Watchet Festival – The small festival with a huge heart…
Saturday 27th August
After spending what felt like half my lifetime sitting in the giant car park that is the M5, he beautiful scenery as we drove along the winding coutry roads of West Somerset was a very welcome relief. To describe the scenery when we arrived at Watchet festival as breathtaking is to do it an injustice. Set upon a hill with views of Somerset and the Bristol Channel you could see for miles and miles. What a wonderful setting for three days of festival shenanigans.
Unfortunately, due to family commitments and the afore mentioned M5 we didn’t arrive until 2pm on Saturday. But once we’d set up camp I set off in search of the festival proper and the production office. I was greeted with a warm reception from Jackie, who I later discovered is one of the organisers of the festival, and was made to feel incredibly welcome.
After hugs and hellos and a quick tour of backstage I was in the main arena in time to see Funke and The Two-Tone baby on the Udder Stage. Having been a Bearded Theory and Beautiful Days regular for several years I had still managed to miss catching Funke and the Two-Tone baby. Please don’t ask me how, I really don’t know. But this time I managed to be in the right place at the right time.
If you’ve never seen or heard Funke I suggest you do so as soon as is humanly possible. His foot-stomping music is incredibly infectious and once you’ve heard one song you want to hear more and more.
A very talented individual who manages to be an entire band at once. But he’s in no way a one man band that conjures images of cymbols strapped to knees and drums and instruments with levers. He’s a harmonica wailing, guitar playing, singing, songwriting ball of energy and that energy exudes through the crowd. A superb way to begin my weekend.
Full of fizz and excitement for what the rest of the weekend held in store I had a stroll around the main arena taking in the festival and checking out the stalls which held the usual festival fare of delicious food to suit all palates, clothing and trinket stalls and, most importantly, somewhere selling good coffee.
The main festival arena isn’t the biggest I’ve encoutered but it is far from lacking. With the main stage at one end and the Udder Stage at the other end, with the bar, The Something Else Tea Tent, and festival stalls strewn along the way, the organisers have the layout nailed and the festival has everything it needs to succeed and to please the punters. Personally, it made a nice change to have a five minute stroll from one stage to the other rather than a twenty minute hike.
On this occasion my short stroll took me back to the main stage to see The Simmertones. Their lively, upbeat ska tunes had the audience, myself included, bobbing and bouncing on a cloudy afternoon. We were dancing and we were happy, who needs sunshine!
After all the leaping the sun started to set and I sampled some festival fare and people watched and chatted with fellow festival folk, feeling the happiness beaming from them like torches, before it was time to witness a true legend in action. The Neville Staple Band on the main stage.
Formerly of The Specials, Neville Staple charmed the audience with his easy grin and fantastic set of old school ska and two-tone tunes such as Gangster, Ghost Town, Pressure Drop, and Enjoy Yourself. My knees were protesting by the end of the set but not dancing was not an option, Mr Staple and his vibrant and energetic band and their irresistable bounce made sure of that! So far, so awesome.
The headlining act of the evening were The Feeling. I knew of The Feeling and had heard a few of their songs on the radio and I’d liked what I’d heard so I was looking forward to seeing what they had to offer as a live act. What the audience received was a band who clearly love what they are doing, and the audience responded in kind to the enthusiasm bursting from the stage that night.
The highlight of the set for many was, during “Never Be Lonely”, as lead singer, Dan Gillespie-Sells, split the audience down the middle and had one half harmonising with the other. The entire arena was filled with a beautiful sound of happy revelry, everyone, quite literally, in harmony. I came away from the main arena that evening feeling warm and fuzzy and deliciously tired after my first day in this wonderful place.
Sunday 28th August
Sunday began with dark clouds and a few rain showers but by lunchtime this had cleared leaving behind it sunshine and blue skies, making the surrounding views even more stunning. So I set off to join my fellow festi-folk in the main arena.
Present at Watchet for the ninth year running was Gail’s Something Else Tea Tent. The Something Else Tea Tent is a great place to visit, whether to relax and regroup, or to dance your socks off to one of the many great acts that feature over the weekend.
It’s a place you’re guaranteed a warm welcome and tasty refreshments with music and amusements thrown in. The Something Else Tea Tent plays host to Beardy Keef’s Uke Jam, and yet again the tent was crammed with with people bearing ukuleles and big grins. Always good fun, for me Keef’s uke jam is a festival must do and yet again I laughed like a drain. Thanks Keef.
