The unashamed garden-party-kid-fest rolls into Lulworth Castle’s grounds again. Aaron Slater investigates and speaks with Levellers’ songwriter Mark Chadwick too
emember summer holidays when you were a kid? Six whole weeks off school felt like six months and a whole world of opportunity seemed to await. You could do anything and everything you wanted – climb trees, build dens, play games, hang out with other kids and… just have fun. Of course, reality would soon hit on the first day at home, when it usually rained. Parents desperately tried to find something to keep you amused, and you’d get bored. As if by magic, Camp Bestival taps into all those childhood fantasies and makes them come to life for adults and children alike. And after all, when it comes to a music festival, we all want to act like children and escape the formalities of day-to-day life. Eat, drink and do all the things you’re not supposed to!
“It was impossible for one family to sample everything”
Now with five Camp Bestivals (and even more original Bestivals) under his belt, organiser Rob da Bank somehow manages to take time out from being a Radio 1 DJ and pull off the trick of building a relatively small boutique festival that appears to house an endless stream of activities. Live performances, DJ sets, comedy, cabaret, puppet shows, yoga workshops, poetry readings and, er, jousting… it’s all here! So, being that it was impossible for one family to sample everything, we had to choose wisely and pick the best bits from across the idyllic Dorset site.
Several acts had already played the Castle Stage by the time Ash arrived, but this was the moment when Camp Bestival 2013 truly kicked off. Blasting out what seemed like all their brilliantly-written songs from the 1977 album onwards, it felt like being transported back to the Britpop years. And when frontman Tim Wheeler sang out “It was the start of the summer” on Oh Yeah, and the sun started peeking out from behind the clouds, we knew it was gonna be a good weekend.
Then it was the turn of Scottish legends The Proclaimers to take to the stage.The surprise hit of the opening day, closing with the legendary 500 Miles was their infallible trump card, which the crowd lapped up. Most of the slightly sozzled throng of mums and dads even managed to rise to their feet from the sun-scorched grass that had become their seat for most of the afternoon, to sing along.
Later, Billy Bragg took to the stage in a slot higher up the bill than in previous years and, rather than belting out the protest songs solo with a lone acoustic guitar, he brought some excellent musicians along. Billy Bragg the live band is literally electric and what was once the typical English singer-songwriter becomes a little Americanised. It’s a chance for the Essex favourite’s melodies to shine in a slightly different way.
Away from the main Castle Stage it was also possible to find some excellent songwriting talent, notably with hotly-tipped London Grammar leaving the packed crowd inside the Big Top hanging on every note Hannah Reid’s stunning voice produced.
When the sun set behind the castle, Richard Hawley provided a spellbinding set for the mums and dads whose children were old enough to have a ‘late night’ before toddling back to tents, teepees and trailers. Although many young parents were probably already tucked up in family-size tents and teepees by 10 o’clock, the former Pulp and Longpigs guitarist closed the day with aplomb. The 50s throwback’s cool and measured approach left the audience spellbound and satisfied.
For those who wanted more late night fun and were young, free and energetic enough to appreciate it, the Big Top, Bollywood tent and Pigs Big Ballroom kept cranking out the dance music with the likes of DJ Yoda. But for rest of us, it was time to rest for a busy Saturday…
“There was plenty to stimulate the brain… without the need for drugs”
Where this festival differs from the rest with their hedonistic chemical-driven highs and crashing lows, the mornings at Camp Bestival are not built for hangovers. With some tents’ entertainment kicking off at 9am, it’s possible to keep children and adults amused straight after breakfast, and not break out of the usual weekday working routine. And that’s not just for the youngsters – The Guardian Literary Institute tent in the heart of the Lower Kids’ Garden is a tranquil, insightful and sobering affair. Whether offering budding writers some handy tips, or simply stretching some creative muscle with the Early Doors Poetry Collective at 9.30 each morning, there was plenty to stimulate the middle-class brain without the need for drugs!
