It’s midnight and I’m dancing at the school disco. Hours have passed since the gymnasium lost its utilitarian features and transformed into something more decadent, a place where you might equally end up necking against a tangled volleyball net or doing the macarena with your geography teacher. At the other end of the hall, the DJ’s started playing ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ by Peaches. Wait, where am I?
It turns out The Gym is one of several newly occupied venues hosting live music, talks, comedy and other cultural ephemera at Sea Change, one of the UK’s most reliably diverse and engaging small festivals. Now in its fourth incarnation, the event seems to be annually moving more and more of its showcases away from Totnes and towards the even more beautiful South Devon setting of Dartington, where almost everything takes place this year.
We say ‘newly occupied’ because there’s a fair amount of history to many of them. High Cross House, once a headmaster’s office, has the not entirely unpleasant feeling of walking through a hippy commune – everywhere someone’s plastered art to the wall, and each new room finds fresh bodies scattered across the floor (hey, no one comes for the plush seating options).
It’s within this venue that Sea Change offers up an early highlight on Friday morning, as Laura Barton and Michael Hann explore their differing entry points to Bruce Springsteen’s back catalogue, hosted by self-confessed Boss sceptic John Robb. “I’m on fire!” Barton responds at one point, before the ensuing silence prompts a clarification: “That wasn’t a general comment, by the way. I meant the song…”
Beth Jeans Houghton (AKA Du Blonde) proves to be one of the most engaging acts of the first day over on the Truck Stage, with the tracks from this year’s exceptional LP ‘Lung Bread For Daddy’ managing to sound particularly warm and harsh at the same time. Meanwhile in the Big Top, Dutch act Pip Blom showcase exactly why they just got announced for Glastonbury (not long after a dazzling appearance at The Great Escape) with a set full of gloriously off-kilter indie rock.
In a weekend which perhaps suffered from an unusual lack of musical variety on the bill – do we need that many psych-rock dude-bands? – Maps’ colossal synth sound evoke peak-era M83, which is pretty high praise in our book.
But the night could only belong to local heroes Metronomy, sounding better than ever with a setlist unsurprisingly packed full of cuts from ‘The English Riviera’. For a band who’ve become such an international success, it was thrilling to hear the Devon crowd dancing and singing every word back on ‘The Bay’ – even if the song is a bittersweet love letter to a town you once longed to escape. By the time the Quietus DJs are in full swing, it feels like somewhere we could stay forever.
Less events in Totnes meant a lot more of the town’s events were less populated, though St. Mary’s Church remains the kind of venue that previous attendees will know packs the most magic; it proves as such on Saturday when Rozi Plain’s folk rock finds its perfect match in the holy house.
Back at the Big Top, there’s no question that Black Midi are one of the most hotly anticipated acts of the weekend, playing to an almost packed-out audience. The band have frequently been described as ‘genre-defying’: always a nefarious term, but particularly so for their brand of uninspired math-rock. Aside from an insanely good drummer, you wonder if the genres they’re supposedly defying might feel a sense of relief at being excluded.
The Comet Is Coming seem like an insane but brilliant choice for second-night headliners, and sure enough, their performance is phenomenal. Playing cuts from ‘Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery’ and beyond, you sense them winning over half the audience with every manic blast of saxophone.
The festival is boasting a selection of acts on the Sunday now, and if they’re relatively few in number, it’s not for want of quality: seeing Bagpuss and Stewart Lee on stage together is probably worth the price of entry alone.
After Ukrainian artist Lubomyr Melnyk casts a spell on Dartington’s Great Hall with a set of experimental piano pieces, the sun comes out in time for Gruff Rhys to provide the perfect feel-good festival performance – even when he’s going into detail about a protagonist who’s contracted a tropical disease, the sheer joy outweighs any melancholy subject matter. ‘Sensations In The Dark’ gets people dancing like loons, and it’s beautiful.
What makes Sea Change special is its willingness to go weird, to try new things, to ask the question: ‘Why can’t we book Bagpuss and Metronomy?’ Not everything works, and not everything is an unqualified success. But for every moment of mild disappointment, there are five moments of ridiculous brilliance you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
With any luck we’ll be back once more to see what they come up with next – with or without the school disco.
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Words: Matthew Neale // @matthewgneale
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