Review: Down At The Abbey Festival

Don’t you just love that feeling of discovering a new band or hearing your new favourite song for the very first time? New musical discoveries are why we still listen to the radio, why we read those reviews and traipse through those record shops. Over the last few years music festivals have of course become a huge piece of this harmonious quest providing yet more chance to unearth some more wonderful experiences for the music fan. It is with these thoughts that I sit here in some unfeasibly warm September sunshine in the middle of a beautifully ruined abbey, a decent beer in hand listening to a set by an artist I’d only just read about an hour ago but now want to hear her entire back catgalogue. I smile to myself and wonder if I’ve just found my new favouite music festival.

When my older brother recommended heading to a music festival in Reading with the kids I must admit I did think he was pulling my leg. I mean, I’m no stranger to the famous August bank holiday shindig – though I must admit, it’s been a few years since I was there watching The Charlatans headline – but being in my early forties I’m not really the target audience anymore. As it is, he actually meant another late summer festival which, like the aforementioned, aims to champion new music and is based in the heart of Berkshire’s County town.

Down at the Abbey – run by Reading collective Heavy Pop has been building a steady reputation in the town over the last couple of years. Nestled in the ruins of Reading Abbey, the festival actually starts on Friday night with a headline slot from The Comet is Coming. I hear they played a triumphant set (their last one in a while while they take some time off apparently). On Saturday the action lasts all day and is open to under 18s – ‘family friendly’ the poster proudly states – and so after a lovely little stroll through Forbury Gardens, me and the family are ready to explore. We start by catching local artist Ben Marwood on the second stage. His set very enjoyable – his songs offer heartfelt recollections on life and reminded me of Frank Turner in places – and is well recieved by the early afternoon crowd. The set also allows us to take in the unique surroundings. The rocky outcrops of crumbled walls perfectly frame the small stage to give an intimate location – a perfect second stage arena.

With kids in tow the first port of call is to check out the family entertainment on offer. The Disappointing Clown Company is anything but. They are excellent and the kids enjoy a rather theatrical toy pig race whilst Mums and Dads look on. The clowns themselves are droll enough to keep the adults entertained whilst of course not forgetting the all important fart and burp gags. We could easily stay for the next performance but it’s time to catch our first band of the day.

Madalitso Band from Mali take the main stage – at first they seem a little subdued, almost too polite even as they play a sound based around a homemade instrument: the babatone sat together rather politely in matching on stage outfits. By the end of the set though, the beautifully minimal rhythms and melodies have entranced the audience.

In between the two stages sits the bar where we find an excellent selection of craft beer from the Siren Craft Brewery. Both draught and cans are on offer whilst dotted within both stage areas are mini bars offering a range of cans – the ice boxes working overtime to keep them nice and cool in the bright afternoon sun. With beer in hand and after grabbing some food from one of the two outlets at the back of the main stage area (did I mention this festival is boutique in size?!) we catch Pale Blue Eyes. Their indie synth sound is enjoyable enough and when it hits it works exceptionally well. ‘Spaces’ with its driving guitars and pulsing electronics is a particular highlight.

My daughter then spots the two members of Madisto Band walking through the crowd, post performance they are here to enjoy the rest of the sets. Star struck, she asks for an autograph (a nice little old school touch when you don’t own a phone for selfies). After this she’s off, waiting near the artists entrance for bands and performers to pop in, all of them happy to sign and draw all over her festival programme.

While the hunt for further autographs is on, we head off to the second stage where we see what could easily be the highlight of the day and the artist who had me daydreaming about the nature of new musical discoveries in the first place. Cornelia Murr offers a minimal, Beach House style sound and her set is almost dreamlike. This is an artist I am looking forward to seeing again.

One of the beauties of this festival is that there are no set clashes between both stages so it’s simply a quick stroll back to the other end of the site where Jeffrey Lewis is next on the main stage. Part of the anti-folk royalty over the last couple of decades, Lewis and his band’s set is a real joy. Lewis sings from the heart and his narrative strewn lyrics offer personal contemplation and biting social commentary all wrapped up in acerbic wit. His ‘covid medley’ is immensely more entertaining and humorous than its title sounds.

Next up are Strong Island Recordings alumni Los Bitchos who are having an absolute ball on stage. Their rhythms and walloping backing vocals – all calls and hollers provide a nice bit of punchy energy as the dark begins to descend.

By the time BC Camplight arrives the Abbey walls are bathed in multicoloured lights, a prettily serene backdrop. Brian Christinzio’s latest album ‘The Last Rotation of Earth’ has been my favouite record of the year, a beautifully crafted, gut wrenchingly powerful album which forms the backbone of tonight’s show. Christinzio’s self-deprecation and humour engages the crowd between songs with real warmth with a sense of a performer playing to friends, perfect for the intimate surroundings and this festival as a whole. For a man who has suffered the severe traumas of addiction, mental illness and then deportation from the UK over the last decade his songs are an affecting ride and this heartfelt emotion is most apparent when it’s just Christinzio and piano – the beautifully delicate ‘I want to be in the Mafia’ a case in point. That’s not to say BC Camplight’s performance is in any way a subdued downer, far from it in fact. He and his band are on top form. ‘Kicking Up a Fuss’ is a punchy number whilst ‘Cemetery Lifestyle’ rollicks along. The band finish with ‘I’m Desperate’ with its head nodding verses giving way to a slightly woozy, swirling chorus. A compelling ending to a fantastic headline set to an amazing festival.

So, an awesome line up of critically acclaimed artists and new musical discoveries all set within a beautiful location. My new favourite festival? I guess I’ll have to go back next year to double check.


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