Approaching the Wychwood music festival for the first time is a slightly bizarre experience. It's in the beautiful grounds of Cheltenham race course, which has a really imposing stand, producing the sensation that one should be wearing a big hat and preparing to shout "move yer blooming arse" at the top of one's voice, rather than trying to figure out which way is upwind from the chemical toilets.
named after a beer but after a forest that used to cover much of the area. And what an area it is. When the sun shone - which it did on Friday evening and a little on Saturday - the scenery was breathtaking. The racetrack's on a gentle slope so you can see for many miles in several directions and was set off by hundreds of standards and pennants fluttering briskly over the campsite, like medieval bunting.
The music was, at first glance, rather long on fellas from the 1970s and up-and-coming acts. 3 Daft Monkeys had already been and gone by the time the tent was pitched and Cornershop were pointing out that everybody needs a bosom for a pillow, which under the circumstances sounded like a missed opportunity for a novelty camping device...
After a warm sunset and a cold beer, the conversation revolved around the programming that put Rook & the Ravens on at the same time as their older, more famous fellow Mancunians, The Charlatans; and whether the squaddy who was upsetting everyone with his alleged stand-up comedy in the BBC tent (eventually getting booed off) would ever be any good? Nothing like a good scrap to raise the interest level.
Wedged in a tent later - the car was parked elsewhere so everything we needed had been decanted - it raised a smile when we figured out that the shouting in the style of Bohemian Rhapsody coming from the other end of the site was the silent disco. Then excitingly - sorry about this, but I couldn't not mention it - in the morning we awoke to discover that a crime against camping had been committed.
The down sleeping bag my friend Sheridan had brought, and which had last seen service in the Australian outback, had burst during the night, turning the inside of the already overstuffed tent into a kind of anaphylactic snowdome. A new one was procured for a tenner locally but I was still looking unusually fluffy several hours later.
Brushing distractedly at my clothing, there was just time to appreciate the sunlit view of a nearby wold with a tree on top shaped like a shark's fin, before the weather started to deteriorate. Welcome distractions from this included a terrific young ukelele band called The Ukelles (above) busking on site instead of revising for their GCSE maths at nearby Bournside school on Monday. Good luck to Sarah White, Francesca Fiorentini and Leah Collins with their fun fun fun. Perhaps someone will give them a stage and a microphone next time?
The first amplified treat of the day was the Eliza Carthy Band, during which Ms Carthy swooped and waltzed around the stage with her fiddle in stately fashion, rhymed vicar with knickers in a song called Wings and caused me to dwell on the lyrics of the epic party song Blood on my Boots. At the risk of getting a wickedly aimed swipe from her bow, I was left puzzled by how the blood gets on the boots? Why would cocaine in your champagne make your nose bleed? Suggestions on an email...**
Then - oh joy! - there was Sarah Savoy, the self-style Cajun queen of white trash, and her Francadians, who appeared to be ruled by her with a rod of iron. She claimed to be six foot two in her floral housecoat and when she sang Folsom Prison Blues it didn't seem entirely implausible that she had once shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. We set out to validate her height claims (see above) by measuring her against a benchmark (Sheridan, right) but I'm scared to post the results. Far safer to say that I was sorry to have missed the cookery demonstration that sometimes accompanies her gigs. You can catch that in Bristol at the beginning of July and possibly at Cecil Sharp House in London on July 1.
I had to stop watching Robyn Hitchcock because his stylised meanderings about what he described as "all this shamanistic stuff" stirred in me a strong desire to punch him in the face. But I expect he gets that a lot. For my lights, he was right up there with the man who spent the weekend shouting about biscuits on a microphone (selling Oreos) as contender for most annoying feature of the festival. Perhaps if he hadn't spoken between songs?
Interesting tidbits of gossip from an unnamed festival source included that the man operating the bouncy slide had turned up with three of the contraptions instead of the one that had been agreed and attempted to bring a small army of people with him, which hadn't gone down very well with the festival organisers and led to threats involving the application of a stanley knife to rubber. Also, I heard that some of the festival staff were staying in accommodation inside the racing stand but that it's designed for jockeys, making it hard to doze off with one's lower legs hanging over the end of the bunks. I was told later - by a reliable source in the queue for the showers - that jockeys' accommodation usually comes with a sauna for last-minute weight loss, so swings and roundabouts.
