Just back from No Direction Home, a lovely three day festival in Sherwood Forest – and feeling oddly invigorated rather than knackered, which is unusual after a festival – and seems particularly counterintuitive when you consider that this festival took place in a weekend during which Britain was so thoroughly soaked that it was almost lost to the sea.
Oddly, however, the Welbeck Estate stayed pretty much dry, and by a miraculous quirk of fortune I managed to pitch our tent on a bit of even ground. Consequently we stayed dry, slept well, drank with something approaching moderation, and ate regularly and expensively at the many excellent food stalls. So I’m not dead, but rather buzzing with excitement after a few utterly idyllic days and a bunch of awesome bands.
A potted set of highlights and observations, then:
- First, what an amazing site. Compared to End of the Road at the Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, the festival is significantly more compact and even rather prettier; it’s a less fenced-in site, making it easier and more rewarding to wander off, and the lakeside setting and accompanying wildlife (skylarks, swifts, martins and owls) were so beautiful and rewarding that it was frequently more tempting to grab a pint of Welbeck Abbey Red Feather and sit by the water, than it was to watch another band.
- Second, once again, the on-site amenities were perfect. Three small stages, with the performance times perfectly scheduled, making it almost possible to catch every single band on the bill; a beautiful comedy and literature yurt; and an absolutely charming pop-up cinema (where we watched ‘Some Like It Hot’ in preference to catching Dirty Three, and where Woodpigeon provided a lovely score to Charlie Chaplin’s surprisingly angry ‘Modern Times’ – which made up for a slightly underwhelming solo set from their Mark Hamilton earlier in the day). Besides all that there were bookshops, vintage clothes stores, a branch of Rough Trade and tons of great places to eat. Perfectly judged.
- When buying my ticket a few months back I half-wondered if I hadn’t had my fill of folk-bands; I’ve seen a lot over the last few years and the bands that jumped out at me on the bill were at the rockier end; Mikal Cronin, The Wave Pictures and Veronica Falls. But actually the line-up worked perfectly; folk, a smattering of electronica, a few big guitars, some amazing new bands and a few unique performances (in particular, The Unthanks‘ extraordinary link up with the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band, which saw them further mining their interest in northern cultural history and the poetry of the pits).
- Who was good then? New stuff is always most exciting, I think, so I had a brilliant time watching a few bands new to me. Laura J Martin stood out as being incredible playful and adventurous, taking as her starting point some post-Kate Bush warbling but adding clattering drums, mandolin, and layer upon layer of sampled flutes. It was an extraordinary, slightly surreal experience watching her construct explosive little symphonies from the most unlikely of components. She stood cheerfully signing CDs afterwards, clearly delighted at having delighted so many.
Rachael Dadd was similarly great; dangerously close to conforming to twee-folk stereotypes at first glance, but standing out because her interests and approach (which incorporate steel drums played by her husband Ichi) naturally draw even the most sceptical of audience members in. Her abiding interest seems to be Japanese culture, gleefully drawing on a distant society, and, by the end, she was populating an entire song with the recipe for Oni Guri, and beguiling everyone in the process.
Also really liked Seamus Fogarty, who summoned up aspects of traditional folk music, US troubadours like Neil Young and Townes Van Zandt and his label-mates at Fence to provide good-hearted, quiet and sometimes funny ruminations on life. I was very taken with some of his lines, not least “I woke up in Chicago early on Christmas morn / with a woman who worked as a spy”, which is as lovely a set up to a song as you’ll hear.
And best of all the new artists I saw was Nat Johnson & The Figureheads, who played a pitch-perfect set of harmonious indie rock, recalling ‘Stories of the City’ era PJ Harvey and The Long Blondes, while every now and again invoking gloriously fuzzy Pavement-esque guitar riffs. They were poised, energetic, blessed with song after song, and deserve to sell lots of records.
