LEEFEST – HOW TO MAKE A SMALL FESTIVAL WORK
Cath Aubergine for LTW 2011
We step off the train at Bromley South, unsure of exactly where we are going until we spot a handwritten board on the pavement with a list of bus times. There’s a small gathering – a couple of London hispter types but mostly unpretentious locals – and bang on time, The Big Lemon appears. No, it’s not a big lemon, it’s a yellow bus which, once boarded, feels much like any other bus – except it runs on used cooking fat. Green as well as yellow. We are bound for Leefest, a music festival on a farm a few miles out of town, and this is the organisers’ way of encouraging people to use public transport to get there – you don’t even have to pay for the bus.
LeeFest is small. My colleague over at ManchesterMusic, David Edwards, reviewing Kendal Calling the other week noted that “you could fit the entire arena of Kendal Calling into the West Holts / Jazzworld stage area at Glastonbury and still have room for a few hundred hippies and a cider bus”. Well here you could fit the entire arena of LeeFest into the mainstage area at Kendal Calling. Oh, and a Spitfire just flew overhead. No, a real one. You don’t get that at Glasto do you, eh? The first band we catch is BORDEAUXXX: four boys and a girl with an ace pink bass doing that kind of naÃÂ¯ve pacy fizzy indie pop rock only the very young with can get away with, all full of oh-ohs and ba-ba-bas – unsurprisingly there aren’t that many big names on this bill, but that’s another reason to love the smaller festivals, particularly those a long way from your home. Early slots tend to be packed with local bands and you never know what you might discover there. Case in point…
PROFESSOR PENGUIN. It is, we’re told, a year since their first ever gig here at Leefest – prior to that it had been largely a one-man bedroom project. You wouldn’t know it though, there’s a lot going on here. They remind me of that clutch of little “deep squad” bands (The All New Adventure Of Us; Liam Frost’s Slowdown Family) that sprung up in the wake of Arcade Fire – you know, sounded great due to having a huge great stockpile of instruments and people to play them but were never going to be easily viable for touring. Headcount reckons ten on this occasion, anyway: usual stuff plus a brass / woodwind / percussion corner, and the fact that they sound exactly as we knew they would – that unpretentious yet unashamedly melodramatic sort of big swelling pop – make it no less impressive. There’s something oddly nostalgic, too, about the brass codas on some of the songs, makes a nice change from the strings you usually get in this kind of thing. Ones to watch.
A Lancaster bomber makes a low pass. This doesn’t even feel strange, but this has been an odd week all in all – and of course we are next to Biggin Hill airfield. A quick primer, for those who haven’t heard of it before: in 2006 Mr and Mrs Denny of leafy Bromley went off on holiday leaving their 16-year-old son Lee to his own devices. Lee went and had a tiny festival in the garden, inviting seven local bands and all his mates. When his parents found out (some time after the event, as there had been no damage) they were cool with it and let him do it again the following year. By 2008 it had grown and moved to a nearby school field; by 2009 they were booking bands people had actually heard of and by 2010 they’d relocated out here to Highams Hill Farm.
Lee and his friends and family still run the show (we spot both Lee’s Mum and Lee’s dad, identifiable by spray-painted T-shirts proclaiming such) and it still feels rather more like a village fete than a music festival, although in a good way. There’s just one bar (reasonably priced) and maybe seven or eight food stalls. There are three Swingballs set up, whilst kids can enjoy making bucket-and-spade castles in a massive sandpit. And there are some lovely site decorations and accessories all pertaining to the theme of a house party that got a little out of hand: an upright piano stands in the middle of a lawn bit, and there are a few battered old armchairs and sofas you can sit on.
In the Colin Denny (presumably dad or another family member) Lava Lounge Tent there are picture frames hung at wild angles around the walls. Onstage are the oddly-named PENGILLY’S, from Leeds (although it turns out one of them originally came from Bromley), who have been on my “hitlist” of bands I must see for a while. Another “not just your usual four instruments” type band, they do have strings, alongside keyboards that include retro synths and modern electronics, multi-way vocals and a way with a slow-building post-rock-indie mini-epic or two. And an outstanding re-imagining of R Kelly’s “Ignition” – who knew it was a baroque-pop masterpiece waiting to happen? Unfortunately some of their subtler moments are interrupted by the raucous if rather run-of-the-mill indie coming from whoever’s on the main stage.
BY THE RIVERS are next up on there and represent the unexpected trend for young (mainly) white kids playing ska-soul-reggae. Ahhh, right, I was being a bit slow there wasn’t I… that name… anyway, this lot definitely tend towards the cheery pop end of the genre: if our own Janice Graham Band are the gritty Specials of the new age, these are more UB40: not without a social conscience but lighter in both tone and sound and with a couple of love songs thrown in. They end with a party tune called “Rocksteady” that sees a bit of dancing in the friendly, low-key crowd. Seems they will be supporting the reformed Specials around the country in October, anyway.
