Simon Says festival is one of the biggest events of the Leicester music calendar, and this year is its fifth foray into keeping the city entertained. We spoke to Gaz Birtles, one of the organisers, about what Simon has to Say this time around…
Simon Says festival began in the halcyon summer days of 2013, when not everything was terrible all of the time. To celebrate their centenary, De Montfort Hall was to be the venue for a new music festival celebrating the best in summer vibes from a mixture of local artists and national players who supported local venues. It was decided that the best people to help program the festival would be the owners of some of the best music venues in Leicester – Matt Kirk of Firebug, Darren Knockles of the Musician and Gaz Birtles of The Donkey. The three venue head honchos collaborated with festival organisers to produce an event that has since become ingrained in the Leicester music calendar as the height of the summer season.
“Initially we were being asked to help with the ‘look’ of the festival,” says Gaz, himself a touring musician of many years playing saxophone with with the Beautiful South. “But it is a 4-way partnership with the 3 venues plus De Montfort Hall.” This partnership has been the driving force behind an array of incredible line-ups over the last five years, showcasing a huge amount of local talent as well as leveraging the booking power of all four venues to bring impressive headliners to the city. Past acts closing out the stages include The Wonder Stuff, British Sea Power, Alabama 3, The South, and Uncle Frank – possibly better known as Leicester-based member of the Fun Loving Criminals, Frank Benbini.
Gaz has been involved in the Leicester music scene since 1977, and in his capacity of booker for The Donkey he’s brought some incredible bands to the town. “Getting Fun Loving Criminals on was a real highlight,” he says. “I had done some sax on an album of theirs through Frank, so when it came to them touring the album they were persuaded to drop by at The Donkey and do a quick session… We had to sell the event without any publicity whatsoever, so I just put it out that we had a VERY famous act playing and that you wouldn’t want to miss it. People were buying tickets without actually knowing who they were coming to see!”
A band-booking pedigree that lets you bring bands like FLC to Leicester is certainly useful when putting together a festival, but Gaz and the others quickly learned that running a huge event at De Montfort Hall was different to anything they’d ever done before. “I obviously understand ‘the rules’ of playing a festival – what is needed and expected from bands with regards to technical considerations, car parking, venue access, guest lists etc… we learned a hell of a lot from the De Montfort team in the way these things are run, and also learned about the various restrictions of putting on a public event on Council property. Noise issues. Parking. Security. Box Office. Health and safety. We have these issues in our own venues but they are obviously magnified when it comes to the De Montfort Hall and Gardens… There are a lot more meetings running a festival than putting on music at The Donkey!”
This year’s Simon Says features incredible headliners Jah Wobble, Jim Bob and Smoove & Turrell, with Uncle Frank also making a triumphant return. Drew Stansell of classic two-tone act The Specials will be performing a tribute to Quadrophenia, and Paul Weller collaborators Stone Foundation. More importantly, though, there is a wealth of local talent on the bill to tickle whatever fancy you may have. Gaz is keen that the line-up, year on year, offers something for everyone. Local heroes playing this year include fresh-from-Handmade-festival Ash Mammal, Charlotte Carpenter and Her Name Is Calla (who have recently released a live album of their Bishops Street Church Handmade performance), as well as a huge range of rock, blues, jazz and folk acts including Chris Conway, Dawson Smith & The Dissenters, The Whiskey Rebellion and King Brasstards.
The festival does a great job of pulling in both great acts and large crowds every year, whilst maintaining a very steady size and atmosphere. “I think we hit on the right look on the second year,” Gaz explains. “We just tweak it about a bit each year. I think it’s a great site and a great size. [It’s] not too busy that you can’t find a piece of grass to sit down and buzzy enough to feel you’re at a cool event. A lot of the experience is about socialising with long lost friends and acquaintances. Oh, and there’s lots of great bands as well!” In addition to keeping the festival’s atmosphere just right and the size manageable, everyone is committed to keeping it well within the average music lover’s price range. “The aim was always to make it accessible to all in terms of ticket and bar price. I think we still achieve this, even though we have had to raise the price this year to £40 for a weekend ticket. [Still,] £20 a day! Come on, that’s cheap!” How does it compare to a larger festival in terms of budget? “After paying for the infrastructure and staffing costs, the budget to actually pay ALL 65 bands is about the same as it would cost to get one 3rd stage at Glastonbury headliner!”
Oh, and I’ve done the maths for you – you’re only paying 62p per band across the weekend. I have to agree with Gaz – that’s pretty well-priced.
Simon Says Festival is taking over De Montfort Hall and Gardens Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th of July.