Underneath The Stars Festival
Cinderhill Farm, 29th – 31st July, 2022
My social media recently reminded me of an memory from 2014. It’s the very first of the Underneath The Stars Festivals. Now in its eighth year (not counting the general postponement of anything circa 2020) and we’re back once again in the Cawthorne region of South Yorkshire. We’re also back in the comfort of two tents, or big tops, after the alternative one outdoor stage version of 2021. Here’s our look at the gender balanced, family friendly 2022 festival, with a little help from a few photos and our field notes.
FRIDAY: “Is that someone doing a soundcheck?” “No, it’s a cow mooing…“
Just in case you didn’t know we are working around a working farm. On the campsite, one family avoids pitching a tent on some dried poo but, like the Buzzcocks, I don’t mind. With the photo laminate swinging around the neck before starting to separate in the heat, we’re off to watch Stone Jets open the festival with some South African-influenced cool grooves; two of the band all the way from Cape Town. There’s even a hint of Graceland (Paul Simon’s, not Elvis’) in some of the tunes to remind us and a happy way to kick off things before N’Famady Kouyate from Guinea keeps up the African connection. Some spectacular playing on the balafon before heading for a dance and kudos to the man who hardly seems to break a sweat. Along with a splendid big band adding their parts, the opening couple of bands were perfectly placed to ease open the doors and get the joints moving in preparation for getting in the steps as festival goers shuttle between the two big tops, unless you opted for the Cambridge style seating area in between both to soak up the general relaxed Yorkshire air.
The easy like a Sunday morning vibe continues with Billie Marten who’s enveloped in a dreamy haze and Kate Staples as This Is The Kit before The (new) Trials Of Cato, with Polly Bolton again setting a fashion trend (nice stripey shorts though Robin) upped the ante with some sprightly tunes and Welsh language diversions. Their much promised, much anticipated new album is almost there (catch them on tour later in the year – they gave several plugs for the Yorkshire/local venues). The ever so gradual increase in the tempos is picked up by Sam Kelly and The Lost Boys who pepper their set with songs from the latest – The Wishing Tree – and a couple of covers; the latter well received but we know what a star shredder Jamie Francis is on the banjo so a couple of their own numbers instead wouldn’t have gone amiss. However, with Bluebird and Greenland Whale, plus some Scottish musical connections flying out, like cellist Graham Coe, we’re satisfied.
Kate Rusby’s first appearance saw a This is Your Life-ish Thingy hosted by best pal and regular UTSf host, Sal. Lots of guests paid their tributes – her old drama teacher (and who knew that Kate was in the same high school class as Game Of Thrones star Lena Headley!?), long-term photographer Bryan Ledgard, sister Emma and even a visit or two from the Folk Police. Accusations of subverting the genre by her scandalously happy alternatives of song and tune to which she pleaded a proud guilty!
A first time seeing Imelda May was a bit of a revelation. Entering to birdsong and poetry, she casts a dramatic figure in all black and crooning through the Bond-esque 11 Past The Hour and Black Tears. The band is spot on and soon enough the hair was down and the chiffon cape discarded as she launched into a revue that skirted her rockabilly diversions, a bit of MeatLoaf, Teenage Kicks and Tainted Love as well as the heartbreak pop of Should Have Been You. Standing up big, bold and proud of her roots and her gender, flitting through the styles with a sassitude (that’s a sassy attitude) she’s an empowered figure and a perfect choice to headline, making sure that the first night ended on a high. Anyone not bowled over by Imelda had the chance for a wind down with Davina And The Vagabonds’ trip through the history of American music but how do you follow that!
SATURDAY: “Those really funny guys are on at 12.20”
Just in case you didn’t know, we’re talking The Bar Steward Sons Of Val Doonican; regulars now at UTSf and on the big stage for the first time after Flatcap Carnival had launched Saturday in an almost seamless segue with Davina’s Saturday night party slot, with some Latin-inspired ska, as well as reminding us that there’s nowt wrong wi’ a bit o’ brass as we would find out across the weekend.
