Northern Soul was out in force at this year’s Ramsbottom Festival. So, in the spirit of an event that has something for everyone, we offer you three different perspectives on the summer’s final festival.
Andy Murray writes….
In the little town of Ramsbottom, deep in a Pennine valley, tucked away amongst its Victorian-fronted pubs and shops and the East Lancs Railway, there’s a cricket club. And one weekend every year, the cricket club turns into a music festival – a bit like Brigadoon, then, but with more pie stalls and less tartan.
What Ramsbottom Festival has in its favour is character, charm and a strong sense of local pride. The site’s true nature would be hard to disguise, but actually it only adds to the character of the weekend, with candy-stripe band tents erected in the shadows of the cricket team scoreboard. It makes very nifty use of the available space, with nary a square inch wasted. The area that hosted a silent disco in previous years has now been given over to an extra music stage dedicated to up-and-coming local talent, a canny, admirable move.
It might be late in the festival season but this year was bathed in Indian Summer sun and no mistake. Quite aside from the bands, by day there was plenty of good family entertainment, such as the appealing vaudevillian antics of Les Enfants Terribles‘ Imaginary Menagerie. Amongst the quieter propositions were Bird, a sweetly inspiring music and puppets performance from Forward Theatre Project, as well as Shadowplay, Walk the Plank‘s enchanting expressionist silhouette installation, seen earlier in the summer at the Just So Festival. And for those unencumbered by offspring, musical attractions included the eerie, beguiling sound of Bridie Jackson and the Arbour, the joyous Admiral Fallow and the gently demented Loop-Aznavour, who saw off the afternoon in striking fashion.
By night the site had more of a fairground feel, as smaller festival goers took their parents home to bed and the amassed youth of Ramsbottom came out to play. As darkness fell on Saturday, ex-Doves frontman Jimi Goodwin generated waves of goodwill, while local lads Thugs on Wolves went down a treat. Their angular-facial-hair-and-polyrhythms indie formula may be a popular one just now, but they also have a spark of something extra that could well set them apart one day.
True to flamboyant form, headliners British Sea Power took to a stage specially bedecked with trees full of fairy lights. Arguably their blistering guitar sound is a bit of an acquired taste, and some faces in the crowd looked outright perplexed: the greatest hits of Snow Patrol this ain’t. But then, many faces were happily enraptured (the band’s “Hello, Yorkshire!” gag went down like a lead balloon, though, and might just have sounded like a good idea backstage).
It’s tempting to think that the festival would benefit from a clearer sense of identity – there are generous helpings of folk and indie in the line-up, but anything goes, really. Then again, it would be a shame to lose that sense of eclecticism. And in a quiet way, over the past four years it has already forged an identity – as a small-scale, home-grown festival buoyed by goodwill and an unpretentious, communal desire to have a good time. Somehow, its Ramsbottomness is actually what makes it.
Drew Savage writes….
Festivals are as much about what you miss as what you see. So I’ll start by apologising to The Gramotones, whose reference points of Elvis Costello to The Band to The Clash sounded great on the radio but I never got to hear them because I was stuck on the M60 at the time.
Likewise, the ska-infused grooves that By The Rivers were producing from the main stage when I finally made it to Ramsbottom Cricket Club got my feet moving instantly – but my stomach out-voted them and I found myself reviewing an excellent pulled pork bap (you may call it a barm, but I’m from the Midlands, me) and a pint of Festival Ale. And how great is it to go to a festival that takes place in a cricket ground and you can get a proper pint for £3.50? If you’ve ever been to a gig in London’s Hyde Park and loved the open air but been appalled at the corporate soullessness of the whole thing and the constant pressure on your pocket once they’ve got you through the gates, then Ramsbottom is a welcome antidote.
I hugely enjoyed my last visit in 2012 and things have even improved a little since then – four stages rather than three, with the addition of an extra, larger, tent. Plus, when I got there, it wasn’t raining.
