Hop Farm Festival, which is in its third year now, must have spent a considerable amount of time picking and negotiating its line-up for 2010. This year they went for a series of well established acts with two of the biggest names in song writing; Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, both with a bit of a reputation for having massive fan bases, great repertoires and no small amount of "artistic" temperament. The big question for the weekend had to be "which version of these acts would be turning up to play?"
The festival, which is organised by Vince Power, promotes itself as sponsorship and brand free (which in essence makes it its own brand), and true to its word we could find none at the site in the middle of the Kent countryside. Aside from a few more recognisable stalls there was a distinct lack of the type of commercialisation that we have come to expect from festivals these days (Glastonbury aside), which is refreshing.
The arena consisted of the Main Stage, the focus of the weekend, the Big Tent, a smaller Bread and Roses Stage, your usual large fairground rides and plenty of bars and stalls. Enough to keep everyone happy? Perhaps not. People could choose to buy day or weekend tickets and camping was an optional extra, so with Dylan playing on Saturday and a smaller line-up on Friday with Van Morrison headlining it meant that Friday was spacious and easy to get around, but Saturday was much more crowded. It wasn't over-crowded, but what it did do was put a huge strain on resources on another scorchingly hot weekend, but more about this later.
Van Morrison, Blondie, Dr John, Los Lobos, Imelda May, Damien Dempsey
London Cuban Allstars, Afro Celt Sound System, Richard Thompson, Peter Green and Friends, Stornoway, Sweet Billy Pilgrim, Sparrow and the Workshop, Paris Riots
By far the best performance of the day came from Blondie, who exploded onto the stage and showed that age cannot be used as an excuse for not being able to entertain. At 65, the same age as Van Morrison, Debbie Harry puts many a performer to shame and, like Ray Davies, makes you feel part of the set, rather than just a bystander. This was the second time that we had seen Blondie in the last month and their set still seems fresh and exciting despite being almost a carbon copy, which is a sign that you are really enjoying it.
Having heard many mixed reviews about Van Morrison, but still being an admirer of his work, I was really looking forward to seeing him and making my own mind up. Would his reputation for being a cantankerous artist hold up, or would he glide onto stage like a superstar and give us a world-class performance filled with wit and repartee? In short, it was the former. Morrison simply arrived and started to play at his piano and aside from moving to play the guitar nothing else changed. His ability to play his songs well is without question, and I enjoyed hearing some of my favourites, such as "Brown Eyed Girl" (which he doesn't rate, apparently), and "Baby Please Don't Go". However, I cannot remember the last time that I felt so let down by the lack of connection with the crowd from such a well known artist, and if I had known that this was going to be repeated the following night I would have been surprised.
Interestingly, there were rumours that the cameramen were not allowed to film any other member of the band but Morrison, which is an odd thing to do if you are not keen on too much public exposure, but unfortunately this can only remain hearsay.
Morrison's set was devoid of communication with the crowd, even in the quiet moments between the songs, but what he played would have been fantastic for the die-hard fans. For those of us who don't know every song from his astonishing repertoire we would have liked a few words about them so we could connect more with the set, and a little more than a sharp exit without so much of a goodbye at the end.
Considering just how well received Blondie was and the fact that she created an experience for everyone to enjoy together, not just a cold artist / crowd relationship, Blondie would, in my mind, have made a much more successful headline act. People would have left the arena buzzing, rather than the bemused faces that still weren't sure if Morrison was going to do an encore, had left the country or was stopping for a cup of tea.
Those who didn't stay for Van Morrison went to the Big Tent to catch the amazing Afro Celt Sound System. Another collaborative group of incredible musicians, many of whom we have seen before in acts such as Imagined Village, coming together from a jamm to create beautiful and exciting musical fusions of, not surprisingly, considering the name of the band, African, Celtic, World and dance beats. The colour, sound and sheer vibrancy more than made up for Van's set.
