been to the same event! BUT, importantly, that review says ‘It is all opinion at the end of the day’…, their opinion is different to ours. DE GUSTIBUS NON EST DISPUTANDUM