Watching Trees Festival review: Optimo and The Ransom Note bring the funk to the forest
We were somewhere around Gloucester on the edge of the River Severn when reality began to unravel, spooling on to the forest floor like writhing skeins of yarn. The trees were so pleased to see us; everyone agreed.
It’s normally not too hard to identify the moment a party or festival finds its legs, stands upright, looks you in the eye and kicks your arse into the middle of next week.
But with Watching Trees, the new Ransom Note/Optimo weekender in the Forest of Dean, the dance had taken control of the dancers long before we arrived.
Last weekend, The Ransom Note, together with Glasgow’s Optimo crew – a cadre of calmly militant acid house lifers – threw the best festival, and quite possibly the best party, I’ve ever been to – in over 33 years toiling at the rave coalface. That’s not some ecstatic afterglow hyperbole: it’s an honest and considered impression, and one shared by dozens of people I spoke to, all of whom were sober.
The Watching Trees Festival was small: just 500 people, two stages. But the fission-like energy the collision of these crews produced could have illuminated Europe for a year or two.
This review will disappoint you, confuse you, concern you, and annoy you if you want details of who played which stage and how good or bad they were. Stop now. Go and look at the website; there’s a list there. Apologies to the many brilliant musicians I can’t mention here. Every act on every stage took flight, according to people I spoke to who weren’t, like myself, asleep all day after raving themselves incapable of movement.
(I had an operation a month ago and haven’t walked more than 100m a day in three months. But on Friday and Saturday I danced for a total of 15 hours; call me Lazarus. That said, for a prolonged period on the Saturday night, I was raving horizontally from an inert position, the better to watch the trees, and quell the incessant nag of gravity.)
I’m writing this review to give thanks, praise and due respect to Wil Troup, Ransom Note founder and festival curator, and Jim Angell, the man behind the Sancho Panza soundsystem, who ran production together with a team of outstandingly talented riggers, lighting designers, tree climbers, carpenters, cooks and electricians. You all created an event in your own image: generous to a fault, artistically free, effortlessly creative, mindbendingly avant garde yet utterly unpretentious.
There were two stages: the Espacio tent which was soundtracked by deep, deviant house and cutting-edge outsider funk, and decorated with extraordinarily original lighting effects. The other, main stage was fuel-injected house and hypersonic techno. Both had the kind of soundsystems that vibrate your bone marrow, but are so expertly built, rigged, tuned and balanced, that you could talk and dance all night next to the speakers and still not wake up with tinnitus.
(A public apology to the DJ on Friday night at the festival’s “third stage”, a small cosmic caravan in the woods. I was convinced you were Wil, then Ivan Smagghe, and I mithered you to death for tune IDs. I just about stopped myself making a request. Thank you for the extraordinary music. Sorry for the withering.
The request, for Marianne Faithfull’s Blue Millionaire (extended mix) is to be found in a link in this review. I really should have asked for it. It’s brilliant.)
I went along to the festival to see Optimo, whose musical radicalism, originality and enthusiasm remain undiminished after decades in the game. Their set on Saturday night was a masterclass in pacing, in melodic DJing, with long, exacting, precisely layered mixes and an unstoppable, operatic sense of acceleration and drama. I’d forgotten how exciting scratching and cutting sounds in the mix.
Optimo played back to back, kinda, with a level of intuitive musical telepathy that comes from a life of sharing a DJ booth. I’ve never seen a DJ crew look happier. And no surprise: the acoustic dome created by the tree canopy beneath which they played liberated the sound, gave the basslines space to breathe and the dancers room to rock.
And after three plague-ridden years indoors, culminating, for this writer, in three months in bed, during the heatwave, in a medieval-looking surgical leg brace, to dance outdoors was a very particular kind of ecstasy.
I was invited to Watching Trees as a guest speaker, talking about new developments in psychedelia, and to try to make sense, publicly, of the medicalisation of drugs we’ve been told for fifty years are too dangerous for consenting adults to use. I also wanted to share bizarre series of events that led to me working, throughout much of 2021, as a communications consultant for the world’s greatest living LSD chef, because it’s the funniest and most magical thing that’s ever happened to me.
What really concerns me right now, philosophically, is that amid the hullabaloo and hoopla around the imminent introduction of psilocybin and MDMA as treatments for depression and PTSD, etc, no one is thinking or talking about the political ramifications of this capital-led drive for drug law reform.
