The whole weekend basked in some seriously hot sunshine and as we entered through the security gates on Friday we immediately felt at home as the checks were done with huge smiles and laughs. This is very much a family affair with those working at the festival local Oxfordshire people who have attended Cornbury Music Festival for years. Generous parking, huge spaces for tents to be pitched along with gazebos, shelters and windbreaks to make your group space that little bit more substantial.
The event is nicknamed ‘Poshstock’ and a place that the-well-to-do come to let their hair down at their annual country jamboree, but without any fruit and vegetable growing competitions or tombola supplied by the local Church groups.
However, as an addition to the music and similar to other regional festivals there is a celebrity chef experience, but rather than having Jamie Oliver or Rick Stein, Cornbury have imported from the “North” those Hairy Bikers who are putting on a three course spread, several times a day at £55 a head – northern food at southern prices?
Elsewhere we found the food options to be very plentiful and not as expensive as we imagined. A standard main courses at around £8 each and a multitude of choice from quality vegetarian options to those dirty burgers or fish and chips. A couple of my personal favourites were here – Paellaria and Goan Fish Curries, the latter I’d only found at Glastonbury, so Cornbury certainly attracts the best in food suppliers.
For general water there was a fantastic idea from Frank Water where you paid a standard price for a wristband or bottle and could get refill after refill of ice cold water throughout the day, saving on using any nasty plastic bottles.
There’s a kid’s area with much of the activities completely free, a vintage cinema, circus and a curious small tent hosted by radio station Jack FM. This became acoustic session area during the day, and then kids/adults disco at night. A big wheel, loads of rides and stalls made this event just crammed with things to do and see, and all of it very walkable and manageable for even smaller children but experienced parents brought a trolley for those later evening strolls.
Anyway enough of the preamble, what about the music? Well the line-up admittedly wasn’t as great as last years, but last year was supposed to be the last ever Cornbury Festival, Director Hugh Phillimore jokingly called the audience a load of bullies as they nagged him to return the festival to the Great Tew Estate once again. Whilst his bank manager may have a different view, he confirmed the festival will be back again in 2019 (hopefully with an even bigger and better line up) but for this year we had UB40, Alanis Morissette and Squeeze as our main headliners.
Let’s admit from the start, this is very much a BBC Radio 2 audience, middle of the road acts, none that would prompt a crowd surf or would be considered at the cutting edge of new music and therefore the punters match that specification, I would imagine the average age is around 45 and a normal festival attendee 16-25 age group will find this place a little too placid, and I would advise them to save their student pennies for Reading later in the year.
Consequently though, there is absolutely no trouble anywhere, it feels incredibly safe and friendly. The only rush is to get your camping chairs in a good spot for the main stage, in a mild frenzy (stereotypically perfected by German tourists with towels in Spain), families rush to their spot at 9am, plop the chairs and a picnic blanket down and then head off to breakfast at Café Nero. The sensible ones actually headed for the shade, which was only really found underneath the trees.
Café Nero sponsored a fantastic stage at the festival and as well as having all their coffee and food on offer, Co-Founder Pablo Ettinger introduced a range of artists on to the stage over the weekend. Some were individual acoustic artists such as scouse youngster Joe Slater who has returned to the festival for a second year and packed the tent again, but also full bands like Key West managed to fit in as well, to play some of their stirring anthemic irish folk rock from their new album True North.
The heat in the place was a little unrelenting though and despite trying to get some air flowing through, it was a bit of a sweat box. My daughter Aimee saw her highlight of the whole weekend here and Joe Slater is now a regular feature on her spotify playlist, she even managed to get a signed copy of his last EP after the show.
The beauty of such a small festival is that you are able to wander around and catch a few songs from many different artists during the day. Coming away from the festival with lots of new favourites. Willie Nelson’s son Lukas and his band Promise of the Real were a stunning country rock powerhouse – mixing trad country with the blues and Lukas strikes a strong guitarist pose. No wonder Neil Young chose them to be his backing band on his last world tour.
You can’t have a sunny festival without reggae music and after Marley there is really only Jimmy Cliff that can get your head nodding to that old school summer sound. Remarkedly active at 70 years old, with a big smile that is as infectious as those songs such as Wonderful World Beautiful People, or, The Harder They Come. A beautiful version of Many Rivers To Cross and I couldn’t help but think how on earth do UB40 follow that? The answer is they didn’t – an extremely bland performance from them where the only highlight is some great saxophone from Brian Travers.
