We’re somewhere around the halfway mark of the summer festival season, and starting to flag a little. Nostrils bleached from chemical toilets we stagger home under capricious skies, the logos of corporate sponsors burned into our retinas long after the tinnitus fades, matted and overlaid like wallpaper. Sure, we have fun, but the dominant sense is one of deja vu, of Midwich line-ups and identikit sites, standing with the same paper cup staring at the same rented stage listening to the same songs as last weekend, the only real distinction the composition of the mud.
Ok, so the cynicism goes too far but the general point stands: the festival scene has become over-saturated, the experiences increasingly interchangeable. Well-established brands are struggling to sell out, to stand out in a crowded and evermore homogenised market, and even boutique festivals are starting to lose their identity, blurring into a mesh of organic food stalls and hand-drawn promotional material and bands that sound like Mumford and Sons.
And that’s why Standon Calling is so great. Whilst other events struggle to convincingly muster a single USP the Hertfordshire festival has a clutch of them, from the Lordship setting to the on-site swimming pool. And sure, there may be other festivals with themes, but none weave the concept into the weekend quite so fully as here, with the Heritage Arts Company ensuring it plays a role rather greater than mere fancy dress and graphic design: last year had a plot involving the kidnap of a local lord, with developments spread throughout the days and across the site, secret passages leading from the tailors through the barbers to the bank. Amongst a significant number of attendees the primary concern became not so much securing a spot for the headliners as solving the case. With Gods and Monsters as this year’s theme expect the scale to be ramped up accordingly, the cast of Midsomer making way for hydras, kraken and hedonistic deities, towering obelisks casting shadows across their bacchanalian revelry.
And in the breaks between the end-of-days depravity and the Ray Harryhausen reminiscences there’s always the lineup, as ever an eclectic assembly of hyped new things and more leftfield programming. Lamb and Battles head up a bill that sprawls across genres and cultures, from Hypnotic Brass Ensemble to Errors, John Grant to Washed Out and The Mummers. The mighty Saul Williams makes a long-overdue return to these shores on the Saturday, his potent, socially-conscious hip-hop pretty much a new set of commandments, whilst Hercules and Love Affair and Azari and III bring a house fervour to this Middle England homestead.
That’s merely scraping the bill. Standon’s organisers have an unnerving knack of booking acts on the cusp of breaking through, of playing bellwether to the year ahead as any backwards glances to previous lineups will attest. But they also ensure a varied offering, a programme defined by its difference to comparable events, mercifully low on Q Magazine guitar-drear and NME poster-boys. And it attracts a different crowd: there’s families, sure, hipsters and teens and thirty-somethings and so on, but there’s never been the brashness increasingly found at many other festivals, the crowding and the rubbish and the vague undercurrent of aggression. Last year the only boredom was for the security teams, complaining of “nothing to do.”
For a festival of just a few thousand people Standon Calling certainly punches way above its weight, critical accolades gathered at its feet like burnt offerings. This year’s early bird tickets sold out in record time with no lineup announcements, just previous attendees, like pilgrims, desperate to return again. It almost seems blasphemous not to join them.
(published version here)