Right now, only rich people will be able to access these putative panaceas, sold by newly compassionate capitalists, with their dayglo Amex cards. The blue millionaires will be able to get their medicine, but the poor and depressed will continue to be jailed for using the same drugs. What could be more political? I’ll post a link to my talk on my Twitter feed, and a link to my new podcast on this very subject.
No prisons, no profits. Free acid on the NHS. I’m a reasonable man.
After the talk, in which I revealed how, last summer, I got a reference for my last job from a renowned acid chef, Nick Sand, who together with Tim Scully made the legendary Orange Sunshine LSD in the 1960s. But Nick died a few years ago. The reference was communicated to me by a magical woman, aged 70, in an extraordinary encounter on Hampstead Heath. She is a sanyasin or devotee of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and has since become a friend, counsel, and consigliere.
After the talk, a lad came up to me. He was 10 or 15 years younger than me.
“My wife died a few years ago,” he said, with a strange look of calm on his face, a softness in the eyes. “She loved nothing more than being in the middle of the dance, inside the music, inside the bass. And last night, in the woods, I felt her there with me, properly, physically there with me, for a good 10 minutes. We danced together. It was extraordinary. And hearing your talk today, and hearing that story, made perfect sense to me. And I realise that she’s always with me. So thank you.”
That’s the kind of rave it was.
In a year of planetary trauma, war, famine, floods, fires, poverty, this neo-biblical shitshow of ecocide and genocide and war – and these vital Tory party leadership battles, – with a long cold lonely winter ahead, the last thing any of us needed was to queue up for a £10 pint of flat piss in a crowded field full of braying fools exhaling nitrous.
No. We needed to exhale, to inhale, to breathe. To be together, and to connect. Now that’s what I call psychedelic. House culture is psychedelic: we need to reclaim this potent word from the colonialists of capital, from the Dreamcatcher Industrial Complex of private doctors and their paymasters. Legalise away. But to medicalise psychedelics, and not decriminalise them, is morally as incoherent as it is unacceptable.
So let’s reclaim it. Let’s reinvent it. Psychedelic means generous, openminded, compassionate, ego-free, interdisciplinary, ineffable, noetic and free.
Today, on the Thursday after two nights of endless carousing, every cell in my body feels renovated, reinvigorated, brand new. I should, by rights, be weeping on the chaise longue, telling my therapist how sick I am, and how only they can help me.
And this is my point. If you want psychedelic therapy, medicine, healing, or any kind of emotional and psychic help, don’t look, yet, to politicians or doctors to dose you up on government-approved, private-sector psychedelics. Don’t look to any drugs, any psychiatrists, any self-help books or religion.
The structures that are, in my view creating the rising wave of anxiety and depression – such as consumer capitalism, selfishness, materialism, conformism – are not likely to create or sell you their remedy. You do have to admire the breathtaking, bollock-shrinking chutzpah it takes to sicken us, to divide us, to depress us, to send us half-mad, then try to sell us the cure at a profit.
Cures of which we have been the custodians for five decades, of LSD, MDMA, and psilocybin, Substances, which even though they are toxicologically safer than alcohol or tobacco, made us criminals, in the eyes of the law.
Healing doesn’t just come from drugs or medicines. Your friends, and your community, these are the key. Draw down on the traditions of our culture, our music, our ingenuity and our creativity and its embedded qualities of generosity and compassion.
Watching Trees isn’t a boutique festival. It couldn’t have been one: nothing about it annoyed me in any way. There were no stockbrokers. The provenance of sausages, eggs or bread on sale was not a talking point. (Shout out to Anna on the crew catering; a human sunbeam).
Watching Trees was more like a free party, in the grand tradition of anarchist raving that is Britain’s chief cultural contribution of the last 100 years. There weren’t any dickheads there, at all. The camping fields and toilets and food tents were gloriously relaxed, with quietly stylish people wallowing in the music and the site-wide aesthetic, which was earthy without the mungbeans, hippy without the terrible trousers, and radical without the droning egotism.
It was, in short, house as fuck.
Raise your hand if you understand; raise your standards if you don’t.
Wil Troup, Optimo crew, all you dancers you prancers, you wide-eyed romancers, we thank you. And we’ll see you next year.