Little Mongeham, near Deal, Kent
Will Greenham mentioned to me last year that he was looking to get Tinariwen to come and play at the Smugglers Festival site. I filed that away in the "totally implausible, but this is Will Greenham here, so you never know" folder. And it came to pass.
A brilliant day all round. The weather certainly helped (bright sunshine with cooling breezes). Will had curated a whole day of global sounds building up to Tinariwen at sunset. This alternated between the little acoustic amphitheatre space in "Gilly's Wood" and the new main stage (a beautiful geodesic half-dome, built by the unstoppable Adam Whittaker).
- Magga Tiempo: Yiannis and Roberto's music was a great way to kick things off, and it was satisfying for me as they'd initially contacted me about playing this event and I'd recommended them to Will. Roberto got his charango out for one Andean tune, the rest a melange of Balkan and gypsy sounds, including a gypsy jazz rewrite of "Für Elise" (i think it was).
- Hot Feet: The quartet from Stroud. Marianne — what a voice! They're one of these bands which stand out by the near impossibility of describing their music. The programme said "spacious folk or ambient blues", but neither of those is quite right. They're just doing their (very special) thing using conventional guitar-drums-bass instrumentation — just check them out online if you haven't heard them. And no doubt they're sick of this being pointed out, but lead guitarist Jack looks about eight feet tall!
- Hanami: I'm not sure if John and Keeley were down from Cheshire or over from Bulgaria for this, I've lost track. But I loved them. Their baby Pip was being watched over in a nearby tent, rather than being on "stage" playing with shakers and kazoos as she usually does. They started with Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" set to a totally new melody (I only just figured out what it was before it ended), then a string of their own wond'rous compositions. The first thing everyone picks up on is their harmony singing, but I was again struck by their amazing sense of rhythm (Keeley's brushes-on-snare and John's strumming hand).
- Poggy Hatton and Band: Various members of Cocos Lovers joined her on stage, but unfortunately no keyboard was available for Adam to play on. The set included a Roches cover ("Runs in the Family") and ended with everyone singing "Happy Birthday" to Poggy's husband/drummer James (with beautiful Cocos harmonies, naturally).
- Katy Carr: Sweet ukelele songs and lots of intriguing, rambling banter. Lots of references to Poland (she's half-Polish) and songs in Polish. An attempt at singing in Chinese. Much time taken expressing her (clearly heartfelt) gratitude to be there, which somehow was a fully integral part of her set. I totally fell in love with everything about what she's doing. Later, I looked her up online and found out about a connection with Gina Birch and The Raincoats, which totally makes sense.
- Cocos Lovers: They played a similar-ish set to their recent one at the Astor, though shorter and without Poggy joining them for "Door to the Andes". Very solid, although a bit murky sounding at times ("Emily" suffered a bit from that). Nick, who cycled to the event with me from Canterbury, and who's somehow only managed to see them do low-key fireside sets, pointed out they're sounding less "rustic" these days, which is partly to do with the setting (they project differently to large/festival audiences), and partly just an accurate observation. It's all a bit more polished and electric these days. It's happened so slowly and incrementally that I hadn't really noticed. But they're clearly more and more well-loved everywhere they go these days, nowhere more than on their home turf.
- The Allen Family Band: The first time I saw Toby from Lapis Lazuli was playing with his American dad (a bluegrass player) and siblings a few years ago. The kids are older now (singer Ruby is now a mother) and all noticeably more skilled on their instruments. Geary on banjo is now lightning fast and yet totally calm in his demeanor while shredding. And it's funny hearing Toby play such simple basslines compared to the stuff he does in Lapis. The set included various bluegrass instrumentals as well as Ruby singing "I'll Fly Away", "Folsom Prison Blues", "Orange Blossom Special", and guitarist Pete singing "East Virginia Blues". Papa Allen provided explanations and historical context and made a point about how this music sounds best unamplified in the open air. It certainly does. I hear a lot of this stuff when I'm out in Wisconsin — too much, really — so I was surprised by how enjoyable their set was.
- Diabel Cissokho: The Senegalese kora master took to the stage with just a single percussionist, and between them sounded like half a dozen musicians playing their hearts out. Very high energy playing, for kora music, and I did talk to one person who thought Diabel was trying too hard to "get the party started", but no one was complaining at the time. Beautiful!
- TINARIWEN: After a short break while the South Deal School DJ collective spun Afrobeat, soul and funk grooves in what was once the Sondryfolk Forest (rebranded the "Christmas Tree Forest"), Tinariwen came and brought their powerful, joyful, relentless (in the best sense), magical music to about five hundred entranced festival goers. They started with a simple vocal chant, then gradually built up the energy throughout the set until (during the last third) they were seriously cooking, rocking out with an almost Zeppelin-like intensity, but in a calm, African kind of way, completely lacking in any posturing or "showmanship". The three singer-guitarists took turns playing guitar and singing lead (almost always electric, occasionally acoustic), almost in a "Go on, you have a go now" kind of way. Meanwhile the bass player and percussionist (calabash mostly) were being the most solid rhythm section on the planet. By the time they left the stage, the crowd were beyond ecstatic (organiser Will Greenham and his young son Henry had already been crowdsurfing by this point!), and so a single member of the band came on to play the first of three encores, an acoustic ballad to calm everyone down a bit (although whoops and shrieks were heard from the audience throughout). As it said in the programme, this will be one to tell the grandkids about.
- Simo Langawi's Gnawa Blues All-Stars: After another DJ intermission in the woods (a strange selection of 70s cheese, and not particularly danceable), we got a third blast of African intensity. Simo now has Stewy from Cocos on the drums, and various guesting soloists, this time a pair of electric guitarist. He pounded his gimbri, dreadlocks flying everywhere, unbelievalbe energy levels, and a perfect way to end the live music for the day before the DJs took over again til daybreak.