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Concert Review: Hop Farm Festival, Tonbridge, Kent UK, July 1-3, 2011

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Almost two weeks ago now, I attended my first real festival. Goodness knows how that’s the case, but it was certainly one to remember. Set in a small farmland just outside Tonbridge, Kent, Hop Farm is one of the best kept secrets of the summer on the British festival circuit. This is the fourth year the event has run, and it has yet to present an average line up so far. It claims no corporate sponsorship and no V.I.P’s — nice to see that rare event in modern music.

It was an early start on Friday. Finding the venue is a challenge if you’re not local. You drive through country lanes in Kent and the site suddenly appears from nowhere in a gap in a hedge. There were three stages: the “main stage” (the biggest stage with a large outdoor open space); the “big tent” (suggestively, a smaller indoor area); and the “bread and roses stage,” a big marquee type thing, and the smallest of the stages.

Friday was very much about getting to know the place. Three fields linked together, crossing a music festival with a fun fair and also a market of bizarre substance. It was the sort of thing you’d find in the lanes in Brighton, with lines of stools selling things from charm bracelets to cash helmets and Indian head dresses. Very odd, but intriguing to look at. The three funfair rides only looked like a good idea after a few drinks, and was something to avoid after eating. Something I saw on Friday was the friendliness of the crowd. You’d find yourself speaking with total strangers. It was a very nice, very social atmosphere.

Despite not knowing any of the bands that were on until the late afternoon, it was very pleasant to simply sit around. The first glitch of the weekend was 10cc taking to the stage to a modest reception and a failure of power. That held proceedings up for around half an hour or so.

Brandon Flowers of The Killers was on the main stage — something I held little hope for, though not in a harsh way. I just didn’t expect him to be quite the same without The Killers behind him. I think he may have known that too as his decision to close with some Killers songs made him better than expected. Nonetheless, his voice suits the outdoor festival well. He was still a welcome edition to the line up judging by the number of Killers shirts that could be seen on display. In fact, hundreds of bands were represented in the form of T-shirts amongst the crowd.

It was at this point that I ditched Bryan Ferry and The Eagles who were headlining on the main stage and headed off to the big tent for Brit Pop legends Ocean Colour Scene. It was a packed venue. I arrived some 40 minutes before they came on and leaned up against the fence at the front, with the crowd gathered around me.

Each band of the weekend had their own audience by which I mean a distinctive look was common from stage to stage. The Eagles attracted the standard middle aged man, while the early thirties age group joined me for Ocean Colour Scene, etc. When they did take to the stage at 7:30, I was not disappointed in the slightest. Every hit was performed in the way you’d expect it. Simon Fowler had a greater stage presence that I thought he would. I thought he was too shy and relaxed to be much of a showman, but I was proved wrong. “The Day We Caught The Train” is that hit we all know and were all singing along to at the top of our voices. Just before they left the stage for good, Simon flicked his guitar pick up in the air, only for it to land straight in my hands. I am now the proud owner of it. Cheers Simon.

After Ocean Colour Scene was 80’s synth-pop trio Human League. This was more of a disco feel for the older audience members. Still, all the hits were there and Phil Oakley’s voice is still in top shape. This is another unique asset to Hop Farm, the ability to cover music from all generations. 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and modern day bands all performing over one weekend.

I walked in on Newton Faulkner on Saturday morning and was struck immediately by his ability to entertain a crowd when he’s alone on stage, particularly at midday when the crowd were yet to get going. A finish of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was unexpected but welcome. The word “Bohemian” sums up the event actually. The promoting of charitable causes was very worthwhile, but being stopped eight times a day by people shaking buckets at you did get annoying, particularly when you have no change left.

Saturday was the quieter of the two days. Blur’s Graham Coxon took to the big tent and after seeing Blur two years ago, his solo stuff was a let down. It’s all very samey, and hard to tell one song from the next. His audience seemed to be made up of Blur fans. How recognized his solo work actually is isn’t clear. People certainly weren’t singing along as much to him.

Patti Smith was energetic (and possibly a little drunk) for her set. The sound was good, though I’m not familiar enough with her as an artist to comment too much. We were treated to popular hit “Because the Night” although the event program made a fundamental error and credited her as the writer. The original was actually written by Bruce Springsteen, who gave the song to Smith for her Easter album. Patti Smith added additional lyrics for this version, which became her biggest hit.

Now on to the flop of the weekend, Lou Reed. It was dire, it really was. He plodded on stage, did a few slow tempo songs nobody knew, over-ran by thirty minutes and plodded off again. No atmosphere, no excitement, lets end that there. What didn’t help his case was who followed – Iggy and the Stooges. No wonder they’ve survived so long. A sixty-one year old man sprinting onto the stage with no shirt and black jeans. Iggy didn’t stop moving for an hour. Before we knew it, he’d invited about thirty people up onto he stage with him to pogo around. The sound of Iggy and the Stooges was first class. I think they’d have headlined if they had more recognizable hits.

This was where I pushed my way down to the front of the main stage for my musical hero and idol, Morrissey. This was the second time I’ve seen him and he was the highlight of the event. If you ask me, he’s getting better with age. His backing band lacks the talent of The Smiths, and “This Charming Man” simply does not sound the same without Johnny Marr playing guitar. But Morrissey has all the charisma, talent and audience relationship that he needs to get by. Even those who insist on criticizing him can’t deny that.

The Morrissey audience was a mixture of all age groups and genders. Usually, his audiences are predominantly male. Even at the very front of the crowd, his lyrics didn’t seem to be known by many, probably due to the nature of the festival crowd not being there to see him specifically. As always, Morrissey was keen on promoting his vegetarianism which he is very passionate about. At a festival earlier this year, he walked off stage when the wind blew the smell from a burger van across the stage. To prevent that, no meat was sold for the duration of his set — not that many people eat between 9:15pm and 10:45pm anyway. I wonder how he would have felt to see spit roasts and ostrich burgers being sold.

Sunday saw over-rated rapper Tinie Tempah and eccentric 80’s artist Prince take to the stage as the only two recognizable names. I’m not a fan of either, so I sat these out. However, in fairness I did meet several people across the two days who were very much looking forward to seeing Prince. I’m sure his two and a half-hour set didn’t disappoint.

I then headed up to Hyde Park for the final day of Wireless Festival, to check out another great band from my “must see” list, and that’s Pulp. I’ll have more on that in a future review of the Reading Festival. For now, all I’ll say is that Jarvis Cocker has “it” as a front man and is probably the greatest entertainer I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen AC/DC, Green Day and many more). Pulp’s hits are timeless, their lyrics are real. Jarvis’ sense of humor is something to behold and I’ll avoid waffling by wrapping it up there. They were simply incredible.

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About Damian Scollegato