We played our first ever major summer festival at Standon Calling, in the middle of the rolling hills and farmland of Hertfordshire, about an hour's drive north of London's city centre. One of the smaller major festivals - a capacity of around 10,000 festival goers - it's 3 days of music, fun, revelry, making friends and dancing - a kind of mini Glastonbury, but this year, without the mud. It's dog and family friendly and the site was laid out like a little village to the theme of the "Legend of the Lost Seas", so, lots of shacks and bars based on shipwrecks or with a maritime flavour. The Main Stage headliners were Suede, Jess Glynne and Kelis on consecutive nights with sub-liners The Hives, Everything Everything and Anna Calvi, with other notable acts such as Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth on the Laundry Stage and a gamut of Drum'n'Bass notables such as Goldie in the Big Top. The nightclub shacks, The Cowshed and The Doghouse would ensure the party kept going until 6am each day!
Martyn Hall, who, as sound engineer extraordinaire, does front-of-house for such acts as Biffy Clyro, The Editors, UB40 and Black Orchid Empire was one of the people running a new promotions company called Octopia and had secured a brand new stage for this virgin venture (the Octopia Stage) at the 2016 Standon Calling Festival. I knew Martyn from the RE:HAB open mic nights in London and he asked me if the band could play at this festival. I felt elated and grateful as Martyn only books good acts and we would be in the presence of some fine Octopia Stage headliners - indie heavyweights such as The Carnabys, Black Orchid Empire and Recreations (aka Sam Duckworth) as well as some really polished bands and solo performers. Now I've played a good number of festivals, but never a major. So what if it took me 55 years to get there? I'd made a point of booking a lot of practice time at UKLiveSound studios in Reading as, with seeing who was on the bill, we needed some polish and I didn't want us to sound like a pub band.
Now, it's been a very long time since I'd been to a major festival - my last was when I had a local act slot a small stage at WOMAD in 2006 and before that it was as a 19 year-old at the Reading Festival in 1980; our drummer, Will wasn't even born then. I wondered if this 50-something could still take the hard partying, the lack of sleep and the rigors of camping in a small tent when having been so used to a comfortable double bed. But I decided to rise to the challenge and did a long round trip from London to Reading (to pick up Neil, our 50-something blues harp player) and on to Ware in Hertfordshire in a 15-year old Renault Clio overloaded with guitars, bottles of beer and camping equipment.
Admin at the festival wasn't ready for us when Neil and I arrived on the Thursday afternoon, in preparation to play at the open mic. during the Welcome Feast. We were the first artists to arrive and were soon followed by Kelis herself. We had a short conversation with her - she's very pleasant and friendly - until a buggy came for her and whisked her away 5 minutes later. We waited another 2 hours before we could get our wristbands. Thankfully, it wasn't cold or raining. Now the the first thing you should do before camping is to check your tent and equipment. I made it easy for myself by buying a 2-man festival tent from Decathlon, one of these that literally springs out of the bag in 2 seconds and are easy to peg down, but is tiny for one man of my size! I had to sleep diagonally across the tent to stop my feet at the bottom of my 6'1" frame from sticking out of the tent. The Trades Description Act and a possible complaint immediately came to mind! Neil had a 4-man family tent which was much more practical, but had bits missing. I, fortunately had bought extra pegs so he was OK in the end. However, the ground was as hard as a whore's heart and so the my 2 minutes became 90 minutes of battering, re-adjusting and re-battering pegs into a hard and stony ground with a rubber mallet, now useless. To top it all, Neil's inflatable mattress was missing a very important piece and so wouldn't inflate, which made for a very spartan few days for him. As we pitched our tents in the crew camping area, we were soon meeting kindred spirits, crew and artists, dogs and dog-owners alike, becoming popular with our tea-making skills on a single-ring butane burner. We met a lady called Julia, part of the 'cashless top-up' crew who had a beautiful golden retriever called Bella who had a dyed pink tail in festival spirit (not what I would have done to my dog, but as it was properly done by a hairdresser, not harm done I suppose), who'd come to our tent daily demanding petting and food!
First day of the festival and the rain poured down hard. The ground was so hard that the result was rivers and torrents flowing down to the main site. It didn't deter the singers of sea shanties in the form of the City Shanty Band, who entertained all and sundry from The Clocktower with some traditional and some not-so-traditional offerings, some very funny and non-PC.
However Will, our drummer arrived on the Saturday night with his partner, Rachel who was on the guest list, which the admin staff seemed to have lost.Will got his wristband but was told that arriving at 10pm was a bit late and there was no one around to accredit his guest, so she could go home and come back the following morning. Rachel was for none of it and persisted until she finally got her guest wristband at 2am after a four hour wait. They pitched their tent and go into bed at 2:30am, just as it started to rain.
The Thursday night open mic in the Octopia tent and stage went well, especially 'post-lubrication' and Neil sat in for a couple of tunes on Sam Henwood's set after midnight. A wonderful soul singer/pianist , Phoebe Katis won the open mic prize which was to have a 30 minute slot on the Friday night. I guess she nailed it by her out-of-this-world flawless rendition of Carole King's "Natural Woman". She also ran the 'Toastie' shack and made great toasted sandwiches. needless to say, she brought her staff with her to her gig on Friday and one of them, Sam, even came in on guitar during her set, which was expertly executed.
