The Sound of the Crowd

Rain, grey skies and good music? It must be time for Solihull Summer Fest again.

It’s by ironic happenstance that after a week when temperature records were broken or at least in danger, Solihull’s fourth Summer Fest opened with rain. And a fair amount of it over the course of the weekend.

But the crowds were undaunted, packing their ponchos and wellies instead of suncream and shady hats. In fact, the festival was noted for its paradoxical dress code: farmer below the knee and Ibiza from the neck up, with a marriage of the two in the middle. But a big high five goes out to the park keepers at Tudor Grange, with the grass largely holding up well beneath the dancing and trudge of wellies.

This year’s Summer Fest saw the normal mixture of local bands and tributes making good, current acts and those in their second flush of success. It made for a great selection that everyone could enjoy, and indeed, it seemed that everyone was there, from the teens and beyond for The Vamps to those of us who cut our gig-attending teeth on Bad Manners, nearly forty years ago.

Let’s talk first about what to expect, if you’ve not been before. And if not, why not? There are fairground attractions near the entrance, copious food and drink tents serving everything from halloumi fries to Pimms or Guinness, and a fair selection of festival faves on sale, including your late night glowsticks and flower garlands. In between acts, the personable MC kept the crowd engaged, shouting out everyone from the VIP tents to the fairground riders. He was the one who first noticed the change in pitch in the screams for The Vamps (high) and Level 42 (low).

Saturday saw a crowd pleasing set from Mitchell Brunings, largely focused on Bob Marley covers. His own work got a warm reception too, and I’d be interested to find more of it in his set. The DJ set from Blonde got the crowd shaking off the raindrops for some early dancing. Heather Small from M People followed. Despite some early sound problems, she demonstrated that her rich, deep voice is still as powerful as ever. And the woman can move!

As can Leee John of Imagination, the next act up. For those of us who remember him first time round, I can only say I had forgotten just how great his voice is, both in its deep range and in falsetto. Three songs in, and he’d not paused for breath.

With a set full of groove, and two additional singers who also brought some fabulous vocal acrobatics to the afternoon, this is an act you should definitely try and see if they appear anywhere near you – we loved the cover of Police and Thieves. Ms Dynamite followed, getting an intense crowd reaction from those gathered at the front.

Next up for me was the highlight of the day, the Sugarhill Gang. How can they still sound as fresh and as relevant as they did on Rapper’s Delight in 1979? From that, the first rap single to become a Top 40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, to 8th Wonder and Apache, the crowd was with them, word perfect all through.

They were clear that hip hop brings a message of peace. And there was a vast amount of feelgood factor in the park. I floated back to my chair feeling that the world was full of possibilities again.

The Vamps brought a spirited set with some great musicianship in front of a crowd of dedicated fans. They got the first banner of the day. Despite teasing the crowd that Demi Levato might be joining them for Somebody To You – they came clean on the joke pretty fast though – the response they received indicated just why that song has more than a million YouTube views. If you’ve not seen them live, then don’t be fooled by the boy band tag; there’s way more depth and musicianship than that. Just check out the breadth of their collaborations to get your head around what they have to offer.

Headliners for Saturday night were Level 42. They had plenty of hits to keep the audience happy, from Running in the Family through to Hot Water. Quite how Mark King’s thumb has survived forty years of slap bass is unknown. But it has, and he’s still as powerful as ever. It’s good to see a band enjoying themselves as much as Level 42 do, and that enthusiasm was exceeded by a very happy flower- and glitter-clad crowd.

Sunday’s weather was a bit better, requiring hoods rather than umbrellas, and the crowd seemed a great deal larger. Early acts included local rock trio Killglass giving it some power, then the well-regarded Queen tribute, Mercury.

Bad Manners really set the crowd alight. Having last seen them in about 1981, I was anticipating an hour or so of feelgood ska, and they didn’t disappoint. Every crowd pleaser from their generous set list did just what it needed to do, leading to rows of seated punters leaping up to dance in the aisles.

Still possessing the second most famous tongue in music – after Gene Simmons – Buster Bloodvessel is seemingly unchanged, still bounding about the stage. From Lorraine to Special Brew and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You to Woolly Bully and, of course, the Can Can, the Fest was fizzing by the time they reluctantly finished.

Go West were up next. With a set list that included a barrage of hits from Faithful to We Close Our Eyes and Call Me, there was plenty of audience participation going on. he King of Wishful Thinking from Pretty Woman saw a mass singalong. There’s a bit of mischief about the band too, from messing around with the beach balls that had been flying around all day to urging us to “get your money’s worth – wave your hands a bit”. It was like having a gig with some good mates.

Don’t underestimate their great choice of cover material too; from the Kings of Leon Sex on Fire to Republica’s Ready To Go and Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf, they were powerfully and expertly delivered.

People were flocking to the front to see The Proclaimers. Rather like the fine crowd for the Sugarhill Gang the day before, everyone was word perfect on all the songs that aren’t the three we all know. If you only know the magic three – Letter From America, 500 Miles and Sunshine on Leith – then you’re missing out. his was a big, powerful and expertly delivered set. It also evoked a lot of emotions in the crowd; I saw one guy tenderly squeeze the hand of his partner during Let’s Get Married, and it seemed to be a fine moment for happy memories or future plans.

The headline act for Sunday was The Human League. You knew you were in the presence of something other-worldly. Accompanied by synth-porting, sharp suited sidemen, the central trio of Phil Oakey, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall cut a compelling vision.

Caped (Oakley) and evening frocked (the women), there was an elegant simplicity about the stage. All the black and white made for great contrast to the largely orange lights and backdrop. Style aside, this was a polished set of greatest hits, delivered smoothly and faithful to the originals. It’s easy to forget just how many hits there were, from the strutting Sound of the Crowd, to a stately Lebanon and the Christmas number one that lasted forever, Don’t You Want Me. Crowd pleased. Job done.

So should you go to Solihull Summer Fest next year? That’s a wholehearted yes. The weather might not be brilliant, but what’s a festival without your wellies and a bin bag to cover your seat? You’ll get a mixture of acts to enjoy – new sounds, old favourites, and a different look at bands you’ve not appreciated to the full before. Plus plenty to entertain you in the gaps between the sets. It’s family friendly too, so bring the crowd.