Behind the posh festival tag lies a much more intriguing sub-plot of “toff wars”, with Cornbury promoter and impresario Old Etonian Hugh Philimore falling out with erstwhile hosts, Lord and Lady Rotherwick ( it does not seem wise, does it?),and relocating to Great Yew, while the Rotherwick’s promote the rival Wildnerness festival nearby, displacing Cornbury’s recent home. Although Phillimore might not be as good with money as the Lord and Lady, he certainly knows how to put a show together. A promoter that likes, and has a feel for, music is a good start, and the bill was a good mix.
We arrived late afternoon to encounter no traffic. We just drove straight in and parked. It was as simple as that. Anticipating what two people might need for three days is no easy task and the car was laden with enough provisions to mount more an expedition than a weekend. Only upon arrival did it dawn that those supplies have to be carried. Suddenly the attractions of a backpack bivouac become all too obvious.
The organisers have thought of this and provide trolleys for hire ( for a £50 deposit) and £5 per thirty minute hire charge. Two problems become apparent. Firstly the car park is a long way from the camping. Secondly the trolley is about the same size as a supermarket trolley, when a flat bed of articulated lorry proportions is required. Unless the hauler is a cross between Linford Christie and Shergar, with the packing skills of a magician, this was going to be a long job. A marathon ( charge) not a sprint.
Fortunately a combination of charm, status and blagging resulted in my being able to park about three metres from my ultimate pitch for reasons so secret that I have handed the dossier to the Home Secretary, who has lost them.
The first artiste I did not see, but heard. It was Suzanne Vega, whose dulcet, doleful tones drifted over the afternoon fencing, Marlena on the wall and Luka both sounded good, the rest sounded much like Marlena on the wall and Luka. I think that Suzanne is best listened to like this.
Inside the arena a myriad stalls unfurled like a brightly coloured carpet, part village fete, part fairground, part market , with something for everyone. There were also lots of children, not a few, not teenagers, lots of children. It was then that I noticed that the trolleys also came in wagon form, complete with canopy and cushioned interior. This enabled children to be towed ( why adult versions are not available I am unsure), the cushioned interiors enabling them to be towed while sleeping ( why adult versions are not available I am even more unsure).
And so it was time for my first live encounter. A somewhat fleeting one, with Arrested Development, an American alternative hip hop group, founded by Speech and his then best friend Headliner as a positive, Afrocentric alternative to the gangsta rap popular in the early 1990s. In theory this is A Good Thing. In practice, rap that does not involve distasteful misogyny and multiple murder can be a little bland, and so it proved. Sophie Ellis Bextor drew a big crowd to the Songbird tent, and she looked fabulous. But her problem is that she only has two songs of note (“ Groovejet” , “Murder on the Dancefloor”) best played in a disco when inebriated ,and that most of us remember her mum as a Blue Peter presenter. A few songs in, I looked at Jane, Jane looked at me, we left.
Friday’s headliners were Jools Holland and his big band, who were indeed, very big. Jools has come a long way since I first saw him perform unobtrusively as a keyboard player in the newly formed Squeeze. A packed auditorium gathered to see him strut his big band stuff, playing big band music, in a very authentic and accomplished big band way. To make things interesting, he features several members of the band whose talents might best have been reserved for solos rather than entire songs. He also has guests. Marc Almond joins him early on for a ridiculously brief two numbers, a Marvin Gaye cover “This Love Starved Heart of Mine (It’s Killing Me)”, which was magnificent, and the grand, poignant “ Say hello, wave good bye”). Then he was off, and the show never quite recovered. Mel C sang three numbers very well wearing a simple understated shift dress, and it was the singer and the song which caught the eye, not the Spice Girl baggage. “Sir Duke” ended her trio, a difficult song, a complex arrangement, which she carried off with some aplomb. Then she too departed all too soon. The rest was fine, but curiously soulless. One for the cognoscenti, but not the neutral.
