This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Gate to Southwell Roots and Acoustic Music Festival, or as everyone calls it, the Southwell Festival. This is also the fest’s second year at its new home on the Southwell Racecourse, which brings the benefit of good parking, some real toilets and ample camping space. According to the intro to the programme, plans were regretfully dropped for an open air stage this year, hindsight should change that into a wise decision as it chucked it down on and off all weekend.
The main arena was a good compact size with two main (covered) stages plus smaller workshop and dance areas. A covered craft area on top of a whole row of traders as well as a good choice of food vendors gave lots of places to wander between the music.
However good the site and facilities are, it is good programming that makes or breaks a festival, something that the Southwell organisers have got just right. You need your headliners to get the tents bursting at the seams, breaking acts for a buzz, uptempo good time bands to jump about to, earnest singer songwriters to lose yourself in the lyrics, trad folk for the trad fans and something genre defying to keep the festival vibe bouncing along.
For headliners you don’t get much more uptempo than the hillbilly nutjobs that are Hayseed Dixie, or more gravitas that Show of Hands, or more crowd pleasing than Eddie Reader. Southwell gathered a host of established and breaking folk acts, the cream of them doing afternoon and evening concerts so that it was possible to see a whole lot of music without the grim either/or decisions that dog some festivals.
The other thing that a festival lives or dies by is the beer tent; good choice of ales and ciders, tick. Tasting notes and knowledgable staff, tick. A big enough bar to get served without waiting too long, tick. Sensible prices, tick. Top marks again Southwell.
In many ways Southwell feels like a smaller version of the Cambridge Folk Festival, and I mean that as a compliment, the range of artists, the way the programming worked, and even the layout of the site all feel thoroughly sorted. It is getting harder and harder for festivals to stand out these days, there is a finite pool of folk and acoustic acts to pick from, most of whom will do multiple festival dates in a year. Putting a programme together that offers something unique is either very hard or very expensive. So respect to the organisers for nabbing the Moulettes for one of their very few UK fest appearances before they went off to tour Canada. For me they were the headliner of the Sunday, no one is more genre defying than them, and no one else writes songs about jellyfish that are so emotionally moving. Or songs about jellyfish at all. Eddie Reader wouldn’t go near a jellyfish, much less write a song about.
The weather, of course, affects anything outdoors in the UK and it was the all to familiar showers and mud, by the Sunday some areas were getting pretty schluppy. The decent sized beer tent and ample performance spaces made this bearable – the craft tent in particular held much to interest the visitor, making a change from the ever present festival clothes and wooden novelty skulls on sticks. We were particularly impressed to meet the artist who drew the iconic Hobgoblin for the label of the Wychwood brew, Ed Org, with a stall selling prints of his fantastic work.
Overall the Gate to Southwell Festival is a little gem, great programming, plenty of ways to get involved with workshops, lots to do for kids. All of it set within a good new site that seems set to be the tests home for a few years to come.