As sparkly as Elton John at his most sparkliest, Devizes Outdoor Celebratory Arts pulled the tinsel out of bag for the annual Winter Festival yesterday evening, leaving no niggles for a ‘review’ here, as such, just saying, and besides, if you live in or around Devizes, you were likely there anyway!
Edited out of my chat with one half of the new management team, Annabel, a few months ago, was the part where I described partaking in a lantern parade of yore, when the nippers were nippier and I was lesser of grey hair. It was met with a torrential storm, after we’d walked from St Johns, the lantern collection point, to the starting blocks at the Wharf. After a lengthly wait, while professional lantern makers gasconaded and kids became tiresome already, we marched on, around the entire town, arriving in the Market Place like war-torn soldiers. We carried freezing slain underarm, tired toddlers unable to stay concious and victims of gale forces gallantry still waving a bare stick in the air, of where a lantern once stood, only because it was frozen to their hand!
Okay, please allow slight exaggeration for artistic licence, but it was a trek even for the able-bodied. If the route these days is far more suitable, just a loop around the Market Place via Long Street and returning along the High Street, it was about the only change made, opting for all the custom aspects of the occasion; should keep the traditionalists content!
Except Devizes Town Council seemed to not warrant inviting Father Christmas to make for the high ground to make the light switch, as is tradition and a grand element of excitement for the little people, which was a shame. Otherwise, everything was in place for a wonderful time, this mild November evening.
The few art installations were aside the usual routes, so not trying the event to be akin to street festival, it was left to Devizes Town Band to entertain, under the memorial, which they did, kicking off with Hark the Herald Angel Sing; yep, definitely in the Christmassy mood now!
Devizes Young Farmers parked their tractors, adorned with fairy lights and tinsel, ahead of their Tinsel Run on Sunday 18th, a newer event by comparison, but over the last couple of years, fast also becoming a tradition. I’m unsure if they’ll keep all those lights on and flashing until the 18th, while working the fields, or if they take them all off again until the big day.
From the bustling Shambles to the Market Place crowds gathered, a variety of stalls, a great selection of tucker, and a busy craft fair in the Corn Exchange, coupled with the ever-fantastic lantern parade, which, once gathered the tree lights go on and the finale of fireworks commence. It’s the working method Devizes has seen in the season with for decades, and it made no sense to alter it; if it’s not broken…… congratulations again, DOCA, a super evening was had.
Threw my cards on the table, and pitched being Father Christmas at Devizes Winter Festival, but was informed that was arranged by the Town Council…. so, that’s that idea well and truly quashed! It was great, though, to meet Annabel, one half of the new management team of Devizes Outdoor Celebratory Arts, to chat on changes and new visions for carnival and the various other annual town events they organise……
It’s been an autumn since I quizzed former DOCA artistic director, Loz, on whether she had a say on choosing people for the role. I was glad her reply confirmed this, through fear fond events like the street festival might get all ‘village fete.’ Make no mistake, keyboard warriors on social media were quick to sound negativity on decisions taken by DOCA recently, but I’d argue Loz justified these rightfully, did an outstanding job stamping her own mark on DOCA. This came to an apex at this year’s street festival, with the mind-blowing Ceres display telling the Ruth Pearce story, something I’d dub Loz’s farewell gift to Devizes. Annabel was due to be production manager on the project, but caught covid, though she praised Baseline Circus who staged it, explaining she’d worked with them before and would use them again for DOCA.
And that’s where we open said episode, continuing from Loz’s input. I’m partly aware of Annabel’s past experience on the festival circuit, I was as pleased as punch to hear she’s taken on the role, and I came away from our chat at New Society positive this opens a new chapter for DOCA. If one reaction to changes made, such as moving the dates of summer events to spread the workload and effort, not forgoing allowing time for schools to participate better, was this rather insular notion Loz was not from the area. Rather I liked this aspect, Loz bought in acts we otherwise may never have known. Put your pitchforks away, Annabel really is Devizes born and bred. The role though has been split into two, as Bristol-based Ashley takes the artistic side responsible for booking acts; best of both worlds.
