Underneath the Stars 2017

Live Review | Cannon Hall Farm, Cawthorne, Barnsley | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Anyone vaguely familiar with the summer festival season will know only too well of the routines we go through, routines most of us take for granted.  It usually goes something like this: we arrive on site as early as possible on the first day, we then exchange our virtual tickets for physical wristbands, then familiarise ourselves with the site, what’s new, what’s the same, what’s positively weird and what’s positively wonderful, then we settle down with a nice Americano (or our first pint of the day) whilst thumbing through our recently purchased programme, devouring its contents in order to work out some sort of coherent plan for the weekend ahead.  Does this just about sum it up, or is it just me?  The Underneath the Stars programme quaintly entitled ‘Field Notes’ is a handsome little thing, which will live in our back pockets for the duration, making frequent appearances throughout the weekend.  It fills in all the gaps and makes sure we’re all on the same page so to speak.  On Friday, I followed this routine to the letter, arriving at page 34 before the fine Americano (and slice of cake) had settled.  The first appointment being the Little Lights Stage at precisely 1.40pm for my very first encounter with Bristol’s Yola Carter, whose country-inflected soulful music was perfectly timed to bring the fourth Underneath the Stars Festival to life once again.  One of the joys of the Underneath the Stars Festival is that the two main stages run alternately, therefore there’s little chance of missing any of the concerts, no highly frustrating clashes and ample time for stretching ones legs between acts.  The other important thing is that the festival is equally kind to children as it is to adults with plenty going on throughout the weekend. The natural bowl, which gives the festival village its character, is awash with colour from the moment you enter the site, from the two main stages housed within two large marquees on the hill, down to the dedicated children’s area where there’s plenty of room to play, to join in with various workshops, crafts and side shows, including the highly engaging How I Hacked My Way Into Space show and Pif-Paf’s Seed show, both of which attracted huge crowds over the weekend.  

Kate Rusby made her first appearance of the weekend on the main Planets Stage where she was interviewed by childhood friend Sally Smith, who at short notice replaced the popular Welsh actress Ruth Jones who was unfortunately forced to pull out due to a family bereavement.  As it turned out, the interview worked even better that expected due to the fact that Sally had plenty of childhood closet doors to open, whereupon skeletons of all descriptions flooded out.  The interview was peppered with one or two songs, such as “Awkward Annie”, “Village Green Preservation Society” and the song this festival is named after Underneath the Stars.  The most poignant moment though was when the Rusby family (mum, dad and elder sister Emma) joined Kate for the concluding a cappella song. 

Friday saw a variety of acts such as John Tams and Barry Coope, whose mixture of folk ballads, social commentary and Music Hall was embellished further by a touch of Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, albeit reinterpreted in a fine Derbyshire dialect.  The American guitar and banjo wizard Tony Furtado’s first set of the weekend saw him duet with singer songwriter in her own right Stephanie Schneiderman, then Edward II’s reggae-infused take on the British Folk Songbook brought to the festival some fine fusion music to dance to.  Electronics-led singer songwriter Hannah Peel provided a more contemporary feel by mid evening before headliner Newton Faulkner took to the Planets Stage delivering a Stella performance, whose solo reading of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was a complete hoot.  Rounding things off on Friday night was Bristol-based Sheelanagig, whose multi-influential music and mayhem from around Europe saw people very much on their feet.  One of the most charming moments of the festival was the Saturday lunchtime main stage appearance by the Barnsley Youth Choir who managed to draw a tear or two and not just from the parents.  

Everyone seemed to be thoroughly engaged in this wonderful concert, the largest ensemble to perform on the Planets Stage over the weekend, with almost a hundred young singers and a small orchestra entertaining a huge crowd with an assortment of songs.  Joined onstage by Kate Rusby and Damien O’Kane for the old bluegrass favourite “The Soul of Man”, the choir received a rapturous response, MC Andy Atkinson quite rightly exclaiming that the performance was indeed “glorious, emotional and such a joy”.   With fair weather throughout Saturday, together with one or two minor showers, the fun continued both on and off stage with a series of concerts featuring a wide range of musical styles from Old Time fiddle favourites courtesy of the A&E Oldtime Stringband, a fine mix of blues, country and swing tunes from David Broad, some ethereal harmony singing from Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage, whose rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” perfectly emphasised the duo’s close and intimate stage craft and a wonderfully entertaining set by Barnsley’s own Bar Steward Sons of Val Doonican, which at one point featured Scott Doonican crowd surfing all the way to the bar.  Damien O’Kane and Tony Furtado also appeared on the Planets Stage during the afternoon. 

