Fancy a bucolic frolic? Could you be enchanted by cushion-festooned tents, recorder-playing comedians, beautiful music and off-kilter lectures? Then perhaps you're one of the Irregular Folks. I can't imagine this cracking mini-festival happening anywhere other than Oxford - having appeared previously by the Perch and in Hogacre Eco Park, 2017's shenanigans take place in the Victoria Arms' idyllic garden. The bill reflects IF's eclecticism and good taste - there are no genre restrictions, no headliners, and an atmosphere in which our most stunning performers casually sip beers at a picnic table. I'll come clean and specify that these are Yorkston/Thorne/Khan, whose heavenly Indo-folk fusion opens proceedings. Scots singer-songwriter James Yorkston, bassist Jon Thorne, and virtuosic vocalist and sarangi-player Suhail Yusuf Khan make a surprisingly natural trio, and set the bar high. These are songs of familial love, bereavement and finding God - Khan's keening evocation of the latter, in the closing Sufi devotional piece, sees his lyrical sarangi-playing reach a Hendrix-esque intensity and his sublimely expressive voice hit strident peaks.
Where next? Returning host Paul Foot keeps it surreal, incorporating artist-hype and admin into his unique comedic world. Far from just providing chucklesome relief, Foot binds the event together with consistently funny observations and offers of erotic recorder recitals. He gets the vibe of IF, and when not compèring, he's herding the crowd around or inciting us to dance. Second act Laura J Martin's set begins as if Vashti Bunyan is fronting Duke Special's band, with delicate vibrato vocals atop music-hall piano and gramophone samples. But she's a monster flautist, which brings to mind the exoticism of Debussy and the jazz ferocity of Ron Burgundy. I love how her ode to the North, 'Green Grey Grim' begins as a jaunty Joanna Newsom miniature with Liverpudlian vowels, and transitions into a multi-tracked Balkan knees-up.
Throughout the day, Mini Movie Island shows challenging and amusing tiny films. We get a couple of works from the Bear & the Bean's Jordan O'Shea, whom you'll say you knew when he becomes the next Paul Thomas Anderson. Wonky comic items from Adam Buxton do the rounds, as does BAFTA-winning animation JoJo in the Stars - but it'd be great to have more Oxford-based filmmakers involved in future. The remaining venue, a kind of arcane knowledge-yurt, is known as the Odditorium - hosted by Dr. David Bramwell (who hosts the podcast of the same name), experts give illuminating TED-lengthed lectures on such subjects as 'Animal Vaginas' and the mysterious life of influential cartoonist B. Kliban. John Higgs' 'The Dandy Highwayman' is a discursive look at the cross-dressing outlaw throughout history and culture, but also touches on dragons in English myth, an eccentric way to draw out his message of inclusivity.
There's plenty of food courtesy of the pub, and a well-stocked bar at the main tent. Back to the music: multitalented creator Oly Ralfe's piano vignettes soundtrack imaginary films, and call to mind Yann Tiersen (of Amélie fame); in stylish psych tones, Jack Cheshire's band evokes both Jefferson Airplane and Radiohead, while boasting the upright bass of former Stornoway chap Oli Steadman; the drum machines and dark guitar confessionals and litanies of Hannah Bruce impress; and Dead Rat Orchestra bring enough folk power to satiate any who mistook this for a trad festival, rendering Victorian gallows songs and more in yells, harmonium wheezes, the thrums of a mutant ukelele and the deadened clang of axe-on-wood.
The appellation 'indie' can mean so many things, and Rozi Plain's definition includes none of the boring ones - her new work is based around a unique electric guitar style, expanded upon in polyphonic arrangements (think the interlocking lines of tUnE-yArDs or Talking Heads) and punctuated by fantastic drumming and retro synth. For this, and for covers by Shirley Collins and Sun Ra (the latter an elegant psych-mystic treat), I salute her. Finally, as far from folk as music gets but keeping it firmly irregular, GO DARK deck the stage with neon animals, Ableton noise-triggering devices and their own fluoro-clad selves. Performance artist Crash is joined by odd-rapper doseone, and what sounds like a night of LA clubbing filtered through a hi-octane videogame ensures the IF crowd don't stay seated for long. Their visceral sound-shock gets us dancing, Crash howls songs of wildness and freaky freedom, and cider is spilt on the hessian groundsheet. When the duo end this debut UK performance, Paul Foot absorbs the remaining applause and performs a surprisingly good encore on their behalf. A feast of music, falafel, verbal essay and film then comes to an end with literal fireworks, and I escape back up through the rabbit-hole into regular reality. IF's adventures in wonderland should become a staple of the Oxford calendar.