Cotton Clouds Festival
Saddleworth Cricket Club, Oldham
16/17th August 2019
2019, its third year. Cotton Clouds music festival prides itself on fusing established artists, as the headline acts, with up and coming talent. Local bands (plus some from further afield, too) have the opportunity to play to a crowd ready and waiting to hear them. The musicians relish the opportunity, with the chance to grow their fan base. The audience are pumped up for it. All the ingredients are there for a great time to be had by all. With two smaller tents and a central stage, they have plenty to offer. All that’s left is to apply the gas, and get the mixture cooking.
First up are Agbeko. Their sound might be well described as “Madness on acid”. Like Suggs and co., they are a full troop of performers on stage. A brass section is within it, but not as a typical orchestra set up. Nothing’s typical about this lot. There are dancers, a strong lead singer and drummer, plus a number of instruments – flutes, trombones and a tenor saxophone, too. Imagine a rave version of calypso; or a calypso version of rave. This shouldn’t be read as the band not knowing who they are musically, or lacking direction. They’re a skilled lot, able to successfully fuse multiple genres of music – funk, jazz, hip-hop style beats too. They make all of this look easy. What’s definitely simple is getting involved in the music: very few in the good-sized crowd, gathered in the Festival’s Spinning Room tent, were still. A brilliant early act to get things going.
Over in the other tent, the Tim Peaks Diner, is Satyr Play. They don’t have the numbers of Agbeko, but make up for that with a tight sound of their own. A rock-based band, with neat songs and plenty of ability to hold their own, they own the stage, and share their talent with an eager crowd. The vocalist’s delivery is one that has that rare ability to sound like it must have been around for years, but also without being generic. Clever melodies and a well-kept back line of drummer and bassist impress. No strangers to performing, this group will still have been happy to show what they can do to those seeing them for the first time. Hard to think of as a warm up act, Satyr Play could have easily have been here to top the bill.
Between the two tents, spread out in a loose horseshoe shape, are the other essential parts of a festival. Food stalls (more on them in coverage of tomorrow’s revelry), well stocked bars and a few other highlights. Fire breathing is amongst them, as well as similar carnival activities like dancers and jugglers. For a smaller festival, make no mistake, Cotton Clouds has plenty to show off. Amongst it is Ash, playing on the main stage. Stalwarts, they do what they do best and get people moving to songs that haven’t seemed to age one bit. They draw a strong crowd, who appreciatively give them a huge cheer and loud applause, as their set ends.
Before the main act of the first night, She Drew The Gun have something to say in the Tim Peaks tent. A fusion of sounds, rock mingled with synthesizers, this innovative unit seems to focus, evidenced by the lyrics, on how hard it is to keep a free mind in the society we live in today: the politics of the mind is what their music is concerned with, individual liberty, in the face of the constant bombardment by oppressive forces. The music itself drives this message home, and invites a sort of unity and tacit knowingness amongst the crowd. It’s the same feeling you might get at a James gig; understanding, and a clear empathy from the band’s songwriters, of current society. Relevant, talented and enjoyable.
Main stage and the main act: Hooky and his band. “Salford Rules” is daubed across the speakers, in what looks like Tippex. There’s no fancy stage set up or theatrics, other than powerful lighting, standard at a Peter Hook gig. There’s not one, but two bass players, essential, for that raw, guttural sound that is trade mark Joy Division. The opener shows how important the choice was for a double blast of heavy backbeat. It creates a sensation like no other, threatening, but beautiful. The songs that Hooky helped to write have an ability to summons something, and transmit it – a glimpse into the nature of frailty and the chaos of being alive. The performance of tonight epitomises that as the lights, synchronised to the sound, make the effect of a sort of consciousness. Darkness conjured, and then transposed into a performance able to resonate with everyone and create that rare, untouchable but tangible energy that binds and unifies individuals. Prayers, maybe, without the dogma or stigma.
