Our first time at the Blues Festival, although we have twice been to what is now the Sunshine Festival (see older review.)
Friday. Let’s start with the music . So, tent pitched and off to the Riverside Stage for the Mustangs. Not for the first time, they have a stand-in bassist. Started with a mixture of originals and classics such as ‘Dimples’ and ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, we stopped for half an hour. Tez and Janet had recommended we check out Maz Mitrenko nearby so went and managed to get a seat.
We realised why Tez (major Rory Gallagher fan) had gone there. Two out of first three numbers were by Mr G , I think there were five or six altogether. Some good originals mixed in well with the likes of ‘Going down’, ‘The thrill is gone’, ‘Hey Joe’, ‘Roadhouse blues’ and ‘Before you accuse me’. There were also some more unusual parts such as ‘Bridge of Sighs’. End of the third set featured Steve Earle, Hendrix, the singalong Skynyrd/Zevon blend and Chuck Berry. A cut above the usual pub fare. A pleasant start to a weekend of de blooze.
Saturday. Jack the Biscuit. Decent version of ‘Midnight Rambler’, plus the likes of’ Nadine’ and ‘Hi Heel Sneakers’. We had avoided the Riverside , not being interested in Souled out 2 Funk. Thought we would wait for the Barcodes, we would still be waiting! Luke Docherty entered a rejigged schedule, starting out with ‘Bullfrog Blues’, the second time so far we had heard it. Left to get an early seat for the first of the weekend’s appearances by Babajack, and caught last bit of Brooks Williams. Remembered him from one of our Cropredy trips, he was much better suited to this 200 seater hall than an 18,000 audience in a field. Another ‘The thrill is gone’ , but we appreciated him more than last time. Babajack delayed , so Innes Sibun filled in. Impressive CV, very accomplished guitarist, but I don’t think it would be harsh to suggest that vocals aren’t his strong suit. He did give us Waylon Jennings’ ‘We had it all’ (check out Green on Red’s version, in fact check out everything by Green on Red!). It got to the stage where the number of notes in his instrumentals made me, well, number. I once said to a fan of these young ‘fastest in the West’ guitar-slingers that ‘Quicker might be slicker, but more is a bore and fewer is bluer’. He disagreed but each to his own. Anyway, the arrival of Babajack in duo form. They started out with ‘Running Man’, with the intention of playing some numbers more suited to the slimmed-down twosome. ‘Death Letter Blues’ of course, and ‘Gallows Pole’ always go down well. A Sleepy John Estes song gave Trevor a chance to belt out the vocals, I always feel he never quite comes across when he is singing into his Harmonica mic. Top, top spot. Went off to the Sportsfield to watch them in their 4-piece, plus guest cellist. Starting with ‘The money’s all gone’, they soon encountered sound problems. We got a repeat duo performance of ‘Death Letter’, plus ‘Running Man’ and ‘Gallows Pole’ again (fine by us!). Becky commented about how Deborah Bonham never played Led Zeppelin songs or traded on her brother’s name, she MUST have had her tongue firmly embedded in her cheek!). ‘Skin and Bone’ finished another blistering set by the increasingly-popular outfit. Went back into town, ended up perched on the end of a bench listening to someone do the Vanilla Fudge version of ‘You keep me hangin’ on’, ‘Sweet child of mine’ and other not very blues covers.
