Review: Larmer Tree Festival 2014

0

The Larmer Tree Festival started in 1990 as a one day event with a crowd of 150 people and just six bands. The festival has continued to run every year since, except 1992 making this year’s festival the 24th event to date. Whilst the event has grown, the festival directors are determined to keep this a unique, intimate and independent event refusing several large sponsorship deals and limiting the number to 5000. In modern festival terms this is a pretty small festival with 195,000 fewer people than Glastonbury but don’t let that fool you, with four main stages and a whole host of other things going on, it packs a lot in and Larmer Tree Festival 2014 was an absolute sell-out success. Next year will be the 25th event and by all accounts festival directors James and Julia have something special planned for the quarter century celebrations.

The travel to and from Larmer Tree Festival is best done in a car; whilst there is a bus service which goes within 2 miles of the site it is not frequent and this beautiful location is tucked out of the way in a picturesque part of Cranborne Chase. The festival takes place in the Larmer Tree Gardens which are part of the Rushmore Estate and the estate has been part of the landscape for centuries. The gardens were built sometime in the 1800s after Lt General Pitt Rivers inherited the estate in 1880 and besides the fact that it referred to a tree, the origins of the name ‘Larmer Tree’ are unknown. Pitt Rivers built the gardens (which include a number of interesting buildings) as a place for entertainment so there is a long history of festivities at the site. For quite a long time the gardens fell into disrepair, becoming overgrown and it wasn’t until after the festival started that the great grandson of Pitt Rivers decided to reopen the gardens to the public in 1995. These days the gardens are kept very well and a lot of the buildings have been lovingly restored to their former glory; combined with the peacocks and macaws that live in the gardens, this makes for a magical setting to hold the festival.

Once we had navigated our way to the general vicinity of the festival we followed the brown signs to Larmer Tree Gardens and then some larger hand painted festival signs to the main entrance. Sat nav is unlikely to get you to the site unless you do some research and pinpoint the gardens on a map and this aspect to the journey certainly adds a small element of adventure before you even arrive. We set up camp and entered the festival around 3:30 pm on the Friday, walking in to the sounds of the Hackney Colliery Band – and whilst these guys are cast from the same mould as The Hot 8 Brass Band and Young Blood Brass Band, they certainly offer something slightly different. Hackney Colliery Band’s first album ‘Common decency’ features some saxophone playing from the inimitable Pete Wareham (Acoustic Ladyland, Polar Bear) and this is a hint at the level of musicianship and the fact that these guys can really add some jazz to the mix. As we wandered past the eclectic array of festival stalls to a jazzy brass rendition of the Prodigy’s ’Out of space’ and squawks from the peacocks, the scene had certainly been set.

Friday afternoon and evening saw some fantastic performances from Truckstop Honeymoon, Cardboard Fox, Pronghorn, Stornoway, Samsara and Dub Pistols and as the evening turned to night the weather started to change. The last acts of the night were supplied with atmospheric noises and lights from a positively tropical thunderstorm that came out of nowhere. After weeks of very hot sunny weather, the torrential rain that came with the storm just sat on top of the dry ground and caused localised flooding… We even heard reports that the big top (one of the four main stages) had to be evacuated for fear of a lighting strike. The stormy weather catching everyone off-guard only added to the feeling of adventure that began as we found our way to this enchanted setting.

After a fairly sleepless night due to very heavy rain, rumbling thunder and bright flashes of lightning, people started crawling out of their tents and preparing for the day ahead. With Yoga, Zumba, Thai Chi and various children’s activities starting from 9:30 am, some people had quite an early start. Walking through the campsite towards the festival entrance we passed a line of people queuing for showers next to a little block of posh loos (not your standard portaloos) and this was just another indicator towards the high calibre pedigree the festival has attained in its 24th year. After a quick look around the 2 ‘local corner shops’ setup by the festival entrance (yes, milk, bread and newspapers at your convenience!) we wandered in and by the time the first act started at 11:00 am, the festival site was a hive of activity.

Hot Feet were the first band on Saturday morning and their haunting vocals, intricate guitar parts and sensitive drumming were an astounding start to the day (see the Showcase at the end). By midday, thundery showers were rolling through and Kidnap Alice had to select the most raucous songs from their acoustic bluegrass repertoire just to be heard above the atmospheric rumbling and waterfalls from the sides of the tent. Wet weather did not put a dampener on festivities though and there were still plenty of impromptu street performers entertaining crowds between the main stages.

