The Red Rooster Festival continues to go from strength to strength, growing, adapting and evolving and somehow each year topping the achievements of the previous year. Those Rooster organisers don’t keep still and I was happy to be back for my sixth Red Rooster. That’s all of them.
As is traditional, the festival opened on the Thursday evening at the main stage and as well as the music, the area on periphery of the big top also became a social meeting point as people arrived after setting up camp and wandered down. I saw countless Norwich friends and familiar faces but what is also lovely is that I also saw a number of friends from around the country who I only see at Red Rooster, which in many cases is where we met. It’s that kind of festival, relaxed and not too big. It is very friendly with enough of a musical theme that everyone has plenty of bands to look forward they share that common bond. It’s not without its variety too with the outstanding Budos Band headlining the festival itself, a band so different they may have caught some off-guard but that is to Red Rooster’s immense credit, it would be easy to play it safe and predictable but it’s a festival strength that they keep looking for something new and different with the occasional surprise to keep us on our toes. Kudos to Rupert Orton of PRB Presents for this booking and pushing the boundaries. For Thursday though we had a warm-up dj set from The Smoking Guns ahead of live sets from Treetop Flyers, William the Conqueror and the extremely lively Low Cut Connie, a bizarre concoction of Lux Interior meets Jerry Lee Lewis frontman antics.
Not being an early-bird by nature I was nevertheless up quite early on Friday morning but that was due in no small part to the early morning sunshine causing intolerable heat in my tent though I didn’t really mind as it meant I was in good time for the 10am Friday morning opening of the Little Red Rooster stage. Bigger than before and with excellent sound with a much larger PA than the earlier years of the festival. Glasgow’s Martha Healy started the day off in lovely style, I enjoyed her set a lot, gorgeous Americana to ease us into the day and a smile that lit up the site. Her anecdotes bounced off with her band partner between songs were a delight too. A quick dash to the food court followed for a light breakfast and then I headed back to see Lisa Redford play, fresh from a recent EP launch for The Edge of Love and one of a number of Norwich artists at the festival along with the Delta Beltas, The Mighty Guevaras, and Hank Jd Sleek (who was bringing his Borderline to the Howling Woods DJ tent). Other DJs there were Wendy May, Dean Chalkley, Joe Harvey Whyte, and Andy Weatherall!
Although I had seen William the Conqueror the previous evening it may have been because I was stood outside of the big top marquee and not immersed myself closer to the stage but hearing them on the Friday morning at the Little Red Rooster stage was a revelation. I was totally captivated by the songs and was following the impressive Dylan-esque lyrics closely. This was superb songwriting. Copies of the their CDs were all quickly snapped up at the end of the set so they clearly impressed many others too.
There was a nice mellow vibe around this stage and I enjoyed further sets from Lucy Kitt, Ireland’s excellent The Southern Fold playing their first gig outside of their homeland, as well as a solo set from Carson McHone who was also playing with her band on the main stage a bit later. I very much enjoyed The Southern Fold who had an Americana sound that included elements of gospel, a couple of songs reminded me a bit of the much loved Hope in High Water. I’ll be checking them out further for sure. I wonder if they know Of the Clay, who have recently relocated from Norfolk to Dublin.
For the Friday the Little Red Rooster stage was curated by Sunny Ozell in association with the Americana Association UK (AMA-UK) “to have 50/50 gender balance on line-ups by 2022”.
The evening line-up for the main stage on Friday was most enticing and I was especially looking forward to Dale Watson and His Lone Stars but before that I caught sets by Jarrod Dickenson and the superb Black Eyed Dogs (featuring Ethan Johns) who played a sumptuous set that sometimes put me in mind of Neil Young but included a sublime cover of Gillian Welch’s Revelator, which was followed of course by the second set from Carson McHone who seemed a lot happier with her band than she seemed on her own on the Little Red Rooster stage earlier when she was understandably weary after forty days on the road.
Anyone who has seen Dale Watson and His Lone Stars before makes a point of not missing him when the chance comes around again and people were securing a spot near the front well ahead of set time. When compere Paul Preston Mills introduced him there were loud cheers and the party really started. His band are excellent and Mr. Watson is just the consummate entertainer. Engaging, witty and with fantastic songs in the pure old tradition. He came up with the term Ameripolitan to describe the authentic style of real Americana and this is exactly what he delivered. Some of my favourites were played including Call Me Insane and the brilliant singalong of I Lie When I Drink, plus a cover of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, not to mention his jingles for Lone Star “… the only beer that whitens teeth“! He even spotted Hank Jd Sleek in the crowd toasting him back with his own can of Lone Star, a nice moment. This felt like a headline set and I didn’t really want it to end but after an hour or so which absolutely flew by it had to finish. I made sure I got my vinyl though and was pleased to have it signed by Dale himself.
Nick Lowe headlined Red Rooster a couple of years ago and was back this time with Los Straitjackets, who were all masked. Nick had the crowd in his hand, and mid-way went offstage for a while as Los Straitjackets played a short surf set before being rejoined by Nick and we were treated to some gems such as Cruel to be Kind and Love Starvation.
I hung around the main stage afterwards, catching up with some friends and listening to Wendy May‘s dj set which had a welcome nod to The Clash. It wasn’t to be the last time they cropped up during the weekend either.
James and the Ultrasounds are a band from Memphis who I absolutely loved when they played a memorable Gluttonous Mutt gig at Halloween last year in the tiny Louis Marchesi crypt in Norwich. At 6:15am Memphis time and 11:15am Rooster time they kicked off proceedings on the main stage in glorious, noisy style with some melodic garage rock ‘n’ roll that quickly woke everyone up and drew them in. They went down a storm. I was looking forward to a catch-up with James but there was a huge queue for merch (which pleasingly cleared the lot) but I had a chance to chat with him later on which I was happy about.
