So much to cover, and that’s just the two days I was at the festival. Unfortunately I had to miss Saturday’s events, so this really only represents Friday and Sunday. I know I missed out on a lot of good stuff. nevertheless… here’s my experience.
It’s festival weekend in South Riding and despite very heavy competition from Tramlines in Sheffield, Barnsley has three festivals this weekend including this new one, Underneath the Stars. I managed to make it to the Friday and Sunday of the festival to see what it was all about.
Billed as a ‘Bijou Arts Festival’, Underneath The Stars is a collaboration between the Rusby Family’s and Cannon Hall Farm, with a heavy focus on folk, traditional and retro music. Over three days (half Friday, all day Saturday and half Sunday) the grounds surrounding Cannon Hall Farm will hopefully play host to music loving families from around the region.
FRIDAY 25th JULY
On Friday, music doesn’t officially start until 5:30pm. I get there at 4pm after hearing that young Barnsley folk stalwarts Folkus are joining Scott Doonican for an informal unplugged session. I find them right in the middle of the Bitter Boy Stage, perched on picnic tables, surrounded by people supping real ale. They go through standards such as Star of the County Down and Wild Rover, Scott throws in one of his obligatory Queen covers with Somebody to Love and other festival musicians join on a fantastic version of Mama Rock Me, a song originally ‘sketched’ by Dylan but made famous by The Old Crow Medicine Show. Lizzie’s violin really sounds great, as does the bass and vocals. The audience singing along tops it off.
I take the opportunity to explore the site when they finish. Vintage fairground (which looks magical when lit up at night), a planetarium showcasing immersive films, a couple of stalls and the thing that sets this apart from many other local music festivals is quality of toilets and food – portacabin luxury loos with Lush soap (Lush stall opposite) and food ranging from falafel, pizza, fish and chips, Mexican, tea and cake, barbequed meat from the farm …and as I discovered in the Bitter Boy Stage/beer tent, three quid for a pint of quality real ale.
The Planets Stage, which is an enormous double peaked circus tent able to seat thousands, saw its first performance of the day at 6pm with Barnsley folk legend Dave Burland – fifty-odd years on from his first performances at Barnsley’s folk club at The Alhambra Hotel and Dave’s voice sounds as masterly as ever. Harking back to the days of Hedgehog Pie, the in-between song banter is still at the fore. He asks the audience how many of them have come from outside of Barnsley. Half of the modest crowd raise their hands. ‘Do the council know?’ he asks. ‘Are they giving out grants for coming and seeking out Barnsley culture?’
Burland has always effortlessly blended old with new, and whether he is playing those traditional numbers that have sat in his set since his early years, such as The Dalesman’s Litant, The Black Cook, The Love of the Common People and The Water Is Wide, or contemporary folk songs such as Richard and Linda Thompson’s I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and the closing cover of Dylan’s Girl From the North Country, each one sounds unmistakably Dave Burland… which of course is why he is playing the main stage.
A highlight is when Dave talks about his village of Silkstone, the Hukser Pit Disaster and the archaeological survey of the Barnsley PAL’s training ground at Silverwood Camp, and the talk of the camp acts as an introduction to one of Burland’s own songs, the relatively new Kitchener’s Finger. With its wonderful chorus of ‘Carry me down, carry me easy, carry me back to the places I know’, it has all of the hallmarks of a classic folk song.
Before his closing Dylan cover, he says he’s back off to the ‘old folkies home’ and it’s that mix of Yorkshire wit and masterly storytelling that makes him such a well-respected and loved talent.
We head back over to the Bitter Boy Stage where Blair Dunlop is playing a solo set. I grab a pint and take a seat at a table two rows from the stage. As soon as the act on the Planet Stage finishes, this stage starts, and that pattern follows throughout the weekend. No acts are scheduled to overlap. This means that if you see a full act on the Main, allowing for sets over-running and getting out and walking to the next stage, you’ll miss five to ten minutes of the next of the Bitter Boy Stage. This happens with Blair Dunlop, so we arrived a couple of songs in.
The tables are laid out fairly close to the stage and is set out like a club, with the bar at the back. For the quieter acts this can be a problem. The beer tent layout encourages chatter during sets, unlike your traditional folk club. From the table in front there is incessant chatting from one particular lady, who at some point genuinely tries to talk over the music. She starts to get the evils from her adjacent table and during a stunning version of Black Is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair, thar table reaches over to tell her to be quiet it. However, despite her acknowledgment of their request, it takes the music getting louder to drown out her sound. That extra volume comes in the form of Blair’s Albion Band partner and a face familiar to many Barnsley folkies, Katriona Gilmore, who fleshes out with her fiddle, a perfect version of House of Jacks. Blair has a voice that is beyond his years and one of someone who has been playing the circuit much, much longer than he has.