Saturday night saw the arrival on stage of singer songwriter Lucy Rose, whose delicate songs and gentle delivery, reminiscent of Laura Marling, commanded the attention of a respectful audience.  “Come on, let’s see your hands” needed no further prompting as the singer performed some of her most recent songs together with one or two older and familiar favourites. “I’m such a Diva..” said the singer, “..but can the light guy shine as much light on the band as me, they are the greatest band in the world and I don’t want it to be all about me”.  Other performances on Saturday included Show of Hands, Imar and the Destroyers.  Sunday morning began with the usual Tai Chi for those up early enough to join in.  If the gentle arts didn’t quite wake campers from their slumber, then the percussion workshop certainly did, a veritable battle cry audible across the surrounding meadows.  David Gibb entertained both kids and adults alike from the Little Lights stage, not an easy task when most of the kids activities were over on the other side of the site, but hardly a problem for this charismatic performer.  

Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock were keen to showcase some of the songs from their forthcoming album due out soon, each featuring Marry’s distinctive Waterson family voice along with David’s highly adventurous and idiosyncratic guitar playing with plenty of inventive foot pedal work and atmospheric samples to boot.  There’s no question that you can enjoy the Underneath the Stars Festival by flitting between the two main stages all weekend but there’s so much more going on to satisfy the senses, whether they be sight, sound, smell or taste.  The Sun Grazers area provided food and drink that was really second to none with plenty of choice and the Craft Village covered a wide and varied agenda.  There was even a dry stone walling workshop with Lydia Noble at the helm.  Chris McShane held a ukulele workshop each day, inviting people of all ages to pick up an instrument and join in some of the most colourful sessions of the weekend.  Dance workshops also took place covering both the swing era and traditional clogging. 

The music continued throughout Sunday with Kitty Macfarlane, who performed beautifully on the Little Lights stage, with some of the songs from her debut EP Tide and Time, accompanied by Sam Kelly (complete with ‘Elsa’ tattoo’d cheeks) along with members of the Lost Boys, Jamie Francis and Toby Shaer.  Along with Kitty’s own songs, the singer was keen to pay tribute to Anne Briggs with a fine reading of “Go Your Way”.  Other highlights from the festival included Roddy Woomble performing “My Secret is My Silence”, Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys’ “Sultans of Swing”, Cousin Pearl performing some authentic bluegrass in the Workshop Tent and Californian singer songwriter, now a resident of Manchester Jesca Hoop, whose reading of “Pegasi” was one of the most attention grabbing moments of the festival.  Utterly beautiful.  From West to the East we travelled in an instant as the dazzling Raghu Dixit took to the Planets Stage with his band, who brought the stage to life with an outstanding set, encouraging the audience to rise to their feet, which at one point even bore witness to this reviewer pogo-ing deliriously at the back.  Meanwhile on the other stage, the newly formed Glasgow-based Kinnaris Quintet brought some of their own fine arrangements for guitar, mandolin and three fiddles to the festival, bringing their own dextrous playing ability to the party.  Shortly afterwards, the stage was prepared for Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra, who would effectively see the festival to its conclusion, with the band’s leader breaking not one but two guitar strings on the way.  It was however shortly before this that our host Kate Rusby would take to the stage for her much anticipated annual set.  Introduced by comedian Jason Manford, who had been spotted several times over the weekend, evidently out for a relaxing couple of days with his family, but also to perform an important role of introducing the festival’s leading lady, who went on to delight her audience with such familiar fare as “Benjamin Bowmaneer”, “Hunter’s Moon”, “Life in a Paper Boat” and “Awkward Annie”, together with some instrumental tunes by ‘the boys’ led by husband Damien O’Kane on tenor banjo.  

Once again, the poignant moment of the set came towards the end when the entire Rusby family took to the stage to celebrate Kate’s 25 years of touring, with a huge cake presented to her by her two nephews.  With the stage filled with special people looking out at their own special and much loved audience, I stuffed my well-thumbed, and by this time fairly dog-eared programme, into my back pocket for the final time and headed for the final set of the weekend featuring Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra, pretty much convinced that this is one of the finest family festivals in the country.