Farm Fest 2021 — A Life-Affirming Weekend in Somerset
Farm Fest | Gilcombe Farm, Bruton
Photos: Molly Davies
Friday 30th - Saturday 31st July: Farm Fest
Donned in an old running shirt with a towel wrapped round newly washed hair, the relief of not being caked in days worth of fieldy grime is palpable. It’s hard to know where to start.
I’ve spent the past 18 months stuck at home in Bristol and now, faced with spending three nights camped in a field surrounded by strangers, there’s a surreal aura to the air. I never would have thought that a 5000 capacity festival in the rolling hills of Somerset would be the antidote I was looking for, or such an incredible hub for some of the finest new music the UK has to offer. But, life finds ways to remind you to stay open minded, and Farm Fest proved testament.
We arrive eagerly on Thursday, the night before the music is due to kick off. Wandering around the site as the finishing touches are put on stage construction and clothing stalls galore, a sense of anticipation lies heavy, with a tinge of apprehension. Without the crush of people, each element of the festival feels like a lone giant. I hear music in the distance, and wind up beside an ancient stone circle, where an ice cream van under the name of Mr Whompy pumps out pop and dance-floor classics to a compact crowd of lairy dancers. A single bar is flooded by people searching for that first taste of festival cider and circle round a vegan flatbread stand like vultures.
Then the rain comes down, and it comes down hard.
70mph winds race up from the south coast leaving tents flattened or… well, vanished. As my partner and I escape the downpour, there’s an aching in my gums. As the steady onset of a wisdom tooth infection begins, I hunker down for, after 18 months in my own bed, what is undeniably the worst night of sleep of my life.
I wake reborn as a chipmunk. Bleary eyed and vulnerable, I worm my way through the still-empty site towards the thankfully open medical tent in search of an ice pack. With the kindness of a saint, a paramedic takes one look at me before stating, “you know an ice pack isn’t going to fix that right?”. I settle for whiskey. Thus begins my beautiful, delirious Friday at Farm Fest.
First on my list to catch are Breakfast Records mainstays Langkamer. On the main stage, Langkamer are infinitely captivating. Amicable in their banter, they storm their set with songs about holidays being too hot and ageing. Thanks for the reminder. Vocalist/drummer Josh is mesmerizing to watch. Akin to Brutus, he expertly leads the band from the back through a terrific, rollicking set. "This next song is called Sarah. It's about your mates,” he yells out. “Take care of your mates... And your mum". At the front of the crowd is artist and gig-goer Big Jeff, the litmus test for good music taste, and I know I’m in the right place. As a guitar breaks, Josh slowly starts a soliloquy about being a beetroot farmer for two months. "Are there any Beetroot farmers here?" he yells, and surprisingly gets one cheer as a reply. Their latest track Ugliest Man In Bristol is the highlight of the set and signals an evolution in their country-tinged rock sound. As my opener for the long weekend, Langkamer felt like the perfect place to start.
I haven’t seen The Makings since they were The May Kings. The newly rebranded funk band takes to the Usagi's Tavern stage, and willfully ignoring the throbbing in my jaw, I amble into the crowd. Emphatically addressing the crowd, vocalist Connor preaches self acceptance and digital detoxes alike, conveying the sense of relief, passion and appreciation that everyone is feeling now that they’re finally able to be immersed in live music at a festival again. The lyrics in their set are liberating, focusing on self love and loving your own weird brain. The Makings have grown over the course of the pandemic. Now a line up of bass, guitar, keys, drums, trombone, sax, and vocals, the sound is full and satisfying. Their polished jazz-tinged funk is chill enough to sway to with enough hooks to bop along. They play one of their earlier songs, and a personal favourite of mine, Just Fine, filling the tent with a wash of uplifting melodies. As suddenly as it starts, it’s over, and I’m left with the impression that, given a year, they could easily take to the main stage.
Running into lead singer/guitarist Connor, along with saxophonist and backing vocalist Vee beside Friendly Records, they couldn’t be happier to be in a field with friends. “[It’s been] fucking marvellous. Nothing short of marvellous. It's been amazing to get into a field again. Full stop.” radiates Connor. When asked what his favourite song to play live was he doesn’t pause, “Personally our new one Heart Attack. It went down wicked. It was such a riot tune. It was cracking. It’s about having to look at your phone every minute of the day and just breaking down after a couple of weeks and just going fuck this. It's great cause everyone was screaming the chorus back. Couldn't ask for more. It was cracking. That was my favourite.”
