I heard about Gemfest in Exeter a few months back, I was interviewing quite a lot of young Exeter musicians and they were all raving about how good it was and how I should get involved and help to promote the event via musicmuso, I was intrigued….
We spoke to Gemma about the event and learned that it was setup originally as a 30th birthday surprise for her that has turned into an annual fund raiser ever since. Fast forward 4 years and all the planning had taken place, the venue was decked out in a ’festival’ style, people were wandering about in wellies with flowers in their hair, it was as if they had taken the outdoors and bought it all indoors for the benefit of the many revellers who had decided to support this brilliant local fundraiser.
During the day, there were many events taking place for the younger people, face painting, crafts and activities of all shapes and sizes to cater for their varied tastes. We arrived at around 7pm, just in time to catch up with a very tired but excited Gemma about the evenings activities that were planned. Despite having been on the go from 7am, she was still buzzing with energy and excited about the various bands, comedians and DJ's that were set to transform the venue into a multi room festival for the night.
There was a full programme of live music in the main auditorium, comedy in the studio, a silent disco in one of the upstairs rooms and a room dedicated to some of the sickest drum n’ bass and jungle music that I had heard for a long time.
We soaked up the music of a local 4 piece band called Swarm, with their indie rock swagger (think Oasis and Arctic Monkeys), they played a mixture of original material with a fabulous cover of T-Rex’s Telegram Sam which went down really well with the festival goers that had congregated to check them out.
From the main auditorium, we decamped to the bar where the music was coming thick n’ fast from local singer songwriter Tom Kavanagh, he sang an exquisite song about his biological father and followed it up with a tremendous cover version of Westlife’s ‘What About Now’, an excellent choice for the laid back vibe in the bar.
It was upstairs next to check out the bone rattling bass from the Voodoo Lounge, it was really kicking off in there and to avoid my fillings coming loose, I didn’t hang around that long! Across the corridor, the silent disco was packing in the people, the headphones were dual channel which meant that you had a choice of full on jungle or chart classics from across the years, it was amusing to stand in the room and watch people either singing along to cheesy pop classics or trying to keep up with the futuristic sounds that the live DJ was kicking out.
I decided that it was time for a bit of comedy so off to the studio we went, as I arrived, two gentlemen were performing a sketch involving Anne Diamond, her letter box and a cucumber, very surreal….. The next sketch involved the ‘Alphabet Game’, the audience chose a profession and the two comedians acted out a scene, each time they spoke, they had to start their sentence with the next letter of the alphabet. The scene involved a man at a doctors surgery and you can imagine the hilarity that ensued! The next scene involved two comedians and a ukulele player, they were acting out a scene where they had inherited a fairground in the deepest, darkest depths of Alaska and a member of the audience was selected to shout out ‘Oscar Winning Moment’ whenever he chose and depending on what was being discussed at the time, the comedians had to stop what they were doing and sing about it whilst the man with the ukulele played a tune for them to sing to. It was a very surreal but highly entertaining 30 minutes of my life!
Back to the main auditorium where a 60’s themed band called Carnaby Street had just kicked off, if you need a band to get the party started, then these are the guys that will do the honours for you! They played a barrage of 60’s hits ranging from The Zombies, The Spencer Davis Group, The Rolling Stones and The Monkees, EVERYONE was up and dancing in no time at all and the band were having a great time on stage. Ending with ‘Born to be Wild’, the crowd were begging them for another song but the next act were getting ready to play so it wouldn’t have been fair to encroach on their allotted time slot!
In the bar area, The Fos Brothers had just started playing, two brothers from Ireland who produced a heady mix of atmospheric tunes using a guitar and a mandolin, nodding their hats to their heritage and Irish upbringing, the audience were transfixed as the music took them back on time, calling on classic Irish music and traditional song.
I chatted to the ladies who were busy painting faces and running the vintage hair salon who said that it had been a very busy day and they were looking forward to having a large glass of wine and a rest, this wasn’t an option as many more people were flocking in through the door demanding their services. I spotted a group of four men who, after about 10 minutes in the chair looked like the member of 80’s rock band KISS (Gene Simmons et al) with some amazing designs on their faces! I did ask if there was anything that the hair salon could do for me but sadly there wasn’t, I did refrain form having my face painted though as I had to drop in on a friend after the event and the thought of being faced by Ziggy Stardust at 1am on a Monday morning was not something I’d personally like to face!
Back upstairs, the silent disco was kicking off nicely, with the room near on full, there was a great mix of people listening to each channel and one gentleman was dancing about, singing at the top of his voice, completely oblivious to everyone else in the room, I think the cider may have helped!
Daniel Schamroth and the British Wildflowers had just taken to the stage in the main auditorium so I got comfy and watched their set which consisted of an amazing blend of hook laden 60’s tinged psych pop, which sounded great with their female backing singer and the one and only Andy Watts on guitar. I would say that this was the very first time I had ever seen Andy Watts with an electric guitar round his neck and the thought of screaming ‘Judas’ at him had crossed my mind but then who am I to start trouble at a charity gig in Exeter, so I kept schtum and mentioned it to him afterwards where he fell about with laughter at the thought! I really enjoyed a track called ‘Sticks n’ Stones’ which featured some tremendous vocal harmonies at the start before kicking into a great track that just made you feel…..good! Daniel looked dapper in his 60’s styled shirt, drainpipe trousers and Clarks desert boots, he’s a great performer and I’ll be catching up with him shortly to do a full interview.
The next act up were described as two guys who performed stunts with fire…..the main auditorium was taped off and an area designated for them was created. What followed was a mixture of dance, movement, skill, balance and dexterity featuring fire sticks, flaming balls and god knows what else they had in their bag. Their performance was excellent, some of the tricks they were pulling off simply defied gravity and not once did they drop anything or set a member of the audience on fire….
Back up to the silent disco I went to take part in the green channel which featured some funky house tracks interspersed with the odd sample courtesy of Matt Vinyl who did a grand job of keeping the people dancing. On the other channel was a raft of indie classics such as Kasabian and OASIS, just what the revellers wanted!
I headed back to the main bar area after the disco to catch Marnie, a duo who were midway through their performance of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, after a few minutes of this, I wandered back into the main auditorium to catch the final live act of the evening ‘Jab Rock who were bringing things down a peg or two with their brilliantly laid back blend of reggae that saw the hardcore party goers skanking along to. Their music was tight, the bass was driving things along and the talented vocalist was keeping the spirit alive as the night wore on.
It was a long day for all of the people involved and after speaking to Gemma at the end of the event, she had been awake for a staggering 18 hours, 17 of these were at the venue sorting things out prior to the events kicking off. I’d like to thank Gemma for allowing me to attend and chat to the people who came along, watch he bands and the comedians and generally indulge in the festival spirit that had taken over the Exeter Phoenix for the day. I’m looking forward to 2017’s event already!
Here's just some pictures of the people that worked alongside Gemma to make the event a success!
And here's some shots of you lovely people having fun at the event!
There'll be many more people who worked tirelessly behind the scenes in order to make the event happen, here's raising a large glass of whatever your tipple is to you!
We hope to see you all (and many more) at the 2017 event!
Words by Steve Muscutt
Photography by Shaun P