It was my third year on the trot at Hop Farm and to get all my cards on the table it's been a favourite since the first time. Frequently festivals can be so small that you turn up, do a quick 360 degree pivot and you've seen everything and everyone or they are huge behemoths, overwhelming the senses and you are surrounded by a small city's worth of people. Personally I love the latter, they create a special kind of chaos that you just don't get anywhere else.
Hop Farm fits squarely between the two, but retains a lot of the best qualities from them both. Doing a circuit of the site isn't going to be expensive on the shoe leather, but the three stages are far enough away from each other so that you don't get that special kind of cacophony that comes when two bands' music can be heard at the same time. You've got all the usual festival facilities, but the festival's "no branding" ethos provides a slightly more eclectic range than normal without descending into a falafel and halloumi love-in.
Musically Hop Farm has fluctuated over the years, but tends to be a mix of classic bands and acts with loads of experience (for the old uns) and some bright new acts (for the young uns). Of course you can't categorise that easily, but my point is that whoever goes to Hop Farm will have a good range of music that matches their tastes. One thing for sure is that the festival specialises in booking really big legends of music that sit alongside some of the brightest young whipper-snappers. Don't believe me? Well, we've had Neil Young and Paul Weller with Florence and the Machine and Editors, Bob Dylan, Blondie and Van Morisson with Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling and last year there was Prince and The Eagles with Tinie Tempah and Labrinth. This meant that the festival attracted a wide range of people from families and young groups to more mature festival goers and those fans that travel all over the world to see their idols.
Hop Farm 2012 was a little different. Rather than balancing it 50/50 on experienced and new acts there was a distinct and obvious paradigm shift in favour of the former. Headlining this year were Peter Gabriel, Suede and the return of Bob Dylan, and they were surrounded by a plethora of acts who all had at least 20 years of experience in the music business from Billy Ocean and Kool and the Gang to Gary Numan and George Clinton. There were still plenty of newer acts but, aside from Damien Rice, none of them made it onto the main stage much after 2pm, for these you needed to get to the other two stages. If you did you could catch Lianne La Havas, Tom Vek, King Charles, Maximo Park, My Morning Jacket and many others. So how could this change affect the festival?
There are plenty of "nostalgia" festivals where they bring together groups of bands who had hits in the 70s / 80s (and I am being kind when I pluralise "hit") and they are fun events, like a "Now That's What I Call Festivals" but live, but Hop Farm specialises in choosing their acts very carefully and always having some sort of festival coup that is far above the capabilities of an event of the same size and greater. Hop Farm's exclusives are in the same sort of league as Glastonbury, a comment I don't write lightly. I am sure that the phones of Dylan and Prince are hot with calls from events trying to book them, but it seems that Hop Farm manages to get their attention. You can only speculate how, but I like to think that it is the combination of Vince Power's rollerdex (the founder of Hop Farm) and the festival's unique "no branding" approach that attracts acts that don't feel as comfortable with commerciality.
So this year's big Hop Farm exclusive wasn't the return of Bob Dylan, although this was still an exclusive of grand proportions, but it was the first ever festival appearance by the legendary Sir Bruce Forsyth. No, really. I mean this without sarcasm or any amount of tongue in cheek, this was a genius booking. Having been in the industry longer than anyone else (and probably longer than a lot of the newer acts combined) it seemed astonishing that Sir Bruce had never dipped his toe into a festival so it was fitting that he chose Hop Farm for it.
When Bruce Forsyth turned up early on the Saturday bill, a bow tie and dinner jacket away from full black tie and accompanied by the music from Strictly Come Dancing, the arena was populated like it was a headline act, and to be honest, in reality it was in all but the position on the bill. He was every bit as smooth and assured as you would expect from a man of his experience; catchphrase heavy, treading just the right side of cheesy, genuinely funny and effortlessly entertaining. A nod to the bygone age when you used to have real talent to get anywhere in the entertainment industry. We frequently spend the weekend surrounded by battle hardened and cynical press (it's hard to be enthusiastic when you've seen the same thing before, many times and done better and with more style), but Bruce managed to beguile us and the crowd alike. The crowd bought into it completely, helped by his interactions with them, there were people wearing Bruce face masks and some enterprising people even brought a couple of three foot high playing cards to wave at him, but as you could imagine, they weren't a pair (see, he's even got me at the catchphrases). Even when his granddaughter, Sophie Purdie, joined him on stage to sing "Smile" what could have been saccharine and sickly was affectionate and warm. Frankly, it was a highlight of the whole weekend, if not the highlight, and when an 84 year old with 70 years in the business shows some of the other performers with back catalogues as long as your arm how to do it without breaking a sweat or a single top ten hit then it's testament to the skill of Sir Bruce of Forsyth.
