Running this year from 30th Aug – 2nd Sep, Didmarton Bluegrass Festival is one of the biggest events in the bluegrass calendar here in the UK and takes place on a site within Kemble airfield near Cirencester. A large number of bands perform on two stages throughout the weekend, and the organisers make a conscious effort to leaven the bluegrass element with a sprinkling of other genres including folk, blues and jazz. This all makes for a lively festival and the presence of so many UK pickers makes the jamming opportunities particularly good.
As well as being within the boundaries of the airfield, the festival site is also adjacent to the clubhouse of the Ogri motorcycle club, and members of the MCC run the festival bars and provide security for the event. Both these factors give Didmarton a special flavour, with light aircraft coming and going, and aerobatic displays sometimes taking place overhead! The nightly massive bonfire outside Ogri’s clubhouse also adds to the atmosphere, with many pickers gathered around to chat, drink, sing and play.
Didmarton 2012 featured bluegrass legend Peter Rowan and Ozarks band Cedar Hill amongst the headliners. Virtuosic young Colorado guitarist Grant Gordy also came over to perform with UK musicians Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston as the Miranda Sykes trio. There were many more great UK and European bands there, including the Coal Porters, Sons of Navarone, Flats & Sharps and Kidnap Alice, to name just a few. As usual, there seemed to be too much going on to fit everything in, and sometimes I was having so much fun jamming with friends that I didn’t get round to visiting the concert marquees! But the performance highlight of the weekend for me was Land’s End, a collection of talented young guys who came together just this past Easter as a scratch band at Sore Fingers bluegrass camp. With great bluesy vocals (courtesy of Hubert Murray), top notch musicianship and a great range of material, they went down a storm with the discerning Didmarton audience.
I also enjoyed folk duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, who delivered a powerful set on fiddle, mandolin and guitar (with great harmony vocals) and up-and-coming Brighton band Hatful of Rain, with the lovely voice of Chloe Overton to the fore. On Sunday afternoon, I had a great time watching the closing set by Cedar Hill, complete with the folksy ramblings of front man Frank Ray. This straight-ahead classic bluegrass band (hailing from the states of Missouri and Arkansas) certainly knows its stuff, and I especially enjoyed the fiddle playing of Pete Brown and the flatpicking guitar and rich country voice of Shannon Cox. Shannon’s performance was particularly impressive, given that he’d only joined the band four weeks earlier and had learned a whole repertoire of original songs in that time.
As well as watching some great bands, I really enjoyed getting to sing and pick in a few different jams, and all too soon we reached the end of another Didmarton festival. Luckily though, we weren’t going home, but would be heading on to the next bluegrass festival, on the beautiful Gower peninsula, the following weekend…more on that next time!