The clouds are gathering around this wooded amphitheatre in Ramsbottom, but it’s not the threat of rain we’re worried about. This is, after all, a hardy festival in the northern hills and a bit of rain never got in the way. What is more ominous is that Ramsbottom Festival has changed its name to Head For The Hills (HFTH) and there is an accompanying rumour that this will lead to a venue change next year. Equally odious is the whisper that Ticketmaster will become involved and the corporatisation of this clean festival is only around the corner. Over the years, we have watched this festival evolve beautifully by drawing top drawer headliners while emphasising local talent and vendors. We shall see. Friday’s opening night is typically chaotic and full of expectation.

HFTH panorama_photo by David Taylor

The unsung heroes of this festival’s evolution are the volunteers – the ‘vols’ from now on – and all the behind-the-scenes and on-the-ground work they do that makes the festival feel the way it does: friendly. Some have been here days before the opening night and some will be here after the whole thing has finished and everyone is packing up. For some of them, this is their first time. Others have been vols since day one.

Five stages host a diverse and eclectic selection and keeping up with the varied programme is a rewarding challenge. The first hit is down in the woods on the By The River stage, always a rich seam of diverse talent, and the arrival from the deserts of Utah of 3hatttrio. A slow burning set from the banjo, double bass and fiddle telling stories of how slaves became cowboys working the land. There is an odd Irish lament thrown in adding to the cultural mix and, although post-sunset and with cold beginning to bite, the music glowed and warmed a crowd of shivering converts.

The vols’ favourite act were the Baghdaddies, who gave us Balkan melodies over a ska backbeat punctuated by air tight brass stabs. Smashing. We promised the vols anonymity during our chats at the festival and it wasn’t us who captured a vol skanking along to their set while at the same time picking up litter.

Head for the Hills train_photo by David Taylor

The best way to get to the festival over the weekend is by steam train from the Trackside East Lancashire Railway. The platform hosts a wonderful real ale bar with a galaxy of brews both local and global, a sturdy menu and the whole operation is run by retired railway workers and drivers resplendent in full traditional uniform. They even have an apprenticeship for younger steam train converts. As the whistle blows and we steam through the hills, locals stop and wave at the train, which drops you right outside the festival. Grand.

We asked a couple of vols about any signs of corporatisation creeping into the festival. They didn’t think so and would be very concerned if it did. One cited the gestation of a local vendor, Wood Fire Piazza, which was at the very first festival operating out of the back of a van. Now he has his own busy, established stall.

Back on stage, Rochdale’s Becky Langan was an unexpected revelation. Using a combination of percussive slaps and loops she created instrumental soundscapes that somehow crossed Joni Mitchell and John Martyn. Fearless and bold and wonderful.

 

Becky Langan Head for the Hills_photo David Taylor

Later in the day, we had a chap from Essex called Beans on Toast. A popular fellow whose punk-folk is not new and Billy Bragg he is not, his philosophy is, “Don’t think, just fucking say it,” which somehow leads into a song about gymnasts. I know the beer at the festival is good, but we had to do a double-take when two gymnasts came on stage and gave a gold medal performance. Later, The Baghdaddies ran through another set, to the delight of the skanking litter boy.

The programme was slipping due to cancelations and the like, but the show truly did go on. This resulted in a chance encounter with Canter Semper, an all-girl gospel vocal quartet with a deep funk backing. They were beautifully original yet vintage.

T’Other stage provided a smorgasbord of local talent, including Adventures of Salvador with their anarchic surf punk and a touch of The Stooges; Molly Bloom, who are, well, Molly Bloom; and finally, local heroes Uke Punk, who are a punk band led by a ukulele. Thrilling.

Head for the Hills 2017_photo by David Taylor

Time to wrap up. The vols’ unanimous view was that it had been another cracker and that everyone would be back next year. Any low points? Eyes rolled and someone said, “silent disco”. Don’t know why and don’t want to. The dark clouds of a venue change evaporated as next year was confirmed as the same venue. The corporatisation fears were unfounded and a close eye ensures it remains that way.

We left after Tony Walsh’s inspirational poem, which was an emotional high note. Walking back through the trees as The Stranglers’ old hits echoed around us like calls from another time, it felt good to know that this festival is now and real and heading in the right direction.

headforthehills.org.uk

All photos by David Taylor.

DG Jones