“Don’t let your middle age go to waste!”
As shouted audience abuse goes — in this case as recounted by musician Dean Wareham — that’s not bad. And what is middle age, never mind a well-lived life? Or to simplify: When are you too old to attend — if not headline — Indietracks, an indie-rock music festival set not just in the English countryside, but at the potentially “twee’er than thou” location of a volunteer-run, working railway with museums, a replica Victorian town, steam engines and conductors in period attire?
Those questions are on my mind as I drive south from Scotland. A six-hour journey stretches to nearly nine — through haar, sun, two iced latté stops and nonstop motorway tail-backs — before I reach Derbyshire. Or as the locals say: “Darby-sure.”
I’m at the festival to see Wareham, formerly part of the seminal alternative trio Galaxie 500, known for such songs as “Don’t Let Our Youth Go To Waste,” which he wrote prior to leaving the band and forming Luna. By the end of Luna’s run, as he details in his memoir “Black Postcards,” he was living the aging rock-star cliché: non-stop gigging, divorced, dating the bass player — read: divorce — playing to likewise aging audiences and occasionally being verbally pummeled with seemingly ageist shout-outs.
Age awareness keeps resurfacing at the three-day Indietracks festival. “I think I’m the oldest person here,” Wareham says, pausing between songs during his headlining gig — backed by a three-piece band, including the aforementioned bassist, who in a happy twist is now his wife — on the indoor stage on Saturday night. “Except maybe for you, sir,” he adds, pointing to a volunteer bartender with a Santa Claus beard. “Or that guy from The Chills.”
Chills lead singer Martin Phillipps, in fact, while performing the previous evening at the festival, told the crowd that he penned the band’s most recent single, “Molten Gold,” to celebrate turning 50. It was his first new single in a decade, and the undisputed icon of achingly beautiful “Kiwi fuzz” pop songs expresses amazement at still being around.
Following his band’s set comes Allo Darlin’, featuring songs from its latest album, including “Romance and Adventure,” set in a minor key. Striking up a conversation with a girl in front of me in the beer queue, before their set, she says she’s concerned because lead singer Elizabeth Morris has just relocated from London to Italy and gotten married, and the future of the band remains uncertain. One feels budget airline EasyJet might facilitate this romance and adventure.
But throughout the weekend, any potential peril of over-discussing Major Life Events or Milestones is mitigated by more than five dozen bands practicing variations on fuzzed out, jangly and often quite uplifting, melodic power pop. The performers in attendance range from teenagers to oldsters — if “50” counts as old. Some say they make a living at gigging. Others have day jobs. The 20-something front man of Glasgow-based Ace City Rockers tells me they only get together anymore to perform at Indietracks, and by day he’s a student loan officer.
Between shows, attendees circle between the outdoor stage and the indoor, where a bar runs up the side, staffed by Midland Railway volunteers young and old dispensing “real ale.” Behind them is a wall of casks ranging from Old Mottled Cock (4.2% “copper ale”) and Born in the USA (5.0% “pale American hops”) to Fluffer (4.8% “pale, citrus hops,”) and Butterley Tunnel (4.2%, “black”); plus “real cider” and munchies that range from scampi fries and Pringles to Twiglets and packets of Jacob’s nuts.
The grounds are dotted with food stalls from local merchants; the vegetarian curry is justifiably legendary. A merch tent is filled with more vinyl LPs and cassettes — from the likes of such labels as Fortuna POP! and Elefant Records — than I’ve seen since my cassingle-rich adolescence. Inside the steaming tent, petite Spanish chanteuse Cristina Quesada quietly sings an acoustic set, accompanied by a thin boy plucking nylon guitar strings. Away in the model church, meanwhile, are the sounds of another show, but I can’t get close enough to see who’s at work.
The festival is family-friendly too. Outside an activity tent located next to the station, kids have hung homemade quilt squares – later to be assembled into the full-blown article – on neon-orange plastic temporary fencing. For one blissful hour on Saturday, furthermore, young and old alike who have packed their ukulele can collectively master Allo Darlin’s love-letter from Berlin, “Talulah,” on which the four-stringed instrument plays a starring role.
The summer weekend is a corker, weather-wise, and too late, I realize I have not counted on the amount of preparation so many English festival-goers spend cultivating their “summer look.” Cue trendy hats, tattoos of phonographs, nonstop geometric tattoos spilling out from underneath sundresses, nose rings, more aggressive piercings, mustaches worn with irony, mustaches worn without irony, cool kid t-shirts, ponytailed girls in ’50s teenybopper blouses and skirts, men in yellow trousers, straw hats, cowboy hats, fedoras, accessories of Mardi Gras beads, vintage camera gear, heart-shaped sunglasses, garlands in people’s hair, and a few girls who look like they’re on a psycho hen do. Even the children put my fashion sense to shame.
But I’m not the only cultural interloper. Riding Saturday morning on the “train taxi” from parking area to Midland Railway facilities, I meet a Swedish couple from Göteborg, Sweden. Later, running to catch one of the acoustic sets inside a train car — before it departs pulled by a steam engine for the entirely of the 45-minute gig — I meet a young couple with a baby in a sling. Mom is also packing a real, working Super-8 camera, while Dad sports an old, rangefinder film camera — beautiful, retro, silver. And later, over a sweet-potato curry lunch, I share a picnic table with three women, all Indietracks veterans who hail from Hamburg.
Another highlight: Welsh outfit Joanna Gruesome, who by virtue of their proclivity for punning band names seem to have underestimated the staying power of their blistering songs. The teenagers are joined by Dean Wareham, catapulting onto the stage to help them cover his nihilist Galaxie 500 classic “Tugboat” — “I don’t wanna stay at your party/ I don’t wanna talk with your friends/ I don’t wanna vote for your president …” Afterwards, the band, led by singer Alanna McArdle — with striking blue hair and dagger-tattooed bicep — stand agape, telegraphing looks of “can you believe that just happened?” in all directions. And the crowd, buoyed, gazes back, energy building, everyone collectively willing the show on.
It’s these shared moments that transcend mundane questions about time, place or age. It feels head-clearing to watch energized bands — so many of them still so young — deliver performances of such sonic intensity and variety.
On one of the festival’s annual preview compilations of performing artists, a standout track is by Colour Me Wednesday, and it centers on the anxiety of turning 20. It’s a sunny, effortless-sounding slice of English pop, reminiscent of The Sundays. Based partly on my young daughter’s urging, it stays on nonstop repeat from house to car and back, an all-ages soundtrack to the summer. And they’re tipped to play the festival next year, where I know it will sound even better.