After two years away from my favourite place on Earth, to say that I was excited to return to Barn on the Farm this summer would be a massive understatement. Over the years it’s become such an integral part of the calendar, like Christmas, that having summers without it due to Covid felt like missing a limb. Still clutching on to my original 2020 ticket, stepping back onto Over Farm at long last felt like coming home. But after struggling through two years of pandemic upheaval, and with the dizzying highs of their stellar ten-year anniversary being a tough act to follow, expectations were high.
Right from first arriving on Thursday morning, I was surprised at just how much the festival’s layout had changed. Each year always has a few new quirky additions to look forward to, but 2022 saw the festival undergo a major overhaul. It felt like visiting for the first time, and the joy of exploration really added to the atmosphere of Intimate Thursday. Set on the opposite side of the farm, with the campsite on the old microlight runway field, the festival was spread over a far larger area. This left room for far more quirky installations and cosy little vignettes to act as photo-ops and peaceful hideaways. Chief among them was “Grandma’s House” – a run down little wooden shack that ended up being home to a secret rave. The whole festival felt far bigger and yet somehow more intimate, with space and separation between each new feature. 2022 also saw a couple of new stages – a new Mad Max-esque outdoor stage decked out like a post-apocalyptic petrol station, and a freshly revamped tin barn making a return as the main stage and bringing back some 2015 nostalgia.
Of course, some things never change, and it wouldn’t be Barn on the Farm without the wooden barn at its heart. The magic kicked off there on the Thursday afternoon with singer/songwriter Sophie May. Her set full of songs about “falling in love with rockstars” saw her superb vocals twirl and twist like wisps of smoke in a candlelit room. While over at Thursday’s special little Microlight Stage (which would later become the merch stall over the weekend) I caught Sophia Alexa, whose fragile yet expressive vocals reminded me a little of Julien Baker. Shyfoot, featuring members of barn veterans Mosa Wild, shared harmonies that felt like droplets of sunshine on an overcast day, while Nell Mescal brought some infectious indie pop hidden away behind self-described depressing song titles. Greta Isaac practically tore the roof off the barn, with an enthusiastic and assured set that saw her stake a claim as the barn’s next big breakout pop act. Back on the Microlight Stage, Violet Skies proved to be one of my favourite discoveries of the weekend. Her soulful and down to Earth performance, with songs touching on insecurities and aspects of overthinking that felt deeply relatable, was the kind of set you’d just close your eyes and get lost in. Greta proved to be her biggest fan, stood next to me singing along with every word, in a perfect snapshot of what makes BotF so special. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house for Aquilo’s set, which married dreamy melodies with outbursts of passion, before secret headliner Tom Walker brought the night to a close with a set that included covers of Coldplay and Adele and an impassioned takedown of the Tories with his new track ‘Number 10’.
Things kicked up a notch in scale for Friday, with the bewitching vocals of blue haired Kings Elliot starting my day off with a bit of morning melancholy in the barn. Michael Aldag was full of energy, his mop of ginger curls bouncing around as he owned the new outdoor stage. If you’d closed your eyes for Cate’s set you could’ve sworn you were listening to Taylor Swift, but by doing so you’d have missed her infectious smile that was beaming the whole way through. Coach Party brought some frenetic alt rock to the outdoor stage, while over on the main stage the soulful Sam Fischer proved to be a consummate showman, with his set including a charming duet with his wife and a steamy cover of Whitney Houston. Will Joseph Cook and Joesef may disagree on the spelling of names, but both were on the same wavelength when it came to delivering funky grooves – the former more upbeat and feelgood, the latter a little more hot-under-the-collar, both accentuated by the glorious glow of golden hour. Farm favourites Amber Run made a triumphant return and delivered an anthemic set to headline the outdoor stage, before James Bay brought the day to a close in the tin barn. I thought it a bit curious at first that he appeared without a backing band, but his solo set exceeded expectations, with tracks from his new album Leap alongside all the biggest hits from his debut.
