The final sxsc Festival

The 2013 sxsc Festival was to be the last under that name, following a surreal series of email exchanges with lawyers representing the South By South West Festival in Texas. I tried to respond with levity but was always flat-batted back with stern, unresponsive legalese, so in the end gave in. From now, we’ll be known as SC4M – South Central For Music, chosen largely because of its availability as a domain name.

We planned to go out with a bang, because as well as being the last festival, it also marked my 65th birthday and ten years of putting on shows as sxsc.  For that reason, I set out to try and put together a bill containing artists that mean a great deal to us. It was a lot of hard work, because my friend and promoting partner Richard had moved to Spain and wasn’t available to help. So I set out to call in some favours from old friends. The first thing to slip into place was a headliner: John Murry had played a storming show at the Railway earlier in the year and promised to return for the festival. I trusted him entirely and so it proved. John made himself unpopular with booking agents by his insistence that he would play this show no matter what other, more lucrative offers he might have to turn down.

Encouraged by this kindness, I then set about chasing Andy Burrows, Winchester’s most successful musical export ever and another true friend. Again, music business politics were in play, as he was just changing agents and similarly had to arrange this rare solo appearance as a private agreement between the two of us. With those two main artists in place, I was confident of a quick sell-out (the capacity of the Railway is only 110) without the nail biting agony of previous festivals, most of which struggled with ticket sales. Budgeting for a break-even point of selling all the tickets (our aim is to pay all the artists properly and not make a profit), I felt able to relax.

As it turned out, this was premature. Every artist on the bill has a following and most of them sell out far bigger venues, but tickets stubbornly failed to start selling at anything like the rate they needed to. The reason, I had to accept, was my lack of a marketing budget. I was confident that press and radio would be amazed by the “big artists in a little venue” story and get on board; otherwise, how else would anyone find out about it? We tweeted and Facebooked like crazy but it wasn’t enough; we needed press support and we didn’t get it. I personally emailed, phoned and sent handwritten letters to all the presenters and producers on Radios 2 and 6, and I did the same with the main listings agencies and the music writers of all the national newspapers and music magazines. The result? Despite the line up being one of the most impressive and credible of the entire summer offering, not one single mention, apart from in our much-loved local paper, the Hampshire Chronicle. Even Uncut magazine, which had been supportive of us in the past, didn’t help and transferred its allegiance to the much bigger End Of The Road Festival.

With a week to go, we managed to get hold of tickets to End Of The Road and stood around at the end of John Murry’s set there, handing out flyers. That did the trick, as the performance was so sensational, and the last tickets went with two days to spare.

So then it was down to making the final preparations. We gave much thought to every aspect, so that all would run smoothly and in the best interests of both artists and audience. We were confident (when I say we, I mean me and my wife Birgit, the sole organisers) that we had thought of everything. At one stage, I found myself walking cagily along Eastleigh High Street with £2500 in cash in my inside pocket.  On that day I found out, too, that the beautifully designed booklets a kind friend had donated had been printed with the pages in the wrong order, and it was too late to do anything about it. On the eve of the festival, I was hoping for some relaxation, following my wild and inebriated birthday party the night before, when I got a message from Chris T-T, explaining that he wouldn’t be able to perform with his band for some personal reasons to do with band members. This panicked me. In itself, it wasn’t a big problem, but I feared for what other unexpected developments might occur.

Sunday dawned with a sense of anticipation but also nervousness. At 9.30, for some reason, I decided to check my emails. There it was, an email from someone whose name I wasn’t sure I recognised. It was a message from the festival caterer: Sorry, I’ve hurt my back and we’re not coming. My heart leapt into my mouth. What? Why had he emailed and not rung? It was only by chance that I’d looked at my emails. We could have been waiting there all day for him and been humiliated. So what could we do?

I rang a series of other caterers, none of whom were available. At one stage, I entered negotiations with Domino’s Pizza for a series of staged deliveries. But then, someone had an idea. The hotplates from my birthday party hadn’t yet been returned to the restaurant. There was nothing for it – we’d have to improvise and do the catering ourselves. My daughter Annabel and her boyfriend Gaz would be in charge, so off we went to Sainsburys, dropping off Gaz to buy baguettes and the ingredients for vegetable chilli, while I took the hotplates in to the Railway and tried to set them up. I have to tell you, as I haplessly attempted to get those hotplates working, plugged into a socket that was clearly dead, as torrential rain teemed around me and the clock ticked ever onwards towards opening time, my head was filled with the mantra of every gig promoter: “Why the hell do I do this to myself?”

