Guided into my parking space by a convoy of friendly, and mostly older, stewards, I’m struck by how well organised Towersey Festival is. Although to be fair, they’ve had plenty of practice, as this year marks Towersey’s 50th Birthday celebration.
Towersey Festival is an institution on the local calendar, with a dedicated and enthusiastic fan base, many of whom arrive early on the first morning to claim their camping spot. No sea of miniature pop up tents meets the eye here, this is serious tent territory, with kitchen areas filled with equipment to rival Gordon Ramsay, and marquees acting as the social hub for vast family get togethers.
My last Towersey was three years ago, when I fell in love with Saltfish Forty, 3 Daft Monkeys, and the Monster Ceilidh Band (read an account of Towersey 2012 by Tessa Gordziejko here). I’m hoping to be similarly entranced by some of the acts today. The first recommendation is for an upbeat young band called Rusty Shackle, who are playing in the beer tent at lunchtime, and they certainly feel like a solid outfit with a good future ahead of them.
The Big Club Tent, which was reconfigured a couple of years ago, is a capacious seated venue where latecomers can enjoy the music while basking in the sunshine outside. The afternoon sees one of the festival highlights – a concert dedicated to Topic Records. Screens show a visual potted history of this venerated label. The first half of the concert progresses somewhat akin to a relay race: a couple of artists perform a song, one artists leaves and another is introduced and so on, building a thread between them.The place is filled to capacity and the audience are clearly enraptured by the star billing of luminaries such as Eliza Carthy and Martin Carthy. After half of the concert I’m urged to join friends enjoying a Cajun couple, Sheryl and Russell Courmier. So we leave the festival site and walk along the lane, arriving at the picturesque village church, where the couple are holding a Q&A session interspersed with delightful tasters of their wonderful Cajun sound. They play Jambalaya and their own composition, La Boutille, which prompts several couples to start dancing in the aisle.
Later, back at the festival site, evening approaches and there is a palpable frisson in the air. Towersey’s more dancey music venue, Venue 65, becomes the focus for the evening’s entertainment and cars begin to roll in for Seth Lakeman’s impending appearance. Just a quick aside about Venue 65 – it’s probably the most ‘workable’ big tent I’ve seen at any festival. At the back are a few rows of tiered seating, there’s a proper bar at one side (with draft ciders and beers, not just bottles), a small outside area, and a beautifully lit stage. As there is no photographers pit, you can stand at the stage’s edge, and the soft floor has spring in it, perfect for dancing.
The first evening’s act is Georgia Ruth, a softly-spoken and modest young Welsh singer/songwriter and multi instrumentalist from Aberystwyth, who has justifiably won prizes such as the Welsh Music Prize 2013. Her voice has a touching clear purity and when teamed with the harp stirs something in the soul. There have been comparisons made between her and some of the 60s stars of folk. The song Mapping reminds me of early Joni Mitchell in the phrasing. Her compositions such as Week of Pines are hauntingly beautiful and the sound of the harp elevates the songs.
Seth Lakeman is a returning Towersey performer, and his entrance onto the stage is greeted with waves of affection from the audience. The band commence with The Courier, a strong and dramatic song from his latest album Word of Mouth. The song has the perfect measure of excitement with its rousing violin, drama, and tribal drums set the tone of the evening. Already the audience are starting to gather as one, and it’s not long before the floor starts to bounce beneath our feet, echoing the beating of the drum. A few numbers along, and a parade of glowing, colour-changing balloons are brought in among the audience, adding a touch of festival drama.
Seth is a consummate performer, polished, communicative, with a superbly talented band, including Lisbee Stainton who adds vocals, and Ben Nicholls (also from The Full English), with a magnificent double bass. The set takes in more songs from his new album, such as Portrait of my Wife (the album is a fascinating mix of songs which Seth put together from stories he had heard from locals of his native Cornwall and Devon). Other numbers are from Tales from the Barrel House and there’s Take No Rogues from Freedom Fields, his 2006 album. It is a brilliant, dazzling and exhilarating set and Seth fully deserves the rapturous applause.
I would love to see Lau in their entirety, instead of the intriguing half-set that I hear after Seth’s set. Their delicate material needs to be enjoyed in a more peaceful and contained environment – but as happens at festivals there is a crossover, so they remain on my ‘to see’ list
Overview: There is much to enjoy at Towersey – the Ceilidh tent where you can learn all the steps, and which is in full flow for much of the day; thoughtful and multifarious children’s activities, including a climbing wall; and the craft tent where potters and jewellery makers sell their work. Oh and the film sessions, my partner joined a small band of people who watched The Mooman, an engaging, charming and interesting film about a dairy farmer. The toilet facilities are excellent, offering proper flush toilets and running water, as opposed to the increasingly usual hand gel option. My only criticisms is that there could be a few more food stalls, offering slightly more unusual fare. And day visitors would be better provided with wristbands rather than extremely easy-to-lose tickets, which constantly need showing to the stewards.
This is Towersey’s last year at its current venue. It is a quirky and charming site, split between the two venues, with the addition of some local village stops. From next year the festival will be sited at Thame Showground where things will be more streamlined, but one hopes, retain the quirkiness that makes Towersey such a pleasure. So for now – Happy 50th Birthday to Towersey.
THE SMALL PRINT
WHO: Towersey Festival; www.towerseyfestival.com
WHEN: August 21-25 August, 2014
TICKETS: £40 for day, festival plus camping £135 approx