Sea Change Festival 2019
If you think about it, it’s a match made in heaven. A music festival organised by the local record shop. Why aren’t more vinyl sellers doing this? Take your local record store community and put it in a field for a weekend with some of the acts which adorn the shelves of said shop. Throw in some decent local booze, great food and passing trade and you’ve got yourself a winning combo.
We’re being somewhat flippant. It takes a hell of a lot to organise a festival and most record shops have their work cut out just trying to keep their retail outlet going. But here in Totnes, things feel different. Drift Records is one of dozens of independent shops, cafes and bar (it’s actually all three of those things rolled into one – not to mention a festival promoter too). People embrace this entrepreneurial spirit and creativity oozes through these streets.
Totnes itself is a world away from the identikit high streets you see in most towns. It takes a while to get a sense of direction, especially as the main festival site is a 45 minute walk away in Dartington Hall Estate. The festival’s been going for several years now and has evolved from a multi-venue non residential festival to one with a smallish outdoor site with camping space. This is only the second year it’s existed in that guise and you get the impression that people are still cottoning onto that, with less than 50 tents in the field and a similar number of campervans (indicating the demographical make-up of festival goers here).
Lots of people stay in Airbnbs and Totnes is well connected to the rest of the West with a train station but you can’t help feeling that people are missing a trick by not taking advantage of this new festival campsite. Those who do benefit from the short stumble through wooded paths to the late-night party in the old school gym (more of that later). That, and queue-free hot showers every day. Unheard of at most UK festivals.
There’s a nice touch with the programme, where organisers clarity this year’s tagline: ‘Our biggest year yet with more bands, more speakers, more buildings and more hours than before.’ They assure us that bigger doesn’t mean less intimate, it doesn’t mean getting more people in to the detriment of the nature of the festival and it doesn’t mean morphing into every other boutique festival in the UK. Much to the relief of those repeat visitors.
Where some festivals rest on their laurels a bit, filling their bill with bands of the same ilk who will play a festival set of their best known material, Sea Change is constantly pushing boundaries. The authentic and diverse mix of artists mirrors the vinyl mix on the shelves in their awesome little shop.
On top of this, there’s a programme of events which would not be out of place at the Hay-on-Wye Festival or at London’s Southbank Centre – this includes music journalists Laura Barton and Michael Hann discussing Bruce Springsteen and discussion of The Nightingales documentary plus a set from the band. One of the highlights of the weekend comes in the shape of Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner, creators of the Bagpuss soundtrack – chatting with comedian and writer Stewart Lee and conducting a mini Bagpuss concert complete with singalong opportunities for the delighted crowd; all the while, the famous now 45-year-old pink and white cat looked on.
Ongoing relationships with the likes of The Quietus publication, Heavenly Recordings record label and John Robb from The Membranes and Louder Than War have helped shape this festival from the off and continue to add a rich layer. Talks and DJ sets from these guys help provide discussion points and a late-night soundtrack. Walking into the deserted school gym of one of the many seemingly derelict brutalist buildings on the traditionally picturesque Dartington Hall Estate is like something out of a dystopian movie. Friday night starts quietly save for a dozen or so eager dancers but by Saturday, it’s rammed.
It’s not the only unique venue at Sea Change; there’s churches, independent cinemas and, for the first time, the modernist architectural masterpiece High Cross House. Unsurprisingly, with limited capacity venues there are inevitable issues with queues – this sees us miss Rozi Plain. The addition of the field-based stage and big top mean there’s little issue with seeing the bigger acts play. Headliners Metronomy and The Comet Is Coming attract some of the biggest crowds but it’s the stuff lower down the bill which really packs the punches. Du Blonde’s Friday set is delightful. Her deep, rich voice and poetic lyrics combine with inter-song anecdotes to give us a sneak peak into her learned mind. Flamingods bring the party with their wonderful blend of psychedelic rock. Pale Blue Eyes add an indie element – catchy guitars and sweeping vocals combine to create poppier Smiths vibe.
But its Black Midi who steal this show – as they do with most festivals they play. The London three piece might look like they should be preparing to sit their A-Levels, but they play like they’ve been on the road and in the studio for years. The fact is, they’re yet to release an album, they spurn publicity and are far from forthcoming with their story. Yet, their music speaks for itself – tight guitars taking us on a sonic journey through 80s Talking Heads territory to Battles level energy and impact. It’s clear to see why critics love this trio. There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt here.
Gruff Rhys is an utterly inspired early Sunday headliner (the festival’s over by 8 or 9pm, giving people a chance to return home without needing an extra day off work). The Super Furry Animals frontman takes us on a journey through his solo offering – both Welsh language and English language songs and shares some new material too. His band now includes former Flaming Lips drummer Kliph Scurlock and it adds a new energy to the line-up. It wouldn’t be a Gruff show without his much-loved white signs telling us exactly when to applaud, when to get louder and when to lose our shit – sometimes a little guidance goes a long way, especially on the final night of this brilliantly tiring festival. Same time next year, guys.
Review & pictures: Laura Williams