Following on from this comes the sticky subject of Bob Dylan. In 2010 I got a fair amount of flak from irate Dylan fans thanks to my criticism of his performance, so I was hoping to be blown away this time, but alas, no. I'm not going near his choice of songs, my ears only recognised a few, but I imagine Dylan fans thought otherwise. His performance, on the other hand, I feel compelled to say, was much better than last time, but still way short on the Dylan that I wanted to see, and I really like him. This notoriously curmudgeonly chap has penned some of the most well known songs on the planet and is quite the raconteur when on his radio shows, so why do we not get any interaction with the crowd? Would it kill him to say hello, or to introduce the odd song or treat us to a tale from his amazing career? I'm not asking for a long soliloquy, just the odd sentence every now and then. Instead we didn't even get a goodbye, and people were just left staring at the empty stage at the end of the set, waiting for an encore that didn't come. It just feels like he just can't be bothered with his fans, and just turns up begrudgingly, plays his songs and goes. It's not like he is dull on stage, he's animated, obviously massively talented and spends a surprising amount of time smiling, but unless you are in the first ten or so rows of the crowd you wouldn't know because the large screens either side of the stage are set with a fixed wide shot of the stage that is actually smaller than looking at the stage itself. You would get more connection listening to his albums.
The thing is that he is a massive legend, is widely loved, is still performing and the Dylan fans that I spoke to just roll with the fact that you don't know which Dylan will turn up, but they don't care, they just want to see him play. It's still a great coup for Hop Farm but it's just that with a bit of conversation and the use of the video screens it would be an amazing headline act. If only he could have brought on Brucie for a duet ... maybe next year.
Fortunately this wasn't the last act of Hop Farm and the weekend was filled to the brim with other performances from a wide musical spectrum. Suede closed the festival in style; Brett Anderson's antics tired me out just watching him and they are definitely not shy about playing their biggest hits (take note, Mr Dylan). Peter Gabriel was there with the New Blood Orchestra, so it was a more classical take on his work which was a shock to anyone waiting for "Sledgehammer" from the off, but it was a change to hear tracks like "Red Rain" and "Salisbury Hill" in a totally new arrangement.
Special mention has to go to George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic for simply blowing my mind with their on stage antics (see photos here), Billy Ocean for being the happiest performer I have ever had the pleasure of seeing, Ray Davies for just being Ray Davies and his song "Days", Gilbert O'Sullivan for soldiering through two songs with no sound before anyone heard him sing a note and Kool and the Gang for reminding me just how camp and fun disco and leopard skin prints can be.
As I mentioned, it wasn't just classic acts, there was still a good range of new and edgier bands; we caught Lights, The Jezabels, Damien Rice and Richard Ashcroft amongst others (pictures of all of the acts we covered can be found here) but the real focus of the festival was firmly with the established artists, like Randy Crawford, Patti Smith, Ian Hunter and Dr John.
When you come to Hop Farm you need to realise that the main arena quickly becomes a picnic area as people fill almost every inch of the ground with rugs, chairs, tarpaulins and various sun and rain protective items like umbrellas and tents, particularly when someone like Dylan plays when space is held and not relinquished for the day. Unusually it doesn't dim the atmosphere, it just makes you more aware of where you are putting your feet when traversing the site.
The only real problem with the festival is the rather thorny parking issue, or more accurately, the exiting of the car park. The Hop Farm that the festival takes its name from is accessed via some narrow roads so when people start to empty from the arena and people get back in their cars, if you are not leaving at least 15 minutes before the last act has finished you will get caught in a catastrophe. As usual, where there are plenty of stewards to usher you into the right space when you arrive, there are none to assist when filing out of the field that you have been parked in resulting in a chaotic melee of vehicles, all trying to outsmart the jams and find the one quick exit. You will see multiple streams of cars all trying to squeeze out of a single width exit, jousting with each other like gladiators whilst still avoiding the pedestrians filing past and between the cars. When you have finally got out of the field it's the long wait to get out onto the main road before you can escape. I got 50 yards in about an hour and the remaining distance took another 30 minutes and I still left while people were waiting for Dylan to do the encore that never happened.
If you don't want to spend hours battling and queueing in your vehicle then either leave before the main headline act has finished, stay and watch the comedy that goes on late into the night (except on Sunday) and then leave or my best advice is to use the buses or get a taxi. It can really put a downer on the end of an otherwise spotless day.
Exits aside, Hop Farm is still a firm favourite. I find it a delightful festival with a great range of acts that you wouldn't get to see at any other time, let alone in the same weekend. You can choose to tailor your festival to suit as there is always someone playing that will match your mood, and because of this the atmosphere in the arena is kept at a friendly level throughout. This is the sort of thing that only much larger festivals can offer and I believe that the choice of artists and the attention spent getting the running orders right is the secret to Hop Farm's success.
Hop Farm has embraced what it does best, getting exclusive, well established, nostalgic and often legendary artists alongside a good selection of new acts for anyone whose tastes a set firmly in the era since they were born. With its track record for coups, next year could bring absolutely anything. I can't wait, and neither should you when Hop Farm 2013 goes on sale.
Thanks again to Mission for letting us back for our fourth year.
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