For Londoners, a cherished day off has always been a trip to Brighton. England’s favorite day-tripping resort offers tourists a pebble beach, glittering arcades, seedy bars and lively “Lanes” packed with curiosity shops and bric-a-brac stalls. Brighton is also known as “the gay capital of Britain” and has a rich LGBT community. Brighton is home to a large number of artists, musicians, craftspeople and show-business types. So it is no surprise that the city hosts the Brighton Festival, (the second largest arts festival in the U.K.). Brighton is also home to a world-famous music festival, The Great Escape, spread over three days in May of each year and using many of the 30 music venues in the city.
But each year, Brighton’s flamboyant arts community goes for a “day off” of their own. The bohemian hordes head out into the country for the Playgroup Festival.
This year’s Playgroup festival, described by The Guardian newspaper as a “Low-key experimental party with music and art” was postponed because of environmental concerns. The setting, the glorious Eridge Park, near Tunbridge Wells, Kent is a site of national ecological importance. After heavy rains in early summer (the wettest summer since 1910, according to the Met Office), it was thought that the accumulation of traffic and a large number of people attending the event could harm the valuable habitats and cause lasting soil damage.
So the organizers made the difficult decision to push the event back seven weeks from the original dates of August 3 to 5 to the new dates of September 21-23.
Upon our arrival at Eridge Park, THE BOMBER JACKET immediately saw the wisdom of this decision. The ground beneath the tent was dry and crisp. The skies were blue. There was an obvious chill in the air, and the evenings drew in very quickly. But the fragile land was able to withstand the footfall of the festival crowds.
The theme for this year’s Playgroup was “Lost Toys.” All ticket holders were sent details of the “toy” they had been assigned. The visitors were then invited to dress up as one of these ‘Toys”–the kinds of things you might find discarded in a nursery. Almost all the festival goers were dressed up in costume. Some came as dinosaurs or puppets, others were dressed as robots or toy soldiers. We were told to dress up as cowboys. The mission was then to try to locate all the other toys in your assigned “tribe,” and make new friends along the way, meeting the challenges of your assigned character.
The Playgroup weekend has been described as “[...] a proper boutique festival attended by Sussex’s resident loonies and a few visitors from afar.” Playgroup is not just all about the music. The festival also involves walkabout performers, eccentric poetry, quirky cabaret, burlesque shows, stand-up comedy and many other types of artistic nonsense and wonder.
The musical lineup for this year’s Playgroup included the soul diva Alice Russell, the eight-piece ska-dub-funk outfit the King Porter Stomp, and the Brighton-based ska-punk legends Los Albertos. But our favorites were the fabulous neo-baroque/folk-rock band The Moulettes. With sounds described by Time Out magazine as “Divine harmonies…Orchestral folk at its very finest…” this awesome band, formed in 2002, has developed a unique style, mixing electric instruments like cello, bassoon, and violin with gorgeous group vocals. They create sumptuous and ambitious works that owe much to fantasy fiction and the darker side of British folk music. The Moulettes performed twice for Playgroup–once, on Friday at the Playpen main stage and late, on Saturday, at the smaller Lizard Stage.
Other musical highlights included the Brighton-based electro-pop band Kovak, playing on the Moroccan stage. This four-piece electro-pop band were one of the first unsigned acts ever to be playlisted on BBC Radio 2. Kovak is now working with BAFTA nominated producer Dom Beken (KLF, The Orb, High Frequency Bandwidth), recording their first album. Nubile vocalist and Kovak frontwoman Annelies Van De Velde is reminiscent of a young Debbie Harry, but the band’s music can reasonably be described as pop-rock incorporating a plentiful nu-disco vibe.
We also thoroughly enjoyed the set played by The Dirty Divine on the main stage on Saturday. Their infectious poppy sounds, heavily infected with a gypsy twist, reminded us of the vocals of The Puppini Sisters mixed with the sunny melodies of The Beach Boys. Songwriters Tim (vocals and keyboards) and Helen (vocals and guitar) have developed a show full of finely crafted beats and epic tonal arrangements.
As the sun went down on Saturday evening, the chilly night air led us to seek refuge in one of the several tented areas on the site. We enjoyed some excellent bands and DJ sets, and we danced into the small hours with all of our new toybox friends.
By Sunday morning the weather had turned, almost inevitably, back to the dismal state that we have all endured over much of this summer. Driving rain and cool winds meant that many of the campers began to leave the site, retreating before the ground became too muddy to navigate safely.
We stayed snug in our cozy tent till noon, but decided that we would leave just after East London ska-reggae band The Skints had performed. The Stints play lively yet incisive ska/reggae music with a huge dose of on-stage energy. Unfortunately, due to the uncontrollable weather, their set on the main stage was rained off. So, like many, we packed our tents and our bags and made our way home, drenched.
But would we do it all over again? Oh yes. This crazy but wonderful weekend is not to be missed!