Having not been to Pontin’s (or similar) since the age of about four, arriving to a festival site where every other building is adorned with cartoons of Captain Croc, Safari Sam or Chuckles the Monkey was a slightly bizarre experience to say the least. It also begs the question, why couldn’t they source a name beginning with ‘M’ to complete the alliteration overload? The dedicated Soundcrash ‘Soul Station’ that everyone could tune in to on their chalet TV was a nice touch though, making it seem slightly more like a festival environment from the get-go, and providing a nice funk and soul backdrop to daytime festivities, before the evening’s fun and frolics began.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the crowd was diverse in its age range – from whippersnappers in their early 20s (guilty) to the original Soul boys and Soul girls of the 70s hoping to relive the hazy days of their youth, and anyone in between. Most likely this was down to the eponymous style of music on offer, but I can’t help thinking that the accommodation and setting also had something to do with it. Rather than cramped tents in a far-flung muddy field, we were treated to the comparative luxury of Pontin’s chalets; complete with actual beds, functioning hot shower, kitted out kitchen, cooker (yes we made our own bacon butties) and microwave, and as many electric sockets as your phone/electric toothbrush/hair straighteners could possibly need. And all just a relatively short train journey out of the big smoke.
It pays off to be by the seaside too. Be on the lookout for the opportune moment, that transient 25-minute window of sun when you can make a dash for the dunes. The beach really is quite pretty; a peaceful hangout during the day, a romantic chillout (read, ‘temperature cool’) by night.
Musically, you know you’re going to be in for an interesting few days when the first act you see is a man in a blue string vest and Hawaiian shorts playing the bongos over the top of his own DJ set. That man, it turns out, was representing Afriquoi and he set the tone perfectly for a weekend of boogieing to a real mix of genres and styles, not just the funk and soul that the festival’s name suggests.
After that high-energy set, Andrew Ashong instinctively brought the tone down a notch with his dulcet crooning. Famous for ‘Flowers’ with Theo Parrish, his set displayed mature versatility to his musical palette in what was a super tight performance, ensemble-wise and vocally. Ashong also benefits from a natural charisma on stage, which proved to be the gel for what could have been a jittery early-festival gig. No such nerves, as he steered his band comfortably towards a warm appreciation from the crowd.
Due to some unforeseen setbacks, we arrived late to Fatima & The Eglo Band, made worse by the fact her set was cut short to allow the schedule to catch up in time for headliners Gentleman’s Dub Club. Just as she seemed to be getting in to her lyrical groove, she was told it was her last song, which was a pity as her vocal presence was gathering steam on the main stage. Not that the next act seemed to care. If we were we gathered round an outdoor stage at this point, it would have been cue biffters as the nine Gents marched on to deliver their exhilarating live show. 'If the truth be told, I’m a sucker for the high grade' was the mantra that wormed its way into ears by the end of their pleasingly raucous set. It was hard to see the crowd creating such a ruckus in the same way to any other act across the weekend.
That said, the energy didn't dwindle too much for The Mouse Outfit, Manchester’s nine-piece live hip hop band who put on a brilliant funk driven, horn heavy live show, ably fronted by MCs Dr Syntax, Sparkz and Truthos Mufasa (despite the sound engineers best efforts to render the three of them inaudible and ensure the brass was blistering loud). They are more or less an ideal festival band, equally at home on an indoor stage like this one as they definitely would be outside in a field on a sunny day.
DJ Yoda followed, keeping up the hip-hop vibe with his famously choppy sets of super-fast mixing. Clearly a Prince fan, his crowd-pleasing set included a number of tracks from the purple pop pioneer, including fan-favourite ‘I Wanna Be Your Lover’ and a surprisingly/pleasingly great mashup of his classic ‘Kiss’ and Usher’s ‘Good Kisser’. Once Yoda was done, Tom Central closed the show with a set that was advertised as ‘Soul to Drum and Bass’ but that definitely just took the form of jungle and d’n’b in all its soulless glory.
Despite all the great performances, as the first night of the festival came to a close we couldn’t help thinking that the die-hard funk and soul purists might have felt slightly short-changed after 7 hours of hip-hop, dub, RnB, reggae and drum & bass. Although having said that, the second room was left in the very capable hands of the South London Soul Train for much of the night, so the traditionalists were definitely catered for.
