One of the best-kept secrets on the festival calendar, Shambala’s stunningly diverse musical line-up offers something for just about everyone
Now well over a decade old, Shambala has become something of an institution on the UK festival scene… yet there’s a fair chance you’ve never heard of it. The festival sells out every year without needing to advertise, or even announce the line-up in advance, and attracts a diverse, friendly crowd drawn to Shambala’s laidback and non-commercial vibe. There are no corporate sponsors, no AutoTune’d pop tarts and no T4 presenters stumbling around in ker-razy neon pink wellies here…
And no easily-definable music policy, either. This year, the main stage was headlined by 2-Tone legends The Selecter, UK hip-hop hero Roots Manuva and world music superstar Vieux Farka Touré on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights respectively, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Shambala’s eclectic talent roster. Elsewhere over the course of the weekend you could hear folk, dub, blues, drum & bass, jazz and a whole lot more – sometimes all at once!
Add to that umpteen tents hosting art, poetry, spoken word, science workshops, debates on environmental issues, circus skills, a huge kids’ area, The Meadow healing field, the trip-tastic Enchanted Woodland and Lord knows what else, and what you end up with is a festival that’s not about charging from one big stage to another, timetable in hand, but about wandering at leisure from field to field, poking a head in this tent, shaking a leg in that and generally exploring.
After arriving on the Thursday night, Songwriting spent Friday ambling around getting acclimatised, but we were down in front of the main stage in time for Billy Bragg‘s set at 6.45pm. The big-nosed boy from Barking™ kept the crowd thoroughly entertained despite the drizzle, with a set that was equal parts music, polemics and comedy – Bragg’s between-song banter raised many a chuckle but songs like the Murdoch-baiting Scousers Never Buy The Sun showed he’s lost none of his leftie bite.
Later that evening, it was the turn of The Selecter. Pauline Black and co put on a typically high-octane show, though their set was perhaps a little too long on new material and short on old faves… there was no My Collie (Not A Dog), for instance, though we did get Three Minute Hero and Missing Words. The crowd seemed happy enough, though… maybe Songwriting is just too used to seeing The Selecter in dingy basements full of ageing skinheads!There were more reggae and ska delights on the main stage on the Saturday. Recently reformed Bristol reggae legends Black Roots were outstanding and had the whole crowd on its feet, which was pretty impressive for a 2pm set – the fact the sun came out halfway through no doubt helped. Ska journeymen The Slackers filled in the awkward teatime slot with their usual party-hearty professionalism, while later on the main stage was given over to the slightly more mainstream-friendly likes of DJ Yoda and Roots Manuva… but by that time Songwriting had wandered over to the Sankofa’s marquee, where rising UK folk-pop songstrel Laura J Martin was playing.
Her one-woman show – using electric piano, flute, mandolin and looping pedals galore – suffered a little from soundbleed from other nearby tents and stages but Ms Martin battled on admirably. Songwriting is old enough to remember when Kate Bush was not a national institution, but just a very talented and slightly kooky 18-year-old singer-songwriter… suffice to say if Laura J Martin is held in similar regard to Ms Bush in another 20 years or so, we won’t be the least bit surprised.
Earlier in the day, we’d also found time to check out another up-and-coming female singer-songwriter from the UK, Carrie Tree, who could be found in the Wandering Word tent. It seems almost a shame to make the inevitable, obvious comparisons to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Suzanne Vega but, well, you get the idea… with a second album due soon, Carrie too is definitely one to keep an eye on.
Later on the Saturday night, there were more dance-oriented thrills from the likes of The Nextmen and – something of a coup for Shambala – old-skool jump-up legends Mickey Finn & Aphrodite. But with the main Kamikaze dance tent at boiling point, Songwriting found more room to dance elsewhere – Modul8‘s all-night set of bleepy, acid-y techno in the geodesic dome of the Woodland Stage and Lee Pattison‘s chunky house set at Shambarber’s were just two of the highlights we stumbled across. But perhaps that’s for a different website…
On Sunday daytime your Songwriting crew, along with most of the rest of the festival, took things pretty easy… as a result we’d like to send our apologies to some of the other UK singer-songwriters who were all playing in the Wandering Word, just a bit too early in the afternoon! It was about all we could do to get down to the main stage in time for The Haggis Horns at 5pm. We were glad we did, though – there’s a reason this brass-led live funk/soul outfit were chosen to back the likes of Amy Winehouse, Morcheeba and Jamiroquai, y’know. Outstanding stuff.
But even better was yet to come. Wandering in the woods, we enjoyed the deep, dub-heavy dubstep vibes from Lumen in the dome again but, stepping out for a coffee, were lured away, Pied Piper-stylee… there were some strange Hawkwind/Ozric Tentacles-ish sounds coming from somewhere and we just had to follow our ears! And follow them we did, all the way to the main stage, where Vieux Farka Touré had the crowd eating out of his hands with a set that – to our surprise – owed more to Hendrix than it did to, say, Fela Kuti. A truly awesome spectacular we’re very pleased not to have missed.
More surprises were to follow as we headed to the Wandering Word tent for the John Fairhurst Band. From what we’d heard pre-Shambala, we were expecting just ‘the blues’, basically. The blues done incredibly authentically for a 20/30-something white guy from Wigan, admittedly, but essentially slow, mournful blues. Which wasn’t what we got at all. What we actually got was Howlin’ Wolf via Led Zeppelin, or Muddy Waters via Cream – this WAS authentic blues all right, just authentic blues reinvented as a hard-rockin’ party soundtrack that saw the demure Wandering Word (there’s lots of poetry, you have to take your shoes off and you sit on straw bales) transformed into a jumping, heaving sweatbox operating on a strictly one-in, one-out basis. Please, Shambala, put this man on the main stage!
We’ll stop there… there were some more artists and some more dancing but we can’t name-check every single artist and DJ we saw. Nor have we found time to tell you about some of the folk we didn’t get to see, like The Apples in Chai Wallah’s or John Cooper Clarke in Wandering Word (both utter roadblocks), or Shackleton in the Kamikaze tent or Mungo’s Hi-Fi in the Roots Yard (all reggae, all the time, all weekend) or Beth Rowley or Ed Rush & Optical or Laid Blak or Rory McLeod or… well, you get the idea. Like we said, this is no place to be trying to stick to timetables.
Instead, it’s the place to open up your mind and ears, and soak up some incredible music from right across the spectrum, surrounded by a crowd that’s pretty much 100 per cent smile-sporting and idiot-free. How long it can stay like this remains to be seen: with the festival getting larger every year, there’s a danger that eventually the taint of mass-market commercialisation will start to creep in, as has happened to the likes of Glastonbury and The Big Chill. But for now, Shambala remains the under-appreciated jewel in the UK festival crown.