Landed. A hidden gem of a festival held in the heart of Mid Wales
Day one of a ten-day adventure in festival land
My festival season usually starts in May but, for various reasons, we are halfway through July and have yet to spend the night in a field listening to music this year. That is all about to change though – with a vengeance. Today will be the first of ten straight nights in festival land. And our first trip out in our new campervan.
We fired up the motor and hit the road north, along ye olde A470. Joining North and South Wales, it takes a good four hours to drive the full length of this trunk road, despite only being 189 miles long. For many it is a pain in the arse. I know some people who prefer to drive over the Severn Bridge, up the M5 then back into Wales up north. For me, this is insanity. I love this old road and all the scenery it has to offer.
I will accept that, as trunk roads go, it is not really fit for purpose; once you have gone past Merthyr Tydfil it is pretty much single carriageway all the way. But it takes you through the Brecon Beacons, up through the heart of Mid Wales, touches the edge of Snowdonia, before dropping you into Llandudno on the North Wales coast.
We are not going quite that far today. Our destination is Landed Festival, just shy of Rhayader, which is almost exactly the halfway point between the north and south.
The festival site is immediately next to the A470, we just drive past the hippy on the gate and down the short hill to the wristband ticket exchange.
For new readers to this blog, the festival has the river Wye running down one side of the site and Doldolwold House, ancestral home to the Watt family (him that invented steam) on the other. Beyond that, the mountains rise on either side, framing the site to make it one of the most picturesque festival sites in the UK.
After exchanging our tickets for wristbands, we drive into the campsite looking for the best location to park up. Our first idea is to park so the back doors open to give a view of the river but even though the gates have only been open a few hours, the riverside spots are all taken. After a little wander we decide to park with the back doors facing the manor house, giving a spectacular view when we wake up in the morning.
We introduce ourselves to our neighbours and set ourselves up, which obviously is much easier in a campervan than a tent. It involves pulling the handbrake up, switching on the gas and the fridge. And that is pretty much it.
We boil the kettle, taking advantage of our unlimited solar power, have a coffee, followed by some gins and few ciders, then head off to have a look around the site.
As we enter the ‘arena’, the main stages are to the left. I say stages because the main stage is made up of two open air stages facing each other. The aim being to have one band setting up whilst another band is on the other stage – so when a band finishes, the next band is ready to roll. Pre-Covid they had a similar set up all inside one marquee, which I preferred to be honest, but ventilation is essential in a post-Covid world and it has to be said, if the weather is nice you can’t beat dancing in the open air. Between the stages is a marquee housing the bar and the mixing desks, so there is somewhere to find shade and/or dodge the rain (or snow – this is the only festival I have been to where it snowed, but that’s a whole other story).
To the right of the arena is an acoustic stage on a trailer, a little chill out area and a horsebox with DJ decks set up. An anticlockwise walk down the river takes us past the Verbal Melodies Stage – spoken word with a bit of acoustic thrown in – then down river is the ‘doof doof’ stage, which is where DJs entertain the cheesy quavers, gurners and various shape throwers. Down at the bottom end of the site there is another DJ tent with a slightly more psychedelic output, appropriately named the ‘Far Psyde’ (or something like that). Heading back up the other side of the site there is a selection of stalls selling the sort of stuff people sell at festivals, then eventually we hit the ‘food area’, next to the aforementioned main stages.
After our little wander, we go back to the van, boil the electric kettle, charge our phones, use our electric toaster to make toast, play music, and drink more cider and gin.
We head back into site to catch Monsterometer, Mid Wales’ number one zombie-inspired psychobilly outfit. These guys have been around the block a few times and have a good following, hence drawing a decent crowd out of their tents and vans to the front of the stage. Banter with the crowd is entertaining and they make a good fist of getting everyone into party mood on the first night.
We have a brief wander and come back in time to catch Cakehole Presley. I’ve known most of these guys for several decades now and they never cease to amaze me. If you look in the dictionary for the phrase ‘Party Animals’, it will say ‘see Cakehole Presley’. Off stage they make the Happy Mondays look like the Miserable Tuesdays, yet put them on stage – or in a recording studio – and they produce some of the most sublime contemporary music ever created. These guys play drunk better than most musicians I know play when sober. I have said it before when reviewing their album and will say it again, I would rate them up there with the Beatles. Incredible lyrics laid over mesmerising melodies, they truly are a hidden gem. I get the added thrill of watching them stood next to my Purley Queen, who has not seen them before. She is impressed and smiles from ear to ear.
