By Lisa Mary
Lisa Mary takes you through the bear town, Congleton, to give you a taste of its new acoustic festival: Congleton Unplugged.
Come with me on a journey. It’s dark, night time. The festivities which started at 1.30 pm in the afternoon are well underway and the sound of music hums gently just like a tide grasping at the shore. It comes from everywhere. Not knowing the town, you see its fairly empty street and wonder for a moment where everyone is. The wind tickles your neck as you turn to look up and down the way, attempting to follow the vibrations that bounce off each stone of the buildings. The festival is set in several locations so you grip to the street map carefully as you enter the first door into a crowded room, the buzz of chatter and clang of guitars drumming you as you enter.
The first location, The Young Pretender, is already a hive of activity, excitement permeating the atmosphere from its crowd that contains a mixture of faces, with some dancing children to boot. A dog sniffs your foot as you wheedle your way to the bar, and you notice the walls of this old toy store are covered in original art and beer mats with the brickwork peeping through at you intermittently. The affect is staggering; a kitsch-beauty. The first band, Sweet Winn Dixie are just warming up and with their acoustic guitars, collapsed drum kit and a bag of tricksthey surprise you with their quaint almost understated simplicity. It is a shock thenas these three fresh-faced young lads (Luke Parker on bass/acoustic guitar/vocals, Kieran Wesley on lead acoustic guitar/vocals/drums and Ollie Winnington on vocals/drums/acoustic guitar to name a few instruments) begin their set. This you’re told will be their last UK gig for three months as the band are embarking on a travelling adventure together on Tuesday.
Their playing is purely indescribable. They are delightfully oxymoronic; a melodious cacophony of sound. With their varied influences and each band member playing a flexible role they manage to include the use of guitars, drums, bongos, saxophone and harmonica into their set of some planned, but also a significant amount of ad-lib, playing. The music has elements of rock, pop, punk, reggae, rap, hip-hop to name a few. They call it: “a synergy of funky rocky dub-hop with room for some folky easy listening too,” but in interview Ollie admits he finds it difficult to define. They are like an acoustic System of a Down meets Flight of the Conchords with a sprinkle of Jamiroquai. It’s an uncanny sound – familiar with allusions to a range of music genres -but it blends to make a new genre in its own right. Quirky. Fresh. Funky. Head-boppingly, feet-stompingly jazzy. There’s a significant youthfulness and comedy to their playing; original songs such as ‘Dear England’ and ‘Foie Gras’ (a.k.a. ‘I Hope You Die at Christmas’) with honest-comic lyrics. Braising the audience with a mixture of funky bass, unstated percussion, a sheer enjoyment of playing and vocals which provide a wall of sound before splattering into resonating harmonies, these guys are truly captivating. Then they start beat-boxing whilst playing the guitar, singing, beating a bongo and attempting to kick a symbol.Yes, you did really see that. It happened. And just when you think there can’t be more, Ollie starts rapping in between playing the harmonica.
Sweet Winn Dixie plays everything from original acoustic numbers to staggeringly good covers. Their cover of Nirvana’s ‘Come As You Are’ with the lead on sax and the sudden launch into ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ during an original number as they “were having a lazy day” and “couldn’t be bothered to write a second verse” is complete entertainment. (They end one song by chanting Jeremy Paxman. Really.) A dawn of realisation pours upon you: you’ve sat there for the entirety of the first set with mouth agog, ignoring the strangers you’ve sat with. The crowd closing in on your back, you join in with the applause as if from a dream. What a fantastic way to start the evening’s festivities and the whoops of the crowd agree with you. Phenomenal.
Now, you could quite comfortably stay there all night. You have a seat. It’s fairly warm. You can see and the music is pretty fantastic but you decide to venture out into the now chilly streets to see what else Congleton Unplugged has to offer.
Your next venue: The Beartown Tap. Firstly, it’s owned by the brewery, The Beartown Brewery, and so is filled with a range of locally brewed ales. Secondly, it’s a cosy and intimate setting is full of, well, bears. They loom in the corners, almost chanting at you,“Congleton Rare, Congleton Rare: Sold a bible to buy a bear.” It’s a charming venue which, in manager Ian Burns’ words: “Lends itself to the intimate nature of John Ainsworth’s sound.”
From Manchester, John Ainsworth is an extremely talented musician whose sound is enchantingly dreamlike. He is Mozart with a guitar. With Muse-esque vocals and almost Santana style guitar playing, it is no wonder that another musician had expressed the wish to steal his hands earlier in the evening. His beautiful, silky vocals flow stunningly in this atmosphere and his vocal range leaves nothing but awe on the faces of all around. His manner is also quaint. He’s quiet, almost shy, making jokes which the audience would miss if they weren’t listening so intensely. He doesn’t have to try to engage them – there’s no flamboyancy or crowd-harassment here – just low-key beautiful playing.
Having been playing and singing for sixteen years, he is no stranger to performance and is pleased to have found his sound. He tells you that his work is: “alternative rocky praisey blues guitar with a splash of flamenco,” and you can’t put it better yourself; you have never heard anything like it before. Socks are metaphorically blown off. He expresses that it “took him a long time to find [his] sound,” but now he certainly has it, and his playing on the acoustic twelve-string guitar is unbelievable. As you speak, you’re interrupted with praise from the landlord and brewery owner … who then rebooks John on the spot. You cannot suppress a smile.