Vee has a different answer, in fact a throw back to their first single. “I think for me actually, weirdly [it was] one of our first tunes that we ever wrote, Just Fine. I always forget. I think because we've evolved so much over the last year and a half, because we haven't been able to gig a lot but we’ve been able to develop our sound quite a lot, but that song was our first song and it's always a little memento to our beginnings whenever we play it and seeing everyone sing along in the crowd is always a good feeling.” At this moment Connor gets sidetracked by fans thanking him for his set. It makes what he’s looking forward to at FarmFest make so much sense, ”Oh god just being around! Meeting you! Do you know what I mean?” He laughs, “Just meeting people that you haven't seen in ages and just going ‘oh, we can just be around each other’. Vee’s answer is equally focused on the importance of socialising once more. “To be honest, just being around people in real life. This is the first and maybe the last depending on if there’s another wave again, it’s just so nice being around people and experiencing the atmosphere that you get with the festival.”
A new realisation, later in the day, is that I'm obsessed with Peaness. I was worried that, when I arranged to have a chat with the trio, I would instantly giggle at their name and my professional facade would be ruined. Thankfully they’re in on the joke, and remark to the crowd that has gathered eagerly in front of the main stage that the ticket officer that let them into the festival did so with much disdain, writing ‘PENIS’ on their parking pass. The trio are as slick on the biggest stage in the festival as they were in 2018 when I last saw them playing at The Lanes. "I'm a little bit ill. I've got a cold. Of all the time to get a cold it's for the first gig back. We've also all come on our periods on the way down" laughs bassist Jess. With my painfully burning tooth on fire, I relate. Hard.
As they move about the stage, they’re a delight to watch. Radiating cool in oversized shirts and floral print t-shirts, even the sun comes out for five seconds, as if joyous that Peaness exists. With Jess and Balla’s vocals intermingling beautifully, the band carry an uplifting energy throughout the set. They're all accomplished musicians playing with an ease and confidence that only comes with practice - no looking at the fretboard here. People knock rhythm guitar in comparison to lead but why not get you a girl that can do both? Guitarist Balla holds down solid chord progressions while adding tasty licks that are understated but solid and her voice is high and lilting with a power behind it that is hard to cultivate in the higher registers. Drummer Rach does some tasty side stick rhythms to keep the groove going whilst building tension for yet another oh-so-catchy chorus. Not only do Balla and Jess match harmonies vocally but instrumentally too. They launch into their first ever single with "I wanna be by myself", all bearing the biggest grins. The entire performance is iconic, with the live rendition of Oh George a personal favourite.
I run across the festival to try and see up-and-coming Bristol band Wych Elm. Embodying everything old-school gothic, they take to the stage in long white dresses. Lead singer Caitlin Elliman is confident with an indomitable presence. Their songs are refreshingly original and lean heavily into the macabre aesthetic they've cultivated for themselves. Grungey instrumentation accompanies really catchy original tracks, with School Shooter standing out especially. Big Jeff is once again front and centre in the crowd of people who are mesmerised by the bands dark allure.
Lockdown did Grandmas House good. As energetic as they ever were with an entourage to die for (including new tour-de-force of a manager Maria), the trio take to the stage in Usagi’s Tavern looking like the mafia group of your dreams. Each member proudly wears a sticker from Clump Collective of a potato smiley face, and feedback squeals as the sound engineer tries to lift Yas' growling vocals above the thrashing guitar and drums. Their set is powerful, never dropping in energy and retaining it’s quintessential raw punk feel. All the while, it slowly becomes evident that the band have grown with their hype and are deserving of the massive support slots they are now booking. The biggest change is in the band’s bassist Zoe. Previously taking to the stage with a quiet stoicism, she now takes over the space, her cropped hair flying, casting shadows in the mounds of smoke that pours out onto the floor. Drummer and band stylist Poppy is a maniac live, beating her kit to within an inch of its life whilst screaming out lyrics about admiring a particularly tasty pasty peddler - “PASTIES BUY ONE GET ONE FREE” - from the back of the stage, half obscured by darkness. Lead vocalist Yas stares out across the packed tent, sweat glistening on her face, to declare “I AM THE KING.” For their final number, Yas discards her guitar leading to a grunge finale of just bass, drums, and vocals. The lights go down.
