4th – 6th August 2023
Roger: How often do any of us buy a ticket to a three day festival in the middle of nowhere, where 90% of the acts listed are a complete unknown? Not many I guess, and not often enough if this wonderfully weird event was anything to go by! Enticed by the prospect of riding the psychedelic surf with The Holy Family in a field somewhere near Hereford (of all places), I took the plunge on “tickets” some months ago. It turned out that there were none, virtual or real, and names were scratched from a list at the oft unmanned entrance when the “holder” arrived. From the off, the hush-hush nature of this very alternative festival was more akin to a rave than a rock festival, with the final venue only being revealed by social media message a few weeks beforehand.
Having persuaded my equally adventurous (mad?) TPA colleague Jez to come along, off I headed from a gloomy Shoesville for our Hereford rendezvous point. Heading southwest from Birmingham on my journey from Northants, the sun comes out for the first time just past Worcester. Judging by the forecast for the weekend this will be at best an intermittent sighting…
Jez: There’s something strange going on in the Herefordshire countryside, specifically the fields surrounding the tranquil (and no doubt unsuspecting) village of Wormelow. Amidst the wheat and corn, freaks are assembling. Hark… hear their playful laughter as they kick back for the weekend, chow down on delicious vegan dishes and imbibe the sweetest of ales in the company of the likeminded, whilst all around them music swirls…
Unlike more ‘normal’ (for want of a less clumsy term) festivals, Unorthodox Paradox offers a range of musical delights wider than the uninitiated might have considered possible, alongside poetry and comedy. What Neil and Libby Spragg have created with their compact (around 200 attendees) and bijou travelling fayre is a breathtakingly lovely and inclusive gathering, and I was privileged to have been allowed into this hidden world of delights.
This is not a place for genres and pigeonholing, and it is not a place for negativity and snooty elitism. This is a place for everyone in attendance to release themselves and revel in the freedom and generosity of spirit that the event has successfully built up over the years.
With over thirty acts gracing the two stages over the three days, running in a continuous cycle from late afternoon until midnight-ish, it wasn’t possible to catch everything, but I can honestly confirm that everything we saw fell into categories encompassing the life affirming, the informative, the mind-expanding or the just plain fun: I knew only a couple of the acts when we arrived, I am now a firm fan of many more. I’m not playing the genre game but almost everything could find a home at TPA based on our past scribblings. Was there any ‘Prog’, as such? A bit… if you squinted, but that really shouldn’t scare anyone. Open your mind and your ears and you’ll be surprised what can float your boat.
There are two stages – the main one being the Unorthodox Stage, at one end of the camping field, and the second is the Paradox Stage (curated by the Monkey Poet), which is more a performance area than a stage as such, in the beer tent. The pictures will reveal all…
Having sadly missed the the first band on the main stage, the brilliantly named Colossloth, due to acclimatisation, food gathering and beer purloining (whilst perusing the ‘(Dis)Orientation Booklet’ provided), we found ourselves in the beer tent (with its rather decent real ales!) where folk singer Andy Skellam eased us in nicely with his finely crafted introspective tuneage thang. Playing finger-style guitar, with a laid-back, almost Nick Drake-like style and gentle wit, he brought a warmth that the weather wasn’t keen on matching. He seemed unnecessarily nervous and had to re-start a couple of songs, but the attentive audience were more than supportive. Sat cosily in the bar, it was already a nice environment and very enjoyable as Andy sang his folk and blues-tinged songs. A decent start!
First foray to the main stage, and we are presented with Chrysalid Homo, a Mancunian quartet who produce electro noise of the finest calibre. They made use of an unusual marketing concept wherein a repeated refrain of “You should die, you should die, and you should die” was accompanied by the singer pointing out individual members of the as yet sparse crowd. This went down a storm. It seemed a diametric leap to then ask their recently deceased audience to buy their CDs, but it seemed to pay off and by the end the whole audience was singing along. Lizzo take note!
Back in the bar and the weekend’s first poet, Mancunian Dave Viney regales the assembled with his words. Your two elegant scribes don’t often go to poetry readings (i.e., this is probably the first one either of us have ever been to) and it was an interesting and warm vibe as Dave read his highly personal prose, taking no prisoners in slashing Facebook and the vagaries of older siblings.
