Live Review | Wath upon Dearne| Review by Allan Wilkinson
There’s an extraordinary sense of a community spirit that you couldn’t fail to absorb on arriving in the Montgomery Square area of Wath-upon-Dearne on a May bank holiday weekend. You may choose to join the festivities right at the very beginning, attending one of the Eric Sampson Schools Concerts, which take place sometime during the midweek period leading up to the bank holiday weekend. You may on the other hand choose to come along early on Friday evening, plying for one of the best seats in the house for the first of the five concert sessions, which would no doubt feature one of your favourite names on the folk and acoustic scene. You may even decide to skip all that and just come along with guitar in hand to attend the final informal session at the Sandygate on bank holiday Monday afternoon. Either way, you would be guaranteed a community atmosphere and a friendly face to meet and greet you. So carefully planned is the running order at the Wath Festival these days that satisfaction is almost guaranteed for all. The festival, which is organised by several passionate souls who collectively share one single vision, which is to bring this tangible sense of community to a wider audience, celebrates thirty-five years of its existence and its popularity grows year upon year. Centred round Montgomery Hall, the festival has grown over the years to the extent of including a large marquee for various children’s events, tucked away nicely behind Montgomery Hall, the main venue for all the festival concerts, and just a short distance away from yet another concert venue up on Sandygate Hill. The Sandygate Hotel, would be the ideal place to grab a bite to eat whilst taking in performances from additional invited artists such as up and coming acts like Jamie Roberts and Katriona Gilmore, Charlie Barker, the Jon Chapman Trio, Tim Eveleigh and Kayla Kavanagh. There’s every chance you might also get to see one of the main acts up close and personal, who will be appearing on the main stage at some point during the weekend. This year for instance, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan made such an appearance on Saturday afternoon. Between the town centre and the Parish church, where bread buns would be traditionally hurled from the tower at precisely twelve noon, you are likely to witness a variety of traditional dances, street performances and workshops, appealing to spectators of all ages, whether they be visitors to the festival, local townsfolk or just curious passers by. If you’re at a loose end on May bank holiday weekend, where better than at the Wath Festival to be? I wasn’t at a loose end over the weekend. On the contrary, I’d been looking very much forward to this year’s festival for a good twelve months since attending the last one and so becoming an instant convert. Upon arriving, I did what most festival goers do, that is to carefully scan the programme to see exactly who I might see and who I might miss due to scheduling cross-overs. Suffice to say, this festival is geared towards ensuring a ticket holder doesn’t miss much at all.
The first of the five concert sessions during the weekend got underway on Friday night with appearances by Ray Hearne, Bob Fox and the popular duo John Tams and Barry Coope, which turned out to be quite an inspired bit of programming. Ray Hearne has always been a popular voice in South Yorkshire and easily fits the dual role of both consummate entertainer and festival champion, a good figurehead who believes in this festival and the good it brings. John Tams later referred to Ray as a great poet and a personal hero, which coming from an artist of John’s stature is no mean accolade indeed. If Ray’s job was to warm up the audience, then by the time Bob Fox was ready to take over, that audience was sizzling in anticipation. Now this year, Bob Fox and Stu Luckley will be celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the release of their first LP, Nowt So Good’ll Pass, which features many of the songs that Bob is still singing today; songs which have subsequently become pretty much standard folk club fare, songs like “Sally Wheatley” and “The Bonnie Gateshead Lass” both of which Bob performed in his Friday night set. The distinctive voice on the record and the voice heard at the Wath Festival has changed very little in the subsequent years, if at all. Considered one of this countries’ best folk singers, Bob Fox could quite easily have walked away with the 2003 Best Singer Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards had Eliza Carthy not also been nominated that particular year. Still, as John Tams was to remind us later in the evening, Bob Fox possesses the greatest voice in the English folk movement, and a voice we shall not hear again. A voice that comes from ‘hard graft’. Ray Hearne compared the job of introducing John Tams and Barry Coope with that of introducing members of his own family. He went on to point out that the current political climate has brought about a consensus of opinion that if nothing else “we’ll get some good songs out of it – and who better to write ‘em but John Tams and who better to play ‘em but Barry Coope”. A perfect set-up for the perfect set that followed. Anyone who has witnessed a John Tams and Barry Coope performance knows full well that nothing unites a room full of people better. The songs weave through themes of hardship, love and loss with no small measure of astute observation and social commentary. Whilst “Amelia”, “Harry Stone” and “Lay Me Low” tug at the heartstrings and settle us deep into our seats, “Vulcan and Lucifer” and “Steelos” from the Radio Ballads series, and incidentally, from the Radio Ballad that is closest to our hearts, particularly in this neck of the woods, The Song of Steel, increases the speed of the heartbeat and beckons us all to unite in communal singing. It’s good for the soul.
