Now a week has passed since this year’s showcase of new and emerging bands at Wildfire Festival 2017 and one looks back on a blend of happy memories of meeting positive, like-minded people, enjoying seriously good music and giggling on those funny moments you can’t plan or script. Wildfire as festival was a celebration of being in the moment, enjoying the unexpected and always looking forward to the next day.
My involvement started back in November 2016. Dave and I speak most weeks and share ideas on bands and new discoveries. We share a belief in giving new bands a break and the decision for Great Music Stories to sponsor a main stage at Wildfire was a natural continuation of our ongoing discussion.
As the bill was announced in three phases in the first half of 2017, it was clear we were looking at something quite special for June. The line-up was crammed with many of the most exciting names in rock from all corners of the UK.
My perspective in picking standout bands from 2017 is limited by my role doing interviews for much of the weekend. Whilst I would have been happy to watch all the bands, I was also conscious that using the festival to put to bed a series of band features would in fact be helpful to the bands long after Wildfire was over. So planning my schedule for the weekend ended up being a Jekyll & Hydge balancing act between having a ‘work’ hat on for the interviews and then running up to the stages to enjoy some of the music. I lost a few pounds running between the stages and my interview room in the lodge over the next three days.
Picking stand out sets is always going to be subjective and runs a bit against the grain on the Wildfire ethos – which is on the power of the collective. That said, everyone leaves a festival comparing notes with friends on stand out acts and surprise packages.
For me Friday night belonged to Aaron Buchanan & The Cult Classics. I met Aaron and Laurie shortly before their set on Friday and his vocal performance was quite simply stunning – in particular on All The Things You’ve Said And Done – coupled by a theatrical performance and a tight band. From a marquee at dusk in Scotland one could imagine this band filling arenas.
On the other stage, a special mention to The Jokers – a mature band who should be much better known than they are and, on merit, playing bigger venues. They brought a big helping of blues-infused rock and a polished stagecraft that makes them a good role model for new bands starting out. The same can be said of Toseland and The Treatment who each brought big stage experience and know-how to their respective headline slots.
Saturday was an exciting day for me. Many of the bands I had spent time with interviewing over the previous year were on the main stage as the second day proved to be a relentless showcase of breaking talent.
Starting a day is never an easy job, but Saturday started with a real bang. Swamp Born Assassins, Psychobabylon and Safire started Saturday with a frenetic pace on the two main stages, whilst Empyre’s set on the third stage also impressed.
Gasoline Outlaws for me were the most improved band a year on from Wildfire ‘16. In 12 months the band had transformed from an eager unit keen to make an impression to a powerful, self-confident rock force with power, melody and fronted by hugely impressive vocal performances by Matt, whose voice sounded transformed. I always felt ‘Breathe Again’ marked a massive step change for the band – and at Wildfire they put a flag down on what’s to come with the second album.
Fireroad has almost become a house band for the Wildfire faithful, whose hearts the band won years ago. They performed with a confidence and swagger that suggests their time with national radio and rock magazines is around the corner. In one word – authentic.
The Texas Flood were the band that brought the drama on Saturday. I’ve been a big supporter of the band for a few years now, so am not hugely objective here. However, I am always staggered how this three piece create such an enormous wall of sound: they always smash out a faultless live set seemingly without breaking into a sweat. Ben probably also wins the weekend’s award for the best dancing – he’s anything but the traditional image of the quiet, subdued bass player standing timidly in the corner.
A personal and somewhat emotional highpoint for me was seeing Safire perform their first mainland festival. An Irish band I got behind in 2016 and the listeners of my rock show were instrumental in getting the band on the bill for Wildfire. Seeing the guys backstage just before their show and sensing their palpable excitement – for anyone that invests time trying to help bands, those are the small magic moments that make everything fully worthwhile.
Broken Witt Rebels smashed it late on Saturday night and, to many, were probably the surprise package of the whole festival. A performance befitting a festival headliner, there was a muscle and strength to this performance that simply stunned many in the audience. The impact was doubly strong given the power of the music was delivered by four Midlands lads that are warm-hearted, unpretentious and have not lost their roots. Their set was a bit like being hit in the face by a baseball bat only for Danny to follow it up by giving you a warm, friendly hug and a cheeky smile. Followed the next day by The Bad Flowers and Piston, The Midlands made an indelible mark on Wildfire 2017 – and to many people I spoke to on Sunday, the Rebels were mentioned as the highlight of the weekend.
Sunday again had another relentless showcase of talent, although for me, it was a day spent more in the interview room than watching the bands on the stages.
Bad Touch were the band of the weekend that made me smile the most. They were noticeably enjoying their set – one from a band that is reaping the rewards of having relentlessly toured for the last year. The music was tight and – without being complacent – they are clearly comfortable with who they are and what they do on stage. Bad Touch were the band of the weekend that reminded me most that live music should be fun.