If you want to roam for food, then you have to sacrifice seeing one of the acts playing. As there are only eight act on Friday, I didn’t really want to sacrifice any but we use the Jaywalkers to go for a stroll and get icecream. As the Jaywalkers finish, their audience head on over to The Club Stage to catch Cardboard Fox. The band’s guitar/mandolin player looks like she could the child of Joni Mitchel (that’ll be Charlotte Carrivick of the Carrivick Sisters who also plays on Saturday). The band don’t sound like they have been together less than a year and they have the biggest sound of the festival so far. The four piece mix contemporary American folk with their own original songs effortlessly, and indeed sound more West Virginia than South West England. Once again though, from where we are sat near the bar, much of the sound of the band is lost amongst the sound of the talking, so we head over to the Planets Stage and make sure we get a spot right down front for The Puppini Sisters.
We parked ourselves on the grass in front of the stage. Close by are children dancing and enjoying themselves. The Puppini Sisters were a real draw for me today. They’re a group known for mixing the vocal harmonies of The Andrews Sisters with vocal jazz classics and pop hits. If like me, you like Nouvelle Vague or Pink Martini, you’ll love these. The girls are in fabulous voice and their band compliment them perfectly. And yet despite having a band, the ‘sisters’ play instruments too. Their ‘Puppini Philharmonic Orchestra’, consisting of melodica, accordion and ukulele add an extra strings to their already well-strung bow. They start on a racy samba and slow down to a tempestuous slink, which sees versions of Heart of Glass and Sway enjoyed by fans and new converts alike, followed by a version of Side By Side in which the vocals sound amazingly like muted jazz trumpets!
On I Got Rhythm, they do the one thing that is really needed at the festival that evening… they urge folk to get up out of their seats and dance, just like the children are. Finally, inhibitions are lost and before you know it, by the end of the song, the twenty feet between the chairs and stage is full of people dancing together.
This tempo is kept up until the end of the set, which includes fun versions of Good Morning, Get Happy and Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. The group mix jazz, bossa nova, samba and dance hall ska with lashings of camp music hall humour. With every single seat in the tent full, plus people sat on the floor, this is definitely an early festival highlight.
My next and final act for the day was Barnsley’s very own comedy folk band, The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican. I think they knowingly waited a few minutes before heading out to headline the Club Stage, enabling the Puppini’s audience to make their way over and not miss a beat.
As their intro tape plays, the band (minus Andy for this occasion) take to the stage to rapturous applause. A good number of people in the audience are already fans, and the rest have no idea what’s in store for them. If you don’t know The Bar-Steward Sons, in tribute to their crooner father, they take famous songs, put them through the Barnsley lyrical muck machine, and churn out musical tales of South Riding and life on the road, that you all instantly recognise and can singalong to.
Opening with The Bar-Steward Bop (The Ramone’s Blitzkreig Bop), Tarn Life (Blur’s Park Life) and Fight For Your Pint (Beastie Boy’s Fight For Your Right), the crowd get it straight away, laugh and singalong, even if some of the quicker lyrics are lost in the mix.
Other than the band’s lyrical attack on Justin Bieber, the setlist thematically turns and suddenly most of the songs seem to be about food, too much food, too much drink and festival toilets (not this festival though, these are posh toilets). The toilet humour proves too much for one couple sat in front of us, but luckily enough for the brothers Doonican, everyone else sticks around; even when the set overruns slightly. The closing number is the regular Jump Ararnd, a version of the House of Pain rap classic. By this time, main stage headliners Treacherous Orchestra have already started, but the Doonican’s don’t care. They take their time to end Scott’s now traditional crowd surf/beer run. The layout of the tent proves difficult to manoeuvre. Although there aren’t enough people up front to crowd surf over because of the tables, it’s crowed at the back where the bar is. Scott runs and jumps along the tables and dives into the crowd at the back and as the band play on, they carry him to the bar, he grabs a pint, then they carry him back. He runs back to the stage and necks his beer in triumph before finishing with one last chorus. The audience loved it and the queue to buy their merchandise and meet the band afterwards prove that they also won over many new fans too. A perfect band to headline this stage. In fact, I have no doubt that they could have taken on the main stage and won too.
SUNDAY 27th JULY
Unfortunately I couldn’t make Saturday (as I was at Barnsley’s Coalfields music festival), the only full day of live music for the festival, which is a shame as I really wanted to catch Moore-Moss-Rutter, Maz O’Connor and Johnny Hick’s Juke Joint Allstars. Nay mind. I was right back there Sunday.
