Festival review:
Underneath the Stars

There were great sounds to be heard, and a few tears shed, at this annual folk-infused music festival near Barnsley

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A week before heading off to Underneath the Stars, a small music festival on sprawling farmland in the village of Cawthorne, near Barnsley, I was suddenly full of concern. Not for myself, but for my husband James, who had agreed (well, had been told) to come along with me for the weekend. Not only were we leaving our dog Harley overnight in the care of my mum and dad for the first time, but it had become apparent that, at the age of 49, James was pretty much a festival virgin. Would he like any of the music on offer? And what about the state of the toilets?

Both James and I take toilet facilities very seriously, and the first thing my beloved did on arrival was go and check out the portable loos to know what he was in for. I’m happy to report that they were very clean and regularly maintained throughout the weekend. Phew.

Returning this year after a socially distanced event last year, there were the two festival tents. The main Planet Stage was enclosed in a huge structure, open on three sides and filled with rows of folding chairs. A short hop across the field was the smaller, though still sizeable, Little Lights tent, where there were no seats allowed. The seating, and standing, arrangements were big pluses. I’ve been to festivals before where you can barely get near the stage for huge groups of people sitting in encampments of folding chairs and tables.

Not only did these tents provide shelter from the Yorkshire weather (it rained a lot over the weekend) but the acoustics were phenomenal. The organisers take their music seriously and it shows. The tents were designed so you could hear every instrument played, every note sung from each of the performers. I’ve never really heard festival music of this quality before.

 Irish singer-songwriter Imelda May, had already blown apart any sense that this was just a folk festival

Harley’s care arrangements meant we missed the Friday of the festival and arrived to hear that the opening headliner, Irish singer-songwriter Imelda May, had already blown apart any sense that this was just a folk festival, with a rock-infused set that had people up and dancing. Among other highlights we missed was a set from This is the Kit and, appearing before we’d got our tent up on Saturday,  comedian Adrian Edmondson.

The first set we did get a chance to listen to was Calderdale’s Brighouse and Rastrick Band – one of the most famous in the world. They played a set oozing with cheesy brass versions of famous pop songs such as The Final Countdown and Eye of the Tiger, and ended with a rendition of their most famous tune (it reached number two in the charts in the late 1970s) – The Floral Dance. Hilariously brilliant.

Each stage took it in turns to play host to an act, so after a performance on the Planet Stage it was over to Little Lights to hear the Kinnaris Quintet, a Scottish band consisting of three fiddle players and two others on mandolin and guitar, for some rousing, toe-tapping tunes. So far, so folky.

There’s plenty else on to keep you entertained, including craft activities, music and dance workshops, and some pop-up theatre. I did at one point suggest to James that we might try some Laughter Yoga, but he shot me a look of disdain which I took to be a no.

By the way, Underneath the Stars is a child friendly festival, with under-sevens getting in free, and it was fun watching so many children dancing along in front of the stage.

The fantastic acoustics in the main tent were really provd by Penguin Café, a large ensemble of musicians who played some intense, sweeping compositions, many of them inspired by the natural world. The group was set up by Arthur Jeffes to keep alive the music of his late father, Simon Jeffes of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, and they treated the audience to some of those original tunes as well, including Perpetuum Mobile. James welled up and declared: “I love this tune!” It was the first of a few teary moments that weekend. Next was a text from Mum telling me that they’d managed to get our slightly timid dog out into the park and she’d been to the toilet. “Such a brave girl!” Then we were both crying.

Kate Rusby on stage
Kate Rusby on stage. Main photo: Suzanne Vega (Steve Lacey Photography)

The festival was set up by the family of famous folky local Kate Rusby. Since it’s been 30 years since Rusby took to the road to tour her pop-infused folk music, there were plenty of appearances from her throughout the weekend. Her set consisted of classic tunes from her back catalogue, including a beautiful rendition of Cruel (my turn to shed a tear again) and some lovely covers from her recent album Hand Me Down, including a brilliant version of the Bangles’ Manic Monday.

It had been a particularly chilled-out day. The four acts that ran up to Rusby’s delightful set were all instrumental and Rusby, though chatty and fun, is not one to get the audience moshing. We drifted over to the smaller tent as the last of the light faded to see The Big Moon in a dreamy, calm mood. That was soon to change. I’d been Spotify-stalking The Big Moon since knowing I was going to see them and had high hopes about this band. I wasn’t disappointed.

Looking both unutterably cool and yet hilariously out of sorts (they’d come not so fresh from Kendal Calling and were on their way to another festival), the four women delivered a fantastic set that blew away our folk-induced calm in the best possible way. They joked around. They tuned their many guitars. They rocked. They also delivered my comedy highlight of the festival with a brilliant cover of Fatboy Slim’s Praise You, during which lead singer Juliette Jackson instructed the crowd to squat down so we could all spring up triumphantly together at a high point. The sight of a large number of over-40s (me included) wincing as they struggled to bend their knees and then spring up (not so) quickly again will stay with me for a long time.

We left Dustbowl Revival with our ears ringing and our hearts exploding

The beautiful voice of Leeds-based folk singer-songwriter Iona Lane serenaded us as we strolled around the festival field the next morning. The Intergalactic Brasstronughts who followed were big and loud – a little too much for a Sunday lunchtime. The biggest surprise of the day came during a segment entitled An Audience with Jason Manford. The Salford-born comedian was interviewed on stage about his career, which has of course included a lot of stand-up comedy, but also TV presenting, opera singing and stage musicals. He recently released an album of songs from the shows and wowed the audience when he was joined on stage by Rusby (yes, her again) and the two of them sang Falling Slowly from the musical Once. It was beautiful. And yes, we both cried. Again.

Dustbowl Revival were our big find of the weekend. This LA-based band, consisting of strings, brass and great vocal performances from the two lead singers, played soul and funk-infused roots music that had the tent up and dancing. We left there with our ears ringing and our hearts exploding.

Our final stop was back in the main tent for the day’s final headliner: Suzanne Vega. I’ve been a fan since I was a teenager, and I was a little nervous at seeing her perform live. Now 63 , it’s been 35 years since she released her most famous album, Solitude Standing. Would her voice hold up to the scrutiny of the main stage tent? Oh damn yes it would.

It was a small-scale performance, just her and electric guitarist Gerry Leonard at her side, but together they created a big sound that washed across the packed-out crowd. And her voice was peerless. She opened with Marlene on the Wall and followed it with a string of classic tracks from her career, a sprinkling of “some of the weirder stuff” and anecdotes about certain songs. Tears again when she sang Luka. It gets me every time.

As we emerged from the tent to find our car and start our journey home, a crescent moon hung on the horizon where the clouds had finally broken. It was unexpected, beautiful and a magical – just like this festival. We may have shed a small tear. Yet again.

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