Even the Stereo MCs blew UB40 off stage with Connected and Step it Up booming from the Songbird Stage – it saw the first real dance session of the weekend and Rob Birch is still a maestro of that early 90’s synth sound. It is great to see him treading the boards again and he did not stop pacing around the floor and climbing on the monitors. First big surprise of the festival – how much did we enjoy that?
Saturday was all about the ladies, as part of a Cornbury Festival 2018 initiative, they announced an all-female fronted day, with every band or artist on the main two stages female dominated. Some festivals talk about it Cornbury just does it, and it was a refreshing change from the mostly lad bands booked for many other sites this year.
Opening the Songbird stage were three girls called The Adelaides, fresh from attending the UK C2C festival, their version of Jolene was a nice country pop twist to start the day. Similarly, across on the Main Stage Ten Millennia played some soothing soul pop to gently wake everyone up. Many were choosing to remain on their picnic blankets though as the sun blazed down, but they were the most generous band as they gave away a copy of their previous album to anyone wanting it.
Back on the Songbird stage and US two-piece Kolars had the most amazing drummer in Lauren Brown, she plays standing on a drum and actually tap dances out the rhythm as well as expressively playing several large toms. Reminding me a little of the White Stripes it was fun to watch under the shade of the large tree at the back.
TOWIE reality star turned Country singer Megan McKenna was another surprise as she had a very nice voice yet another version of Jolene though and whilst immaculately made up, her outfit looked a bit like a car wash. The kids loved her though and she was signing autographs and posing for selfies for the next half an hour after her set.
Today was a day of incredible voices and two absolute legends gracing the Songbird stage first PP Arnold and then later Mavis Staples. Former Ikette PP Arnold not only played her big hits First Cut Is The Deepest and Angel Of The Morning, but a rousing version of River Deep Mountain High which she used to sing with Tina Turner, she just hasn’t lost any of the power in her vocals at all.
New The Voice Kids judge Pixie Lott entertained the younger crowd near the front with a bit of danceable pop in a skimpy black dress, although the Boys And Girls star seemed to run out of her own stuff and resorted to covers halfway through. We decided instead to catch Nina Nesbitt, she has a stunning new look, gone is the dyed blonde hair, and she sounds incredible flitting between keys, guitar and a drum pad, totally captivating this crowd with a sublime show. It felt a little like a coming of age party for this 24yr old from Edinburgh.
Another Scot was about to show her credentials too on the main stage, Amy MacDonald breezed quickly through a set consisting mainly of tracks from last album Under Stars. It has been a few years since she last played Cornbury and she joked that the last time her slot was over the same time as Andy Murray playing and winning Wimbledon for the first time. “But no problem today as there’s no sporting events happening is there?” laughing as she said it because England are playing in the third place play-off in the Football World Cup. I’ve often thought to combat any England match at a festival you just need to ensure you’ve booked Scottish or Welsh bands over the key time slots. Cornbury did just that, possibly by accident, but tomorrow they have Deacon Blue on the main stage when the World Cup Final is on, just in case England had qualified!
I last saw Mavis Staples at Glastonbury about four years ago and there she needed to sit down a few times as she had a breathing problem and held her inhaler throughout the set. Not this time, oh no, those pipes were in full throttle order this evening as she opened with If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me). Even managing to cover a Talking Heads song Slippery People, and some classic Staple Singers hits Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There. This was a joy to watch an original artist in full flow and was a huge highlight for the festival weekend. PP Arnold was watching in the wings and a strong gathering stayed there right until the end.
The timing of artists on the two main stages meant that you could constantly watch music as they were roughly an hour apart, as long as you were prepared to walk up and down the small hill in-between. Alanis Morissette was a headliner we didn’t want to miss, having seen her in the 90s and remembering what a superb show that was.
