There are few festival locations quite as picturesque as the setting for Hop Farm, and it remains a peculiar sensation to actually enjoy the drive; a Thursday night in a car heavily weighed down by tents, sleeping bags, beer, food, chairs, beer, airbeds and beer. But there was a real sense of excitement as we took the sweeping trails surrounded by dense forests that this weekend would be one to remember. And although what transpired wasn’t completely perfect, there were some undeniably breathtaking moments that will live in the memory for years to come.
The sun rose on the Friday morning and the sunglasses went on immediately; nothing quite like a beautiful weekend of weather to break in a new piece of eyewear. After getting suitably warmed up, we headed into the arena. One thing that cannot be understated about Hop Farm is that, as it certainly isn’t the biggest festival going, it makes the location of the campsite to the main arena an undeniable convenience. Popping back to the tents within 5 minutes of leaving the arena is something that, having attended much larger festivals myself, certainly keeps your feet healthier.
First act of the day came in the form of, as the Hop Farm programme itself describes, the ‘Swedish-Argentine indie folk singer-songwriter’ Jose Gonzalez, and there were few more appropriate artists to set the tempo for this predominantly folk themed, chilled out weekend. Mr. Gonzalez certainly is a talented and refined artist, and his performance reflected his unfaltering ability. With most of the crowd sitting or lying, basking in the glow of the strong sunlight, Jose Gonzalez’s final two songs (the utterly predictable but captivating hit ‘Heartbeats‘, followed by the best cover of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop‘ I’ve ever heard), really reminded me why I attend these festivals year on year, and served as a beautiful beginning to the weekend.
Next up on the main stage was Billy Ocean, an act in fairness I never took a huge interest in outside of this weekend, but I can now certainly see why he has such a dedicated following. Making one of the coolest ensembles in memory, as well as performing a setlist that must have come from the dreamsheet of any movie director in the 1980s, he had the entire crowd swaying as one to his flawlessly performed songs such as ‘When The Going Gets Tough...’, ‘Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car‘, and finishing with the popular favourite ‘Caribbean Queen‘. His set was accompanied by a huge smile across his face at all times, which really gave the impression that, despite having been in the business for nigh-on four decades, he has a clear love and affection for his work.
Billy Ocean was followed by Dr John & The Lower 911 ft. Jon Cleary. I mainly attended this one on the recommendation of a friend, and the set comprised of primarily bluegrass and jazz filled tunes (not a bad thing I might add). Although it wasn’t the most compelling set I’ve ever seen, it reminded me of why I enjoy Blues music so much; contrary to the title of the genre, the musicians themselves clearly have such a good time performing to the crowd that you can’t help but get swept up in the good vibes being played from the stage. Then, it was time to do a little stage hopping. Although I love the fact that Vince Power can put on a show like this without bowing to corporate sponsorship, the Friday evening felt like there was just too much talent to see, a scenario where I was spoilt for choice and wanted to catch entire sets of a host of artists, but couldn’t. Not that this ruined the experience, however.
First up, The Futureheads at the Big Tent, and what a start! Being a fan of the Tyneside quartet, I knew I’d enjoy this, and they put on a great show. Interspersing some of the tracks from their a cappella album ‘Rant‘ (along with an a cappella version of the Kelis song ‘A Capella’), and their classic self-titled album (including great renditions of ‘Decent Days and Nights‘ and the cover of Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love‘, a treat as ever), they had the crowd singing along with expert precision. We couldn’t hang around though, as we headed back to the Main Stage to check out Ray Davies, lead singer of The Kinks. Although I was fondly aware of The Kinks, I knew little of Ray Davies’ solo work, and although a number of those I was with really enjoyed the show, I have to admit (and I don’t enjoy admitting this), the performance was a little flat. Although the riffs were catchy and memorable, it was a little overshadowed by some rough vocals and I found it difficult to get really excited. This served as a slight blip before returning to the Big Tent to check out The Stranglers, who subsequently put the smile back on my face. Listening to them playing a tribute to The Kinks by performing a cover of the classic ‘All Day And All Of The Night‘, followed by their seminal track ‘No More Heroes‘, got both myself and the several thousand people around me jumping.
