Photos by Beth Hunt
In 1987 Belinda Carlisle sang the fateful line that "heaven is a place on earth." Larmer Tree Festival didn't come into existence for a further three years, however, after my long weekend there I'm pretty sure it she was referring to this little gem of a festival. Tucked into the beautiful Larmer Tree gardens in rural England it displays the best of music and the arts in its own amazingly eccentric way.
Admittedly to the untrained eye it may have looked a long way from heaven when we turned up to a muddy campsite on Thursday in the pouring rain and even less so on the Monday morning when we left an even muddier campsite in even heavier rain; however, the filling to that rain sandwich was one of pure joy. Larmer Tree doesn't have the big name acts to rival many of the other festivals on the UK circuit, though they do offer are a small spattering of household names - which this year included the likes of Tim Minchen, Paloma Faith, The Levellers, Roots Manuva and Jools Holland. Luckily for me, the readers of this site are well beyond the naïve notion that the better known a band is, the better they are. This concept was proved act after act over the course of the weekend. The scouting process for this festival feels incredibly personal, as though the organisers have really taken the time to select the artists that they love from across a huge variety of genres. Over the four days I spent at the festival I saw: beat boxing, 10-piece all male choirs, sessions in a shed, Cornish punk bands, Mobo award winning reggae outfits, eccentric comedian's, grizzled folk troubadours, late night storytellers and more mandolin and banjo pickers than you could shake a plaid shirt at.
To complement the exceptional music on display, the whole thing takes place at the historic Larmer Tree Gardens – A forest clearing interspersed with beautiful ancient buildings nestled in the Wiltshire/Dorset border. The site is meticulously decorated with an array of quirky exhibits and art instillation, along with a rather random collection of peacocks who roam the site freely. You could easily go the festival and never watch a second of music with all the other arts, theatre, poetry, spoken word and delicious food (including my favorite, Pieminister) on display, but this is predominantly a music site, so let's get down to the nitty gritty of my musical highlights of Larmer Tree 2012.
I feel a little bad about putting Akala in this list, as I only caught his last track, due to a schedule clash with Roots Manuva, but, I was so impressed by his closing track 'Find No Enemy', I thought it would be criminal to exclude him from this list. I was instantly impressed by his honest approach to song writing and his refreshingly direct lyrics which challenge stereotypes as well as political and cultural injustices. Call it black radio, don't make me laugh, so it black music all about tits and arse? . Well, quite. This was the last track I heard at the festival and was certainly one of the best.
11. Cahleen Morrison & Eli West
This duo sounds far more like they would be playing the fine halls of the Grand Ole Opry rather than their actual home in the Pacific Northwest. Regardless, they are an amazing Bluegrass outfit, which truly blew me away during their set on the Garden Stage. A particular highlight was their acappella ballad 'My Bloody Heart'. If you like your music lonesome and your harmonies close, it's definitely worth checking out the band's upcoming album 'Lady of the Tall Trees'.
10. Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friend
Port Isaac's Fisherman's Friends really are something special. To the cynical readers, the idea of a Cornish all-male, 10-piece choir may not sound like your cup of tea (believe me, I wasn't completely sold as I was wading through the mud to see them), but I assure you that in the moment it really would be. There is something incredibly simple and powerful about the concept around Fisherman's Friend. The group consists of actual fishermen (as well as a few of their friends) who sing every Friday evening at the harbour's edge back in Port Isaac. How much better is the world now that you know that this is happening?! Genuinely a fantastic band, that have the feeling of not being from our time. Their set consisted of a variety of traditional English songs and Sea Shanties – the highlight being 'The Last Leviathan', which genuinely had me close to tears (and I'm a man who didn't cry at Sophie's Choice!).
9. Paloma Faith
When I first saw Paloma Faith's name on the bill, I found it a rather strange selection. The London based songwriter struck me as a little conventional and mainstream for a festival such as this – I was wrong – with Faith putting on a fantastically quirky and encapsulating set. Appearing on stage in a 50's style long blue dress with a white fur wrap she was supported by a myriad of instrumentalists and backing singers; who together delivered one of the sets of the weekend. Besides her vocal talent, it was her charm and wit which shone through most prominently; cracking jokes and interacting with the crowd in that thick London accent. When one audience member asked her to marry him, she proclaimed "that he was quite good looking," but when she found out he was a student she said it wouldn't work as "she didn't want him to be intimidated by her success." It was humorous and good-hearted tangents like this that contributed to an excellent set in which she delivered her tracks with the style and conviction of an artist beyond her years.
8. The Joker and the Thief
This is a band whose name has been appearing with increasing frequency across the UK festival scene, including slots at Glastonbury, Hop Farm and Strummer of Love, they have been steadily gaining a significant cult following. TJATF not only have one of the least pronounceable band abbreviations, they also create incredibly energetic rock and soul fusion. Though they did not grace the stage till 12.45am they performed a dynamic set to a packed (and drunk) Social Stage who were hugely receptive to the band's style and vigor. A particular stand out for me was the band's delivery of their track 'Worm in a Hole' from their debut EP Secret Ballroom – if you haven't heard it before it is well worth checking out here.