On Saturday afternoon, the Real Music Bar sessions held at The Sandygate got underway, showcasing the talents of young musicians Jamie Roberts and Katriona Gilmore, whose dexterous playing ability on guitar and fiddle respectively, drew a decent sized audience despite competing with the major concert appearances of Cara Dillon, Roger Davies and Jon Strong on stage at the Montgomery Hall at the same time. In his introduction to the Saturday evening concert, all round thoroughly decent chap Tony Dargan pointed out that the Wath Festival should be represented by its finest, and as Ruth and Gary Wells took to the stage, it most certainly was. Kicking off with “Over the Lancashire Hills”, Ruth and Gary played an eclectic mix of concert favourites including Steve Knightley’s “Exile”, Johnny Mulhern’s “Magdalene Laundry”, and XTC’s “Dear Madame Barnum”. Ruth and Gary play a crucial part in the running of this festival and their absence would be like parents missing from a kid’s party, if ever they ever chose to have a year off. Nancy Kerr and James Fagan’s second appearance of the weekend, having already performed a set during the afternoon at the Sandygate, was received by an enthusiastic audience who instantly warmed to the duo’s charms. Songs such as “Farewell to the Gold”, “Allan Tyne of Harrow” and “Leaving Old England” couldn’t fail to bring out the best in this Wath audience. Believe it or not, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan have been working together as a duo on the folk scene for twelve years now and in that time they have managed to make several albums, walk away with the Horizon Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2003, tour extensively throughout the world and make plenty of friends along the way. They appear to live and breathe their craft. They talk fluently about all aspects of traditional folk music and seem to absorb sponge-like all the influences made available to them. This is in no small part due to their celebrated lineage; Nancy’s parents being the much loved singer Sandra Kerr and Northumbrian piper Ron Elliott and James hailing from the popular Australian family folk band that is ‘The Fagans’. The songs that evolve from such partnerships are an important part of traditional music and I suppose in some small way are part of the make-up of World Music in general. Taking parts of old English ballads and transforming them into something new, with a more Anglo/Australian emphasis, can only be a good thing. In “Barbara Allen”, one of the most popular of all ballads, Nancy adds her own composition “April Friend” not just as a song tagged onto the end, but interwoven, like inextricably clasped hands, and in doing so, breathes new life into an old song. Rounding off Saturday night, Martyn Joseph was in Elvis mood. Twenty-nine albums on from the days when this young Cardiff songsmith was being launched as the new kid on the block, a lot of water has passed under the bridge and we now have our own version of Bruce Springsteen to dish out song after song of sheer brilliance. Highly prolific, Joseph tackles a multitude of themes and topics with the assurance of a seasoned rock star. He had ‘a plan’ for this performance, which he would not allow himself to divert from however much the man in the audience pleaded for a Joan Osborne song “One of Us” was performed at Joseph’s last appearance at the festival in 2003. He was on a mission. Songs from his new album Vegas loomed large with “Weight of the World”, “Things We Have Carried Here”, “Fading of Light” and “Invisible Angel” seamlessly rubbing shoulders with more familiar fare “Proud Valley Boy”, “Turn Me Tender” and the heart breaking and personal “Can’t Breath” from his 2005 Deep Blue album. One or two older songs were also revisited.
