Looe Festival: Cornwall – live review
Looe Live
Looe Cornwall
September 20-22 2019

Last year, Looe unwillingly hit the headlines when its unique music festival folded without warning just three weeks before it was due to take place. Initially, locals here were struck by a sense of bewildered disbelief that such a critical event had so dramatically crumbled; Looe is a seaside town where, as with most seaside towns, much of the local economy depends upon an increasingly short-lived and vulnerable (to both the fickle British weather and broader financial variables) holiday season, and as such the festival had come to provide a critical late-in-the-year boost to the business community’s collective coffers. With so much already planned and paid for, pulling the event wholesale quickly felt unthinkable – but was it realistic to think that anything could be salvaged with only a bunch of wide-eyed plucky volunteers to rescue the sunken vessel, dry it out, and float it once more before the month was out?

With the help of many, many more volunteers, some of whom were rather less wide-eyed and came armed with essential skills, advice, and cold hard event management knowledge, coupled with a ferocious fundraising campaign and some overwhelming financial donations, that ship did indeed sail once again, against every conceivable odd. Last year’s slightly dubiously dubbed ‘Looe Saves The Day’ festival rose unsteadily from the ashes, battered by storm force winds and torrential rain (that gave an extra finger to the event, just in case anyone was becoming too complacent), laying out a free long weekend of music throughout the town and on a hastily constructed main stage in the car park by the harbour, bolstered by performances from a few of the artists that had been booked (and paid in advance) for the Looe Music Festival.

An undeniable success, after Looe Saves The Day was dismantled and the throngs departed, the question still lingered as to what came next, was it too ambitious to hope that this trimmed down event could be repeated, or was even this too much of a stretch for somewhere like Looe to put together when the donations and free expertise took a back seat? Early this year, we got the confirmation: yes, yes it could, and no, no it wasn’t. Or at least, everyone wanted to give it a damn good try before any admission of defeat would be considered.

Looe Festival: Cornwall – live review
With a sweetly summer fair-like vibe, a town-wide bunting bee this summer saw people sewing hundreds of shabby chic flags to deck the waterside, adding a quaintly rustic edge to preparations as the stages began to rise a few days ago, something I invoked further in my day job by encouraging the residents at the care home I work at to assist with planning a thorough decking of our imposing riverside frontage. Sadly this spectacular shabby chic tableau failed to act as enough of a siren’s call to draw anyone to perform for us, but we will regroup and redouble our efforts for next year, for we are not afraid to play dirty.

This year we were back to the two primary stages that formed the focus of LMF, albeit in a smaller format, a covered (a vital component, given the biblical tempests of 2018) main stage in the car park and a smaller BBC Introducing tent on the beach. Very much touted as a community-embracing event, the newly-named Looe Live attempted a broad sweep, encompassing a classical zone, children’s entertainment, performances by pupils from Looe mainstay Sheila’s School of Dancing, the Stand Up To Cancer fundraising mass ‘Grease’ dance on the seafront, street buskers, local ladies’ choirs, school bands, and the chance to meet exotic owls and giant bunnies. It was sadly too cold for me to have snuggles with my favourite, Bert the bosc monitor lizard, and thus I have sulked ever since. It could have been a mess, too thinly spread and without sufficient focus, but somehow Looe gets away with it, the opportunity to escape for a last pre-winter break by the sea inspiring a desire to just jump in and go wherever the tide takes you, cynicism packed away for a few days to be replaced temporarily with fairy light mittens and increasingly poorly-chosen headwear, as is the universally accepted law for festivals everywhere.

Looe Festival: Cornwall – live review
Looe Live kicked off gently on the Thursday evening with the traditional free-for-all warm up, opened by local covers band The Huckleberry Finns. The Hucks have opened every Looe festival since its initial inception, but this year there was an unwelcome additional dimension, the dark cloud that had descended when frontman, festival compere, and genuine local legend Paul Sleeth passed away shockingly at Glastonbury this year. Sorely missed by the town, Paul had made it known that the band should continue, and so it was right and proper that they should fulfil their ceremonial duties with their newly drafted singer, and if the pangs at his absence were impossible to ignore (Paul had a hobby of getting me to photograph him with any passing ‘name’ artist that performed on the stage he was compering; I missed that game this time around), their place on the bill was a salve for everyone who had known him. Which is pretty much everyone in Looe, as it’s a small town and his was a big, big personality. He encouraged my photography and loved my dog – and Looe (and, importantly, my dog) loved him back.

Friday saw the full launch of the festival and brought with it a surprising highlight for me. I went along to see Doctor & The Medics mainly out of a sense of nostalgic curiosity, having been an eagerly impressionable 13 year old when Spirit In The Sky and its iconic goth dancers dominated Top Of The Pops, but you know what? I loved every second. The band was as tight as it comes, with a sequin-shrouded Doc matching the energy and enthusiasm of his surrounding musicians step for step, and there was touching appreciation for the rammed turn-out at 4pm on a Friday afternoon. The sheer flamboyant fun continued with Oh My God! It’s The Church, their brash southern preacher schtick a full-fat day glo blast of holy filthy exuberance – and to young Felix at the front of the crowd, the source of thrillingly colourful new additions to his budding vocabulary. I want to read his ‘what I did at the festival’ essay, his teacher will be delirious.

