I suppose, the word festival would traditionally bring to mind a celebration, usually involving all ages, brought together in the name of fun and possibly freedom.
But it seems that of late, true or not, the word festival, conjures up the image of an event hi-jacked by debauchery, with horrifically expensive entrance tickets, over priced, low quality food, with lads & ladettes on the booze in a weekend that would have anyone of parent-able age bulking at the thought of going (even though they probably love live music) and gripping the bed sheets through the night when their children are going.
And while the parents are left picking out the newly formed grey hairs, the kids are proudly parading wrist bands for months after as if to signify, “look what I survived!” it’s a difficult time for families, but its really a false impression, these days even Glastonbury, the great godfather of the unwashed is a relatively safe and fun place to be. But right at the other end of the scale from the giants of the UK festival scene are small emerging occasions like Watchet live.
Watchet live music festival, now in its 5th year, was among the nominations for last years small festival of the year award, it didn’t win, but with so many new festivals springing up each year, this has to be one of the toughest categories to be fighting in?
This is an event that started life as part of the towns carnival, but became such a popular part that a small group of locals formed a non profit “community interest” company, took it out on its own to a site that overlooks the sea and the town, and made watchet live. Main organiser and site manager Mark Bale told me that the impetus behind this was to give the people of Watchet music of a quality that the local pubs couldn’t afford to put on, and donate any profits to improve the town.
When it comes to choosing which festival to spend your money on, its difficult to know what’s most important, the impulsive reaction is to make your decision based on the line up, but at my age, would I really rather see my favourite band from behind 80,000 people, or mosh it up in front of 80,000 people!? Or, see many bands i like or might like from a more relaxed perspective? Sometimes I feel we like to tell people what we’ve seen, rather than enjoy what we’re watching, and as time goes on, I often pick the festival I like and trust the organisers judgement regarding the music.
For a small festival, the organisers and bookers at watchet have done a staggering job with the relatively limited amount of revenue generated from ticket sales. They have a few well known names, a fine selection of pure entertainment bands, and all bases between well covered. There is also theatre, comedy, poetry and open mic opportunities for aspiring performers in the charming Tea tent which has a communal feel with sofas and cushions dotted around, I even saw what looked like an aerobics class on Sunday morning, but I scooted away from this before eye contact could be made in case they were short of willing participants…
Also included this year was the Croissant Neuf tent, this has long been fixture at many large festivals, along with its impressive “solar system” generating unit which seems to quite comfortably run a stage, lighting and P.A set up apparently large enough to accommodate a 40 piece choir and certainly powerful enough to make the music heard and felt even outside the packed 1000 capacity tent. Well known bands and artists can often be found at this venue, so aside from providing an alternative to what’s going on at the main stage, having a name like Croissant Neuf present adds a further touch of credibility to a small festival like this , I managed to distract Croissant Neuf owner Andy Hope for a few seconds while he was chalking out the line up board for Sunday, he said he was pleased with the way things had gone this year, they had worked very hard to get the sound right in the tent and praised his team for their ability to overcome interference from the local radio masts! They certainly had the sound bang on for the ten pound suit band, back for a second year, this Bristol based outfit manage very successfully to fuse and layer songs together like a 1970s radio 1 bits and pieces contest, just when you recognise one, they’re onto another, but it was difficult to get anywhere near the stage, or even into the tent for most of the gig, disappointing, but I suppose just another example of the quality of music at this years Watchet.
This year a new main stage has been brought in with a better lighting system and a laser show shinning up from behind, the P.A sound was as good as you’ll find anywhere and at times I found myself lost in the moment, wondering why there weren’t more household names here, and I did have to keep reminding myself that this is only a small festival and in the absence of time served mega bands with countless hits in their back catalogue, at night when people are ready to party, there are times when decent tribute or covers band is near enough. This year saw U2 UK headline the Friday night, supported by the Lilly Allen show, unfortunately, as is often the way with British festivals, the weather wasn’t too kind on the opening night. Saturday however, the sun came out and dried the site up and by 11oclock I was sat on the grass enjoying a pint of Barn owl, one of the many fine ales on offer from the Cotleigh brewery. The beer prices have been kept at £2.50, this is to encourage people to use the bar instead of trying to sneak their own in wrapped up in a camping chair bag to avoid the extortionate prices found at many public events. The food choice is limited by comparison to the bigger festivals, but all retailers were clean, tidy and reasonably priced, the Cornish pasty company providing, as you would expect, pasties and other pastry delights, there was a crepe van, pizzas, fry ups and a new venture called the Volkscafe selling speciality coffees of all types with a little extra chat & panache than you might expect to find at many similar, and even a picture of a red Indian drawn in the froth if you want it, having had at least one every day, I still couldn’t see how he did that!
Where was I? ah yes, sat in the sun with my pint of Barn owl, chatting to a chap sat next to me who had kindly offered up some cashews, when Bemis came on the main stage. From Portsmouth, Bemis had brought with them a very well received set of some gorgeous acoustic songs of their own that had the relatively sparse early afternoon audience swaying in the sun and bathing in harmonies. With a sound inspired by an era of CSNY, and Dylan, they played a crowd pleasing and topical cover of crowded house’s “weather with you”.
