I attended the first Play Fest last summer but ended up spending most of the weekend on the campsite. One of our party had just renovated a classic 1970’s Citroen H van – complete with mood lighting and a booming sound system – and we ended up having our own little festival within a festival. Turns out we missed quite a lot.
Since last year Play Fest has received enthusiastic reviews and a UK Festival Awards shortlisting for festival fans’ Best New Festival 2011. So this year – with the likes of Roots Manuva, Scroobius Pip, Natty, Reverend and the Makers, The Pigeon Detectives, Shy FX, The Correspondents, Sub Focus and tonnes of local talent all billed – it was time to get a bit more involved.
On arrival we were pleased to find that the camper van area was in a separate field – not boxed in by tents like last year – so you could nip off site if you needed to. We ditched the caravan, grabbed a couple of cold ones and made our way to the main arena.
Immediately I noticed that the main arena was buzzing with a lot more festival goers than in 2011. There were also more bars and food stalls, and a couple of extra tents. The Tipi stage was hosted by local DJ’s and the Asylum tent showcased local bands. The Big Top tent had been moved to the left of the big tree we recognised, and replaced with a kid’s area – complete with multimedia workshops, face painting and various games to keep the next generation of festival folk amused.
First stop was the beer token stand, then the bar – both required very little queuing. And after a quick trip to the portaloos – thankfully in good shape and again hardly any queues – we moved off to check out the Dance arena.
The Rebel Lion and POW crews both had their own tents this year, meaning dance and roots reggae could be heard all day and night. However, there was a gaping hole at one end of the arena where the Barlesque (a cocktail bar with burlesque beauties) and a seating area had once been – which was a shame since it had made a good chill out area. The Full Colour Arcade tent was banging out some awesome beats, but it was about the size of someone’s front room and I felt like I should have wiped my feet before I went in.
We hung out in the POW tent for a couple of hours, catching up with friends who were mostly drinking Thailand style Full Moon Party Buckets served from the bar. We were told what a great night the Friday had been, while award-winning DJ Cable spun a selection of dubstep, grime and electronica to get everyone back on the party vibe.
It was starting to get a bit parky by this time so we headed back to camp to add a few layers and freshen up before returning to get some food and check out backstage. If you’re expecting Freddy Mercury-esque tales of wild sex orgies with gorgeous groupies fuelled by cocaine served up by dwarves then forget it, as per usual there was very little atmosphere backstage. Front-of-house is always where it’s at – though there was a cash bar and the toilets were lush, so we made use of the amenities, then got back amongst it.
On the main stage were Sheffield based indie popsters Reverand and the Makers, who played classics such as Heavyweight Champion of the World along with a sprinkling of tracks from their new album – most notably a song called Bassline which, frankly, sounded like a lame attempt to jump on the Bass-wagon. Stick to your indie-pop chaps. Other than that it was a good set with a good turn out and a positive reaction from the crowd. As their performance came to an end the cold got the better of us again, so we nipped back to camp to add yet another layer and grab more refreshments before heading to the Big Top for headliner Roots Manuva.
I was pleased that Roots Manuva was in the Big Top tent because bass music sounds better with a roof – and anyway, how are you going to take the proverbial roof off if there isn’t one? There were a few mic problems to begin with which delayed the performance, so by the time he appeared on stage the crowd were chomping at the bit. But when he finally did appear – to a fanfare of sirens and live scratching – it went off. The crowd showed their enthusiasm in no uncertain terms and continued in the same vein throughout the set.
We did go to catch ASH but I quickly remembered why I never liked them first time round and ended up legging it back to camp for a night cap instead.
When we entered the main arena on Sunday you could tell by the look on peoples faces that they already had a couple of good days under their belts. It was cold and wet but that wasn’t going to dampen this festival crowd’s mood. The Jubilee fancy dressers – with their Full Moon Party buckets still on the go – made that quite clear.
First up were ambient, electronic shoe-gazers The Soft, who treated us to a mix of indie vocals overlaying techy beats and blissed out synths. They weren’t very animated – all I saw of the beat man was a bobbing mass of hair as he hammered away on his drum machine. But it was a nice way to ease into the day – after which we headed for the main stage to see surf-hippies Dumbfoundus. They were injecting a ray of sunshine into an otherwise wet and gloomy Sunday afternoon and filling out the main stage with their infectious reggae tinted covers of upbeat classics such as Man in the Mirror, Killing Me Softly and Don’t worry, Be Happy. A rather soggy Chewbacca joined them on stage, bouncing around like he’d had one too many space cakes and getting the crowd to follow suit. Things were warming up.
We made time for a quick visit to the POW tent to hear London party scenesters Oli DAB & Robin drop a bumping, soulful house set, then headed for the Rebel Lion roots reggae soundsystem tent. Roots educator, Sammy Dread was laying down the black gold – selecting dubplate specials from the likes of Horace Andy while, Rebel Lion toaster, Militant Man preached the conscious lyrics, encouraging us to “Say Nay to K” and feel the family vibes of raw roots reggae. The bass was roaring and we were reluctant to leave but – stricken with a sudden case of the munchies – we eventually left to seek out the food stalls, before making our way back to the Tipi tent for some techno beats from Norwich DJ, Marc Barnes.
We flittered around for a bit from camp to bars and chatting to friends, before the lure of the dodgems and waltzers took over. While we regressed into our inner children, a backdrop of reggae grooves and soulful lyrics was provided by up and coming North Londoner Natty, who kept the crowd bouncing with tracks such as Bedroom Eyes and Cold Town.
A last visit to the Tipi tent allowed us the chance to hear Scott G spin some soulful, techy beats before we made our way to The Big Top to see headliners, The Correspondents. If you don’t know who The Correspondents are, imagine a grasshopper on crack, running round stage dressed in new romantic spandex, spitting lyrics at the pace of The Scatman and with the dexterity of an old Etonian – all backed by a DJ playing a fusion of jazz, big beat, swing, electro, dubstep and drum n bass and you’ll be halfway there. With tracks such as I Wanna Be Like You, Rio de Hackney and their old favourite Washington Square, they worked the crowd up into a Charleston-esque, Junglist frenzy.
Our dancing wellies were well and truly broken in by now so it was time to get back to the – now rammed – POW dance tent, to catch Sub Focus drop an awesome DJ set of old and new drum and bass, breaks and dubstep – whipping the crowd into a raving frenzy with big cheesy grins everywhere you looked. Ninja Tuner and Radio 1 regular Toddla T followed with more of the same and was joined on stage by the festival organisers who were having as much fun as the crowd, adding to the party atmosphere.
It was a pretty crazy night in the dance tent, and when we woke the following morning I realised I’d lost my phone, shades and car keys. To make matters worse, I didn’t know where the spare set was – and my partner’s house keys were locked in the car. She frantically ran around the site trying to find help while I lay comatose. Upon her return I suggested she check her handbag. Low-and-behold, there were the keys. Who knows how they ended up there. Must have been a good night!
At this year’s Play Fest there were issues with the queue for e-ticket holders, the camper van field wasn’t big enough and the food portions weren’t great. But overall it was a big improvement on last year – both in terms of line-up and organisation.
The small size of the festival made it easy to pop back to camp and ensured an intimate cosy feel. There were plenty of party vibes but no mugs or thugs, and kids could run around safely without being stepped or dribbled on.
The toilets were clean and the bar queues never too long. At one point I even spotted one of the organisers telling bar staff off for not filling beer cups to the brim – and when the cash machine ran out they put on free taxis to the nearest ATM! It’s this kind of attention to a festival goers needs that should stand a still very young Play Fest in good stead for the future.