Hot on the heels of the Lake District being awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, Getintothis’ Guy Nolan discovered a festival with a difference.
A music festival in a UNESCO World Heritage site.
You don’t get many of those really, do you? As lovely as Reading and Leeds are it might be a while before they’re ranked alongside the Great Barrier Reef, Venice or the Grand Canyon.
It was therefore with almost perfect timing that the Woodland Gathering IV was taking place near Ulverston a matter of days after UNESCO awarded the Lake District as a whole the much sought-after World Heritage status.
A palpable buzz of excitement in the Lake District air seemed to transmit itself to this small and bespoke festival, but maybe that would have happened in any event, bearing in mind the eclectic and quite frankly, different lists of artists performing. Something quite unlike the usual festival fare.
This was reflected in the people who turned up to the festival; just like the artists themselves, they were a mix of interesting characters- both young and old.
Arriving late due traffic we drive up a steep gravel road to the main entrance of the festival. Greeted at the entrance, we are told where to camp. The combination of a very peaceful and beautiful woodland with the sound of music floating through the trees in the distance is almost perfect.
The only disappointing thing was that we were given the news that Russian-based music and artistic collective Phurpa (famed for their dark rituals and ancient Tibetan-influenced throat singing) were unable to play due to issues with getting equipment into the country. The festival organisers had tried as hard as humanely possible to get the band to the woodland yet ultimately it was something that was out of their hands. If that was the only thing that didn’t work out as planned, then it was a small price to pay.
There’s a small path from the campsite which leads down to a clearing in the woods, down to a barn which is the stage for the two days of the festival.
Being quite a small affair, there are only two food stalls; one Vegan and one serving local Cumbrian burgers and one bar with a great mix of ciders and local ales but all of that was more than sufficient for us. Along with stalls from Cold Spring Records, Oaken Palace Records and Endtyme Records selling vinyl, CDs, tapes and shirts, all our needs were catered for.
Onto the live music.
First off we were treated to Ahrkh, side and solo project of A P Macarte from Salford noise collective GNOD. Ahrkh sits on the stage and is surrounded by the audience. He uses of a mix of vocal effects and modular/sampled sounds to produce a solid wall of psychedelic drone and cascading washes of sound. Everyone seems to enjoy the lengthy tunes and he’s given well-deserved applause at the end of his set before we all step outside to get some cool air.
It all seems to run very smoothly. Artists are allowed enough time to soundcheck in between sets and in turn, this gives the audience space to eat and drink without the usual festival frenetic dash from act to act and stage to stage. Very civilised.
Next up we had James Welburn, now Berlin-based, but originally from London. He had 10 years of playing bass in avant-rock ensembles in our capital city prior to moving to Germany and immersing himself in the experimental scene over there. With Godflesh-type beats and deconstructed bass guitar, Welburn effortlessly pummelled us with a mass of drones and shifting soundscapes for his 45-minute set.
Rounding the first day off on a near-dark stage, illuminated only by the many phones in the audience recording proceedings, were Bong with a fuzz-laden drone that spilled over into a punishing diatribe of drums and bass. This was doom-based grind that seemed to fly by even though their set lasted just over an hour.
After heading off site for a bit on the morning of the second day we returned with slabs of Kendal Mint cake to see Newcastle-based power trio Blown Out storm through a huge sounding set. Blues- driven space rock, showmanship and headbanging go down well with the crowd and all cobwebs are appropriately blown away.
Following in their wake we had Big Lad (fka Shitwife) whose use of live drums and synths moves from dance through electronica and into Aphex Twin glitching at points. Inside and outside the barn the crowd loved it and smiles were the order of the day.
London-based duo GunCleaner have been described as ‘the house band from the techno club in Silent Hill’ which is a fair step away from the Lake District, yet their ability to switch from early industrial soundscapes to banging beats lifted the gloomy weather from us all.
With a swagger that only comes with age and years of making music together, Terminal Cheesecake round the whole festival off. Their acid-soaked guitar sounds writhe and mingle between the bass rumbling and pounding drums and they have an almost telepathic way of making music between themselves. Echoes of Butthole Surfers, Helios Creed and Hawkwind end their set with a glorious cosmic blow back.
The Woodland Gathering doesn’t play it safe. They allow musicians the space to enjoy the show and give the audience a chance to relax knowing that they are going to hear some of the most interesting and diverse groups in the UK to play in one space and in a beautiful setting. This is a new type of festival event; intimate and reminiscent of a DIY ethic of long-gone squat gigs of yesteryear. Long may it continue and we look forward in anticipation to Woodland Gathering 2018.
Pictures by Radio Black Forest.