Mental note to self: “If a festival starts on a Friday, take the day off.” That’s what I was thinking when stuck in a humungous traffic jam on the way to Guilfest. Clearly everyone had the same idea as me. Leave an hour early from work and avoid the queues to Stoke Park. Cunning minds think alike it seemed, for it took more than three hours to park up in the field from leaving Reading, only 30 odd miles away. Ho hum.
Consequently I only heard the finale from The Damned and caught a glimpse of Captain Sensible in his ultra-bright white suit. A pint of cider later and all was much improved in my stressed-out head. I could see clearly now. And what I saw was an immensely colourful festival that staged unsigned talent as well as the big names. The usual bohemian stalls selling everything from saucy T-shirts to Mexican hammocks lined the festival walk. The crowds were not as bohemian mind, preferring pricey camping chairs to rest their bones on rather than getting grass stains on their Marks ‘n’ Sparks shorts.
Aha, time for The Stranglers. The thousands dotted on the grass had risen to amble towards the main stage. I was privileged enough to be taking photos so I wheedled my way through to the backstage area, past the burly security guards, past the cases of instruments and straight to the front of the stage. The veteran punk band appeared to the expected roar of the hungry crowd. Singer Paul Roberts mooched on stage in a open-buttoned black shirt, cropped blond hair and a grimacing pout that soon split into a full-toothed grin.
The band thrashed out their hits like Heroes, Golden Brown, Peaches and Nice and Sleazy, and it struck me how many of their hits I actually knew without realising. However, they also played some new material which fell a little flat – don’t they realise that the sing-a-long punters want their golden oldie hits and nothing else?
Meandering towards the Uncut Aladdin’s Cave Stage I caught the hot jazz and Western swing of American band Hot Club Of Cowtown. If any band inspired a “yee-haw” from this still-sober reviewer it was this spritely trio of violinist, guitarist and double bassist. And what’s more, the two men and floral-dressed lady looked like they loved every millisecond of performing, brandishing that all-American smile throughout and thanking the crowd profusely for watching them.
Strolling past the smaller Anderton’s Live Stage my neck was stage-hooked by the golden vision of This Is Seb Clarke. Compelling me to drift towards them were a merry band of trumpeters dressed in shimmering yellow while Seb Clarke strummed it large on his guitar, beads of sweat dripping down his face. This 11-piece rock ‘n’ roll act were sensational and were way too good to be crammed on to a tiny stage.
But thoughts of injustice soon dispelled when I realised I had to return to the Aladdin’s Cave Stage for Simple Kid, the one-man-and-laptop folk-pop prince. Wearing his trademark straw cowboy hat, the curly-haired Irishman encountered some technical hitches, which we all blamed the sound tecchie for – someone even jovially shouted for his sacking. But after soon the crowd were stilled by Simple Kid’s immense performance, taking in the quirkiness of Beck to the drama of Led Zeppelin.
Then it was time for Blondie. Superlatives are not needed when mentioning the band. Diminuitive, however, is certainly the word for Debbie Harry. Scurrying past me backstage I couldn’t quite believe it was her – she was tiny! I’m five foot five and she was a good head shorter than me, dressed in black leggings and without make-up.
What a transformation when she entered stage right. She seemed seven foot tall when she slowly and rhythmically snaked to the front of the stage, a peach-coloured designer coat draped casually over her shoulders. They kicked off with Atomic, a superb choice to start off with. Ms Harry was at first hard to hear above the volume of the instruments but the diehard fans squashed at the front didn’t care. It’s amazing to think that Ms Harry is in her 50s – having disrobed she started dancing trance-like in her Vivienne Westwood style white admiral’s coat with red glittery cummerband.
She looked every bit the feisty songstress from 25 years ago. Belting out Denis, Hanging On the Telephone, The Tide Is High and Union City Blues among others, Blondie showed that they are still firm favourites among young and old in the crowd, though some teens were undoubtedly gutted that The Tide Is High wasn’t originally by Atomic Kitten.
But this wasn’t the end, oh no, not while there was The Beta Band to see on the Uncut Aladdin’s Cave stage. The musical alchemists for once looked like they were having a good time, evidently feeling more comfortable playing before an intimate crowd instead of the zillions at Move festival in Manchester weeks before. Singer Stephen Mason even proffered comical chimp noises alongside his plaintive vocals in songs from their new album Heroes to Zeroes and earlier tunes.
But then a little kerfuffle took place on stage, a minor disagreement as to which song to play second. The keyboardist started playing Squares (perhaps better known as Daydream) when the others stopped in their tracks. A brief discussion ensued in which I heard the keyboardist say, “No man let’s play Squares!” before they finally launched into that song.
What it replaced? Assessment. I know because I nabbed a setlist and that song had been scribbled out. The whole scene was quite hilarious, and the Betas continued to play a blinding set including Out-Side, She’s The One, Dog’s Gotta Bone and ending with Broke. No encore despite the pleadings from the crowd. But what did they expect from this most wondrously unpredictable band?