A particular highlight of the day was the chance to catch Peter Green and Friends, who played the Big Tent. Green is every bit as much of a legend in the music industry as Dylan and Morrison, but for many different reasons, so his appearance was greeted with rapturous applause from the crowd. He seemed to take forever to hitch up his guitar and get to the microphone, but he didn't rush, and the crowd kept shouting "You're a legend, Peter". Mike Dodd on rhythm guitar simply said "as you can see, Peter will get here in his own time" and nobody cared, we were just all pleased to see him, he could have taken 10 minutes to get started, such was the affection for him.
Other highlights came from Dr John and the Lower 911, who was charming throughout, Imelda May, and the up and coming Stornoway whose delightful sounds and harmonies were a breath of fresh air. Struggle as I might, getting "Zorbing" out of your head is more difficult than you think.
All in all, Friday seemed to be a real success, even if we didn't get Van Morrison crowd surfing.
Bob Dylan, Ray Davies, Mumford & Sons, Seasick Steve, Peter Doherty, Laura Marling, Johnny Flynn, The Magic Numbers, Foy Vance
Devendra Banhart, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Tunng, Villagers, Jim Jones Revue, Pete Molinari, Alan Pownall, Jon Allen, Kill It Kid
Day tickets to see one of the most famous performers of all time, Bob Dylan, ensured that numbers on site ballooned dramatically on Saturday. It wasn't a surprise that people were keen to come as the line-up was really quite strong and it lived up to its promise, delivering a day of music that justified the ticket price.
By midday the arena was filled with picnic blankets, chairs, parasols and even a gazebo (nobody likes a smart arse) and people had staked their claim on a piece of Hop Farm to call their own for the day. This included the standing room only at the front of the stage against the barrier where stoic people of all ages propped themselves up waiting for their bands of choice. That was something that was a real pleasant surprise; when asking who people were waiting for they all said Dylan, even the ones that weren't even born when Guns ‘n' Roses were covering "Knockin' on Heaven's Door". They were all excited about getting to see Bob Dylan.
There were plenty of great acts to come first. The first surprise of the day was from Foy Vance who started the bill off with a splendid set that defied his position on the line-up and gripped the audience. See him if you get the chance.
The Magic Numbers have always been a favourite, and whenever you see them you are reminded of their melodic sounds and catchy tunes. A couple of new single releases and they will be rocketing back up the bill in no time.
Talented singer-songwriters were the order of the day, and whether they were your thing or not the sets from Johnny Flynn, Laura Marling and Peter Doherty were perfect afternoon entertainment. Johnny Flynn created quite a stir with the girls in the audience with his fresh-faced looks straight from a Twilight movie, playing his mandolin, fiddle and guitar with prowess. Laura Marling's popularity is growing at the moment, but I didn't hear any songs that stopped me in my tracks, but I can put that down to the heat.
Flynn and Marling don't have the same edge as Doherty, as you would expect, but then they didn't have a shoe thrown at them, so it's all swings and roundabouts. Doherty did an acoustic set, reprising tracks from the Libertines, Babyshambles and his own solo work, complete with his favourite ballet dancers.
Seasick Steve is a quality act for an afternoon; who can resist his humble charm and raucous, foot stamping, slide guitar blues? "I wore these sunglasses so that I could look like one of them pop stars, but I can't see a damn thing" he said as he took them off before picking up another of his home made guitars. The schedule for the day was running late, but it was Steve who cut short his set to make some time up, which is testament to the man's temperament.
The big buzz at the moment is for Mumford and Sons, fresh from their critically acclaimed success at Glastonbury, so there was a fantastic reception for the band who regaled the crowd with their hits and tracks off "Sign No More". Their folk based sound (and who doesn't like a banjo?) carried well through the arena and it was great to see just how much the band enjoyed playing their set. "This is the most people I have ever seen, let alone played to" proclaimed Marcus Mumford before launching into "The Cave". It was a fantastic set and worthy of the hype surrounding it.
All that was left were the two performers who would have been mentioned in the same breath but could not have been more different in attitude and delivery if they tried: Ray Davies and Bob Dylan. It is at this point where people's opinions start to waiver dramatically on the quality of performance that each act gave.