Saturday evening drew on and I realised that I like Elfynn more every time I see them, and really didn't understand why they weren't on the main stage. And then there was Urusen, over in the BBC Introducing tent, who I first wrote about a couple of years ago and who have recently been recording an album at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios. They generated some real excitement and quite right too: their songs sound as if they are perpetually on the cusp of breaking out into Mumford-style stompers but only get there often enough to leave you wanting more. They were transcendent.
Seeing The Waterboys was also a *significant musical experience* for me. I've owned three of their albums over the years, all of which have been nicked. And as a youngster I read a review of The Whole of the Moon in Melody Maker, by a journalist called Chris Roberts, which made such an impression on me that I thought for the first time that writing for a newspaper might be a good way to earn a living. I can't find a copy of that review anywhere, despite having spent quite some time looking.
So forget Robyn Hitchcock: for shamanistic endeavour Steve Wickham would win hands down. The Waterboys' fiddler looks as if he knows stuff about music, an impression that was enhanced by, as far as I can remember, his saying nothing at all. When they played that song a little knot in my gut undid itself and I might as well have floated off into the night sky. Thank you and a very good night to you too.
On Sunday morning the first thing I really noticed was a man dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow buying coffee, closely followed by a woman dressed as a banana holding hands with a child dressed as a child. There was a 24-hour cafe on the campsite called In the Night Garden, which coupled with the "family friendly" nature of Wychwood and the fact that it's not noticeably any different from any other festival I've been to - just more munchkins - made me wonder whether there is something about festivals that addresses the changing position of children in British society?
I mean, I know it's good for adults and children to enjoy things together but is it right to take children camping in an environment where there is so much drinking going on? And aren't parents making a rod for their own backs by taking their kids somewhere with so much potential for pester power? Every child there, although they were a well-behaved lot, appeared to be in some kind of pricey-looking festival outfit. And what will they do as teenagers to distinguish themselves socially if they've already done the festival circuit with their mums and dads? I just ask the questions...
Roddy Woomble was, I think, mistakenly introduced as Roddy Womble (relating to the above). I had to get closer to the stage to realise that Woomble was the one sitting unassumingly to the side and not, as I'd prejudged, in the middle. His bass player had a lovely Aran waistcoat and when they played a song about Scotland they made it rain. I liked them so much I bought a CD.
Segue of the afternoon was from Woombles to Wurzels. But sadly I missed them doing I've got a brand new combine harvester because I was in the big top tent mesmerised by Chapelier Fou, one of two French acts sent on a grant to show us how it's done over there. He sampled his own fiddle playing, mixed it with electronica and topped it off with perfect English grammar. "I am French. But do not worry: I will not be singing. Please may I have fewer lights?" Carla Bruni would have been proud of the ambassadorial qualities that he and Moussu T et les Jovants - the second French act - displayed. Women appeared involuntarily to gravitate, fascinated, toward Chapelier Fou's brand of uninhibited geekiness, until there was a sizeable crescent of them gathered around the front of the stage.
I tore myself away in time to catch The Wurzels' brilliant version of Ruby (originally by The Kaiser Chiefs), which had a chorus that went Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby, ooh-ah ooh-ah ooh-ah. Laugh? I nearly burst my smocking.
Eddi Reader had told me earlier that she became a musician out of loneliness. "I relied on singing to keep myself company when I was very small. That and the guitar I acquired when I was ten became my lifelong solace and companion through the vagaries of dealing with the human race."
But she's obviously had some practice with people since, for one of her audience was clamouring for her attention so loudly that she told him to take off his fright wig before she did it for him and stuck it up his a*** At that point the wig was tossed on stage, where Reader put it on and then did a passable impression of Susan Boyle singing Memory from Cats. The frightfully drunk owner of the wig was twice seen being escorted form the grounds by security but had clearly dug a tunnel in preparation for this eventuality, as he was back again for the finale.
Transglobal Underground were very exciting. But the last big noise of the weekend for me was ahab, a five-piece country-and-western-style boy band from Hackney and thereabouts - not to be confused with a German "doom metal" outfit of the same name - who were invited to play their first festival at Cropredy last year. Someone had dropped out and a video they'd submitted of themselves busking on Brick Lane was unearthed. Wychwood was only their second festival but they and their plaid shirts stormed the big top and one can very easily imagine a future in which they get taken to the bosom of Nashville. They sing important-sounding songs about girls, do four-part harmony as if they were born to it and come highly recommended by The Glamour Cave.
For them, I should think it was the second of a million festivals.
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** This just in from Eliza Carthy on Twitter: "The blood gets there after the rufie in your drink causes you to fall on your nose. As if my nose needed further squashing."