Sea Change Festival 2017 @ Totnes, 24-26/08/17

Sea Change FestivalAs a young man growing up in Torquay, the neighbouring town of Totnes seemed like a strange kind of heaven. It was full of anarchists, hippies, socialists, crystal healers, vegans; I pilfered their book shops for esoteric publications by all of the above, picked up tomes by Terence McKenna, read the words of men pushing for an intersectional approach to psychedelics, the Abrahamic religions, and the alien civilisations who, I am led to believe, introduced both.

But it was also the home of my closest friends, my first reasonably tight-knit gang, my first girlfriend. We spent evenings necking WKDs by the banks of the River Dart as the sun went down. We wandered the streets, sometimes slept in an abandoned car. For me, Totnes was the birthplace of experience.

I cannot tell you, then, how good it feels to spend a few days back in Devon's alternative paradise, where the mighty Sea Change Festival has arrived for its second annual weekend of live music, live talks, live interviews, live screenings, every liminal moment of ideas wedded to action. They also have good beer.

Thursday night sees the launch party kick off at Unit 23, where Gold Panda, electronic innovator and proclaimed friend of Drift Records - the superb record shop at the top of town who organise the whole event - starts the party with a crowd-pleasing set that sets the early, shy attendees into furtive motion. Big Jeff is loving it down the front, obviously. It's a good omen.

By the time Friday rolls around, we're almost as excited about the various talks scheduled at Birdwood House this weekend as we are for the impending live music. We catch Laura Snapes' chat with Erased Tapes founder Robert Raths, as the label celebrates its 10th birthday, and a hilarious exchange between James Endeacott and Michael Chapman that finds the latter relaying some choice anecdotes from his career, not least his apparent disdain for Ginger Baker. But Laura Barton is perhaps the most affecting speaker of the day, opening with a spellbinding passage from her BBC Radio 4 series Notes from a Musical Island. The show examines the link between regional culture, habitat, and the music that emerges from those local enclaves, from Tyneside to Tintagel. It's a perfect vehicle for Barton's elegant prose, which renders the musical heritage of Bolton's donk scene almost as reverentially as its more pastoral scenes.


In the Civic Hall we capture our first band in of the day, Tasseomancy. Not all of the label's acts channel the spirit of Simon Raymonde's Cocteau Twins, but the Toronto band are one of many signings who at least demonstrates a clear lineage, certainly on last year's Do Easy. They perform a stripped-down set today, frequently suggesting that the nature of the venue and its sound facilities have made that a necessity; it sounds wonderful, nonetheless. Holly MacVe knocks out an immaculate set of country and Americana, including a largely faithful cover of "These Boots Are Made For Walking", but it's when she goes solo for a couple of brand new murder ballads that she really captures the audience. (I can't wait to hear that record.) Danish band Lowly go the other way, demonstrating exactly how much noise they're capable of producing outside the confines of a studio album (and one that I loved, no less). Finishing on "No Hands", both Nanna Schannong and Soffie Viemose are now lost in rapture, eyes closed, dancing. On any normal day, this performance would have been nailed on as the set of the day. But it's not a normal day.

As we enter St Mary's Church for the first time that weekend (and probably the first time I've been inside for a couple of decades), Douglas Dare is performing songs from his album Aforger, the record he made after coming out to his father and ending a long-term relationship. Taking a pew, the setting could hardly be more apt for what rings out across the faithful and the faithless: every word, every piano crescendo, each gesture is divine, a live sermon to the pains and pleasures of love. He tells the audience he was chorister once, and as he steps away from both the piano and microphone to deliver the last lines of his final a capella into the church, no one doubts him. It reminds us of the transcendent possibilities of live music and remains etched in my own mind as one of the most breathtaking live music experiences I've known. Unforgettable.

Over at the Barrel House, the queue snaking around the entrance for Aldous Harding is a remarkable sight in itself. After talking our way in, the set takes a while to start, with what seems like an extraordinarily late soundcheck underway. Eventually, the band starts, and everyone remembers why they're here. Harding's self-appointed 'gothic folk' is worth the wait, a mix of her 2014 debut and this year's excellent Party, the New Zealand singer and her band fight through the cramped, sweaty atmosphere to deliver an astounding display of musicianship and songwriting. In concert (if we can use such a grandiose term for the room above a pub), Harding remains a fascinating entertainer, still rolling her eyes back into her head each time the music overtakes her. Breathless, we depart.


