The Wood Festival is a relatively small, family friendly affair organised by brothers Joe and Robin Bennett. It’s held in the grounds of Braziers Park, a gothic mansion nestling in the hills of South Oxfordshire, which was built in the late seventeenth century for George Manley who was a naval officer on Captain Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavour. Braziers Park is now home to a community of about 20 people who run various educational courses. The house has some rock’n’roll history with Marianne Faithful having lived there for a short spell in the sixties, as well as briefly being the home to James Bond author Ian Fleming. The quality of this year’s line-up meant that it was never going to be the case of you only riff twice.
The Wood Festival prides itself on being eco-friendly. The stages and sound system are powered by solar panels, plus there are incentives to car share and use bikes. Encouraged by the promise of a free pint, I cycled the 20 miles back and forth from my home in Reading every day. Having got my hands on my beer token, I headed straight to the bar, after being bade a hearty hello by Joe Bennett.
Having suffered four hours of Eurovision at a friend’s house the previous Saturday, I dragged said friend along with me to “educate” her on the best of folk and americana music that the Wood Festival had to offer. She was a festival virgin so the toilets were something of a shock and the concept of the festival sound check needed to be explained. Conversations went along the lines of: Her: “Have they started yet?”; Me: “No, they’re just sound checking”. In some cases I was proved wrong and the band had actually commenced!
When it comes to music, the Wood Festival has two stages. The main stage, known as the Wood Stage, resembles a medium-sized, wooden, garden shed with a grass roof. The second stage, the Treebadour, is in a tent. In addition to the music, there’s a kid’s tent, plus various awnings where you could listen to talks by people including folk legends Shirley Collins and Peggy Seeger, or attend workshops on everything from knitting for beginners to vocal harmonies; there’s also a good number of food options.
We arrived at around 6.30 on Friday evening to see Miniseries kick off the festival on the Wood Stage to a sparse crowd. They came together after a spark in the brain of Doug Morch, formerly the guitarist in Longview. They play ‘Open Season’ featuring some great slide guitar and their newly released single ‘Road’.
Stationed around the festival’s fire there’s a good vibe going on, with children vying for position to toast their marshmallows, there’s even a wet sock which gets put on a stick to dry it out and this is just day one. On the Wood Stage, Ora Cogan, who hails from Vancouver Island, is sound checking with ‘I Will Always Love You’ before she goes off and readies herself for her scheduled start. “Has she finished?“, my friend asks, and the first sound check conversation of the weekend begins. Cogan’s got an outstanding voice with a good range. The songs are reminiscent of Mazzy Star at their best. The crowd is still relatively thin with people just arriving or staying close to the fire as the sun dips behind the hill.
Bang on 10 o’clock, day one’s headliners, The Hanging Stars, appear on the Wood Stage, bringing with them their cosmic country folk. Starting their set with the wonderful ‘Ava’ from last year’s critically acclaimed album ‘Hollow Heart’ the festival’s truly up and running. Between songs their lead singer, Richard Olsen, urges us to get closer and closer to the stage until we’re almost treading the boards with the band. Next up it’s ‘Black Night Light’ which is underpinned by Patrick Ralla’s searing guitar riffs. Olsen dedicates ‘Summer In Her Eyes’ to my friend, which goes down well. ‘Radio On’ gets an airing with some fantastic pedal steel guitar from Joe Harvey-Whyte. The Hanging Stars finish off with ‘The House On The Hill’ before being encouraged back for an encore of ‘Mother Of Earth’, played in remembrance of their deceased pal John Appleton; and with that we depart on our bikes into the pitch black night up the hill to Reading.
Another day, another cycle and another free beer; we arrive in time to catch Indegal Trio on the Wood Stage who bring together a laid back mix of tabla, kora and sitar. It’s perfect music to start the day with while relaxing in the sun. When the sitar player breaks one of his strings, he deftly changes it, whilst continuing to play, seemingly without missing a note.
Hannah White takes to the stage with Michele Stodart contributing some great bass and with White’s husband, Kieron Marshall, on lead guitar. According to White, Marshall does everything apart from drive. During her set hoards of children chase soap bubbles in front of the performers whilst a red kite hovers above everyone. The innocence of the kids having fun contrasts with White’s songs. She plays ‘Car Crash’ about how, having escaped domestic abuse, she ended up homeless in South-East London with a baby, hitting rock bottom and being arrested for stealing food for herself and her son. It’s a moving and emotional song, which is beautifully delivered. She also relates a story of her father coming out of prison in 1976 and listening to Dylan in his bedsit before playing ‘One Night Stand’.
We venture over to the Treebadour Tent for the first time and catch The Band Of Hope playing some solid americana tunes. We’re treated to a fine version of The Smiths’ ‘Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want’ dedicated to the late, great Andy Rourke, with Johnny Marr’s guitar riffs replicated on the mandolin. Back on the Wood Stage, Matt Owens & The Delusional Vanity Project are cooking up a storm, despite Owens having only just recovered from losing his voice a few days ago. Hannah White joins him to help out with the vocals and Kieron Marshall adds a third guitar to the mix. Katharine Priddy is next up, playing some soothing, slightly soporific songs as we unwind in the last of the sun.
