Chris McSweeney reported back to us from Troyfest after having a ruddy good time.
It all started when Jimmy – editor-in-chief of Cultured Vultures – called me into his office.
“Come in, McGrealy”, he barked, as I knocked on the door.
He spun around in his creaking wooden office chair – his enormous gut disappearing under the table while a couple of his bulging folds spilled over the desk. With his thick, sausage-like fingers he wiped away a shiny veneer of sweat from his greasy, thinning comb-over before pulling a bottle of whisky, a chipped tumbler and a hotdog out of his desk drawer, slamming them on the desk one by one in exasperation.
“Right then kid,” he wheezed. “If we’re going to keep our young, hip readership coming back to our internet web-zone, we need to get out there and get down with the kids.” He took a hefty swig from the bottle, ignoring the glass. “You’re what, 35? Surely you know this stuff better than I do?”
“I’m 21, Mr. Donnellan,” I said. “…and my name’s McSweene-“
“Well that’s even better!” he boomed, before taking a large bite of his hotdog. A sizeable blob of ketchup squeezed out of the end and dropped onto his lapel. He didn’t notice.
“Mmph… whart woy neeed…” he said, mumbling as he chewed, “…os to covor shom kind of ovvont.”
“An ‘ovont’?” I inquired.
“An event!” he spat back, his mouth somehow empty after an impressively short time for such a large mouthful. “We need to let on that we’ve got our finger on the pulse of this niche culture nonsense, like the MNE or Keppang Magazine. What’ve you got coming up this month?”
As it happened, I’d bought a ticket to Troyfest – which I was told by friends was a neat little festival near Hay-on-Wye, landing on May Bank Holiday weekend: A chilly, yet often dry couple of days – an optimistic slot for a festival, as far as the weather was concerned.
“Well, I’ve got a ticket for Troyfest…” I said reluctantly. “But I bought a ticket for that one already – could we not get me a press pass?” (I chose not to mention the fact that I think festival and gig reviews in the humble world of unpaid journalism are usually pointless, amateur drivel, in which the author gushes subjectively about the band or bands in question, spaffing warm, gooey adjectives over often the most mediocre hipster-tripe)
Jimmy threw his hotdog on the desk and stood up. “WHAT DO YOU THINK I AM, MADE OF MONEY?” It was at this point I noticed he wasn’t wearing any trousers. “How are we going to afford a fountain in the lobby if I keep forking out for that kind of nonsense?”
“Fair enough, sir.” I said, knowing full-well that the ‘lobby’ was a dusty room immediately adjacent to Jimmy’s office. It was about 6ft by 8, and contained nothing but a fold-up desk, a plastic bag full of extension cables, and a water cooler no one had filled for at least 18 months. It was a modest base of operations to say the least.
He flumped back into his seat: the ancient wooden office chair creaked alarmingly as his bulbous frame flopped into it.
“Now get out there, O’Keeley. I want 2000 words on this ‘Troyfest’ by Wednesday I’ll cut your bollocks off.”
So here it is.
* * *
Getting to Baskerville Hall, on the outskirts of Hay-on-Wye, is kind of a pain in the ass. Public transport up to Hay isn’t the best, and even then it’s 2-mile walk to the festival ground. Carrying a tent, a sleeping bag, a rucksack, a camping stove, a bag full of food and several kilograms of alcohol (slowly tearing its way through the plastic bag you’re carrying it in) isn’t easy at the best of times, so the only option is to find someone to drive you up there or go and screw yourself.
Travelling from Cardiff, it took around an hour and a half in the back of a packed taxi which I managed to network my way in to. It was a seven-seater crammed with seven people and all of our baggage. Still, at £24 per person for drop off on the Friday and pick-up on the Monday, it was a rather sweet deal, in hindsight.
The festival ground itself must’ve only been about 20-or-30 acres. Within Baskerville Hall – a pretty 18th century manor house – were three of the four stages. The fourth was a large tent with the capacity of about 400 on the lawn nearby. The festival was, in essence, a mansion party with camping. Somewhere around there was also a swimming pool, showers and indoor toilets, which were all open to guests. There were even a few rooms available inside the house, for those who didn’t feel like camping with the other hapless plebs.
On our arrival, my girlfriend and I pitched up next to a large tent full of glittery hedonists that we sort-of remembered seeing around at a house party or two. They, like many of the other attendees, were dressed in bright colours, covered in artisan face-paint and other sticky decorative accessories. We immediately felt a smidge underdressed. They had also also brought with them roughly a thousand nitrous oxide canisters. The sharp crack and hiss of the dispenser going off every 20 seconds, filling balloon after balloon would become the soundtrack to our weekend.
Crucial to the enjoyment of any festival is the personality of the crowd. Here, the line-up and modest price (£75 for the weekend) had attracted a strange mix of neo-hippies and dub-heads; an often welcoming tribe who are altruistic and enthusiastic at their best, and a tad too messy at their worst. On the campsite, I wasn’t worried about theft, but one or two impromptu psy-trance raves in the early hours of the morning were the inevitable downside of mixing with such a strange blend of subcultures.
Ahead of the festival, I checked the line-up. For a micro-festival that turns down corporate sponsorship, it was unsurprising that I’d heard of absolutely no one. Little did I know that I was about to discover a smattering of diamonds-in-the-rough and some true pinnacles of unsigned talent.
