Wombwell Mad-Fest

Live Review | Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson

It’s been a while since the last Wombwell Mad-Fest, the last one being about five years ago, but it came back to us with a resounding thumbs up over the bank holiday weekend and brought with it the first flurry of good weather of the festival season. The programme for the 7th Wombwell Mad-Fest was probably it’s most diverse to date, taking in music from all around the world; from Canada to Sweden, Ireland to Africa and Nashville to Barnsley. A little corner of WOMAD was introduced to the small South Yorkshire town in the form of Baka Beyond on Friday night, whose rich musical textures from around the world, were received with no small measure of enthusiasm and a good deal of audience participation on the small but functional dance floor. Although the little South Yorkshire town of Wombwell appears to be a world away from the rainforests of South-East Cameroon, Martin Cradick and Su Hart’s original intention to capture the sounds and the traditional music of the Baka Pygmies and bring those sounds to a wider audience worked well here in the heart of the Dearne Valley. The multicultural tour-de-force that began as a group of predominantly British musicians, but which has now evolved to include within its ranks musicians from Brittany, Cameroon, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Ghana, performed a couple of sets filled with the authentic sounds of the rainforests that could not fail to bring the festival alive with their memorable and exciting stage show. An inspired choice of acts to really get this little festival off the ground. Earlier in the evening the festival got underway with singer songwriter activist and self-confessed ‘Enemy of the State’ Guy Maile, opening the festival with a selection of songs from his own pen as well as throwing in a couple of well-known covers such as Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” for instance, which was preceded by some Prog rock guitar pyrotechnics. Guy Maile soon became a familiar face around the festival and also stuck around to run one of the two singers and musicians sessions in the neighbouring Conservative Club on Saturday afternoon. Sandwiched in the middle of the evening between Guy Maile and Baka Beyond was Nashville songstress, Kim Richey. Originally from Zanesville, Ohio, Kim brought a taste of Nashville to Wombwell, with a set filled with superbly crafted yet accessible songs. Kicking off with “Those Words We Said”, a song recorded by country star Trisha Yearwood, Kim played with the assurance of an artist steeped in American music, providing song after song of excellence and maturity. Joining Kim on stage towards the end of her set, which culminated in “A Place Called Home”, which incidentally featured in an episode of the hit TV series Angel, was fiddler Katriona Gilmore, whose five minute backstage rehearsal proved to be all that was necessary to come up with a finale that was as polished as one would expect from months of practice. The setting for the Wombwell Mad-Fest was the Church Hall tucked around the back of St Michael’s Church on the main road through Wombwell. The secluded car park was filled with camper vans, the only real method of camping over the weekend, unless you wanted to bend your tent pegs in the car park concrete. Just over the road is the Wombwell Conservative Club, which played host to the two sing-around sessions of the weekend, bridging the gap between the afternoon and evening concerts in the main hall. All pretty close together and not too far from the main town amenities. Saturday provided the first full day of music which included sets in the afternoon by artists as diverse as Holly Taymar, The Carrivick Sisters, Sarah McDougall and Elbow Jane, whilst the evening concert featured Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, Kieran Halpin, Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden and Los Pistoleros. Hedley Jones, the festival organiser, almost insists there are no headliners nor support slots in the programme, but that each act is treated equally and takes their place as an integral part of the carefully selected programme. It also doesn’t go unnoticed that at a bargain price of just £30 for a weekend ticket, each act costs under £1.50 each. So presumably that’s why they call it Wombwell MAD-Fest? Opening the Saturday afternoon concert with a delightful set of self-penned songs was York-based singer songwriter Holly Taymar, who appears to be just as comfortable opening an afternoon festival concert as closing late night basement bars in York. There’s a tangible warmth to a Holly Taymar performance wherever she plays; who appears to be at ease with both folk and jazz audiences alike and who draws from the influences of James Taylor and Carole King. With relative ease, Holly matches her peers’ measure for measure and the only reason I can think of as to why Holly is still doing opening and support spots around York, is that she is still going through the tiresome process of waiting for people to catch up. Guitar player Carl Hetherington caught up some time ago and the pair make a formidable team as they revealed some of Holly’s finest gems such as “Toes”, “Home” and “7am”. South Devon siblings Laura and Charlotte Carrivick brought an astonishing level of musicianship to the Wombwell stage on Saturday afternoon with a set of predominantly bluegrass based songs and tunes. When the Dobro was added to their fiddle, mandolin and guitar based repertoire, their musical tastes changed and they have subsequently gone on to capture the musical dexterity of bluegrass but place it within the context of their English roots. “The Dartmoor Witches” and “The Flowers She Picked For Jamie” are specifically localised songs from their Devon home, but have a distinct Kentucky bluegrass feel to them. The standard of playing is staggeringly complex for musicians so young, but they deliver the goods as seasoned professionals. Swedish/Canadian songwriter, Sarah MacDougall was given a rapturous welcome as she took to the Wombwell stage on Saturday afternoon. Accompanied by guitar/dobro player Tim Tweedale, Sarah opened with a set of