The rest of the night passes in a blur. Poppy presents me with some Corsodyl, ambrosia for my mouth, and we head back into the festival. The Den provides warmth with a crush of people all dancing shoulder to shoulder. I’m an indie kid so receive a couple scathing looks when I turn to my friend during Dan Shake’s set and ask “Is this techno?” The Boneshaker lives up to its name, blasting out beats at a deafening volume that you can feel reverberating in your chest. Fog machines belch out so much white smoke that from a distance, the festival looks like it’s on fire. Kids in bucket hats but no shirts crowd at the barriers, beating them in time. I figure it’s time for bed.
Saturday arrives and is blissfully warmer than the day before, but still at that typical British temperature where you can’t quite keep your jumper off for more than five minutes. Having slept through the storm on Thursday night, a quick kip in a tent without wind feels like a stay at The Ritz. I briefly debate changing into a sunnier outfit before resigning myself to remaining in the one warm item of clothing I brought. Three days in this jumper. I’m a gremlin. As ready as I’ll ever be, I leave my tent in search of a hot coffee, jealous of those who have risen from their tents looking like they sprung from the ground festival-ready.
Sat in front of the main stage, caffeine in hand and unbothered by what music is on, I’m pleasantly surprised when Femi Tahiru starts. From the brief soundcheck it’s evident that Tahiru has an impressive set of pipes. Luxurious vocals are backed by jazzy instrumentation that's held effortlessly together by a talented rhythm section. "We travelled four hours from Manchester to come and play for you lot, and to say we're grateful to be here would be an understatement. And the sun is out which is beautiful,'' says Tahiru, before sliding into their second song. Tahiru's vocals are effortless, open, and emotive. His lyrics spin stories of heartache and snapshots of his personal life. Joined by jazz fusion band There Is Colour Here, Tahiru’s songwriting is poetically done justice. The bass is understated with complicated riffs, expertly supplementing the syncopated drums. The overall effect is like a soothing balm for my rough-around-the-edges festival soul, a beautiful soundtrack to the dappled light falling through the receding clouds onto Farm Fest.
My favourite surprise of the festival were four-piece Anorak Patch. Flitting from ambient to rock to upbeat folk, the band sound like a soundtrack to a coming of age apocalypse film and seem more focused on creating aural textures over fitting into any one genre. Most musicians have had a band as a teenager, but rarely do they amount to anything but awkward memories. This is where Anorak Patch are different. The band, made up of Effie, Luca, Oscar and Eleanor, are aged between 14-17 years old and enviably delivering some brilliant tunes, with recognition from BBC Introducing and racking up big streams on Spotify. “I had to ask them how old they were,” the stage manager laughs, “I was like ‘oh, so none of you can drink... And I’m your legal guardian now I guess…”. You can tell these kids are gonna go far, and it’s clear they’re well supported by their parents who are up against the barriers and offering the crowd button badges (my favourite memento of the weekend).
Switching stages for a firm favourite, Agustina Ruiz of Los Bitchos always catches my eye. I’ve never seen someone capture the essence of the 70s hippie movement with just a pout. Whether creating sumptuous textures underneath the guitars on synth or playing a keytar, Agustina always looks oh-so-stylish and at ease. Her bandmates are equally strong performers, letting their individual personalities shine through whilst weaving through complicated and catchy cumbrian-inspired motifs and melodies. Like a switch has been flicked, after their second song people start to crowd the main stage, intrigued by the uplifting instrumental melodies that are radiating across the festival ground.
