Welcome to what might just be the most perfect festival in the world. An oasis of calm, the Off the tracks festival is situated in a complex of converted farm buildings (used on a day-to-day basis as a conference centre) with a proper campsite attached and all the facilities that come with it. Small, but perfectly formed, from the camping side you’ll find proper pitches, hard-standing for caravans, electric hook ups, real toilets, washing facilities, showers and a temporary village filled with exciting stalls and tasty food. With a friendly, peaceful atmosphere, it’s a thriving mini-community with children playing on the grass whilst adults browse the colourful stalls or enjoy a drink or two of their own before crossing the threshold to the licensed premises around the stages, and it’s the perfect place to just kick back and relax before the music starts. Meanwhile, inside the music area, you’ll find all manner of stages nestled into converted barns, a real pub, a seemingly never-ending disco, freshly prepared hot meals and, joy of joys, a well-stocked, well-staffed, well-priced real ale bar with enough varieties to send even the most dedicated ale drinker into the throes of ecstasy. All of this is set in the gorgeous surroundings of the Derbyshire countryside and populated by some of the most friendly, open-minded festival goers you’re likely to meet. It’s a wonderful environment in which to kick back, meet new people and, of course, check out some brilliantly eclectic acts, all of whom seem absolutely thrilled to be sharing the Off the tracks experience alongside their audience.
Indeed, across the whole weekend, SonicAbuse barely encountered a queue of more than a few moments (even for the bar), and for this the organizers deserve full credit for gauging their audience and providing everything necessary for an amazingly comfortable weekend. More than that, the layout and design of the festival was spectacular, with a variety of atmospheric lights spread around the venue, making it feel more like an art installation than a simple venue in which the audience treks form one band to the next with no thought for their wonderful surroundings, and it all helped to build a truly magical atmosphere. The final piece of the puzzle, the stages themselves, was no less impressive. Despite a variety of stages to organise, the organisers kept things running largely on time and the sound was simply remarkable throughout, with the sound engineers doing a fantastic job of mixing some very disparate acts to the point that many of the acts had the best sound SonicAbuse has yet heard at a festival. Neither overbearingly loud, nor with elements lost in the mix, the various engineers did a stunning job and to them, as much as to the organizers or the artists, should go a huge amount of credit for keeping the weekend running so well.
Arriving on Friday afternoon, following a brief foray to the ale tent, SonicAbuse catches 4Square, described as ‘Manchester’s ferocious folk foursome’. Certainly a lively act, tracks like ‘Phil Collins’ get the audience nodding appreciatively and its notable that the younger folk are already dancing at the front of the stage as the band deliver their music with humour and skill. Over at the black barn, however, something altogether more evil is stirring. The wonderful caravan of thieves are unleashing ‘monster’, a thrilling blast of gypsy swing complete with a drum solo on the most goofily innovative drum kits yet seen. A band that thrives on variety, the high energy ‘monster’ is followed by the gorgeous ‘I got you’ which is sung simply by Fuzz and his wife Carrie with such sweet sincerity that it works its way easily under your skin. From there we get the quirky, jazzy ‘I’m gonna eat you’ which sees the band overcome a broken string with such good nature and natural charm that a potential set-ending catastrophe is transformed into a bonding session between band and audience. It should also be added that Fuzz is a demon on guitar, delivering numerous solos with such skill and dexterity it’s hard to keep track of his flashing fingers. The band end with a crowd-pleasing and thoroughly original take on Queen’s ‘Bohemian rhapsody’, delivered Gypsy style with Carrie’s mellifluous vocals sweetly gracing lyrics that the majority of the audience know by heart. It’s a remarkable end to a remarkable set and there’s no question that the appreciative audience will be checking the band out once again on the main stage the following day.
Back to the main stage we get the psychedelic space rock of Here and now who, with their banks of keyboards and multiple vocalists, recall the progressive might of Yes and the slightly deranged spacey pop of Gong (with whom the band have close ties). It’s an intense and deeply immersive show the band put on, with guitars played with the aid of a triangle, and long-time bass player Keith doing his best to pound his long-suffering instrument into submission under the wall of synth and fx. However, as good as here and now are, there’s a heady feeling of anticipation for the legendary Banco De Gaia who are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of ‘Last train to Lhasa’, the ambient dub classic that landed at number 3 in the UK charts at its release in 1995, by playing it in its entirety. Recently re-released as a 4 CD set, the album is riding high once more and Off the tracks is the perfect opportunity for Toby Marks to bring his uniquely immersive sound to a passionate and receptive audience. I can’t imagine a better environment than the Off the Tracks Marquee stage in which to see Banco de Gaia. With its colourful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, pristine sound and relaxed atmosphere, it’s a mass celebration and Toby, alongside wonder-drummer Ted Duggan and Bass master James Eller, takes full advantage to weave a magical atmosphere with tribal chants, throbbing bass and ethereal guitar. It’s an experience that is not unlike seeing the Orb live for the first time and the new band underpin Toby’s remarkable compositions with a power that is hard to describe. The icing on the cake are the carefully synced projections that make Banco De Gaia a stunningly complete experience, and by the time the band return for a brief encore, the audience appear dazzled by the multi-media display they have just witnessed. It’s a remarkable end to the day, although for those with a will there’s plenty more to experience after hours with a disco and various jam sessions running into the small hours.