Saturday got off to a slow start. After two days of blustery overcast weather it spent all of Saturday morning raining – a far cry from the usual scorching weather of the past few years. Thankfully there was a break in the weather long enough to catch an energetic pop masterclass from Gracey over on the outdoor stage. Man of the hour Sam Ryder, having won the hearts of the nation through Eurovision and the Jubilee, made quick work winning over the weekend crowd. Between his incredible voice and the fact that he’s practically happiness personified, it’s no surprise that he’s the one who brought out the sun. Flyte, with a little help from Holly Humberstone, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and members of Bombay Bicycle Club, delivered some chilled out US West coast kinda vibes. Alfie Templeman gave us indie pop with a bit of funky flair, with his bassist in particular loving every moment, while Cassia (subbing for The Academic) brought bouncy indie bops with hints of Vampire Weekend that got much of the crowd up on people’s shoulders. Griff was by far the name on the line-up that I was most excited about, and she did not disappoint. Her spellbinding, hit-packed performance was my highlight of the whole festival – a tough act to follow for Bombay Bicycle Club, whose vibrant headline set brought the day to a close.
An early start Sunday as some mysterious flyers lured me out to Viji’s set on the wooden barn stage, providing some grungy dream pop to start the day. Oliver Malcolm came suited up to the mainstage to deliver an intense set that recalled Patrick Bateman’s Huey Lewis dancing in the best possible sense. Three piece Fatherson took to the stage in matching outfits and went hard with a dose of anthemic alt rock – definitely a band I’d be keen to see again. Having struggled to get near the barn the day before, I decided to hole up there for most of the afternoon, checking out among others the lofi vibes of Finn Askew. The moment came for another time honoured BotF tradition: the Farm Band supergroup, which this year saw Holly Humberstone and Will from Flyte team up once again, joined by Dylan Fraser, JP Saxe and Ber (and briefly Maisie Peters!) to perform each other’s songs. I particularly loved Ber’s contributions; she approached the collaboration with such joy and enthusiasm, and her song ‘Meant To Be’ proved to be my highlight of the set. Gutted I’d missed her set earlier that day in hindsight, but hers is definitely a name I’ll be looking for on future line-ups. A secret stripped back set from The Amazons topped the bill in the wooden barn, and Holly Humberstone (who had been living her weekend to the fullest) finally played her own enchanting set to one of the biggest crowds of the festival. Maisie Peters brought my weekend to a close with a set of pure pop perfection, packed full of treats and surprises, but sadly I elected to leave early and miss headliners Easy Life in order to escape rumblings of Monday motorway strikes along my route home.
All told however, Barn 22 was a mixed bag. I felt a little lukewarm towards the line-up when it was announced. I feel like the perfect BotF line-up needs a healthy mix of buzzworthy names, returning farm favourites, and lesser known up-and-comers, and 2022 felt like it leaned a bit too heavily on the latter compared to previous years. Also, while certainly not a washout, there was still more grim weather than every previous year combined. One or the other, line-up or weather, falling short of the mark would be inconsequential on its own, but both together felt like a bit of a drag at times. The changes to the festival grounds were a big hit in my books for the most part (though I did miss being right next to the ostriches), but everyone I spoke to said the same thing: “the outdoor stage is bigger than the main stage, I feel like they should’ve swapped them around”. Most of all the secret sets, while great in isolation, did feel like a step down after the high bar set by 2019’s “Reggae Zero”. Given that every secret set began with the words “It was a secret for me too, this was very last minute”, I got the impression the organisers aimed for the moon but things didn’t quite pan out as hoped, and I imagine Covid had no small part to play in that.
It wasn’t my favourite year, but credit where it’s due for the organisers putting on a weekend as good as it was after two fallow years. Such large scale reinvention, bouncing back from the pandemic, and following on from their stellar 10 year anniversary are all daunting prospects on their own, never mind combined! Even with the wobbles it was still the highlight of my calendar. No matter who’s playing, no matter what the weather is doing, the warm and welcoming atmosphere is still enough to make Barn on the Farm the best festival in the world. Assuming there’s no more global disasters in store (touch wood), I’m looking forward to joining the farm family again next year.