There can’t be many UK festival sites where the scenery catches the eye almost as much as any on-stage action but, for all its familiarity, the Chew Valley lake’s tirelessly stunning setting got me grinning even before the first tent peg had been banged in. Declaration of interest time: I should point out that, having arrived as a punter, I let myself be co-opted into compéring the Tipi Valley stage for the weekend and now I find myself reviewing due to the official B247 ears having fallen sick.
Valley Fest’s four live stages were spread around a sloping field lined with organic food stalls (it’s on Farmer Luke Hasell‘s organic Story Farm, so natch), creative activity tents and kids stuff. There was no doubting the family-friendliness from the off, with lots of children evidently enjoying themselves while their not-so-old folks relived their dancing days to the music.
And there was plenty of dance action, too, with Smerins Anti-Social Club’s funk fuelled brassiness outshining the (intentional) cheesiness of Friday’s White Wedding headliners. In the Tipi Tent the increasingly glam Tankus the Henge’s smoke machine went into overdrive after Glaswegian jazz-funk big band Fat Suit ramped up the groove. Big props went to openers Boudica Boogaloo both for their stunning vocal harmony and for violinist Annalise Lam, a new recruit, whose dazzling old-time fiddling revealed yet more of her extraordinary range. All was eclipsed for me, however, by The Breath – the atmospheric collaboration between Cinematic Orchestra and Honeyfeet centred on Rioghnach Connolly’s stunning vocals. Their emotionally gripping set was as good as it gets and even eclipsed the moonlit lake outside.
After the pre-school frenzy of Junior Jungle’s hyperactive rave a sun-blessed Saturday opened with a cool and soulful jazz soundtrack from Feelgood Experiment while inside the Tipi a largely acoustic afternoon saw emerging act Hands of The Heron combine rich musical textures with cleverly written lyrics. There was a special moment later when the amazing Rachel Dadd’s solo performance gained singers Kate Stables and Rosi Plain to revive their much-lamented Whalebone Polly line-up. Similar magic occurred when Rachel joined Kate’s This Is The Kit on the main stage during their excellent set. Always a good thing, it now seems TITK must burst out farther.
There was a hot-spot moment in a packed-out Ring O’Bells bar thanks to Essex ‘beats with attitude’ scallywag Rat Boy, whose pugnacious set should have been a marked contrast to alt-folk gods Lau appearing in the Tipi. But while that trio paid due respect to their trad folk roots the kick-arse delivery and angry social commentary of their music showed that ranting musical protest has a long history. It was another stand-out treat.
Cooler evening breezes meant you’d best get dancing and the programme obliged handsomely. Diminutive vocalist Marie Lister implausibly wrapped No Go Stop’s thunderous Afrobeat round her little finger, Camo Clave grooved through their remorseless electro-Latin set and DJ Yoda’s full AV effect all ensured a massive expenditure of high-calory energy around the site.
Unsurprisingly Sunday’s crowd energy started a little slowly, which was perfect for the remarkable Ichi’s one-man band show. Combining home made acoustic and electronic instruments, toys, animal vocals and an intense Japanese dignity he unleashed and delighted everyone’s inner child. There was a similar playfulness about Jesse ‘Morningstar’ Vernon fronting the fancily dressed Fantasy Orchestra on the main stage but the music had a more orthodox magnificence with Jimmy Goodrich’s vocals on a cello-chugging Strawberry Fields truly heart-warming.
They were out-costumed, however, by Afon Sistema’s samba troupe processing round the field in true Brazilian style before their powerful main stage set. In the Tipi the afternoon was all about folk – whether alt- or nu- was hard to tell – with Sam Brookes’ hard-nosed sound, Jacob & Drinkwater’s tight acoustica and William the Conqueror’s appropriation of the blues.
The Tipi evening cranked up the energy with London-based Ezra Collective a brilliant young jazz-funk outfit with a slam dunk drummer and The Destroyers’ comic Balkan a deceptively tight-knit shambles to climax.
But there was no doubting who the buzz was about and, as the sunset darkened behind the main stage, the solitary figure of Jose Gonzalez held a mesmerised crowd with just voice and guitar. His version of Teardrop may have been an unconscious nod to the location but he didn’t need to win over the audience with cheap tricks as they were his already. There was plenty of dance action to Eva Lazarus’ headline set afterwards but you felt that for many people things had probably peaked already.
After last year’s monsoon wash-out it seems that even the weather gods were on side, too, and unsurprisingly the final verdict for most people I talked to was an unqualified success. They say that it takes three years to establish a festival and with this third outing it looked like Valley Fest had got there: a great programme, tasty food, much happiness for all ages and – lest we forget – that amazing view.
Read more about The Story Group and Community Farm here.