After playing She’s Lost Control and various Joy Division gems, Hooky pulls out the New Order stuff – perhaps lighter, but none the less powerful in its own way. A perfect counter balance to the trance like state Joy Division’s music can create. True Faith is a highlight, with the crowd chanting the chorus in happy unison. Truly brilliant music, performed with the same enthusiasm it was when it was written, doesn’t stop being potent. Yes, it’s been heard before, performed hundreds of times, but never then, not in that moment. That newness is created by the environment created. Artist and crowd merge, to make an experience that can’t ever be bought. Many tried to capture some of it on phones, but being there, hearing it and watching others in the moment is the real stuff that can’t be bottled. It never should be. The belief in the message and ability for music to do that is never more alive than a performance such as this. The old, kept new by will and desire. Shared experience is everything. Hooky knows. He knows, and takes time to show this, with the occasional shout out to everyone there, his people, that make the process possible.
The encore: Love Will Tear Us Apart. Expected, not predictable. The whole place goes to the next level and a buzz can be felt that only this sort of appreciation of a moment can bring. Kids are mounted upon the shoulders of their parents; arms are waving frantically and the chorus is being blasted out like the Manchester anthem it is. Absolutely the perfect end to the opening night of a fantastic festival. Roll on tomorrow.
The C33S are the first group seen on the Saturday. The sun has also made an appearance. This lot is your traditional rock 3-piece outfit: tight and no messing about. It’s clearly not their first rodeo. They hold the own on their main stage, and everybody watching seems suitably impressed. Good songs, tons of energy and a great attitude. They thank fans and are off to a cracking start.
Over at the Spinning Room tent, Hey Bulldog are up. No strangers to the local scene these boys frequent the likes of Jimmys Manchester, as well as offering their support to many colleagues, opening for them. Their set gets people coming in, to check out the unique music; it’s the sort of mesmerising sound that is capable of drawing people in. Think heavy rock, with a psychedelic overtone: phenomenal guitar-driven goodness, with a sturdy bass to root the whole thing, and a pulsing drumming unit, to push it all forward. Amongst their set is their recent summer release, California, a taut piece, that makes the best of all they have. Hot property on the Manchester music scene, this lot are on the rise. Watch and listen out.
Following on are Good Cop Bad Cop. They continue the psychedelia, offering up their own version. They are powerful, innovative and the perfect choice for the afternoon of the main day of the festival. Hammering through their set, this outfit makes the most of vibes of the day, and don’t hold back. By the time they’re done, there’s no doubt: the audience verdict is definitely Good Cop. That same audience sticks around for Big Society who are next. The changeover is brief, keeping the momentum that is building. An indie outfit, with strong harmonies and a drummer who chips in with backing vocals, Big Society are another example of why people come to this sort of event: up and coming talent.
A festival wouldn’t be a festival without great places to eat (the drinking speaks for itself – well stocked bars seemed to be managed wonderfully). Cotton Clouds provides that. Particularly memorable are Grandpa Greene’s Luxury Ice Cream and Piadina Pronto in the VIP section. There’s a small tent in the middle of the arena manned by Wet Records, with a nice selection of records, DVDs and other cool merchandise, including badges. Also fun are the giant puppets being paraded in the middle of the arena – 15 foot or so creations, the work of a local company, first founded by Iain Mellor. Chatting with him, he said their stuff is often used as far afield as Trinidad and Tobago, and other places known for carnival.
At the Tim Peaks tent, Lines are a standout act for sure. Fierce drumming that seems to promise, not threaten, lift-off. There are just three of them: no more are needed to do what they’re doing. They show exactly what can be done when a band know what they want, and how to do it: punk. They stomp and pump their way through the set, joined by the inspired crowd.
Every year there’s been a “secret gig” at Cotton Clouds performed in the VIP section, an impromptu acoustic set, from one of the artists. This year sees Jon Mclure and Ed Cosens from Reverend and the Makers. The short bonus performance includes Motown hits, and a Beatles number: their version of Revolution, which has everyone gathered in the small area smiling and jiving. Great choice, great version. Plenty of fun.
