Hard to believe that Underneath The Stars is now five years old. Five? Years? as a well known Bolton comedian would say. He wasn't in attendance although Jason Manford was; returning for a guest appearance a la 2017 and jumping up on stage with Kate Rusby on the Sunday night apparently…I didn't see as I had my hands full with the glass returns. However, true to UTSf form, FATEA was represented by our multi-tasking roving reporter who managed to fit in three bar shifts, pull a whole load of pints, wash even more glasses and keep an eye on some of the action around the site and in the music tents as well.
A new site it was too, with the action shifting across a few fields to Cinder Hill Farm, where, if you were lucky you could hear a faint peal of bells form the church in Cawthorne and the occasional cow in distant fields. Plenty of opportunity as well to get close to nature and explore the locale with footpaths through fields and woods. Celebrity camping too, next to David Kosky of 'Mystery Inch' fame and a chance to (a) meet the monkey from the album cover and (b) get the full story behind the album title from the horse's mouth.
Musically, it was a bill that seemed to broaden its palette including the usual Pure Records suspects alongside musicians from Syria, Europe, the USA and of course, tons of homegrown talent in various forms. What Nancy Kerr called a "diverse and inspired" line up. All taking place in what's now become the familiar Planets and Little Lights stages surrounded by concessions to a bewildering and mouthwatering selection of street food and arts and crafts and activities for the younger festival goers, including massive bubbles floating across the site and a non playing Greg Russell, wearing his story teller's hat rather than a guitar.
Friday night saw Steve Earle reminding those who only know him from 'Copperhead Road' that there's so much more to him than one song and provided the first and the lasting highlight of the weekend. Paired with the rambunctious Grace Petrie causing a stir in the Little Lights tent whilst also earning several more new fans as she does wherever she goes with her sharp insight and cutting wit, it was just left to Howlin Ric & The Rocketeers to seal the deal with the first of the late night high octane sets programmed for anyone with calories still to burn.
The contrast of homegrown - fall out of bed into the campsite local, Jack Rutter and a handy South Yorkshire gig for the Melrose Quartet, with the Southern Gothic Amythyst Kiah and the world music offerings of Maya Youssef with her unusual instrument highlighting the plight of her homeland of Syria, typified the breadth of the programme. The EstBel quartet (from Estonia and Belgium naturally) suggested viewing their Estonian singing as Gaelic to feel more at home while The Stables duo sounded not very far from a stripped back Keston Cobblers Club; not surprising with Matthew Lowe falling not too far from the tree as he paired up with Daniel Trenholme.
Aside from Steve Earle, transatlantic offerings came from Laura Cortese and the lively Yves Lambert Trio - one of those inspirational Quebecois outfits - and then Ron Block joined Damien O'Kane for a blast through a selection form their 'Banjophony' album. With amiens' sharp haircut and Ron's baggy cap it was like a scene from 'Peaky Blinders', the duo flanked by a star studded quintet included Stevie Byrnes and Mike McGoldrick with Duncan Lyall providing a deep bottom end.
A handful of spoken word with musical interludes over the festival came from Andy Kershaw, Joanne Harries and the new Morecambe & Wise/Two Ronnies/name any comedy duo, pairing of Kate (Rusby) & Sal(ly Smith) having a semi prepped best friends yarn with musical items. Lapsing into recreating their childhood photos and donning a curly wigs and sharing big bloomers, it's a pairing that seems set to run. If you've not read Andy's 'No Off Switch', the live show picks choice bits along with requests shouted from the floor - a fun one had him talking about his 'ghost of electricity' work of Dylan in '66 with his rant about the Free Trade Hall now being a hotel ("a Radisson Blu - without an 'e'!!). His hope that he returns next year with the further adventures would be most welcome.
Naturally, it was hard to avoid Kate Rusby. We're getting spoiled. Aside from her 'yarn', she joined the Barnsley Youth Choir for a stunning 'Bold Riley' before her own festival closing set. Mike McGoldrick and Ron Block also made cameo appearances and anyone who was in the bar (with me…) might have missed Kate's latest starry themed frock creation. 'Big Brave Bill' (the song) as well as Big Brave Bill (the real life superhero) featured, the latter taking a brief break from washing glasses (true!) as his theme song kicked in. However, whether Kate needs to change the lyric from referencing Cannon Hall Park to the new site - we'll see…next year - first weekend of August, take note.
Mike Ainscoe - Words & Pictures (additional pictures can be found the Underneath The Stars Festival Gallery
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