Underneath The Stars festival – Cinder Hill Farm – 4th-6th August 2023
A regular Summer outing for us as we spend a couple of days across the Pennines at the Underneath The Stars (in a tent – as observed by Roy from Scouting For Girls ) Festival – even making the stage to join The Lottery Winners!
While the likes of the bigger festivals – Glasto and Download spring to mind – both have had their fair share and well publicised bouts of ‘inclement’ weather and the subsequent quagmires, in its short life, UTSf has so far been fortunate. 2023 sees them earning their stripes with a pre-festival, typical Engish Summer rainy season making conditions underfoot a tad tricky.
Credit to the always excellent festival staff for getting campers on site and the festival up and running as the soft green stuff slowly made way for the soggy brown alternative, repeat offenders and debutants gathered on a varied musical bill. Back were the likes of Kate Rusby natch, Cut Capers, Newton Faulkner and The Bar Steward Sons Of Val Doonican (Scott D seen around the site all weekend). A slight disappointment was the absence of a Damien O’Kane set this year. In fact the banjo count this year seemed quite low, but was made up for by some goosebump-raising bagpipes, plenty of brass and an instrument or two you might not be able to name.
The lasting impression of this year’s festival is the sheer variety on the bill – thought-provoking, fun-inducing and thoroughly embracing diversity in all its guises.
Elvis is not dead; “teabagging” and onstage with The Lottery Winners.
Friday is a reminder of how far UTSf has travelled over almost a decade. Less ‘folky’ and certainly more contemporary, some may even recall the days of the ‘loved it / hated it’ set by Radiohead’s Philip Selway (we/I loved it) was standard, but maybe we’re all more forgiving or tolerant these days.
The Often Herd follow the Leeds Conservatoire showcase with some bluegrass from that hotbed of bluegrass…the North East and with Martin Simpson a late, but highly welcome sub on the Little Lights stage, there’s a strong feel for the traditional. Watching Martin work his way expertly around an acoustic guitar with a bottle slide on his little finger, kind of makes a mockery of Scouting For Girls’ Roy Stride’s assertion that Nick Tsang, as talented as he is with his contributions to the diverse pop world, is one of the best in England. One of the best he may well be, but Mr Simpson is possibly THE best.
Having said that, Scouting For Girls create something that hasn’t been seen at UTSf before. Insistent tha their gigs are not places where you sit down, the chair dancers of the Planets stage are easily coaxed to their feet to join the young and joyous throng at the barrier who are singing along and loving every minute. A pop busting adventure where SFG acknowledge their debt to the likes of Busted and the ease with which the finite selection of musical can easily merge into one. We even get a new song ahead of an upcoming new album and of course their upcoming tour gets a plug. Wonder if we’ll get an upsurge in ticket sales for Leeds and Sheffield? Hard to follow?
The Lottery Winners are tasked with following and winding up the first night. How do they manage? “we don’t have any hits like ‘She’s So Lov-er-leee!” suggests Thom Rylance after the band arrives onstage to the Grandstand theme tune. In fact, the intro is repeated while Thom demands “I want you all to go mad like I’m Roy from Scouting For Girls!” before “right, you can turn that s**t off now,” and they head into Worry.
Part comic turn, part party singalongs, and with Katie Lloyd as the grooviest bass player of the weekend, anyone who gets the seal of approval from Frank Turner is alright in our books. Frank doesn’t show, always on tour is his motto. Neither do Boy George or Robbie Williams, but they’re not needed. Definitely something to leave your tent for…It’s genuine A.R.T and if you’re not sure what we mean, check the album…
Earlier up the bill. we’re treated to the Kate Vs Damien game show that has a teabagging (slightly risque but all. inthe best possible taste) including several sights you won’t see every day and the Pythonesque ‘punch yourself in the face’ challenges for the two teams. Belly laughs aside, equally great fun with a storming set of shanties are The Longest Johns. In the battle of the intro tapes, they arrive to the Spongebob Squarepants theme before rattling off a rollicking set with musical accompaniment that shifts from the expected to hammering away on a selection of metal things. Of course they do their ‘hit’, Wellerman as well as songs about beer and beards while acknowledging their sensitive side with Bones In The Ocean. A band who make it a difficult choice for stars of the day.
