"You've asked for four things already and you've only been here fifteen minutes."
But you can't blame a young lad on a bright and colourfully fragrant Saturday afternoon in South Yorkshire. Underneath The Stars is that type of festival. Mike 'two jobs' Ainscoe takes up stewarding duties as well as donning the 'adult weekend' wristband (nod nod, wink wink) to provide an alternate look at the fourth Underneath The Stars festival.
It's a festival that in its short lifespan has evolved yet remains a compact and intimate. A case of quality over quantity, although plenty of both. Tinkering with minor alterations in layouts means a familiarity with a difference with the landmark large blue tent that houses the Planets stage at the top of the gentle slope. Dedicated satellites of traders, workshops, crafts and refreshments with an emphasis on local Yorkshire stuff - ice cream and blankets a speciality. Tons to do for the children of which there were plenty with UTSf boasting a strong family friendly ethos; wet, dry, messy, clean and quiet plus the circus skills tent and street theatre performances meant that even those not musically inclined where well catered for where the activities were concerned.
The musical treats included 31 acts across 2 stages, placed side by side and timetabled so that everyone could see everything and if you were extra lucky, you could be camped near Sam Kelly's tent and have The Lost Boys providing a gentle serenade in between. So in no particular order, what might laughingly be called the old guard included the main stage headliners although opening the curtain on Friday afternoon, the pairing of John Tams and Barry Coope epitomised the experience and the class of seasoned performers. The Tams banter and the Coope organ were nothing less than majestic - loved the one about the person who had the cafetiere fitted…
Show Of Hands could be found doing the business as usual on Saturday night and Newton (only using loops on two songs) Faulkner showed why they're acts of headline status. Outstanding musicianship, particularly Phil Beer's multi-instrumental prowess, and Newton throwing in some new songs as well as his own little celebration with the tenth anniversary of his double platinum 'Hand Built By Robots'. Amazing that he might be seen as establishment despite being only early thirties yet he has an integrity about him as well as an orchestra of sounds he cajoles from his acoustic guitar and the various gadgets he kicks into operation.
Kate Rusby, in time honoured fashion, gets to close her own festival and at the same time, despite being a bit nesh and having to don a cardi, celebrate a quarter century in the business. 25 years from when? Something that she got to discuss with best pal Sally during the most entertaining (the short bit I managed to take in prior to a shift) 'an audience with…' addition to this year's programme. Hopefully the cameras recording the lot will have something worth sharing more widely in the not too distant future - maybe one of the sort of celebratory packages that The Unthanks specialise in.
The anniversary cake brandished by her family at the end of her gig and then shared out to a biblical length queue not dissimilar to feeding the five thousand, brought an emotional close to proceedings.
Aside from the established festival favourites were the alarmingly young guns, who frankly (and we know it's not a competition…) stole the show. Sam Kelly, resplendent with his Elsa from 'Frozen' face transfers on either cheek, led his Lost Boys big band (six more joining him) in what was a personally highly anticipated set that confirmed expectations and resulted in a merch queue almost the size of Kate's cake queue. The fizzing 'Greenland Whale' gave more than enough notice that the October release of 'Pretty Peggy' album can't come soon enough. A handful of Lost Boys even joined the delicately red dressed Kitty Macfarlane for her lunchtime set, adding a new twist to her 'Time & Tide' EP songs; hard to believe it was her first 'band' gig but one that suggests it wouldn't be a bad move in the not too distant future.
A quintet made up of a dazzling selection of musicians from countries and bands fairly far and wide, Imar, all bar fiddler Tom Callister, somehow managed to remain seated (Mohsen Amini in particular a livewire animated concertina presence) while playing a vibrant version of Gaelic crossed with Manx folk that proved nigh impossible not to feel carried along by. Their impressive 'Afterlight' album was brought to pulsating life and showcased some absolutely dazzling musicianship - oh yes, in case we hadn't already mentioned.
The BarSteward Sons Of Val Doonican may (but like as well won't) live to regret their name in time and might have had a few people shaking their heads but it was hard not to titter as, for example, the familiar melody of the well known and well covered Marc Cohn hit transformed into a tale of pub toilets and "walking in man piss." Close up you could have even caught a bit of crowd surfing but being mindful not to catch a thread of a knitted tank top.
What might be termed the slow burners included Lucy Rose and Jesca Hoop. The former arriving on a big stage after a rustic backpacking tour in South America, the latter's music described by Tom Waits as "like going swimming at night." A pretty fair description; slightly daunting and scary but ultimately exhilarating. The jury may have been out, some mesmerised, some nonplussed, but undoubtedly an interesting contrast to throw into the mix. Of course, late night festival party animals will need something to help send them to sleep and there was plenty of opportunity to let off some steam at the end of an evening with the strategically placed ass kicking acts rounding off each night.
Sheelanagig did their stuff in a more traditional lively folk sort of way, while The Destroyers rounded off Saturday night in a brash and brassy manner - was that some death metal-y growl-y vocals I heard in the faint distance? The more swing oriented Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra had the task of following Kate Rusby in a relatively calm and sophisticated festival end.
The festival culture often throws up a revelation - the one you haven't heard before that really blows the socks off. At the first UTSf in 2014 it was an encounter with the Treacherous Orchestra and their vibrant energy that turned heads, this year in a similar fashion, Raghu Dixit, complete with an intro sent in by Steve Knightley, had the same effect. While Kitty Macfarlane's guitar may have slightly dwarfed her, Raghu Dixit dominated his instrument fronting his band belting out exhilarating contemporary Indian folk. Bursting with life and colour and a message of positive energy, for the first time the audience were coaxed onto their feet. Embarrassingly or unashamedly, you did as you were told. A far cry from the comfort of the safety net of tradition and alongside Roddy Woomble's alt rock set, proving exactly why UTSf is one that's hard to classify and if truth be told, one that's also hard to beat.Festival Gallery
Mike Ainscoe - words and pictures
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