With Laura Marling, Damien Rice...
Honeyfest: Damien Rice's encore with guests by Hazel Gumble

If you don’t know the recent history it must be hard to fathom how this one-off event came about: several must-see household names playing for just a thousand or so punters down in crop-circle country, outside a pub.

That pub is the Barge Inn, a popular local meeting point which has been saved from closure (or unwanted gastro conversion) by a committee of local villagers, plus a nice grant from the Lottery Fund. The BBC will be screening their story this summer as part of a series presented by that perma-pregnant semi-sexy Sarah Beeny, and Honeyfest is the big pub-relaunch event, pushed back from the original, slightly bonkers December date due to blizzards. A good decision, it turns out, as this charming superfete turns out to be an ideal gateway into the festival season proper.

Admittedly a few locals have been kicking up a stink and probably endure a collective aneurism as the slightly uncharacteristic opening act kick off. Local ska-punk types Slagerij won a battle-of-the-bands competition to play here and make a pleasingly uptempo clatter which clears away the morning cobwebs very nicely. Yes, two old geezers outside the beer tent do look faintly appalled, but I’ll be buggered if they can make anything out through the fug of woodbine smoke anyway.

Every good festival throws up an unexpected find and Honeyfest’s – apart from the green Alien Abduction ale – is Matthew Kilford. He’s another local, resplendent in a shirt/hat/tie combo suggestive of a 1950s clerk propping up a smoky bar hours after leaving the office, with the sort of slightly crumpled world-weary air that makes Guy Garvey so beloved and blessed with a voice channelled from somewhere near the deep south (Louisiana, not Littlehampton). A spiritual cover of Hank Williams’ ‘Calling You’ shows it off nicely.

We’ll skip swiftly past the apparently rather popular Marthas and Arthas, who are so achingly folky they have a guy whittling a spoon on stage, and settle on Dry the River, who are a lot less finger-in-the-ear, thankfully. Yes they’ve a fiddler and some fulsome facial hair, but this hot crossover tip refrain from the grinning, gurning, music-for-barndances school: while it’s fine festival fare there’s also a pleasingly dark intensity to much of the River output. Leave your preconceptions at the door.

The Magic Numbers, on the other hand, are about as intense as alcohol-free lager but their jaunty tunes go down well with the punters here; well, apart from the son of today’s compere, beatboxer Schlomo, who’s a bit teary having presumably just seen a real drummer for the first time. Dad is then forced into a thankless task, filling for an extra few minutes before the slightly-delayed arrival of Laura Marling, whose fans are like a pack of menstruating wolverines.

Marling’s eventual set, her first of the year, suffers a few technical issues but she’s clearly having a whale of a time, apart from while singing those songs that are agonisingly angst-ridden (about 80% of them). First the smoke machine engulfs the stage, then her solo rendition of ‘My Manic and I’ is curtailed halfway through by a great hum of feedback, then she happily restarts another due to kicking off in the wrong key. No matter, such mishaps make it all the more memorable for the moist-knickered Marling faithful and three new songs also go down well, particularly the Spanish-flavoured ‘Salinas’.

To close it’s the dashing Damien Rice, who must be minted already but cleverly saves money on a backing band by turning the audience into a mass choir for ‘Volcano’ – they sing along to everything he plays from ‘O’ anyway – then inviting half the bands on the bill back onstage for the encore. Marling had to zip off back to London sadly, but the Magic Numbers and a very tipsy Dry the River help him rattle through Bob Dylan’s ‘I Shall be Released’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, before everyone retires to the pub.

Another Honeyfest next year then? Over to you, grumpy villagers...

Words by Si Hawkins
Photo by Hazel Gumble


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