The line up on Saturday was pretty eclectic ranging from folk, blues and klezmer through to reggae, funk and afrobeat. The afternoon saw a great set from Rob Heron & The Tea Pad Orchestra which felt like going back in time to the 1940s. Hat Fitz and Cara captivated the audience with their boisterous blues that was like a reincarnation of The White Stripes throwing in more gospel and Delta blues than you could shake a stick at. Staff Benda Bilili kick-started the evening followed by Adrian Edmondson’s band The Bad Shepherds and Mark Kermode’s band The Dodge Brothers after that. Boppin’ B were really good fun and got people up and jiving to their German Rockabilly. The energy pouring off the stage during La Chiva Gantiva’s evening set was positively infectious and they had the audience dancing in the palm of their hand. Later in the evening people had a chance to sit down and catch their breath during an impressive line-up of comedy with Lee Nelson headlining.

Aside from experiencing the acts on Saturday, we also had time to check out the culinary delights and were pretty impressed by the variety of things on offer. One of our favourites was a pizza place called Pizza Tabun, knocking out delicious stone-baked-style pizza (obviously they hadn’t built a temporary stone baking pizza oven) for just £7. We were also pleased to note that the festival organisers had insisted on food being served on recyclable materials from renewable sources at all food outlets which meant paper plates and wooden cutlery all round. This was combined with Wiltshire Council providing plenty of mixed rubbish and recycling bins that were regularly emptied, making Larmer Tree a very clean and green festival.

The festivities began just as early on Sunday and there was a decidedly folk theme to the bill with O’Hooley and Tidow, Patch and the Giant, Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin and Myranda Sykes and Rex Preston starting off the proceedings. Later on there was a workshop with Southampton Ukulele Jam and if you’ve ever been to The Talking Heads on a Monday night when these guys get together you’ll know that sheer power in numbers can really take a simple jam on a tiny guitar to a whole new level!

There was a fantastic performance on Sunday afternoon from Marcus Bonfanti who is a one man blues machine with a voice that is powerful enough to stop a freight train and hitch a ride on the bumpers (Seasick Steve style). Fanfarlo performed a good set and the folk theme was continued later on when Steve Knightly performed. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay for the evening so we missed out on some more great music from Tom Odell and an energetic rollercoaster of infectious musical hilarity to finish the festival from the incredible Simon Panrucker.

We weren’t on site from when Tom Jones opened the festival on Wednesday night but I think this quote from one of the festival organisers sums everything up pretty well:

Wow, what a festival that was! From the moment Sir Tom Jones walked on stage on the opening night till the last band played the final chord in the early hours of Monday morning Larmer love was in the air and the party never let up. All I can say is roll on 2015!

– James Shepard, festival founder and co-director

Festival Highlights

For us, the biggest highlights of this festival were the size (small crowds, and not having to walk for miles!), the fantastic setting and the sheer volume of good music in the line-up. Trying to choose a favourite performance of the festival seems like it would be unfair to all the other great bands but there were some memorable moments such as:

  • Marcus Bonfanti waiting for a flash mob of pseudo grannies (Granthology) to finish their dance routine so that he could continue his set uninterrupted
  • Peacocks invading the stage during the Bad Shepherds
  • antastically atmospheric rumbling thunder during Kidnap Alice
  • The Boppin’ B’s double bassist playing upside down.. possibly standing on his head (I have no idea!)

The festival amenities were very good with really clean toilets and very little rubbish due to a huge number of bins being constantly maintained. The line-up of acts was not only full of great bands but it was also well organised with start times being staggered between the stages so that there were very few acts starting at exactly the same time, giving audiences the chance to listen to more good music. It was also nice that a local company, Ringwood Brewery, were running the bars as this meant you could get a truly decent pint of real ale or cider at a reasonable price.