Talking of which, it was the psychedelic king of CBeebies Mr Tumble who stole the show on Saturday morning with his boundless energy and clowning humour. It’s easy to dismiss the children’s entertainer, but Justin Fletcher (the man underneath the primary-coloured make-up and costume) is an A-list celebrity in the eyes of the majority of Camp Bestival goers, both young and old. Judging by the reaction of the crowd, you’d have thought Elton John had made a surprise visit!
By the afternoon, the acts had matured and it was the turn of the serious performers. Although few people would have heard of Gabrielle Aplin this time last year, the angelic 20-year-old from Wiltshire now commands some serious attention and the Camp Bestival crowd warmed to her plaintive acoustic balladry from the outset. Aided in no small part by Aplin’s good looks, it’s probably fair to say the majority of the mid-afternoon listeners started to fall in love with this female singer-songwriter and were eating out of her hand. On the face of this performance, Gabrielle’s steep rise to success looks set to continue onwards and upwards.
Then, in light relief to the barrage of emotion, it was the turn of The Cuban Brothers to bring their unique anarchic brand of beats and humour to the main stage. Their cheeky entertainment lit up the afternoon, in preparation for 80s hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash. Now, before you question how relevant this is to Songwriting it has to be said this was probably the one and only place you would’ve heard The Beatles and Pink Floyd in the same set! On paper, pounding out these classics as beats to Flash’s original 80s hip-hop shouldn’t have worked, but it did. Suddenly it wasn’t just an 80s revival… it was the 60s and 70s too!
Billed as a special guest and revealed only a few months ago, it was a solo Mark Owen who took to the main stage as the sun started to set. Although opening with Shine provided a masterclass in stagecraft honed in countless arena tours with Take That, it didn’t take long for the little singer from Manchester to prove that he’s more than just the ‘pretty one’ from a boy band. In fact Owen has matured into an excellent singer-songwriter in his own right, stepping out from the shadow of Gary Barlow, and it was clear this platform for the re-launch of his solo career meant a lot. A flawless performance.
Then it was left to the rustic festival stalwarts Levellers to round off the day with a rousing ‘Best Of’ set. This is the 25-year-old band’s bread and butter and although they appear to give every show their all, you couldn’t help feeling that they were cruising a little. After all, as we hear from lead singer Mark Chadwick himself [see below], this was just one of “hundreds” of gigs they’ve been playing at this year. Regardless, they rattled through all their favourites and the Lulworth Castle crowd were left satisfied. Job done.
Sunday arrived and the weary festivalgoer could have a good excuse to take it easy, with children and parents feeling the strain of several late nights on the trot. But then the Duracell bunnies of kids television, Dick’n’Dom, hit the stage for several energetic sets. Sandwiched between them, folk musician and song collector Sam Lee and friends brought some dignified, low-key entertainment of a different kind. Introducing one song with a lyric all about sex was one example of how this billing could be like chalk and cheese at times. This eclecticism was further exemplified by the latter half of the Castle Stage timetable as the event finished on a juxtaposition of the old (Nik Kershaw then Heaven 17) and the new (DJ Fresh followed by go-to pop producer Labrinth).
Which perfectly sums up what was brilliant about Camp Bestival 2013. Wholesome fun for all the family, with a wide range of fine songwriters, fabulous performances and friendly fellow-campers make this an excellent festival. Rob da Bank, we salute you! We also approve of his attempts to cultivate the future lyricists in the shape of Stand Up For Lyricism, which educated and entertained budding wordsmiths on a daily basis in the Rob da Bank Music Club tent.
Songwriting definitely intends to be at Camp Bestival again next year. And in fact, dates for Camp Bestival 2014 have already been confirmed as Thursday 31 July to Sunday 3 August, with ‘early bird’ tickets on sale now. If you’re skint and still want to go, then weekly payment plans are available to split the total cost over 34 or 36 payments, which works out at £5 per week for an adult weekend camping ticket. Pop along now to www.campbestival.net and get them booked up.