As Jools performed so the drizzle began to fall. As we entered our tents so the drizzle changed to downpour, for the night. Fortunately our tent, of capacious, five man-and –some proportions, was up to the task, sadly for those in £19.99 Argos two man tent economy jobs, some were not. Not that I was in a position to gloat, our recently acquired double air bed , £9.99. from Argos, proved to be as hopelessly unable to retain air as the cheapo tents proved hopelessly unable to repel water.
But not all water is bad. Frank Water is a not for profit organisation which funds clean water projects in India. Amongst the stalls that charge £10.50 for a burger and chips, Frank’s proposition is a clever one. Buy a sturdy, reusable, branded water bottle for £5, then have unlimited refills for the remainder of the festival. With stalls selling water at £1.50 a bottle, that is a saving of over £10 over three days, for four bottles a day, and the water is fresh, filtered and cold. Because of the refills, the plastic bottles are not discarded too, making it environmentally friendly. Everyone wins, India, the environment, and the environmentally conscious consumer.
“The good news is that you have a slot at Cornbury and are on the main stage, the bad news is that you are opening at noon” Not that Jon Allen seemed to mind at all. Playing an amiable brand of original folk/rock guitar music, the songs hint strongly at his late 60’s/70’s influences providing a pleasant enough wake up call to the day. The Duallers brand of ska and reggae coincided with the sun shining through, a big plus for them, encouraging a lazing crowd to skank and jiggle, just a little bit.
Thirty four years ago I was at Knebworth with 120,000 other people to see Led Zeppelin, on the supporting bill were Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. Their early fame came from the reflected glory of various band members’ association with Bruce Springsteen, and for a few years it seemed as though they might emulate some of that success. But although commercial fame eluded them, their reputation as a reliable, crowd pleasing, touring act endures, with those talents shining in the midday afternoon. The veteran brass section is as stirring in “I Don’t Want To Go Home” as it is plaintiff in “Don’t Walk Away Renee”, and the crowd loved it.
As the day wore on I conducted a vox pop of the most keenly anticipated band. The answer- Scouting For Girls, not a super-group of Savile, Harris and Hall, but a power/indie pop band who seem incredibly popular with young girls and mums pushing baby buggies. Their fan base loved them, I left them to it. Georgie Fame was old when I was young. Now I am old he is very old, but he nonetheless enthralled the Songbird stage with the Guy Barker Big band, offering classy music, great songs, and talent to burn. A real treasure from the sixties era which produced so many musical maestros.
My relationship with the Saturday night headliners, Simple Minds, is ambivalent. I have some sympathy with those who describe them as “U3” , a U2 derivative act, who would work best as a tribute band. But their “Live in the City of Light” live album is one of the great live albums, and their performance of “Mandela Day” at the Wembley Mandela Tribute concert at Wembley one of the great live performances anywhere. When I last saw them a decade ago at the NEC in Birmingham they were dreadful, so on the night, I was prepared for pretty much anything.
As he prepared to come on stage, Jim Kerr waved to those of us side stage who caught his eye. It was a snapshot of what was to come. Jim waves a lot. My issue with Simple Minds is that they don’t really have a full set worth of memorable songs, however, when Jim puts his mind to it, he overcomes this with enthusiasm, bravado and showmanship. The opener, “Waterfront” is a simple twelve bar blues riff ( and I mean a riff) played around with a bit with synthesiser motifs, and Jim wailing a lot. Yet with a dazzling light show, tight band, lots of major chords and bass, it works.