Showcasing

Whilst we haven’t chosen a favourite act as a highlight, there was some particularly interesting new music so we have decided to shine a spotlight on a band that you probably haven’t heard of before. Hot Feet are a four piece folk rock band from Stroud who gave a hypnotic performance during their early morning slot on Saturday. We caught up with them later on to find out a bit more about the band. When I met up with Marianne, Jack, Lachlan and Rob I could see straight away that these guys are good friends and there was no obvious clash of egos, the whole band seem very down to earth. After some brief discussions about what keeps the peacocks and macaws in the gardens, Rob and I decide it has to be food and we move on to when the band formed. Jack pauses to mentally scratch his head and decides that they first formed in 2008 but have since changed a little bit. Rob then expands on this explaining that they all went to school together and have been playing together in various guises for a long time. They are all from the same area and Jack and Marianne are actually neighbours so this probably explains the easy, relaxed feeling I get from them because they are obviously old friends who know each other really well. Rob and Marianne go on to tell me that after university they all moved back to Stroud and for three or four years now they’ve been ‘the core four’. Jack interjects stating that they are ‘very elusive’ which leads me to wonder if they have a group of other people who sometimes join the band. They all assure me that whilst they used to, they haven’t had any additional members for a long time and they recorded their current EP ‘Wood House’ two years ago with the current line-up.

One of the things that struck me about the band during their performance was the level of musicianship and, as a guitarist myself, I noticed that Jack had some pretty interesting guitars and very distinctive playing style. I asked them if this was down to any kind of classical training and they explain that Rob has done a degree in music at Southampton University but none of the others did music at A-level. Lachlan (who up until this point hasn’t really spoken) pipes up and clarifies that they have all been taught by family members and that they come from musical families. Jack then turns to Marianne and says: ‘you have done a little bit of classical singing haven’t you?…. and you were going to be an opera star’ – she laughs this off and says that she had thought about going to classical music college but realised that it wasn’t for her. Whilst this comment from Marianne adds a little bit of mystery and intrigue, it seems to me that growing up together with music in their blood makes their music a very organic, home-grown affair. Their song titles, artwork and photographs also give a homely, countryside feel and I think this solid social and musical background is a great footing for the band.

Part of the band’s info in the Larmer Tree programme is a quote from Marc Riley of BBC 6 Music who describes them as ‘Nothing short of fabulous’. In order to get a quote from BBC 6 Music it seems like the band must have been out gigging quite a bit so I ask about where they’ve been playing over the last couple of years since the EP. Jack says that they toured last year with a friend of theirs named Pete Rowe who was touring with his album and that this was the first tour they had really done as a band. Rob then joins in recounting how they have toured this year with Sam Brookes, another friend of theirs who had also just released his album and Jack goes on to describe how Marc Riley happened to come to a gig in a café in Ramsgate and bought an EP. They were then invited to come in for a session at BBC 6 and Marianne explains how this led onto a Maida Vale session as part of BBC Introducing in the West. The next thing on the band’s agenda is a tour in October supporting a band called Cocos lovers and in the meantime they have a few more festivals to go to and some time to write a few more songs.

We went on to discuss influences as I could hear similarities with some bands from my youth but these turned out to be coincidence more than anything. The band didn’t proffer any specific influences but suggested that their local music festival Womad brought a lot of inspiration. The band are described as folk rock and whilst they do fit into this genre, I feel that it doesn’t quite do them justice since they have definitely got their own unique sound. I wish the band the best of luck with their new EP they are working on and hope to hear more about them soon.

Marks out of 10 for festival

7.8 Wonderful
  • Pre Event Communication 5
  • At Event Communication 8
  • Post Event Communication 7
  • General Communication 8
  • Travel To The Festival 4
  • Arrival At The Festival 9
  • "Festival Experience" 10
  • Toilets 10
  • Security 6
  • Mobile Phone Reception 4
  • All-Weather Planning 8
  • Creative Content 8
  • Dj/Artist Line-Up 9
  • Family Friendly 10
  • Disabled Access 8
  • Food 9
  • Bars & Drinks 9
  • Cleanliness 10
  • Size/Scale 9
  • After-Hours Entertainment 4
  • Value For Money 8
  • Technical Specification 7
  • Sound Quality 8
  • Lighting/Effects/Pyro 6
  • Extra Attractions/Activities 10
  • Local Scene Connection 8
  • Green/Recycling 8
Share.

About Author

Adam is a physics graduate from the University of Southampton with an interest in electronic music. He co-founded Sotonight and was involved with SEMSU and other music-related projects while at university.

Comments