Big Session Festival 2009: Rated!
De Montfort Hall, Leicester - 19-21 June
23 June 2009
Overall - 9/10
Big Session is now in its fifth year and over that time the event has carved out a cosy niche on the periphery of the folk music scene. It successfully combines the Arran sweaters, leather tankards and fiddle-aye-diddle-aye-oh of the traditionalist with outlandish modern things like synthesizers, crisps and fizzy lager.
Combine this with site organisation that quite literally is second to none, a fantastic kids setup, and a great little site and you have the makings of a festival that, not only that you could take your kids to, but probably your Nan too. This is the ultimate family friendly event and a good way to ease into festivals for those scared of camping and long drops, and its all the better for it.
Big Session also leads with real green credentials. While other festivals get by on blarney and green wash, it’s clear the organisers take the environment very seriously. Site recycling is thorough and well organised, to the extent that recycling points are manned by helpful souls telling you what to put where. All glasses are recyclable, as are plates and cutlery; free containers for fag butts are available to all punters, as is advice from the carbon trust and Friends of the Earth. This, my friends, is how it should be done.
Getting there and back - 9/10
The site is basically slap bang in the middle of Leicester, which makes it highly accessible by plane train and automobile. There’s easy access from the M1, a train station just down the road, and East midlands Airport less than an hour away. You could split hairs, and argue that the festival isn’t particularly well signposted, but only because De Montfort Hall is. You’d have to be blindfolded to miss it.
The Site - 10/10
Let’s face it, “the centre of Leicester” is not a phrase to inspire confidence in a festival location, but this works. Once on site and away from the road you could be anywhere. The festival bustles with your common or garden festy-tat stalls, while there’s enough choice in food to keep everyone from a vegan to a Vogon happy.
At one end of the site is the Big Top stage, while a short distance away is the Orange Tree Stage, combining real ale and cider with some of the smaller acts at the event. To the other side is De Montfort Hall, providing the basic stage at the event, a bar, and such wonders as indoor toilets. Part of the success of this festival is how well this barn of a building fits in with the event, feeling very much more like the heart of the festival, rather than an afterthought. It’s also fantastic when it rains.
Behind the main hall is the kid’s area, where self confessed nutter Dr Colin and his minions will tire your kids out for free. In one of his darker moments, Dr Colin confessed to me that he’s once unicycled off a cliff by mistake. Although this fact has no direct bearing on this review, it is nonetheless a fact worth knowing.
Atmosphere - 8/10
If jump up drum and bass Babylon with music at ear-bleeding volume, is your idea of a good time, this may not be the one for you. The pace of this one is relaxed, with bedtime at a point when some stages are just getting started.
And this is why it works. Big Session isn’t an awkward compromise between an adult and kids festival, but one where the whole thing rubs along with a smile on its face, no one is ever less than friendly, while the DMH staff are always plea sent. Security especially is a revelation, wandering around site asking if people are ok, or if they’d like any help with anything.
True, that random lunatic element is missing and sometimes the atmosphere feels a bit staid, but you know that there are other festivals for that, so I for one will carry on going to Glade and bring my 10 year old daughter right here.
The Levellers - 8/10
If you go to festivals, I’m guessing you’ve seen the Levellers, and I’m guessing you’ve seen them a lot. I’m guessing that you’ve heard most of their set too – probably mostly in the same order. Basically you know what you’re going to get with the Levellers, and so long as they’ve been restrained from the pop before they get on stage they rarely disappoint. Tonight they’re on form, though the sound is in places a bit ropey, but the audience doesn’t seem to care that much – a triumph, it seems, of clogs over clarity.
Blyth Power - 7/10
Singing tunes on subjects ranging from the Cold War to bricklaying to Mary Queen of Scots setting fire to Protestants. At times it feels like wilfully obscure thrash mandolin punk rock combined with trainspotting and a really nice cup of tea (in a cup and saucer). It’s hard to dislike, but it’s sometimes hard to take in too, as your confused brain tries to take in the link between eels and bed-wetting that the highly entertaining singer (and drummer) Joseph Porter has just expounded.
The Shee - 5/10
Awesomely talented and unremittingly dull. Like Magnolia paint, but with really good covering qualities.
Otis Gibbs - 9/10
An absolute revelation. Scary country and music trailer park resident complete with Southern drawl, epic beard, red neck and redder politics. I hate country music – I hate it with a passion that passes all understanding, but I love this. Otis sings songs about love and loss with a human passion and wit you see a few times in a lifetime. You are also left with the distinct impression that this guy would be the best houseguest ever. His banter between songs is frequently hilarious and his stories range from being mistaken for a homeless person in Frankfurt to attending the least successful anti-war rally in Indiana. Fantastic.
Eliza Carthy – 9/10
Winner of no fewer than two Mercury prize nominations, more folk gongs than any other woman alive and also some swimming certificates, Eliza Carthy, daughter of all round genius Martin Carthy and folk doyenne Norma Waterson has go to be the safest bet at the festival.
She doesn’t disappoint. With a new (and stunning) band, Eliza Carthy combines incredible virtuosity (is there any instrument this woman can’t play?) with songs that drip with emotion. Yes, true, all the songs are about fair maids hanging themselves in barns, but you can’t make folk songs about happy things – thems the rules, everyone knows that.
Adrian Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds – 6/10
I don’t care what you say, Its Vivien from the Young Ones with less hair and a mandolin.
Billy Bragg – 9/10
God bless Billy Bragg. God bless him and all who sail in him. A national institution, he’s been knitting yoghurt, upsetting the Daily Mail and telling it like it is since I were a lad. Tonight’s set is a stormer. The tunes you’d expect to hear are all there, ‘Which Side’, ‘Power In The Union’ and ‘Milkman Of Human Kindness’ but there are others I’ve not heard him play for years ‘Between the Wars’ gets a rare outing, belted out with a passion that sees half the audience in tears (me included) while ‘New England’ raises the roof.
It’s all delivered with passionate zeal. For an hour it really is 1984 again, and the red wedge is flying. There are a few times in your life when you can say, “I was there.” This Billy Bragg gig was one of mine.
I’m not entirely sure that Big Session is a festival where you get you get a great deal of randomness, and this year was no exception. I did hear that someone was spotted reading a paper that wasn’t the Guardian at one point, but I can’t confirm that for sure.
By Simon Butler