ExP on the main stage turned out to be a rap act. Now, I will admit that rap isn’t something that normally gets much of a look in chez moi as, let’s face it, it isn’t aimed at late middle-aged white guys, although this act might be an exception given the themes tackled! These two young uns made a fine old racket, and while I might not have rap of any sort as a fixture on my turntable, I can appreciate the craft that goes into knitting together streams of verbiage in an engaging fashion.
Rapper ExP (his mum knows him as Ben. Or at least I think that’s his name, it’s hard to pin down) had a really clever way with words. Describing his humorous rants as “Grumble Rap” is accurate! One tune involved a succession of dad jokes (called unsurprisingly, Dad Jokes!) delivered at breakneck speed to an insistent beat from DJ O.P.1. Another one is entitled ‘Ow Much?… you can guess where that goes I’m sure. Ben waved signs with singalong phrases at the audience, who were more than happy to join in. All very entertaining.
Next up is a poet from South Wales, Pete A K, whose powerful words spoke of his upbringing and cultural heritage.
The Scaramanga Six, the first of the weekend’s Cardiacs affiliated bands, punked up proceedings in a thoroughly noisy manner – and they were bloody marvellous. But melody was never far away and with It’s A Good Thing To Be Nothing the Huddersfield quartet have a song for all those who are quite happy not to pay into the pointless hustle, and drift aimlessly through life. More power to the lazy, although they wouldn’t want it, would they? The energy in the performance of these driving and edgy pop songs translated to the crowd as they grooved along with the quartet (yes, there’s four of them; don’t ask…) and the set was hugely satisfying from start to finish.
At this point it’s worth noting that the sound for all of the acts was just fantastic. A hat should be raised aloft to the sound man who coped brilliantly with the huge variety of noises being cast his way, quickly and efficiently getting the levels right with nothing more than an iPad. The fact that the stage folded out of a truck (which for some reason had the passenger seat area full of polystyrene chips!) and that the bands played through wind and rain in a field only served to make the quality even more astonishing.
Back in the warm of the beer tent and our humorously cajoling host The Monkey Poet took to the stage, but I can’t remember much about his act due to creeping psychic dislocation. This state of mind was seized upon by main stage headliner ZOFFF who gathered together all the loose psychic strands and flung them out into the cosmos. This was pulsing Krautrock in field. Bic Hayes (of Dark Star and Levitation fame, and of course Cardiacs) plus Crayola Lectern (more of them later) take us on an instrumental trip from the Welsh Borders to inner/outer space delirium. A blummin’ marvellous end to our first day!
Wet upon wet with layers of wet, dripping. A festival isn’t a festival without a good soaking, is it? And just to underline that fact, we had got away with a dry day wandering along the River Wye, visiting Ross-on-Wye and Monmouth, the heavens only deigning to vent their spleen just before and during the first act of the day, Crayola Lectern, who wended their way on stage at 4pm prompt. Thankfully they make such a gloriously melodic melange, to my ears sometimes reminiscent of Robert Wyatt, that the driving rain into my port side was soon, well, if not forgotten, at least tolerated!
Jez had seen this magnificent band a few months ago, supporting Arch Garrison in Brighton, and was really looking forward to hearing the dreamy pathos of their wonderful songs again. They did not disappoint, in a trio format this time with additional keyboards and vocals from ZOFFF drummer Damo Waters. The fragile beauty of these songs, framed by pianist Chris Anderson’s delicate yet lived-in vocals, shine from the stage and makes you feel warm inside, despite the rain bouncing off your noggin. You should be able to get this stuff on the NHS.
Poetry of a very different stripe next with Rufus Mufasa, from the South Wales valleys, and her melding of personal experience with Jamaican patois in a rapping style. It took a while to get used to but her unique performance made for an interesting and enjoyable listen whilst taking the weight off in the comfy airline seats at the back end of the bar.