It’s not unusual to see the festival organisers at Wath Festival mingle freely with artists, the press and the public alike. There is a green room far away without a single occupant. This festival is made for mingling, and mingle everyone does with relish. Martin Nesbit opened the Sunday afternoon concert with some original Teesside humour, which perfectly set the audience at ease. Songs about uncontrollable dogs from Hell, ASBOs and just for the ladies, a real mechanical guy, complete with sex appeal, twiddly bits and sexy eyes that bounce about on wires. Completely bizarre stuff to get the final day of the Festival off to a good start. At just nineteen, Ruth Notman brings something to the stage that most experienced folk singers would trade an arm or a leg for, that is, fresh faced youth. She speaks of A levels and examinations with youthful candour, not as if it were just yesterday, but as if she was still in the middle of doing them. She has a bright and breezy personality, which comes across as unbridled charm and you would have to be made of ice not to love this Nottingham lass. Alternating between guitar and piano, and joined by Saul Rose on melodeon, Ruth delighted her audience with her unmistakable voice and faultless song choices. Opening with her own take on Nic Jones’ “Billy Don’t You Weep For Me”, which Mr Jones has already nodded his approval to using superlatives such as ‘super’ and ‘terrific’, Ruth’s set displayed a lightness of touch on both guitar and piano. Ruth was in her usual playful mood and joked about Westlife, especially when tackling power ballad key changes as illustrated in “Lonely Day Dies”, which she admits is there simply to “meet the criteria of the examination board” in her Music A Level, as well as surprising the audience with her tongue-in-cheek revelation that the next artist up, Kris Drever, is in fact her future husband “but he doesn’t know it yet!” Ruth’s jaunty version of “Limbo” was one of the highlights of a predictably superb set, which confirmed to this Wath audience that she is one to watch out for in the foreseeable future. Closing with “Farewell Farewell”, the classic Richard Thompson song is approached with both maturity and assured confidence, despite her guitar having just lost battery power after her penultimate song and having to make do with Saul’s mic. A minor glitch to bring an excellent set to a close. Kris Drever performed songs from his album Black Water with a confidence and flair rarely displayed by one so young. Whilst “Steel and Stone (Black Water)”, “Beads and Feathers” and “Harvest Gypsies” proved what a fine and tasteful selector of contemporary songs he is, following his own rule of choosing songs for the album written by personal friends only, “otherwise the album would be full of Randy Newman songs” he admits, “Shady Grove” reminded us once again of his command over the interpretation of traditional material. The instrumental preface to “Green Grows the Laurel” was nothing short of stunning, not because it was complex, flash or bewilderingly difficult, but because it was simply beautiful. The Gladedale concert on Sunday evening brought us to the last leg of the festival. Determined to make it a night to remember, the festival brought together two of the hottest bands on the scene, one relatively new, the other, unquestioned giants of the folk scene. After winning the best live act category at the 2008 BBC Folk Awards, Lau’s set on Sunday night was eagerly anticipated. Their appearance at the festival brought their gruelling six weeks tour to an end with a storming set that had the entire audience on the edges of their seats. One sensed some fatigue in the faces of this trio but nevertheless, this understandable exhaustion didn’t manifest itself in their playing one bit. Kicking off with “Frank and Flo’s”, Lau demonstrated perfectly how three musicians can be completely on the same page with exciting interplay between accordion and fiddle and the driving guitar of Kris Drever. Aidan O’Rourke’s fiddle playing follows a traditional template and is so good as to have been heard on over sixty albums already, both as a session musician and member of such outfits as Blazing Fiddles and Tabache. Martin Green on the other hand, has managed to reinvent the accordion completely as a crucially exciting instrument, not so much in the speed and dexterity of his playing but in the actual physical handling the instrument. If Martin had appeared at the Monterey Festival in ‘67 then he would surely have set it alight. He dismisses comparisons to Jimi Hendrix with his sardonic wit “I’m more like the Jimmy Cricket of the accordion”. Kris Drever provided one or two songs during the set, such as Ewan MacColl’s “Freeborn Man” and a couple of traditional songs, “Butcher Boy” and “Unquiet Grave”. For one who loves songs so much and usually taps his fingers patiently upon the table throughout the instrumentals until the next song comes along, I must confess that with Lau, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for something like “Hinba” to come along again. It almost feels like the folk scene in general has been itching for something like this to come along. Who better to take us out on a high than the Battlefield Band? The current line-up, which consists of founding member Alan Reid, Alasdair White, Mike Katz and most recent addition guitar player Sean O’Donnell, brought not only just a taste of Scottish traditional music to the festival, but the very heart of it. Formed in the 1970s the band have evolved through many changes but have always maintained a distinctive Scottish sound by always including at least one piper. Mike Katz’s playing of the Highland Bagpipes is almost as impressive as his beard and the finale to this year’s festival couldn’t have been better planned. Alternating between songs of startling quality and sets of traditional tunes, the band won over the audience with ease. Songs about immigration “The Green and the Blue”, “The Immigrant”, forgiveness “I’m Going to Set You Free” and love “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” were beautifully delivered by either Alan or Sean, whilst Alasdair and Mike contributed their most fitting accompaniments. The audience took over the singing during “Nancy Whisky”, which was a fitting way to bring the 2008 Wath Festival concerts to an end. I bumped into Ray Hearne towards the end of the set and we shared a moment of reflection. As the room swayed to the last refrain of “Nancy Whisky”, we considered how much had been squeezed into such a short space of time. Was it really only just two nights ago that he kicked this thing off? Amazingly enough…