It’s also nice to see Cakehole drummer Alka earning his keep. Last year he blagged his way in as ‘compare’ – standing on stage trying to introduce bands he did not know the name of.
Immediately after we get Zana Billionara on the other ‘main stage’. Basically, it is the family of Crocker, the stalwart of the DIY scene in South Wales who has been doing sound engineering, mixing and making music for over three decades.
It is a disservice to the band to say it is ‘Crocker’s Band’ though, because it’s his kids that are the real stars. When I first saw them his boy was about twelve and totally blew me away with his talent. He is probably late teens now and his talent has been growing all the time.
Talking of talent, we are spoilt for choice on the Friday night, with Joe Kelly doing a solo set in the Verbal Melodies tent. We had bumped into him earlier; it was his first time at Landed and he was a little confused as to what type of festival it is – but I think by the time he hit the stage he was settled in and enjoying himself. It is hard to keep up with Joe Kelly, he performs with the Johnstown Flood, and has a new album out this year with Joe Kelly and the Royal Pharmacy. But tonight, he is on his own and we spend a chilled half an hour or so, sat in the marquee soaking in his gifted song writing.
Joe provides a slightly different pace to everything we had witnessed so far, but that is the sign of a good festival, variety is the spice of life. And I think being up close and personal in a tent, makes much more sense for a Joe Kelly solo set than a bigger stage. You feel part of the experience, rather than just an observer.
Back to the van, more coffee from our solar powered electric kettle, stock up on booze and back down in time to catch Ozric Tentacles performing a digital set.
It would be difficult for me to pick out any band as my ‘all time favourites’, but the Ozrics have been pretty close to holding that crown for over thirty years now. Tonight, it’s not the full band, it is frontman Ed Wynne, with his son Silas, with a bank of synths in front of them and a rack of guitars behind them. But given the nature of the psychedelic music they produce; they are not a million miles away from the full band.
It is a while since I have seen them in the open air and it brings back many happy memories of a time when I was partial to psychedelic refreshments. I’m in a field, in one of the most beautiful parts of Wales, at one of my favourite festivals, watching one of my favourite bands, amongst some of my favourite people. All is well with the world.
It’s not over though. After the Ozrics, we head over to catch The Chalk Outlines playing on the back of a trailer. Hailing from West Wales, these guys are one of my favourite contemporary ska bands. Although I’m not inclined to jump about much these days, inside I am skanking like a skanking thing.
They have a few problems with the solar powered PA, but the chaos all adds to the fun of the night and the night draws to a close with us all smiling.
We eventually pour ourselves back to the van, make a coffee with our electric kettle and put on our electric lights. Luxury.
Our first night in the van was notable for two things. Firstly, our bed was a vast improvement from sleeping in a tent. Dare I say, it is just as comfortable as the bed in me house.
Secondly, I’m up and down all night investigating noises being made by the power system. The batteries are way down low on power and keep bleeping. Maybe we shouldn’t be boiling kettles, making toast and lighting the van up like Blackpool Illuminations. Lessons to be learned here.
When I get up in the morning I decide to go and visit the thunder boxes in my bare feet. There was no mud by the van, so I thought I would be at one with nature. I return ten minutes later with mud between my toes and feet stinking of piss from the pools on the floor of the tardis toilets. More lessons learned and I haven’t had breakfast yet.
After breakfast I go to wash my plate and get excited to find the van has hot fucking water! I’m then informed that the water in the bowl is from the kettle Megan had boiled (on the gas) when I had been in trap two.
We had arranged to meet Daniel Gaudi this afternoon to record an interview for the Peppermint Iguana webzine. I’ve been a fan for many years, and we have been friends on Facebook for quite some time, but I’ve never actually had a proper conversation with him.
We chat via Facebook Messenger and arrange to meet him by his car, which is parked backstage. We blag our way backstage and establish which is his car, although he is not there. I start to have doubts as to whether this is going to happen but after a few exchanges of messages our paths eventually collide and I am immediately struck by how friendly and down to earth he is.