- Saw some great stuff in the literature and comedy yurt too; Jon Ronson gave a characteristically charming reading of his Psychopath Test stuff, as well as casting further comedic light on the (surely unarguable) case for AA Gill’s criminal insanity. Mick Jackson, whose novel ‘The Underground Man’ had a seismic impact on me when I first read it in 1997, talked about the book, which was set at the Welbeck Estate, and he cast light on the network of underground tunnels which snaked through the ground beneath us. The only real disappointment was a very uncomfortable, boorish appearance by a drunk Josie Long (who I normally love) and a humourless friend, who performed an extended karaoke set prior to Robin Ince’s book club, which managed to do the impossible (make a Herman Dune song sound unwelcome) and eventually drive us out into the night, perplexed by the laddishness, excessive volume, affection for Weezer and, most pressingly, her co-host’s inept rape joke, which tipped the balance for us. Very depressing – but out of character, I think.
- More happily, we saw some superb performances from the regular suspects; from The Wave Pictures, Beth Jeans Houghton, Django Django, Spectrals, Martin Carthy and Euros Childs (who lucked out with the first real sun of the weekend setting over his glorious psych-pop). Two performances really stood out; Josh Tillman, playing as Father John Misty, played a ludicrously confident, charismatic set of acoustic country-pop. Slightly camp, very hilarious and deeply handsome, he could have left with anyone in the audience, I suspect. David Thomas Broughton was similarly engaging, if not quite so bloody sexy, but he once again captivated the crowd with a performance as funny as it was gifted, as troubling as it was proficient. Very impressed, as always. He’s one of pop’s more interesting, evocative lyricists.
- Hard not to mention beer. The End of The Road organisers are always scrupulous in sourcing decent ale for their festivals and, despite a tendency to under-order in terms of quantity, they did a great job here. My favourites were the afore-mentioned Red Feather, a very nutty session beer brewed on the premises, and the Bradfield Farmers Blonde, a very pale and floral beer. Of the various bars on site, the Boathouse gets the thumbs-up from me by virtue of their insanely friendly staff and habit of shouting ‘Tip Tip Hooray’ every time they get a tip. Ever eager to please, I think I tipped them about eight quid over the course of the weekend. Lots of hoorays.
- Two more artists who seemed to effortlessly personify the No Direction Home vibe were also on grand form. Liz Green’s talent is palpably natural – she has an effortlessly perfect voice, a wry and arch writing style and can even, it turns out, play a mean trumpet solo without a trumpet (seriously; close your eyes and you’ll hear brass – open them and you’ll see her trying not to laugh while she parps merrily out of the side of her mouth… if you’ll forgive the image). She also works with a band capable of adding texture to her songs with the most glorious instrumentation. The combination of Green’s jazz vocal, a be-turbaned sax player and a double bassist in a tweed jacket and adidias short might put some off; but it would be a hasty judgement. Great stuff. Trembling Bells, meanwhile, are a rather old-fashioned folk group, taking their lead from 60s and 70s British folk-rock, but live they’re forceful, immediate and somehow very modern – this is folk music a very long way from pastiche. Instead they deal in heavy, detailed, free-form visionary music. Unexpectedly they were perhaps the loudest band I saw all weekend.
- …with the exception of Mikal Cronin, who closed the festival. Wow, these guys are good. After lots of ruminative, esoteric folk and pop, the decision to employ Cronin’s band to blow away the cobwebs was masterful. Their music is super-powerful; skewed, loose indie rock twinned with blasts of urgent psych-garage. Watching their delightful, cleansing set was a bit like being placed in front of a massive, nuclear-powered fan. Great great fun. And the joyfulness of their vibrant indie rock seemed to energise a flagging crowd, who yelled jokes and sparred with the band between songs. At one point, while they were tuning up, a moth flew on stage and was briefly illuminated in Cronin’s spotlight. “A moth! A moth!” the crowd gleefully yelled. The band, who had previously boasted of their acid intake, looked bemused.
- Lastly it would be remiss not to share another couple of key ingredients of a super weekend; first off, as always, a festival is a million times better when you’re there with people you love (and I was) and always a winner when every single person you come across, whether staff, performers or audience, seems to share that same expression of delight, good cheer and peacefulness.
So a hearty congratulations to the organisers for putting together a seriously brilliant festival. Will be there next year.
If I’ve missed anything above, do leave a comment below.