There was more going off on site Sunday. Although I’d prefer a fry-up, there were tai-chi workshops for those up early enough. And also drumming workshops early on. When I got there, there were a couple of children’s activities happening (painting, circus skills) which weren’t available Friday, and there are many more people on site too. In fact it is fair to say that the site and tents were heaving when I got there. Families everywhere. I’m not sure I understand why Friday and Sunday were half days for live music. Maybe Friday was as many people would still be a work, but only having half a day of music on the Sunday is crazy. I’d have loved to have stayed listening to music until the sun went down but 7:30 was when it ended, so I had to make the most of it, catching the last ten minutes of the Pete Round Jazz quartet on the Bitter Boy Stage, playing instrumental jazz in a similar vein to Dave Brubeck.
As there was more people on site, it made for a much better atmosphere, despite their being more cloud and less heat. The queues for the toilets, planetarium, ice cream and Kate Rusby signing tent were lengthy despite, and I added to it by queuing for pulled pork.
The Bad Shepherds were the main reason for me being there on Sunday – a glorious band playing folk versions of punk and new wave classics, fronted by comedian Ade Edmondson. I last saw them three years ago at Folk by the Oak festival in Hertfordshire. They were amazing then and they were amazing here.
Opening with a bass heavy I Fought The Law, with a killer pipe solo and Ade looking like he could have fronted the early Slade, they followed by diving right into Anarchy in the UK. Here, the punk anthem has an eastern psychedelic waft to it.
Ade proclaims that some people thing that punk is all about the three chords. ‘This song proves them wrong. This has two,’ as they launch into a Wreckless Eric classic.
As they play two poetic renditions of hits by The Jam, they reaffirm what I always thought. Punk and folk very closely bound. Lyrically they can be quite similar and their socialist roots created an even stronger bond. The Bad Shepherds turn these anthems of rebellion and political discourse into true folk songs – passed down with the story thoughtfully retold to new audiences. Frank Turner and Billy Bragg mix the two well, but here punk is turned into folk.
The sound of the double bass give the group a much heavier sound, hints of Zepplin at their folkiest and even the dub of Public Image Ltd.
Ace of Spades gets an airing as a tribute to the Ade’s late, great comedy partner and friend Rik Mayall, and the intro to Madness’ Our House gets big cheers from the crowd.
My highlights though are fantastic versions of The Specials’ Friday Night, Saturday Morning, The Members’ Sound of the Suburbs and the truly outstanding Rise by Public Image Limited.
I start to leave during the last song, to make sure I get to the front of the signing tent – newly purchased CD in hand.
Ten minutes later, I was back in the big top, sat on the grass, front of centre, waiting for Richard Thompson. Somewhat strange having the headliner on 5pm, which later even Richard commented on. I went to see Richard Thompson, only being familiar with his work with Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention and other collaborations. I’ve never explored the lengthy back catalogue of solo work, which is the majority of what is showcased tonight.
He strides on the stage, with his trademark military style beret, which reminds me of Woody Guthrie’s ‘this machine kills fascists’ sticker. He looks like a soldier and he totally commands.
I was always aware of the importance of Richard Thompson’s catalogue, but nothing prepared me for what was to come. Within just the first few opening notes of Bathsheba Smiles I was in absolutely fucking awe of both the man’s astonishing guitar playing and his amazing voice.
I noticed right off that he must have been playing with a different tuning, especially that lowest string which seems to be unusually low – maybe even drop C. He played lead with his little fingers and bass with his thumb and index. The reverb on the acoustic and the tuning created a someone heavy sounds, but that leant itself well to the gravitas of the songs. And that voice! He voice is totally unique. It has aged so well, yet still retains so much youth and energy. My skin is gooseflesh and I am taken aback by what I am hearing.
A fast and raucous Valerie makes me wish this wasn’t a sit down concert, and the ballad, The Ghost of You Walks, slows things down to a hush.
The man injects humour throughout… he introduced ‘a song about what musicians get up to on the road, and what the spouses get up to at home… it’s for the strong seafaring and shanty tradition that no doubt Barnsley has.’ And the song itself, Johnny’s Far Away, has just has much tongue-in-cheek humour.
Yelps of joy force its way out of the audience’s gobs as he plucks out the intro to 1952 Vincent Black Lightening. And the same again for his classic, I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight – the same song which opened the festival for me, when Dave Burland performed his own version. Nothing can beat the original though, and he follows it with a tribute to Sandy Denny and his version of her Fairport song, Who Knows Where The Time Goes.
He introduces two songs with self-deprecating humour, as he talks about his surprise at his new album being #9 in the charts, or his nomination (and loss) at the Americana Awards. Following, Wall of Death is utterly beautiful and I Feel So Good shows both man and performer in his prime.
Returning for an encore of Dimming of the Day, I know that I am in the presence of a master and that when I get home I’m going to explore his vast catalogue (I have his Live at the BBC collection playing now). My only let down about the performance was being restricted to being sat down indoors and the theatre-like setting. I’d have loved to have been out in the sun, clinging to a festival barrier at the foot of the stage. There comes a point during festivals when the music literally lifts you off of your feet, and I reckon Valerie and I Feel So Good would have done just that.
