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Whitchurch Music Festival 2003

Friday 1st August
Francis and I set off around 3.00pm to nip down the M3/A303 to Whitchurch, home for the last seven years of the Whitchurch Music Festival. Francis had spotted an ad for it whilst looking at the line up of the Canterbury Festival. On the site was an ad for Riverside Records which had some interesting stuff on it. I ordered some vinyl from Riverside, and Iain asked me to order some stuff for him. Instead of coming through the post they were delivered in person by Dave Martin, organiser of the festival, and Carole & myself had a long chat with Dave about bands and festivals over a few cups of tea.

Strangely enough, not even Francis knew much about the bands playing so it was going to be a weekend of discovery. There are a number from my youth which I was looking forward to. We had both been looking at the bands’ websites over the preceding weeks, and I was already sure I was going to enjoy Treebeard.

We got to Whitchurch around 3.30 and then came the first shock, a Prog Rock Festival held in a school! The main stage was the Testbourne School Theatre and the camp site was the school playing field. The second shock was the number of people. Ticket sales are limited to 300 because of the size of the theatre.

It was, of course, pouring with rain, but we are well practised in pitching festie tents in poor conditions and were soon brewing up some tea. The tea was in a Billy cup which Carole & I had bought Francis back from Australia that he had saved for just this occasion! (Note to Iain, tea was great, can you send us some more, preferably in time for Canterbury on the 22nd August!)

Unlike other festivals there weren’t any stalls, other than a CD stall, a bbq and the bars, not a problem as Carole and Clare aren’t with us;-). We had the obligatory look at what was there and had a few beers and a Hog Roast before heading inside to hear the first artist.

First up was a guy called Keith Bell, we guessed he was local to Whitchurch and he turned out to be the compere for the weekend. He has a good voice and at times to me sounded a bit like a cross between Nina Simone and Tracy Chapman, that might sound weird, but if you ever read this Keith it's a compliment.

Next up were Sphere 3 (3 as in cubed). Extremely talented, but neither Francis nor I particularly enjoyed them. At times they reminded us of Jan Akkerman who we had seen earlier in the year, and were sadly disappointed by. They list their influences as Focus, The Flower Kings and IQ, but it was more jazz fusion to us than prog rock.. That meant at the break we didn’t need to visit the merchandise stall!

Headlining the evening was IQ, they were excellent, lots of influences coming through their stuff, but without it sounding copied. Marillion, Camel, King Crimson all there and we were knocked out. John Jowitt on bass and Martin Offord on keyboards were both awesome. The lead singer Peter Nicholls has something of the stage presence of Steve Hogarth, but not the voice, which may explain why such a talented bunch haven’t made as big as they deserve. Needless to say there was a trip to the merchandising stall after a couple of cracking encores. With a band being around for over 20 years; there were loads to choose from, and Francis and I deliberately chose different albums. Something tells me it could turn out to be an expensive weekend.

It was clear that they were a lot of regulars in the crowd and those we chatted to seemed to come back year after year, but it was a bit of surprise to find that it was a really quiet night compared even with somewhere like Canterbury. The age range was higher than usual, so much so, that Francis was asked for identity at the bar!

Saturday 2nd August
Having had more sleep on Friday night than we often do in a weekend, it was up for a very sunny Saturday. By the time we had brewed up, sorted ourselves out and had some nibbles it was time to wander up to the outdoor stage. Frqncis got a message from Iain on his mobile, first one of those for a long time to my knowledge. This was basically a very small marquee with enough room for stage equipment at the back and the performers at the front, with some school chairs laid out in a semi circle in front of a covered bar area.

We arrived to the sound of a guy called singing a Bowie song and the stage was set for a perfect afternoon. We were serenaded by a mixture of Keith Bell, a guy (I think) called Liam and a superb harmonica player called Jonno Yelland, until Treebeard came on!

Not sure how to describe Treebeard, musically they call what they do 'Heavy Wood'. A five piece band consisting of Chris and Paul McMahon, Paul Chisnell, Gordon Walker and Chris Jellis, they are formed from other bands including Haze, Old Peckuliar and Mock Turtle; they play rock folk and even pop in their own electric/acoustic style, and it works! Tracks included some traditional folk, some jigs interspersed with things like REM’s It’s the End of the World, The Strawbs, The Hangman and The Papist and some Russian folk music. The latter included using a Bass balalaika!

The Treebeard set was total magic and the atmosphere was more like a garden party, and reminded us both of the brilliant Marillion BBQ of a few weeks before. The set lasted over two hours and we could have sat through another two after that!

After Treebeard it was back to theatre where the evening kicked in with John Mitchell from Arena and the Urbane. Quite a nice set and during it John announced he is making a new album with a number of well known musicans including Pete Trewavas of Marillion. John Beck from It Bites joined John on stage for a couple of numbers.

