Coalfields Festival: Barnsley – live review

Coalfields Festival
14th July 2012
Darton, Barnsley

This Summer seems to have been the worst for festival goers for quite some time. Cath Aubergine, however, was lucky enough to not only find a dry festival but also one where the sun showed up. Read on to find out where this mythical land was.

Mid July in the summer that never was, and the tweets from friends at Latitude look depressingly familiar: yep, it’s chucking it down again. Well you know what? It isn’t in Darton.

Where?

Darton. One stop past Barnsley on the Sheffield to Leeds line, with the M1 slicing pretty much through the middle of it. Village of a few thousand people and a cricket club – which just a week ago was not so much wet as technically underwater. We held our breath. Not really for ourselves, but for friends from Barcelona and New Jersey heading this way. Industrial pumps were drafted into action and by the middle of the week cricket had resumed on the now bright green grass; grass on which by Saturday the sun was shining.

Call it a victory for the little people. Let me explain.

Once upon a time in Darton there was a little festival called M Fest. I have no idea what the M stood for, but it was by all accounts a nice little do, raising money for a couple of local hospices whilst still keeping entry prices affordable and punching well above its weight in terms of musical quality. Then one day Morrisons supermarket decided they wanted in on the festival dollar and started their own festival a few miles away near Leeds, which they called M Fest. It looked rather thrown together, some decent bands buried in a big bucket of chart pop nonsense (seriously: Steps?!) but it was big and powerful and made friendly little M Fest change its name. Thus was born COALFIELDS – a much better name anyway – then last weekend Yorkshire caught about a month’s worth of rain in a couple of hours and the big supermarket-branded shindig was washed away. We, meanwhile, hand over our fivers (as in one fiver each, for a day ticket. I find myself buying a programme I don’t really need just to support them a bit more) and discover the bar is equally non-rip-off-oriented (£1.25 for soft drinks and £2.50 for cans of beer or worryingly generous wine measures) and gather up the international contingent.

Adam disembarked his transcontinental flight to find himself plastered all over the Barnsley Chronicle: “American’s 7000 mile trip to see his favourite band”. The band in question being Exit Calm, Saturday’s headliners; half the band are from Barnsley and it’s very much their territory. Two years ago they headlined their own massive gig at the Civic Hall. Adam came over for that one, too. Quite a few of the people with us have history of crossing international borders in the pursuit of live music, but for most of us it’s an indulgence based on our desire to see our favourite bands in new and ridiculous places; in Adam’s case it’s what he has to do to see his, the colossal expenses of getting people and instruments across the Atlantic is prohibitive in itself for British bands, and that’s before they try and wrangle their way through the ridiculous visa requirements about which LTW has been campaigning recently. So he comes to them, whenever he can afford to, and this time he’s something of a local celebrity and the Barcelona contingent with their thousand mile trip are almost local by comparison.

Anyway, on to why we’re here. So many new smaller festivals have sprung up over the past decade, and they tend to fall into two rough categories. There are the ones cynically trying to milk the market without actually having much of a clue, often called “[insert name of crap town] Rocks” and featuring some reheated Britpop has-beens or never-weres plus the local generic guitar band whose pals love them, and a band who won one of those pay-to-play ticket-selling contests and gullibly expected their prize of a festival slot to be somewhere they’d heard of. Then there are the ones where real care and attention has been applied – and no, you don’t need a bigger budget for this, as you won’t be spunking thousands on people whose bands had half a hit in 1996. There are plenty of people involved in grass-roots music who know their stuff and could assemble a quality bill of emerging talent – and someone in the Coalfields team has done just that. Having bagged the local heroes to headline, and knowing that aside from local people there’ll be quite a few Exit Calm fans making the trip, they’ve stuffed the bill with other bands we might like…

GUILE are the first one we catch. They describe their musical influences as “country, deep south blues, garage, psychedelia, rock n’ roll, white noise”: sounds a bit general, but when you see them play you just know these lads have spent years immersed in great record collections and cherrypicked the elements that make up pure rock’n’roll. You can trace their lineage back through the almighty Spacemen 3 and beyond to the likes of the MC5 and psychedelic era Stones and there’s an authentically retro sound to it all, born, I’m told, from a serious attention to detail when it comes to equipment. The antithesis of all those boring trad-rock-masquerading-as-psychedelia bands that sprung up round the arse end of Britpop they play it like they live it, all dressed in black (aside from the skinny bassist, but he makes up the rock’n’roll points by frequently swigging back wine straight from the bottle), they’re like a British Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and I can’t help thinking that if the exact same sound was coming to us out of Austin, Texas as opposed to Cannock, Staffordshire they’d have a lot more attention on them.