“Ashley and I really love that she split the job between us,” Annabel began, “you’ve still got the element of someone who’s got their finger on the pulse of the artists, and I’m from Devizes. But though I’m based here, I’ve got the experience of twenty years of doing different festivals!”
I asked her what festivals, Boomtown, Glastonbury, I knew of. “All of them really,” she responded, “Secret Garden Party, Leeds Festival, and over winter I’ve been working in Edinburgh, so, Hogmanay and their street party. So, quite a lot of variety, but I always come back here.”
Not beating about the bush, my first question was on Street Festival, because personally it’s my favourite! I love that we get these colourful and lively carnival type bands full of brass and blend of gypsy ska-folk type shenanigans, but I’m also keen to suggest the event also highlights local musicians too. I’ve also heard criticism of lengthy changeovers on the stage, where Loz expressed it was to allow for the circus sideshows, of which the sound of would be drained out by bands on stage.
This idea was met in 2019 when Vinyl Realm funded and organised a fantastic second stage, my vision is now driven towards getting local acts on the main stage, rather than it being a ‘bolt-on.’ My pitch suggests if we host a number of acoustic acts between main bands, it wouldn’t drown out the circus acts, would satisfy bar loiterers, and it would highlight our local circuit to an audience who perhaps doesn’t make it out to our pub-venues. I’m pleased she made a note of this, though it was perhaps better put to Ashley, who wasn’t present. “Ashley’s got some great ideas on that,” Annabel replied, “about bringing in different types of acts from different places, and also keeping it accessible locally as well.“
She toyed with this word, ‘accessible’ extending it to what’s important to her, “particularly in participation, whatever form that takes, whether it’s volunteering, attending, or performing, I want to make it accessible, finding out what will make it easier for people to enjoy it and in taking part as well.” Fire in the hole, golden opportunity for my summary on people’s, often passionate, feelings about the events, is it’s that delicate balance of pleasing everyone. “That’s the difficult bit,” Annabel confessed, “unfortunately you’re never going to please all the people all of the time, however I think by listening to people and communicating, would really help.”
And in fact, they’ve done precisely this, an online “carnival consultation” survey, which is still open, so too early to analyse results. Based solely on carnival, “because,” she explained, “I think there’s a particularly strong feeling DOCA wasn’t always listening to the people of Devizes, which they were to a certain extent, but maybe the communication wasn’t there, so we’re trying to make it as clear as possible, by opening it up and allowing people to have their say.” Annabel moved onto lower participation levels recently, due to difficulties of the pandemic era being “something we’d really like to address, and find out how we can make it easier for everyone.” A meeting about the results of the survey will follow, and really, you cannot ask for a better response than this, in my humble opinion!
There was one Facebook rant recently, comparing Devizes carnival with Pewsey’s, something I felt a tad unfair as Pewsey’s renowned reputation has taken decades to build, and a carnival is formed by people, Pewsey works because everyone comes out to play. “It takes an awful lot to get it to that level and keep it continuing,” Annabel mused, “it’s not a straight forward thing to do, and throwing in the spanner of a couple of years of nothing happening, and, yeah…” I trailed back to the tricky subject of satisfying everyone.
“The way we want to move forward is taking away the concept of us and them,” she expressed, “it’s all of us together, and that collates what you said as well, it needs to be something that everyone can feel they can get onboard with and get involved with, whether it’s something they’re already familiar with, or shared love of something new.”
If only those so quick to criticise could see, what I described as an iceberg, whereby it’s equal in size underwater as it is above, the inner-working of what it takes to stage these huge town events, they’d not, as dubious they do, take it somewhat for granted. Volunteering at this year’s street festival, which might’ve ended with me just clearing bins, opened my eyes to the mammoth task.
“Yes,” Annabel agreed, “and when you’re doing a good job, it’s when people don’t realise what’s going on behind the scenes, the amount of pre-planning, private funding, all of that sort of thing to bring it together, it’s a huge amount, especially these days when you’ve got all the red tape, but we trying to open it up, find out what’s going to make it easier for people to get involved, and do something about it. There’re a few different ideas we’ve outlined in the consolation, one idea was a ‘makers week,’ which could be weeks prior to carnival, where people who want to make something for carnival can come together and learn different skills.”
