Stone cold crazy

Dave Woodhall ventures into uncharted territory via the Stone Valley Midlands festival.

It’s been a summer of festivals, and although it’s not over yet the Stone Valley Midlands event over the bank holiday weekend at Thoresby Hall, Newark had a feeling of a final fling to it. I’ve written previously about their southern version, and although some of the bands were naturally the same there was plenty more to enjoy, and in some cases enjoy again.

Once more security was light touch, the promoters had made arrival and getting into the arena easy so there was no worries about waiting for the first band. From The Jam had the job of getting the show underway and although they had a bit of a slow start, they soon got the crowd going. They’ve never been afraid to drop lesser-known songs into their set alongside the classics, and a spirited In The City was my favourite moment, even though playing a cover of Martha Reeves’ Heatwave so early into a three-day open-air event was tempting fate. Singer Russell Hastings has had a few health problems but he seemed fine even though timing issues meant their final song had to be left out.

Neville Staple was up next. Similar audience, similar reaction. Opening with Gangsters meant the crowd were onside from the start and a set chock with Specials songs, covers and songs covered by the Specials was always going to keep the party going. Little Bitch made me wonder how anyone half Neville’s age could keep up such a frantic pace, during Pressure Drop the earth seemed to be bouncing underfoot.

Neville’s wife Sugary asked the audience which song should be the closing number and although the voting seemed a bit different to the result, it ended up with the legendary Skinhead Symphony medley, which had no-one complaining. In fact, the general consensus was that anyone playing a better set would have to be something, well, Special.

Next up were Sham 69, giving a load of middle-aged men who should know better the chance to swear along and act sixteen again. Jimmy Pursey always did wear his heart on his sleeve, never giving less than his all even if some of the people he gave it to were a bit dubious. All the old favourites – If The Kids Are United, Borstal Breakout (“A beautiful folk song”, Hurry Up Harry and the rest – were there and a few of them have been re-worded to fit in with the modern age. Contemporary nostalgia, you can’t beat it. Pursey is doing exactly what he did all those years ago; staring out at the crowd, hanging off the mic stand. The audience are just as boisterous but a lot more peaceful.

For some reason the atmosphere got considerably less raucous after Sham left the stage. Headlining the opening night were the Stranglers, who I’d been a bit disappointed with when I’d seen them a couple of months earlier. Tonight, though, they were on top form. From first number to last they rolled back the years, came up to date, and carried off the night as only they can. New keyboard man Toby Hounsham is doing a fine job replacing Dave Greenfield, Baz Warne and Jean Jacques Burnel share the frontman duties expertly.

Opening with Toiler on the Sea, running through the best of forty-odd years and finishing with the “Oh yes there are” of No More Heroes. If the band really are calling it a day soon, the festival scene and music in general will have lost one of its best.

Saturday began with the Truth, who delivered a fine set of eighties soul as the sun came out and the day warmed up. Their (should have been) bigg(er) hit Confusion went down well, as did a particularly rousing set closer of the Showstoppers’ Houseparty and the Four Tops classic Reach Out I’ll Be There.

Next up, and moving on the nostalgia a decade or two were the Primitives, who did a lively and well-received set concluding with their top ten Crash, which saw an outburst of “THAT’S who they are!” recognition from the growing crowd.

Up next were original ska band the Pyramids Symarip. I’d been looking forward to these guys and they reached into their back catalogue for Skinhead Girl, Skinhead Moonstomp and a load more examples of early Jamaica. They weren’t exactly a disappointment but compared to Neville Staple the previous night, they didn’t connect with the audience so well.

During the next interval I got talking to someone who said that there hadn’t been many big name bands from Birmingham. A ten minute diatribe later I still hadn’t finished listing them all when onto the stage walked Toyah. Dressed in a very natty shiny dress and wearing dark glasses which she probably needed given her attire and the glaring sun, one of Kings Heath’s finest delivered a set of her chart stuff plus material from either side of her Top of the Pops days. It all went down very well, although the claims to be a lifelong punk rebel were treated with the pinch of salt they deserved.

Death of Guitar Pop are veterans of the Stone Valley circuit, working their way over the years up from bottom of the bill to mainstays. It’s good to see young skankers bouncing away with something original. They’re like the boisterous young puppy always wanting to play compared to the wise old dogs sitting in front of the fire of the others on the bill, and God knows what they felt like afterwards, because with the sun still beating down I felt exhausted just watching them.

Up next were another bunch of Stone Valley veterans, the Duallers. Now, here comes my one small, minor, gripe of the entire festival. Much as I love ska, they were the third out of four bands playing the same style and to be honest, it was a bit much so I nipped out to eat for much of their set. More fool me the rest of the crowd would have said, because the band got everyone around the field dancing.