Over at the Treebadour Tent, Simeon Hammond Dallas, playing some wonderful blues guitar, is backed by drums, bass and keyboards. She debuts a new song entitled ‘Heavy On Me’ after which she jokes that she’s looking for a rich benefactor to fund her new album. Her debut single, ‘Wild Women’, which rails at her first record company for trying to shorten her name goes down a storm. By the end of her set the tent is well and truly rocking and she’s called back for an impromptu encore which she plays solo. At the Wood Stage Ida Mae bring some heavyish rock and blues to the party, it’s guitar solos agogo. Although hailing from Norfolk they sound like they’re from the American deep south.
The final act of the evening, in the Treebadour Tent, sees Robin Bennett & Danny Wilson come together to deliver a great set, primarily comprising songs they’ve recorded with Tony Poole as Bennett Wilson Poole, from their 2018 eponymously named album and this year’s one entitled ‘I Saw A Star Behind Your Eyes, Don’t Let It Die Away’. Unfortunately Tony Poole couldn’t be with us but Robin Bennett makes an excellent effort of playing Poole’s guitar parts, although problems with the tuning of his 12 string Rickenbacker causes him to ditch it and revert to a six string guitar. Bennett & Wilson are ably supported by Joe Bennett on bass and Fin Kenney on drums. With the earworm that is ‘Wilson General Store’ going round my head I pedal off home.
Sunday begins with Jali Fily Cissokho on the Wood Stage, a Senegalese kora player of some finesse with a soulful voice. He’s followed by George Borowski and Mora. The seventy three year old Borowski has the mosh pit, which mainly consists of children under ten, enthralled by his brand of rock’n’roll and blues. His daughter Mora has a wonderful voice. Borowski claims to write only three kinds of songs: stop fighting ones; ones you can dance to; and those about love. He also playfully claims “to be just a child in bigger clothes” and that the Wood Festival is one of the best two events in the country, the other being Strummerville in Oldham.
Pete Gow & The Siren Soul Orchestra somehow manage to squeeze on to the small Wood Stage and get set up in 40 minutes. Accompanying Mr Gow, there’s a four piece string section, two brass players, a bassist, drummer Fin Kenney and the multi-talented Joe Bennett on keyboards. The 10 piece start off with ‘Tourniquet’. However, the set primarily draws from Gow’s brilliant ‘Leo’ album released a year ago. From this record he plays: ‘Say It With Flowers’; ‘Casino’; ‘Where Else Would We Be Going’; ‘Side III Of London Calling’; and the album’s epic centrepiece ‘Leonard’s Bar’. The strings are exquisite and the brass section wonderful; the sound is absolutely superb. Gow finishes with a cover of ‘Be My Baby’ which has everyone up and dancing. In a parallel universe, Gow has surely shifted millions of units and sold out stadia worldwide. This performance alone was worth Sunday’s price of admission.
As we sit down on the floor of the Treebadour Tent, the slightly imposing figure of Angeline Morrison takes to the stage towering over us. She performs a couple of songs acapella but also plays mbira, squeeze box and the zither. Morrison has an angelic voice. She plays a number of songs from her excellent, recent release on Topic Records, ‘The Sorrow Songs: Folk Songs Of Black British Experience’, which is intended to honour Black people who lived in the UK prior to the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. She sings ‘Lord Randall’, which she learned from the singing of the recently deceased Jamaican folk singer, actor and political activist Harry Belafonte. It’s followed by ‘All The Pretty Horses’ a sombre lullaby sung to slave owners’ children. Her set comes to a close with us all joining in with her on the chorus of ‘Slave No More’, a moving song which is based on the inscription on a grave where a master and slave are buried side by side.
The Big Reference comprise the duo Trevor Moss (bass) and Hannah Lou (guitar) with a drummer. Their new band seems like a slightly retrospective step for them, looking back to C86 indie pop with their harmonies often being lost in the mix. The Ramshackle Ceilidh Band harness the spirit of The Pogues and The Levellers to bring the entertainment on the Wood Stage to a close, with everybody up and jigging around.
With a large number of families attending the festival, many people have drifted off home by the time the Bennett brothers return as the last act on Sunday night. However, there’s still a decent crowd to see Joe and Robin, wielding their trusty Rickenbackers, as they take to the stage in the Treebadour Tent, as The Dreaming Spires. Their set kicks off with ‘Singing Sin City’, followed by ‘Not Every Song From The Sixties Is A Classic’ before which Robin tells us a tale of meeting Mike Joyce and Andy Rourke of The Smiths at a gig in LA. ‘Brothers In Brooklyn’ segues into The Spencer Davis Group’s ‘Keep On Running’ and before we know it the show is almost over.
The Dreaming Spires finish the festival by launching into The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ which includes a rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ and a complete run through by Joe of Pulp’s ‘Common People’, (my friend’s favourite song), before we’re back to The Kinks again. Everyone is dancing and singing along, it’s like the best wedding party disco you’ve ever been to. It was a fitting end to a wonderful weekend. Much respect goes to the Bennett brothers and their perfectly formed festival, long may they run.