It’s the first time that we’ve attempted a festival with our children. But what better event than Underneath The Stars, the annual not-for-profit music and arts festival just outside Barnsley, South Yorkshire?
Now in its eighth year, this bucolic festival nestled in rolling hills and forest was set up by the production company and record label behind folk singer Kate Rusby (‘the nightingale of Barnsley’). Since launch, it has built a reputation for the quality of its programming, which embraces a broad range of music. In 2022, it’s covering bluegrass and ska via traditional brass bands, folk and, no word of a lie, 1970s school assembly songs – thank you, Jason Manford.
Crucially for me, it is billed as family-friendly, which made it the obvious choice for our inaugural all-in family event. Arriving on Friday morning, the tone of the weekend quickly became established by the warm welcome we received from the helpers, who were strategically placed to keep the influx of attendees proceeding smoothly towards their camping pitch.
The camping is arranged over a number of fields, starting with the posh glamping field for people who had sprung for a pre-erected yurt, and filling up as and when people arrived, finishing with us in our aged tent at the other end of the track in field five.
But this festival is about quality rather than quantity. So, even at the furthest reaches of the camping site, we were still only about a five-minute walk from the main arena. Each field either has, or is next door to, a row of remarkably clean toilets and hot showers.
Tents set up, we headed straight into the arena to grab some refreshments (The English Indian, Habanero and Yardbirds quickly became favourites, as well as the locally-brewed gooseberry beer). Then we found seats in the Planet Stage marquee for N’Famady Kouyaté, a Guinean-born player of the balafon, a traditional West African wooden xylophone. His prodigious and dynamic performance set a standard that I feared would be difficult to maintain all weekend. But I needn’t have worried.
The rest of Friday passed in a whirlwind of world-class entertainment – highlights being an exquisite set by This Is The Kit and a stunning performance by Imelda May to a hugely appreciative audience.
Saturday dawned slightly damply, but the fantastic ska band Flatcap Carnival had the whole of the Little Lights marquee up and dancing before I’d had a chance to hit the Elderflower Gin Fizz. Then it was a quick hop over to the other stage to experience festival favourites, The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican.
This local group performed covers of hit songs with a comedy twist (Chris De Burgh’s The Lady In Red, for example, becomes The Lady In Greggs) and they deserved every bit of the riotously enthusiastic reception given by the packed house.
It is hard to pinpoint the best of Saturday’s performances because everything was remarkable. The beloved Brighouse & Rastrick Band with their mesmerising harmonies, the sweeping musical landscapes from Penguin Café, the super-funky Haggis Horns – every act was a winner.
Special mention, however, must go to the enchanting Kate Rusby, who is celebrating 30 years in the music industry. She alone would have been enough of a treat, but to mark this anniversary she was joined by a stage of other folk musicians, as well as her two daughters and her parents – you can’t get much more ‘family festival’ than that. It was a privilege to be there.
The Intergalactic Brasstronauts dropped like a depth charge into Sunday morning and got the crowd to their feet with a wild blend of ska, electronica and dub, led by the charismatic front man B. Dubs. Meanwhile, An Audience with Jason Manford was heartwarming and hilarious, and the sing-a-long rave medley of school assembly songs was a standout moment.
Further highlights of Sunday included a wonderful banjo set from Damian O’Kane and Ron Block, and a sublime performance by The Young ‘Uns, whose ability to keep our 15-year-old rap-loving son engrossed for an hour with their folk songs was testament to their brilliance.
In fact, as families with teenagers know, new experiences (especially ones recommended by parents) can be greeted with disdain. But there was magic in the air at Underneath The Stars and our children willingly attended pretty much every act over the weekend, many of which were well outside their usual listening range. This fact alone made it well worth spending a few nights in a leaky tent.
This is a festival that knows what it’s doing: the two stages host alternate acts with time for the audience to move between them, and it runs like clockwork. There are helpers everywhere, all of whom are genuinely happy to lend a hand. The whole thing feels as though it has been created by people who care.
We had the most wonderful time together as a family. Our children are already asking if we can go back next year. We are now looking for a new tent.
Underneath The Stars Festival was held July 29-31, 2022 in Barnsley. To check out the festival’s website, click here.