Review: Foxtrot Festival

Imagine that you have a friend — let’s call him Will, Will Kommen — who has exceedingly rich parents that live in a mansion in the countryside with chandeliers, gilt-framed pictures on the wall, extremely comfortable leather sofas in every room, and an expansive garden with a fountain. One lazy Sunday afternoon Will invites you around for a garden party with him and about a hundred of his friends, all of whom play in folk bands, sometimes in each other’s folk bands. He sets up a stage in a garden marquee, with a bar and a large barbecue. He sets aside the ballroom for another stage, and he tucks a further, acoustic stage, into the hallway underneath the massive wooden staircase. This would be Foxtrot Festival, the most unfestival festival you’ve ever seen. Not a Portaloo or mudbath in sight.Set in Stanmer House, situated in a large area of parkland tucked between Brighton and the University of Sussex, Willkommen Records and Melting Vinyl hosted the Foxtrot Festival 2011. Headlined by veteran duo Herman Dune, around 20 bands gathered to entertain their musical friends and folk music lovers. The musical style was diverse, from the delicate harp-plucking of Emma Gatrill, to the intense wall of sound from folk festival stalwarts Peggy Sue.Proceedings for the day opened with Eyes & No Eyes, a recently-renamed band led by frontman Tristram. Initially kind of shy, with their experimental (and mainly instrumental) music they soon evolved to something intimate and powerful at the same time. Thrumming guitars crescendoed with riff battles between lead guitar and bass in an excellent early display of musical prowess. Tristram titillated the crowd by going for an early “Reveal”, stripping off his overshirt in the heat to the delight of the audience in the sun-bathed marquee. This band is proof that sometimes you don’t need extreme vocals to create something different. Swiftly following were the 75% female Lulu and the Lampshades. The harmonies were irregular and confusing, and although the voice of the singer was beautiful, the overall sound wasn’t great.

Opening up the acoustic stage, Emma Gatrill (Sons of Noel and Adrian) and friends entertained magnificently. Despite very evident nerves (“I’m shaking so much!”) her soft and intimate tunes were met with a keen listening silence followed by absolutely rapturous applause. Her extremely modulated and rich voice, which sounds sweet, quiet and powerful, gave hints of her classical training.

Traditional — and aging — folk group The Memory Band were distinctly unmemorable, apart from the line “We played the mumblemumble Ballroom, once.” No-one was quite sure where to look. Thankfully northern songstress Nancy Elizabeth soon took the stage, with her wandering sirenesque voice and brusque, no-nonsense attitude. “Hello, I’m playing some music in here,” she called out to the revellers enjoying the sunshine outside. Her sirenesque notes sometimes waned on the banshee side, but all in all, the impression was favourable.

Meanwhile, on the acoustic stage, a flag-festooned pontoon was boarded by Dancehalls. Their delicate vocal harmonies were lost somewhat in the cavernous hallway, which didn’t do them any favours. Especially as it gave you license to snigger at their quintessentially hipsterish attire. However, when plugged in (please visit their Bandcamp page!) their music is definitely worthy of a listen.

Alessi, oh Alessi. How awkward and shy, but so melodic. “Er, I don’t know what to say… Now I mean.” Alessi’s Ark blossomed from nervous and speechless to verbose and drunk on hearty applause, buoyed by the arrival of her knight in shining armour, Marcus Hamblett, to play bass. Finishing a short but absorbing set with her song Hummingbird, apparently as much like “drinking loads of Redbull” as Alessi gets, she warmed everyone’s hearts with her quiet and heartfelt sentiment.

Time for the big guns. Peggy Sue took to the stage in their typical invasive style, filling every square inch with instruments, set lists, guitar stands, drum sticks and Olly the drummer. The marquee filled for the first time of the day to see Peggy Sue play several songs from their newly-released album. Cut My Teeth was heralded as a truly Bohemian Rhapsody of a song, only to be revised to a Stairway to Heaven of a song after Katy’s “I wish you hadn’t said that.” This three-songs-in-one epic initiates their new album Acrobats. They also heartily belted out Yo Mama, which was covered not once but twice on Willkommen’s free Foxtrot musical offering (link below). In true Peggy Sue style, their harmonies were delivered with punch, and their wonderful alternative tunings made you wonder if reality had suddenly been turned on its side. It was a true show-stealing performance.

The headliners took to both stages. Over in the ballroom Hannah Peel’s lilting lyrics accompanied only by a music box won the hearts of many. On the main stage Herman Dune ambled through their charmingly melodic set, while bacchante dances took place outside the marquee. If the audience was expecting something akin to Herman Dune’s recent Estrella Damm ad campaign, they would have been a touch disappointed since the set was stripped back and relaxed. Nevertheless, the packed marquee delighted in some great improvisation and witty banter with the French frontman. A fitting end to the day.

And so Foxtrot Festival 2011 concluded, leaving the revellers to wander off into the darkness of Stanmer Park. Peggy Sue were the memorable act of the proceedings, much on account of their musical brashness than anything else. Praise must also be given to early starters Eyes & No Eyes, who played a promising set which overshadowed much of which was to come, and hallway haunters Dancehalls… give them an amp and a mic and prepare to be amazed. Marcus Hamblett, also, was a very talented ever-present, playing with at least five different bands. A relaxing lazy afternoon in the sun, with folky goodness all around. As you leave, Will catches your arm to say, “Thanks for coming, friend. Next year?”, to which you reply, “Absolutely, friend, see you then.”

For a free download of Willkommen artists covering each other’s songs, visit:
http://willkommencollective.bandcamp.com/album/willkommen-foxswap



Words and picture by Paul Woods & Roser Juanola Parramon