A Perfect Day in Exeter positively lived up to its name this weekend, with a stirring afternoon in the grounds of Powderham Castle as everyone embraced an impressive line-up of singers and songwriters, headlined by the world class David Gray on the last UK date of his 20th Anniversary White Ladder tour, something he began a few years ago!
Whilst Gray brought a selection of greatest hits, along with a killer version of Tainted Love, it was a revisit to the entirety of White Ladder, that brought him so much success in the early 2000s, that the band proudly pounded out with vivid magnificence across the sun-drenched evening Devon skies. That album, quite frankly, changed my life back in 2000 and although I’ve seen him live numerous times, there was something special in the Devon air when you first heard those opening two tracks, Please Forgive Me and Babylon, stood by the stage with people singing all around you – For the full run of photos from the day, head here for more!
But before we get to the big finale, A Perfect Day was a full afternoon and evening of goodness. Opening the Powderham festival was local trio Wildwood Kin, a wonderfully melodic and Americana-country-tinged Exeter-originating band, who always offer fine harmonies and fitted the laid back, open-air setting with poise. If you get to see them, definitely recommended, they’ve also played (a personal favourite) Black Deer Festival and were championed by the legendary Whispering Bob Harris.
Whilst we’re in the realms of Americana and Country, UK-duo The Shires followed the family affair and they’re another act who continue to deliver and bring forth the best of the genre in the UK right now. Heading into their seventh year together, it was clear that Ben Earle and Crissie Rhodes continue to grow in musicality and are adept at getting the crowd going, which shows why they’re one of the UK’s favourite country band, bringing a smart cover of the classic Islands in the Stream and a selection of their own addictive tunes.
Because you could take your own picnic, the site was covered with groups of people chilling out and taking advantage of the warm weather and splendid setting. It had the vibe of a positive extended family affair and relaxed enough to enjoy every act from wherever you made your home for the day. Sunday should be a day for giving yourself a break with food, drink and good music and after those opening bands, Brit legend Gabrielle took to the stage and did not disappoint, becoming one of my favourites of the day, with full force and a welcomingly chatty set from start to finish.
Gabrielle’s success isn’t fleeting, she’s now bridged a couple of decades – and is quintessentially a British treasure. She spoke of her love for Adele, as she was at Hyde Park the day before with her, and she felt the urge to bring that power and energy to Exeter for us – and boy, she did, with her band on top form and a concise set that offered us some of her own personal favourites, and absolute classic hits. Her set was honest, energetic and you felt the pure force of the likes of Rise, Give Me a Little More Time, the Bridget Jones-connected Out of Reach, the classic, iconic Dreams plus a stellar cover of Teardrops, to name a few. She also spoke of troubled times, songs that have helped her through and you could feel that depth in her music.
Then, after the late arrival of Tom Odell was announced, James Morrison switched timeslots and offered up his hits, a host of honesty and an impressive set. It was the first time I’d seen him, but James’ band was very much up for the sunshine, and Morrison also shared stories of the reasons behind his songs. Much like Gabrielle, certain moments in James’ life had left him in places without much hope, or painful memories, and after a self-imposed hiatus, it gave him a chance to re-evaluate and rework his own songs, and it really did feel he was loving the fresh approach with the likes of You Give Me Something, The Pieces Don’t Fit Anymore, Wonderful World, all with that gravely, individual edge to his voice.
Then we hit the mighty Tom Odell, who doesn’t disappoint live, even if you don’t know his albums as well. This is the second time I’ve seen him, the first time accidentally, and while he does have the ‘hit’ Another Love, it’s never about one song – although he did play it to an adoring crowd of all ages. Odell is a true musician with raw talent and a whole load more. Deeply connected and driven on his Grand Piano, Odell performs with grandeur and flair, and the band in a semi-circle in front of him, as they play as if they were in a smaller studio but producing a huge sound for the open-air setting. By the end, he’s up on his piano, as standard now (and it’d weird if he didn’t really), for the captivated audience below.
What was also interesting is that Odell, alongside almost every other artist, spoke of their admiration for headliner David Gray, but also of his influence on them melodically, lyrically and personally on their lives and careers. White Ladder pretty much changed the world, and certainly the flow of singer/songwriters in the UK and beyond, but its impact remains clear. When you strip down music to its essentials, to its heart, then White Ladder is a stellar example of songs at their finest as they connect on a personal level, and musically strong enough to last generations.
Once Gray hit the stage, the crowd were ready for to singalong, and gather new memories and moments in equal measure. After the aforementioned all-time classic tracks Please Forgive Me and Babylon, he took us through track-by-track with the original line-up (and original equipment) from that era, as in recent years he’d changed it up a bit. As well as seeing Rob Malone and Tim Bradshaw, the return of drummer Clune was a particular treat as he’s a unique animal to watch at any time.
Personal favourites on that album include Silver Lining and My Oh My, and it was great to hear those live again, as well as a full-on festival singalong for This Year’s Love and Sail Away, as it should be. But before he finished the album, they kicked out some hits with the likes of Be Mine, Hospital Food and The One I Love in full flow. It’s clear that Gray’s energy for the music never dissipates, his gigs are all diving into the moment and allowing yourself to drift in and away with the songs, and his exceptional set perfectly rounded off a fantastic festival.
A Perfect Day was cleverly run, with friendly staff across the site, the shuttle buses ran well and kept it accessible for the non-drivers and groups amongst us all as well. While the bathrooms were a little too far away at the back of the site, there were plenty of food and drink options even if the prices at festivals are always a bit high – but we did have the bonus of taking our own food!
However, none of this took away from an entertaining day of escapism, set in the heart of the stunning Devon countryside in the grounds of Powderham, overlooking the Exe Estuary as the sun slowly set behind us all: a friendly audience of all ages.
A Perfect Day took place on 3rd July 2022 in the grounds of Powderham Castle. You can also pick up David Gray’s White Ladder here: https://amzn.to/3NLi5O4
All photos by Dan Bullock, please contact me for any enquiries or use here