Review: Underneath the Stars, 2021

It's a weekend of stand-ins but not second bests at Kate Rusby's South Yorkshire folk festival

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It’s a weekend of stand-ins. My massive eight-man tent is standing in for the campervan that my plus one was supposed to be bringing before a bout of Covid forced her to stay home. Helping me erect it is her stand-in, a friend of 20-plus years, mind, but an inexperienced camper who’s looking at me in befuddlement holding a bag of poles in the rain, which is standing in for the sunshine that was due around 3pm when we carefully planned to arrive in this South Yorkshire field. I could go on. After all, the original plan for this summer was California, but I’m happy. I’m here. And I’m ready to stand in a field with strangers and friends and listen to some wonderful live music.

Our party is two women and three girls aged 7-10, and Underneath the Stars 2021 – the folk festival spearheaded by South Yorkshire songstress Kate Rusby, who plays on Sunday and makes appearances throughout (pictured) – promises the perfect mix of chilled tunes and children’s activities to keep us all happy for 48 hours. That’s all our commitments allow us to fit in, but by the time I’m packing up on Sunday afternoon, to the distant sounds of the main stage, I do envy those who have taken up the four-day camping offer. Next year I’ll be more organised.

The main arena is a short walk from our camping field and we’re loaded up with snacks and supplies. Volunteers wearing t-shirts brandishing the accurate title of “Star Helper” greet us at every interval, all of them smiling and warm, and I begin to remember the most special thing about festivals – the friendly community spirit that’s born of shared experience and mutual appreciation. It’s in abundance here and it’s a tonic after 18 months of eyeing strangers with suspicion from behind a mask.

The arena entrance leads us into the Satellite Field, which hosts a makers’ market, street theatre and circus shows throughout the weekend. L’Hotel, an eccentric piece of physical theatre from three-piece acrobatic performance company Circo Rum Ba Ba, delights the children.

From there we’re led into the main event area. This is a small festival. One stage – no line-up conflicts – a modest selection of festival shops that keep the kids entertained between acts and activities, and a reasonable selection of food vendors (props to Leon’s, which serves delicious homemade curries – the £10 taster plate would have been enough for us two adults to share but we’re on our holidays so…).

In the far corner of the field is the Bonnie Bairns area, hosting Panic Family Circus and its big-top tent. With a constant provision of diabolos to launch into the sky (my 10 year old masters this by the end of the weekend, to her delight), plates to spin, hoops to hula and stilts to fall off, it’s big hit with the kids who ask to go back every five minutes. Throughout the weekend the family hosts puppet shows and a man wearing a rainbow suit (we assume he belongs to the circus) wanders around with his giant bubble-making ropes and gathers a rowdy crowd of followers.

The line-up is a mix of traditional music, contemporary folk and fuller rock sounds, with notes of Americana, bluegrass, soul and world music woven into the fabric of this feelgood festival

Also in Bonnie Bairns are craft tents. We get to paint a sign that by the end of the weekend hangs proudly in the field and we while away a rainy Sunday morning making our own merchandise, French knitting and rock painting. There’s John Row Storyteller (Father Christmas on his summer holidays, our kids determine) and Codswallop CIC, which provides a range of themed activities based on a different children’s book each day. Codswallop’s standing in for Grimm & Co. It’s a bit of a theme this weekend but one organisers must have anticipated as line-up replacements are brought in seamlessly.

Kids are well provided for then, but it’s not extensive and we do exhaust their provision. Thankfully, for parents of children who can be trusted for five minutes like ours, the entrance is well positioned for a decent view of the stage. The line-up is a mix of traditional music, contemporary folk and fuller rock sounds, with notes of Americana, bluegrass, soul and world music woven into the fabric of this feelgood festival. The crowd is a mix of young families and middle-aged couples and groups. That and the compact size of the event means it feels incredibly safe. We’re more than happy to let our kids run back and forth between front of stage and the decent spot we choose to unfold our camping chairs. This is a gentle reintroduction to festivalling and it’s great fun.

Over the course of the weekend we catch loads of great bands. Dallahan’s fusion of international and traditional Scottish folk sets the stage for a brilliant set from the formidable Eddi Reader, who performs tunes from her extensive back catalogue and entertains the crowd with tales from her life and Scottish folklore. The headline act for Friday is Paul Carrack of Squeeze and Mike and the Mechanics fame. His still smooth and soulful voice warms the crowd as night falls. When the rain returns halfway into his set and the children begin to seriously lag we admit defeat and dolefully head back to our tent. We vow to be better prepared for Saturday night. More blankets, onesies, chairs, snacks, toys and books to keep them quiet. Plus a serious pep talk about co-operation. Yes, I will come to the circus tent again but I want to stay till the end tonight, etc.

Our tired limbs are shaken awake by the grooves of Cable Street Collective. A seven-piece blending soulful vocals and funky instrumentals, they are a perfect festival band. Other Saturday highlights include Welsh harpist and Senegalese kora duo Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, who create a special blend of strings that brings one grown man behind us to tears. Now it’s time to throw away your programmes. Manchester’s awesome Honeyfeet would have been amazing to see in this setting but it is not to be. I’m not complaining, Rusby and her team have summoned Ward Thomas to the stage. This brilliant twin sister duo perform without their band and out of practice after their live tour has been continually cancelled, but their lilting harmonies chime with the crowd. Their fresh-sounding modern country originals are sandwiched between an a capella cover of Coldplay’s Yellow and Fleetwood Mac’s Landslide, which brings the seated crowd to their feet.

Robert Plant is looking great for 72! His gravelly tenor has been supplanted by gorgeous crystal-clear vocals. And have I had one too many £5 pints or are there two of him? No, the Led Zeppelin frontman’s co-op band Saving Grace has been replaced. There are no doubt some disappointed fans and it would have been very cool to say I’d seen him but The Staves are one stand-in that, for me at least, top the original. As we settle in to their set I decide Rusby has superpowers to be able to summon them with less than 24 hours notice.

There’s a sisterly theme to the day, and half way through Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor’s set (their third sister Emily is absent on account of her new baby and they joke that it’s taken four band members to make up for her but, my goodness, it feels amazing to listen to a full band live), my girls cuddle up together in their Pokemon onesies and fall asleep. Rusby really does have superpowers – they hate each other at home and we’re going to make it to the end of this set. The Staves are performing tracks from their back catalogue and their new album Good Woman, and as they belt out the feelgood anthem Best Friend – “Come on/Let’s go to Venice/ You can wear my clothes” – I catch the eye of mine. She might be standing in, this might not be Venice, and this is definitely not Robert Plant, but this is not a weekend of second bests.

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