There’s something so simple about Underneath The Stars festival that it almost shouldn’t work. On entry to the site it appears to be little more than an overgrown village fete, it’s unabashed in it’s lack of commercialism and stripped back feel, that is until you begin to look past the surface. It’s the simple touches which make it work, the decision to ensure all artists are allowed a sound check, the provision of chairs in the main stage, the handmade signs dotted around the site referencing Kate’s songs, and the artisan stalls and food. What’s more the site is brimming with children who seem to spend the festival rolling down the hill, running up and down the tents, and turning cartwheels in the moments of sunshine. Yet it’s this combination, coupled with a line up which has enough staple artists to draw in the crowds, and enough emerging talent to ensure everyone leaves with a new favourite band, which is exactly what gives the festival it’s charm.
It would be easy to assume that Kate is the star of the show and in many senses her Sunday evening performance confirms that. Backed with a string section she pulls out some of her most loved tracks, including Cruel and We Will Sing. Nevertheless Kate’s set is simply a jewel in a crown, the weekend boasting such a wide selection of talent. Hope & Social deliver a more uptempo set, a race around the Planets stage, a rousing rendition of Paul Simon’s Call Me Al, and trumpet limbo, all to the crowds delight. Meanwhile Radiohead’s Philip Selway merges folk with electronic elements to dazzling effect, especially in Waiting For a Sign.
Keston Cobblers Club on the other hand manage to pack the Bitter Boy Stage to the rafters enticing them in with their uptempo numbers which leaves bodies dancing outside the tent, and on top of the tables. Despite the success and respect they’ve already commanded, in the space of an hour the band seem to claim the titles as ‘ones to watch’ with many buzzing about their set over the rest of the weekend. For me it’s Galleon Blast who are the unexpected find of the weekend, featuring Mark Radcliffe their ‘pirate folk’ feels like Bellowhead in fancy dress. With drinking songs aplenty with Bellowhead having announced their final jaunt it’s possibly only a matter of time before Galleon Blast pick up the baton.
True to form Martin Simpson wows the Sunday morning crowds with his intricate style, proving that he’s still one of the finest musicians on the folk scene. Though Dark Swift and Bright Swallow is delivered without the backing of Kerr and Cutting, he negates the lack of musical harmonies with his earnest delivery. Meanwhile his cover of Elvis’ I Get So Lonely I Could Die moves it so away from the original towards a more folky feel, that it’s almost unrecognisable. Between Simpson and Bob Fox, the die hard folk fans are well catered for, with Fox delivering songs centred around his North-Eastern home, including The Bonny Gateshead Lass which becomes something of an ear worm for the rest of the day of the day.
On Friday it’s The Young’uns who steal the show, fusing their mix of humour and protest. With You Won’t Find Me on Benefits Street and A Lovely Cup of Tea both making their way into the set. This coupled with their desire to rip shreds off Kate especially when they discover so many kids in the crowd, leading them to questions if “Kate Rusby fans are breeders” and the more somber moments especially with their heartbreaking a cappella rendition of Billy Bragg’s Between The Wars, proves their ability to fuse humour with hard hitting messages no doubt appealing to those who are less than delighted with the election results.
Eddi Reader on the other hand delivers a set which reads like a greatest hits show, never failing to miss a note. With the entire crowd singing along to Perfect it’s one of those spine chilling moments where there’s a desperate urge to yell ‘nailed it’ after the set. Meanwhile Charlie is my Darling offers plenty of swing and swagger, and Boo Hewerdine’s lead on Patience of Angels brings a new twist to a much loved song. Elsewhere her heartbreaking cover of Amy Winehouse’s Love is a Losing Game brings a rare downbeat moment to the set, Reader proving she can straddle the serious and the and sentimental with ease.
Nevertheless there’s one clear highlight of the festival, the faultless Mary Chapin Carpenter who ends her 3 week UK stint at the festival. Despite the freezing weather, the tent is packed to capacity with couples huddled together through the duration of her set. From the heartbreaking Only a Dream with just piano accompaniment, to her stripped back cover of Lucinda William’s Passionate Kisses (which she boasts she only ended up being allowed to cover after bundling William’s to the floor and licking her face) despite being a set of tried and testing favourites, she brings a new lease of life to each song. For me it’s a hard call between The Hard Way and Why Walk When You Can Fly for the song of the set, both being delivered with a sense of passion. With Transcendental Reunion representing Ashes & Roses, and I Take My Chances from Come On, Come On her performance bring more than 20 years worth of music into a neat package, reconfirming why she’s still so loved on both sides of the pond.
With a mix of children’s activities, including treasure hunts and story telling, and dance classes and sessions for the adults, away from the music the sites small status doesn’t mean there’s an absence of things to do if the bands don’t take your fancy. Though there’s no time to take part in the stone balancing run by Responsible Fishing which leaves me only to conclude the sculptures are actually created by some form of voodoo magic, and the bitter cold sees me default to a hotel on the Saturday evening, it’s a near faultless weekend, which could only be improved by the provision of better weather next summer.