Lying in the green heart of the Cotswold valleys is the small town of Cheltenham, where the remains of the emerald giant Wychwood Forest stands. This had been a site for forest gatherings and folk ceremonies until the 1850s when the land was sold to the Navy, so there is special significance now to dance over those rotten dealings in the name of better things. There is a lot of conscience here, with a big presence by Greenpeace, Oxfam, Friends of the Earth and more, and its also aÂ really good way to discover new performers who are and have been playing in the Folk circuit for a long time already. There is a Songlines tent doing artist signings and selling records of the bands playing, and generally a world of wonder and wierder musical acts that you wouldn’t see in some smokey venue in London, and if you did it wouldn’t seem right – these are acts of the hills and the clouds. On that note, here is the walking diary of the 2nd and 3rd days.
It’s always interesting to have no idea whatsoever about the place your about to explore. When we arrived on Saturday the heat was already working its blazing voodoo on the crowds. There is a peaceful vibe over the place, a bit too peaceful for my taste, but hey, it’s early. Families wandered about, New Age parents and young business men types wearing hippie blankets over their t-shirts advertising law firms and such. Not many freaks about. I headed over to the main stage and just missed seeing the spasmic rythms of Polar Bear, the Jazz freakout outfit nominated for the Mercury Prize last year. Damn. The space in front of the main stage is quiet, people are having picnics on the grass with their kids. It has the feeling iof an abandoned railway station at the end of the line, as dazed by the first wave of summer’s heat, people wander about on wobbly winter legs. The next band on was Guillemot who added to the eerie stillness with their singer sitting on a huge cane rocking chair, and playing their blend of power Pop occasionally possesed by the ghosts of noise with chainsaws for teeth and Theremin hearts, further confusing the young businessmen with hippie blankets drinking pimms.
Suddenly, howling from the south of the arena came a full fanfare sound of a Balkan orchestra, and looking over i saw a giant red big top circus tent, like a pirate ship that seemed to float in my direction commandeered by the sound of The Destroyers. Hypnotised, I followed the music into one of the best live acts i’ve ever seen. A sixteen-strong stationary parade led by the fiery limbs of a bellydancer. It reminded me of Goran Bregovich or Emir Kusturica and the No-smoking Orchestra, but something like this really has to be seen live to be believed and their spirit was true to the ancient gatherings that used to occur in these parts. They banished the sedate atmosphere and soon had the whole tent writhing and moving, even the moths and the insects gathered round to see, through the steam rising the music of the gypsies. Do yourself a favour and check them out, live or at their website.
I skipped out of the tent with violins playing my limbs and over to another tent where lay in wait another awesome surprise. The Ralfe Band are another new favourite. A four-piece moonshine wedding of broken leg pirate waltz and oh so sweet acid-dirge… they are the soundtrack to a surreal country that is all their own: see the video to their song “Woman of Japan” to get the idea. As the night rode in on too many beers and too much sun, I dragged the cauldron of my body into the film tent to watch the Glastonbury film and fell dumb and happy into dreams with soundtracks by The Ralfe Band.
This was the day of Folk worlds meeting. First was Sild, a two piece with beautiful singing and violing playing women from Estonia and a fantastic guitar playing bloke from Wales. They use traditional and sometimes extinct languages and instruments from the Baltic, like the Estonian bowed harp, combined with traditional Welsh guitar playing. Were symbolic of the whole festival for me, bizarre and interesting crossovers between traditional Folk and exotic reaches into stranger realms, with the odd Pop band thrown in to keep the families happy.
Next was another 16-piece band called Salsa Celtica joined by Folk queen Eliza Carthy, who last year played on the same stage with Finnish band Â Varttina. Salsa Celtica do what it says in the name, to great effect and with sooo much spirit that the sun was right up there with them, dancing rum footsteps between the trumpet players. And there in the middle of the day even the the half moon came out to watch, the veil of space across her face. Salsa Celtica dance and move more than anyone in the audience, and it’s impossible not to get carried away on their sweet wagon.
The Paetbog Faeries are up now, another band with over ten people, who really do look like rough pixies taken human form and imbued with bog savvy trumpets. Highland folk at its best, calling the spirits home. And that was it. I climbed the mountain in the dark and watched the sun come up with a calm fire in my eye and belly, looking out over the glory of the cotswolds with a head full of some of the wierdest and most original music I have heard in a while. Wychwood is a peaceful and inspiring journey and if thats what you feel like then definently go down to see.