I am afraid that, for me, Ray Davies was the star of the show. His superb set gave everyone something to sing along to, and his emotional rendition of "Days" was watched by Marcus Mumford, who was shown on the screens holding back his tears. Davies had obviously been told that he couldn't have all of his time so that Bob Dylan would be punctual, and this may well have contributed to his slightly elevated level of Rock and Roll impishness. The result of this was him slating the organisers of the festival, and Dylan himself, though his comment "I don't live in a gated community like others on the bill" may have been aimed at someone else on the bill, I just don't think that's likely. Yes, he went on to praise Vince Power later (after a change of mind) and the "Whey-ho" can get a little old, but I would take a performer that puts that much into a set any day. Despite not managing to squeeze "Waterloo Sunset" into the slot it was my pick of the day and once again the penultimate act gave the headliner a bloody nose.
So then it was time for Dylan. I was excited, the crowd were excited, people working on the stalls were excited, I think even Van Morrison would have looked excited (or maybe not). Which Dylan would turn up? He is renowned for giving many different types of performances so we could have got a Greatest Hits Dylan or an Introverted Obscure Track Dylan. What we got was something between the two.
He started the set brilliantly with "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" and I thought we were in for a classic festival performance, peppered with every song you would ever want to hear from Dylan, but unfortunately this was not to be. I am confident that all of the "true" Dylan fans were blown away by the choice of tracks, but for those of us waiting for the more well-known and accessible songs that he is most famous for the tracks just kept missing the mark that we were longing for. I know it's not cool to want to hear "The Times They are a Changin'", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door", "Subterranean Homesick Blues" or "Blowin' in the Wind" but for a festival set it is important to try to go beyond cool and give the majority what they want. I was pleased to hear "Just Like a Woman" but for me there was not enough of these type of songs in the set and I am unlikely to get to see him again so it feels like a great opportunity lost. I try to think not of the many stoic Dylan fans, but of the majority of normal fans who know of Dylan and his work, but couldn't name every song, release date and album position, or those young fans that wanted their chance to sing along to a legendary performer.
It wasn't just the choice of songs that was an issue with Dylan. Like Van Morrison the night before, Dylan chose to virtually ignore the audience throughout the set. No introductions, no hello, no goodbye, no connection. I know this isn't the be all and end all and that "it's the music that does the talking" and all that, but without this interaction you may as well be watching the show on television. OK, so he is quite an introverted man, but I've heard his radio show and he is not short of an anecdote or two, and I saw him on stage having a blast, laughing and smiling and decidedly animated, he wasn't just on a stool in a corner. And it is this that brings me to why the whole set became a disappointment. Dylan made a questionable decision to restrict the live camera shots that were being displayed on the big screens at either side of the stage. Instead of varied shots of the band, the crowd or differing zoom levels all we got was a static, wide-angle shot of the whole stage showing a mini version of the performance. It was done in such as way that the screens displayed the band at exactly the same size as the stage itself so there was no point in looking at them; it offered no advantage over the real thing. All it did was to prevent all but the closest members of the audience from getting a proper view of a man they had all waited to see. It meant that a good view was only for the elite few. As I mentioned, it wasn't as if Dylan was miserable on stage, he would have been great on the big screens, it was a phenomenal mistake.
If an act doesn't want to connect with the audience, they can do so by performing their best hits brilliantly, which is great. If you can't get to see them properly you can see what is happening on the big screens so that you can match the music with the action and feel part of the show, which is also great. But if an act like Dylan fails to communicate, doesn't play some of the more mainstream tracks and you can't see him you may as well be listening to him on the radio, which is pointless if you have braved the heat all day waiting for him. If only he had utilised the screens, or made the night special by talking to the crowd, even a little bit, he still could have turned the set around because we all wanted to love Dylan. This is why the people fortunate enough to be close to the stage (and the lifelong Dylan fans) enjoyed it so much, whilst the people further away from the stage got less and less of the Dylan they wanted to see. I didn't expect to see people leaving the crowd at all, on the contrary, I expected a surge of people getting up from their picnic chairs to get closer to the man, not packing them up and leaving, and these were Dylan T-Shirt wearing fans as well, not just bored, skinny jean wearing youths. Perhaps everyone was just trying to beat the traffic, but who would leave a Bob Dylan concert for that? Everyone has an opinion about this, with staunch fans denying that anyone left, but in my experience you can see if more people are leaving or joining an audience based on the overall flow direction (there are always people leaving and returning, it's the volume that counts). I was around twenty rows of people from the front for an hour, desperate to enjoy the show, and apart from a few late pushers-in there were people leaving from in front of me, people with a better position and without doubt people who had waited for some time and negotiated their place carefully throughout the day. When I moved further back towards the edges of the crowd and realised just how the big screens affected the appreciation of the show I saw the steady stream of people leaving first hand. I just didn't think anyone would be able to drag themselves away from Bob Dylan.