While Level 42 headlined the main stage with undeniable polish and precision, Saturday marked my first exploration of the BBC Introducing tent on the main beach. In past years, the uproar stoked by the effective closure of the beach to non-festival goers had grown in force, and Looe Live organisers went to great pains to avoid such conflicts this time around. The smaller size of the structure took up less of the already limited space, but the fencing around it was also minimised, with full access maintained for all, ticket holders or not. Over the course of the festival I found this tent to be disappointingly attended (more fool those who failed to stray further than the main stage and pubs), but then, the single entry / exit point might have proved troublesome had crowds been more voluminous. Rosie Crow provided a welcome early salvo of refreshing electronica, skewered by dark themes of murder, suicide, and unsettling mental disturbance, cheerfully narrated with piercingly engaging skill as elfin toddlers danced and played in the sand. You need it.

Devon twosome Moriaty ripped a whirlwind through the tent late in the evening, their furiously intelligent pitted garage blues whipping up a furnace in the dunes (we don’t actually have dunes in Looe, just employ a bit of artistic licence and we’ll be fine). In a festival that can be truthfully accused of perhaps being aimed at a more, shall we say, mature audience, this was where I found a glimmer of new blood in the crowd, elastic limbed creatures who danced like excitable gazelles and who, unlike me, could probably crouch down and, more crucially, get back up again without flailing in a style befitting a punch drunk tortoise. Fully functioning knees, ah, what dangerous magic is this? Moriaty can get the most sluggish blood pumping hard, don’t leave it as long as I did to seek them out.

Sunday brought probably the most anticipated band of the weekend, festival stalwarts Tankus The Henge. Having played Looe several times, any band scheduled against them was in for a rough ride, but competition has never seemed to be high on the agenda for The Sum Of. I’ve seen them live several times, and I still find them tricky to categorise, their loping hypnotic funk rock sounding from those very words to be something I would despise, but I don’t. They’re magical. Fully immersed, The Sum Of don’t seem to care whether you’re there with them or not, but if you are, they’re quite happy about that too. Sold to me once as ‘the best band in Cornwall’ by someone who is both in a band and also married to someone who makes up a quarter of what is arguably the county’s ‘band most likely to’, their unhurried approach to recording and sporadic live appearances have carved them a curious niche, idolised by their peers but unsullied by ego. Tankus meanwhile spread joyous stardust far beyond our little tent in a car park, and I only wish I had been able to actually see anything once evicted from the photo pit – but thus is the downside of a band with such a stellar magnetic central figure as Jaz Delorean and his amazing smoke bomb booby-trapped piano.

Back in 2016, Fun Lovin’ Criminals headlined the Looe Music Festival, and Uncle Frank fell in love with the place hard. He’s returned in one guise or another every year since, often only to DJ or play secret pop up gigs, but this year he headlined Sunday alongside fellow Crim Brian ‘Fast’ Leiser as Radio Riddler. Marginally tipsy and spraying champagne across the crowd – how to terrify all the photographers in the pit with one casual gesture – Frank was in celebratory mood, both because of his endearing love of Looe and because it happened to be his birthday. Thus a lengthy and apparently improvised DJ set preceded the main band show, billowing incense and sunny reggae vibes, conspiring to successfully smooth the sharper edges of a perhaps ill advised mid-life four day drinking binge.

Beyond the two key stages, Looe was heaving in exactly the way it needed to. Venues across both sides of the town were full to bursting, with people spilling onto the streets and harbour from every pub, cafe and restaurant wise enough to find room to squeeze in a performer or two. The slightly confused fancy dress theme of ‘go green’ was maybe a touch too vague for most people, and so I spied only a handful of attempts this year (the return of some of last year’s Vikings was my personal favourite, being a fine display of recycling in action), but it didn’t matter. There are still teething troubles to address, lessons to learn, and changes to make but organisation was smooth, friction minimal (apparently the biggest kerfuffle was witnessed at the classical zone, and I so regret missing that joy), and the mood comfortingly laid back and easy; yes, this is a fledgling festival that has had to fly before all its feathers are dry, but there’s a lot to be said for learning by experience. Cornwall offers a vast array of remarkable original bands, a rich seam that was barely tapped this year, and thus I would love to see less of a reliance on ‘filler’ covers bands in future and more of a genuine desire to showcase the dazzling homegrown raw gems that so deserve the spotlight, but as a work in progress and with a date for 2020 already mooted (September 25-27, book your time off now) the uncertainties and doubts that may have overlapped from last year might just have a chance to finally start to fade.

Shirin Hodgson-Watt

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