Tuning up

October 8, 2021

Its back. And how we’ve missed it. Live music, that cultural delight that thrills and enthrals in equal measure, has returned from its COVID-19 hiatus. And North East venues are wasting no time in getting back into the groove, with a host of concerts planned for the coming weeks and months. Here, Colin Young looks at music’s triumphant return and what to look out for as 2021 comes to a close.

When the heavens opened in the early hours of a Saturday morning towards the end of August, you had to feel for a large number of people gathered in the rooms, and sprawling fields, of one North East hotel.

A weekend of rain was the worst possible news for John Adamson and the organisers of Hardwick Festival 2021.

Two years of planning – the additional 52-week wait due to the coronavirus cancellation of the 2020 event – potentially about to be washed away by the unexpected turn in the summer weather.

The implications on audience turn-outs and festival turnovers, for hundreds of businesses, are immense.

But John, and his Ramside Estates team, and the local businesses and many high brand sponsors knew, not just hoped, they could rely on the determination of the North East public to get out of their homes and into open fields around the grounds again; hear live music, dance in a field and start to put 18 months of the pandemic, lockdowns and silence, behind them.

With the relaxation of social gathering rules, thousands ditched the masks and kept the protective clothing to the wellies and waterproofs, or just accepted their fate on the first proper outdoor music get-together in a very, very long time.

And come rain – and there was plenty of that – or shine, they were determined to come out in their numbers and enjoy it.

For all its delays, for all the bad weather, for all the anxiety and concerns over the agonising last few days before it reopened, Hardwick Festival 2021 was the most successful festival at the Sedgefield estate to date.

Plans for Hardwick Festival 2022 have started already.

And the plans for the next one will build on the increasing success of the event, which has put Hardwick Hall, a building of historical significance on the English Heritage register, on the modern music map. The first Hardwick Festival was held over one day in 2013 with Texas headlining and Jools Holland adding some weight to a line-up, which has since featured The Jacksons, Simple Minds, Adam Ant, James, Razorlight, Embrace and 10CC on the main stage arena.

The majority of the 2021 line-up turned up, not least legendary hit-maker and a damp Saturday night headliner Nile Rodgers, who quarantined to perform at a host of UK venues, and set the tone for the weekend, which closed with a set by Rag’n’Bone Man, for those still standing.

The event has evolved from the heady nights of To The Manor Born, the Hardwick club nights which attracted the UK’s leading DJs, who continue to perform at Hardwick Festival in the dance arena.

And the appeal of Hardwick Festival to its wide-ranging audience comes not only from the diversity of musical entertainment, but some of the culinary and drinking delights on the landscaped parkland, which stretches unhindered over 120 acres to the lake and historic Hardwick Park.

For two days, the 400-year-old hotel grounds are covered in stages, tents and marquees, food stalls and converted horse boxes and even double decker buses. And thousands of very happy (some merrier than others) people.

Among the familiar dark green Ramside food wagons, and their sister brands, which have been a mainstay of British festivals and major sporting events since the 1990s, are local traders and businesses who also benefit from the Hardwick experience.

Mark Shields and Mike Wathen, from North East start-up Quaff Box, have converted a dilapidated Rice Beaufort horse box into a luxury bar to serve custom-made cocktails from the tap after developing the method from their Newcastle base.

The mobile trailer is normally used at weddings, but Hardwick has become an annual earner for the last four years and this year proved one of their most successful.

Mark says: “We are reliant on many things, and we have always enjoyed being part of Hardwick Festival, but this year I think the demographic of the crowd really played into our hands.

“The audiences wanted to get out and enjoy themselves again, and you could sense that, and it is the same for traders too, who want to get out there and make the most of it.”

Other North East music festivals are available, of course, and there will certainly be no shortage of alternatives – with every musical taste covered – in 2022.

Exhibition Park opened its gates for some 1980s and 1990s retro acts over a couple of weekends, including during the Great North Run, and welcomed local hero Sam Fender and Gerry Cinnamon for This Is Tomorrow, with Kubix
paying homage to the past in another Hetherington Park-based weekend.