On the road again so to speak, you make your way to Ye Olde White Lion – the location where Charles I was sentenced to death. It is cold, grippingly freezing. The music you heard earlier is louder now and you can see a stream of faces familiar from the previous pub walking the streets with you.On reaching your destination, you notice the pub’s style: astriking black-and-white building with an exterior fitting its name. It looks old-worldy. Somewhere your granddad would drink. But yet,once again a barrage of sound pummels you as the door opens and you’re reminded of the words of a wise youth who told you earlier: “the pubs in Congleton are not like pubs in other places.”
Firstly, it takes a good minute to get into the pub. You wonder at the hold up and figure your chaperone for the evening has found someone to talk to. But you’re wrong. Country band Bearfoot are already playing to an absolutely packed pub – every chair, table, stool, each inch of the floor is covered … except for the part where two lads, one dressed in a kilt, are throwing each other round in a hoe-down style dance-off. With feather-ticked hats, dungarees, snake-skin boots and sunglasses indoors, this band is absolutely exhilarating: “pure entertainment and pure fun” is an underestimation of their ability to excite the audience into what, by the time you squeeze your way (very slowly) through the now essential one-way system in the pub, is almost a frenzy. It is clear that the festival’s opening night has been a success. When you eventually give in, leaving is not a happy experience and by now you have realised that Congleton is a lot more happening than the sleepy country town you’d originally thought it’d be.
The Saturday festivities are as varied as the Friday. Beginning with music workshops run by the charity Visyon and aimed at 11 – 25 year olds, an open mic set, as well as gigs from an array of talented mostly-local musicians, the festival is working towards “moving away from the electric guitar and giving people something different to listen to.” Through bringing elements of sequence dancing, Creative Space workshops and the Friday afternoon twelve-piece jazz band into the mix, they are bringing the people of Congleton together and displaying the young talent of the town whilst exposing the public to all that acoustic music has to offer.
Blearly-eyed Sunday is a lazy afternoon, with some relaxed gigs taking place of a more subdued quality. This could be due to the wild partying of the Saturday night with one band in particular engaging in a table-top rendition of the Riverdance, complete with spoons. This band, not hungover in the slightest (or so it seems!) are none other than Land’s End.
Land’s End are a bluegrass band who “crossed paths” at the UK’s bluegrass festival Sore Fingers back in 2012. The band’s name pays tribute to the fact that each member comes from a different geographical location, from Cork to Munich. Quite an interesting sound, they raise big applauses from the crowd with some edgy banjo riffs and soft vocals. Their playing seems effortless, and the double bass adds an unusual yet elegant bass to the tunes. Vince Cutcliffe, one of the organisers of the event, describes one of their songs as “like coming home,” a description that is applicable to the majority of their numbers. Their music is mesmeric. There is such an ease to their presence on stage and the harmony and general contentment creates a professional and smooth feel. At times they move very little, and bassist Sam Rose noticeably watches the world go by through the windows whilst playing, oblivious to the audience which gives an informal, private feel to the set.And at others they explode into harmony, with strong vocals that are spine-tingling. Indeed, they provide some exciting musical twists in their acts and the technical accuracy of the band is impressive with tempo contrasts and time changes, they keep the audience on their toes (who learn after the first song to be sure there isn’t a twist in store before you start cheering and clapping!) You are really glad you decided to come. Face it: you’re in your element.
Northwich based band, House of Cain, are the final stop on your journey. Playing in an interesting venue, coffee shop Illuccinis, the band are situated at a lower level than the audience allowing the audience a good view with fantastic acoustics to boot; it’s reminiscent of a church where the sound carries wonderfully and reverberates around the building. House of Cain are made up of Rochelle Sutton (vocals), Neil Pybus (guitars/backing vocals), Mark Roberts (bass/backing vocals) and Rob Casson (drums) and play both an electric and an acoustic set, although to fit in with the feel of the event they give a stunning and moving acoustic performance. Performing all original songs, with a range of complex time and tempo changes, House of Cain provide a captivating performance. Rochelle’s voice is quite literally stunning; it’s silky and almost classic with a pop-twist which fits beautifully with the songs. The percussion is also strong and rhythmic and is added to by the instruments the band has distributed to the children in the audience, as well as the tambourine which is hooked around Rob Casson’s foot! Interacting charmingly with their audience, it fits this small venue with their numbers engaging all. As you sip on your latte and contemplate buying one of the tempting cakes, you find your foot tapping along to the songs. Their sound is another twist on musical genres: country/flamenco/pop / indie … you can’t quite put your finger on it.One of their most impressive numbers, ‘No More Excuses’ has a mellow groove, which metaphorically takes the listener on a journey through some quiet beats through some pretty harmony to a hauntingly poignant ending. A full, strong sound from a band that are not only technically on point, but whose confidence and passion in their original music comes through to the audience. It’s like you’ve been listening to them all of your life.
And finally, the journey home.Forlorn that it’s over; dying to come back. You contemplate your experience of Congleton. The festival itself was surprisingly varied and oozing in talent; there’s so much to say and a mound of albums to download too. Having been exposed to such a range of music, the majority like nothing in the current charts, you know that this event will turn into an annual event and not just for yourself either; the feedback from the crowds was just as encouraging. And what also strikes you is the friendliness of everyone you’ve met; the people of Congleton made the night for you with the crazy stories, talented musicians, shared jokes …. And that is what will make this a success; the hard working and fun-loving people involved.
You will go next year … hotel already booked.
With special thanks to the bands for playing so fantastically and putting up with my questions. To Louise Renn (and co!) for not losing me in Congleton; for knowing everything about everyone; for the absolutely fabulous stories (that I’m not allowed to mention here but they will not be forgotten!) and generally making me feel welcome.And Vince Cutcliffe, of course, for organising it and generally being a top guy. You’re ace.