Shambala Festival 25 - 28.08.11

Now that the summer festival season starts in May and ends in September – with every single weekend in between graced/blighted with some kind of mass gathering of humans in a field – it is a hard life for the boutique festival that just wants to be different. Family friendly kitsch? Camp Bestival has been there and done that. Plodding dad-rock? Kendall Calling has got that little niche sewn up nicely. In the increasingly crowded festival marketplace, Shambala pulls off a neat trick: it basically doesn’t even try to compete musically, but instead cranks up the fun-o-meter and lets the music fill in the gaps.

Aug 25th, 2011 at / By Adam Corner
Shambala Festival 25 - 28.08.11 In the organisers’ own words, they don’t let the one-upmanship of big name bookings drain their energy (or budget) and detract from the serious business of actually having a good time. They don’t announce the line-up – or the location – of the festival until about a week before it takes place, when most tickets have already been sold. The crowd at Shambala hasn’t come to painstakingly pick through a list of hot new bands and big name DJs. They’ve come to dress up like loons and run around a field screaming at each other for the weekend – the music is the soundtrack to this, not the reason for it. It is more like a rampage through a woodland Early Learning Centre than a music festival per se – and in a summer of parties desperate to out-do each other with a fairly limited pool of headliners, this is no bad thing.

Despite a slightly soggy start to proceedings, the party is in full swing by Friday evening. The Slamboree live show pulls a big crowd into the Kamikaze tent for a dub/electro/acrobatics hoe-down. The performance is full of energy but at times you get the feeling that the impressive circus tricks are masking a bass-by-numbers backing band. Massively more fun is the game of ‘find the secret police rave unit’ which is hidden through a pretend disabled toilet (obviously), and knocking out party tunes all weekend.

Saturday brings the unique joys of the Krump Barn Dance (a sort of deranged keep fit class for an audience who don’t lack enthusiasm but need gentle encouragement to keep the brain-body co-ordination going), the Communist charms of Sputknicker Sisters (over-the-hill Russian gymnasts making hilariously hard work of a dance routine), and chopped up techno from Jerome Hill. And on Sunday, its all about the wall of dub created by Jamaican legend Johnny Clarke and Dub Asante, the cerebral, jazz-filtered beats of Mercury Prize nominated Ghost Poet, and a sudden welcome explosion of French electro in the RFID dome (a small but reliably sweaty dance tent) somewhere around 11pm.

But really it’s the bits between the musical acts that stick in the memory. A solemn circle of spoon-whittlers hard at work in the woods. The dawn chorus of laughing gas canisters. A circle of dilapidated chairs, filled with broken revellers gazing mournfully into a long-dead fire, and looking like the most bizarre old age people’s home ever conceived.

Shambala is not the place to go if you want to discover the bands that everyone will be talking about next year – there’s plenty of other festivals on the calendar for that. But if you like the idea of a four day fancy dress fiasco, set in the grounds of a country house, and soundtracked by a cacophony of crazy people vying for your attention, then Shambala fits the bill perfectly. And if you don’t like the sound of that…well, there’s always Kendall Calling.