From its humble beginnings as a hundred and fifty strong party in little more than a large garden area of the grounds, Larmer Tree Festival has organically grown over the last twenty years to a sizeable audience capped at four thousand, maintaining the intimate feel it was built upon.
Refusing to accept sponsorship and relying solely on its reputation, the festival has successfully developed into one of the South’s best kept secrets and continues to passionately defend its title as ‘Best Family Festival’. This year was no exception with even more on offer to cater for all ages, from young families with their kids to the generation that festivals forgot- your mum and dad. Far from being the conventional, artist-focussed festival that so many others strive to be, the roots of Larmer Tree remain firmly implanted in its community centred origins. Whilst headline acts pull the crowds in the evenings, the programme of events contains several locally sourced musicians scattered across the four days and everything from yoga classes, spoken word and woodland crafts to theatre productions in between.
Opening on one of those days that typifies the true British summer, Larmer Tree 2010 was not off to a good start. England’s answer to the Indian monsoon saw torrential rain and gale force winds descend on the festival grounds, making it what can only be described as the Everest of tent erecting missions for those who braved it.
Hardened campers ventured boldly into the main arena and were rewarded with a fantastic line up on the Thursday night. Battling the elements, revellers enjoyed highlights including Frank Turner, the folk/punk maestro who serenaded audiences on the main stage, followed by the ravenous sounds of festival new-comers Disco’s Out Murders In, a lively band hailing from nearby Dorset. The energetic performance the Dorset Music Award winners gave in the main tent soon had the audiences’ sopping waterproofs dried off from dancing. Easy Star All Stars continued along the party vein with their vibrant mix of reggae, dub, roots, indie rock and dance, keeping everyone moving into the early hours with favourites such as ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Dub’ and ‘Karma Police’.
After a shaky start with the weather, the next day saw Larmer Tree, a staple in the smaller festival goer’s diary, celebrating its twentieth birthday in far better conditions. Walking into the main arena, we were greeted by the unmistakable resounding beats of a drum workshop emanating from the tent partied hard in the night before- a sure sign that Larmer Tree has an active side. Exploring the grounds further unveils many more unexpected delights including capoeira martial arts performances, carnival workshops, circus tutorials and a whole host of other exceptional features.
One of the key things hardly emphasised in any promotion of the festival is the tacit use of creativity, eccentricity, art and manipulation of lighting, to create an entrancing and dynamic atmosphere. Winding through the fairy-lit Lost Woods, people are coaxed towards hidden coves filled with anything from a bicycle powered film showing, to a single-man live music venue, the ‘Folk in a Box’ (not too dissimilar from the Dukes Box, a whole band in a large simulated jukebox). Art pieces adorn the woods in as many different varieties as there are dinner options for the evening. As we saunter passed the Wandering Ska band playing in amongst the trees to anyone who happens to be there, just a few yards ahead is a group of adults and children knitting squares. A little miffed at the unlikely choice of festival entertainment, we soon realise there is a purpose- woolly clothes for the silver birch trees nearby, perfect for indulging your inner hippy tree hugging needs.
Having investigated every obscure inch of the Lost Woods, the lure of headline act Toots and the Maytals was too great to ignore. Opening with the epic classic ‘Pressure Drop’, Toots led the rest of the band seamlessly through an enthusiastic and fast paced set of highlights from the past forty years, culminating in a stage invasion from the lucky few in the front row who managed it. Toots happily partied alongside the energetic audience members right through to the end, before the crowd collectively headed towards Russell Howard who presented a solid, if a little predictable, comedy set.
Seemingly acting as a tribute to long forgotten British one –hit-wonders, Saturday saw both Chumbawamba and Cornershop entertain the masses. Whilst both have actually had a longstanding musical career beyond their commercial fame, there will always be the expectation from audiences to reminisce over the legendary 90s tunes. Cornershop delighted everyone with a sound rendition of ‘Brimful of Asha’, whereas the ever political Chumbawamba built excitement and teased the crowd with a “here’s one you might recognise” introduction, to yet another folk oriented track similar to every other one they’d played. It could be a generational thing, but Chumbawamba to me is synonymous with the anarchic ‘Tubthumping’ which would have definitely provided a much needed injection of energy to the set.
Contrary to the expectation brought about by well known names, Larmer Tree also provides lots of opportunities for music lovers to experiment and trial new music. The eclectic range of genres, tastes and styles enables exposure to fantastic new bands and artists, one of which the Babylon Circus from Lyon, France. Their blend of gypsy, reggae, dub style music was an unlikely dance hybrid that successfully established a noticeable foot stomping groove at the main tent. Keeping the momentum going were headline act Dub Pistols, who captivated the audience with their fusion blend of dub and big beat melodies- a hedonistic extravagance it was hard not to jump around to. The hype created by Dub Pistols was potentially to blame for the onslaught of wandering bodies looking for more excitement, eventually resulting in open air trio The Joker and The Thief, magnetising crowds at an alarming rate. Before long, no table was left free in the gazebo style central tent as people danced, clapped, whooped and cheered on the unrelenting band that not even security could halt. As instruments were confiscated one by one, the group developed into an impromptu drum circle with a chorus of “we’re not coming down!” from the surrounding table stompers- a true show of unprecedented solidarity and middle class rebellion!
The pace of the festival calmed down again once Sunday arrived. The sun beat down on the grounds, creating a summery buzz across the lawns as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble chorally dismantled preconceived notions of brass instruments. No longer is the tuba relinquished to school music lessons- this Chicago born band revived a passion for brass with their funky, hip hop influence and spirited integration of dance moves, appealing to all ages.
The apparent dichotomy between young and old at Larmer Tree presents an interesting outcome for the festival vibe. On the one hand, there’s something for everyone with workshops, activities and a uniquely diverse range of musical options, though on the other, there’s also an obvious disparity between the night time party atmosphere and families looking for a peaceful evening. So whilst you can expect the highest standard of toilets and showers I’ve ever come across at a festival, you could easily be in a queue for them with a 5 year old or a 75 year old...