Well, the reason is the music, and that was what made the day, eventually, everything we could have dreamed of and more. In a strange sort of synergy with Chris T-T, Ryan O’Reilly, whom I had booked solo, turned up with a band, much to the horror of sound engineer Ben, who had to reconfigure the tiny stage in the acoustic room with his usual consummate professionalism. On their way to Paris, Ryan and band got things off to a lovely start, before Chris T-T gave a performance that couldn’t possibly have been topped had he had his band with him. As he debuted a new song about a dolphin, the rapt audience was sniffling with moist eyes, which, for me, turned into full-scale tears as Annabel jumped up to sing a special birthday song.

Back up in the Attic, I entered a day-long battle with chairs. It was clear all the chairs would have to be folded up and put aside if everyone was to cram into the room, but every time I did that and went away for five minutes, some naughty audience members simply got them out and sat back down. Meanwhile, others were queuing down the stairs, unable to get in for Ben Folke-Thomas giving one of his finest-ever performances.

In the Barn, it was the turn of Peter Bruntnell, a matter of great importance for us, since Pete played our first ever show in 2003. He and his band delivered in the way only they can, pulling the largest crowd of the day. My detailed preparation had failed to throw up the fact that Dave Little, from Peter’s band, would also be playing with Small Town Jones ten minutes later in the Attic, and would need to schlep all his equipment upstairs and set it up in a matter of moments. Meanwhile, downstairs, John Parish’s drummer declared that he needed to use his own kit, which entailed removing the onstage kit and replacing it in time to sound check. Engineer Joe Marsh dealt with this with his usual aplomb and helped attain a magnificent sound for the atmospheric film music, while Emily Barker (who’s already sold out the much bigger Winchester Discovery Centre for November) performed in the Attic.

Then it was time for Andy Burrows, and the emotion was tangible as the rammed Attic came to terms with sharing a tiny room with a major star. Members of Andy’s family were present too and the whole event had a real “Winchester “ feel to it.

And so to the headliners. I knew John Murry would never let us down, and he and his trio almost blew the roof off the Barn in a lengthy and bruising set culminating in his masterpiece “Little Colored Balloons” and an encore with Dave Little on guitar that would have had Neil Young and Crazy Horse shaking in their boots. The feeling all around was of supreme happiness, as most people hung around after the end for a few more drinks and to chat with the stars. The Railway is unique in the whole UK in its atmosphere and its perfect layout for an event like this; please, please may it never die.

Back at home, it was a late and fuzzy night, with fifteen people staying over. In the morning, I awoke with a feeling of calm contentment and the sense of a job well done. But it didn’t last. When Dave Little returned to the Railway, he was distressed to find that a valuable effects pedal had been stolen overnight. Even now, we haven’t been able to work out how this could have happened and who might have done it, but it took the shine off the day. Never mind, I thought, I’ll go on the internet and see what people are saying about the event which, after all, had gone spectacularly well. And guess what, my blood ran cold as the only comment I could find on Facebook was a COMPLAINT. I was speechless.

It was from a person who was complaining about something I was completely unaware of and still don’t really understand. According to the correspondent, Peter Bruntnell and Jim Jones had been horsing around at the back of the room during John Murry’s set, allegedly spoiling it. She said it was unprofessional of them.  I immediately consulted Birgit, as no one else had said a word. She puts up with nonsense from no one, and said they’d just been a bit exuberant. But I don’t like anyone to be less than satisfied, and my first instinct was to reply, apologising for what the complainant said had happened.

But then I thought about it properly. Those guys had just played their hearts out for very little money, as they have consistently done for us for years. The audience had loved both of them.   They are good friends with John Murry and there’s a mutual admiration society going on there. Their best mate Dave was on stage with John Murry and thrilling the audience with his virtuosity. They were excited and proud and they have a tradition of joshing with each other in a light-hearted manner. Everyone had been as good as gold all day and this was the climax. No one was going to spoil it for me now.

“I know whose side I’m on”, I thought. And I deleted the message.