On Friday evening, after a few cans and cigarettes, we made our way through the maze of tents and headed up to the manor. We passed the front lawn of the house, decorated with large, brightly coloured triangular lanterns, a bouncy castle, the popular “Police Rave Unit”, and a 30-foot inflatable “Stay-Puft” Marshmallow man.
We shuffled into the “Cosmic Ballroom” – a long, dimly lit room which may once have been a barn – to see Tankus the Henge: a six-piece “carnival rock n’ roll” outfit who played to a shamefully small crowd, given their explosive sound and stage presence. Their sound landed somewhere between Gogol Bordello, The Beatles and Tom Waits, and their look was classic jazz. The lead singer, sharp-suited, fedora-clad “Jaz Delorean” who was surely the love-child of Little Richard and Mick Jagger, consistently snatched the attention of the crowd – bashing an old honkey-tonk piano throughout while thrashing around energetically. The tight vocals, blasting horns and intelligent song-writing made for an incredible set that I felt lucky to be at. This was the first of a number of hidden gems I saw throughout.
Pints at the bar were refreshingly cheap for a festival; £2.80 for a can of Red Stripe, although draught pints could be anywhere up to £4, depending on the serving barperson’s interpretation of your yelling. With drinks in hand, we went for a wander as “Afro Cluster” took the stage. I’m not big on funk, but they seemed pretty decent.
The organisers were surprisingly trusting, as almost nowhere in the house was off-limits. The ground floor contained two rather large rooms with blacked-out windows and wacky neon decorations, in which DJs played all sorts of thumping electronic noises from 9pm to 5am. It was a fun place to dance indiscriminately when all other possibilities of fun had been exhausted (EDM isn’t really my bag either). Security was also very relaxed; entry to various areas was often unrestricted, and the friendly security guys would ask politely to see a wristband every now and again. Girls in shiny leotards did somersaults at the top of lobby’s grand staircase, and no one gave a shit. It was awesome.
The ground floor also contained a small pub which served pretty decent food – apparently it was the only place on site that did, as the catering was overall pretty poor. Only one greasy-looking stand on the site did hot food, and it was often just chips that were available. It’s nice to not be paying ludicrous prices for a bowl of crudgy noodles like you often do at other festivals, but having said that I was damn glad I brought along a camping stove and plenty of food.
Toilets were also a problem, as there were only a few porta-loos on site, and something like four or five single-cubicle toilets inside the house that were readily accessible. I clocked it: the average wait to use one was about 9 minutes (15 if some idiot girl decided to get changed into her elaborate costume in there – true story). However, these minor logistical issues with the festival’s amenities were a slight irritation and nothing more.
Saturday warranted a walk to Hay as the weather was nice. For those who don’t know, Hay-on-Wye is the hosting town of the Hay Festival – an annual arts and culture festival sponsored by the Telegraph which focuses exclusively on literature. Needless to say, there are far fewer fuckheads in attendance at that one. Hay is a pretty town with lots of bookshops and nice pubs, and most importantly a supermarket, where we stocked up on supplies. The walk was about 2 miles along a footpath which crossed fields filled with horses and ran parallel to the river Wye for some distance. While we missed most of Saturday afternoon’s entertainment, it was rather nice to get a taste of what was going on outside the festival ground.
On our return, some of the festival-goers had apparently cracked out the hallucinogens, as rumours flew around that someone had decided they were drowning in jelly and called the police on themselves.
The weather on Sunday was absolutely glorious, and I have plenty of sunburn to prove it. We spent the day getting wasted on the campsite and generally wandering around the festival grounds. By the early evening, scarcity began to creep back into the fold as our supermarket crates of booze were running low – even the sound of nos canisters being cracked became somewhat less frequent. However, this wasn’t a problem at all, as due to the unexpectedly modest prices, we had more than half of our spending money left. Elated by this realisation, we staggered off to see Houdini Dax.
Houdini Dax are a fledgling local three-piece who’ve gained a lot of momentum over the past few years by being really, really good. It’s impossible not to compare them to The Beatles, given their resonating three-piece harmonies, slick riffs and their rascally working-class motifs. Anyone acquainted will often agree that they’re on their way to big things – and they’re probably right, depending on the quality of their second album, which has recently been crowdfunded. As far as I’m concerned, the only thing missing from this otherwise infallible outfit is the lyrical maturity of more successful indie bands such as the Arctic Monkeys. If the second album comes through, the sky is the limit.
Wille and the Bandits were up soon after – another 3-piece. Wille and the Bandits are one of those bands that make you sad that truly talented musicians often go largely unnoticed by the wider public. Their stunningly original groove rock set blew the roof off of the place – underscored by the thumping accuracy of a six-string bass (with a great solo), an exceptional drummer, and some stunning finger-tapping and digital effects on an acoustic guitar. Out of the many bands I’d seen at this point who were asked to do an encore, Wille and the Bandits were the only band who really deserved it. If they’re playing, go and see them. It’s as simple as that.
Before we climbed in to the tent on the last night, we saw Cut Capers – an eight-piece hip-hop/ska outfit. Their bouncy, jovial rhyming – some English, some Spanish – was encapsulated by a great brass section that could regularly make your gut rumble. Looking at you in particular, guy with giant saxophone. They were one of the more fun performers of the weekend.
We finished the last of our booze while watching the fireworks on the last night. It was a fitting end to a great festival which had been adorably fantastic. I found myself overcome with optimism upon seeing that a cheap, local festival could still attract such a great crowd and some fascinating performers in an increasingly difficult era for festivals and musicians alike. It was a wonderful experience and I have no doubt I’ll go again next year.