And so onto the headline act. I’ve been a bit of a cynic about Stiff Little Fingers for a good while – Jake Burns is in his sixties, singing about teenage rebellion, not getting on with your parents and situations that thankfully ended three decades ago. Then you hear the opening bars of Suspect Device, that’s followed by At The Edge and Just Fade Away and by then you realise that none of that matters. He’s a great frontman, they’re a great band. Not just then, but for any time.

With the exception of the mental health issues song My Dark Places, everything in the set came from the original days of the band. Barded Wire Love, as Jake put it has had forty-three years of “punk rockers singing whhhho-ooooh-ooooh”

Bass player Ali McMordie is sharing the vocal duties these days, hardly surprising given the amount of strain a voice like Jake’s must have put on his throat over the years, and with Alternative Ulster, one of the most important songs of our times.

If Saturday’s weather had been glorious, Sunday dawned not very bright and not particularly early as I caught the tail end of the Small Fakers delivering a tribute to the moddest band of them all and then one of the great what-if bands of all time, Ruts DC. Back in 1980 singer Malcolm Owen died just as the original Ruts been moving into the void left by the Clash, leaving a legacy of wonderfully angry material and here it was again, together with new stuff just as relevant to the present day. Sounding thunderously loud for a three-piece, they reminded us of just how good they were with a finishing salvo of Staring at the Rude Boys, In a Rut and Babylon’s Burning before showing how good they still are with Psychic Attack.

Stone Foundation were the next to hit the stage. Like the Truth the previous day they put in a set of enjoyable soul-tinged pop, with their own material well to the fore including Echoes of Joy. “You’ll not get Jimmy Pursey singing that,” they pointed out, as well as the not-unreasonable fact that so far north is stretching the Midlands part of the festival’s title to breaking point.

And then came, for me, the biggest surprise of the weekend. I’d never much cared for the Wedding Present before and singer Dave Gedge guessed that I wasn’t alone. “Does anyone know why are are?” he said two numbers in, although by then anyone who hadn’t heard of them were already beginning to enjoy their indie rock pearls. Just under an hour later everyone knew who they were. The self-proclaimed odd ones out on the bill had proved themselves one of the hits of Stone Valley, every song being greeted with increasing appreciation. I don’t know much about music promotion but I would be very surprised if they’re not back here next year.

And I’d be absolutely amazed if Bad Manners aren’t with them. If there’s a band absolutely made for late afternoon outdoors, when the audience are getting tired and looking for a lift, it’s Buster and his mates. They’ve been playing to this type of crowd for so long they’re probably on first name terms with most of them but anyone who dismisses Bad Manners as a novelty act are making a massive underestimation. Yes, Buster’s a unique character, but behind him there’s a tight, cohesive unit who know how to entertain.

It was getting dark and a bit chilly when onto the stage strolled four lads who were about to shake the world. It might sound strange to have the Bootleg Beatles performing given the rest of the bill, but everyone in the arena knew every word of every song and when that happens you can’t help but enjoy yourselves. Starting with the early stuff, we had the memorable sight of skins, punks, mods, the whole range of what were once youth cults singing along to an acoustic Yesterday with Paul while the rest of the band went off to get changed into the ‘serious’ Beatles outfits for a run through of their later stuff culminating in a lengthy and rousing hey Jude.

“Time’s pressing and we’ve got to split up,” said John, although he cold have pointed out that George was off to organise an Albert Hall gig for famine relief and nobody else on the bill would ever do anything like that.

Bob Geldof led on the Boomtown Rats looking like the anti-Toyah. Smarten yourself up, for God’s sake man. Never ones to play to the crowd, set opener Trash Town sounded like the New York Dolls, (She’s Gonna) Do You In featured a lengthy bout of Bob playing harmonica. Someone’s Looking At You saw the man himself making an impassioned rant about the state of the nation while I Don’t Like Mondays featured an equally impassioned plea to sort out a problem that still plagues America all these years later.

In between all this Geldof was winding up the crowd a treat, telling us how we might be a great audience but his band are even greater. Whether he’s a phenomenally good wind-up merchant or just a gobshite is a question that’s been asked many times, but he knows how to get a reaction. A few people were leaving during the band’s lesser-known numbers, understandable after three days but they missed the best bit because although they’d had been a bit self-indulgent in part, Geldof kicked into top gear, the band let rip and they blasted through Rat Trap and Boomtown Rats, to set the seal on a frantic, friendly and enjoyable three days.

Tickets were cheap, the organisation was more or less perfect, security was as laid back as was possible and the audience responded with friendliness and respect for all. Above all, the people running the festival were outstanding. These guys don’t just go the extra mile, they take you with them and make sure you know the way back. Other, bigger, more commercial festivals could learn a lot from them.