Tony Cummings visited St Ives, Cambridgeshire to attend a radical event, KINGSSTOCK, where small is best. Photos by Clive Simpson, Charlie Rayner and Gareth Nunns.
The drive through the lush Cambridgeshire countryside gives me plenty of time to think. Maxine and I are on our way to St Ives, 12 miles from Cambridge, the City of Perspiring Dreams, to attend the KingsStock Music Festival. It's Saturday, 30th August and though I've missed Friday's opening acts, there should still be much to see and hear. Worldwide, it's been a tough time for Christian music festivals. Two of the biggest, USA's Cornerstone and New Zealand's Parachute, have shut up shop recognising that even attendances of 30,000 plus is no guarantee of financial viability while in Britain Greenbelt has all but abandoned its roots of evangelical Christianity. The one true bright spot on the large fest horizon is, of course, the Big Church Day Out which seems to go from strength to strength with ever-increasing attendances. But they seem the exception to the rule. In this time of a worldwide slump in music sales and large swathes of the Church turning inwards and giving financial and theological support only to large gathering modern worship celebrations, few are predicting good times ahead for Christian music fests.
I have begun to wonder whether my daydream of a best-of-all-worlds
Christian music festival could exist today. In my imagination I've
long thought how great it would be to find an event that would keep
exclusively to music made by Christians. This festival of my dreams
would have no preaching or teaching (there are already plenty of
Christian events giving us this), but would give space for music to
minister in its own way, unaided by spoken bits. It would be
worshipful but also low key and intimate with no
big-throng-of-Christians-with-their-hands-in-the-air worship or
anything else which would alienate a non-Christian visitor wanting the
music-and-good-vibes experience of a mainstream festival. Maybe a
Christian micro-festival would be the answer. KingsStock is Britain's
one and only Christian music micro-fest. If you didn't know,
micro-fests have been proliferating by the hundred targeting everyone
from electronic music lovers to the supporters of avant-garde theatre,
giving enthusiasts a chance to gather and enjoy their chosen passion
in small-but-beautiful gatherings.
As we pull into the KingsStock site I have my first misgivings. Surely this farm-turned-festival site could hold thousands rather than the 600 or so expected. Still, I reason, I'll be getting some much needed walking exercise as well as seeing and hearing a bevy of acts I've not heard before. And I won't have to endure the jam packed crowds, overflowing portaloos and exploitatively priced burgers of the big events. The London Evening Standard wrote, "Boutique, bijoux, intimate and a little bit secret, these mini-festivals are a great alternative to the horrors of large mega-fests." At the backstage area of the main stage which KingsStock are calling Impact Stage, presumably because the whole staging and sound rig is owned by Impact Stages, a concern run by a man called Bruce Forsythe - no jokes please. Bruce used to do the sound for the old Stoneleigh Bible weeks and he and his small team of volunteers put in some serious graft to make KingsStock possible. I sip a tea made by Bruce's delightful wife, Anne, and try to have a conversation over the blare of "Knocking On Heaven's Door" from a band sound-checking close by. With a deep breath, I get out my notepad. At 12 noon the KingsStock reviewing and interviewing ritual will begin.
I sit in the sun listening to one Pete Mear. A ruddy-faced, middle aged man with grey hair and a bald patch, I later learn Pete is a carpenter based in Huntingdon. He looks and sounds like an experienced muso. Bluesy Claptonesque licks pour from his instrument while his band, who all look half Pete's age, play their part as Pete's voice - a good rock'n'roll bellow - runs through the songs we've heard in countless worship services - Hughes' "Oh Happy Day", Brown's "Everlasting God". At first it feels a bit like praise and worship karaoke. The 100 or so people gathered sparsely in front of the stage don't look like they're worshipping. No hands are raised and many are sitting in the canvas camping chairs they've brought or sprawled out in the sun, which is fitfully shining. But suddenly, completely unexpectedly, as Pete launches into Bob Dylan's "Pressing On", the Spirit of God comes and touches me. Over the years I've explained to many people that music made by Christians has the potential to be "music plus". By that I mean music which, through a mysterious spiritual dynamic too deep for me to explain any better, is sometimes imbued by God himself. This is what I am hearing and experiencing now. As Pete rasps Dylan's joyful lyrics it resonates with me to become MY declaration. "Well, I'm pressing on/Yes I'm pressing on/Yes I'm pressing on/To the higher calling of the Lord."
The epiphany continues. Mear sings another song and every note and every line seem to confess my failings and past. "In my life, I've seen so many things/In my life, I've done some crazy things/In my life, I've treasured worldly things/In my life." Here is a song and performance which echoes a prayer and a confession to my Lord. Maxine, sitting next to me, leans across and asks whether "In My Life" is a cover. I'm certain I've heard the song somewhere before but am utterly unable to tell her where I've heard it. I tell my wife it's a cover. I find out later it isn't. "In My Life" was written by Pete and appeared on his album 'Pressing On'. I'd heard "In My Life" once back in 1997 when I reviewed Pete's album. Now the Spirit makes my second hearing a very special one.
After his set I talk to the carpenter/singer/guitarist. Pete tells me he'd never bothered to sell 'Pressing On' and gave most of them away to friends and acquaintances. He also tells me he's hoping to record a second album for "release" soon and that he's winding up KingsStock on Sunday night with his pub covers band, the wonderfully named Chickens Can't.
I'm walking back from my chat with Pete when I hear the last song by Georgie B from the Garden Stage. I see that Georgie is a young lady, she's singing Smokey Robinson's "Tracks Of My Tears" and she has a good voice. I also learn later that the Garden Stage, which looks more like a bouncy castle than a stage, was the original and only stage when KingsStock was launched in 2010 in the garden of the event's founder, James Stevens.
