In a world where there is so little given for free, except for the odd cup of tea if you collect enough storecard points (and thanks, but I’ll have coffee please, if that’s okay; and a piece of this tasty-looking cake – never mind paying for a good slice o’ cake), something pretty unique, pretty special, took place over the August bank holiday weekend in a medium-sized town in Middle England. The town is Tunbridge Wells, a good and safe place on the commuter belt, thirty miles south of London. On the surface there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the town, but when the sun goes down . . .
There is a vibrant spirit about the Tunbridge Wells music scene, where bands and artists are not supported by creative types alone, but by those same hard-working professionals who travel amidst the morning chaos to the nation’s capital each morning. In a way it’s a little London, where there are things to do each evening after returning from The Grind, places to go to be entertained – from the Assembly Halls and Trinity Theatre, where you can catch national comedians and renowned musicians like Imelda May and Jools Holland performing warm up shows for their tours, watch art house films on the big(ish) screen, watch erstwhile famous bands that you never knew still existed, like 10cc and Georgie Fame, all kinds of Tribute acts from the Bee Gees and ABBA to Michael Jackson (he’s taking a risk, isn’t he? Can he dance like MJ? Can he sing like MJ? Can he dance and sing like MJ? Although I did go and see Guns Vs. Roses and the brilliant wannabe/would-be-Axl’s shriek was still a-ringin’ through my ears about three weeks later, even if Duff looked as though he had been picked up from a Bikers’ Pitstop Motel on the way to the gig and was still wired from whatever had kept him going through the night before. I digress . . .). There are plentiful art galleries on the High Street and beyond showcasing local, original, alternative and eye-catching art. The bandstand on the historic Pantiles hosts jazz performances each week throughout the summer months. Perhaps it has more than your average British town to keep you entertained, to attract attention from further afield, bringing folks in from out of town. Certainly one such event summoned the locals from their burrows and visitors from not just from the surrounding towns.
This was the 10th year of the Local and Live festival, having moved from The Pantiles bandstand – that of the tootling trumpet and upright bass – which it had outgrown by its popularity, its second year in the grounds of Calverley Park. Situating the stage in the base of the bowl-shaped grounds, revellers could watch from up high on the sloped banks or mix in with the foot-stompers and hip-shakers in the porridge of the bowl. Facing the main arena, beyond formal gardens, was another stage of acoustic fare on an old, retired bowling green, where blankets were unfurled and Pimms sipped, heads nodding appreciatively to the placid lapping of harmony and melody – a more sober affair than the celebration at the opposite end of the park, but no less worth the visit.
Festivals have generally become more catered to for families, and Local and Live was as family-friendly as they come, kids running around and making friends amongst the good clean fun (the most aggressive behaviour that I witnessed personally all weekend was some particularly heady laughing, and hip shaking). There were all kinds of musical performances, from Hillbilly folk to blues rock, easy funk to mellifluous indie surfer pop. Throughout the day the pace changed but the crowds remained, absorbing, lavishing in the appealing sounds and sociable atmosphere. And it wasn’t just good: these were top bands and musicians, well rehearsed, amazingly accomplished, playing songs of their own creation. I found myself in the company of people who would not usually care for live music, and they were loving it as much as the next teenager or middleager that they were bumping shoulders with, high-fiving and then boogieing on. It was a proper festival, with varied food stands and two beer tents – two, I tell yer! – with a beautiful array of ales, lagers and ciders. After sampling as many as we could, still we all returned, dragging our hangovers, on the second day for more of the same – no less entertaining; equally as varied.
Now, if I was to mention each of the acts that I was well impressed by then this would take a very long time, but I would like to reserve special mention for a band which I have seen play live quite a few times now, loved them from the first and they have yet improved dramatically. I would not be at all surprised if you’ve noticed them yourself. They are a three-piece who go by the name of The Standard Lamps. They were incredible; they put the super in superlative. They were a perfect final act to headline Local and Live. Genre-jumping, groove-inducing, rocking out in a cardigan – and why don’t rock stars wear cardigans anymore? That’s what they were: rock stars. It must have seemed so from upon the stage. The crowd loved them, adored them. And you could tell that they were having fun, relishing in their new role as the darlings of the event. Led by the awesome edgy blues of singer Mike Wilton’s guitar skills, they bounded from song to song, responding to their rapturous crowd. They were even encouraged to slide in a cheeky, speedy rockabilly encore, to carry the whooping and whopping crowd to within seconds of the 9:30pm curfew. It would be ungracious to compare their music, because they owned their audience for the music that they made. This is just one acclamation of the many that they have collected within a short space of their careers. The reason that you might have heard of them . . . well you can find that out for yourself. Really, really, really check out more on this exciting and utterly entertaining band. I know for a fact that they drew new faces to the town.
What a way to finish such a brilliant festival, any festival. A free festival? But it wasn’t over; that wasn’t all. Over the weekend, more than two hundred acts played in eleven venues over the town, from pubs to a juice bar, from the Trinity Theatre to (NME small venue of the year) The Forum. Have a look for yourself, it’s quite amazing; and check out more of these local performers who left many with late nights, banging heads and big smiles. What a treat, what an unrelenting achievement it is to unite an entire town in a celebration of music, a town that willingly left its doors open for anyone to come a join the party.
It couldn’t happen all by itself, of course. Local and Live has a head. I don’t know what it takes to get awarded an OBE in this country – if you don’t kick a ball around for a living or outrun the rest of the track – but the man who almost single-handedly puts the whole incredible event together is a person who has done so much for the careers and hobbies of the performers. You could tell that they all know this as almost all of them showed their appreciation at some point during their performances, encouraging the crowds to sing out the name of Paul Dunton. I truly don’t know where he finds the time and energy to arrange this in amongst performing with his orchestra or ensemble, organising his regular music nights and showcases, writing for a local magazine . . . it goes on, all for the love of good music. And keep on, Paul, because what you achieved this weekend was truly remarkable. It is a crowd- and sponsor-funded event, Local and Live, and is so important that it keeps on happening, the highlight in the calendar of a town (I’d go and see 10cc; not so sure about an MJ tribute act – did anyone go? Does he really pull it off?). His troops of volunteers deserve commendation, too; giving up their weekends to help out. Put it in your calendar for 2016 – the last weekend in August. Drop a couple of coins in the cup when you do, because even though it’s free it has to be paid for by someone. You will not be disappointed, even if you don’t think that it would be your scene. The only reason that you wouldn’t come is that you don’t like having fun.