Underneath The Stars Festival
Cinderhill Farm, 30th July – 1st August
We’ve been on regular jaunts to South Yorkshire for the Underneath The Stars Festival since the inaugural event in 2014. Not in 2020, naturally, but huge credit to the Festival directors for ensuring that necessary interruption was a mere hiccup and for working their socks off to make sure that a reduced and socially distanced event could go ahead in 2021.
Some changes were afoot. The usual two indoor/tented stages gave way to a single video screen enhanced outdoor stage and the chance to actually experience being ‘underneath the stars’. Weather permitting of course…and with the biblical downpour that brought things to a brief halt on the Sunday of the 2019 Festival, fresh in the UTSf memories.
Interestingly, a Sunday straw poll (hands up style) from the stage found a huge majority in favour of being in the open air so 2021 might be a small turning point in terms of festival development and presenting the music. Regardless, you can always be guaranteed a thoroughly pleasant and friendly experience at Underneath The Stars. They still have that off to a tee.
So how was our second weekend at a festival in Yorkshire? Somewhat different from the mass celebratory scenes at Tramlines but certainly no less enjoyable. Being back in the familiar field with the big deckchair and with another quality musical bill lined up, accompanied by the excitement of possibly discovering a new favourite band, the result was a reyt good thumbs up. “Shit hot,” as Scott Doonican would have said (and often did).
The few unavoidable minor lineup changes were dealt with without fuss. Stepping up from the subs bench saw Ward Thomas deliver a duo set (opening up with an unaccompanied stab at Coldplay) and The Staves came to the rescue to make up for Saturday night’s withdrawn headliners (gutted about not seeing Saving Grace with Robert Plant though…). And for anyone like me who missed the announcement and thought that Lanterns On The Lake looked a little different with a four-piece brass section, they were replaced by Cut Capers who brought their impossibly vibrant and brash brassy swing to a big stage after taking the roof off the Little Lights stage in 2019. A bit like having Jack Grealish on the bench. The biggest dancing crowd of the weekend? Very possibly.
Also add a big clap on the back for an ever-smiling and very glittery Sam Kelly who’d also stepped up to play in Damien O’Kane’s and in Kate Rusby’s band (and a quick shout out for his upcoming new album with The Lost Boys – The Wishing Tree, set for release on Pure Records).
So, having had some time to get thoughts in order, here are our post-match weekend highlights:
The Jabberwocky toastie van and the English-Indian fish & chips that provided the pick of the culinary treats for us and many others judging by the queues and the sold-out signs. Minted mushy garden peas – yum.
Mark Radcliffe and Dawn French in conversation; Dawn with a new book to promote and Mark because he’s a broadcasting legend with plenty of name-dropping stories to tell. The theme for both though seemed to be the incredulity of how their road to fame (if not fortune) panned out – the “how did this happen?” effect.
The Scottish folk of Dallahan and Breabach, the latter with At The Barrier regular James Lindsay on double bass. Like all the musicians at the festival, two bands who personified the simple delight to be on stage and playing music in a live setting again. We don’t want to come across all X-Factor-y, but a bonus point to Breabach for stepping up as a man to the lip of the stage to lead some of the dancing and for folk-rocking our with the mighty onslaught of the twin bagpipe assault.
The ‘class acts’ – Paul Carrack and Eddi Reader; the former churning out hit after hit punctuated by a delve into his own illustrious catalogue, the latter accompanied by the marvellous Boo Hewerdine in the band).
The crowd – those who led the audience participation in the dancing space in from of the barrier, especially when it was raining and they were the only ones brave enough – a true display of the ‘someone has to be first’ spirit. And an image that will stay with us for years to come: the man who spotted cutting a Cannon Hall Farm pork pie with a pair of scissors…
The folk end of the spectrum came catered for by the deep folky ponderings and intricate fingerpicking of Nick Hart (not an easy job following the rousing festival opening from Lauren Housley) and the bluegrass fury of Midnight Skyracer for whom Tabitha Benedict added a claim as banjo player of the weekend and there were one or two decent ones present.