The Octopia tent and stage weren't where they were supposed to be. They were supposed to be at the entrance to main arena from the general camping area. For some reason, the location was changed at the last minute by the Standon Calling organisers without notifying the Octopia team, re-positioning the (sizable) marquee a good 200 metres outside the main arena and away from the festival entrance. We knew numbers would be down as the public would miss the stage, no longer at the main entrance. There are probably 'political' reasons as to why this was which I won't go into here, but as the Octopia Stage was only given the briefest of mentions at the back of the festival brochure and the briefest of online promotion, it says a lot. Octopia even had to fight to get the most basic of facilities, which was, in my opinion, utterly unforgivable. So, the production team, instead of concentrating on the artists, had to go around the festival handing out leaflets to festival goers most of the weekend. When we played on a sunny Saturday evening, there was an audience of around 50. It should have been around 300. But, as artists, we get on with the job. However, one good thing was that the Crossbill Gin Bar, a bar made out of a horse box and towed all the way to site from Aviemore in the North of Scotland made sublime G&T's and was essential as it was the only bar near to the Octopia Stage. Needless to say i visited often and my bank balance suffered.
However, this had the effect that the hard core music fans would seek out Octopia and then stay there as all the bands were tight and professional, the equipment excellent and the live sound, run by Martyn Hall and Jim DeBarker was, in my opinion, the best of all the stages. A silver lining, however slight.
I stayed around Octopia for most of the Friday performances, which were as different as each other; Belgian uke/singer-songwriter Nele Needs A Holiday opened and, with her quirky mix of poignant and funny autobiographical female-oriented stories had us roaring with laughter one minute and close to tears the next. I heard great sets from Habitat, Moth Trap and a bit later, Burnz before having to go and organise a few things, then at night saw The Hives who, although for me a one-trick pony, were doing on the Main Stage what they do very well and like no other - hard and fast entertaining post-punk rock. I've never been a fan of 90's Britpop supremos Suede, but I have to say I was blown away with their set - they were superb live. back to Octopia just in time to see my favourite act of the entire festival - The Carnabys. these young guys from Twickenham are the tightest and most energetic act I've seen in years, with well crafted songs, great presentation and superb musicianship. I'd safely say you could expect to see them at Glastonbury pretty soon. Midnight came and the acoustic sets kicked off with comic solo artist Captain Hotknives. This guy was so un-PC and funny I was actually doubled up at one stage during his set. Then Neil joined in with Sam Henwood to complement her uke and country vocal set with harmonica. Day 1 was over and aches and pains just started!
Saturday started slowly for me; Neil and I met with Will and Rachel and we had a barbecue, but I got to Octopia in time to see great performances from Downtown Wolves and London's first lady of Americana, Danii Nicholls (actually, Neil's tent neighbour as it turned out). Neil got in on the act on her set too, playing out with a great rendition of Folsom Prison blues so he was warmed-up and ready to go as we were following Danii in the running order. You can see our set highlights if you go to our music page and play the video. Enough about us, therefore.
The fabulous The Leggomen, who had come all the way from Weymouth in Dorset dressed in Sea Monster costumes, got into the spirit and did a great set. I returned later to see an evening of no nonsense rock by a bass heavy Duke of Wolves, lively hard-rockers Go Primitive (who gave me an EP; I loved the way that, during their last song all but the drummer left the stage to rip through the audience, dancing about by virtue of their radio-pack wireless guitar connections) and Octopia headliners power trio Black Orchid Empire who, if you see them live, you will understand why they are at the top of the game.
Dragging myself uphill to the crew camp at 3:30 am meant a slow start to the Sunday. I listened to an excellent Teetotum as I lay on the grass outside the Octopia tent, had a bit of a snooze and wakened up to a dance class by Swing Patrol. Soft folk was ideal for a Sunday afternoon at this juncture, provided by acoustic 4-piece, the superb The Porcupine Dilemma (where do they get the names from?) and then went to the Main Stage to see the Hot 8 Brass Band, a Louisiana-based hip hop/funk totally brass band with a snare drum and a bass drum. They did an incredible version of Marvin Gay's "Sexual Healing" and had everyone movin' to the rhythm. Later in the evening I went back to Octopia to see a superb set from teenage rockers Sweet Revenge. You couldn't believe they were aged between 15 and 17, they were so polished. Apparently, they've been together 5 years, the youngest starting in the band when he was 10! They ARE gonna go places, I'm sure. The I went with Neil to see Anna Calvi on the Main Stage (he's a big fan). Expert guitarist, powerful vocals and a unique avant-garde presentation. The gig was incredibly tight, but really, not my kind of thing. I'm glad I caught her gig though, it certainly was worth the one-off.
Back to Octopia to catch Recreations (Sam Duckworth) a multi-instrument looping king who uses Ableton Live on a laptop to create his complex weaving songs, before catching a solid performance by rock-chick Georgia Patterson. I first met Georgia about three years ago at the Earwicker open mic in Ealing. She looked like Joan Jett and was big into 70's rock, especially Led Zeppelin and Heart. Since then she's contributed lead guitar and vocals on my latest album, "Runnin' With The Pack", due for release soon. On acoustic, live, she's a small lady with a big voice and a big guitar sound and needless to say she smashed it! Hardly being able to keep my eyes open, I trudged up the hill, caught about 3 hours sleep, then got up to pack up the tent, take Neil back to Reading and carry on back home. Monday night and happy memories, I slept the sleep of the dead, needless to say.
Would I do it all again next year, considering my advancing years? Your damned right I would!