7. The Bookshop Band
I came along to see these guys based on the bio in the festival guide, which described TBB as: "writing songs about books and playing in a lovely little bookshop in Bath for when the author comes in to talk about their books." To me, this sort of act is what Larmer Tree Festival is all about. An incredibly original concept and fantastic musicians to boot; I found the entire set truly captivating. The three members would explain a particular passage from a book, or an author's life and then play a song which excellently depicted their take upon it. Four albums in one year later, they are now on tour across the UK – if you get a chance to see them in your home town bookshop I would thoroughly recommend it.
Readers of the 405 are probably well versed in the ways of Louisiana's finest Indie Pop band; but for those of you who aren't all I can say is - you're missing out. This was my first time seeing the guys (and girl) live, and they did not disappoint. They have a youthful energy which is really infectious and which left me unable to restrain from indulging in a little bit of white, middle-class, uncoordinated dancing. The highlight of the show had to be singer and multi-instrumentalist, Tiffany Lamson, putting in a percussion performance which was both mesmerising and violent in equal measures – that being said, closing the set with 'Up, Up, Up' was pretty mind-blowing too.
5. Beth Porter and the Availables
Beth Porter isn't very well known for her own music, however, she is a fiercely in demand cellist who can normally be found playing among a string of other bands. At Larmer Tree she performed as Beth Porter and the Availables, which represents her personal song writing endeavours and shows a great deal of promise. We were lucky enough to be invited in to catch her play for the fantastic guys over at 'Songs from the Shed'. If you haven't heard of them, they do amazing sessions from a shed in rural Southern England. Beth's performance displayed what amazing musicians both her and 'The Availables' are, with a beautiful and powerful arrangement of her track 'Time'. Check out the Larmer Tree session here.
4. Tim Minchin
Tim Minchin is an artist that blurs the line between musician and comedian; with songs like 'White Wine in the Sun' being so beautiful that they easily stand up by their own musical merit. It is unusual that he has found such a large cult status when you consider the random, obscure and often offensive references that his songs are based on (one which continually calls the pope a paedo comes to mind). However, it is the intelligence and wit with which he covers these topics which has led to him being continually lauded by critics and the public alike. His short (or at least it feels that way when each of his songs are about 7 minutes long) but sweet set on the Main Stage at Larmer Tree was a perfect display of his talent and put across what a likeable character he is. Opening with 'Rock N' Roll Nerd', Minchen played a string of fan favorites such as 'Prejudice', 'Canvas Bags' and 'Cheese' to a devoted crowd who sang every word back at him. Despite the comical nature of the set, he ended with the very sincere track 'When I Grow Up' which he wrote for 'Matilda The Musical'; currently showing on The West End. Superb.
3. Dizralli and the Small Gods
Having listened to Dizeralli and the Small Gods briefly before the festival began I was a little sceptical as to why the band was so widely received by critics. I decided to put this behind me on the day as I was keen to see how their fusion of hip-hop and folk music would work together in a live setting. The long and short of it is that it does… it really fucking does. What comes across live is just what a tight group of musicians they are. The seven-piece band features Bellatrix, the World Female Beatbox Champion, DJ Download on the decks and a string of other accomplished musicians brandishing an array of diverse instruments; bringing together the best of the two genres. The hugely likeable and sincere nature of front man, Dizerali is the lynchpin to this incredible act. A former beat poet, his lyrical style and delivery live is absolutely exception and he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand by the time the final track, 'Million Miles', faded out. They have an album due to come out by the end of the year; if they can successfully get across what they delivered throughout this see I have little doubt that they will be moving on to bigger things.
2. Otis Gibbs
For those of you who know me, you'll know I'm a sucker for artists of the socially motivated folk singer ilk. If I read the phrase 'troubadour' in a review, I'm likely to head straight to said artists Bandcamp – so when I read the bio of Otis Gibbs and saw that he draws comparisons to Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen and is 'a genuine troubadour', I thought there was a fair chance that I'd be a fan of his music. However, I was in no way prepared for just how remarkable a musician and a performer he would be. Watching his set was a truly humbling experience. For being such a seasoned performer he still had an infectious passion and enthusiasm for his craft. It made me realise just how many of these incredibly talented guys there are out there plying their trade, day in, day out, touring constantly to just get enough money to make it to the next town. It's a mis-romanticised lifestyle, but it's one in which a lot of these folk stalwarts really live. Performing a set rich in detail, lived in character and plenty of wit this was a true coming together of music and storytelling.
1. Gabriella Aplin
If Laura Marling is the second coming of Joni Mitchell then Gabriella Aplin is the second coming of Tracy Chapman. I know it's often easy to get caught up on artists' age when they emerge to prominence in their youth and that this sometimes over-shadows the actual musical talent on display; all I can say is that Aplin would be exceptional artist regardless of her age. The fact that she is only 19 should be a side note to the overbearing detail that is her talent. During her 45 minute set she delivered some of the best-written pop songs I have heard for quite some time. Looking equally competent on the guitar or behind the piano, it was her haunting vocals which were the constant and stunning centrepiece to this performance. She displayed both a hugely credible musical ability and a notable ability to write strong melodies and beautiful hooks. In a set full of highlights, it was on the dark piano-ballad 'I Won't Be Your Problem Anymore' that she truly had the crowd both moved and stunned. In a weekend which generally displayed the quirkier sides of music (in no bad way), my number one highlight was this -There were no gimmicks, no ego, no 'scene', just an incredible talent doing what she was born to do.