Wychwood Music Festival 2007
Eclectic selection sets the racecourse pounding
Phil Petty - 06 June 2007
Wychwood Music Festival, the baby WOMAD, now enjoying its third year at the well-tended grounds of Cheltenham racecourse makes a refreshingly laid-back opener to the festival season. Its pleasant village-fete-run-by-hippies vibe harks back to the good old festival days before corporate branding, big-name acts and mass-media coverage covered the weekend.
Forget crowds, queues and cross-country treks between stages; Wychwood’s main arena is barely bigger than a football pitch, with the Big Ask second stage, Wickwar third stage (a glorified-beer-tent) and the cluster of workshop tents which offer everything from tango lessons to performance poetry – all within easy staggering distance.
Former rock champs still on fine form dominate Friday night’s racecard. Ian Hunter declines to play ‘All The Young Dudes’, the hit he and Mott The Hoople borrowed from Bowie in 1972, but shares 70s gems ‘Once Bitten Twice Shy’ and ‘All The Way From Memphis’ with us. Next up is Robyn Hitchcock, whose Venus 3 includes ex-REM man Peter Buck, giving a surreal twist to some mildly diverting 80s-style indie.
But the real crowd pleasers tonight are headliners The Levellers. The style police may’ve condemned them long ago as middle-class soap-dodgers with a taste for crude sloganeering, but put aside those prejudices and you have one of Britain’s top live bands, with a verve that belies any ‘has-been’ tag. Old favourites ’15 years’ and ‘One Way’ gets the crowd bouncing and, with the help of folky fellow travellers 3 Daft Monkeys, they fiddle up a storming finale with ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’.
The Big Ask tent is the after-hours setting for Club Wychwood, but lack of volume (for fear of annoying the neighbours) makes the atmosphere more ‘knackered stereo’ than ‘pumping sound system’. Elsewhere, the cross-dressing fire jugglers draw a big crowd and the Wickwar bar serves foaming Stagefright ale till the early hours. In the Groovy Movie tent, crusty comedienne Hattie Hat-Star regales the pissed and stoned with an accordion song called, rather aptly, ‘I’m pissed and stoned’. For some reason, her debut album ‘Buy My CD or I’ll Punch Your Lights Out’ isn’t currently available in HMV.
Saturday morning is the nice-but-dull singer songwriter slot on the main stage, Brett Dennen being followed by Ben Taylor – who seems destined to be forever tagged ‘son of James Taylor and Carly Simon’. But weather-wise it’s a scorcher, and, for a large, thirtysomething chunk of the crowd, the music seems secondary to the serious business of spreading out the picnic rugs and pushchairs to enjoy a boozy, all-day family picnic.
Barcelona band Go Lem System liven up the lunchtime crowd with a nice line in bouncy, brassy, latin-tinged ska, but in search of shade we head for the Wickwar, where acoustic ensemble Agents Of Jane play some pleasantly mellow, Nick Drake-esque folk. In the afternoon heat we catch Camera Obscura, a Scottish jangly indie band so loved by the late John Peel that he booked them for his 65th birthday bash. Singer Traceyanne Campbell’s troupe are as rocking as a convention of particularly unassuming librarians, but their songs have a melodic sweep and a melancholic, epic pop undertone.
At the ever-eclectic Wychwood it’s only a short step from Scottish pop on the main stage to Indian classical music in the Big Ask Tent, where Anoushka Shankar’s sitar masterclass gets a rapturous response.
The late afternoon brings Badly Dressed Boy, Damon Gough, to the main stage in a scruffy brown jacket and tea-cosy hat despite the heat. He’s a hit-and-miss performer and songs like ‘All Possibilities’ come over as lightweight MOR. Apologising for the latter’s use in a Comet ad (‘Go buy a Hoover’ he deadpans), he redeems himself with heartfelt piano renditions of ‘Silent Sigh’ (which morphs into a strangely effective cover of Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin') and ‘Pissing in the Wind’.
Come early evening and The Wickwar tent is an apt place to catch pub-rock chancers The Random, who lure us in with tight, driving rock, only to nosedive into cliché with a cringingly contrived ‘wave your lighters’ power ballad.
Later we spot The Random lads in the crowd for main-stage headliners Fun Lovin’ Criminals, perhaps seeking tips on how to balance macho guitar posturing with a bit of silky soul (Barry White-tribute ‘Love Unlimited’) or rumbling hip-hop. Apart from the big hits ‘Scooby Snacks’ and theme tune ‘(stick em up punk it’s the…) Fun Lovin’ Criminals’, the Crims don’t quite catch fire, but their Noo Yoik att-it-tood and jazzy, laid-back grooves are cool enough to soothe all the sunburn sufferers.
Ironically, complaints about noise silence the world’s quietest disco, Club Wychwood, on Saturday night. While Friday’s tunes were barely audible, the same isn’t true tonight as the truckload of whistles, given out by sponsor BBC Asian Network, protest the string of tonight's cancelled Asian DJs. This leaves the hard-core ravers reduced to frugging half-heartedly to the disco sounds supplied by the toasted sandwich stall, as you do.
What better way to start a hung-over festival Sunday morning than with a bracing blast of thrash metal, lightened, in a twist of mad genius, by a pop-reggae brass section and a dash of polka? It’s a concoction that shouldn’t work, but, thanks to the sheer youthful brio of main-stage openers Magic Skool Bus – it most definitely does. These six punks barely in their 20s wake the old hippies with a storming performance that leaves us grinning at the sheer audacity of it all.
There’s a lull in the afternoon as Tobias Froberg, a Scandinavian singer songwriter wetter than a rainy Sunday in the fjords, is followed on the main stage by Eliza Carthy and her secret guest Ed Harcourt. Both are highly talented performers, but also dampen the sunny festival vibes with hardcore slit-your-wrists folk ballads, Carthy warning us jokily: ‘I’m going to sing sad songs to send you to sleep thinking about death.’
Dance-dub veterans Zion Train break the spell, getting Observer readers to put down the paper and shuffle their feet to some infectious, drum-and-bass driven dub.
Bands that mix and match genres and cultural influences with a similarly gleeful abandon are the order of the rest of the day. GhettoPlotz, in The big Ask tent, live up to their billing as ‘Fatboy Slim meets a Jewish Wedding’, as they blend traditional Klezmer music with irresistibly dancey beats. On the main stage, Ba Cissoko from Guinea underpin traditional griot and kora sounds – a lute like instrument with a wonderfully melodic, harp-like resonance – with reggae beats.
We round off our festival jumping up and down to Balkan Beat Box who whip pounding hip-hop beats (live and sampled) with saxophone, Middle Eastern melodies and heavy bass to create a world-beating combination on the main stage before Afro Celt Sound System close proceedings with their winning fusion of dance, Celtic and African rhythms.
Their philosophy of ‘a music and planet without borders’ is an apt reflection of Wychwood’s appeal. While rough around the edges organisation-wise and a little too hooked on predictable folk, the sheer range of styles, genres, ages and influences packed onto Wychwood’s three days leaves many bigger, mainstream indie-rock festivals looking decidedly pale and insular.