United Kingdom | 21 July 2009
Larmer Tree is a cosy, polite, well-oiled festival that's been running for nearly two decades, but this year, with fields churned up like they'll never see grass again, it feels like there's something missing, writes Kate Rose.
Overall - 7/10
Laid back, chilled out little Larmer Tree is a cosy, polite, well-oiled festival that’s been running for nearly two decades. The programme promises a variety of world music, folk, storytelling, comedy, belly dancing and crafts but although all the ingredients are there for a blissed out weekend, it feels like there’s something missing. Almost every year since it began, the weather has been glorious and the abundance of green grass on which to lay a picnic mat, while listening to happy fiddlers and samba bands has suited it to a T. But this year, the fields are churned up like they’ll never see grass again and those poor souls who don’t find wellies for sale have to contend with exceedingly muddy tents. Despite the rain, people are determined to enjoy themselves and when a band comes on with some upbeat music, the audience is ecstatic. Unfortunately the line-up doesn’t provide enough of this and as one cheery soul commented on Sunday afternoon: “It just hasn’t really picked up yet has it?”
Getting There and Back - 7/10
If you’re in a car, it’s an easy ride, once off the A-road you follow the brown flower signs like a lovely little treasure hunt, over the hills, round little country lanes until you find Larmer Tree Gardens. If you’ve got no car though, things are a little trickier; a taxi will set you back around £30 from the nearest train station or the limited bus services will drop you off a couple of miles away. But whatever you do, make sure you get to the gate before the wristband exchangers go home for the night or your valid weekend ticket won’t get you in to see what’s making those exciting festival sounds.
The Site - 7/10
Amid peacocks, parrots and Tudor buildings, the Larmer Tree Gardens are a beautiful, if rather small setting for a festival. There are several stages dotted around including a permanent one on the lawn, with a painted backdrop giving the illusion of a sunny, carefree day, even when the rain just won’t stop. There are huge enchanting wooden thrones in the lost wood, children attempting to unicycle, tents where magical stories are told, a mobile disco to boogie to and a comedy tent to provide hearty laughs. But without being able to sit on the grass, the site lacks enough comfy areas to kick back and relax in-between bands.
Atmosphere - 7/10
The festival relies on the safe combination of its setting, the stalls and commissioned artists to provide additional fun but it doesn’t push any boundaries. The art installations have limited interest and, with the exception of an octopus and some camels, the Sunday carnival parade is largely made up of lost adults in Blue Peter-inspired costumes. Nevertheless Larmer Tree is still worthy of its ‘Best Family Festival’ accolade (UK Festival Awards 2008), with toddlers, teenagers and adults all wearing smiles, some beaming, some chilled out, but you’d be hard pressed to find a scowl. This is a festival to bring a chair to, and those who do are laughing.
Kanda Bongo Man - 9/10
After a long, wet, gloopy Friday, Kanda Bongo Man, with his happy hip wiggling music and legendary Congalese moves, just hits the spot. The one woman singing and dancing on stage with him is the most cheerful hip mover of all and inspires the audience to try to move like her too. Surely no one else can be that fun, sexy and happy in one go, but that’s okay; by the end of the first song, no one cares what they look like anyway.
Peatbog Faeries - 8/10
Another sure-fire winner for an audience in need of a good dance are Saturday’s main stage headliners the Peatbog Faeries, who get everyone on their feet with their kilted bouncing and fantastic mix of funky beats and celtic music to jump around to. The night is cold but the audience is pleasantly warm despite the continuous drizzle.
Zong Zing All Stars - 8/10
“Are you happy everybody?” the Zong Zings keep shouting out “Wooh yeah” the excitable audience replies, this is what they’ve been waiting for! Happy, bouncy bongo rhythms accompany guitars and voice as their front man encourages numerous silly dance moves that no-one would try on their own. “Today is a great day – it’s Sunday!” they say and how can anyone disagree?
Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain - 7/10
Their style doesn’t change as the years go by but you can count on them to provide humorous versions of a wide variety of strange hits – the pick this weekend being Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ but instead of high, female, wispy-whining, this version is sung in a heavy South Yorkshire accent by a man.
Wilson Dixon - 9/10
An absolute gem in the comedy lounge on Saturday night are the silly songs and inane chatter that come from the voice and guitar of Wilson Dixon. The country singer from Colorado pokes earnest and innocent fun at life and love in the USA and has the whole tent guffawing.
Rokia Traoré - 6/10
Rokia Traoré is a fantastic singer, backed up by very talented musicians, and she is rightly billed as one of the greatest contemporary voices in Africa today. But on Saturday, her set feels over-rehearsed and although her music does get itself going, it takes it’s time.
Coolhand Luke - 2/10
The apple-eating juggler’s big finale involves teasing the audience about whether or not he can swallow fire, “It’s really hot,” he says with a goofy grin as he backs out of another attempt. People give him a go because he’s been on Britain’s Got Talent, he’s got a cheeky smile and he fools them into thinking he’s got something clever up his sleeve. He hasn’t.
Throughout the weekend, festival-goers are treated to their own personal concert, by cupping their hands over their ears, closing their eyes and listening to the eerily beautiful sounds travelling up their bones as tuning forks are placed on their elbows in careful intervals by the elbow orchestra.
By Kate Rose.