‘Together’ was becoming a word of the day, Annabel talking a lot on widening the volunteer spectrum to an almost ‘festival training core’ concept, and between this and her parenthood reasons for wishing to reduce her, what she described as “nomadic” festival life and be based here, “because I just love it,” is whyI came away positive from our chat.
The Winter Festival will be the proof in the pudding, Annabel and Ashley’s first DOCA event; had to wonder if this was possibly the most difficult of them to find a balance. “It’s all systems go,” she replied, “but I’m really excited about it already,” then told of the anticipation surrounding school’s lantern workshops, adding methods for creating similar enthusiasm for carnival.
For some unexplainable reasoning, I commenced waffling about Glastonbury festivals of yore, the different the weather makes, and we settled returning the conversation back to the beginning; changes, after Annabel spoke of Winter Festival’s indoor craft markets. “it’s difficult,” she responded, “but times do change. There’s a lot to be said for tradition, but a lot also to be said for new experiences; it’s about finding the right balance between the two, and making it work for as many people as possible, for the right reasons.”
As I said, I came away from our chat at New Society positive this opens a new chapter for DOCA, and I sincerely wish Ashly and Annabel the very best with their roles in our delightful carnival committee.
Spoiled Rotten in Devizes this November you are. In what is usually a quiet month leading up to yule, the easing of lockdown has detonated the month, opening it up as anyone’s game. It’s just so good to see a chockful event calendar for the whole county, and so many event organisers making a Rocky Balboa style comeback.
Aside our dependable Southgate, who’ve led the way for events in Devizes, and continue to provide top notch live music every weekend, free I might add, it’s exciting to see the Cavalier, The Muck & Dundar, and even the Condado Lounge in the running.
There are some big guns coming out too, as we welcome back the Wharf Theatre, who hosted The Paul Simon Story last weekend, and the return of the Invitation Theatre Company from Tuesday (9th) to Saturday (13th) this coming week. The Long Street Blues Club are back in force with three gigs this month, the Gerry Jablonski Band Saturday 13th, Force on the 20th, which is such a whopper it’s coming out of The Corn Exchange rather than usual Cons Club, and the Antonio Forcione Quartet on the 27th.
If it’s sounding good so far, we’ve not even touched on Devizes Eisteddfod from Thursday 18th to Saturday 20th, The Lawrence Art Society’s exhibition at the Town Hall from 25th to the 27th, and of course DOCA bring the Winter Festival and lantern parade on the 26th.
With all that I’ve mentioned it would be understandable to have overlooked the icing on the cake; Devizes Arts Festival surprisingly pops up to host some awesome events this month, when it’s usually confined to more summery months. Despite we’ve outlined the individual gigs lined up at the Arts Festival, back when it was announced in August, such has lockdown caused much jiggery-pokery with the dates of such things, and not forgoing I’d suspect the Arts Festival got itchy fingers and simply couldn’t wait until summertime to present us with some amazing performances, these things need reminders, so here I am!
Though the opening gig, Thursday’s Ronnie Scott’s All Stars Jazz Club Tour has sold out, tickets for the others are on the table awaiting your attention, plus, of course there’s free fringe events across town too. Let’s have another look at what’s on offer here, to wet your appetite shall we?
Under the banner, “the show must go on,” the Arts Festival are delighted to welcome Sally Barker to Devizes, on the 13th. In this new show ‘Sandy, Joni & Me’ she will bring some of the songs of both Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny to the stage, exploring the singer/songwriter legacy that was forged in the early ’70s.
Veteran folk-blues singer/songwriter Sally Barker became Tom Jones’ finalist on The Voice UK 2014 after reducing her mentor, and many watching the TV, to tears with her performances. Sally has toured with Sir Tom, Bob Dylan and Robert Plant amongst others. Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans said, “Sally changes the atmosphere in a room when she sings.”