And next year, Into The Fields, in Blyth, and the South Tyneside Festival, in South Shields’ Bents Park, can surely be held after two cancellations, which denied tribute acts and the joys of Ella Henderson and The South, Will Young and Shalamar.

And although Elton John’s dodgy hip may have forced further postponement of his Stadium of Light gig next year, Motown legend Diana Ross will fill the gap at the Emirates Stadium in Chester- le-Street.

The new audience-friendly guidelines may have benefited the region’s varied indoor arenas and while their openings were more cautious, led largely by the concerns of the acts, they are all preparing pre-Christmas programmes with a host of well-known stars and local acts, all desperate to get back on the road and on stage.

And next year is already taking shape as venues make up for lost time.

New Royal Northern Sinfonia conductor Dinis Sousa has finally started playing in front of audiences at the Sage Gateshead, but the jewel of the River Tyne is among one of many due to welcome some niche names before the year is out.

Sir Cliff Richard may be 80, but he has decided to mark the landmark with a national tour that takes in the Sage this month.

Sir Cliff’s close friend Daniel O’Donnell is also guesting in Gateshead, as are Jason Donovan, Jamie Cullen, The Waterboys, Billy Bragg and Martin Stephenson.

New Royal Northern Sinfonia leader Maria Wloszczowska will perform a candle-lit Christmas concert on December 12, to be followed by soul and gospel star Mica Paris on December 15.

North East soul and funk duo Smoove & Turrell will wrap up the 2021 programme with a December 19 party, which will also feature the Voices of Virtue Gospel Choir, MC Kay Greyson and the Origin Crew dancers.

Sunderland’s newest venue has wasted no time in promoting its impressive and diverse opening acts and securing a pre-Christmas programme that sets the standard for future bookings.

The Fire Station auditorium, which is phase two of an £18 million redevelopment, is still under construction.

The official opening on December 17 will see Mercury Music Prize nominees Field Music presenting The Firestarters Revue, whose guest line-up includes Sunderland’s Barry Hyde and Ross Millard, of The Futureheads, and Frankie Francis alongside rising stars such as Martha Hill. A week earlier, Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell will become the first artiste to perform there when she takes to the stage with her fellow musicians The Darkening, and will be joined by The Lake Poets as special
guests. The Fire Station’s auditorium is aiming for 300 shows a year, holding up to 550 people seated or up to 800 standing.

Events are in place until June and Richard Dawson; The Shires and Amy Winehouse: A Celebration of her Life and Work with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, are all booked for January.

Paul Callaghan is chairman of the Music, Arts and Culture Trust charity which led the building of the auditorium and the £7 million first phase redevelopment of the Edwardian building into The Engine Room bar and restaurant, studios and heritage exhibition.

He says: “What a line-up to open this exceptional venue. We are extremely excited by the quality and variety of the performers who want to play in Sunderland.”

Tamsin Austin, director of The Fire Station, adds: “It is so exciting to have a new home for music and performing arts in the heart of Sunderland.

“We can’t wait to welcome people into what we hope will become a thriving community hub for audiences and for artists.” Another North East venue looking to make an impression on audiences is the 200-year-old Georgian Theatre in Stockton.

Saved from the bulldozers in the 1980s, it has steadily become a musical hub for Teesside audiences since 1993 when it was taken over by the fledgling Stockton Music & Arts Collective, which was renamed Tees Music Alliance in 2006.

At its heart, it is a vital cog in the local musicians and comedians’ scene, but it has appeal for national acts too and, after opening its doors to eager Sam Fender fans, it will welcome Tom Robinson, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and guitarist Luca Stricagnoli.

Also in Stockton, the Globe has hit the ground running and will light up the nights with headline acts from the world of music and comedy.

As well as a long-awaited return for Nick Cave, TV regulars Jason Manford, Chris Ramsey and Nina Conti will bring their latest shows to the venue, which opened in 1935.