After a quick chat we decide to head back to the van for a sit down and record the interview. As we walk back, he reveals that this is his first ever visit to Wales and we discuss the beauty of the area and, yet again, I roll out the history of the site. I don’t have any real connection to the area, but I love this part of the world and find myself compelled share that passion with others. A ‘Landed Ambassador’, if you like.
“Would you like a coffee?” I ask.
“No Thank you.” He replies
“Gin and tonic?”
Bosh! And so it was that a gin-fuelled hour of chat and sharing our passion of music began. You can read the resultant interview here. Eventually he had to drag himself away to sober up and get ready to perform.
We decided it was time to wander aimlessly. Again. So we did. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves sat on the banks of the Wye with The Boy Fry, just watching the river on its magnificent, spectacular, wandering journey from the mountains to the east of Aberystwyth down to Chepstow. Not one of those average rivers that takes the easiest routes from the mountains to the sea, it starts close to the sea then actually goes in land, wandering through Rhayader, Builth Wells, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford (the only city on the River Wye), Ross-on-Wye, Symonds Yat, Monmouth and Tintern, meeting the Severn estuary just below Chepstow. On its way it strays in and out of England and Wales. It is without a doubt one of the most spectacular rivers in these isles.
Whilst sat on the riverbank we chat with Fry, singer with Lacertillia, connoisseur of all things psychedelic and stoner and one of the brains behind the old Surplus Festival. That’s one of the great things about this scene. Grubby runs Landed, does lighting at Blue Lagoon and helped with licensing at Surplus; Crocker does the PA at Blue Lagoon and Surplus (amongst other festivals) and this year is performing at Landed; Fry runs stages at Surplus, performs at various festivals but today he is just hanging around watching other bands. It is one big happy family with everyone mucking in to support each other. When I first started going to festivals it pretty much meant spending the summer the other side of the Severn Bridge. These days you can fit in a healthy number of festivals into your summer without leaving Wales.
And many of the bands on the circuit hail from God’s Country, such as the next band on our itinerary, Machynlleth’s Quercus Burlesque. I love bands that try to break the mould and do something different, but in a world where many bands try to be different, it is difficult to come up with a sound that is unique. Quercus Burlesque have a bloody good stab at it though – which is a good thing. It does make them difficult to describe though. But here goes – they are an uplifting band with lyrics to make you smile, beats to make you tap your feet and a charm that will win over the uninitiated. They hark back to a time of travelling minstrels, jesters and living outdoors. There is nothing punky about their mix of folk, ska, reggae, calypso and jazz, but their DIY rebelliousness gives them a punk sensibility that would put most punk-by-number copycat bands to shame. Me likes them.
I am firm believer in the philosophy, ‘no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing’. But as much as I like watching bands in the open air, rain can test the resolve of the most hardened music fan. We dodge the rain to catch as much of Tits Up and Packet Racket as we can, but eventually head back to the van to consume more gin in the dry.
Eventually the time comes when we must bite the bullet and brave the rain to catch Gaudi. With wellies on our feet and love in our hearts, we head down to the main stage. Initially there is a break in the rain as Gaudi struts meaningfully onto the stage. Clutching one of our gin glasses! Thieving bastard.
He then embarks on a set that manages to stun this veteran gig goer. A bloke stood behind a bank of keyboards, samplers and synths is rarely a spectator sport. I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen it pulled off properly – and one of those was also at Landed (Mike Freear). Gaudi lays down funky tribal grooves that have everyone out of the marquee and dancing – even staunch ‘musicians’ that look down on this machine-made music malarkey.
Halfway through the set we realise that it is raining, but everyone is having such a good time, nobody cares. We (well, I am, I don’t care about anyone else) are having one of those rare moments when everything comes together to create a perfect vibe. It’s like being twenty-one and on magic mushrooms again – I’ve not a care in the world and I’m lost in the music.
When his set finishes, I realise that I am now soaked to the skin. We head into the marquee to grab more cider and wait for System Seven.
Fronted by Steve Hillage, System Seven were there at the beginning of the live dance music revolution. They were one of the first acts to reclaim dance music from the hands of DJs and get up on stage to perform live.
