Interview: Talking the post pandemic festival blues with Brighthelmstone’s Jim Walker

Real post lockdown challenges being faced by Mid Sussex Music and Ale Festival.

Back in August 2019 AUK spoke with Jim Walker, managing director of Brighton based Brighthelmstone Promotions, about his third annual Mid-Sussex Music and Ale festival held at the Hassocks hotel in East Sussex on August Bank Holiday weekend. Walker, who has a long history of promoting Americana acts, described the three day festival as “My celebration of UK artists. I often put a variety of US-based acts and (for the festival) I want to support UK based musicians. I always try and vary the line-up from established to up and coming acts.”

As you will know, this annual celebration of Americana music, along with all live entertainment was dealt a near fatal blow when the Covid pandemic put a stop to normal life. Thus, the fourth Mid-Sussex Music And Ale Festival has had a three year wait to return to the festival schedule and while things might be slowly returning to normality, live music remains vulnerable with acts still having to cancel gigs due to COVID while audiences can seem somewhat hesitant when it comes to buying tickets for shows having experienced numerous such cancellations.

In such trying times, Americana UK’s Paul Kerr spoke to Walker again as he made final preparations for the festival which is scheduled for the bank holiday on August 26-28th. First off, we asked how Brighthelmstone promotions had weathered the storm.

Like everyone else we had to cancel all of the tours and shows, we had booked when Covid hit, and then we had to wait and see what would transpire. As time went on I really didn’t know if we would survive as we were shut down for so long. I was lucky in that the last show I did before lockdown was The Transatlantic Sessions in The Brighton Dome and that was a sell out and if that hadn’t happened I don’t know if Brighthelmstone would have survived. Once some of the restrictions were relaxed we began planning gigs and we did hope to have the festival back up and running but then these variants came in and we couldn’t go ahead as we were essentially locked down again.

We were one of the first promoters to put on live shows once they were allowed again although we had to observe rules on social distancing, mask wearing and such. We put on outdoor seated shows in the garden of our venue with the likes of Peter Bruntnell, Danny George Wilson and Chris Difford. I remember Chris Difford saying to the audience that the last garden he played in was Madison Square Garden and now he was in Hassocks’ Hotel’s musical garden. We did everything by the book, the only time people could go inside the venue was to use the toilet, we sold tables for four or six people and they had to be from the same household and all drinks were delivered to the table. It was a nightmare to put on and we just broke even but to see the relief on people’s faces to just be hearing and seeing live music again was quite wonderful and worth all the hassle.

With those rules now gone, you’re pretty much able to put on a normal show but are the audiences coming back?

To be honest it is a problem. Ticket sales are much slower than they used to be. People don’t have the money, the disposable cash that they’re normally used to and they don’t know what’s around the corner what with Covid still around and the cost of living going up so sharply along with the state of the world in general. We are selling tickets for the weekend but it’s slower than we were used to but I’m quite confident that we’ll do well. It’s always been a bit of a gamble being a promoter, like wishing your racehorse is going to win but things are slowly getting back on track. We did well with our recent Bill Kirchen gigs and upcoming shows from Mary Gauthier and Frazey Ford are doing well so I’m optimistic about the future. For the festival we have a great line up and the Sunday show is part of The National Lottery’s Music Venue Trust support for grass roots venues so if you can produce a lottery ticket you can get a two for one price deal. We’re also offering full weekend tickets for £49 if you show us your lottery ticket, it’s a great cheap deal.

I see that there’s an anniversary of sorts in that it’s ten years since you put on your first Americana festival in Hove and you have two acts who played back then on this year’s line up.

We really wanted to put the festival on last year but we couldn’t. Since then I’ve been planning it and I knew who I wanted to be the UK headliners and Peter Bruntnell was a kind of no brainer for me as he played the very first Brighthelmstone gig we put on. Peter is hands down one of the best singer songwriters around and I think he’s in the best form right now that I’ve ever seen. I booked some of the recent dates for Bill Kirchen and Peter was thrilled to be opening for him just to be able to see Bill play every night. And then it’s been ten years since The Dreaming Spires’ ‘Brothers Of Brooklyn’ came out so we decided to celebrate that. I used to work with Robert Vincent and I wanted to get him back, he went down very well when he played here before while Ags Connolly is probably the best English country singer and songwriter around these days.

Aside from the headliners you have a healthy proportion of lesser known local acts on the bill.

As I’ve said before, alongside the best of the UK Americana acts I want to offer a platform for up and coming acts.The Self Help Group are quite folky, a six piece band with great four part harmonies, Ian Roland is quite jangly, you could say kind of Byrds like while Dan Russell is a local lad who is in the running for country music radio’s artist of the year, this will be the first time he’s played live with a band. Anya Louisa is a young girl who is really good and Delta Bell will be playing her first show in Brighton for five years. Not local as such but we’ve announced the last addition today, Our Man In The Field who will be playing as a three piece, I’m really glad to get them as they remind me of The Blue Nile. I saw them playing with The Delines and just thought I’d need to get them. Along with some genuine American Americana artists such as Andrew Combs, Whitney Rose and Diana Jones I think we have a great line up.

So, that’s that. A great line up and well worthy of support. As it’s a music and ale festival we should mention that there will be a range of fine ales available from Bedlam Brewery. Tickets for the Mid-Sussex Music and Ale festival are available here.

About Paul Kerr 415 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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[…] Walker of Brighthelmstones Promotions explained to AUK when we spoke to him about the festival last year, the focus of the festival is to present the best in UK Americana, Country and Folk as well as to […]