What sets a cherished Music festival apart from the rest? Perhaps timing is everything… If the fickleness of the British climate doesn’t tarnish the event, there’s an ominously dutiful assortment of inaudible PA, camping squalor, litter and shameless dietary range/liquid costs to compliment (piss-poor) latrine roulette, all actively bustling to remind you that you’re a privileged festival goer. And that’s after you’ve considered the pocket-burning entrance fee. But there is light at the end of the Marquee…
Should you be bothered to investigate prospective annual festivals, you’ll discover literally hundreds of tailored outdoor music events, all hoping to capitalize upon a tentative weekend throughout the capricious summer. Some festival regulars will exclusively target the generally annual Pilton experience; the charmed, pop-up Somerset village is unrivaled to many of the 177,000 oft sun hatted/welly sporting devotees. Happily, Glastonbury acquires ample lucrative analysis already. So…
For the rest of us, one alternative ray of optimism can be found amongst the leafy Greater Manchester suburbia of Cheadle Hulme (Well, if you’re going to take risks with a presupposed rainfall, then you might as well grab the Bull by the horns). The location is Manchester Rugby Club. As luck would have it, the Sun blazed away for the majority of the late May holiday weekend, so just a slight chill in the evenings to contend with. 3 very different performer stages defined the musical diversity and Caledonian Strummer Ale on sale at the bar was a nice touch too.
From the onset it was clear that this 5,000 daily capacity event had the demeanor of a quietly pleasant, well-orchestrated affair. The usual security intense audience/band divide was minimised to allow the natural flow of each set; in fact, the entire weekend was meticulously designed to benefit punters, performers and nearby residents alike. Noticeably, there’s a genuine mutual respect amongst the coordinators (the Los Amigos Crew). Camaraderie between the volunteers is evident. The real MAGIC about this gathering is that there are no pretentions. No price-hiked festival entrapments here, where otherwise common trends force ticket holders to pay obligatory exclusive ‘attendance’ fees for festival consumables, en masse. This was something that co-organiser Phil Fitzpatrick was keen to administer “We have worked with the Rugby Club to ensure that prices are competitive. It is an important to all of us. They (the proprietors) have understood this since we began organising the festivals.” Evidently they have an auspicious rapport. The site allows for what appears to be about 200 tents. Some people have elected to sleep in campers along the car park leading to the Main building near one of 3 pitched areas and, like me, there are a few Guest House dwellers. More Strummer B&B than StrummerCamp then!! The facilities are more than adequate too. Overall it’s well situated and admirably presented.
The glue to the festival’s smooth success is the organisers. Phil and his accomplice Kevin appear unperturbed amid the demanding action. They are coolly prepared for every outcome. As always, the intention is to witness as many of the acts appearing on each stage and the eclectic Strummer-esque blend is immense. Predictably though, intentions are hampered whilst engaging in conversation with the various crew members. So what makes this event so convivial?
“I come here without fail and offer support to the event throughout the year” explains Graham, a passionate volunteer and ‘Junco Partner’ T-Shirt stall holder. “Those involved genuinely care about it”.
“The size of the event helps keep the costs down” says Phil. “We have been fortunate to receive donations in the past and the additional support (from active volunteers) has been excellent”.
On Friday the atmosphere was raw. Just one stage was accessible which showcased a fair amount of local talent via TNS records. This was the weekends 2nd stage which was part of the main clubhouse that had the appearance of the typical venue Joe Strummer himself would have performed on during the Mid 70’s. Decent sets from the Naughtys and Clash covers band the Cheapskates easily won over the 3/4 full room. Later, the perennial effervescent, one-man revolution TV Smith hit the stage. His rebel rousing set and between-song banter was lapped up by the responsive crowd. ‘Expensive being poor’, “Meanwhile the immoral rich take over the planet” (‘Death by a thousand cuts’).
Saturday was a glorious sunny day. Up around mid-day on the main stage was another tribute band On Parole, belting out all the usual Clash suspects, interjected with fine wit from singer Rick “Shall we do a cover now?” And despite some minor technical issues, they pulled off convincing versions, conspicuously of ‘London’s Calling’. “Just letting you know we’re available for next year” Rick announced, and fine posturing too from all, not bad for a non-working band.
Other notables included the Lincoln Reggae/Ska outfit, the Activators. An industriously tight performance loaded with barrels of entertainment, spearheaded by keyboardist (Derby County FC shirt wearing), John Lord. The bar was now raised in the main tent. Later, a solid and confident performance by London based Electric River, Singer Sponge playfully provoking the audience. Reliable and steadfast, The Men They Couldn’t Hang gave an expected routine, as did Vice Squad but the latter’s audience categorically weren’t up for the challenge. Saturday night ended with high expectations and The Undertones came out fighting. A glossy series of hits were suited to new frontman Paul McLoone. His swaying, high kicking enactment was strangely reminiscent of 80’s Morrissey, albeit with the familiar Sharkey bleat. They are a gigging band once again, as Paul was keen to point out. “I think we were good tonight. We’re having a laugh on this tour, it’s exciting and this crowd were responsive.”
