There was music, magic, and just the right amount of mischief in the air this opening July weekend as, against all odds, the wonderful spectacle that is Timber Festival took place in the beautiful surroundings of Feanedock Woods. A joint venture by The National Forest Company and award-winning festival producers Wild Rumpus, Timber is a celebration of nature and art, of free-thinking and reflection, of music and poetry, but for most of us, it was an escape from reality and an opportunity to appreciate the things in life that we sometimes too easily forget.
The ongoing pandemic has scuppered copious festival plans and left many of us disappointed but, through clever planning, sheer determination, and a strong element of bravado, the Timber team were able to make their marvellous creation a reality.
As the crowds arrived early Friday afternoon there was both a sense of excitement and contentment throughout the spacious campsite. Despite the intense heat, laughter and singing rang out across the camping field as festival-goers struggled to remember how to erect tents that had not seen sunlight since 2019. Mallets were lent, help was given, new festival friendships formed, and the first beverages of the weekend were uncorked with the long-desired delight of a prisoner supping their first cold beer.
The programme for Timber Festival was jam-packed and to relay everything that took place would take more words than this humble writer is permitted. The best way to describe the festival is to liken it to a beautiful carnival of both education and spirituality.
There were storytellers hidden in the forest, tightrope walkers performing mind-boggling feats, floating acrobats, inspirational debates, hidden soundscapes, healing workshops, award-winning comics, woodland opera, poet laureates, political leaders, and much, much more. But here at MIL, it is all about the music. Below is this writer’s pick of the Timber’s Friday and Saturday’s musical offerings.
Opening up the idyllic Eyrie Stage on Friday afternoon was Edinburgh singer and harpist Anna McLuckie. Set within the woods, under a canopy of birch, popular, and sycamore trees, the enchanting songstress seemed to be the perfect act to introduce festival-goers to this magical stage. McLuckie was accompanied by a cello, violin, and percussion but despite the classical feel to her line-up, elements of indie-folk and contemporary rhythms shone through the forest leaves.
The Scottish Songstress first came into the public eye with her success in Series 3 of The Voice but since then she has gradually matured into her own entity. Drawing comparisons to Laura Marling, McLuckie is not afraid to let her Edinburgh brogue slip through the beautiful imagery she presents in her lyrics. There was certainly a sense of nervousness from the young musician and her band (missing their guitarist due to Covid), but this made the crowd love them even more. A beautiful musical introduction to Timber Festival.
The next act that MIL managed to catch on the Eyrie Stage was musical pioneer and current artist in residence for Hull City of Culture, Jason Singh. A sound artist, creative producer, facilitator and performer, the experimental beatboxer was recently awarded the PRS New Music Biennial Award. It is difficult to describe in words what Singh created on that sunny summer evening in the woods of Timber Fest.
A soundscape with visuals that absorbed the whole audience into silence and took them on a journey of discovery only disturbed (or complemented!) by the sounds of Feanedock’s birdlife and the distant sounds of children’s laughter. Mesmerising.
Then, it was over to the Field Notes stage to catch the final tracks of Orkney Musician Erland Cooper. Dedicated to talks, debates, interviews and the like in the daytime, the Festival’s largest stage was handed over to the musicians in the evening.
Although we missed the beginning of the unique musician’s hour-long journey, it was clear that something special had been taking place. Cooper performed a piece of music for the festival utilising recordings from the Sounds of the Forest project in addition to his own carefully crafted songs of nature, love, and loss. The Timber fest crowd were left pensive, yet happy and exhilarated.
As darkness fell in the forest and beautiful light installations came into their own fruition, it was time for the fun and dancing to begin. All seats were cleared from the Field Notes arena. Billed act, Snapped Ankles sadly couldn’t make it but the crowd were certainly not disappointed with the replacements The Baghdaddies.
The world fusion party band combined elements of Balkan melodies, West Indian Ska, Latin inspired grooves, with a good ol’ Cockney knees-up thrown in for good measure. It didn’t take the five-piece ensemble long to whip the enthusiastic crowd into a frenzy. After a hot day of thought-provoking talks and spirituality, this heavy splash of fun was just what was needed to end the opening day of Timber Fest.
After a relaxing Saturday morning of talks and workshops, it was time to hit the stages again to view the day’s musical offerings. Just before midday, Jali, aka Gambian traditional harpist and storyteller Jali Nyonkoling Kutateh, began the happening on the picturesque forest Eyrie stage. Born into a family of oral historians (Girots), Kali relayed folk tales and personal stories of the characters from his home village in between plucking the traditional African harp, the Kora, a combination of cowskin and calabash.
An enchanting way to begin the day. The next musical act for this reviewer was Caoilfhionn Rose. The young Manchester artist, accompanied by a second guitarist, had the honour of playing perhaps one of the most magical points of the festival. Nestled in the forest, with sunlit, glistening raindrops cascading through the trees behind her stage, it was truly a great moment to be alive. A tapestry of music influences; jazz-infused dreamy indie-pop from the humble performer made her many new fans that afternoon, this writer being one.
Next it was back to the Field Notes stage for the rest of the day’s live music offerings. The Unthanks were clearly an act that many of the Timber tribe had been waiting for as the tent and the surrounding grass was packed with bodies in eager anticipation – even the thunderous weather couldn’t put a dampener on proceedings. The Tyneside folkers have collaborated with everyone from Portishead to Damon Albarn, and the polished performance today at Timber Fest was nothing less than one would expect from the highly acclaimed performers. Music that is as powerful as it is gentle, as modern as it is ancient, oral history told through hauntingly beautiful songs, the folk maestros received a Timber Fest reception that was certainly not reflective of their namesake.
One of the big musical names on the Timber Fest bill was undoubtedly Gruff Rhys, best known for fronting Cardiff indie-rockers The Super Furry Animals. Despite clashing with the football which the festival had kindly arranged to put on a big screen, Rhys filled the tent with appreciative fans. Rhys, along with his band, were dressed entirely in white except for varying black lettered slogans on each of their T-Shirts. Performing mostly from his new album, with a few Furry classics thrown in for good measure, it was admittedly, not the most polished of performances. But, hey, we have all been locked down, band practice hasn’t been easy and the crowd loved it nevertheless.
Closing Saturday’s live music festivities were probably my favourite act of the weekend, brass ensemble the Hackney Colliery Band. Two sets of percussion, two trombones, two trumpets, two saxophones, a sousaphone, and a hell of a lot of stage presence, it is no wonder the East London collective have been hailed by BBC Radio 2 as one of the best live acts in the country. Opening up the set with Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box and closing with Toto’s Africa, the brass virtuosos slipped in pop songs, their own take on jazz standards as well as some original compositions throughout the set. They really had an ecstatic (perhaps well-oiled) crowd who were really ready for a party, eating out of their hands. I honestly haven’t seen this much dancing in two years!
As the live music ended, it was time to slip back into the forest arena for DJ sets by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage and rising British Asian DJ Indian Man. No more notes were taken at this point!
Unfortunately, this fuzzy-headed reporter had to pack up his tent early(ish) on Sunday for the drive back to Leicester and missed the final day of festival offerings. Nevertheless, I left with a sense of hope that I hadn’t arrived with. Timber Festival showed us what can be done, with the right heart, determination, and creativity, even in times of trouble. Despite so many cancellations, the British Summer Festival is far from dead. This reporter will certainly be returning to Timber Festival in 2022 and strongly suggests that our MIL readers do the same. If we can get a few of the hugely talented performers from our city on the bill, even better.
Reviewed by Cain Barriskill
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