If you wanted to rock (or rawk) a little, the guitar based blues-rock from Bryde and Ferris & Sylvester both provided the raw materials for blowing away the cobwebs of any early revellers jostling for a good spot to park for the day.
However, to emphasise again that we don’t want to get all competitive and pick favourites, there had to be some personal highlights of the what was what we now come to expect of one of the best festivals going. Having appeared before and with one member of the trio living in the local village, Bar Steward Sons Of Val Doonican were back to create chaos and provide the belly laughs via plenty of jumping ararnd and accompanied by a gold fiddle bearing Barnsley devil in a kilt. Probably the one act we were desperate to see all weekend and t’lads didn’t let us darn. Our last encounter might have been in another field – 20,000 or so at Cropredy – but these three lads from Barnsley Rock City are worthy festival heroes.
Also on Sunday and having the task of following the wild abandon of Cut Capers were the much more subtle Land Yacht Regatta – LYR – based around current British poet laureate Simon Armitage, Richard Walters and Patrick Pearson. They have an album – Call In The Crash Team – that provides the soundtrack from the Armitage spoken word.
Incorporating musical elements of Pink Floyd, Public Service Broadcasting and Radiohead, it might not have been everyone’s cup of tea at a folk-based festival (as wasn’t Radiohead’s Philip Selway on 2015) but after the initial shock of “what’s THIS about?” accompanied by Simon Armitage’s straight as a die delivery, they grew in strength and stature and even had the front spaces filling up. Surprise package of the festival? Discovery of the weekend? Both boxes got a teacher style big tick.
However, it might have been shaded by the Saturday mid aftrnoon combo of Damien O’Kane and Friends followed by Martyn Joseph that was a masterstroke.
We’re used to Damien’s sets at UTSf, this one accompanied by Sam Kelly and with Anthony Davis on keys with a selection of his family joining at various points. So, first gold star for the setlist that cherry picked from his entire solo output and saw Kate Rusby onstage to duet on Summer Hill (was hoping for Banks Of The Bann but the title track of his first solo album was an unexpected pleasure). Second gold star for the tremendous tune sets that saw not only the banjo to the fore but really kicked with the keyboard presence and the family providing the rhythm section. Surely there’s an album of souped up tunes just beggin to be made. Tying for ‘song of the weekend’ (and third gold star) was the epic and driving Breaking Of Omagh Jail that defied description. Worth the admission price alone? You may have paid more for less…
And while it might have been a daunting proposition of following the local hero and his troops, standing alone on a big stage with just a guitar and a few pedals to press doesn’t phase Martyn Joseph. His stature is giant and when you encounter. With a performer with his experience, his passion, his emotion and his commitment, you can’t fail to be caught on his wave of inspiration.
That’s particularly the case when his set is packed with rousing anthems and touching intimacies, even without the might of his Luxury Of Despair number. He has more than enough in his locker to be up there with Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome as an inspirational force where the power of his music provides strength for a movement.
The beautifully played and inspired set ended with the rousing and topical tribute to fellow South Walian Aneurin Bevin, Nye, topped off a man of the match perfromance from the proud (but very humble) valley boy. Song of the weekend? Hard to separate with Damien, so an honourable tie.
And (almost) finally, over a million minutes since stepping of the stage at Underneath The Stars in 2019, Kate Rusby was back. On Yorkshire Day too, strolling onstage with flat cap and brandishing a jumbo sack of Yorkshire Teabags, who can forget the teabag tasting session of 2019 when the rival Lancashire tea was roundly beaten? A nice bit of product placement for a perfect photo opportunity. What timing could have been better?
With several songs from the Hand Me Down lockdown/covers project, it was a subtley different Kate Rusby experience. With some of the band sporting their new lockdown hair and Nick Cook even on occasion abandoning his melodeon for guitar, like many who’d trodden the boards before her over the past few days, the delight of playing to a field of people was the overarching feeling. The warmth and connection between performers and audience had never been stronger all weekend. Just roll on 2022.