Jim has three main moves, waving to the crowd, pointing to the crowd, and encouraging everyone to clap along. He does this a lot. The crowd likes it. “He’s waving at me!” “He’s pointing at me”. Occasionally Jim kneels down for gravitas, but wisely not too often, as getting up again takes a little longer these days.” Promised You a Miracle”, “Don’t You Forget About Me” and “Alive and Kicking” were predictably excellent, “Love Song” the surprise highlight. It was a shame they played neither “Mandela Day” or “Belfast Child” as both numbers, slow ballads, highlight the voice of Kerr and the musicianship of the band in a way that the high-octane set could never do. But I suspect that Kerr was mindful that a festival crowd is awash with neutrals and keeping the energy and volume high is wise. The biggest crowd of the festival lapped it up, I thoroughly enjoyed the set which was by far the best of the weekend, and Jim waved, pointed and clapped at the end. Forever the pro.
Sunday is going- home- day, the bill seemed awkward. I chatted to the BBC Radio Oxford crew. They were struggling like mad both to secure interviews with the stars, and fend off interview requests from Sam Bailey. I was able to tip them off that they had missed Orlando Bloom in the VIP area the day before, but who had come from the Oxfordshire/ Gloucestershire elite otherwise was shrouded in speculation. The Camerons were joining the search for lost files, Clarkson was worried about all those microphones, even if they were on stage, and Rebekah was baking Andy a cake with a hacksaw in it, so it was rumoured. The VIP area, including an Annabel’s marquee to make the London Clubbing set at home, was full to overflowing throughout. The only time the Police were needed at all was when someone claimed that the Krug was running low., if anything represented an emergency, that did!
Kings Parade, Boris Johnson’s favourite buskers, performed a set which suggested that their recent arrest by the Met had more to do with providing a public service than any breach of Section 14. They were followed by Gabby Young & Other Animals who played circus rock combined with jazz, pop and folk. Looking like Lene Lovich reincarnated, she was quite clearly bonkers, as the crowd sat transfixed, not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or applaud.
An afternoon which could have imploded into apathy was reignited by Kid Creole & The Coconuts. August Darnell is no fool. He has a handful of great songs, so he stretches them out to around ten minutes each. Might this be a little long for the unconverted? Yes. So he adds three scantily dressed backing singers/dancers to strut, pose and jiggle a lot and change costumes three time in sixty minutes. The result is an afternoon delight complimented by his daughter, a backing singer , singing “My Boy Lollipop”.
I am an X Factor fan and found Sam Bailey a strong winner on the TV show, but live, the wrinkles started to show. There are lots of singers who can sing standards well, doing so is not enough, even though likes of “No More Tears” and “Skyscraper” were despatched well enough. It’s a festival. Most people could neither see, nor care, that she is pregnant. The only criteria is “is she any good?” Her between song banter was rough, fine if you are moving along awkward inmates, not so good for a festival audience. Her attempts at being one of us floundered, we want our heroes to be stars. Psychologically she seemed unable to make that shift. Her short set was well received, but she needs to enjoy this while she can, because she will be our side of the stage again soon enough.
10cc’s position under Gypsy Kings was a bit of a mystery. Most of the audience knew most of 10cc’s songs, most could name none of Gypsy King’s songs. Although only Graham Gouldman survives the classic line-up, the current band is both accomplished and hard- working, playing a greatest hits set which was crowd-pleasing and a delight. The sound of several thousand joining in with the encore chorus of “Rubber bullets” was delightfully incongruous from a well-heeled, but libertarian sort of audience. That left Gypsy kings to close the evening, their Latin rhythms pleasing their aficionados, but despatching the rest for an early evening getaway.
But Cornbury is about much more than the music. Cat Weatherill entranced all with her storytelling, the comedy tent was packed with people and laughs, and the late night fireside sing-alongs provided good spirits and company. The bane of festivals, the toilets and showers, was well and truly cracked with the toilets clean and the showers excellent. Ironically the provision of posh superloos for an additional £25 weekend pass probably helped taking some pressure off the ordinary facilities.
So the Posh Festival? Well if posh means clean, well run, well organised ( a steward actually said they were there to help me!) with decent people intent on simply having a good time, well yes, posh. And long may it continue.