By the time Ask My Bull beamed down, the rain had just about stopped, but it felt like an autumn evening, not one at the beginning of August! Yes, it was dang cold. The blurb for this band from Manchester reads, “A musical chimera that combines the visceral energy of punk, the danceability of drum ‘n’ bass and the intriguing nuance of jazz”, and that about sums it up. It warmed us up nicely as they kicked up an energetic saxophone driven storm. So energetic in fact that bassist Nathan Barrett managed to break a string, meaning a quick run to get another instrument from the van, resulting in him losing another string by dint of having to swap his 5-string for a standard four, but that didn’t stopping him spinning and bouncing through the rhythms with aplomb.
The compelling and vibrant performance quickly transmitted to an audience only too ready to dance along as boundaries were pushed all over the place, a well-placed and pumping cover of the Pink Panther theme being icing on the delicious cake.
We unfortunately missed Sharron Kraus whilst waiting for the debut performance of assured North Sea Radio Orchestra and Lost Crowns singer Sharron Fortnam’s latest project, Kugelschreiber. With the inscrutable name (taken from the German for ‘ball-point pen’, obvs) it was a mystery as to what we were going to be presented with, and when a rack of suspended kitchen utensils appeared on stage, the plot thickened. The plus side of this bizarre addition was an entertaining soundcheck, as the unsuspecting untuned percussion was put through its paces.
When the gig got going, what actually happened was Sharron playing bass and singing with a co-conspirator on drums, guitar and vocals. As it was their first ever gig, the somewhat underplayed, tentative nature of their set was understandable, but Sharron couldn’t sing badly if she tried and the result was a strange and often quite beautiful set. Snatches of lyric sounded intriguing, and the basics of the charming songs will require further investigation. There’s certainly something here, it may need a bit more layering than the duo can pull off in a live space, so we will have to wait for the album to see how it all pans out.
Pefkin was a pleasant surprise, whilst grabbing another cheeky and delicious vegan curry. This is the project of Scottish musician Gayle Brogan (from folk band Burd Ellen), on violin and electronic stuff, accompanied for this performance by guitarist Paul Cross. The spacious soundscapes transported the beer tent audience elsewhere, the dream pop-psych songs and ethereal sounds fitting into the bucolic surroundings just so. Another new find of note!
Back out into the elements for another unknown name (to us at least) on the main stage, Paddy Steer, whose prosaic moniker proved deceptive and he quickly became one of the favourite acts of the weekend. I mean, what’s not to like when someone dresses as a wizard and plays drums while manipulating analogue synths to produce fantastic crowd pleasing dance rhythms? He certainly got the punters moving and the grins were as wide as the field in which we stood, and the too low temperature was soon rendered irrelevant.
Paddy is a wonder, an act so bizarre as to be theoretically implausible, but somehow he pulls it all off with style and pizazz, whilst looking like a guy who’s been chased out of a fancy dress shop to play instruments he’s never seen before. Wonderful in every way, this is what British eccentricism was meant to look like. On occasion he would replace his wizard’s hat with a robot’s head, for no apparent reason, commenting that we really wouldn’t want to be wearing it on account of it being “full of skin and hair and shit”. His deadpan surreal tale of fitting a new bathroom window made it even better. Utterly mad and suiting this increasingly strange event to a tee. Paddy Steer: Legend.
From the bizarre to the, er, bizarre with the redoubtable Burt Bacharackhams in the beer tent. A kind of metaphorical Frank Sidebottom descendant, resplendent in his red suit, we were initially presented with the hilarious spectacle of him struggling to find the folder containing his backing tracks on a recalcitrant laptop. The panic grew as the good-natured jibing from the audience grew more pointy. Finally the requisite files turned up and he got into his stride with a series of daft pop pastiches and interactions with himself as different characters on screen behind him. Songs included Wonky Disco, How (with a video cameo from Fred Dinenage) and Which Cat Shat in my Gregg’s Hat, the Twat?, probably the song title of the weekend. It certainly had its moments and there were laughs to be had. Another great British crackpot.
Probably the proggiest thing on the bill came in the shape of The Sounds of Ursa, the vehicle of choice for Bristolian singer/songwriter Helen Stanley. The cinematic songs eased us gently into low orbit, with a folky edge from violin as Helen sat front and centre at her keyboard. The quartet worked well together to deliver an impressive set with some fine instrumental sections amid the spacey post-rock, but the band never lost sight of the songs at the heart of it all.