The Doonicans were as ‘on form’ as you’d expect. A couple of two numbers from the new Rough & Ryf album made th set, already destined to go down on the annals of barstewardised classics, particularly the audience participation of Goat Yoga. No crowd surfing today – probably health & safety at play – but more than enough rocking up the poses and churning out the laughs to start the day and a guaranteed long line at the signing tent for those who can now count themselves as new fans.
And from the ridiculous to the sublime harmonies of Trousdale, the South Carolina trio who not only matched Polly Bolton in the fashion stakes but perhaps gave us the best harmonies of the weekend as a genuine sweetener to the audience with Ade Edmondson. Yes he’s Eddie from Bottom and Vim from Bad News. He’s Vyvyan from The Young Ones too, but as he reminded us, that’s a very mere fraction (did he say 0.45%) of his career. For an hour he talked us through his early days and career so that we can now correct any Wikipedia misunderstandings, and barely scratched the surface. Maybe one day he can add Desert Island Discs to his profile too.
Meanwhile, Will Varley managed to slip in the only political reference we heard across the weekend. Old BJ getting namechecked in one of his songs and after his appearance at Bolton’s Right To Roam of late, he’s certainly back on the radar. he’s an understated and humble guy but with a clever and subtle wit. From his solo guitar songs to bands with an emphasis on big, bold brass, the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band and Haggis Horns started to make inroads with some serious weight from the traditional (in brass terms) to the more subversive with a hint of hip hop and beats – just beware a visit from the Brass Police. Much more subtle was the mood created by the finesse and subtlety of Penguin Cafe led by Arthur Jeffes. Rich in texture from the double bass, two violins and cello, the environmentally inspired soundtrack was as close as you’d get to a real chill-out set. Beautifully played music and a set that added further breadth to the increasingly broad palette that’s becoming the signature of UTSf.
And in a strong finish to the day’s music, The Kinnaris Quintet struck a blow for gender equality, live music and sequins with the, in many ways, sparkliest set of the festival. Like those days when we used to listen to Big Country and say their guitars sounded like bagpipes, the three fiddles, guitar and mandolin are doing the same in a folky way. With a few pauses for breath, the quintet delivered a relentless barrage of foot tapping and limb shaking (probably some head banging too) frenergy (that’s our combo of frenetic and energy). On a Saturday bill when the bar was high, the KQ was a real (and reel) highlight.
A night too that saw the slightly unusual twist of Kate Rusby doing the Saturday night closing set rather than the usual festival closing slot might have made the traditional festival closer Blooming Heather a little out of place but was an emotional highpoint with a partisan crowd sharing the 30th anniversary that’s been marked this year. Thirty years that have seen her challenge the genre, marked this evening by a moment where three electric guitars and a Moog provided the soundtrack to one number. Who knows where the time goes indeed; maybe it won’t be too long before Kate becomes a feature in PROG magazine. The usual suspects – O’Kane, Lyall and Cook, joined by Sam Kelly and Josh Clark plus the occasional appearance for Ron Block on banjo and it’s a stellar band that redefines what passes as folk music as well as giving a real beefy swing to the likes of We Will Sing. So much so that you don’t miss Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
And making up what proved a good day for the gender equality stakes, the four piece alt-rock indie sound of The Big Moon made for a bit of late night Saturday nightcap. Off to bed with the sound of brass and bagpipes ringing in your ears eh?
More face melting brass and for anyone proving impervious to the qualities of the wall of horn sound or the soul-rich voices on show, then there was the attack of the banjos to deal with. But first, a bit of a dream gig for Iona Lane whose presence at UTSf reached a high point with her first performance at the event. Her Hallival album might have been one career landmark but her gentle fifty-minute set on a Sunday morning will also be another. By contrast, the Intergalactic Brasstronauts tipped the scales heavily in favour of an orgy of wild and uninhibited abandon that saw their delirious mix spill over into the crowd. B Dubs (Brian from Birmingham) has no health & safety qualms about breaking down the (non-physical) barriers and getting up close with the punters while the band pumped out a constant stream of bass-filled dub and electronica. Marvellous stuff and as MC Andy Atkinson said, what a way to start a Sunday morning.