Tonight, was a mixture of feelings whilst watching, her hair was a lot shorter but the voice was definitely in full order, she frequently pulled the mic back from her face but the decibels from her vocals remained incredible. However, she has this curious pacing up and down the stage during songs and it was fairly constant unless she had a sparkly shiny guitar in hand, in which case she tended to just stare at the same spot in the audience. Signs of a troubled mind I thought, not that it completely put us off as she played a large percentage of Jagged Little Pill and an incredible encore of Uninvited where she exorcised a few demons on stage before a final unblemished and emotional Thank U. A massive coup for Cornbury to have her headline on this all-female day.
Actually, whilst Saturday was the key day we found that on Sunday there were some equally strong women on the main stages. Young Irish country starlet Catherine McGrath was our first discovery of the day, a beautiful voice and if this girl isn’t headlining C2C in a few years’ time there is something wrong with home grown country music on these islands. Her debut album recorded in Nashville and London, Talk Of This Town is released in two weeks’ time so look out for it, if you like the sounds of Kacey Musgraves then she is right up your street. As we walked away from the main stage I heard and saw a girl in a field running through some voice scales, she was quite a distance away but you could hear her clearly.
Mari Wilson and two of her Wilsations were playing on Songbird earlier this morning and whilst the beehive hairdo has gone a bit flat, her voice hadn’t, and she has some gorgeous rich velvety tones to cover Dusty Springfield and Cilla Black classics, as well as Just What I Always Wanted and even a cover of the White Horses TV theme by Jacky. Great stuff for a middle-aged crowd on a Sunday lunchtime.
Meanwhile on the Pleasant Valley Main Stage a band were setting up that I recognised but didn’t see them on the line up. At first, I thought The Travelling Band were going to be playing a surprise set, but they were actually playing backing band for Lissie who I now realise was the girl singing the scales in the field. You could feel the energy running through her, from her bare feet all the way to her floating blonde hair that lasted about 30 seconds in a clip before she tossed it around while playing her guitar. This is country girl pop with a few synths thrown in, but one of the most energetic and emotive performances we would see all day. Sunday wasn’t meant to be spent lying down in the sun when Lissie is around.
“Have you got nothing to watch on the TV?” Ricky Ross from Deacon Blue asks the busy crowd at the front of the stage. “Any French or Croatians here?” (it all fell a bit flat). “Ok let’s do this….” And Wages Day erupted from the band. Stick to the music Ricky – it might have worked in Glasgow but you’re in deepest Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds now.
However, Deacon Blue are sounding as good as they ever did, and it is surprising exactly how many songs you remember, from Chocolate Girl, Fergus Sings The Blues to that ship called Dignity. They played them all and Lorraine McIntosh doesn’t look any different, how is that even possible?
Caro Emerald then brought the razzmatazz to Cornbury, I was a bit disappointed in her choice of outfit, a very plain black affair but those jazzy moves from her and her band kept the tempo upbeat in the late sun. The Hairy Bikers were running their last sitting of the weekend which had been sold out since the morning, and a couple of hot air balloons were seen hovering over the valley. This was as traditional as an English country fair can be, the fairground was in full swing with a huge helter-skelter and the Pimms, Prosecco and Gin were flowing.
Perfect setting and ready for the American soul balladeer Marc Cohn to serenade us all at his piano, which took up half of the Songbird stage. Plenty of sarcastic comedy in-between song banter about Trump and football, along with his trademarked deep gravelly soul voice. I’ll admit the only song I really knew was Walking in Memphis, but I heard enough to want to listen to more.
It was then left to Squeeze to finish us all off with a back catalogue of hits like Pulling Mussels From The Shell, Tempted, Cool For Cats and Hourglass. The last hour flew by incredibly quick as Difford and Tillbrook kept throwing out some classic storytelling pop songs like Labelled With Love or Up The Junction. Ending with Black Coffee In Bed and the call and return chorus lines.
In summary, as a first timer at Cornbury I found the whole experience to be the most laid back and chilled festival I’ve ever been to. I can see why it is so popular with people of a certain age, the music line up and all the facilities are clearly set for groups of 40 – 70 year olds and their kids or grandkids. Together the family can all let their hair down in such a safe and pleasant environment, a perfect English Country Festival. Long may it continue.
John Hayhurst was at Cornbury Festival on 13-15th July at The Great New Park, Oxfordshire. Cornbury Music Festival could well be back next years and they are looking at an earlier July date of 5th-7th July.