Saturday was a really packed line up with The Mighty Guevaras on the small stage straight after and then an absolute highlight of the whole festival, French trio Howlin’ Jaws, somewhere slap-bang inbetween Dr. Feelgood and The Stray Cats. I’d seen these lads several times over the festival as they were camped near my own tent and for the duration they always looked the part and were very cool. They didn’t need to dress up to go onstage, they always look like that! Their energy, passion and love of what they do transmits powerfully and they connected strongly with everyone. Their rock ‘n’ roll, rockabilly show was terrific stuff and will live long in the memory. Please bring them to Norwich, Rupert! They sold every item of merch they had too, which may give an indication of how much they impressed people. Powersolo and Oh! Gunquit also followed here at the main stage with some wildness (somewhere inbetween The B52s and King Kurt, if you can imagine such a thing) that included simultaneous trumpet playing and hula-hooping before Errol Linton mellowed things out a bit with some beautiful reggae-tinged blues and there was even a jam set from a Joe Harvey Whyte and friends, (including Jose and Tris of The Vagaband) at the food court.
Jesse Dayton was another festival highlight for me, the real deal who has worked with some of the greats. This was outlaw country rock ‘n’ roll with punk spirit at its finest and I absolutely loved it. Opening with Daddy Was a Badass we quickly realised this was going to be special. Fantastic stage presence and great songs, this was another set that flew by and included The Way We Are and the exceptionally titled I’m at Home Getting Hammered While She’s Out Getting Nailed and some great stories between songs peppered throughout the set. It closed with a cover of The Clash’s Bankrobber, “I saw The Clash when I was 14 and it changed my life. I cut my hair short and at school the next day I told my jock teacher to ‘Kiss my ass!‘ ” Jesse Dayton is also a badass and was just fantastic.
It was back to the blues after this with Cedric Burnside before hopping over to the smaller stage to catch Rob Heron whose solo set without the Tea Pad Orchestra put me strongly in mind of a Geordie Jimmie Rodgers, and J.D. Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers whose extraordinary set shaking the Little Red Rooster shack is now already legendary, amazing to see a set like this on the LRR stage.
Then it was time for New York’s Budos Band, housed on Daptone Records. They may not have been what everyone was expecting but I had been looking forward to them a lot and they did not disappoint. They did remark “We aren’t a honky tonk band and you may not be here to see us but you are here and we thank you!” It was music unlike anything I have heard live before and was truly special, 70s instrumental psychedelia mixed with afrobeat, Ethiopian funk, amazing bass and heavy rock riffs in something utterly unique in its otherness. Every bit as fantastic as I hoped it might be. When PPM came back on he was obviously blown away by it too, suggesting we dial the helpline “0800 WTF!” Truly astonishing. The tent was not as full for their set as I was expecting but those that were there were captivated and big respect to Red Rooster for booking them. They weren’t to everyone’s tastes, it must be said, but those that got them and dug them reeeeaaaly loved them. It was unforgettable.
A memorable weekend of music and the weather was warm and glorious throughout – at least we thought so, may of the artists from the South couldn’t quite understand our reaction saying “This is what it’s like at 6 in the morning back home!” while we all sweltered.
Once again the festival vibe was lovely, everyone seemed happy and the music was great. I love the relaxed nature of the place and it was summed up during the Budos Band set when something caught my eye. During a quiet spell the bar staff simply got up and danced on the bar itself!
People chilled, some swam, many danced, the kids were happy and safe and so were the dogs, one of whom even sported dungarees and a neckerchief!
The site itself is gorgeous and the stage and camping areas seemed remarkably clean throughout. With plentiful recycling points there was no excuse for litter anyway but as soon as the music finished on the main stage for the night I noticed people out clearing the discarded cups and cans at 1am so that everything was pristine for again for when events kicked off again the following morning. Lots of choice for food with vegetarians and vegans also catered for. Bikes, games and facilities for children, a lake and river to walk alongside or swim in or even boat around in a pedalo swan! All under the watchful eye of lifeguards and refreshingly low-key and chilled security. Toilets in the main music area were also plentiful and frequently cleaned.
One of the biggest and most noticeable improvements was the much better PA and stronger sound from the expanded Little Red Rooster stage which at times had huge audiences, notably when JD Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers closed it on Saturday night. There’s a bit of bleed from the main stage at times when set times overlap but the large hay-bale buffer helps enormously and the new PA more than holds its own.
Although the music was the main draw for most the weekend was also about the social side of things with friendly faces everywhere it was great to just hang out and chat with like-minded people. Red Rooster have created something quite special with a wonderfully laid-back vibe. The atmosphere was chilled, friendly, sociable and happy. In what I think is at least the third year in succession the festival sold out, with capacity growing a little year on year this one had about 6,000 though personally I would not want it to get too much busier and lose its intimacy and so much of what makes it special.
The first person I saw in the city a couple of days later saw my Red Rooster t-shirt and came up to me and said “Great festival!” Yes, it is. Sums it up perfectly.
Highlights for me: Dale Watson and His Lone Stars, Jesse Dayton, The Budos Band, Howlin’ Jaws, James and the Ultrasounds, Black Eyed Dogs, William the Conqueror (2nd set), The Southern Fold, JD Wilkes and the Legendary Shack Shakers, the weather and the friendships.
Thanks again Red Rooster.