Britain, it sometimes seems, has a surfeit of festivals, all too often competing for our attention with the look-at-me air of noisy schoolchildren. Surely there can’t be space for another event? The steadily growing reputation of Sea Change, held for the third time in Totnes, Devon over an August bank holiday weekend where the first chill of autumn was in the air, suggests otherwise.
Officially and to quote its website, Sea Change is “a young festival of music, art, culture, food and drinks”, and which enjoys support from local arts organisations, venues and businesses, notably the good and helpful organisers-in-chief at Drift Records. Unofficially, it’s an event that draws together the kind of acts you’ll hear in the evenings and weekends on 6Music. Surprises and, at times, challenging music are part of the deal.
As is chat. A key venue at Sea Change for the way it allows the audience to get up close to those appearing is the upstairs room at the Barrel House pub, especially important at a festival that aims to be human-sized, non-corporate. Here, the likes of Billy Bragg, writer Richard King of Original Rockers fame and A&R man James Endeacott, who worked with the Libertines and Strokes and lived to tell tall tales, all give interviews and talks on the first afternoon. There’s also a much-anticipated appearance by Cosey Fanni Tutti, whose tales of outsider art and Throbbing Gristle – on Genesis P-Orridge: “What we were doing was far more important than him” – hold the audience enthralled.
As for musical highlights on the first day, Weather Station’s Tamara Lindemanconfesses to being “a little tired, a little confused” to be playing at Totnes Civic Hall, understandable considering she’s jet lagged after flying in from Canada just a day previously. Nonetheless, a gig that starts slowly gradually builds momentum and songs such as the folk-tinged ‘Thirty’ cut through even to those unfamiliar with the band.
Over at St Mary’s Church, Jane Weaver reworks songs from Modern Kosmology with new music group Immix Ensemble, a meeting of alt-rock and classical. There are moments when the performance catches fire, but at other times the motorik bass of Weaver’s recent recorded music is missed.
LLV’s night concludes back at the Barrel House with an extraordinary performance by another Throbbing Gristle veteran, Chris Carter, whose electronic pieces build with a relentless insistence. It would be easy to think that what Carter does is easy, yet that’s to overlook the sense of deep structure in his music, closer to jazz than any form of synth pop or dance music. But how do you follow that? DJs John Doran and Luke Turner of The Quietus website fame play Abba and all is well with the world.
Saturday brings an equally diverse programme. At the Civic Hall, Hater’s guitar pop is summery yet with a wistful quality too. Boy Azooga turn out to be a much rockier proposition live than in the studio. At St Mary’s Church, Group Listening perform ambient music arranged for clarinet and piano.
For a change of atmosphere, there’s the Offshore stage, located a mile or two outside the town centre in the country estate adjoining Dartington Hall. Here, Virginia Wing channel the spirit of 1980s avant-garde pop by the likes of Laurie Anderson to fine effect, while the folk trance of James Holden & The Animal Spirits impresses. Highlight of the night, though, is a storming set by Hookworms, whose ability to link the pulse of nouveau psychedelia with the exultant spirit of post-rave is even more evident live than on Microshift. Look out for an interview soon in LLV.
As is the way with festivals, there was too much to see thanks to scheduling clashes (so no reviews of, amongst others, Shirley Collins, Gwenno or Lost Horizons), the need for food and drink, and the longish walk between Dartington and Totnes – there were buses, but y’know, you have to wait for buses and the path took you though a wooded valley and a nature reserve.
To return to where we began, there are certainly too many drab festivals in the UK, but Sea Change is the antithesis of such events. Strongly consider putting it in your calendar for next year.