Published on August 10th, 2018 | by Gareth Allen0
Underneath the Stars Festival – Cawthorne near Barnsley, South Yorkshire (Part One)
This intimate and friendly festival is an absolute joy to attend, with a thoughtful and intriguing range of music and performances, and a spirit of organisation that speaks to a real care and attention to the needs of everyone attending. From first walking onto the festival site, you feel enveloped in an accepting and warm atmosphere, and with an air of anticipation and excitement, about the experiences to come.
So it’s Friday, and Jack Harris from mid-Wales, is on the main Planets Stage, playing to a very appreciative audience, with some very heartfelt songs. Songs that are also laced with a wry sense of humour, during the in-between song introductions.
Quite wonderfully mid-set, Jack plays Robert Johnson’s ‘Love in Vain’. With his voice soulfully soaring above the audience, and a clipped funky guitar backdrop, South Yorkshire becomes for a moment, somewhere deep in the Southern States of America.
A song about gratitude to friends in troubling times feels quite haunting, with the line “what am I gonna do about you”, expressing a very poignant anguish.
‘Vanished Birds’ the final song on Jack’s most recent album, and a part tribute to writer Mary Flannery O’Connor, showcases his expressive voice at its best, accompanied by some beautiful guitar playing.
Pitou on the Little Lights Stage, weaves a set of magical songs, imbued with the most exquisite of harmonies. She speaks emotionally about the warmth and good feeling of the festival.
The sparse musical setting of gentle keyboards, percussion and guitar, from a fine set of musicians, creates a lovely set of ambient textures, to hold the ethereal voices emanating from the stage.
An unreleased song builds in intensity, with rolling drum rhythms, syncopated keyboards, and a vocal and harmonies that simply take flight, in the most beautiful of moments.
On another song, one line ” don’t you forget what you lose” is sung both in harmony and solo by Pitou, and seems to speak somehow and very movingly, to cherishing connection.
PItou thanks the audience for “listening so attentively” and culminates a great set, with the final two songs from her latest recording. The final song, is sung with a voice so full of emotion and yearning, with a stunning phrasing, that speaks to a very engaging jazz influence.
Kate (Kate Rusby) and Sal (Sally Smith) in a traditional feature at the festival, wonderfully mixed songs and stories, including some….well very interesting gifts, in a ‘show and tell’ section. Culminating in a traditional dance, which before everyone was ready; the accompanying musicians launched into a very languid and engaging version of ‘Smoke on the Water’! Kate led a lovely sing a long, including ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, to welcome everyone to the festival.
Grace Petrie opened to a packed Little Lights tent, with ‘No such thing as as a protest singer’. The song is aimed, Grace tells us, at the Guardian, who often bemoan the lack of protest in music, while failing to recognise that we currently have some great musicians doing just that. Not least of whom is Grace, who honestly and with integrity, tells it like it is, with insightful songs about the injustices in our society, and the change that we could and should be fighting for.
‘God Save the Hungry’ with its passion and empathy, for lives torn apart by the cruelty of our world, felt up there with the best of Billy Bragg, combining deep understanding with moving heartfelt songwriting. If there was any justice it should be a new national anthem.
‘You Build A Wall’ from the forthcoming album, felt a song for our troubled times, when engineering division seems too often the response to difficulties. Grace sung, “you build a wall, we will build a bridge’ and the audience sung the line with her at the end, in a moment of real connection and shared hope.
Finishing with a rousing song about the Spanish Civil War, Grace reminded us that anti-fascism remains as vital today as ever. ‘Stand up today, so we might save tomorrow!’. Grace’s set is an early highlight of the festival.
Estbel from Estonia and Belgium, played a mesmerising song about traveling to St Petersburg, with an ascending harmony vocal, that fully conveyed the majesty of this great city.
A song generated from the love of chocolate, begins with a series of ringing guitar notes and soft waves of accordion, joined by some lovely fiddle phrases; before ramping up into a prog tinged musical section, where all the instruments joined by pipes, lock into almost a supernatural synchronicity of playing.
Estbel summed up from the stage, the warmth and sense of welcome in the Festival, that everyone seems to feel, artists and audience alike.
Fat Suit from Scotland added some nonstop funk and soul to the evening, with some great soloing from guitars, brass and the twin electronic keyboards. ‘Feet don’t fail me now’ as George Clinton and the great Funkadelic urged us, was ringing in this reviewers head. Just fantastic!
Steve Earle in a bandana and t-shirt and waist coat, bathed in red light, effortlessly holds centre stage, playing with his excellent band The Dukes. A completely authentic and rugged rock and roll influenced country music, had us in its irresistible grasp. As a group of musicians they really know how to make country swing.
Closing the set with ‘Christmas in Washington’ and its spine tingling chorus of ‘So come back Woody Guthrie’, Steve brought everyone together, in a magical moment of solidarity, with all those down the years, who have fought for freedom and against oppression.
Walking out into the festival site, with its romantic lights like stars twinkling, there was a tangible shared feeling of warmth, and reaching out for the best we can be.
A truly great first day of Underneath the Stars.
With thanks to Anne Robertson for her reflections on the artists, and insights into the music.