It’s one o’clock or thereabouts on Sunday morning, and I’m shuffling around – in part with my eyes closed – beneath a giant mirrorball that’s suspended between two tall trees using what looks like an improvised spider’s web. I’m surrounded by a few hundred other people, all dancing happily and enthusiastically, and we’re mostly facing a small stage nestled between towering pines. We’re surrounded by a ring of high-tech, next-generation Funktion 1 speakers, tuned to perfection for this unusual woodland space by a sound engineer who clearly takes pride in his work. We’re immersed in the music, transfixed by the magic and mystery of our surroundings on the fringes of the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, and uniformly having the time of our lives.
This is the Backwoods, the beating heart of Optimo and Ransom Note’s first collaborative festival, Watching Trees. The previous night, we’d made a beeline to the stage – initially in awe at how it looked and sounded – to hear Kiara Scuro flitting between throbbing, trance-inducing techno and acid-fired breakbeat funk, followed by a pulsating, hypnotic and undeniably druggy rinse-out from Ivan Smagghe. At least I think that was the sequence; I couldn’t see the stage to work out who was DJing and, to be honest, I didn’t care – I was just loving the music and the atmosphere, which was as smiley, happy and respectful as I’ve experienced at a festival for donkey’s years.
Right now though, it’s Optimo and Joy Orbison back to back, delivering a musical journey that will ultimately last for four mesmerising hours. We’re an hour in, and already we’ve had a mixture of intense, full-throttle, TB-303-powered techno – Josey Rebelle, who played before, delivered the hardest and wildest set I’ve ever heard her lay down – loose-limbed bass music and the odd rushing, singalong classic. Right now, the crowd – me included – is going wild for the impossible-to-pigeonhole insanity of ‘Jump Bugs’ by Syclops, arguably Maurice Fulton’s single greatest track under that alias (yes, it’s better than ‘Where’s Jason’s K’, and that’s saying something). It’s a memorable moment amongst too many to mention.
Running a festival is notoriously difficult, and launching one at a time of economic hardship, in the era of COVID-19, is particularly risky. Yet with Watching Trees, Optimo and Ransom Note (ably assisted, I think, by the Spun Out agency who have represented Optimo for many years) have pulled off a blinder. By any discernible measure, they’ve nailed it.
Naturally, the musical programming is spot on, as you’d expect. There are a handful of “names” that potential attendees without ultra-deep knowledge will recognise, but by and large those who bought tickets are by and large dedicated underground heads rather than casual party animals. The impression I get is that they, like me, trust Optimo and Ransom Note to get it right; in other words, it’s almost irrelevant who is on the line-up, because you know the music will be spot on and, crucially, mixed-up. Sometimes – especially when JD Twitch and Jonny Wilkes are doing their thing – you’ll get that within one two or three-hour set, at others via switching between stages or similarly waiting for the next DJ or live act to come on.
If you were there for the duration of the event, at different points you would have heard blissed-out ambient, quirky post-punk, oddball new wave, glassy-eyed IDM (Minotaur Shock’s live set was luscious), immersive dream-scapes (Andy Bell of Ride fame performing his GLOK project live was a definite highlight), proper dub (Abi Shanti-I, plus a dub-wise selection from Optimo beforehand), cosmic chuggers, Balearic beats, jacking acid house and much more besides.
Some of this took place in the Backwoods, and others inside the Espacio tent – the second stage, which was housed in the field between the woods and the campsite, which also featured a cluster of food trucks, the main bar and the ‘Whittling Tent’ – a little yurt used for a mixture of wholesome activities, workshops and talks.
On Saturday afternoon, I found myself sat cross-legged outside the latter, answering questions from Ransom Note’s Ally Tropical on bleep, the evolution of UK bass music and historical narratives in British dance music. There was a decent little crowd, with many nodding along as I tried to sound coherent on four hours sleep and a couple of double espressos. Afterwards, to the sound of Optimo’s afternoon post-punk set drifting over from the nearby Espacio tent, I chatted and answered questions from a succession of friendly people for a good 30 minutes afterwards. Other questions came at random points later in the weekend, too, and I should apologise now if I was a bit coherent at some points (by later in the evening, when the desire to dance alongside like-minded people took over, I was a bit refreshed).
But I digress. It takes many different factors to make a successful festival, and great programming alone won’t cut it. One of the biggest factors is, of course, the people, and at Watching Trees you couldn’t have asked for a more respectful, laidback and fun crowd. Someone on social media stated that there “was not a dickhead amongst them” and I have to agree. Of course, there were plenty from Optimo’s stomping ground of Glasgow and Ransom Note’s London base, but also 30 or so who had travelled from Switzerland (including Mental Groove chief Oliver Ducret, who I have happily worked with on a number of projects), a small crew from Bristol (that would be us), and those who had travelled from elsewhere in Europe and the UK. I never saw any bad behaviour (by that I mean toxic or anti-social activity) and many conversations were struck up with random people across the course of the weekend.
The volunteers, security and venue staff were also uniformly brilliant, while the production – from the sound to the staging, the lighting, décor and the quirky small touches that you’d expect from the frequently amusing Ransom Note crew – was faultless. Added together, it made the whole thing feel more like a big gathering of an extended family, united by music and a similar ethos, than something driven by commercial aims. In some ways, with its 500 capacity, it felt more like a grown-up rave or free party, albeit with better amenities. That’s a good thing though, because many festivals feel impersonal and run “by the numbers”; Watching Trees was the exact opposite of that. So much care was taken over every detail, and the crowd so in tune with it, that you felt like you were experiencing something truly special as part of a group. I can assure you that of those who attended, very few – if any – will have anything bad to say about it. Quite right, too – it was a genuinely magical weekend.
If Optimo and Ransom Note choose to do it again next year – and I for one hope they do – then I’d encourage you to consider getting a ticket. I’d happily go Watching Trees again next weekend if I could.