Marlborough’s Festival Gem; Manton-Fest

Reading Wiltshire Live’s article this morning, in which attendees were evacuated at Swindon festival Live at Lydiard Park yesterday due to looming thunderstorms, somewhat reflected my own weekend. Music Director Stuart Whant of Mantonfest near Marlborough looked solemnly at me and said if we had thunderstorms, he’d have to pull it. I tried to deflect it with flippancy, doubting it would come to that, but his expression told the story of how passionate and dedicated he is about Mantonfest.

Fortunately, despite one passing downpour, bad weather held off for the tenth anniversary of this magical and beloved little one-day festival. If Barrelhouse, the band Stuart plays bass for, performed the most excellent cover of Muddy Water’s “Got my Mojo Working,” wasn’t the only muddy element to this event, it certainly wasn’t going to upset the mood of the crowd.

Here, the port-a-loos are sectioned off according to gender, I duly noted; definitely a very Marlborough occasion! And for the locals Mantonfest has become a cherished institution. With Stuart organising, means Barrelhouse are firm fixture, as the crowd’s explosion of delight when they came on revealed, if the amount of folk attired in the band’s T-shirt didn’t.

I saw, and heard their reasoning, Barrelhouse seriously have their mojo working. Vintage blues with a hard edge groove their strapline, and apt. The cover of Hoochie Coochie Man sealed the deal for authenticity, but more captivating was the way they sublimely adjusted The Ace of Spades to said strapline, breathing a delta style into the metal anthem. Frontman Martin Hands is one cool dude in shades, playing no instrument he sullenly strides around the stage like a young Jim Morrison, and he has the rich, gritty voice which allures like him too.

For want of a plug, Barrelhouse’s signature tune and title track of their latest album, Mainline Voodoo appears on our Julia’s House compilation album, and the instant magnetism of its riff is the central reason why I’m here; they did not disappoint, rather kick over the pedestal the tune caused me to put them on, and replaced it with a much higher, more expensive one! A Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, and Honky Tonk Woman finale sealed the deal.

This band, domestic and obviously essential to the festival, were far from the only thing to impress. Due to congestion Marlborough is currently experiencing due to roadworks, they swapped places with Richard Davies & The Dissidents, who as a band made their debut appearance at Mantonfest, with very proficient free-flowing feelgood rock n roll.

The causal, untamed beatnik frontman though has previously performed here in different bands. As a persona he very much reflects a mellowed Jagger-Petty mesh, and has the skill to support the accolade. Backed by a professional bunch, their wavey folk-blues is perfection, told in our review of their debut album, Human Traffic. You’re washed over with the sensation you’ve somehow known these original songs all your life, they’d blend so wonderfully into a collection of Steve Winwood, Springsteen in all his Darkness glory, Traveling Wilburys and particularly, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, yet with a subtle hint of English punk, and amusing stage presence, they’re clearly one to watch.

No expense had been spared to make the stage centrepiece, with great acoustics whatever angle you’re situated, as the semi-circle shaped festival, overlooked by the beautiful surroundings of Treacle Brolly embraced it. Top-notch pyrotechnics breathed professionalism into the show as dusk became it, set for Dr Feelgood. A band formed in 1971 which never waned the passing of their frontman, Lee Brilleaux and various member changes, is one I confess my knowledge to not be up to much more than their name, therefore through their qualified skill at projecting some raw-edged blues with expertise ease and passion knocked me for six, particularly, a memorable guitar solo. Even if the encore felt forced when the frontman called it, Milk & Alcohol caused me to realise I knew more about Dr Feelgood than I gave credit for!

Another surprising revelation is the age demographic here, first impressions was an expected older crowd, with their umbrellas and collapsible chairs, but as I enjoyed a rather tasty Sumblers hotdog at the bar, I observed calculating an average age group was near impossible. To nit-pick being kid friendly, could’ve warranted some activities for them, but they seemed as content dancing as the teenagers and twentysomethings who rolled in to enjoy the show; some, I might add, better prepared for inclement weather than I!

But side provisions were adequate for a festival of this size, the upper-end of the food options being a pricey but worthy selection by Green Farm, based in Urchfont. The bar, provided by Ramsbury Brewery was of fair price, and the staff were extremely friendly. And this goes for as a summary of the festival, it was exceptionally localised and welcoming, the organisation of which was untroubled and willing to help with any inquiry.

Working in the morning made me fashionably late, as ever, sorry for missing local band Catfish the most, and only catching the end of The Ex-Men. First act for me to witness was impressive enough. Easy-listening folk Americana filled the bowl from a proficient Joe Martin and backing band. With a golden, rich voice soaring above his age, his originals were astutely written, one called Heartbreak Cult doubly-so, and covers of James Taylor’s Fire and Rain especially wonderful.

I was tipped off to the excellence of this regular event by Devizes’ local music enthusiast and photographer, Nick Padmore some time ago, and on his recommendation made a bee-line for it; it did not fail to live up to it. Yet I didn’t bump into anyone I know from our area, causing me to ponder my notion of a superficially psychological wall on those downs.

Honestly, decades ago when I announced I was moving from Marlborough to Devizes it was met with a horrified reaction, as if I’d suggested moving to Tijuana, or some other murder capital of the world, and equally Devizions perceive to Marlborough to be as affluently cliquey as the Bullingdon Club of 1870, when neither stereotype is true; only a lack of a direct bus route separates them. Yet if such a barrier does exist, it means there’s another circuit of local talent worth exploring, operating literally a twenty-minute drive away. Mantonfest’s dedication to local music proves this, but it’s prone to bringing in some big guns to top it off, too.

The icing on this case, if the mind-blowing Dr Feelgood wasn’t enough, was a welcomed Blondie tribute act as finale. Scotland-based Dirty Harry is the crème de la crème of tribute acts, genuinely and professionally mirroring the magic of Blondie in their prime. The lights shone over the returning drizzle as Mantonfest 2021 came to an enchanted end, tambourine-butt-tapping Dirt Harry, found time to banter with the crowd, young and old, bash out every known Blondie classic, some rarities and even The Ramones The Blitzkrieg Bop unto an appreciative bopping crowd.

Union City Blue, Heart of Glass, Denis and Call Me showcased the culmination of what was a wonderful return for live music in the area, and an area which should take heed, like other towns county-wide; ignore the relation to Devizes in the name Devizine, that’s just our base, we welcome news, events and stories from further afield, including you! And if Mantonfest is anything to go by, I’m taking this show on the road! meanwhile, you should bookmark Mantonfest 2022….


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