Comb the onslaught of festival news over the next few weeks and you’ll come across all sorts of charities and projects they’re supporting, not that most punters or performers even notice. Hotly-tipped folk-rockers Dry The River have factored a bijou event called Honeyfest into their increasingly hectic schedules, however, as it’s in aid of a cause close to their hearts: a local hostelry.
“The pub was due to close but the villagers managed to buy it as some kind of trust,” explains frontman Peter Liddle, talking about the Barge Inn in Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey. “I once walked with a friend from Bristol, where we were at university, to Newbury, where my mother lives, over two days. We stopped off at a beautiful pub by the river with a camping ground and rested our painful feet. As it turns out this pub was the very same venue…”
Dry The River were recently the subject of a good old-fashioned label bidding war – no doubt inspired by the ‘new Mumford And Sons’ tag that’s been thrust upon them – but they’re still new enough to remember how important backroom venues can be. The actual number of pubs closing every month varies depending on which report you read, but it’s surprisingly large, and potentially a blow for Britain’s up-and-coming bands as well as the lonely old soaks.
“It’s a rite of passage in this country,” Liddle agrees. “It’s a British institution that upcoming bands play in all kinds of weird and wonderful pubs. Asking people to buy tickets to a show where the bands on the bill are unknown is a tough sell, but with a pub you have a captive audience who are often very receptive to live music. It gets you playing in front of people, teaches you a lot about what works and doesn’t work in a live environment and gets you on the road to bigger venues.”
This is particularly important in more remote, rural locations, but it can take a lot of initiative and energy to keep a big old pub running when the nearest supermarket is doing thirty beers for a fiver. The Vale of Pewsey villagers are certainly pushing the boat out for the Barge Inn, having persuaded big names like Laura Marling and The Magic Numbers to headline their fundraising, publicity-generating festival. Unfortunately, after months of planning, disaster struck: the original Honeyfest was set for December but a freakish bout of snow scuppered it.
“We were so disappointed,” says organiser Sandra Bhatia, “but the fantastic thing for us was the fact the acts agreed to come with us and continue to support the project. The new event on 16th of April promises to be very special indeed. Nothing like this has been done in this way before so it’s very exciting.”
It should be a memorable occasion for all concerned if – fingers crossed – the April showers hold off. So does Liddle have a particularly fond musical pub memory? He casts his mind back just a year, and an acoustic tour of the Scottish highlands with Johnny Flynn. “We whiled away the evenings in many a small, dark drinking establishment,” he says, wistfully.
The small, dark ones are always best.