With their gorgeous harmonies, Lady Maisery isn’t the only outfit on show specialising in lulling with their voices. Within ten minutes they’ve already staked a claim for single performance of the year with the highlight of Three Thousand Miles. We certainly rated their Tender album; one that like their set that brings the best of Tender to the table. A set to make you cry and make you think where covers and originals merge with the common element of aching accordion, harmonium and banjo and fiddle
Honeyfeet is a different proposition with the imposing Rioghnach Connolly wielding her flute, almost inevitably hinting at a bit of Tull. “This next one’s about cannibalism,” she deadpans with a wicked glint in her eye. “The good kind,” – whatever that means and I daren’t really ask… They swing and sway and when they throw in some blues, it provides a nice segue into hailing Elles Bailey. All glittery sequinned catsuit, there’s no doubt that she’s right on top of her game as we’ve noted on our pages over the past couple of years. Risking the front stack of speakers in her not quite, but high enough heels, she belts out a passionate and committed set of soulful blues that rocks with the aid of a crack band. She highlights each one personally but particularly the wonderful Demi Marriner to her right. She’s just dropped her new album (but we knew that having swooned over The Things We Didn’t Say) which gets a plug.
A good day? As Fluff Freeman would say, not ‘arf.
“You’ll never see anything like this!”
Funny what you hear in the pit from the folk leaning on the barrier just before Skerryvore lay waste to the Planets stage on Saturday night. And absolutely spot on. If Scouting For Girls got everyone standing, they got the idea and remained on their feet for an amazing set.
Led by Alec Dalglish, taking a few minutes in the spotlight himself, the Scots islanders took UTSf by the sort of storm whipped up all those years ago at the very first festival when The Treacherous Orchestra went orbital. Decked out in everything from smart jackets and tight jeans to kilts and sporrans, the skirl of the bagpipes – the twin piping the equivalent of the Thin Lizzy/Wishbone Ash twin guitar sound – is enough to send the front pit dancers into a frenzy. Aside from the obvious wild abandon, there are moments of restraint and composure. At one end of the spectrum are beautifully composed, arranged and evocative songs, However, it’s the jigs and reels, given a bass and drum/electronica shot in the arm, that gain the acclaim as Vancouver Island sets the tone for a set that pulls heftily on Tempus.
Electric Jabala brought a splash of colour and world music to the table and lots of “what’s that instrument called?” comments while Alligator Gumbo, brought New Orleans with some jazzy swing and brassy flourishes. The decorative beads and skulls a reminder of their inspiration. The stage right area seemed to have been reserved for brass as Rum Buffalo brought not only their own version of swing, but a bout of Psych Rock with their keyboards offering a hint that we might be entering the Space Rock zone of Hawkwind judging by some well-placed sonic textures, zaps and whizzes emerging from the keyboards. Duncan Lyall, you no longer have the only Moog in the village. The Little Lights stage was surely the place to be to experience cross genre pollination taking place. That’s even without Holy Moly & The Crackers whose slot was subbed by the impressive The Deep Blue who’d already warmed up early doors and had the chance to startle late risers (or early risers again) with their stunning harmonies. The Manchester quartet can’t let Lady Maisery have things all their own way and amidst the electricity, they have subtlety in spades for a short acoustic segment where delicacy showcased another string to their bow.
After wowing Cambridge, Angeline Morrison and the Sorrow Songs Band exemplified folk story telling at its finest. Bringing to life her Folk Songs Of Black British Experience, the set was a genuinely touching and moving experience. The album already acclaimed as a significant work, the set was a highlight from an unlikely source maybe, accompanied by a sympathetic band including Cohen Braithwaite Kilcoyne, Hamilton Gross and Clarke Camilleri, the storytelling and background together with the musical portraits of a handful of characters and their strife (likely the tip of the iceberg) was beautifully executed and totally riveting. Setting a new standard in the genre? Very likely.
Two ‘acts of experience’ graced the Planets stage in the late afternoon. Newton Faulkner, surrounded by an array of instruments and gadgetry on his riser that help embellish his acoustic guitar even had a go at Bohemian Rhapsody. No doubting his catalogue but an unusual choice of cover. His appeal may not be quite what it was; the era of the looped guitar being dominated by the little fella they call Ed, but Newton’s multi-tasking setis always worth paying attention. The Shires also seemed to have found their niche. A healthy crowd at the front again swayed to their smooth country sweetness; songs that are going to be big business when it comes to wedding/first dance selection time. Their work may not fall into the cutting edge and contemporary zones, but they’re a safe bet and easy on the ear.
Joining Skerryvore on another double bill of finales to savour with Molotov Jukebox causing mayhem on the Little Lights stage. The finales have been absolutely nailed this year; top marks, gold stars and extra break time for the programming team.
Sunday saw us back in the warmth of our own beds, but safe in the knowledge of Kate and the Doonicans doing their usual reliable sets on a Sunday embellished with another widely varied bill taking in dream pop, electronica and world music. A finale from our favourite Neo-trad folksters, Elephant Sessions doing what The Lottery Winners and Molotov Jukebox had done on the previous two nights, saying ‘night night’ with an explosive bang in the Little Lights tent. In fact the final pairings of stage closers were the best ever put together in the UTDf events so far. 2024 will find them hard to follow, but as The Lottery Winners proved, you CAN do it!