Willowman produced a truly splendid weekend. Great site, great atmosphere, great music, and above all else….a great audience. This reviewer has been known to sing the praises of Northern festivals before – but Willowman was one of the most friendliest we’ve reviewed. Mind you – the guys behind this event ensured all the pieces were there already to produce something special.

The site location and design were excellent. Straight in off the A19 no messing, with the layout a masterstroke – designed with a concentration of stages, dance tent and stalls at one end, and at the other a village green affair with the world’s finest chiminea centre stage! This location hosted the wonderful Creative Intentions Chill Out Café and Acoustic Audio Area. This design created very attractive polar opposites; Mad Hatter’s Dance Tent / Willow Wobbly Bar Stage / Main Stage to one end – relaxed chilled ambient vibes at the other. Both wonderful – you could take your pick! Friendly and relaxed stewarding provided yet another refreshing change that Willowman brings to the scene. Nothing too intrusive here. Festivals many times the size could learn a few lessons from Willowman on getting the ingredients right to create the right festival ambience.

Willowman has always prided itself on great value for money with £50 Early Birds available through until May! On-site proved no different with some great pricing on a multitude of food stalls – with Thomas The Bakers taking, er, the biscuit for bargain outlet of the weekend. FFA had never seen so many pastries and cakes consumed with such relish at a festival before. A must for Willowman 2014! Beer was reasonable with plenty of choice – including their own specially brewed Willow Wobbly Ale. The draught beers got even more attractive later in the weekend at only £1 per pint! No complaints about the facilities either – they even provided hot showers and glamping options.

Based at the Hillside Rural Activities Park near Thirsk, this dedicated showground has extensive land drains … no flooding here! Whilst Friday was lovely and Saturday had the odd shower, Sunday provided some bright spells but some heavy showers too. The ground conditions remained perfect with opportunities to chill out on a blanket every single day. Again a refreshing change from some scenes FFA has witnessed recently.

Willowman beefed up their children’s attractions this year … and there were plenty to keep the kids occupied. This really is a family friendly festival. Not to mention the Steampunk theme which ran through the event – on Fancy Dress Saturday most people made the effort. Unlike some, Willowman really is more than just a few bands in a field.

Musically this was the most diverse line-up Willowman has ever presented. Whatever your musical tastes there was something to please on this bill; indeed the sheer quality of artists, whatever their ranking, whatever the stage, provided great value and entertainment. FFA were impressed.

We had such a good time things got a little blurry – but here’s some highlights that we recall…..

Friday really epitomised the diverse nature of the Willowman line-up. For FFA, the festival began with Thatcher’s Bush – and what better! Playing some excellent bouncy Ska, they really got the Willow Wobbly Bar Stage skanking down.

Festival warhorses The Men They Couldn’t Hang followed on and proved once again why their brand of folk-rock has been a mainstay of the festival scene for many a year. Some great sing-along stuff.

Another change of genre witnessed Cardiff’s finest – the mighty Sicknote. They really do know how to produce a high energy charged session. Deep, deep, bass beats had most of the site shaking! They really are worth tracking down if you have yet to witness their electro-techno punk political posturing madness.

Space proved that there is still, er, space, for quirky Scouse indie, with a fine set over on the main stage. Still sounding remarkably fresh, and not solely reliant on their chart topping and singles generating album ‘Spiders’, the guys were in fine voice.

Saturday witnessed arguably some of the best sets of the festival for this reviewer at least, and again illustrated the depth and variety of musical offerings right across the bill that Willowman is famous for.

Flutatious were the find of the festival. They produce a magical mix of Celtic folk-rock overlaid with almost classical structures and dance beats. The flute / fiddle interchanges were simply breath-taking. There was everything from strident Levellers to spaced Peatbog’s influences in their sound; but uniquely Flutatious non-the-less. Certainly one to watch out for.

Blimey, Pikey Beatz! Probably the set of the festival for this reviewer. Certainly for dynamic stage presence, audience reaction, and sheer good times they were unsurpassable. Difficult to pigeon hole musically, they generate some great ska-reggae beats amongst much else. The tent was simply buzzing. It was a performance that encompassed bare feet, dancing guide-dogs, and a pineapple! (You really needed to be there). FFA had been tracking the youthful progress of this band for a few years now and would now endorse them as the Real Deal. Make a bee line for this band when you get the chance. Excellent fun and very fine musically – almost guaranteed good times. You’ll love ‘em.

Another band of note were Weird Shapes over on the main stage. No bubble gum pop with this crew. Arty and creative, a vocal style not unlike Wildbeasts in parts, and mixing complex rhythms and signatures; they yet again proved the sheer quality and diversity throughout the line-up that Willowman promotes. Excellent.

Sadly, a heavy shower stole some of the atmosphere from a fine set by the wonderful Syd Arthur. With a musical maturity belying their years, their Prog sound generated memories of early Caravan. There is no finer complement.

We were blown away by a brilliant set from New Model Army later on the main stage. It can’t be about 30 years on the road surely! They sounded as fresh and as relevant today as ever. Times change – politics don’t with Sullivan hardly able to suppress the grin when announcing that Mrs Thatcher sadly died on his birthday. Excellent version of ‘No Rest’, but there again, there was not a single weak link in the set. Marvellous.

All this followed by open mic plus Sicknote’s club night in the very chilled Acoustic Area – what a night!

Perhaps understandably, Sunday was something of a blur, but we crawled from our pit (we returned later!) to witness Mr Willowman himself, AKA Steve Williams, and The Willowman AllStars front the raunchy yet smoothly seductive vocals of Mo Scott to produce some of the best blues we’ve heard for many a year. With a guest spot from Guitar George Borowski to put the icing on the cake…. This was a great kick start to the day.

3 Foot Ninja produced a blistering set on the Willow Wobbly stage in what was announced to be their last ever appearance as a band. A great way to bow out.

Another rain shower prompted the organisers to switch The Wonder Stuff set to the Willow Wobbly stage. We were privileged to have a band of this calibre up close and personal. The place was packed and the atmosphere electric for a great set. Despite an almost apologetic introduction from Hunt, the biggest crowd pleaser was Size Of A Cow – with virtually all the audience in full voice. As an aside – why do some bands tend to disparage / ignore their most commercial successes? For goodness sake its part of what made you what you are today – accept it and get on with it. Certainly from a festival audience perspective where the majority are casual, rather than diehard fans, play stuff people know! Anyroadup, a brilliant set to end any festival.

Any disappointments regarding the early live music finish on the Sunday night of around 9pm were quickly forgotten with the announcement that the bar would be selling off all its draught stock for a silly £1 per pint! Stampede would be an apt word. To paraphrase myself - ‘Anyroadup, a brilliant way to end a great festival’!

Take a look at the FFA Willowman 2013 Gallery for some excellent photos by Dave Hudspeth amongst others.


Article by Barrie Dimond