Festival Diary: Stockton Weekender 2011

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When people ask me where I’m from, I tend to say Middlesbrough, which is usually met with a little grimace thanks to Kirsty & Phil’s non-too flattering indictment of 2008 – and an assumption that I’m either full of drugs/babies or trapped in a cycle of deprivation. I am none of these things, but nor am I actually ‘Boro’ born & bred. My true roots are buried just down the road, in the unassuming town of Stockton-on-Tees, which on August 5-7 hosted Stockton Weekender, a festival of music and comedy for us faithful Smoggies.

Friday
The day kicks off with some glorious sunshine attracting happy crowds, as we arrive just in time to see Chased By Wolves play a laid-back, folk-tinged set that is one part cheesecloth, three parts Americana. It’s a bit ‘Mumford & Sons’, but easy to see why people might enjoy it.

After a spectacularly ill-advised go on the Jumpin’ Frog fairground ride, we take our aching limbs back to the stage for Pete Molinari. The fact that he’s endorsed by Springsteen brings about mixed feelings: Bruce is a pro-union good guy, but also advocates sleeveless denim shirts. This could go one of two ways. Molinari’s fifties-throwback melodies and vocal harmonies are textbook and while it’s pleasant enough, it’s also largely forgettable, receiving an appropriately muted response from the crowd.

Over at The Georgian Theatre is the Stockton premiere of Sound it Out, the Jeanie Finlay-directed documentary about the last independent record store in Teesside that became the lead film for this year’s Record Store Day. Having gained global recognition, the film finally comes back to its birthplace to a packed out crowd in the theatre. Surprisingly moving, funny and unmistakably Teesside, it’s a truly wonderful film that proves to be one of the festival highlights – an ode to passion for music, a fitting message behind this festival.

Back at the main stage, Kitty, Daisy & Lewis illustrate their very particular musical passion with a set that pays tribute to the lost sounds of R&B and jazz. They may have ubiquitous quiffs and winged eyeliner but there’s more than just style to the trio. Their authentic, bouncy throwback songs are a perfect soundtrack to the day and Daisy’s overly-animated drumming helps make them a really sweet live prospect.

As the day draws on, the crowd is really filling out and by the time Seasick Steve takes to the stage, there’s a palpable electricity in the air. He and his drummer blow everyone away with a headline set of blues-howling, 3 string guitar-playing, diddley-bo-strumming, yarn-weaving, one-of-a-kind brilliance. The thing that’s so transparent about Steve is that he’s the real deal – everything is laid bare for all to see, written in a battered old hat and dungarees that nobody can take their eyes off. When he leaves the stage after an hour and a half, the crowd are baying for more. His success and appeal might be baffling to him, but it’s pretty clear for this audience.

Saturday
Saturday is a very wet, cloudy affair so on with the wellies and out with the umbrellas to see Team Me, a smiley six-piece from Norway whose layered indie-pop, xylophones, harps and strings is just the right side of saccharine. Things turn a little darker for native Stocktoner and electro starlet Saint Saviour, whose intoxicating vocals and ethereal stage presence woo the crowd accordingly.

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Django Django follow, with their stomping, Cramps-esque drumbeats offset by tribal chants and unashamed weirdness that provides welcome respite from the conveyor belt of mainstream music. These art-school boys can certainly not be put in a box, and are all the better for it. Swinging to the other side of the musical spectrum, The Chapman Family are next, playing their finely honed melodic racket to an enthusiastic crowd. With the addition of a new guitarist and drummer, their sound is much meatier and the whole thing seems to work better on an aesthetic level too.

Finally, headliners Maximo Park take to the stage to a local heroes’ welcome. The crowd shows warm, northern affection for Paul Smith, the local boy done good, who butters everyone up further by telling them he had a Parmo for his tea. As a seventeen year old I adored their debut album and the many songs that soundtracked my formative years in various grotty nightclubs – but now it’s a sound that’s been and gone, a brand of indie that lives off the radar and very much in 2003. Their performance is note-perfect, nevertheless, and Smith’s undeniable energy and enthusiasm provide a visual spectacle and create warm, fuzzy nostalgia amongst the crowd.

What’s encouraging about this weekend is that the introduction of paid admission (to the formerly free festival) didn’t stop the crowds from coming. Neither did the occasionally stale line-up, which didn’t necessarily justify the ticket price. To grow and boost its reputation, the festival is going to need to keep its ear a little closer to the ground and pick a few more bands with some degree of buzz around them – and maybe not be quite so Teesside-centric. The Stockton Weekender has real potential to grow into a great festival, and an even that could put this town on the map.

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