When the mood is right, time seems to disappear and before I knew it a band from Birmingham called 360 were stepping up the tempo, with music that made the sun want to shine, people started to arrive at the main stage and all of a sudden it had changed from a chill session to a relaxed afternoon party. I know nothing about this band, but UB40 sprung to mind as a comparison, these were well put together original songs with good lyrics, yet you felt like somehow you didn’t mind dancing as if they were as familiar the songs you heard growing up. They were messing about, pushing and poking each other during solos and really looked like they were having a ball, but remained as tight as a misers fist through out, there was really nothing I could criticise about this band if I’d have wanted to, all that and you wont find a cooler looking dude than the trumpet player!
I’m always happy to admit that with age comes a certain lack of knowledge as to what’s hip, but I wasn’t the only one asking who Leon Jackson was, turns out he’s an X factor winner from a couple of years back, I patted myself on the back for not knowing and made my way over to the main stage to see what all the teen screaming was about.
A handsome young Scot, Leon Jackson, was humble in his delivery of the songs he has written since the X factor days, and I was pleasantly surprised by his ability on guitar, his voice and his general ways. But im of the opinion that, in theory, if you pick out the apparent best of British talent, spend months nurturing them with the top vocal and performance coaches, you should be able to happily churn out a mega star most years, but nothing truly original ever seems to be produced. Genuine creativity and talent is something that it seems cant be taught. Like I said, I was surprised, but not so impressed.
One that did impress though was Hobo Jones and the junkyard dogs, apparently based in Kent, although from what they were saying, a more appropriate phrase would be, they met in Kent, as it sounds like they don’t get home much these days.
Having heard a lot about these guys, I first came across them at Cambridge folk festival this year, where they ripped it up in style and stunned an unsuspecting, but come the end, bulging club tent. Arriving on stage at Watchet like panto bad guys to comedy boos from the hobo faithful, a rapport of loving abuse quickly began between band and audience that had even a time served miserable cynic like me laughing before they so much as struck a note. There are quite a few bands around the festival circuit playing olde timey or hillbilly renditions of classic tunes, but ive never seen it done with quite the effect and shabby chic I saw here, the banter never stopped, the clever re-writing and impromptu changes to classic lyrics and the misuse of their makeshift instruments kept the crowd dancing and laughing from start to finish.
Following on from Hobo jones was Saturday headliners Dreadzone, this was something of a warm up to their forthcoming “the good, the bad & the dread” tour, which is arranged to support the release of the new greatest hits album from the bands 17 year history. Reports from the punters who braved the front barrier were very good, and I could certainly hear the roar of the crowd from the other end of the field. Watchet festival made it quite clear they were over the moon to have the band playing there and they must have been very pleased at the booking being a such a hit with the punters.
Sunday after noon saw the arrival of the legendary and hugely popular Wurzels and most of Somerset it seemed, an estimated 2500 tickets sold, most of those punters had clearly left their inhibitions at the gate and were dancing and singing like children to all the west country favourites and learning a few new ones along the way “ Ruby Ruby Ruby…. Ooaarr, oooaar ooar!” or maybe it was all down to the scrumpy?
Any band that followed on from the Wurzels here was going to struggle, Watchet was all cidered up, worn out and hungry, and as the next band started, the café tents filled up. The Outcast band from Gloucester were support to the festival headliners Dodgy, and played with so much energy and passion, that in the right moment and time they would have split the place apart. Their sound, performance and songs should have left any audience gasping for breath, they were amazing, and everything that the X factor should be creating, its not that they didn’t go down very well, but unfortunately for them, four septuagenarians out for a relaxing Sunday had taken the best of the afternoon, I wanted to pat them on the back and re-assure them that it wasn’t their fault, this is Somerset after all.
The final act of the weekend, Dodgy, famed for the hits “staying out for the summer” and “good enough”, came on relaxed and composed, after a big build up from the compare, who was dressed as Woody from toy story (it was a cowboys & Indians fancy dress day!), and began the set with quite a low key stance, starting off with “in a room”. They have begun touring again recently with the “definitive” line up that recorded the albums “homegrown” and “free peace sweet” and also have a new album on the way “stand upright in a cool place”.
As with the Saturday headline spot, there was a mix genuine fans of the band, general music lovers and locals curious to see what all the fuss was about, but the crowd seemed to relish the chance to see another big name come to town, and both band and audience rose to the occasion, finishing off the weekend with another success for the organisers.
I really love what Watchet festival does, it’s a friendly, fun and safe place to be with entertainment for all ages, and what it has over many established festivals is that its more or less non-generic and you really do see a huge variety of real talent close up & personal, and, at a decent price, give it a few years and I really think Watchet could be up there with the best of them.
I say a big well done to everyone involved, and lets face it, at fifty quid for a weekend pass including camping, this is unbelievable value, but you’re not going to get today’s chart toppers, you will however get a couple of yesterdays and you might get a few of tomorrows?