As Saturday rolls around, both myself and my companion (Stoke City apologist Ross Jones) are feeling a little worse for wear following the previous night's endeavour to empty the town of beer, cider and bourbon. Steeling ourselves with some local cuisine, we head back to Birdwood House for a bumper run of talks and interviews, beginning with Laura Snapes and a sit-down interview with both Julie Byrne and Nadia Reid. It's a fascinating discussion, ending with a lively Q&A. I ask both artists, particularly in light of Byrne's incredible "I Live Now As A Singer" and its mixed emotions towards artistic wanderlust, whether life as a musician is what they expected. "I don't think I remember a point where it changed over," Reid says. Byrne is more effusive, explaining that it relates back to the title of that album, Not Even Happiness, and the concept of a life lived beyond the ebb and flow of life's joys and miseries, harnessing instead a freedom that allows the individual to move beyond both.

As a natural segue, we then listen to The Quietus' Luke Turner discuss the practical considerations of having sex in forests. As with most of these events, it's the Q&A that really makes the event worthwhile, and away from his notes, Turner speaks eloquently about the way in which sex and pornography are informed differently by urban, suburban and rural surroundings. "Did you find out about this culture of having sex in parks and forests when you were researching this?" one audience member asks. "No," Luke deadpans, "it was sometime before then..." Following him is the legendary Simon Raymonde, who opens up about John Grant's recovery from suicidal depression, Robin Guthrie's drug addiction, and how Elizabeth Fraser swore like a trooper. As the boss of Bella Union, and now a touring musician once more with Lost Horizons, it's a pleasure to discover a man as humble and modest as he is talented.

After deciding that we should probably take in some actual music, we return to the Barrel House, where DW favourites Girl Ray are causing more queues outside and considerably more sweat. After another tense soundcheck, singer Poppy Hankin confesses she is battling a cold, and it takes a few songs before you can see the band beginning to really enjoy themselves. It gets even better when Hankin rallies the audience to sing happy birthday to a visibly mortified Iris McConnell on drums, who fails to let her drum kit swallow her up entirely. By this point, the band is in full swing, and the crowd gathered would love them whatever they sang.


We need to get to church on time though because Nadia Reid is about to kick off a triple-header we've been waiting for ever since the Sea Change line-up was announced. Fresh from discussing her new album Preservation earlier in the day, we are treated to several gorgeous performances of the real thing, and Reid conspires to be the second New Zealand artist of the weekend to blow us away.

Up next, however, is Julie Byrne. I've almost run out of superlatives to throw at the American folk singer-songwriter, but finally taking in her live show, in an actual church, is almost too much to bear. As she announces the last song, Byrne half-jokes: "We normally have the lights off for this song, but apparently we can't do it. I'm sorry. I think only the priest knows how to do it..." As if by magic, the stage lights almost entirely flash off, until the main thing lighting up the stage is Byrne's delighted face. Closing with the aforementioned "I Live Now As A Singer", the venue is quiet and hymnal as evening prayer. Absolute bliss. At last Ryley Walker takes to the stage, and as ever, which Ryley Walker will be performing is a very much a wait-and-see affair. As it turns out, he's not playing for solemnity: bringing out a full band, he immediately launches into a collage of folk, Americana, and psychedelic rock-outs. It's an accomplished, career-spanning set, and by all accounts a worthy headliner.

Pouring out of the church and into the moonlight, drinking rosé wine from a plastic glass, I love Totnes anew. It still conjures, for me, a place where you can create anything and be anyone as long as the end result is either riotously fun or beautiful. Sea Change seems to understand that. I can't wait for next year.


One Response to “Sea Change Festival 2017 @ Totnes, 24-26/08/17”


    1. Sea Change Festival 2017 @ Totnes, 24-26/08/17 – Live List - 30/08/2017

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