Port Eliot Festival has been running for a little over 10 years, celebrating music and literature, fashion, food, and comedy in the grounds of Cornwall’s Port Eliot estate. In all this time, 2017 is the first year that tickets for Port Eliot Festival have sold out. It’s also the first year in recent memory that it has rained almost non-stop from the time the gates open. This, someone grumbles as they slosh through the Bowling Green, is what we get for having a dry Glastonbury. Bloody Worthy Farm and their bloody Pyramid. Still, there’s a busy program to get through and no time to waste. On Thursday night, Hooton Tennis Club take the stage at Caught By The River to ease things into gear. Their psych-inspired indie rock is upbeat and easygoing, with ‘Always Coming Back 2 You’ a standout. Throughout the set bass player Cal’s joyous and energetic presence at centre stage is infectious, and the set kicks off the first night of the festival on a high note.
During the daytime, Port Eliot provides a carefully curated range of workshops and talks. On Friday one of these features music journalist Paul Morley in conversation with Andy Miller discussing his book The Art of Bowie. Paul’s perspective on Bowie is enlightening and engaging, as he informs the assembled audience how Bowie made sure everybody got the version of him that they wanted. Memories and speculation are tossed about the tent, and the crowd select their David Bowie as Andy shares a recent Twitter poll he ran asking fans which Bowie album they’d erase from history. When most of the room vote off Blackstar, Andy asks Paul what his choice would be.“I’d get rid of Twitter,” says Paul drily. A fair point, and likely the option Bowie himself would most prefer.
Over the years a habit has developed into Port Eliot tradition, and now no trip is complete without catching music curator Louis Eliot with his band the Embers. That evening the Caught By The River tent is packed with rain-sodden festival goers with the same idea, as Louis Eliot and The Embers play Britpop ballads with a rock and roll twist. Their straight-up love songs are both tender and rollicking, and their set is laidback and enjoyable.
One of the strengths of Port Eliot’s musical offering is the broad range of genres the artists come from each year. Rose Elinor Dougall’s glittering indie pop is far removed from Louis Eliot and the Embers’ performance, but the change doesn’t feel jarring as she plays tracks from her recent album Stellular. The synth-laden, danceable ‘All At Once’ is a highlight, and the record’s shining title track also goes over well before it is time to head back down the hill to catch the night’s headliners.
Saint Etienne mix classics from their extensive back catalogue with tracks from their most recent record Home Counties in a spectacular set. ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ is naturally popular, as is main set closer ‘Sylvie’, while the sparkling ‘He’s On The Phone’ rounds out the encore for a buzzing, thrilled audience. The tracks from Home Counties are enthusiastically welcomed, too, and prevent the set from getting bogged down in nostalgia or retrospection. When they leave the stage their crowd disperses, with half off up the hill to bed and others traipsing further down into the woods to dance the rest of the night away at the Boogie Round nightclub, or further still to the Black Cow Saloon beneath the aqueduct for just one more drink, eh?
On Saturday, Flamingods tip things over into properly ecstatic with a swarming, psychedelic set. Their multicultural influences blend into swelling soundscapes that come to a screeching halt, as the lights go off and the music stops. The crowd cheers, and Flamingods explode back into being with the world on a string. Their set is an absolute standout, and feels victorious as they lead into the last song of their set by saying, “with the political climate at the moment, and the xenophobia, there’s a lot of people trying to set us apart… we say fuck that!”
After that performance, Girl Ray take awhile to settle in. Once they do, though, not even halfway through set opener ‘Stupid Things’, their gentle vocal harmonies lift them to another level before it’s back up to the Walled Garden stage.
Watching John Hassell and the April Rainers is surprisingly similar to catching his other outfit, The Libertines, during the suited-and-booted urchin phase of their early career. The April Rainers’ 60s style tunes prove so popular that the band are essentially held for musical ransom, with the sopping wet crowd requesting ‘one more song’ until the band run out of tunes. When they’re finally released from the Walled Garden stage and into the night, it’s off to the Park Stage for tonight’s headliners Melt Yourself Down.
Melt Yourself Down have to contend with an actual pool that has sprung up in the middle of the tent. The area directly in front of the stage has turned into an ankle-deep swamp, discouraging some people from coming into the tent at all and leaving the rest gathered off to the sides. Only those with the sturdiest of wellies brave the front rows, despite singer Kushal Gaya beckoning everyone in closer. Despite this, the band’s twisting, North African inspired jazz still enchants, and Pete Wareham’s saxophone is particularly beguiling.
It’s traditional at this point to say something like, ‘despite the weather, spirits weren’t dampened’. In truth, though, by bedtime on Saturday night plenty of people are well and truly fed up as the mud becomes almost six inches deep between the Park Stage and Ace of Clubs. The situation isn’t improved by rumours of a thunderstorm headed towards us, and the prospect of another sodden day. Things are looking bleak.
Naturally, on Sunday the sun comes out. Three days of accumulated mud and exhaustion make the morning difficult, which means it’s time for a trip to the poetry tent to sort things out. It’s a wise decision. Vanessa Kisuule is hilarious, filthy, and startlingly honest, while Kayo Chingonyi’s prayer to 4/4 disco music ‘The Colour of James Brown’s Scream’ captures the joy and freedom of being an obsessive music fan. Their performances round out the festival in such a way that things feel new and refreshed. Overall Port Eliot 2017 was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, and if the festival’s trajectory carries on the way that it has, things are only going to get even better in the future. It’s a gem not to be missed.