This week’s Whit Friday band contest followed the traditional rules: a day of brass, beer and rain. As a band parent, my last week has consisted of running my son around to extra practices this week, making sure he has a good packed lunch, and his uniform clean and ready for the big day. As ever the day dawned with the threat of rain. It wouldn’t be Whit Friday if it didn’t. I was out on the Tameside circuit which takes in locations as diverse as tiny villages up in the west Pennine hills and rugby clubs that hide behind tram tracks and terraced houses on the edge of Manchester, all of which are besieged by enormous 60 seater coaches bearing bands from all over the UK driving through valley and up th’hills, creating chaos wherever they go.
The band contest has its roots in the dim and distant past of mills, mines and manufacturing. Many bands are still recognisably linked with that heritage, Fodens and Jaguar Land rover being amongst the many bearers of the great tradition of banding. The beauty of the contests, though, is that they are open to all, from old established names to new comers such as my son’s band. This was their second year out and their reception, if anything, was better than last year because spectators had come especially to hear them.
My son plays for Hattersley Youth Band, a group of kids mostly from the infamous estate of the same name, who come together to create sounds that would bring a tear to a glass eye. Performing in their uniform of hoodies and jeans, they march in to Eye of The Tiger before the 25 allowed members take the stand and launch into Slaidburn. The average age of the band is just 10 years old.
Most people chose to stay at one location, getting gently plastered and enjoying each band playing their heart out for them and the judge (each venue has an impartial judge who is hidden away in a blacked out caravan, or room above a pub, one window or door open to hear the performance), before rushing off to the next venue. Most bands play around 8 different venues, with Fodens last night covering 11 locations. An average contest starts at 4pm and wanders on until around midnight; senior bands fortified by chips and pints of beer, younger bands by ham butties and crisps.
We visited eight locations, and each location, be it street or cricket club, was populated by a diverse age range from baby in sling to senior citizens all come out to hear the greatest free show on earth. Each band were introduced by their name and test piece written on a chalkboard usually carried by a local child. In Heyrod (pronounced Herod), the bands were accompanied down the main street by local kids dancing along to whatever marching tune was being performed, whilst adults sat enjoying the show in their front gardens. With a cash prize on offer, each band was judged on its deportment. Curiously, even though the army band of the Kings Division was a contender, they didn’t receive the deportment prize everywhere. Evidently they need more drill. As always the rain eventually arrived and set in for the night, and the show carried on. Marching in the rain and performing without cover the bands played on and the spectators cheered even more. We’re northern – a bit of water never stopped a good night out.
Eventually we arrived at Hattersley Brass’ last stop, Stalybridge Celtic, where they followed bands from Leyland and Hammond’s Saltaire with their last rousing performance before being bundled back to their parent’s embraces. Soaking wet but beaming with pride and elation they were carried home to await the results in the morning. And what results they were: Second in Borough Wide Youth Open Championship, two secnd places, a deportment, a first to play and the loudest cheers wherever they went. Not bad for a group of teeny, tiny trumpet players as one twitter wag branded them.
Whit Friday, the greatest free show on earth, with the friendliest crowds and best noises you’ll ever hear. For community spirit and showing the best in musical talent you’ll not find anything like it anywhere else in the world. If you’ve not been, then you’ve 12 months to plan your night out. And if you were there like me, you’re knackered and happy today and looking forward to doing it all over again in 2017. See you there.