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Mini one-day festivals are fantastic. There’s nothing like leaving the house in relative sunshine, seeing a bunch of great bands and going home to your own bed – no camping, no mud, no drunken fools. In spite of my growing concern for the Brighton music scene, Willkommen Records/Collective decided to throw a wonderfully muted bash in the outskirts of the city. The aptly named Foxtrot took over Stanmer House, one of the most British places that I’ve ever been, for an intimate mini-festival filled with Willkommen Collective artists, buzz band folksters and a stunning headliner in Laura Marling.
I arrived a little late to catch Kristin McClement but was wowed by the end of her stripped down, beautifully finger picked songs that allowed her increasingly dark and melancholic vocals to impress the subdued crowd at the Bar Stage.
Next up was, The Climbers, who are something of a Willkommen super-group featuring Nick and Christian from the Leisure Society performing the songs of Tim West, a friend of theirs from school, with cameos from members of Sons of Noel and Adrian, The Miserable Rich, and Shoreline and about five other people. Although there were a plethora of instruments, the Climbers manage a harmonious rather than overwhelming sound as they regaled a healthy crowd with songs from their debut The Good Ship. The guest vocals from Cathy Cardin amped up the mostly piano driven tracks, really making the rather low key set. While most of the tracks were mellow and emotionally heightened, the standout was the banjo and guitar led stomp (compared to the rest) ‘I Will Never’ which squeaked in front of Tim West making the crowd boo a young boy for the highlight of their set.
The standout of the festival was the Bristol-by-way-of-France four-plus piece Francois and the Atlas Mountains who were, in two words, utterly fantastic. Unlike many of the other bands at the festival, they had a palpable energy and earnestness that complimented their wonderful polyrhythms and grandma sweaters. They reminded me of a European Fool’s Gold tropical sound, with a massive hint of tUnE-yArd’s. I was extremely impressed with Francois’s charisma as the vocalist – not did he manage to be evocative but also jumped into the crowd and spun around on the floor, then spurred a massive dance-party for the semi-stuffy crowd. 'Be Water (je suis de l’eau)' was the ultra-standout with it’s mellow, lapping melody and the rolling vocals; they’re something really special.
Then I trekked over to see Willkommen’s Sons of Noel and Adrian who impressed me with their vocals in service of the Climbers, but failed to move past their vaguely good first impression. Unlike the Climbers who pulled off a massive amount of people on stage, Sons of Noel and Adrian’s nine members all melted into one very lackluster sound. It’s one thing to have a plethora of musicians falling harmoniously together (with accordion!) but it doesn’t really matter if nothing stands out.
Anna Calvi was the headliner on the Bar Stage and while I only caught a bit of her set, but I was incredibly thrilled by her ownership of the electric guitar and her darkly romantic, passionate vocals. If there were a Bob Dylan in this Newport Folk Festival, Anna Calvi would be it.
The surprise headliner, and watershed moment of the mini-festival, Laura Marling took the stage to an unseasonably cold breeze and a hushed crowd. It was as intimate as a Marling gig gets these days – just her, in the yellow lights, and her guitar and about 250 individuals hanging on her every word. Opening up with the stunning ‘Rambling Man’, hearing her clear-as-a-bell voice cut through the coldness was a special treat. Although she played a mix of tracks off her first and second album and a smattering of covers (more on that in a second), everything off I Speak Because I Can sounded marvelous with the stripped down sound of the evening (see: the ethereal Made by Maid), without all the bells and whistles that mar her otherwise excellent sophomore album. For such a small girl, her stage presence is massive, and more specifically, her hilarious stage banter with her awkward moments (apparently, a young boy – Oliver, aged seven - agreed that he’d probably find her music boring) only endeared her further the spectacularly silent crowd. She ran through a gorgeous rendition of ‘Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)’ and her cover of Johnny Flynn’s ‘The Water’, on which she sung on Flynn’s last album. Highlights of Marling’s set include a haunting version of ‘Ghosts’ (bad pun intended), a shining rendition of ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ and a new song, which encapsulated the gorgeous simplicity of her music versus the wise-beyond-her-young-years lyrics that made me fall in love with Laura Marling in the first place. Also, is it possible to see Ms. Marling live without developing an incredible crush on her? I think not.
Willkommen’s inaugural Foxtrot went on with nary a hitch and if I may compliment their sense of timeliness – not a single band went on late or extended their set, if anything everyone was running early. That is a high compliment from an overly punctual person like myself. As with any festival there were highs and lows but I can’t help but think that Francois and the Atlas Mountains were the most special and surprising act of the night.
photos by Patrick Lawrence and Christopher Torry
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