The only downer on the final day was our party’s return flight to Gatwick meant we would miss Those Damn Crows. The final act I saw on Sunday was Thirteen Stars. This is a band more people need to take time to discover – Hoss and the boys played the best – and most varied – set I’ve seen them play and there is real ambition and eclecticism in the direction Hoss is taking the band. The new material went down very well with a finale that delivered real, dramatic impact.
I’ve only mentioned a handful of bands – over the three days I only saw around 20 of them. For the rest of the time was interviewing in the lodge.
Good interviews are all about the preparation. I never script anything, but I think a lot about the context and setting for each band. How you can bring them out of themselves and help them shine effortlessly, without feeling self-conscious. As you get to know a band you also get to know where you can take things. The task is to make them shine for the listener – and sometimes to take them somewhere unexpected for this to happen.
Prime examples of this working well came with the first session of the weekend. A joint interview with Tequila Mockingbyrd and Massive. Having pushed the boundaries a little the week before at Stone Free Festival and getting a measure on the interaction between the bands, I knew we could go a bit further at Wildfire. And this we did. A rock version of the great British bake-off started the interviews well, along with a second group project I’m keeping quiet about until it’s ready to air. We also did a serious interview with the Tequila byrds, which was an interesting counterpoint to the fun at the ‘drizzle bake off.’ The interviews oozed personality from the bands.
Theia I met for the first time at Wildfire on the start of day two. The interview room doubled as a band party room in the evenings, so when I arrived on Saturday at 9am to a room full of Pistonhead empties I no doubt gave Theia a worrying first impression on interviewing being thirsty work. It was a great time to catch these guys on the back of a fine new album release – the band were on a creative high and this confidence was evident on stage a few hours later.
The interviews with SKAM and Fragile Things were among the most amusing on Saturday and Sunday – both took place on the wooded walkway between the stages and the lodge. The SKAM interview had been ‘in the book’ ever since my first phoner with Steve in January when we had started to put the music industry to rights. We expected a serious debate to continue at Wildfire but instead we had some spontaneous pandemonium. First a red-jump-suit clad hanger-on, resembling a wannabe Father Christmas, was the subject of verbal abuse – and then Gaynor’s party gate-crashed proceedings. That interview came out as really funny but we re-did the serious interview in the lodge the next day. Together the two sessions present interesting and very different sides to SKAM.
The Fragile Things interview on Sunday was just fun. Three days into interviews, sleep deprived, and tanked up on far too much coffee – things were just getting a bit silly. This interview became a duel of cheeky banter and interchanges and is the kind of interview you’ll never get if you have scripted questions. It also marked for me the beginning of the end….
When I returned to the lodge I was looking forward to my next interviews with Thirteen Stars and bad Touch, two bands I’ve followed closely for the last two years. But on returning the lodge – and 35 interviews done – I realised there was nothing left in the tank… and my voice was going. For both these interviews I was running on empty but the bands carried them – as these two bands always do.
The final interview take was possibly the best one of the weekend. It underlines the best interviews are often the spontaneous ones – and sometimes the art is just seeing and capturing it, gently nudging the rudder every now and them to keep things moving. As I was packing up in the interview room after the Bad Touch interview, Robb Weir from Tygers walked in. I remembered him from HRH Ibiza the previous year: A great conversationalist – as was Hoss Thompson who was also back in the room. I put them head to head – old band Vs new band to face-off on the digital battleground that music operates in today. Were the old ways better or the new? And who can learn from who? This was the perfect interview to finish Wildfire 2017. That done, it was time to spend some quality time with friends in and around the marquee.
A lot has been said about the quality of bands at Wildfire. And whilst great bands matter, it’s the people that make a festival special – and nowhere was this more clear to see than at Wildfire 2017.
It isn’t just the people you know when you get there – it’s usually the people you know by the time you leave. Wildfire in terms of the size, setting and spirit of event has a family feeling.
Some of the special characters this year – the guys at Scozzese pizza fed an army of bands with original flavours of pizza; Eric visually redefined Wildfire through a series of relentlessly good photos; Gaynor – the inventor of Band T-shirt Fridays – flew the flag for band merch and along with Sam, Drew, Shelly and Chris et al kept the front line of the audience buzzlin’ down by the barrier. Jon was scouting new talent while capturing great shots from the stage, Sonia was everywhere building bridges and connecting people, Jim and Sally were getting content out to news desks and – inside the lodge – the kitchen staff kept the whole thing going with a steady stream of bacon rolls and hot coffee. And the fab folk from Moshville Times and Radio Saltire where championing Scotland’s finest young bands.
In truth there are far too many people to mention here. But there are two people to single out. First, Dave Ritchie: He’s a guy that does what he does from the heart. He’s passionate and determined but also modest. He’s a one-man army and his judge of character and sense of values is what makes Wildfire what it is. Second there’s Isabelle. They always say behind every great man is an even greater woman. Whatever the dynamic, one has an unmistakable sense this pair is a team and without them there wouldn’t be Wildfire. To Dave and Isabelle a big and heartfelt thank you… and we’ll see you again same month, same place next year.