As revellers arose from their slumber in the early afternoon on Saturday there was a noticeable lull: what to do for the next few hours before the music officially kicks off again? Go for a swim? Check out the Northern Soul pool party? Wander down to the beach? The answer was in fact, enjoy hearing a brilliantly talented nine-piece brass band playing New Orleans style jazz covers. In what was one of the highlights of the weekend, we were treated to an impromptu set from The Brass Funkeys in the courtyard of one of the chalet blocks (ours, conveniently). The band had played very early on the first day, so had presumably not garnered the crowd they deserved, but they remedied that by earning themselves a large legion of new fans who merely needed to get up off the sofa, look outside and tag on to the soul train to get in on the merrymaking.
Once the ice was broken for the day and everyone was out in the sun enjoying themselves, some enterprising punters plugged in the soundsystem they had brought with them and blasted out some classics for everyone to enjoy. And after a short walk to the beach to enjoy the sun, sea, and slightly overpriced ice creams, we returned to find that the ‘secret chalet party’ also happened to be right next to where we were staying, and none other than Mr Good Times himself Norman Jay was playing his famous blend of soul, funk, jazz and house a literal stone’s throw from our front door.
Later that evening, we returned to the main room to watch Dele Sosimi mastermind an expert Afrobeat show. As a close affiliate to Fela Kuti and his eldest son Femi Kuti, Sosimi has the complex funk grooves that characterise the music pioneered by Kuti embedded in his soul. The characteristic brass section of his music punctuates irresistibly in ‘You No Fit Touch Am’, while the star saxophonist deserves a shout out for her incredible, flowing solo.
Next up Roy Ayers, an artist I’d seen play a warm up at Dimensions Festival. Back then, the crowd of mainly a house and techno persuasion gave a woozy, laidback reception to his performance. Here, as headliner, he seemed far more engaging and he reaped the rewards as he slinked his way up and down scales on his quintessential vibraphone. Good vibrations all round exuded from songs like ‘Don’t Stop The Feeling’ and of course a jammed out version of ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’.
Mr Scruff closed proceedings with one of his famed mammoth sets, spanning five hours and a whole host of genres (although it was heavily soul influenced, as is to be expected). Whilst it would be a slight exaggeration to say that the time flew by, moments at which you found yourself wondering ‘now what?’ were thankfully few and far between. Certainly he’s had enough practice and experience to know how to effectively pace and construct his sets to keep everyone involved and maintain a consistent feel to the whole affair.
The following day took a markedly similar form to that of the day before. Wake up late. Wonder what to do. See Brass Funkeys. Boogie outside the chalet. This time to a set from Lazy Habits who played a blinding couple of hours to a gradually amassing early evening crowd, transitioning from hip hop and reggae in the sun to house, garage and d’n’b as dusk descended. Then on to the ‘Funk Factory’ (the name given to the main room in Pontin’s entertainment complex for the weekend) to see an unwavering set of hip-hop classics from Grandmaster Flash, a man who can justifiably call himself a legend of the genre.
In the taxi ride back to the station, the driver said she had heard that Grandmaster Flash had flown in by helicopter no less. While we hadn’t necessarily seen this with our own eyes, nor did we have proof via an Instagram feed, if the allegations are true, the hip-hop legend is not only flash by name, but also flash by nature. I have no doubt he’s done it 100 million times, but he managed to piece together every single hip-hop anthem you’d think of to play at a house party. And it wasn’t at all cheesy. Amidst a selection of Tribe Called Quest classics, played in tribute hip-hop legend Phife Dawg, few could resist shouting in the affirmative when asked: “Can I kick it?” Yes, Grandmaster Flash, you can definitely pull it off.
Craig Charles followed, delivering exactly the kind of high-energy selection that has made his name synonymous with the phrase ‘funk and soul’ over recent years, before Quantic and his live band (unfortunately) played to depleted festival forces, as work called for many on Monday morning.
Despite the holiday cruise ship feel to the whole place, a creepy charm lies in the furry toy machines, fixed coin slots and garish lights of the arcade. The glee of fully-grown adults slamming an air hockey disc back and forth is incredibly infectious. Add to that an extremely sticky dancefloor – to the point where my shoes were nearly slipping off – and you have yourself a party, Pontin’s style.
Yes, there are some issues to iron out like the ‘secret speakeasy after-parties’, which actually ran at the same time as the main acts. And the scheduled timings seemed to go out of the window at points. But overall, the atmosphere was one of civilised, experienced partying, due likely to the older crowd. An outdoor stage would have boosted spirits significantly, and more colourful stage and festival décor would have been appreciated. But it’s a festival whose DJs can get away with hot stepping between Anderson Paak, Earth, Wind & Fire and James Brown. Now, who doesn’t like that?