I spent the next couple of hours mixing with the A-listers backstage and I was lucky enough to speak to Scott Doonican of The Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Dooninican and Mark and Jackie Bale, the festival organisers, and ask them about the festival.
Scott Doonican had this to say of Watchet; “I think it’s nice to be able to go out and just talk to people and have a nice time. We’re as much a part of the festival as everyone else and that’s what it should be about. It’s not like we’re doing anything particularly out there, we’re just going on stage and singing songs about, well all sorts of stupid things, there’s nothing highbrow about them.
Jackie and Mark have now declared us the second house band after The Wurzels. That’s an accolade to aspire to when you’re in a comedy band because The Wurzels are kings of singing comedy songs in their own accents. This kind of atmosphere is great, we can spend the weekend here feeling like rock stars!”.
With rumours flying about the festival site about the break for Watchet Festival next year, I wanted to get the facts from the horses mouth and Jackie and Mark were kind enough to find time in their incredibly busy day to chat to me about Watchet and the rumours surrounding the break.
I asked them why they do it year on year, Jackie told me, “It’s not our day job, it’s a hobby gone a bit wrong. We love live music and we love festivals and we wanted to bring the festival experience to West Somerset. I don’t think we realise what we’ve built. It’s only when talking to other people and when comments come back from bands and agents or whatever, that you sit back and think, oh god, we did that.”
Mark added, “Three or four years ago I was shown a picture of a stage with all the lights and the silhouettes of people, and I asked where it was taken. They said, ‘That’s your event.’. I thought, that is serious, now that is proper. Year ten is a great personal achievement for us that we’ve got The Levellers here.”. Jackie informed me, “That’s our date night. We stand there when the last act goes on and we say, ‘This is why we do it.’”
I asked about the reasons behind taking a break next year. “We’re having a year off just to re-evaluate things and regroup.”, was Jackie’s reply. She continued, “We just want to grab a bit of personal time back and if we want to go to a festival for a weekend without wondering if we can fit it in with everything else then we can.”
Mark added, “We just want to re-focus on what we want to do with the event. I’m a great believer that everything has to evolve and we’ve evolved to this stage, to make it go stagnant isn’t healthy. We don’t know which direction to take it, so we’ve got that time to rethink it.”
With that cleared up I went to see The Bar-Steward Sons Of Val Doonican on the main stage and I have to say, they played the set of their lives. Amid usual favourites like Punch A Face, and Scott’s regular crowd surfing trip to the bar during Jump Ararnd, there was an extra treat as they were joined on stage by many festival friends such as Simon Friend of The Levellers and Gaz Brookfield. The atmosphere at the main stage that sunny afternoon was one of unbridled fun and the crowd were feasting on it, joining in with songs and shenanigans with gusto.
With the crowd warmed up and ready for more silliness The Wurzels took to the stage to amuse and delight the audience with favourites such as Cider Drinker, Pheasant Pluckers Son, and of course, a house version of Combine Harvester! Why not?!
Three Daft Monkeys were next up on the mainstage and, as always, were fabulous, with contagious energy and beguiling songs, it was easy to get caught up in the bonhomie and waltz about the field when they played Days Of The Dance.
After an afternoon full of musical delights it was the turn of Dreadzone and their dub heavy dancing tunes. A personal favourite. When Dreadzone took to the stage the crowd errupted and the bouning began and didn’t stop til the very last note was played, and even they we were crying out for more.
An hour of dancing to their energetic and punchy set, Dreadzone, as always, gave 100% and then some. A fantastic live act who never fail to deliver a massive injection of fire in the bellies of their audiences. Superb.
And the evening just kept on getting better and better with a fantastic fireworks display followed by the headliners, The Levellers. Opening the set with a bang with England My Home, The Levellers played a cracking set full of great songs from their extensive back catalogue. I was privileged enough to be standing at the side of the stage with Mark and Jackie and other new found festival friends, and I’m not going to lie, I shed a little tear as the festival came to a close. What an amazing weekend! A glittering gem of a festival, created through blood, sweat, tears and a ton of love.
I drifted back to the camper van field in a haze. Not because of the Mad Apple cider, well partly because of that, but mostly because the beautiful whirlwind that is Watchet Festival picked me up, gave me a great big lip-smacking kiss and took me dancing.
Can we do it all again tomorrow, please?
Review and photos by Hollie Latham
Interview (Jeremy Cunningham, Levellers)
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