Sunday was reserved for something extra special. The previous afternoon, in one of the adjacent fields to the Clubhouse a sports match was being played. A small collective sat outside, partly in the shade. Taurus Trakker band members were soon joined by Chris Salewicz (author of the superlative Strummer biography ‘Redemption Song’) “I like the cultural contrast of the Cricket match and the Punk Rock tent” he beamed. Chris is a cool customer, with a compelling presence. He was accompanied by his pals, a friendly, gregarious pair; Brian Caulfield (guns-blazing Singer ‘the Lone Groover’) and (Singer-Songwriter Jon Byrne’s Manager) Mark Hughes. Today Chris starts the proceedings with readings from his Strummer novel.
A little before 11AM and inside the main building, the nominated room is cold and not exactly appropriate for readings with its partial ‘snug’ divide. But nobody cares. A long term confidant of Joe Strummer, Chris Salewicz has a sizable audience to hear the carefully selected Strummer citations. His book is heavy with suitable anecdotes, so exceptional quotes flow, connecting Film Director Jim Jamusch, David Mellor (Joe’s brother), Joe’s Marathon run and post Clash depression, Chris’ own advice to Strummer ‘Learn by your mistakes’ and a humorous short dialogue concerning Michael Hutchence!! Chris even perfected Joe’s distinctive drawl.
Next, Emmett and the Folkestra play an alluring Water Boys inspired set. Outside the sun is blinding.
The ‘acoustic stage’ is manned by a couple of incredibly cheery guys who are making the most of their semi-isolated location. Kim Jennett is on Stage. The performance is spirited and she puts her band through the interchangeable paces. ‘My Love’ is a stop/start progression, prudently interspersed with some clever vibrato vocal changes. The steady crescendo of the infectious ‘Doll’ is underpinned by a hypnotic bass hook and off beat drumming. ‘You want what you can’t have’ maintains a stroll in the park rhythm with a chorus line peppered with vocals gently reminiscent of 90’s group, the Sundays. Although the song-writing is distinctly contemporary, there’s occasionally something akin to 80’s vocalist Carmel about her vocal range. The apex is the blistering ‘Spiders’. If only the schedule allowed for more. Afterwards both Kim and her Manager are adamant that she is changing (the musical) direction, “We’re developing the sound, looking for a fuller arrangement than the recent CD.”
Steve Doyle is a gracious Saturday presenter from Salford City Radio. He can’t praise the event enough… He also recommends his pals in the sensational Beefheart/Nick Cave inspired Kill Pretty. Visually striking, they effectively deliver a commanding 60’s garage band appeal.
Taurus Trakker hail from London, they recently added bassist Maggie to enhance their detailed sound. There’s striking power chords and interesting blues riffs. It’s a reliable rock-solid back beat with a digital quality. TT’s turn is self-assured. The songs are polished and dexterous. They each play with adept confidence. Afterwards Martin and Allison are charming; they both advise that they are currently finishing off their latest album when they return later in the week.
Of course there’s always been more to the 3 johns than the indie metal guitar and compelling locked bass and drum machine. The lyrics are wistful social annotations, lifted from the dark, acrid Thatcherite era, generously spiked with razor sharp Gramsci-coiffured conviction. They playfully amble through their set-list and their interplay between songs is almost distracting.
Spear of Destiny are back. Kirk Brandon’s new band is fit and unwavering. He leads his talented charges through ‘Liberator’, ‘Rainmaker’ and ‘You’ll never take me alive’. The sound is acquainted and embracing. Each song is explosive and as distinctive as when they were first released. Kirk’s stage presence is authoritative. This elated crowd relish the bands rock-star swagger. A great performance considering the man’s comparatively recent heart surgery.
The Neville Staples Band are delighted in their attendance tonight. With a catalogue of fine Specials songs and Ska re-workings to master, they respectfully make the most of the occasion. Neville has recently suffered ill-health due to a car crash and minor strokes. But the original Specials RudeBoy has a commanding routine, with an animated chemistry with the onlookers.
The Beat headline the evening. Ranking Roger is a consummate performer. His energy levels are breath-taking and the band is thrilling to watch. His son also performs at Roger’s side, often mirroring his athletic moves from the opposing side of the stage. Each song is a joyful sing-along and the Father/Son combination work the crowd through each chorus. It’s a testament to the original line up that all of the set are crowd pleasers. ‘Mirror in the bathroom’, ‘Hands off she’s mine’, ‘Twist and Crawl’, ‘Best friend’ and ‘Stand down Margaret’ are part of a fitting finale to an excellent weekend.
Any personal favourites you’d want to confirm for a future event, Phil? “Top of my list (for StrummerCamp) would be getting Stiff Little Fingers to play.”, he answered without the slightest hesitation.
Finally BIG thanks to John Hyatt for organising the passes to this very respectable event.