Yesterday, my wife and I had the tremendous joy and privilege of being part of what, having been there, I can only assume to be The Greatest Music Festival you’ve never been to. It’s called Irregular Folk. It’s in Oxford. It’s on today. You should stop reading this and go now. Come back to my waffle later.
Right, did you have a nice afternoon and evening? Have you sampled the amazing local pies, spellbinding local brews, the ambiance of the venue, hand-crafted by the amazing Vez and her team of volunteers? Did you find yourself transfixed by the bonkers and yet oh so right musical fare on offer? Did you, latterly, find yourself wishing this sort of thing happened all the time? Yes, so did I. Jolly good, we’re on the same page. Now you can sit back, relax and read about what I thought of yesterday.
Irregular Folk was up against it yesterday. It rained. A lot. The Perch, a wondrous pub that my wife tells me is an Oxford institution, is only reachable by car or across fields. Sadly, this led to some people staying away. They missed a treat.
Arriving having already dried out once that day, we ran the gauntlet (well, my wife ran, I sat back in my wheelchair and let it all happen) from the comfortable confines of the pub to the majestic marquee which housed the event and, dripping, stepped inside, to find ourselves transported to another world entirely. The marquee had it’s own bar. This means it wins. Aside from this, the decor in the “room” was to die for. Photo frames, candles, books meticulously positioned, I’m not really doing it justice. Suffice to say that it is obvious that Vez’s skill in room design is unsurpassed. Not just that but, and this is quite a feat for an event taking place in a tent, the sound was absolutely flawless. Having played several festivals in my previous life and suffered the consequences of half-bottomed line checks and elastic band and mice powered sound systems, to hear everything so clearly and so obviously how it was designed to be heard, is something for which Jimmy Hetherington, the event’s sound guy has to be applauded. This was quite plainly no smalltime festival, this is a boutique event which deserves to be more widely known.
So, we so far have locally brewed beer, locally made food, beautiful ambiance and situation, fantastic sound, and crap weather. But what about the acts themselves? Sadly, we’d missed Theo Bard and Gitta De Ridder by the time of our arrival, but having heard the rest of what was on offer I will hastily be checking them out. As we entered the tent, the inimitable George Chopping was finishing his set of spoken word. George was the compere for the event, and if his contributions between sets were anything to go by, this would have been quite something. The man was a mine of witticisms, social commentary and one-liners you had to hear to believe. He says the kind of things you might find yourself thinking, but censoring, in the interests of propriety, but then wishing you hadn’t. George doesn’t, and as the evening wore on, his contributions added a huge amount to the camaraderie which developed between stage and audience.
Next up was Esther Joy Lane. She delivered a taut set of beat-driven electronic pop songs. Listen to one of them below
Listening to this again the morning after, the mix of Grasscut, Lapalux and Howling in the beats reinforce the view I formed at the time that Esther would be a perfect fit for the Ninja Tune roster. It seems almost unbelievable that she has only been performing live since January of this year. Already featured on BBC 6Music, and no wonder, this is an artist who could go far. I’m truly excited to hear a fuller release from her, and I hope that a label such as Ninja Tune will support her in fulfilling her obviously huge potential. Of course, I could be way off in knowing what Esther’s ambitions are! With a slightly fuller sound and the confidence that regular gigging can bring she can become major player on the UK scene. Her set yesterday was over all too soon.
Next up was the wonderfully named Bastardgeist (or Joel to his friends). How do you describe the music of Basstardgeist? Well, like Esther Joy Lane, he makes ample use of a MacBook Pro, producing and manipulating beats and swathes upon swathes of atmospheric synths. He also has a falsetto to die for. Although based in New York, his music is infused with textures found around the world. Perhaps most intriguingly of all, many of his tracks on display this evening are built around an amplified Thumb Piano. Yes, a Thumb Piano. It’s bonkers, and should be rubbish, but instead is gloriously claustrophobic one minute and open-endedly orchestral the next. It’s pop music. It’s obtuse dance music. It’s fantastic.
I was transfixed. I wanted to learn to play the Thumb Piano. I want to tell everyone in the world how fantastic this music is. All in the space of 30 minutes. Bastardgeist is playing Norwich this evening and then returning from his home in New York later in the year for a headline tour. I will be in the front row.
Did I forget to mention that the staff at The Perch braved the squalls to bring food to us from the pub throughout the evening? They did. Ample space between sets could be a disaster at an event like this, but actually it merely served to give more focus to what seemed to be the primary aim of the event, to enjoy a relaxed time together in the presence of artistic greatness.
Next up were C Duncan. Chris and his band are on the cusp of releasing a lovely debut album on Fat Cat Records, had travelled from Scotland to play, iced cakes for the event (naturally, Vez makes cakes for the performers, because she doesn’t have enough else to do) and presented a polished and diverse set of electronic folk songs. Having spent some time with the album in preparation for writing about it in July, it was a pleasure to see how well these songs transferred to the live stage. Once I’d got over my disgust at how young the band looked (I think I’m getting old) I was captivated by their close harmonies, and the way they were able to move seamlessly from fractured folk on the one hand and stomping summer-inspired pop on the other. It was a great set. I hope that the addition of a drummer to the live act will give them an added punch and confidence, without taking away the intimacy they were able to convey as a trio. And, in case I didn’t spell it out, the album is one to keep an eye out for.
Next, there was more bad news. Laura Moody, the night’s headline act was unwell and unable to play. It’s her birthday today so I hope she’s better! She had been replaced at the last moment by another artist with a fantastic name, Salvation Bill. I’d never seen, experienced or known of Salvation Bill up to the point when he meekly appeared on the stage at around 9.30. My life will never be the same having witnessed him. This wasn’t a set at a festival. It wasn’t even an event. This was something else entirely. You’d think that a guy, a guitar, some backing tracks and a drum machine couldn’t do much damage. You’d be wrong. Salvation Bill has a voice to die for. Like the best bits of Matt Bellamy, Chris Martin and Kate Bush (!) and he obviously has a musical mindset permanently directed towards “set phasers to stun”. I wish I could tell you what the songs were about, but I really have no idea. I recollect one about a barking dog which ended up dead, and another which had something to do with prison, but I have to be honest, I was alternating between laughing at the audacity of the lyrics, and the compositional mastery on display to take proper notice. Chords progress in ways that every producer I’ve ever had has told me that they’re not allowed to, however much I’ve argued. Melodies strain at the bounds of common sense before, each and every time, tumbling over in to the supposed abyss of wrong, only to turn out to be perfect. That the evening finished with a chorus of looped howling dogs while “Bill” cavorted round the venue playing a deranged saxophone solo might make it sound like some kind of debauched nonsense, but it was a perfect end to a really special evening.
My only sadness is that I can’t be there today.
One final note. The bill of the evening flowed perfectly. It had been meticulously curated. It made perfect sense, in spite of making no sense at all. For this, and for so much else, huge kudos to Vez. Irregular Folk is a new “Do not miss” date in my diary. Make sure you don’t either.