I strolled back to the Bitter Boy Stage to get a final beer and to see the last act there but it turned out that the scheduled Fresh Dixie Project has been cancelled and Pete Round Jazz were due for a second performance of the day. I called it a day and took the trek home.
And so that was my experience of what I saw on the Friday and Sunday at Underneath the Stars. Utterly wonderful music. But what about the festival itself? It’s the first outing for this Barnsley ‘bijou arts festival’ so it would be crazy not to pass thought.
I am northern so it would be crazy not to mention the ticket price. Day tickets were £35 for Friday (8 acts), £45 for Saturday (12 acts) and £40 for Sunday (8 acts). If I was to compare it to Folk By The Oak, a similar festival in Hertfordshire which I’ve been to a number of times, and one which Kate Rusby even headlined last year; that was £35 advance for a full day ticket with 13 acts, craft stalls and workshops including knitting, embroidery, wood-turning, pot throwing, felt-making and silk painting, bush crafts, music stalls, merch stand and lots of food and ale.
Underneath the Stars hand had a lot less on offer, especially for families on the Friday. Sunday (and Saturday) was an improvement, with two children’s activities running (painting and circus skills).
I wasn’t sure why the music only ran for half days on Friday and Sunday. It was almost as if it was catering for the Monday to Friday worker, rather than regular festival goers. It is often thought that festivals, and indeed folk music has become a middle-class pass time, and I did feel that here. Indeed, some local festival goers have said to me that they would have liked to have come but didn’t want to pay £100 to stand in a field at Cannon Hall to watch music – a place they often visit for free. I can sympathise. £295 for a family ticket isn’t exactly austerity busting. However…
I’ve thought long and hard about this and only came to this conclusion after seeing Richard Thompson. Judging the cost of tickets depend wholly on where you place the worth of the performer. Music fans often now pay £45 – £75 and indeed lots more for a concert ticket at an arena or stadium. I’d say after seeing Richard Thompson, he is worthy of a high ticket price. The Bad Shepherds alone often charge just under £20.
I think that some locals will have a problem with paying £295 for a family ticket to a big festival (which I have no doubt this is what Underneath The Stars aims to be) which takes place in Barnsley. I assume (and maybe wrongly so) that if a family is spending that much money, they might want to go elsewhere – a festival holiday. In fact, I know a number of people who often sacrifice a holiday to go and travel to music festivals.
However, Underneath the Starts doesn’t nessesarily have to be a festival just for locals. It is after all a business venture between Pure Records and Cannon Hall Farm, with an aim to highlight both their companies but also to improve that area’s visitor economy. Can all music lovers that live in Reading afford to visit the Reading Festival? Of course not, but it still attracts thousands of people to the area and does wonders for the area. And that is what Cannon Hall Farm’s new festival aims to do, then I’m all for it. With its full campsite and thousands of visitors from outside of town, it appears to have done that successfully.
Barnsley needs to have an attraction like this which promotes the area, so why not.
Saying that, I would love to see a couple of changes. As a regular festival goer, being in a theatre-like circus tent made this feel un-festival like. There is no better feeling than singing along with a massive audience with the sun on your back, or as it dips down behind the main stage. I’d also love to see more local acts too. Maybe if there were two stages, and then a beer tent with all day folk session. This would allow for more smaller and/or local acts to take part.
Finally, for something that claims to be a ‘Bijou Arts Festival’, outside of the music, there was very little arts. This is a great opportunity to promote local artists, and local artist-led workshops. There was some magnificent knitted floral decorations around the site. It would have been great to have that artist lead a workshop making knitted (the wife tells me they’re actually crocheted) flowers.
I hear that some stall-holders pulled out last-minute which is a shame, as there wasn’t many there. I’d have loved to have seen a record stall and definitely more for children to do throughout the entire three days. Mainly though, I’d have liked to have seen more music for your pound, and don’t worry about overlapping sets. The more there is to choose from, the more people will come and find value.
It is without doubt though that Cawthorne and Cannon Hall Farm is the perfect setting for a music festival, and why shouldn’t Barnsley have its own major music festival with big names. For a first attempt, this was a very good and enjoyable one. The festival site looks glorious. The food was plentiful and delicious, and much of it for less than £4. I’ve already mentioned the £3 real ale right? The toilets were great too, although I feel that only nine female loos were too little. A couple of the gents could have been sacrificed there. It was easy to see where the money had been spent. Not just on site, but the marketing campaign too was what you’d expect from a festival aiming so high.
I wish I had been able to witness the festival’s Saturday too. I’m already hearing good things about it. Hopefully, next year it will be bigger and better and really place itself on the UK folk festival map, while highlighting all that is good and great about Barnsley – and I’ll clear my entire weekend for it too. But let’s keep that ticket price as good value and as affordable as possible. See you next year.