Sunday. Tez and Janet went off early for seats for Tommy Allen, it was packed when we got there , so managed to get a seat elsewhere for Stripped Down Blues Band. ‘Thirty Days’ then a long preamble that made me forget the name of the next song. More blues standards (Muddy Waters, T Bone Walker, Blind Boy Fuller, Bukka White, ), an updated Eric Bibb song then a song whose title I couldn’t hear as two women talking behind us were trying to be louder than the PA…and succeeding. Headed off back to the Memorial Hall for the first of King Size Slim‘s appearances. Similar to Babajack, he played here on his own , with a view to then going to play with his expanded line-up on the Sportsfield. So , what of Toby Barelli (aka King Size Slim)? A recent ‘Emerging Blues Artist’ award winner. One man, one guitar, one percussion instrument (his left foot’) and one decent bloke too. (Oops, forgot… one capo and one bottle neck). Like he tells you, check him out on Youtube or, even better, check him out live. Bloke behind us could only find two adjectives, ‘wonderful’ and ‘fantastic’. A final song, completely acoustic, had the audience asking ‘May we find our way out of the storm’. I am sure Her Ladyship and I weren’t the only ones heading off to the Sportsfield for ‘Part 2’. The 3-piece line-up is smoother, almost funkier than the one man show, but we still finish with ‘May we find…’ Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’ is added to the mix too.
A bit of a wait before Curtis Eller’s American Circus, so it is a really good idea that they have audio and video links to the Riverside Stage, and Simon ‘Honeyboy’ Hickling sounded good. So, on comes Mr Eller (sans the Circus ). We saw him solo some time ago at the Duck and Drake, and he (along with King Size Slim and Babajack) was our reason for coming. Description? All I can say is that he makes a box of frogs seem completely compos mentis. Wonderfully bonkers. He starts out with ‘Taking up serpents again’ and has the audience going with ‘Last flight of the pigeon club’. We get ‘Butcherman’ from ‘Saving my heart for the…’, and songs about Joe Louis, Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon and battlefield amputation leave those who were expecting ‘Bullfrog Blues’ a bit confused! ‘Sugar in my Coffin’ finished a hugely-entertaining, and quite long, slot. (Is it a different ‘Circus’ line-up?) We thought it would be sensible to head back to the tent for a time-out, as we had now seen the three acts we wanted to for the weekend. Tez and Janet were packing up, having similar indigestion problems to us, and quite a few had left the campsite. So it was a relief to have a steady walk back into town and find a space to sit AND get served too. Chris Hall’s Louisiana Swamp Band were the last on the Riverside Stage. I don’t mind a spot of cajun music, and it sounded decent, but we were too tired to stop and pulled up stumps.
So how was our first Upton Blues Festival? Three top acts, for us, and the pub outfits were all as good as you could expect in a pub. We have seen Babajack, King Size Slim and Curtis Eller in both formats, and both are versions are great, but (for me) ‘bigger is better’? No, but that is just me. I also prefer eg Dire Straits and The Rolling Stones at their most minimal. Once again, Rory Gallagher wins the award for most T-shirts at a fest and ‘Bullfrog Blues’ the most played song . A lot of close seconds too (‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, ‘The thrill is gone’, ‘Roadhouse blues’).
But, and quite a big ‘but’, a few negative aspects. 1. Most of the pubs had queues at the bar three or four deep. Surely a couple more staff (a tenner an hour?) would have brought on £100s more each hour? You couldn’t even get in most of the pubs, and a seat was like rocking horse sh*t. 2. Not enough toilets on the campsite. They weren’t pretty on Saturday morning but, fair does, clean for the rest of the weekend. 3. ’24 hour campsite security’? Does that just mean one bloke standing at the gate? We had to put up with a load of foul-mouthed Brummy pondlife shouting and bawling until the break of dawn. We paid £30.00 each for camping, to help fund the festival, so these inconsiderate sh*tforbrains need attending to.
The fact that it is a free festival doesn’t mean we have to accept these things. And if someone had said to me that you will have to wait hours for a drink and have to stand all night (I even succumbed to buying cans from the Spar, which I am loathe to do), be on a campsite with too few toilets and there will be a a mob of drunks acting like total a**eholes on the campsite? I would have said ‘No thanks’.
Is it possible for those concerned to at least think about the negatives? There are so many positives (the music, the town, the friendliness of the festival-goers) and I get the impression it is being ‘punished by its own success’ and there were more people here than ever.
A disappointment next year is that our three favourites won’t be coming back, if the booking policy is adhered too. (But we will)