Happy Days!

Three decades at music festivals

I’m not a person to rush into new things, but I’m easily led into them by more intrepid souls.

It was the beginning of the Nineties, and I was already in my late twenties, when my friend Nikki introduced me to music festivals. I was a shy young editor: a single, bookish, southern English fish-out-of-water in northern, family-oriented, no-nonsense Wigan.

Her programme of education for me was eclectic, including the Llangollen Jazz Festival and the London Fleadh in Finsbury Park.

We drove down to London in her battered old car, parked in one of the terrace-lined side streets and joined the stream of pedestrians heading in the direction of the music.

The Fleadh was a beery, cheery, Irish-dominated revelation. A tide of happy people washed from one musical experience to another, surging to the beat of the music, breaking on the shores of the front-of-stage barriers, eddying around the beer tent. It was a day of being carefree, gregarious, entranced by music and humanity. One glorious, euphoric day!

Always out of step with musical fashion, I had learned to shut up about my odd ragbag of musical preferences. Music was tribal for the youth of 1980s England — and I hadn’t found my tribe.

It turned out to be folk rock. Yeah, I know: eternally out of fashion, equally derided by traditionalists and modernists. Just the thing for me.

The nebulous concept united olde-timey fey wistfulness and gritty urban rebellion. The fading chords and arpeggios of Seventies rock fanned the embers of British folk, with a dash of punk as accelerant.

Electric guitars and drumkits shared the stage with banjos, accordions and uilleann pipes. The riotous Pogues jostled with the slick Oysterband, while Robert Plant still strutted the stage like a slightly camp rock god and the ghost of Sandy Denny looked on. Billy Bragg and Eric Bogle offered sardonic commentary from the wings. The Levellers purveyed anarchy in crusty, snack-sized packages.

Folk rock introduced me to the Celtic diaspora of the New World. It also broadened my social conscience: four hundred years of marginalisation and dispossession, from the Clearances and Cromwell in Ireland to the Miners’ Strike and the Troubles — laid down in music that was at once joyous and defiant.

The festivals brought together fresh-faced students, earnest young parents carrying babes in crocheted slings, raddled old hippies, yuppies and New Age travellers.

Throughout the Nineties, summer was festival season for me. Now based in Oxford, I specialised in the smaller, quirkier, folkier festivals: Cropredy, Guildford, Cambridge, the London Fleadh. WOMAD in Reading was as commercial as I got, and too big for my taste. Glastonbury was not my thing. Or maybe it would have been?

English music festivals were a reality apart, a universe where post-Thatcher Brits were outgoing, happy and talked to strangers. Where the audience sat on the bare ground, food was spicy and exotic, love was made not-very-discreetly in tiny, tightly packed tents in the heat of afternoon and we queued patiently for grotty toilets.

Day-Glo wristbands, ethnically diverse clothes and badly made jewellery, unwashed hair and dirty bare feet were tokens of belonging.

Somewhere in the midst of the Nineties, I met an Aussie farmer’s daughter with soft brown eyes and a lovely, wounded soul. We set up house together and eventually married.

In the early 2000s we moved to Australia. Farewell old England, for ever. Although we weren’t bound for Botany Bay in a convict ship, nor even South Australia round Cape Horn. We just hopped on a 747 at Heathrow and stumbled off onto hot tarmac at Tulla.

Different lands, different customs. Aussie folk festivals tend to be more orderly than the English ones I remember, and in my more sober and less hedonistic fifties, that suits me fine. In all likelihood, the same audience demographic is just a couple of decades older and more sedate now — and younger, bolder souls go to other festivals entirely.

Be that as it may, I enjoy seated venues and being able to see the band, rather than catching brief glimpses between bobbing heads and gyrating bodies. My joints appreciate the living comfort of a large tent with annexe, camp kitchen and reclining chairs.

I’m content sitting around the campfire, talking bull with old friends and playing banjo. Probably drinking tea. I no longer feel the need to get mullered on pints of Real Ale or hot, spiced scrumpy — or a contraband bottle of Jack Daniel’s. (Bag checks? pffft …)

What lingers from those earlier, wilder festivals is the excitement of a musical voyage into the unknown.

Eagerly anticipated headline acts disappoint – not always, but often. You’ve known and loved them at their peak: the only direction from there is down hill. In restricted-capacity venues, getting in to see the headliners likely involves strategising, queuing and foregoing other gigs. When you’re in, neighbours get territorial about their space and angsty about the height of your chair. Not exactly the carefree festival experience.

Ah, but then …

You duck into a random marquee to escape the sun or the rain, or you fill a gap in your programme with a wild card … and discover something that utterly entrances.

It could be an a cappella trio from Quebec. It could be a Ukrainian folk band. It could be a young singer-songwriter from Tasmania with the raw, feral, sweet voice of a despairing angel.

I’m a soft-spoken man who prefers to keep his emotions to himself. I’m so very not a person comfortable sitting amongst strangers, rapt, eyes wide in wonder, tears streaming down his face.

But at festivals, it happens.

Text and images copyright © 2021 Steve Fendt. All rights reserved.

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