Time to investigate the Wonderland tent, a little hippyish affair with garden gnomes, soft furnishings, a stall selling pastel cupcakes, rizlas and feather hair accessories – and 12 flavours of shisha pipe which scent the air rather nicely. Is this a new festival craze, you know, like “oxygen bars” a couple of years ago? There are bands, poets, all sorts on here throughout the day. We catch a band called THE LOST CAVALRY doing some of that acoustic-y organic indie-folk that’s all over the place at the moment, inoffensive enough with a strawberry cider but nothing to write home about. Although technically I suppose I just did. There seems to be a bit of a late afternoon / early evening lull. Still, there are the sofas, and indeed the incredible food innovation that is Bhangra Burgers. As their Ronseal-straight information sheet says, it’s “all the taste and falvour of an authentic curry, in a hand made spicy patty” and wrapped in a flatbread. We can’t vouch for anything beyond the Veggie Chana Masala Burger (meat choices are Bhangra Balti Beef Burger and Crazy Lamb Jalfrezi Burger) but they are pretty amazing. Isn’t multiculturalism brilliant?
GET CAPE WEAR CAPE FLY is next on the main stage. Amazingly this is the first time I’ve seen him in three years – amazing because Sam Duckworth (as he probably wishes he’d stuck to calling himself, now his “Bohemian Teenager” days are long behind him) seems to play at every festival ever. It’s easy to see why – his music is such a mish mash of generally upbeat and easy-to-swallow influences and threads: a bit indie, a bit folky, a bit “World Music” (and I’m using the rather patronising 80s term deliberately here, as the threads Duckworth takes from it are every bit as non-specific). It’s all terribly grown up and safe, with plenty of foot-tapping potential for all the family, but seriously, if I were a parent I would be worried if my kids were into something this “pleasant”. And what does he do when it’s not festival season?
Back in the tent, DINOSAUR PILE-UP (another Leeds band) are very popular too, and for rather better reasons. They’re loud and energetic, their hair is worn at just the right length for a good shake, and sound exactly like the summer of 1992, where second-wave grunge (the less miserable sort) crashed head-on with punky indie and Mega City Four were briefly one of the biggest bands in the country. And everyone wore Converse. Now if someone had offered me a grunge revival I would have probably politely declined, but they’re such good fun. They do two new songs, real punk-fuelled piledrivers with cracking tunes that promise bigger things (they’re already pretty big around Leeds). Now nostalgia for a couple of decades ago is one thing, but I’m not sure I’m quite ready to be getting nostalgic for 2006 just yet. Nothing sounds quite as dated as the sound of five years ago and on the main stage YOUNG KNIVES are doing “Terra Firma” and “Hot Hot Summer”, spiky “post-punk” influenced guitar pop from the days when all you needed to form a band was a copy of Talking Heads’ “Fear Of Music”. They were quite big, these; Mercury nomination, the lot, and they’re without doubt still pretty good at what they do, you just wonder if anyone cares these days.
OK, I’ll admit it – we came to see BRITISH SEA POWER. Or more accurately, British Sea Power were my excuse for checking out this lovely little festival, which I’ve been intending to do for a couple of years. They’re one of a small number of bands whose presence on a festival bill is enough to sell it to me and we’ve ended up at some right strange ones over the years as a result, from the Scottish Highlands in the pissing rain to rural Poland in the pissing rain to what basically actually was a village fete just outside Southampton in the pissing rain. This weekend we were actually meant to be giving them a miss and heading instead for Beacons Festival near Skipton, but the weather put paid to that one and by the time the first notes should have been struck the whole site was under a lake newly formed by a couple of enthusiastic local rivers – se we ended up here. Now I’ve seen British Sea Power at enough festivals to know they are quite capable of shooting themselves in the arse and playing a set that’s too low-key or full of quieter or obscure stuff that leaves everyone outside of their own fans rather underwhemed. Thankfully today they seem to have remembered they’re at a festival.
They blast into life with “Who’s In Control” – we’d earlier debated whether they would even play this, recent-years live favourite and set-started though it is, what with that line about wishing “protesting was sexy on a Saturday night” in the wake of all that’s happened this past week. It feels pretty punk rock that they have, and the rest of the set stays largely in the “sort-of hits and things that should have been hits” part of their repertoire – although they still find time for the towering instrumental “Great Skua” and we look back and see a sea of hands raised. And indeed to confuse the audience somewhat by having a friend dressed in smart clothing and a fox’s head walk slowly around the stage looking mildly threateningly at band members. Still, you can’t go wrong with the likes of “Remember Me” and the singalong “No Lucifer”: festival well and truly owned, all manner of nonsense breaks out at the end with cardboard-and-tinfoil robots, the regular ten foot bear and new fox bloke all onstage. The crows love them.
So, overall impressions of Leefest? Very good indeed. They’ve managed to succeed where other small festivals have failed – and a lot have, this year – by being quite smart about it. Don’t overstretch yourself. Don’t try and run half a million stages when you only need three (four actually, we’ve not mentioned the world’s smallest cutest dance tent). If you can get a couple of big names and some hot up-and-coming bands (Fenech Soler headlined last night; the Whip and Dutch Uncles were also on the bill) then you can fill the rest of the slots with unknowns so long as you have someone on the team who actually knows something about music and can pick good ones. Don’t waste your time and money with the reunion circuit journeymen: for the price of one washed-up second-division Britpop act you can have about 10 decent new bands. You don’t need a vast array of food stands, just cover all bases (meat / veggie; burger / chips / curry; ensure there are doughnuts). They even ensure the profits are split between charity (Kids Company this year) and reinvestment in the event. Sounds so simple anyone could do it, doesn’t it? Which was possibly exactly what Lee Denny was thinking all those years ago.