Off to the Farm Festival

July 31, 2009

I spent last weekend at Farm Festival, a small gathering held in a picturesque, cider-loving Somerset backwater, a couple of valleys over from Glastonbury’s Worthy Farm.  In this modern English world of seemingly infinite annual festival options, from the mighty to the mini, Farm Festival is decidedly located at the humbler end of the spectrum: what it lacks in big names, it makes up for in frugality – the whole thing cost a piffling £28.50, including the festival, two days’ camping and reservations fees.  By comparison, Glasto was £175 this year, WOMAD cost £122 and Lovebox in Victoria Park, a two-day affair without camping, retailed at £75 for both days – all of those prices still shorn of booking charges, too.

In its fourth year and with proceeds going directly to an excellent charity (Practical Action, which provides pioneering technologies to needy souls in the world’s poorer countries), Farm Festival is also cosy, friendly and, praise be, easy. There’s no long, rucksacked slug from car to campsite, there are no huge crowds to inch through in order to get vaguely close to a live act, there are decent sanitary facilities and there’s fine, inxpensive tuck, including the local speciality of hog roast: a man-sized fistful of spit-roasted pork crammed into a bun. Perhaps that’s why, as well as youngsters, 20-somethings like us and older folk, plenty of families were in attendance. Certainly all seemed safe enough. I heard no reports of robberies, and, barring one scuffle and a Devon-hating band, witnessed no animosity whatsoever. Happy times indeed.

Safety and simplicity earn good marks, but easily Farm Festival’s chief virtue is its quirkiness. Everywhere I looked, something creative and eccentric was taking place. There was a Mad Hatters tent, themed to Alice in Wonderland, and offering pom-pom making, egg-and-spoon races, karaoke and a fun quiz at various times during the day. There was a small crazy golf course to which I tragically did not bring my A-game. There was a skittles lane and a giant human-shaped structure constructed from lilos. There was a stall where you could design bags, and another offering ‘hangover-cure’ massages. And, best of all, there was a hat competition spread across the two days, leading to some hilarious, and breathtakingly imaginative headwear. I saw crocodiles drinking cider, a legion of lampshades (see picture below) moshing to reggae, loaves of bread putting in for a par-four, addled astronauts and the occasional passing brigadeer, sheikh, Eiffel Tower and Navy captain. Each and every one of these drew the same response: intake of breath, then wonderment and finally a broad, delighted smile. Dancing to a banjo-based cover of Boney M’s Ra Ra Rasputin in the company of pirates, builders, wizards and huge bananas ranks as close to paradise as I’ve been in many a year. All this is consciously similar to the Bestival festival’s mentality – but on a much smaller, more intimate level.

You’re probably wondering what kind of music Farm Festival provided?  The answer: a real range.  Indeed, the event’s rather an audio jamboree, as sonically diverse as it is sartorially. I heard dub, dance, folk, anti-folk and reggae; rap, blues, bop and electro pop; and more or less everything else in between. The best-represented genres were perhaps rock and ska, but in truth the soundscape was as muddied as the walks between stages, and the boundaries as blurred as my eyesight after each night’s trip to cider-land and (painfully) back. (We’re talking real Somerset cider here, too, not that mamby-pamby Magners stuff served with half an ice sculpture to Clapham softies.)

Looking at the Farm Festival line-up in advance, I’d heard of a total three acts: and that from a geeky loon who spends too many hours in darkness reading blogs, and attending sparse concerts in grubby London corners. Many of my fellow attendees didn’t recognise a single name on the line-up. All of which was no surprise, given the festival’s tiny cost and tinier size. But it was also no problem – for being introduced to a bumper load of new music is ever a good, indeed a great, thing. Well, mostly great – some of the performances on Farm Festival’s shoebox of a main stage were laughably woeful, with out-of-tune singers and ill-chosen chords. One band was so noisy and odious that I felt like I was watching a Boris Karloff hammer horror metres from a triggered car alarm. Other acts had scarcely more quality, but crucially brought real humour and warmth to proceedings, accepting their limitations with roguish charm, and delivering ribald, uproarious anthems to wet eyes and wetter armpits. I particularly enjoyed ‘Jesus is a Gay’, although I sadly didn’t catch the offending band’s name.

I definitely will, and plan to, return to Farm Festival. The clash with the Secret Garden Party festival is unfortunate, but at a fifth of the cost, a fraction of the effort and scarcely any less fun, I know to which bash I’ll be tempted towards next year.