Pineapple Thief filled in for the missing Oxygen8, and they too were cracking, a generation or two younger than most of the other bands, they played a great set and again Francis & I headed straight for their merchandise stall and handed over a few more pennies.

Next up was Tim Burness formerly with Burnessence, can't remember too much about Tim other than we enjoyed the set. Will have to check with Francis.

Headlining on Saturday were Caravan. A band I have sort of followed for years but somehow never quite managed to have in my collection, apart from a 12in vinyl of In the Land of Grey and Pink. My Camel collection is however huge and still growing! Jan Schelhaas who played on and off with both bands is now back with Caravan on keyboards and we were well impressed by him, along with Doug Boyle on guitar and Geoff Richardson on violin and flute. I enjoyed the show, but Francis was less impressed. Part of reliving lost youth I guess. Pye Hastings no longer looks the part of the young student that some of their songs identify with, and they refused all the chants to play ‘Golf Girl’ The stuff from The Battle of Hastings released in 1995 I thought was good, and I would have bought it if the merchandising stall hadn’t packed up and gone away at the end of the show! I did think that some of the stuff was a bit overblown and flashy, but I guess that’s because we have been spoiled by seeing so many Marillion shows over the last couple of years.

So that was Saturday, Back to the campsite for another quiet night. A few cups of tea, and a chat, but we were the only ones awake.

Sunday 3rd August
A very hot night, and we wake up to the sun burning through. My face and head are pretty burnt from yesterday afternoon, so pile on the sun tan lotion.

We are back inside for the first two sets.The first act is Keith James, who does a Nick Drake tribute set. I can remember Nick Drake and pretty sure I have some odd tracks hidden away on old 12in compliation albums, but dont recognise much. Pretty good set and again we both enjoyed it. Next up is a guy called Steve Thorne, apparantly he comes from Southampton and is a protege of Martin Offord. Steve has a great voice and does a excellent set, I particularly liked 'Dear John', 'Last Lines' and 'Tumbleweeds'. Martin Offord joined Steve onstage for a couple of songs playing both keyboards and flute. Francis is not keen on artists using backing tracks, which is what Steve did, to give him the sound of his band, I know what he means, but I still enjoyed it, so it was back to the merchandising stall. ;-)

Then it was back outside, there were a couple of local guys whose names we can't remember who played a pleasant, but unspectacular set. We both needed to stay well out of the sun, which meant sitting under the shade of the bar. The down side of this was that despite 'shushes' there were more people talking than listening. The next act who played for the rest of the afternoon were Kallisti. I really enjoyed them, even with the constant talking. Featuring Jo Quinn on vocals and flute and Paul Alan Taylor on guitar, they appear in different band guises and more info about them can be found at I havent had time to look at the site yet, though I know Francis has. Perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon, a beautiful clear voice singing good choons, good ale, sunshine and good company! I am pleased to say I had the opporunity to go and shake both their hands and do the 'fan' bit later that day.

Just time to pop into the village, pick up some snacks and fresh milk to head back to the tent and make some tea before heading back to the theatre for the final session. We are really looking forward to this as first up is 'WorldHazeBeard' which is basically Treebeard playing electrically as a mixture of the various bands they play in. They start of with the same line up as yesterday before doing a Haze set, which was pretty heavy, but great!, before finishing off with a cracking bit of Genesis. Even Francis is totally knocked out by this finale. Marillion fans reading this will understand what the 'Even' means at the beginning of the last sentence. This turns out to be a bit out an anticlimax for us as next up is Tony Mcphee. Neither of us enjoy his set, as it is not our kind of music, but I guess we were in a minority!

The final act of the evening is The Acoustic Strawbs. I am racking my brains to think, when was the last time I saw them. I think it was in the Seventies at a packed Royal Festival Hall. Hmm it seems a lifetime ago and certainly a different venue. I am soon singing along to tunes I havent played in ages. From Benidictus to Brave New World, through Ghosts, The Flower and the Young Man and The Hangman & The Papist. Dave Cousins introduces each song with a little story, which I found fascinating, as he explains how a number of his songs came about.

In hindsight I am not sure the running order shouldnt have been, Tony McPhee, Strawbs, then WorldHazeBeard, certainly Francis thinks so, but he doesn't know the Strawbs, and doesnt get the same buzz as I do. They put on a cracking show and by the end of the final encore, Dave Cousins is looking a little worse for wear from all the effort he has put in.

And then its all over! We wander back to the tents and collapse, a very different and excellent weekend. A good night's sleep and then pack up the gear and head home. A musical education weekend and some good memories an enlarged CD collection, with a promise to return next year. Well done to Dave Martin and all those involved. Thanks guys!

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