OPINION: Simmer Down’s most important success

Butterfly screen break - lr - smBy Ed King. Follow him @EdKing2210

So a week and a day ago, Simmer Down Festival ’14 happened; an alleged 20,000 people turned up to Handsworth Park, for the fifth festival from our friends at The Drum.

And whilst we wait for the official pictures and press release to corroborate these numbers, the last thing to swallow is the untimely end of the headline act. Steel Pulse, playing in Handsworth after a 30 year absence, cut their set short by 20minutes – excluding from the final playlist tracks such as ‘Prodigal Son’ and ‘Handsworth Revolution’.

But this is not about that. This is about the response to that.

Hours after the festival closed, Facebook was awash with comments from ‘best day of the year’ to ‘…should be ashamed’ – which is the hangover you’d expect from a large scale event mixed with social media. But at the event itself the ‘thousands of revelers’, all (I say again, alleged) 20,000 of them, ‘melted peacefully’ out of the park.

The Facebook feeds were mainly taken up with people asking and suggesting why Steel Pulse closed early – the statement from Selwyn Brown not offering much explanation and nothing official coming from The Drum. Many people were upset; they felt let down, with their frustration arguably heightened by the bubble burst finale and that Steel Pulse, or someone at least, ‘owed it to the people of Handsworth’ to have sorted it out. Whatever it was.

But the Simmer Down Festival ’14 crowd themselves, ‘melted peacefully’.

Now disappointing a crowd of 20,000 people is not always going to end ‘peacefully’. Wherever you are in the world, poking the bear to such vast degree is a precarious move – especially at anything, from Bar Mitzvahs to away games, where alcohol is consumed.

So what is it that incenses one crowd to mob retaliation and the other to calm acceptance? What takes hold once the music is switched off and the people in high-vis jackets are showing you the gate, in all the varying degrees of civility that SIA training seems to cover?

I caught the-end-of-the-end-of the ‘rave scene’, promoting a few parties myself and attending a few more; lots of driving around parts of the Midlands I didn’t really know, looking for something I wasn’t quite sure of. The only violence I witnessed was in the queue for Dreamscape 5 – a licensed event at a regulated venue.

I’ve also promoted events in Handsworth, at the foot of the Soho Road, when days before the city had been mugged by an opportunistic herd; the two uniformed officers that came to check up on us in the morning happily leaving the rest of the day to our security.  Not a single incident occurred.

Then there was a regular Sunday night event I used to promote at Bar Room Bar in The Mailbox, where one week an argument was settled using the steak knives I was constantly asking the manageress to remove from the bar top. I’ve promoted events since I was too young to attend them, watching weddings turn to bar fights and festivals roll around for days after their license – and all the outcomes in between.

I’ve also seen the birth of the rioting at the debut Phoenix Festival, on Long Marston Airfield in 1994, beginning with one man hanging from one lamppost and ending in half a festival knocking down the Mean Fiddler’s perimeter fences. And some security.

So how, in the name of all that is cliché or holy, did Simmer Down Festival ’14 get away with such an abrupt rug pull?

It’s the same reason those clandestine field based parties of my youth never turned angry. It’s the same reason nights in city centre bars have a possibility too, if the wrong words are said in the right way. If you feel something is yours, you’re less likely to break it – or to let the idiots and interlopers cause any damage. If you don’t, and you’re angry, you could tear the place down.

It’s an odd outcome to such a shambolic ending, one you get the impression was more to do with bad stage and time management than anything else, but this is what Simmer Down Festival has seemingly managed to establish – a sense of ownership.Simmer Down Festival '14 / www.simmerdownfestival.wordpress.com

Many of the this year’s significantly increased crowd were at Simmer Down Festival ’14 to see Steel Pulse perform, and to hear live the songs that have become so important to so many. To fall at that particular fence and still keep your crowd, especially such a large one, is a phenomenally positive silver lining.

I wrote in the preview, that Simmer Down Festival was ‘picking up the old site, momentum, and to some degree legacy of the original Handsworth carnival’ and this jab-parry end to their half decade event, to me, adds further weight to this sentiment. Even on the Facebook feeds, once the initial frustration was vented, and at the end Steve Zacaranda’s Birmingham Review, the final words were positive – most people now moving on to headline suggestions for 2015.

So congratulations Simmer Down Festival; live, learn and recognise the respect for your crowd – Sunday 20th July could have ended very differently. Despite every effort made by every organiser at every event, a success or failure can so often come down to the people attending.

And as I also wrote in the preview, under a video clip of Steel Pulse performing ‘Handsworth revolution’ at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1979, ‘…and you can just imagine the Handsworth crowd after the opening line gets sung.’

Ed King is editor of Birmingham Review. Follow him @EdKing2210

For more on Simmer Down Festival, visit http://simmerdownfestival.wordpress.com/

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