Maxine and I stroll past the middle-sized Woodland Stage. On it MOB Rimez are doing a set. But rudimentary rapping and some not-quite-right harmonies from the group's girls keep me walking. I'm hungry and I steel myself for the expected overpriced burger served to me by a scowling waitress who shows no embarrassment in charging £2.00 for a can of cola. Instead, I am served in the food tent - no queues - delicious hot pork with stuffing and apple sauce on a granary roll and a cup of tea for a fiver by a smiling young lady. This is turning out to be a great festival experience.
I hear a bit of Libby Redman. She has an excellent jazz voice but somehow with a thin accompaniment - some minimal keyboards and a sax player - and a few too many unnecessary grace note embellishments in her vocal delivery she leaves me less impressed than I was with her 'Where Love Begins' album. Libby's a class singer needing a class band. If she can get that I can imagine this pretty lass gigging at Ronnie Scott's.
I'm watching a little girl blowing bubbles across the grass. She's enjoying herself. So is another five year old playing with a balloon. For an event with no "children's work" there are plenty of kids here.
It's 2.25pm and The Darn Funk Orchestra. Being old enough to have seen live the originators of funk - James Brown, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins - I confess I have long resisted UK bands who decades on put the renowned f-word in their name. Too often such would-be funksters have turned out to be white boys playing a pale imitation of those timeless rhythmic innovators. If that wasn't enough to pre-judge the guys, the news that The Darn Funk Orchestra also play a lot of jazz cafes simultaneously brought my Brit jazz prejudices to the surface. Having once interviewed giants like Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock and seen in concert brilliant jazzmen like Roland Kirk and Miles Davis I have no great desire, my smug hipster prejudices tell me, to sit in the warm sunshine/cool shade (the weather continues to vacillate all afternoon) listening to sub-standard riffing horn sections and minor chord doodling. I am wrong. From the moment TDFO take the stage I am first intrigued then impressed. Singer Jimmy D is the singer and drummer and he manages to handle the far from easy vocals and tight drum patterns like he'd spent half his life playing the cool nightclubs - which considering his youthful looks is decidedly unlikely. After showing they can really play funk they then surprisingly play a Hendrix song then an original about a girl who'd slipped away from God. The melody and arrangement of the latter seem a tad disjointed but there is no doubting the power of the lyrics. "The girl cried when she heard it," confided Jimmy D.
The sheer musicianship of The Darn Funk Orchestra is clearly demonstrated on "On The Way Back Down" with each band member contributing a solo and then, for the second time, Jimmy shows his ability to turn psalms into jazz opuses. Earlier he'd done Psalm 1, now he sings Psalm 11. Here is a most unlikely singing Psalmist. But it is when he speaks about his song "Salvation Shoes" and exhorts, like all funksters are prone to do, that we need to get up and dance. For the second time this day, the Spirit falls on me. I have known for decades that I have no dancing gift and that my movements to music are, at best, uncoordinated. I can also perceive, full well, that the empty grassy area immediately in front of the stage will put me in full view of both band and every member of the audience. But as I stride forward in response to the message pounding in my heart, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt what God wants me to do. I am to dance like David. I'm not wearing an ephod but I know that the sight of a bald, overweight, 67 year old journalist dancing in front of a band is laughable enough. Not that anybody laughs, not that I can hear anyway. All I can hear is the undulating heave of the funk rhythms and that instruction I'd heard so clearly. I am dancing my thanks to God for my salvation. I have on my salvation shoes.
Two epiphanies in the first three hours of an event, let alone an event as laid back and relaxed as this one, is unique. I need a breather - my dancing has literally taken my breath away - and I'm grateful to be able to lie on the grass and listen to Jason de-Vaux. Before I'd got to KingsStock I'd looked Jason up on the web and discovered he's released some albums and is the chaplain for the city of Cambridge. As I am to learn later when I talk to him, he also has had an extraordinary life which took in everything from youthful drug abuse, running with gangs, a mainstream record deal, Bible smuggling, imprisonment and, his most recent initiatives, a short book chronicling his struggle with a horribly painful illness and a children's album, recorded with his wife EL for the under fives. But now I watch this 40-something, dressed in a handsome military-style jacket with brass buttons, battling with technology as he endeavours to get his backing tracks work to his bidding. His battle on the tiny Garden Stage is only victorious in stops and starts but I hear enough to realise that he's not a very good singer but an excellent songwriter and programmer. His pop synth songs are all good with "Come To The Light" having a particularly funky dance track and "Loving In Degrees" being a bitter sweet reflection of nightclub culture.
My conversation in the food tent is suddenly interrupted by a strange experience. I hear my name clear as a bell coming over the PA. It seems that Dave Griffiths and his Chaos Curb Collaborators are on stage at the Woodland and here, at the beginning of their set, Dave is thanking Maxine and myself for the years of support that Cross Rhythms have given him (going back to Dave's previous band Bosh and the Bournemouth-based Nth Festival). Very gracious of the man. Soon I'm impressed by Dave's new aggregation. Maybe it's because the musicians around him contain two old band mates from his Bosh days but I've never heard Dave sound better or tighter. The excellent PA seems to catch all the edge and passion in Dave's voice while the songs are played with a musical muscle which is as dynamic as anything I've heard at the fest. In fact, Pete Mear comes up to me to praise what he's hearing. No wonder CCC have been honoured to tour later this year with the mighty Martin Smith.
A young man bearing three enormous ice creams, complete with flakes, walks to the table next to mine. I do my best not to covet my neighbour's treats.
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