I do not have a ticket for this year’s Playgroup Festival, but I was sad to hear that it has been postponed – a summer full of rain does not allow you to pitch your tent in the protected grounds of an ancient deer park. I went to the festival last year, its second birthday. It was incredible, and I can confidently recommend it to anyone. There were morning aerobics with girls in lycra, fancy dress costumes of woodland beauty, a cloud land under a huge oak tree, and more bands and DJs than I can remember or name. Maybe next year it will be the driest summer ever, and we will struggle to get our tent pegs into the ground. Let’s hope it balances out somehow.
Luckily for us, the people at the Playgroup Festival headquarters were not going to leave us all crying in the rain. They put on an alternative weekender event, which seemed carefully engineered to feel like a mini festival in itself. Music was provided all day and all night at The Blind Tiger, the new bar and venue in Brighton where the Playgroupers are based. I stumbled upon this event by chance, and met a few other hopeful revelers in fancy dress. I decided to go along with the excitement, armed with a new t-shirt that was quickly dubbed ‘David Tasseltop’. I exchanged compliments with a man in full sparkling chain mail, and found another old friend wrapped up in a hat, a silken neckerchief, and something like a snood/flag. He said he had been up for the last 24 hours, collecting these accessories.
The first band I pricked up my ears for was The Peppermint Beat Band. True to festival form, I had already spent a while wandering around chatting and getting lost, so I’m afraid I did not catch the act before them, King Mews. The Peppermint Beat Band soared happily along in a Californian psychedelic vein, with the sweetly painful harmonies of Fleet Foxes and the bouncing melodic charm of the 1960s.
They oscillated between an experimental mixture of styles, including their own concoction of traditional country and blues. The bass player had the best bass I’ve ever seen, golden brown and guitar shaped, but bigger and better. He stood in the middle at the front, which made a nice contrast – I like being able to hear and see all the instruments of a band. He also had a bongo with him, which waited conspicuously in the middle of the dance-floor until it had a moment of glory – in a song where the whole band turned to percussion to make the audience feel like happy warriors. I went online to try and find my favourite song from their set, but either my memory fails me or they have not recorded it yet. Still, I found a nice little example of another number.
There was a little lull before a DJ began playing. I had heard a rumour that DJ Format would be making an appearance, but I didn’t believe it somehow – for no good reason. I now know that he had been officially booked in, but I hadn’t received that memo. Anyway this DJ arrived, and started selecting singles like sweets from a little square red box. I was enchanted, because he was playing my favourite kind of strange old mystery record. At one point, he put an oriental pop song on, and I had to run over and ask him about it. He showed me the cover, which had lots of characters that I could not read, and a photograph of a group who looked a bit like the Chinese equivalent of The Shadows. I blurted out my love of Chinese pop from the olden days! He replied that I’d made his night, because I liked his most unusual record. You guessed it folks – it was DJ Format after all! I’m pretty glad I didn’t believe or know it at the time.
I was wondering who or what on earth could follow this revelation, when along came Transformer. They had been surreptitiously setting up for a long time, with several laptops and wires which gave me both a sense of hope and fear. Whenever there is an extensive band setup, I always feel a strange urge to cross my fingers and hope it’s worth it. I should probably adapt to the modern world, and relax. Transformer launched into their first song like a policeman knocking down a door, in a good way. We were all inside, and we were so happy to see them!
The drummer was a living machine, furiously keeping time with technology. The lead singer/keyboard player had an endearing quality of looking nice and friendly, but performing like a dramatic pop star. He picked up his keyboard and played a solo using his head, which I found quite ingenious. The band reminded me of Talking Heads and LCD Soundsystem, as well as a German act called DJ Kaos, whose lyrics somehow seemed similar. The band killed us with extremely tight delivery, whilst remaining somehow feline and cool. They were dirty and they were fun, and we all danced our tassels off. Most people who ordered a pint ingested half of it through their t-shirt, but it didn’t matter.
The evening was scheduled to continue with three more acts, one more band and two DJs, but I was pretty darn satisfied and decided to leave on a high. This event was a very pleasant surprise, and it has given me a fervent belief in the Playgroup Festival. It will happen again ‘for real’ in September, for those who have booked tickets – the lucky children of the Indian Summer.
The whole event proved that you don’t always need to escape to the countryside to get that festival sense of liberation – just wear some funny clothes and dance to good clean pop.