Back in a better mood, we trundled over to the Bread & Roses stage to check out the back half of I Am Kloot’s set, and my optimism remained high. With a real stage presence, and performing tracks mainly from their 2010 Mercury Prize nominated album ‘Sky at Night‘ like ‘Northern Skies‘ and ‘Proof‘ (a personal favourite track of mine) effortlessly, they entertained a relatively small crowd with ease. Once this was over, a quick trip back to the Big Tent to check out one of the more surprising additions to this years line-up, in the form of Nitin Sawhney, to provide some deep, chilled, lounge style beats. It was an amazing set to wind down the first night of the festival, a favourite track being ‘The Devil and Midnight’, but quite frankly, that was just one of a huge number and variety of tracks that left me personally refreshed and looking forward to what the festival had to offer for the next two days. It would be wrong of me not to mention the Friday Night Headliner in the form of Peter Gabriel and the New Blood Orchestra, who we visited to see what he had to offer. He didn’t disappoint, providing an anthemic showcase, one that clearly had influence from his days in Genesis, but I did get the sense that his set was designed to be a movie soundtrack, and it was difficult to pick any stand-out tracks that I care to mention, but they were performed with evident passion and clear direction.
Special mention should be made to the artists on the Camp Acoustic stage in the campsite area, especially the Cardiff-born Sion Russell-Jones, who put on a truly amazing performance, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he gains much wider acclaim in years to come from his burgeoning talent.
Sunday got off to a good start with the first band up being The Psychedelic Furs on the main stage, bringing their trademark new wave style to the audience, playing tracks like ‘Love My Way’ and ‘Heaven’ with obvious experience. Although some of the vocals seemed a little strained, this was not enough to detract from what was a worthy and upbeat show, one that I would certainly check out again given the opportunity. This was followed by a packed audience at the Big Tent for The Tallest Man On Earth. Despite a name steeped (excuse the pun) in irony, he clearly took his music very seriously. Lined up with just him and five separate types of guitar, he owned the stage with his strong folk stylings, clearly influenced by the likes of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, and he rightfully pulled in one of the biggest crowds of the weekend, blasting out tracks like ‘The Gardener’ and ‘I Won’t Be Found’ with great skill, much to the satisfaction of his audience. Then, onto one of the groups I was looking forward to most of the whole weekend; Kool & The Gang.
There will likely be few opportunities I will get again to see Kool & The Gang, and I wasn’t going to miss a minute of it. And I can safely say, I wasn’t in the least disappointed. Considering the group has been together for longer than I’ve been alive, they injected their performance with the verve and energy of a group that’s been around a considerably shorter amount of time. Their funk classics ‘Fresh’, ‘Celebration’ and ‘Get Down On It’, were not only performed with astounding clarity and awesome rhythm, the fact they were accompanied by the band doing some great, choreographed ‘boogieing’, really bought the show together, and the crowd responded by joining in with unified swaying, as well as a little dancing themselves. The show lasted around an hour, but I could have happily stood there for the whole weekend listening to, and watching the spectacle that certainly won’t be topped any time soon. Or so I thought. Until Richard Ashcroft came on.
Being a big fan of The Verve, along with Kool & The Gang, this was one show that I was truly looking forward to with great anticipation. And to cut to the chase, it was brilliant. Kicking off with ‘A Song For The Lovers’, Richard Ashcroft knows how to get the crowd under his charms instantly, and it only got better from there. Not only was he at his absolute best for us, his voice and playing ability were unparalleled. There were few artists all weekend that performed with such confidence and triumph as Richard Ashcroft, and his set was filled with a mix of both solo work, as well as hits from The Verve. Indeed, it was such a good set, I immediately dug out my copy of ‘Urban Hymns’ on my return home and felt myself right back at that stage, unconsciously rocking side to side to Mr. Ashcroft’s silky vocal talents. By the time he came to performing ‘Lucky Man’, the mass of people around me were, quite rightly, utterly engrossed, and chanting every word along with the man himself, and when he finished his set with an extended version of the classic ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, there was little better that could have rounded off a set that was mesmerising to say the least.
That was it for what we saw of this year’s festival. And it hadn’t disappointed. From the beautiful weather, to the fantastic atmosphere and music that was, at times, staggering to witness, there was little I could fault about this year’s display. The festival has been growing in popularity and reputation over the last five years, which is entirely justified, and may it continue for years to come.