And Friday 19th is Motown Gold time at the Corn Exchange. Dust off your dancing shoes for a fabulous evening from a fantastic band. Motown Gold celebrate the finest songs from the timeless Motown and Classic Soul era, which kind of speaks for itself.
As for free Fringe events, The Muck & Dundar have loop pedal guru Arif Najak bringing laid-back reggae sounds on Friday 12th. Sunday 14th is at New Society, where you’ll find Bristol’s dynamic jazz vocalist Lucy Moon, performing energetic swing and classic swing-era tunes to liven up your Sunday lunchtime. Booking is essential for this one, contact New Society to reserve your table.
There’s a couple more fringe events before the Arts Festival’s grand Motown finale; South Wales’s Big Sky are at The Crown on Wednesday 17th, with roots rock infused with touches of blues, country and psychedelia, they are known for being one of the few bands containing brothers who have not yet had an on-stage altercation! And Thursday 18th sees Mark Harrison at the Three Crowns. An original and interesting songwriter, a stunning guitarist, and a master storyteller.
It is, in all my years of running Devizine, the biggest November I’ve ever seen! But the Devizes Arts Festival doesn’t stop there, this is just filling a gap. I asked artistic director Margaret Bryant if there will be something in the pipeline for a summer arts festival too, and she replied “yes, we’re already planning 2022!”
Devizes Outdoor Celebratory Arts are in the thick of planning for the LanternParade and Winter Festival, set to take place at the Market Place on Friday the 26th and Saturday 27th of November, but it looks doubtful the usual mass-gathering to see Santa Claus switching on the Christmas lights will be possible this year.
Divided in opinion on controlling the pandemic and vaccinations we may be, but I’m certain, though disappointed, it would be an understandable move to spread the festival out for safety reasons, as it did so well with the town’s celebrated International Street Festival in the summer. Not forgoing, we’ll all agree, the last person we need to test positive at this time of year, is Santa!
“Traditionally Devizes Lantern Parade,” DOCA announced, “a huge magical community event comes to our streets on the last Friday of November, it is usually part of the Town Councils Light Switch on. Things may be a little different this year.”
But, let’s look forward for the positives; posters are going up around town this coming week, lantern making workshops in schools and at the Wiltshire Museum will take place on the 7th and 21st of November, and DOCA is gearing up to present the town with a wonderful parade and market. “We can confirm that we will have an amazing festive market,” they delight to inform, “with carefully selected sellers and makers bringing unique gifts, tasty food, and drinks to our Market Place.”
“The Makery” in the Corn Exchange will hold independent crafter stalls on both days, where you’ll find beautiful handmade gifts. Fantasy Radio will be playing festival tunes in the Market Place, Devizes Town Band will bring class brass to the Market Place, from 6-7pm each evening, with fireworks straight afterwards, and the highlight lantern parade starting off at 6:30pm.
There is a revised route for the parade, DOCA advises checking maps on lampposts around the town. Collect your lanterns from St. John’s Church between 5pm until 6pm. Leave unwanted lanterns under the Christmas Tree in the Market Place for recycling.
Other first-time things to look out for include the Air Giants, outside the Corn Exchange and the Town Hall at 5:30pm and 8:30pm. Amazing gentle giants, Triffid and Luma are huge illuminated, emotionally expressive, soft robotic creatures. “You may think the wind is blowing them, but they can actually sense you and will interact with you as you approach them,” DOCA claim. This I have to see for myself; who knows, by the end of the evening we’ll be best buddies and probably stop off for a pint at the British!
Also look out for Ghost Caribou; part caribou, part spirit, roam a mystical world after dark. That being outside the Mayflower on Long Street at 5:30pm and 7:10pm, and they’ll go walkabout along the High Street and Long Street afterwards. Join them as they clear a space to perform their other-worldly ceremony, with music, song and shadow puppets they tell stories of lost homes, impossible migrations and seeds of hope before continuing the journey into their hauntingly beautiful dream-world of the night.
Spooky! Hope to catch you there, with mulled wine and mittens! Find out more, HERE.