Arriving some way into the proceedings on Saturday, the first act we catch at the Marquee stage is Ushti Baba, a deliriously brilliant mix of Baltic folk and brain-melting beatboxing. The band conjure a party atmosphere and have folk dancing from the off, which should be no surprise given the rhythmic pulse of their unique music. The moment we’ve been waiting for, however, is the triumphant return of Caravan of thieves, this time playing to the Marquee tent crowd (the audience has easily doubled in size from the previous evening, which just goes to show how quickly word gets round). With a markedly different set incorporating covers of everything from the Rolling Stones to Beck via Gloria Gaynor and the Bee Gees, CoT know exactly how to get the audience moving. Not that means we miss out on the quieter moments. The beautiful ‘I got you’ makes a return and, as with the previous evening, it’s all the more charming for being so wholly unaffected and by the time the band close with their hectic cover of ‘bohemian rhapsody’ they have the audience entirely eating out of their hands.
A brief change over and Heg and the Wolf Chorus appear on the main stage (subject to a last minute change around). The stage is quieter than earlier but the band put in a spirited performance, their heady avant-garde take on folk gaining quiet approval from those present. It’s a performance that is particularly impressive for its vocal arrangements and the concluding ‘giant’ recalls Kate Bush as much as it does traditional folk, suggesting that the band have a bright future ahead of them.
Hailing form Nottingham, the battle-hardened crew Fat Digester take to the stage like conquering heroes, their blend of Funk, hip hop, soul and dub the perfect match for the likes of Dreadzone and Dub Pistols, of whom more later. With Shona providing the soul and with Ned and Baron D kicking out the vocals, what really makes Fat Digester lively is the fact that the stage is filled with real musicians rather than the band relying on samples and tracks like ‘little monkey’ showcase the band’s tight, original sound perfectly.
With a cracking new album to promote (‘return of the Pistoleros), Dub Pistols are on fighting form. As the rightly point out, Dreadzone and Dub Pistols on the same bill is a recipe for chaos and that’s precisely what the band set about unleashing upon a tent that’s full to bursting with swaying bodies. Tracks like the monumental ‘gangster life’ aren’t so much played as shot in to orbit and ‘keep the fire burning’ (from ‘rum and coke’) sounds as immense as it did when it first appeared in 2009. It’s remarkable, by any standards, that the audience are still standing by the set’s conclusion, let alone ready for the Dreadzone bounce, but with real ale and good food on hand whilst the sets change over, the audience dig deep in order to be ready for MC Spee and his merry crew of misfits to take the stage.
Perennial festival favourites, what better band is there to close a community minded and eclectic festival like Off the tracks? Dreadzone are a band who simply and inevitably inspire love and good feeling in their audience, and the warm feeling that floods through the stuffed Marquee when the band take the stage is evidence of the esteem with which they are held. With amazing new album ‘Escapades’ doing the rounds as well as the recent, stunning re-issue of the ever-green ‘sound’ album, Dreadzone effectively set about reducing the tent to the point of exhaustion. Classics like ‘life, love and unity’ fit perfectly with new pieces like ‘rise up’ whilst I don’t think anyone could ever become bored of cracking single ‘gangster’ (from the beautiful ‘eye on the horizon’ album). Even ‘tomorrow never comes’ gets a look in, as the audience sway in the flickering light, whilst recent single ‘fire in the dark’ sets a tough pace. It is the perfect conclusion to a festival that impresses in every conceivable way and whilst SonicAbuse have to trudge off into the darkness (the curses of work), the music once again looks set to continue deep into the night.
Off the tracks is the perfect example of a festival done right. It’s as if the organisers looked at Glastonbury, isolated the elements that made that festival special before it became a corporate monster, and smuggled them off to this remote corner of Derbyshire. There’s a vibe here that defies rational description, a feeling of community, as if you’ve known the people with whom you’re sharing the field for many years, and the music (whether it be ambient, dub, folk or blues) is a massive part of that. Each act is carefully chosen and each act fits in with the ethos of the festival so, even if you’re not keen on a particular act, you can still admire the skill with which they play and the obvious joy that comes from entertaining such a vivacious audience. It is a place where children can run free in perfect safety, a place where good food, good drink and good company are a given, and the organisation is second to none. I shall treasure my memories of this year’s festival – it provided the perfect conclusion to the summer and I have no doubt that those who were there this year will be retuning time and again in the future.