However, by the time Hillage formed System Seven, I was already very familiar with his work – he has been recording since the late sixties, he jammed with the likes of Caravan, recorded several ground-breaking solo albums and played with Gong. In the years since forming System Seven he has worked with the likes of the Orb, Eat Static and Ozric Tentacles. In short, he is a psychedelic legend.
Sadly, our nonchalance towards the rain was now taking its toll and we have to head back to the van before his set ends. Although with a small site like this, we were still able to hear him from the comfort of the van.
Again, the battery alarm disturbs our sleep, but we are comfortable warm and dry, so we can put up with it.
We use the gas to boil the kettle, have a wake-up coffee and head out for breakfast. It has dried up now but when I accidently put chilli sauce on my breakfast, tears start running down my face. It is the hottest chilli sauce I have ever tasted.
After another aimless walk around the site, we head back to the van to find that the leisure batteries are fully charged, and all of our electrics are working. I make a mental note to research solar power, so I know what the hell is going on.
Sunday is traditionally ‘Pimp my Duck Race’ day. You can buy a rubber duck, customise it how you see fit, then at the appointed time, all ducks are chucked in the river and race to the downstream end of the site. On the finish line, volunteers wade into the water to catch the ducks, to ensure they do not contribute to the plastic pollution of our seas.
We haven’t actually pimped any ducks, but make our way down to the finish line, camera in hand, to document the race for posterity. We sit, generally doing Netflix and Chill – but without the Netflix. We indulge in people watching and river watching, gearing ourselves up for duck watching. We wait, and wait, then wait some more. Then word slowly spreads down the embankment – all this bloody rain we have had has meant the river is too high. It is not safe to send the duck catchers into the river, therefore not safe to release the ducks.
We go back and get more gin.
Dropping Like Flies are back this year – on the main stage this time. Last year was their debut gig under this name and they were bizarrely put on the acoustic stage. The PA engineer who wasn’t really used to this sort of robust music had tried the throw them off, but they resisted. Today is a far more appropriate setting for the band. They steam through their earnest punk rock, breaking it up with darkly humorous banter between songs. Singer, Brewer, who is a landscape gardener by trade, even took time to educate us about some of the shrubbery around the site. And I’m pretty sure they drop a Garry Glitter tune into the set list just to keep things edgy.
We then go back for more gin.
As the weekend draws to a close we head down to catch our old mate Les Earth Doctor spinning some funky grooves on the wheels of steel – in a horsebox in the corner of the site. The crowd is starting to thin out a little now, with work the next day, and the vibes in the corner are pretty laid back. Local boy Les has been around the block a few times and knows exactly which brand of funkiness is required for which mood. We first met back in 1995, we were introduced by mutual friends, Zion Train, who thought we would get on. They were right.
After his set he comes and sits with us and we reminisce about Zion Train, and the weird and wonderful world of the Mid Wales music scene. With the area being so sparsely populated there are plenty of remote locations to put on parties where you can turn it up to eleven and no one will hear you. If you are into that sort of thing. And the police are not that bothered, unless you attract too many people and disrespect the countryside.
Over the decades Les has brought a bit of class to the |Mid Wales scene, although since Covid he has been keeping a low profile and this is one of his first outings since Lockdown.
We head over to the mainstage to catch a local crew with a slightly different vibe, Ska outfit Smoke Like a Fish. An eight-piece crew belting out up tempo rhythms and super catchy brass melodies, they get all those survivors left skanking and grooving, overflowing with ‘I don’t wanna go home, I wanna stay like this forever’ vibes.
They are not quite the last band on the mainstage, that honour goes to Spacehopper, but we head back to the trailer over in the corner to catch more old mates, Deadly Lightshade (see what they did there?).
Landed is a hidden gem. It is what it is, a party in Mid Wales run safely and efficiently, making the most of its stunning location. Not in the slightest bit commercial, it is run by locals (Grubby actually lives on site) by people who love festivals, for people who love festivals. It has no aspirations to be bigger than it is, but somehow manages to pull what I would consider to be some of the best bands on the festival scene. It is lively when you want lively, and laid back when you want laid back. And that is how it ends for us, hugs and chatting with our old mates the Deadly Lightshades, before heading back to the van.
Definitely one of our favourite festivals of the season. But don’t tell anyone, we don’t want your sort spoiling it!