Naturally, I made the most of that and went straight into the larger tent to check out Racing Glaciers. I was instantly impressed by the depth and texture of their sound even if they weren’t – technical gremlins and monitors not working disrupted the proceedings and the gaps between songs were dominated by debates with the sound-desk rather than banter with the audience. But no matter – from where I was standing it sounded like a lush, swooping indie soundscape that filled the tent beautifully. Racing Glaciers struck me as something of a band at a crossroads – they can turn left and become really cool and studied, or they can turn right and become Coldplay. But it was time on to move on after three or four songs and head over to the main stage to give The Tapestry a go.
I didn’t regret it. Often I listen to XFM in the car and despair at the kind of bland indie landfill that fills their airwaves half the time (The 1975, anyone? No? Thought not) and wonder if there are still bands out there with Proper Tunes. The Tapestry struck me squarely in the stomach and got my head nodding straight away with the kind of bass-heavy indie post-punk that pulses along somewhere between Franz Ferdinand and The Hives, while necks jerk and feet tap involuntarily.
Big choruses and throbbing basslines abound. I realise that The Tapestry’s logo echoes Talking Heads and that Liam the singer has almost certainly bought his shirt from the same stall in the Arndale where I got my white one with black dots that makes me feel like a member of the Buzzcocks. To me this feels like A Good Thing. But sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between whether something’s genuinely good or just matches your own personal tastes. So I look around me and realise that they’ve either got a very strong local following, or they’ve won over the local kids in spades. Heads bob, bodies thrust, and it feels like I’ve wandered into an indie crèche.
Liam thanks the organisers for having The Tapestry back a second year and quips that Michael Eavis is a right capitalist bastard when someone in the crowd suggests Glastonbury as a possibility. “Nah, we’d love to play really,” he says with a smile. And really, why not? They’re one of the musically tightest yet most inventive bands I’ve come across for ages.
Then it’s back to the Smaller Rooms tent and, talking of the overlap between trying to judge what’s good with knowing what presses your own buttons, The Minx‘s brand of new wavey-Clash-y punkiness is so far up my street it’s almost at my house.
The guitarist is wearing what appears to be a Fred Perry with the world champion cycling stripes from the Bradley Wiggins range. These things matter. To me, at any rate. Drums thunder and clatter. Close your eyes and you could be in 1978. The only giveaway to 2014 is the facial hair sported by three-fifths of the band and the presence on stage of a keyboard player (replete with an ‘I’m Orible’ t shirt).
And anyone who can write a song with the refrain ‘Jesus and the Mary Chain, Smashing Pumpkins, Smashing Pumpkins’ is fine by me. The Minx are proper punk rock which anyone who grew up listening to the Sound Of The Suburbs compilation will love.
“It’s our first time at Ramsbottom Festival,” says singer Chris Haddon, who somehow reminds me of Ian Holloway – if the former Blackpool manager was still in his 20s, had a short ginger beard and wore a denim waistcoat with The Clash on the back. “Fucking ace, in’t it?” He’s not wrong, and he could say the same about his own band.
But it’s time to leave the tent and brave the light drizzle because The Levellers are due on the main stage. It must be more than 20 years since I saw them take Glastonbury by storm, back when it was genuinely a gathering for the alternative-minded, rather than a garden party for the upper-middle classes. The world might have changed in the meantime but The Levellers haven’t – they open with England, My Home and the stout yeomen (and women) of Lancashire love it.
“This is guaranteed to make it piss it down,” predicts singer Mark Chadwick, accurately, before they deliver Beautiful Day and something miraculous happens. It’s probably down to a mix of ale and cigarettes and honest human sweat (and who knows, the rain?) – but a cricket field in Lancashire smells like a pub. A proper pub. Like pubs used to smell.