Speaking with Ed immediately after, I ask how he feels about the short show he and Jon have just put on. He replies, humbly, “if in doubt wing it”, before laughing. That certainly isn’t the case. A time-served act, they give “effortlessly” a brilliant extra feature. Jon is also available for comment, ahead of their set on the main stage. I ask him he thinks of the festival and he states that “It’s great, lots of local groups, a real grass roots feel to it. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time. We’re delighted to be here playing and be a part of it. Looking forward to getting on the main stage in a bit and giving it some!”. I mention to Jon that he seems to have brought out the sunshine and he replies that “It never rains on the Reverend”.
Back on the main stage the House And Garage Orchestra are up. A project that fuses popular dance songs with the sound of a traditional orchestra, they were early pioneers of this concept, being established way before other similar acts. Before he goes on, I speak with Alex, aka DJ Shy Cookie, who tells me that he was involved wit the production process of many well-known dance hits, and so loved to push the limits of them and see what could be done. They get people grooving, reminiscing and make the most of the sunshine. An impressive act to watch, the time and energy in pulling this off is clear to see. The mood is set and if they haven’t before, this lot gets everyone busting out their moves, swinging their arms, nodding heads and smiling.
Reverend And The Makers enjoy centre stage too: they build on an already great atmosphere, doing what they do best. A real festival experience of a set – upbeat, McLure dances about on stage and seems to have had his Weetabix. He meant it, earlier – they really were looking forward to putting on a show. Song after song comes, and they seem to tap into the exact feelings of the whole day – fun, celebration and partying. They are here for a good time too; they help make it, and the audience pays them back. When they play their last song of the night, the loudest applause yet can be heard. Not that it would have mattered if it did, but Jon was right. It doesn’t rain.
Happening simultaneously are two more sets, before Saturday night’s mainstage headliner. Tim Burgess, Festival collaborator, is on stage in the Tim Peaks Diner tent. Joined by the Anytime Minutes, his band for the night, he works through a series of solo material and Charlatans numbers. It’s an intimate affair, and a different side to the usual stadium antics of Tim and the Charlatans. It’s a memorable performance and one that was definitely an “I was there for that one” moment. Over the way are Hyde Park Brass, who are every bit the party band. They help show how variety offers new ways for people to enjoy themselves and the diversity in entertainment. Make no mistake though, they are neither a gimmick or light relief. They know how to put on a good time, and make sure that everyone listening is having exactly that.
It’s time. The Wailers come on, on time: everything has led to this – a perfect way to wind things down, but before that, there’s some serious revelry to be done. The unmistakable beat of reggae begins to pump out and the vibe is transmitted, as if a touchpaper has been lit. The hits are brought out, and everyone get a reminder of just how special those songs are, and that they work best when played live, with the audience becoming members of a sort, an integral part of so much of what is being communicated. Love, peace and the power of unity and harmony. It just wouldn’t work without the audience. Buffalo Soldier, Three Little Birds and I Shot the Sherriff are all there; collaboration occurring at its finest. Artists and crowd, bonded into one entity.
Half an hour or so in and things are in full swing. The sun has started to set and this is the culmination of so much planning, the final act of an incredible day’s celebration of music and the culture of enjoyment. Old and young alike are there to see this band, how it should be. One Love plays out and the proof is abundant: music can break down any barriers, bring people together and put anything else going on in the outside world on hold. It could have been anywhere in the world, but it isn’t – it’s Saddleworth and that’s what helps to make it so special. In this generally sleepy valley, the sound of good times fills the air, and can be heard for miles around.
Hard to accept it’s over, the sun descends, and the moon comes out, as if to call time, as well as offer its blessing. The Wailers performance and the crowd’s enthusiasm for them and love captures the whole vibe of the weekend’s magic. Phenomenal sets by an eclectic and enthusiastic number of bands, and unbelievable value for money, Cotton Clouds 2019 may have taken place in a field easily connecting the three tents, but it can’t be called small. It dreamed big; the fans have come out in force. A resounding success, making memories which will no doubt leave many feeling the party is still going on, long after sunset.
Words by Benjamin Francis Cassidy. to read more of his work, check his author profile.
Photography by Steve Hampson, images not to be used without permission