As Woodstock breaks up in disarray, a British summer of festivals rocks on

DESPITE ORIGINATING the idea of the open-air music festival, the United States appear to have given way to Britain in keeping alive the spirit of Woodstock, the greatest festival of them all.

Its grandchild - Woodstock 99 - ended in mayhem in upstate New York on Sunday night when police were needed to stop part of the 250,000-strong crowd torching the stage, looting merchandise stalls and fighting. The rowdy end to the festival followed similar violence on Saturday night when the rap metal group Bizkit began their song "Break Things" and were taken literally by many of their fans.

In contrast to such counter-culture behaviour, this summer has seen Britain's biggest-ever line up of festivals, giving so much variety that they have become almost a mainstream part of the leisure industry.

The venerable Cambridge Folk Festival takes place this weekend, celebrating its 35th anniversary with singers who could have been there at the beginning, such as James Taylor and Loudon Wainwright III. But where Cambridge and Glastonbury were once the only choice for those with a predilection towards tents, in the summer of 1999 some of Britain's 30-plus festivals no longer even have to involve real live musicians.

"The festival has splintered into a number of different types," said Darren Hughes, the organiser of this year's three Homelands dance-music festivals. "Once there was just the alternative rock scene, and they had the stranglehold on festivals. Now there is so much more."

Homelands grew out of Tribal Gathering, the first attempt to hold legal outdoor raves since the orbital parties of the late Eighties.

But this year, in addition to the traditional rock festival and the disc- jockey-based dance festivals there are even safe gigs like The City in the Park concerts in London and Nottingham. These have commercial sponsors and the most mainstream of acts such as The Corrs and Jimmy Nail to attract children and their mothers.

Commercialisation is one reason for the growth in festivals: the Virgin organisation has had its own festivals for five years and Tennent's lager has made T in the Park in Scotland one of the big four of the summer.

There are reggae, gay and heavy metal festivals. And, proving yet again that punk is not dead, there is Holidays in the Sun '99 - a get-together of the Damned and Sham '69.

James Barton, organiser of Creamfields - the eponymous Liverpool club's excursion into festivals - believes that the British like festivals because of our heritage: "Once the sun comes out people start thinking about heading for a field. It's because of all the years of Glastonbury, which frankly everyone of a certain age has been to at least once. And then there was the whole rave culture thing in the late Eighties.

"The difference is now that local councils are actively encouraging it. They know we can run them well and safely and they see it as a boost for the local area."

The dominance of the festival as a contemporary midsummer pastime is illustrated by the coming eclipse in Cornwall. It is unthinkable that 10 years ago the Cornish constabulary and county authorities would have allowed four festivals to become the main tourist attractions focused around the eclipse. But that is exactly what will happen with Sunshadow '99, Eclipse '99, Total Eclipse and The Lizard - the festivals competing for those who want the sun blocked out by more than just the moon.

In contrast, should the authorities in the township of Rome, New York, ever want to attract tourists again it is unlikely they will be giving the go-ahead to another Woodstock.

UK Music Fests

Cambridge Folk Festival 30 July-1 August

Despite the word `folk' the grandaddy festival of them all still offers great value.

Sunsplash99

1 August

After a lengthy exile in Jamaica this is the first Reggae Sunsplash in the UK since 1987.

Total Eclipse 6-11 August

A good taste line up of bands to make up for a clouded eclipse.

Lizard Eclipse Festival

7-12 August

Kula Shaker headlining means this is a festival for hippies who think an eclipse means something.

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