Apart from their biggest hit, you could argue that The Levellers have never really topped their early 90s heyday, with albums like Levelling The Land and A Weapon Called The Word. Yet the lyrics, written of the inequalities in the world under John Major’s Tory government, ring true as ever in the days of the Cameron coalition. The lyric that stands out for me from Sell Out is ‘…and here it’s 1991’ – because in many ways, it still is. The same people are still basically in charge, and the rich have got richer and the poor poorer. Which makes The Levellers pretty relevant in my book.
It’s always great to hear One Way, although it starts me down the dangerous path of reflecting on how my life and the world has changed since I was a fresh-faced youth in Doc Martens. The Levellers always admitted that the problems of the world won’t be solved by this guitar, and, sad to say, history proved them right. But you love them for sticking to who they are, what they are, and what they believe in. And they’re still pretty good to dance to.
Helen Nugent writes…
As a veteran of the Ramsbottom Festival and someone who lives a comfortable stumbling distance away, it’s safe to say that this is as hyperlocal an event as it gets for me. And it’s certainly true that the festival organisers place a premium on supporting local talent and showcasing up and coming bands. But it’s the Ramsbottom Festival’s dual focus on homegrown musicians and well-known names that makes this Northern boutique festival really special.
Spread over three days, the last music festival of the summer plays fast and loose with the weather. This year was dry and warm (well, apart from the final night when I couldn’t feel my feet) but the rain never puts anyone off. As Stuart Maconie remarked in his book Pies and Prejudice, ‘this is the North, get a cagoule’.
Predictably, a hangover on the Sunday meant that I was scoffing a Sunday roast in Owd Betts when I should have been enjoying local Rammy lads, Harp and a monkey (sorry boys). But I was back at the cricket club in time for the Neville Staple Band on The Hills main stage. The 59-year-old former Specials frontman had considerably more energy than me as he whipped the crowd into a ska frenzy, delighting them with Ghost Town and A Message to You Rudy.
Then it was on to Lisbee Stainton in the Smaller Rooms tent. Dubbed ‘the English Rose with the 8-string guitar’ and championed by BBC 6 Music, she didn’t disappoint, and nor did the next act Mad Dog Mcrea, a ragtag bunch of Celtic, folk rock, gypsy jazz rogues who, in the opinion of my friend and drinking partner, were one of the highlights of the festival.
Cara Dillon (who was joined on the main stage by her partner and husband Sam Lakeman – brother of Seth) conjured an altogether different vibe, all ethereal melodies and a voice so pure it could be sold as spring water fresh from the stream. Meanwhile, Manchester soul/funk band René were knocking the socks off the assembled crowd in the clubhouse, or T’Other stage as it was for the duration of the weekend.
As the festival drew to a close and Soul II Soul warmed up for the big finale, I was loathe to leave the warm embrace of the Smaller Rooms and the awesome talent of the Keston Cobblers Club. Formed in 2009 by sibling duo Matthew and Julia Lowe and their Keston school friends, this brand of foot-stomping, mod-folk music is, according to the quartet, ‘based on the folklore of the old, penniless cobbler of Keston, Bromley. His business was struggling and he would cheer himself up by throwing barn dances for the villagers. The rip-roaring dancing would wear out the soles of the villagers’ shoes, and so the cobbler was never short of work again’.
Dancing with a thronging mass of bodies under canvas in the middle of a field echoed back to the raucous barn dances of yesteryear. Two nights later, the Keston Cobbblers were playing Manchester’s Soup Kitchen – a fine venue but I reckon I had the better deal at the Rammy Festival.
And so to Soul II Soul. When The Met and The Bridgewater Hall announced their Sunday night headliners, I was a wee bit disappointed. Soul II Soul? Weren’t they, like, famous ages ago? I remembered Back To Life with affection but I hadn’t thought about Jazzie B and his crowd for years. Thankfully, all such reservations were swept away during a blistering set which ensured that Rammy rocked way past its usual bedtime.
Ah, Ramsbottom. As Gorgeous George, the surprise hit of this year’s festival put it, “If only every town had a name which made you smile.”
Photos by Chris Payne