Nova 2012 festival review

'It was by stepping aside from the main arena that you found Nova's true worth'

Photographer:Sara Bowrey

Alex Fahey - 10 July 2012

Perpetual downpours, no shows and poor attendance will be the headlines for Nova Festival’s maiden year but beneath that, the attention paid to the little details suggested that Katrina Larkin’s return is deserving of a second chance.

High hopes were attached to Katrina Larkin’s new venture; her reputation and pedigree were built on the success of Big Chill and this start-up, on paper at least, appeared to have much promise.  Amongst the usual festival features it was also set to include healing fields to hot tubs, life drawing to literary tents and cookery lessons to crazy golf, all beneath the splendour of Sussex’s South Downs.

It nearly all did. From the list it was only the cookery lessons – to be staged by London’s Disappearing Dining Club – that, ironically, didn’t make an appearance.

Elsewhere though there were other notes of absence, the Phenomenal Handclap Band failed to show due to logistic issues (theirs it must be stressed not Nova’s), and on the Saturday night the Fearless Theatre appeared to be missing headliners Pappy’s. 

Earlier in the evening comedy barber-shop act Late Night Gimp Fight (6/10) played to a half-full tent with their songs about bestiality, but when Pappy’s stage time arrived the mixing desk was dropping reggae and ska tunes while a small group of half cut revellers used the stage as a dance floor. 

In the defence of the organisers, stage times were troubled by the appalling weather that beset the weekend, until Sunday heavy downpours were interrupted only by constant drizzle and any schedule changes were communicated to the audience by the Valley Stage compere.

With further regard to the rain, the site held up well owing mostly to the liberal spreading of straw and it is testament to the organisers that the main arena remained muddy and not boggy for the weekend.

It was by stepping aside from the main arena though that you found Nova’s true worth.

In the corner of the camping field was a large fire that was kept constantly burning throughout the weekend.  Surrounded by log stools and hammocks it really came alive when the small wooden crate-stage played host to very talented acoustic singer songwriters into the early hours of the morning.

The aforementioned Crazy Golf course was another fantastic idea.  Each hole was created by an artist and ranged from David Shrigley’s maze of funny signposts (“Golf is not boring”), to Jake and Dinos Chapman’s over-sized Hitler statue, where a direct shot through his groin led to a Nazi salute and cry of, “Nein, nein, nein.”

The Wordsmithy gave another dimension to the festival where it housed a range of compelling authors and documentary makers; hosted by the very personable Black Chav & White Coon.

While the most popular attraction it seemed was the saunas and hot tubs.  Perfectly situated with the view that looked over the main site, their warmth and cleanliness acted as a real draw against the drizzle meaning they were consistently busy throughout the weekend.  These are set to become a feature of many festivals to come.

On to the music, Speech Debelle (8/10) is backed by a full band, their funk, rock and reggae rhythms gave her spoken-word origins real depth as she proved that her socially-aware lyrics and astute wordplay weren’t wrongly awarded the Mercury Prize.

Fionn Regan (7/10) a Mercury contemporary of Debelle’s, demonstrated a level of finger-picking which belied the simplicity of his songs, with ‘Dogwood Blossom’ proving a particular highlight.

While Jessie Ware (7/10) is endearing and her empathy towards the crowd is on foot with her professional run-through, she lacks the fire-power needed to really get the crowd raving.

The DJs fitted snugly with the live bands as DJ Food’s (7/10) hip hop and electronica was perfectly matched with some fantastic audio-visuals, DJ Shepdog (9/10) kept the Nova Arms dancing through the drizzle as he dropped reggae, drum and bass and finished with Ann Pebbles ‘I Can’t Stand the Rain’, and Tim love Lee (9/10) tested even the most knowledgeable of musical ears as his set ranged from Alice Russell to Dub Colossus via JStar.

Set of the weekend though came from Soul Jazz Soundsystem (9/10) as they became the perfect foil to those rare moments of Sunday skin-burning sunshine.  The mix of crate-dug funk, seven-inch soul and reggae classics appeased the sodden audience and proved that when Nova aligns with the other elements its a festival that not only works it thrives.  The real shame is that they don’t align often enough over the four days.

It’s common knowledge that cabbie chat should always be taken with a pinch of salt.  Though in the case of Nova it was perhaps telling that two different drivers of the shuttle service from Pulborough train station to the site - impeccably organised it must be said - informs you that there’s been very little word of the event actually taking place in the local area.  As a result the event feels a quarter full on Friday and after pounding rain even less so come Sunday evening.

New festivals surely rely on the local community to support their first steps, if Nova is to become a success – the template of which has already been drawn in 2012 – then they need people through the gates and there’s no better place to start than those already on their doorstep.


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