Off The Tracks 2016 proved once again why this festival holds such a special place in the festival hearts of all those in the know. There is such an atmosphere here, a magical vibe that money simply can’t buy. It’s a rare and precious thing. In an age where so many of the larger festivals never quite match the sum of their parts, Off The Tracks simply excels – proving, I guess, that small is indeed beautiful. There is nothing impersonal or mass-market about Off The Tracks. Twenty eight years honing that vibe helps of course, as does the rather unique location. The festival is held in and around converted farm buildings near Donington. The site is a year round business featuring a hotel, a proper large pub and function rooms, diner, and formal campsite – including good old brick built facilities. The festival also uses the farmyard, courtyard and outbuildings to dramatic effect. A major attraction with September’s Summer bash is that it’s mostly undercover. Many regard Off The Tracks as the perfect end-of-season jamboree – park the wellies for the year, forget the weather, and enjoy some creature comforts.
All the many facets of the above helps to set the scene of course but the main reason why Off The Tracks consistently produces such fabulous weekends is the PEOPLE, and that’s how it should be. It’s a badge of honour claimed by many events, but this is surely one of the most friendly, passionate, knowledgeable, idiot free festival audiences you could wish for. No one is in your face but I defy most people to leave Off The Tracks without a new bunch of friends. The camaraderie makes the air crackle. Indeed as one of the festival organisers commented in a recent FFA Interview, many of the Off The Tracks crowd return year after year, often camping with the same cohorts, to renew old acquaintances, chew the fat, and, well, have a bloody good time.
It’s impossible to typecast the crowd. One of the countless delights of OTT is the sheer diversity of the audience - all ages, ethnicities, and world views merge together into the OTT melting pot, each prepared, for a few days at least, to leave their hassles at the door and share collective pleasure in good company and good music. It’s a comfort zone thing. It’s lovely.
This reviewer has often compared Off The Tracks as more House Party than festival. It’s small enough to fully immerse yourself – but large enough to simply chill out. Everyone plays their part here. There is plenty of creative malarkey to keep the kids happy throughout the weekend and the festival also hosts it famous beer festival, featuring around seventy ales and ciders. Mind you, the OTT crowd managed to demolish most of the stock by Saturday night. At ale prices starting from around £3.30 a pint, some decent stalls, and the diner selling their own estate produced venison amongst much else, both body and soul are well tended for at OTT.
Off The Tracks is a truncated pleasure - 7pm Friday through to 6pm Sunday. No wonder the first night is Giddy Full-On Friday! This reviewer has done the rounds and would still place the OTT Friday night vibe as one of the best. It’s an absolute banker for a great night – whoever happens to be playing. It’s a throwaway line but the festival is bigger than the bands at Off The Tracks. Don’t get me wrong; there were some stunning acts performing here, but they are rightly secondary to the overall festival experience. Important yes – but just another facet in the jewel that is Off The Tracks.
Where did the weekend go? FFA saw some great acts, and missed lots more. Here are some highlights of what we can remember! It’s not inclusive – if you were one of the lucky hundreds to attend you will surely have your own moments – this is ours…
Friday we found ourselves socialising in the bars until all hours, but Hugh Cornwell really kick-started the whole shebang with a fine set - including enough Stranglers material to keep the casual listeners in the early evening crowd happy bunnies. Main event Treacherous Orchestra played a great headline set through until midnight. It may have been the excellent mixing (oh come on – a deserved big up all weekend – and there were eleven of them in the band!) but the band sounded darker and more hypnotic beat driven rocky that I remember. This was no bad thing. There was an edge here that I must have missed previously. The band are high energy and the crowd was bouncing. A great Friday night headliner. Erica rocked up the Black Barn to a fair old crowd reaction before we finished with the excellent Steel Threads – or perhaps Steel Thread - as the guy was solo! A perfect backdrop to the real ale bar and great late night festie scene into the early hours.
Saturday produced arguably set of the festival for this reviewer at least – The Della Grants were stunning. No wonder the organisers were shouting their praises before the event. What a find, and what a blues band. They morph blues with R&B and intertwine with a rock beat that works perfectly. Maxx Manning possesses a damn fine blues voice and guitar style, whilst cohort guitarist and gob-iron man Tom Best provides the double frontage with some excellent leads and harmonica breaks. Confident enough in their own ability and songwriting to keep covers to a minimum this fine band of four accomplished musicians are surely destined for bigger things. It is more than coincidence that Off The Tracks ALWAYS manages to produce at least one lesser known act that simply blow you away each year. Highly recommended.
The specially reformed Rattlers produced some great good-time early afternoon country folk-rock to send the dancing crowd into the beer-break with grins on their faces. Now then, there are some artists who festival organisers simply adore because they virtually guarantee value whatever the crowd, whatever the event. You just know that the audience will be on their feet dancing. It’s a feel-good thing. (Think the Beat, Dreadzone et al). Well, Neville Staple is one of that illustrious number. What an entertainer – and what a back catalogue. This was an hour of absolute class. Staple is a wise old bird and has surrounded himself with a splendid set of musicians – class always shows and the audience reaction was perhaps the best of the whole weekend. Excellent stuff. Festival favourites Ozric Tentacles unique blend of hippy-trippy guitar centric electronica rounded off main stage Saturday with a wonderful set. A great crowd reaction, an extended encore, and a band that always appears genuinely moved by the infectious warmth of the OTT crowd. A great night for music.
The excellent Black Pig Border Morris entertained in the courtyard throughout the day. Nice to still see the traditional Morris blackened face disguise, which only those misinformed who have little understanding of the history of Morris would seek to see in any other, err, darker light. Other festivals who really should know better take note please. The evening ended for FFA with the traditional Silent Disco through until 3am – crazy scenes as always.
Mellow Sunday produced a fine set from Gilded Thieves, a talented young outfit covering most folk bases and well received by the Lazy Sunday crowd. Zimbabwean beats from Linos Wengara Magaya delighted the audience with some great mbira and guitar playing. Lovely mellow Sunday sounds capturing the mood exactly. Leveller Simon Friend’s Seismic Survey closed the festival. The Friend, Doyle, and Cooper three piece produced a hugely entertaining set including some searing new material from Friend triggered by the horrors of the refugee crisis, the odd Doyle number, and a couple of old Friend penned Levellers classics (The Boatman and Elation) for good measure. Friend’s apparent inability on the day to tune any stringed instrument (“he’s lost without a Roadie!” opined Doyle) only served to increase the good humour and bond between artist & audience and did not detract from a fine hour well spent.
FFA could rave about some of the fine acts on the Introducing Stage, or early doors in the Black Barn, or the health sessions in The Energy Orchard, or the… , well you get the picture. Off The Tracks pulled off yet another cracker. They limit numbers to maintain that special atmosphere and keep everything low key but those that do discover Off The Tracks tend to return year upon year. It’s no wonder. A very special festival and a very special audience. It was an honour to be a part of it.
Article & Snaps by Barrie Dimond