However, their set was interrupted by the most comedic moment of the weekend, when the alarm on The Holy Family’s hire van (parked near the stage) went off, resulting in the unlikely sight of Kavus Torabi running about looking for the keys to switch it off. He still managed to look ridiculously cool though, the bastard! 😉
We were urged by a fellow audience member not to miss Thick Richard, up next in the tent – and, to be fair, who would want to miss someone with a name like that anyway? Apparently he’s been regaling festival and club audiences with his razor sharp Mancunian tongue and acid wit for 16 years. He’s aged well in that case. Aided by a “robot” (aka Bloke-in-a-Suit) from which spewed an endless tickertape of “AI” poetry, he used the prop to interact with the crowd, and the results were hilarious. He got his robot chum to point out members of the audience, whereupon (a poncey word he’d have me for, I’m sure!) Mr Richard would deliver short character assassinations. The acerbic, blacker-than-black humour went down a storm and we laughed like drains at the sweary rants and beautifully observed quick-fire poems. I’m sure this guy must have some of John Cooper-Clarke’s genes swimming about in his plasma. Whatever, it was bloody hilarious and the best thing in the tent all weekend.
And so we arrive at the headliners of an amazing day, and the main reason we plunged into this alternative reality in the first place; The Holy Family. Resplendent in Masonic sashes, shades and enigmatic stares, this fabulous evolution of the Guapo DNA led an hour of worship to the Kosmische Gods. Playing songs from their latest waxing, Go Zero (which Roger says he will get around to reviewing “shortly”), this band are so tight now the grooves are a deep and seemingly effortless commune with the lysergic muse, driving on and on, gathering intensity to arrive at hugely satisfying conclusions.
Kavus Torabi ripped through a startling solo at one point, and it was good to see Emmett Elvin back behind the joanna, spinning around on himself to the point that you’d expect his hands to tie themselves in knots. At the back, Sam Warren drives the spectral hearse ever onward, while newish drummer Joe Lazarus’s charging backbeat frees up leader David J Smith to assume his full shamanic duties. A natural focus of attention, he leads his congregation to the promised land, or the abattoir. Or both. In conference with the band’s name, this is as near as dammit a religious event, uplifting and almost spiritual. Pretentious, nous? Ok, a bit maybe, but that’s the feeling that The Holy Family instil. We are sent away to our beds thoroughly sated.
Taking advantage of the surprisingly good weather we headed over the Welsh border to Abergavenny for a thoroughly invigorating yomp up most of the Sugar Loaf hill; “most of” as Roger’s knees got scared and Jez almost had a coronary, so we stopped just before the top. Resting our weary feet and suitably refreshed, we ambled down to the pleasantly dry and considerably warmer Unorthodox field for the final day of this celebration of the weird and wonderful. From the off the day had a nice laid-back, lazy Sunday feel.
We sadly missed Gary Williams and Katie Spencer, but were there just in time for The Retinal Circus. It seems that singer/songwriter Craigus Barry has been ploughing his individualistic furrow over a prolific twenty years, taking in any style that takes his fancy. Tonight, performing as a trio with drums and bass, Craigus leads the band through a set hinting at psych blues rock with punky edges. It’s a bit ragged to start but he seems to be having problems with his guitar and once a new one is obtained things get better. It’s entertaining and the rhythm section is tight so no complaints here. Had they been their grandads, they would have sounded like The Groundhogs, and they had the look too. I wonder if they’ve heard of Tony McPhee?
As this late afternoon was very pleasant we decided to stay sat in the bits of sunshine offered by the Gods, and so missed the next act in the bar, Richard Temple, so we were still in place at the intriguing sight of the next band soundchecking. HAQ123 bring “Heavy sounds from the heaviest band from the heaviest city on Earth” (according to the strapline on their website). Well, they probably could only come from that weird place in the middle of the country that has its own uniquely unsettling vibe, like the reverberating echo of a thousand metal presses from ages past. It’s Birmingham of course, which coincidentally is where festival organiser Neil springs from. HAQ123 appear to comprise a fuzz bass playing dad (“some older guy who used to be in Evil Blizzard”) and two early teens-ish kids (apparently “brought up on the sounds of Sabbath and energised by Haribo”), Zac beating the living daylights out of a drum kit twice his size and Millie providing voice and rudimentary keyboards.
