What a wonderfully relaxed weekend of fine music and first class facilities at the Acoustic Festival of Britain. You really could not fault either the calibre of artists or the overall high standards on offer at this annual bash and mainstay of the British festival scene at Uttoxeter Racecourse.
Let’s get one thing straight upfront; the AFoB is almost serene, offering a festival pace that’s low key, no late night scene to speak of, and an atmosphere, design and organisation that is firmly aimed at a more laid-back, mature, knowing audience. It attracts all ages and types of course, but the ethos is deliberately 100% low key and relaxed… the organisers work very hard to create this vibe and it’s all crafted together beautifully. Although thousands attend, the AFoB is an ideal weekend for those seeking a change from a full-on festival experience. It is genuinely refreshingly different. Certainly for this reviewer the whole package and pace of life of AFoB was a welcome respite from the mayhem of other bashes and provided a wonderfully different alternative to throw into the annual festival mix… and that’s before you even factor in the event’s unique ‘Acoustic’ selling point. Ideal for Festival Virgins too – AFoB delivers the ‘festival experience’ but in a very civilised manner. We loved it.
And here’s why:
… Firstly, the artists perform their varied portfolios of work in an acoustic format - although some acts appeared more liberal than others in their interpretation of an ‘acoustic’ set ! If you've never experienced the Acoustic Fest before then think of MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ sessions and you will not go far wrong. The performances are, of course amplified, but most of the music is presented in a more stripped down acoustic format without much of the whistles and bells of many album versions. The effect is wonderful as it provides a rare opportunity to hear your favourite artists present their work in the format that it was originally written. FFA were amazed at the different perspective this simplicity of presentation offers. There was a clarity and poetry in the lyrics, and layers of nuance that you may simply have missed in the final (over?) produced commercial versions.
… Secondly, the facilities are simply first class. The loos, on and off the arena, were virtually all executive unit, fully featured, flushing affairs – more Royal Garden Party than festival field! In a rare break from festival convention for an event of this size, you can also park right next to your tent! Uttoxeter Racecourse is flat with paved roads and the camping is great. For those with pushchairs or mobility issues you simply could not ask for better. Facilities for the disabled appeared first class too.
… Thirdly, the site is compact but perfectly formed. Given the somewhat, erm, blustery conditions, there was plenty of cover with two huge bar tents, each with their own performance area, another music tent, and of course a large main stage. Incidentally, this reviewer could not really fault the sound quality on the stages, particularly in the high winds and noise level constraints impacting this, and many other festivals’ weekends. With plenty of stalls, eat-in cafes, and peripheral activities like the hugely popular Ukulele workshops, coupled with the staggered stage timings, there was enough to keep everyone happy. With a very decent choice of real ales and ciders available starting at £3.50, the site entertainment certainly kept FFA happy bunnies.
… Finally, the Humanity. There is an all-embracing warmth about Acoustic Fest. It starts from the festival organisers and radiates outwards. The stewards and army of ever willing volunteers are wonderful, and the crowd are universally friendly, easy going, and up for a good time. There is a genuinely lovely atmosphere at AFoB.
But what of the music? The acoustic element drives the festival. It can be a very broad church with blues, roots, and folk / folk-rock at the forefront. Whatever the label, the diversity and quality of the line-up was impressive. FFA never saw a below average act. It’s all opinion at the end of the day but here are just a few of FFA’s musical highlights:
On Friday, Sons of Clogger set the tone with a raucous set of good-time folk rock on the main stage, before an immediate change of pace witnessed the enchanting Harriet! in the Solar Powered Big Top. A young singer-songwriter of great talent and a very enjoyable set. Next up the Outcast Band produced one of the sets of the entire festival weekend … and it was only Friday afternoon! Powerful, dynamic music and stage presence, witty banter, and first class instrumentalists, these guys are a class act and should, in a fair world, which it isn’t, be huge.
