Meraki Festival 2017: Where the Magic Happens
As the city of St Albans continues growing into arguably the most popular commuter city in the UK, the need for a large scale, quality music event has grown in tandem. All the situation needed is someone crazy enough to attempt such a thing. Step forward, the organisers of the brand spankingly new Meraki Festival: a full scale, three-day festival, chock-a-block with music, activities, and food stalls from the region’s finest eateries. Its year long advertising campaign was replete with the words, ‘festival magic’; so did Meraki live up to its magical aspirations?
We’re very pleased to say that the word ‘magic’ didn’t end up feeling like a marketing buzzword, but more a feeling synonymous with the entire weekend. The festival’s title is derived from the Greek word, which means 'to bring love, joy, and passion to a task' — as you enter the Herts County Showground site, your eyes drink in the sights of the impressive main stage, a giant inflatable igloo, a full-sized ferris wheel, and hot tubs dotted around everywhere, surrounded by Hertfordshire’s rolling hills.
Vitally though, the festival delivers on the musical front too. Those up early enough on Friday and comfortably sat on a haystack by the wonderful Mr Peeble’s Magnificent Music House stage got to hear the assured debut performance of Jack Hobbs. The festival’s second most foremost stage, the Upside Down stage saw the afternoon in with local looping king, Mark Sullivan, with a husky voice to rival that of Bonnie Tyler, who headlines at the very opposite end of the weekend. He lets loose some cracking tunes, most notably his soulful new single, Bird At Night.
Over on the main stage, St Albans’ own heroes, Billington and Quinn, kill it once again with their excellent Americana - but this is only the start of a very long weekend of fun for co-frontman, Tom Billington, who performs on the main stage again shortly after in his cover band, Tommy T & the Belletones, and also in constant involvement with his wonderful and worthwhile charity, Electric Umbrella — a beautiful organisation which gives adults with learning disabilities the opportunity, including a triumphant main stage show at Meraki.
Hornal is something of a St Albans supergroup formed by the very talented Ian Hornal, who has performed with ELO and 10cc — this band gives him the opportunity to showcase his solo material, with some very talented humans, including Sinead Quinn and Tom Billington, who are very welcome back on the stage. They’re every bit worthy of being the penultimate act before the '80s extravaganza begins.
Before that, though, it would be churlish to miss the rowdiest moment of the weekend, as The Zipheads give us their inimitable best on the Upside Down stage. Under a stunning skyline, the zany trio give it everything, and thus one of the best shows of the weekend, undeterred by most of the punters being at Jason Donovan [on the main stage]. As the much loved aussie appears, he lets everyone know this only required ‘a nice, quick trip down the M1’, before giving the crowd precisely what they’re after: a star-studded set of hits including the Lloyd-Webber penned, Any Dream Will Do.
Switching It Up
New York disco and soul legends, Odyssey, make damn sure that the dancing doesn’t end, with regular orders for everyone to 'keep girating'. Not that those requests are neccessary, when hits like Native New Yorker and Going Back To My Roots are coming out of the speakers. This back to back evening of wonders doesn’t cease there; former Spandau Ballet frontman,Tony Hadley, is our more than adequate Friday night closer, looking sharp as ever, and getting the singalongs going immediately. Meraki looks beautiful as night falls.
Saturday kicks off with prodigious 17 year old St Albans songstress, Hope Russell-Winter, who plays her first ever full-band gig as if it were her thousandth - and as if playing on a main stage is an everyday activity. Her hit-worthy songs, Sanctuary, and The Fall give Saturday the best imaginable start. Playing beside her is her guitarist, Seb Wesson, who gives a brilliant performance of his own later that same afternoon on the Upside Down stage — taking us through his fantastic new EP, Tigers.
There’s some smooth jazz from Anjali Perin, and another young prodigy in the shape of the outstanding Emma McGrath. There’s even virtuosic, instrumental funk from Harmless Funk on the smaller Mr Peebles’ stage — those in this central region of Meraki get to witness the unbelievable guitar playing of the group’s founder, Jake Willson.
A huge draw for tickets on Saturday is the back to back bonanza of Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Lemar. The former turns up in a spectacularly blinding sequinned outfit, and is phenomenal. She couldn’t own the stage any more if she tried, as she charges through hits like Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer) and her breakthrough track, Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love). And as if that wasn’t enough fun, Lemar has no problem following it with a set of motown covers, new songs, and his own hits, 50/50, and If There’s Any Justice. Lemar is absolutely oozing confidence as nightfall settles in. Dan Gillespie-Sells of The Feeling provides a fantastic 30-minute set of hits, with a beautiful cover of Wichita Lineman, dedicated to the late Glen Campbell, who passed away just a couple of days prior; and Judge Jules ensures it’s a real night to remember with an unforgettable set of absolute dance classics in the Igloo.
All good things must come to an end, but not if Katie Plus Juan have anything to say about it. Some tired looking punters plump themselves on the haystacks by the Upside Down stage, but the local duo are like a spiritual shot of espresso, getting through blinder after blinder with songs like Better Days. There are more stirring harmonies from sister act, Arc, on the Mr Peebles’ stage, and perhaps the most original act of the weekend, the Belfast Bullfighters, absolutely smash it with their cocktail of rock and traditional Irish music that is impossible not to love.
Rebecca Ferguson shows up looking most resplendent indeed, almost certainly the only scouse accent you’ll hear all weekend, but a class act on the main stage nonetheless - and the onus is on Welsh firebrand, Bonnie Tyler, to give Meraki the ending it deserves. The huskiest voice in the land, and her brilliant backing band don’t disappoint; Total Eclipse Of the Heart and Holding Out For a Hero makes sure the happy campers get one last hurrah.
Meraki delivered, and some; it was far too good for a first-time music festival, and you’d be a fool to bet against them building on this success in 2018. Headliner will gleefully be there again, and we suggest you snap up the super early bird tickets now while they last. Festival magic has well and truly come to St Albans.
Review by Adam Protz