It seems that this unlikely trio have been going for six or more years and are no strangers to festivals, making a racket that would loosen yer dentures from several leagues away. Millie’s deadpan song introductions and passive-aggressive put-downs of individuals in the audience were comedy genius, smashing the poor unfortunates to atoms with laser-guided accuracy – and without raising even a hint of a smirk. Examples include, “I saw a few of you talking during the last song. This one is dedicated to you. It’s called Death Sentence” and singling out one quailing soul with “All of the mirrors in your house are cracked – why do you think that is?” during the glorious Ugly Baby, built around the line “Your baby is ugly and so are you”. This girl is a star of the future, I tells ye! The songs are grinding angsty sludge-metal, akin to a bastard offspring of The Fall’s very earliest noise, taking vituperative pot-shots at childhood targets such as the pointlessness of Kinder Eggs. We were most amused… you possibly had to be there.
More slothfulness meant we only caught a small part of singer/guitarist Henry Parker‘s set of folk with a psych twist, but what we saw was certainly very good. Back on the main stage, French songwriter Clementine March, supported by bass and drums, provided a lovely and relaxing set as the shadows lengthened, but sadly the audience to hear it was pitifully small. A shame, as she played a selection of well-observed songs from her as yet unreleased next album. Taking in multi-lingual textures in French, English and Portuguese, it was a lovely listen for a Sunday afternoon, and there was humour too as she mock-jealously quipped that she wished she’d written a song as amazing as Ugly Baby!
We really were taking the foot off the gas on this third day – our earlier hill yomping seemed like a lifetime ago after HAQ123’s set! We decided to sit out The Diamond Family Archive too, but a trip to the food hut for more delicious curry was undone by the fact that they’d sold out – DISASTER! Miles from anywhere and with hungry bellies, we didn’t want to miss the next act, Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer, and so took the difficult (only) decision to quickly head off to nearby Hereford to grab a pizza (brown food emergency warning light on max intensity flashing – Whoop Whoop!). Foot back on the gas, we successfully made it back shortly after Mr B had started his set, much to our relief as he was a proposition we didn’t want to miss. And he did not disappoint.
Dressed in a 1950s suit, with a handlebar moustache, and oddly, orange trainers, our pseudo upper class hero delivers raps in cut glass accent, mostly about what it is to be a chap. A favourite line was “A proper chap quotes Byron, with a collar and tie on”. Marvellous, and just right for this quirkiest of quirky festivals! As we slightly guiltily munched on our non-vegan fayre, he went through a magnificent routine of songs about nice cups of tea and unexpected ’90s dance covers. Hugely entertaining, he’s supremely good at what he does, with only backing tracks and a banjolele for accompaniment (and a china cup “soloed” on with a spoon), it was both a laugh riot and a dance-fest. Top Hole!
Des Mannay was the last act in the tent, and maybe a tad too serious after Mr. B! With poems of childhood in a racially divisive world and stories of fighting discrimination, it was powerful and thought-provoking stuff. Finally, it’s time for the last act of a very enjoyable weekend, Colossal Squid, comprising much in demand drummer Adam Betts, of Three Trapped Tigers. His playing was certainly a sight to see as he ramped up to unfeasible levels of energy and dexterity, his kit including programmed synth pads to deliver a punchy backing for the non-stop physical workout, all perfectly synchronised with the triggered samples and addendums. A fascinating performance that was greeted with much dancing and wild enthusiasm, Adam humbly acknowledging his thanks for this, and in doing so endearing himself to the crowd even further. A fitting finale from a fascinating artist.
The Unorthodox Paradox festival has apparently been going – on and off – since 2006. Given the disparate nature of music scenes these days, it’s not particularly surprising that we hadn’t heard of it until this year. It’s a shame we don’t get out of our comfort zones more often, as there’s a lot of mad entertainment and exceptional skills out there. Definitely keep an eye out for this festival in 2024. And finally, many thanks to Neil and Libby for putting this crazy show together!