Dylan did introduce everyone in his band before the encore, which was a welcome sound, but not as welcome as "Like a Rolling Stone" which he played before "Forever Young" as the encore. Then, just like he arrived, he disappeared from stage. Did he even wave goodbye? Like most of the people in the arena, I have no idea, I couldn't see.
I still love Bob Dylan and the work that he has created over decades, and don't hold his performance against him, he is one of a few artists who could get away with it, but it just felt like a massive disappointment to me. I have no idea when I will ever see him again, so my opportunity for the perfect Dylan set is probably lost to me forever which is one of the things that makes it so hard. I didn't watch the set from a privileged position or with a better view, I watched as a fan and was close enough to catch a glimpse of him. Opinions vary wildly about the quality of the set because it is such a subjective thing and I know that it is not a popular thing to say anything negative about Dylan, but given the day over again I would have put Ray Davies or Blondie on after him to close the festival.
The arena didn't open until 11am, and by then the queue of people to get their day wristbands stretched around the perimeter of the site. People camping also had to wait until 11, but at least they had a different entrance to the day ticket holders. "I just wanted to get into the arena to get some decent food, the stuff on the campsite is rubbish" said one frustrated camper. That's the nature of arenas, and it is difficult to avoid.
With such an increase in numbers on Saturday, the uncharacteristic raging heat and the shear volume of people concentrating on the main stage created logistical problems in the arena, and most of these were centred around drinks. Stalls quickly ran out of water, with the bars becoming the only places to buy from, so when you add normal bar traffic with people looking for water it created massive queues around the main stage, but knocked on to all of the other bars around the arena as people tried to circumvent the queues. The biggest issue was that people were queuing for the free drinking water, desperate to cool down in the heat and keep hydrated without hitting the alcohol. The queues at the taps stretched for some way for the whole day. People I spoke to had been waiting from half an hour to almost an hour to get water, so people took more and more vessels to put water into, which meant they took longer at the tap, which increased the queue … How people didn't collapse in the heat I will never know. Between acts the compare reiterated to keep drinking, put on sun block and a hat, and you could see the eyes of the people queuing for drinks roll back in despair.
Much had been made of the issues with parking and leaving the site, particularly on the last night. You can't avoid some sort of chaos with so many wishing to leave via the same exit, so when I ground to a halt and stayed there for 5 minutes I thought I was in for a long night. Fortunately the organisers had arranged to put staff in the car parks to properly and fairly direct the traffic, allowing the same numbers of cars from each direction to come through which kept things moving slowly but in a controlled manner, without the need for duelling.
The line-up worked well as a whole entity, with enough variance to keep you interested whilst still keeping a musical theme in line with the main headline acts which attracted a wide range of ages to the festival.
I thought that Hop Farm Festival was an overall success; it got the atmosphere just about right and delivered a really impressive line-up for such a small festival. It was relaxed and friendly and the refreshing lack of branding was great to see, perhaps it was this break from the corporate that meant the £135 ticket price for a weekend ticket with Friday and Saturday night camping was higher than many had hoped. Aside from some attention to the access to drinking water I think that the Hop Farm Festival is definitely one I would recommend to people.
All of our photo galleries from the weekend will be appearing online soon.
Thank you to Vince Power and This Is Mission for inviting us to the Hop Farm Festival
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