Azure Ryder – glittery dresses seemingly now non-negotiable on the Little Lights stage – lit up that very stage with her pop-tinged songs pushing the variety and boundaries of UTSf ever more. Perhpas the most varied line up of the three days, we shifted from her Summery and radio-friendly tunes to the familiar unaccompanied vocal stories of inspirational heroes and life’s struggles from The Young’uns (singing workshop too – and ask any schoolteacher about coping with a classroom of thirty, never mind a tent full of well over a hundred), and a dose of Salford stand up from Jason Manford to more sombre offerings from Lanterns On The Lake. Mind, with David Eagle working the stand up circuit, The Young’uns show is as much laughter and improvised banter as singing these days.
Jason also managed to fit in a duet with Kate Rusby (Damien on guitar), multi-tasking with his singing hat perched at a jaunty angle as well as reminding us of his meteoric rise to comedy king, all on the back of his first gig when being mugged provided the launching pad. As many comedy stars will confess, it’s a slippery slope to the top (a long way to the top too if you wanna rock and roll) but he’s genuine guy who loves his folk music, loves the UTSf and is happy to wander the site without being pestered too much by the fans.
It wouldn’t;t be Underneath The Stars without Damien O’Kane, once again in partnership with the legendary Ron Block, who’s also a lovely lovely gent too. One who makes playing the banjo look sooo very easy, like he’s tickling the strings, and in partnership with Damien, they’re lethal. Add Ali Hutton who provides a driving rhythm, Duncan Lyall at the bottom end and Mike McGoldrick on his ‘icing on the cake’ whistles (and a dab hand on snare too) and that’s why you have to surrender to the twin banjo assault. Another brilliant set based on their two banjo albums, packed with roller coaster tune rides and even a song from Ron. Of course, he can sing too!
Maybe not quite with the same pipes as Hannah Williams and her band The Affirmations, where the soul went deep and true and was complemented perfectly with the similarly soulful, with a hint of funky folk, of Dustbowl Revival – all very life affirming before the pared back intensity of seriously big name Sunday night headliner, Suzanne Vega. Playing solo with a lone guitarist in tow and kicking off with perhaps her signature song, Marlene On The Wall, she delivered a classy set; perhaps a little low key for the close of the festival on the main stage – Tankus The Henge would see the festival out in fine style on the more intimate confines of the smaller stage, but along with Kate and Imelda, ensured her deserved billing.
Final thoughts: There might still be talk of the global pandemic, lockdowns and the missing year(s). Economic hardship and political unrest are all part and parcel of our daily lives. The impact is still being felt but we’re looking, or at least feeling like, we’re heading in some way to how things used to be. Those folks who rocked up and packed out the tents and gave their overwhelming appreciation to the likes of Sam Kelly and the Kinnaris ladies will hopefully start to find their way to the clubs and arts venues when these musicians return to the road to earn their living with the fans continuing to support live music.
The thousands who spend their weekends in fields around the country over the Summer, which for some may be the holiday event of the year, are certainly getting value for money when they could easily spend the equivalent (or likely more) in having a night out watching a big name event at their local arena. These festivals are a focus for celebration. The musical variety on offer at UTSf 2022 was the widest yet ranging from the Rusby vein of traditional folk acts to the more accessible pop, and indie, the ska and dub masters, ambient moods and comedy intervals and all with a strong international flavour. And that’s if you went for the music so as not to forget the plethora of activities going on for all ages around the site.
Long may they continue and the thought that Kate Rusby and her UTSf family will be helping celebrate ’40’ in ten years’ time isn’t just a pipe dream.
Underneath The Stars Festival website
Categories: Live Reviews