Next up there’s a more fluid, dreamy take on psychedelia from the closer-to-home TWO SKIES. Years ago, now, when they were all very young, Dan Cutts was in a band called Lycasleep who released a couple of peerless and beautiful singles before hitting a rather premature end: the rest of them went on to become the backbone of Exit Calm, but little was heard from the singer until recently. Love them as we do, we’ve missed that voice, floating and drifting around the surface of the music; what we never knew then was that he’s quite a guitarist, too, his shoeless socked feet all over a huge effects board. (I don’t know why I always like this). He, Oliver Harrap on drums and Jamie Cheetham on bass make a sound that ebbs and flows; gently melodic verses crashing into walls of sound which are progressive, a bit trippy and so much greater than the sum of three people should be.

Google TOBA CALDERA and you will learn more about Sumatran volcanic craters than you ever thought you wanted to (or is that just me?) but somewhere down the page you may find Barnsley’s best kept secret. Five young men who at first glance – physically and indeed musically – could be one of those post-Oasis bands that blokes like to hold pints up to, but delve a little deeper and you’ll hear desert psychedelia and stoner blues, Swervedriver and Queens Of The Stone Age.

At which point we realise it’s actually a beautiful evening outside the tent: long shadows crossing the grass, kids running round – it goes without saying this is the sort of festival to which you could take a young family without ending up stressed or out of pocket. We go for ice cream. And chips. We don’t know how long this summer’s going to last, so we’re going to make the best of it. RICHARD WARREN is setting up on the main stage – never an enviable task, holding a prime time slot on the main stage of a festival (even a little festival) when you’re just one man and one guitar – and let’s face it, he’s not exactly the jolly-strumming-all-sing-along sort of one man and guitar act either. He’s pretty bleak, cut from a similarly world-weary cloth as Josh T Pearson (whom he’s supported) and Richard Hawley, of dark country blues with a shimmer of light from his rich, chiming guitar. Never really the rabble-rousing type, he (maybe) realises that what he is actually doing is playing an intimate gig to the small group of fans and other interested parties at the front while a festival goes on further back, so he can pretty much do what he likes: a haunting and echo-laden instrumental, for instance, is as far as you can get from conventional “festival fare” but truly magnificent.

Normally at this point in festival proceedings – half an hour before the headliner you want to see – it’s a mad scramble as those who need the toilet go and wait in some soul-destroying queue while those who can hold on hit the bar scrum and emerge twenty minutes later with as many pints as they can carry. Not here. The cashless bar is supremely efficient (and the gentleman sitting in the corner selling the tokens equally so) and the three to four minute wait for the facilities the longest we’ve had all day. Credit for the latter is due partly to a pretty innovative solution to the fact that men, at festivals, when they’ve had a few beers, will generally go and relieve themselves against walls or trees. Not that I’m complaining about this – we’d have to queue twice as long for the portaloos if they didn’t – but it’s not very nice and probably not good for a cricket pitch. The Coalfields solution: a sandpit with a sign saying “Wee Here”. Sort of a litter tray for blokes, if you will. Brilliant. Anyway, enough about that (it’s included merely to illustrate yet another way in which Coalfields sets the standard for how to do a small festival properly) – we’re all ready and down the front with fifteen minutes to spare. Awesome! (as our New Jersey visitor is prone to saying). I go and get some candyfloss, just because I can.

Six years after they emerged from the ashes of other bands, two years on from the release of their generally well-received debut album, EXIT CALM finally get to headline a festival. It’s not the considerably bigger festival they deserve to be headlining (that’s not meant to be in any way disrespectful to Coalfields – if the band were headlining one of the corporate-sponsored enormofests I certainly wouldn’t be there, and not just because of the ridiculous ticket prices) but you know, it just feels right. Especially given that the as yet unreleased material which makes up a fair proportion of the set tonight actually sounds stadium-sized: not stadium-sized in a pompous, flag-waving kind of way, just – well, like Exit Calm, only bigger. If you were not hitherto familiar with what that was, think Doves, early Verve, Puressence even as a starting point; add scything guitar which tends more towards Kevin Shields shapes than traditional riffing; underpin with rolling bass grooves and explosive drums; top with genuine passion – there’s no weak link in this band. They’ve even got the confidence now to drop a much-loved anthem and early single from the set for what I’m pretty sure is the first time that I’ve seen (and I’ve seen them quite a few times). The crowd love them and there’s even a crowdsurfer, although the mass down the front is as friendly as you could wish for, and as singer Nicky Smith gazes out across the crowd with his arms outstretched it seems the band are enjoying it too.

In a summer where some festivals have collapsed due to poor ticket sales and others have been rained off, it seems like some sort of natural justice that a little festival based on the sound principles of good music and good causes came out smiling.

All words Cath Aubergine. More Louder Than War articles by Cath can be read here. Cath mainly writes for the website Manchestermusic.co.uk, another Manchester based culture & music website.

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