“This song comes with a little dance which is fun to do,” announces lead guitarist Serra Petale as people flood in front of the barrier, eager to join in on the fun. Drummer Nic Crawshaw is a master at building up beats using darting fills, switching pace and time signature in the blink of an eye with a transition so smooth you hardly notice it. Each instrument holds its own space from Petale’s hypnotic lead guitar to Josefine Jonsson's expressive bass lines - “she sure has got bass face down” comments one of the onlookers - and Ruiz’s atmospheric, swirling synth. "We wrote this one yesterday. I think it'll be a hit" Petale shouts before diving into another mesmerising, side step inspiring track.
By mid-afternoon on Saturday I’d eaten enough vaguely depressing tinned food out of a metal camping stove tin to feel like I’d justified spending money on an actual meal. The Amrutha vegan soul food stall dominated Farm Fest's food landscape. The only reason people turned to the next door mac n cheese or wraps is because the queue for a £10 Buddha box overflowing with chickpea curry, pakoras, slaw, and salad is consistently thirty long. I miss shooting golden hour waiting for some sweet satay sauce and spicy ketchup goodness and find myself returning to the stall twice more throughout the day. When I return the final time, reincarnated as Amrutha’s number one fan, they chuck in a free box of chickpea curry and my day is made.
Returning to Usagi’s Tavern, well-fed and blissful, I’m hit by a wall of sound. Within seconds, I realise that I'd stumbled into something incredible. Magnetic and beautiful, lead singer Mitch is the frontman of any garage band's dreams with an infectious energy and stage presence that elevates the punk band to the next level. He spends as much time off stage, lifted high onto the barriers or hanging off a lofty support pole, as he does amongst his band mates. The group are donned in electric, sequinned jackets, a nod to glam rock of the past, a splash Elton and Prince. A volley of vocals springs from the stage, shouting intermingles with screaming in a round, both singers giving an attitude that is passionate and welcoming. The star of the show is Kate, the band’s songwriter, stylist and producer. She joins Jools to introduce their penultimate song, then again for their final number, a show tingling track centered around the statistic that 97% of women have reported being sexually harassed, "though if you talk to them, you'll find the numbers closer to 100%" shouts Kate. It's sobering.
I manage to catch the pair post set. “We’re so grateful to be here first of all. We travelled like four hours in the car. It was worth every minute of traffic and stop offs and getting lost. We’re based in Leicester. Obviously there are six men in the band but there’s a seventh member in Kate and as a female she just fucking runs shit so Kate, you are the ethos.” Starts Mitch, keen to wax lyrical about mastermind Kate, “We’re very expressive in terms of fashion as well and that's another thing that Kate does. She’s a woman of many talents. She writes songs with us and she styles us as well. We’ve got so many clothes references like Harris Reed, both me and Kate adore, Billy Porter like we live for Billy Porter, Jonathan Van Ness…It's all about fluidity isnt it? You don’t need to put a label on fucking clothing...”
“...and we’re sick of seeing punk bands that are misogynistic, in white t-shirts and black jeans,” chimes in Kate. Their passion is palpable, their teamwork inspiring.
The final act I catch at Farm Fest is Grove. Stood atop the most imposing stage on site, a giant piece of farm machinery in The Boneshaker tent, they launch into a hypnotic set that traverses genres while retaining a sound that is uniquely their own. I didn’t realise how much of a basic bitch I’d devolved into until I lost my shit at the incorporation of Cardi B & Megan Thee Stallion’s WAP followed seamlessly by a remix of Toxic by Britney Spears.
Grove builds beats one rhythm at a time, able to drop everything down whilst retaining an infectious energy. Their manipulation of samples has led to a sound that is unmistakable their own, remixing songs as if written for them, and if the response of the crowd was anything to go by, they are sure to be a figurehead as a producer in the UK music scene.
As the shirtless bucket hat brigade emerge from the dark into the smoky lights of The Boneshaker once again, it’s time to make a french exit. From the porch of my tent behind the main stage I can hear Ibibio Sound Machine shout “DO YOU WANT ONE MORE SONG?” intermingling with heavy drum and bass, the chatter of thousands of partygoers and obscure musical phrases that are lost in the deluge of sound. I savour the crush of noise, hoping that, despite the colds, festival toilets, period panics, and godforsaken rain, this is not the last of my festival escapes of 2021. Farm Fest is life-affirming, and it's been a bloody blast!
Follow Farm Fest on Instagram here & catch you at FF 2022!