Larmer Tree Gardens, 13-17 July
It’s never far from the top of the bill at Larmer Tree, but this year Nature really does steal the show – bathing the final few hours of Sunday in the most delicate and ethereal light that perfectly captured the mood of the moment as the sky readied itself for sunset. It was a simply and unflinchingly beautiful finale to another few days of gentle good times on the Dorset/Wiltshire border.
With attendances deliberately capped the claustrophobia that can afflict many summer festivals is avoided, but with no loss of atmosphere – it’s rarely difficult to spend time at Larmer Tree and this year was no exception. It’s a place where families and freaks (in the nicest possible sense of course) can peaceably co-exist as a happy mood of polite consideration pervades. In the outside world division may be the order of the day, but up there on the Cranborne Chase the festival is an oasis of how things could be.
Of course, the one drawback to the five-day format is trying to shoehorn it into that wider world. Plenty manage it but not all and I ended up missing apparently noteworthy turns by the likes of Jamie Cullum, Caro Emerald, the Easy Star All-Stars and, most frustratingly of all, the Hot 8 Brass Band.
Still, there was much else to find sonic solace in, from the breathy symphonies of This is the Kit in the emerging talent tent, The Chase, to the downright majestic musical adventures of the magnificent Lau whose standards, already stratospheric, get higher with each new album. By contrast their performances are humble, inclusive affairs and somehow they make the main stage seem like the most intimate setting imaginable.
The sweep of the festival’s characteristically eclectic bill is an impressive as ever, but there’s always a hidden nugget, something unannounced, the unexpected guest, the unexpurgated version. This year the role was fulfilled by Johnny Green, erstwhile road manager and battered ego consoler for The Clash, now found acting as the ‘perfect gentleman’s travelling companion’ for one John Cooper Clarke. Under the Doctor’s orders, Green’s intros were as much a feature of the Arc tent literary bill on Friday as the poetic polemic of the relentlessly righteous Clarke and his now regular partner-in-rhyme Mike Garry, whose poetry can break a heart, raise a smile and shed a tear over the course of a single line. His is a major talent that cannot be ignored.
There are as many theories as there are festivals when it comes to determining what makes a good one, but for what it’s worth any line up that can reward the lackadaisical wanderer between stages with far more hits than misses is well on the way in my book. Such flagrant disregard for proper planning threw up some memorable treats from Steve Knightley’s post-Chilcot ire and an encore cover of Stereophonics’ Dakota), to Granny Turismo’s bizarre mobile beatbox shenanigans (below) and Radio 2 Folk Award Horizon winner Sam Kelly’s warm treatment of traditional songs – sideman Jamie Francis is also a name to watch if his banjo shredding on Sultans of Swing is anything to go by.
As ever, there are downs as well as ups – The Stranglers had the main stage crowd on its feet from the first note to the last but for these ears the menace in Hugh Cornwall’s voice is irreplaceable. Equally a highly anticipated set from Frazey Ford of the Be Good Tanyas fell flat as her crystalline vocals failed to warm the Memphis soul stew cooked up around her. Shame.
By absolute contrast, Martin Simpson and Dom Flemons marked their reunion with a breathtaking set of songs that explore the links between British folk music, music hall, vaudeville, tent shows, ragtime and the early Blues. A project commissioned by the English Folk Dance and Song Society, it comes laden with treasures – Simpson revisiting The Unfortunate Rake/St James’s Hospital then passing the baton to Flemons for his take on St James’s Infirmary Blues. Gripping from the first note to the last, their set is the stand out show of the festival.
Family-friendly is a central tenet of many a festival offering, but a more accurate epithet at Larmer Tree might arguably be ‘friendly family’ as stewards go about their business, bins are emptied, litter picked, problems solved and business taken care of with barely a ripple caused.
The Lostwood delivers on its promise of myriad entertainment for the young and the young at heart, a mid-afternoon stroll around the Water Gardens is richly rewarded, the Pavilion hosts some terrific passing theatre, all manner of good things happen all over the place and beyond as a new strain sets up a series of walks and bike rides to take festival goers out into the further reaches of the Rushmore Estate landscape.
There’s so much going on that drifting necessarily becomes an essential part of the experience and there’s a real joy in just allowing events to unfold, but if moments to treasure are the measure of pleasure then, once again, the Larmer Tree Festival hits the heights.
• The Larmer Tree Festival is taking a break in 2017, back 20-22 July 2018.