Headliners Big Country were simply magnificent. Polished, showy, musically astute, and with an old troupers eye for entertaining a crowd, they had the place rocking. In a nod to bassist Derek Forbes Simple Minds roots, the crowd were even treated to the intro of ‘Waterfront’. Excellent stuff. A great band to close the main stage. Later we caught Funke & The 2 Tone Baby. Another illustration of an imaginative line-up. Although literally a ‘one man band’ young Mr Turnbull is no novelty act. A very accomplished musician mixing everything from funk beats to blues, this was a great set delivered to a simply overflowing Big Top.
On a wild, windy, and damp Saturday interspersed with bright sunshine (it is the UK for goodness sake), the Moulettes produced a splendid early afternoon set. The ladies in particular were obviously having a good time and their enthusiasm was simply infectious, producing a great rapport with the crowd. Difficult to label and rightly so, the Moulettes take on classically fuelled folk rock and much else in a wonderful combination of styles and genres. Splendid set.
Demon Barbers XL created their usual high-energy funky mayhem and deservedly got a great crowd reaction whilst Hazel O’Connor had the audience eating from her hand over in the bar stage. She is yet another hugely experienced entertainer who instinctively knows how to work a crowd.
All roads let to Paul Carrack on Saturday night. An effortless showman, his wonderful set produced a heady mixture of old and new material. Undoubtedly best audience reaction of the weekend. Most festivals struggle, if ever, to generate those ‘little festie moments’; those times when you feel part of something so special that the memory lives with you for years. Well Carrack produced such a moment in Uttoxeter that night. His rendition of ‘Harvest For The World’ was stunning but nothing prepared you for his lead-in and delivery of ‘The Living Years’. The emotional bond between artist and audience was so strong that the air crackled. This reviewer has rarely witnessed an audience sing with such raw passion. Crowd and Artist as one. I swear people were crying. The humanity of the moment was a rare and beautiful thing. This is why you go to festivals. Wonderful.
Musically, Sunday was a cracking day with From The Jam exemplifying everything the Acoustic Fest is about. In a stripped down to the bones, truly acoustic set, Foxton, seated, playing acoustic bass, and accompanied by the excellent Russell Hastings and some brilliant Tom Heel guest piano playing, was a revelation. The song structures and rhythms, and the sheer poetry of much of the lyrics, were laid bare for all to see. This is why an acoustic format is so informative about the makeup and quality of a band. They were excellent.
Mark Radcliffe & Galleon Blast generated hearty good times to the sing-along crowd in the bar stage before the mighty Merry Hell hit the main stage. This was an immense performance from an outfit that continue to blossom and express a more profound musical and lyrical maturity with each viewing. Musically outstanding with some strong fiddle driving things nicely along, this dynamic folk-rock outfit can still deliver the musical flippancy of tracks like the excellent ‘The Bakers Daughter’ and ‘Bury Me Naked’, but there is a growing depth and intensity to the band these days. Powerful and poignant songs like ‘The Old Soldier’ and new album title track ‘There’s A Ghost In Our House’ rightly received some of the best crowd reaction of the whole weekend. Another great set at AFoB.
Show of Hands in their first open air festival appearance of the ‘summer’, were, as always, outstanding and in fine chatty form. Given recent political events in the UK, and within FIFA as Knightley pointedly referenced , their classic indictment of the rich and powerful elite in ‘Arrogance, Ignorance, and Greed’ has never appeared more apt. In commemoration of the Waterloo anniversary they also delivered a great version of ‘The Blue Cockade’. Smashing stuff. Acoustic Fest always does its bit to recognise and promote talent, so, at the end of the set the band were presented with the coveted AFoB Lifetime Achievement Award. Rarely have artists been more deserving.
Quill closed the main stage later with a hugely entertaining show before FFA finished the night with the frankly surreal The Big Fibbers. It would have been rude not to. They are established AFoB favourites and no wonder. Suitably barmy but with a wickedly comic undercurrent of pathos thrown in the mix, they are two very funny and very entertaining coves.
So, there you go. The Acoustic Festival of Britain offers excellent music, a unique acoustic theme, a great atmosphere, and a relaxed festival experience without any of the rough edges. It just might prove to be your bag you know.
Article by Barrie Dimond