country-tinged songs starting with “Headed For the Hills” and at one point encouraged the audience to imitate a pack of wolves as a preface to “Cry Wolf”. The audience was in the mood to oblige, which may have had the rest of Wombwell wondering what on earth was going on in their local community hall. The mixture of country tales with a folk sensibility, seasoned with a Scandinavian sense of melancholy and kitted out in a distinctly Woody Guthrie wardrobe, Sarah proved to be every bit the folk troubadour we initially anticipated. Merseyside’s Elbow Jane may well have the look of a re-formed boy band, and their music could very easily lean more towards the pop side of folk, but as a tight acoustic band with infectious melodies and an abundance of warmth in the personality stakes, this band come in very definitely at second to none. Playing a selection of songs from their 3 Side Island album, preceded by an explanation that their stomping ground of Ellesmere Port (a peninsula – therefore an island with just three sides), the band launched into the anthemic “Long May You Stand” with its new country CMT feel good delivery and continued with a string of timeless classics such as Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years”, George Harrison’s “Something” and an encore of the enduring McGuinness Flint number, “When I’m Dead and Gone”. The music continued over the road at the Conservative Club, where Guy Maile ran the first of two afternoon sing-around sessions for those who were not ready to take a break from the music, and which also offered a place for those without a ticket to go and participate in the festival. One or two festival guests joined in including Kip Winter and Dave Wilson, whose beautiful songs raised the game in the pub lounge as chips were bought in by pub staff; another sign of fine Wombwell hospitality. Local duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts have pretty much established themselves as one of the most outstanding duos in the area, with Kat’s fiddle and mandolin playing and Jamie’s unique guitar technique. The couple opened the evening concert with a selection from their new album Shadows and Half Light, including the infectious instrumental “Middle of May/Big Nige”, Jamie’s touching “So Long” and Katriona’s mysterious “Hunter Man”. Kieran Halpin played a selection from a seemingly bottomless well of songs, hand-picked from a 35 year career and nineteen album back catalogue. Many of his songs are familiar in both folk clubs and at festivals having been sung by the likes of Vin Garbutt, Dolores Keane, Tom McConville and The Battlefield Band but it is rewarding to hear them sung in their original form. His impassioned tribute to his friend, the late John Wright in the song “So Long John” is testament to his song writing credentials and his set was well received by the enthusiastic Wombwell audience. Seattle-based duo Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden returned to South Yorkshire for the third time in just about as many months, once again delivering their own blend of back woods Americana. Rachel was back on form after having been knocked back earlier in their current tour with a particularly bad cold, singing better than ever with songs from each of her two albums The Bootlegger’s Daughter and City of Refuge including “Sunshine Girl”, “Carver” and “Under the Big Top” as well as throwing in a couple of Zak Borden originals which included “The Greener Side” and the odd cover such as Laura Veirs’ haunting “Up The River”. Once again Katriona Gilmore was asked to come up and infiltrate the duo’s music with some tasty fiddle, which once again proved to be the cherry on top of the set with the old gospel standard “I Don’t Want To Get Adjusted To This World”. Finishing the first full day of music was a lively performance by Bobby Valentino, the self-styled Clark Gable of western swing, leading his band Los Pistoleros in an exciting and energetic final set for Saturday. Opening with “Rose of San Antone”, the veteran fiddler delivered a set filled with the best of country ballads and rockabilly dance tunes, effectively transforming this little corner of South Yorkshire into a dusty Southern honky tonk, where it would be quite easy to imagine rolling tumbleweed and an old battered station wagon parked outside. Although regular pedal steel maestro BJ Cole was absent through illness, guitarist Martin Belmont kept things pretty much together with the rest of the band, providing an outstanding set, which broke the late night curfew by a good margin. Their unique blend of original Rhythm and Blues, Tex-Mex, Rock ‘n’ Roll, Country and Swing, seemed to encompass all the musical styles not yet covered by other artists at the festival, and therefore became a completist’s dream finisher for Saturday night. Bobby is still remembered as the fiddle player who provided the infectious riff that runs throughout The Bluebell’s No 1 hit “Young At Heart”, but his roots are much deeper grounded. No stranger to the world’s biggest stages, Valentino has worked with a who’s who catalogue of giants such as Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Shania Twain and Mark Knopfler and although we hesitate to use the term ‘headliner’, Los Pistoleros was the obvious choice to finish off such a great day of music. The sun was out in force on Sunday lunchtime and potentially threatened audience attendance in the Wombwell Church Hall during the afternoon. No one could be blamed for choosing a day in the sun over an afternoon indoors but surprisingly, the audience were enjoying the continual stream of quality acts at the festival so much, they showed up in force. Sunday’s impressive line-up included the song writing talents of Reg Meuross, Winter Wilson and Emily Slade, the musical dexterity of Uiscedwr, Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley and Phil Beer and topped off with some good old British Folk Rock courtesy of Little Johnny England. Winter Wilson opened both the Sunday afternoon and evening concerts with a couple of sets filled with well written and thought provoking songs, each featuring great melodies and delicious harmonies before Emily Slade made a welcome return to Wombwell with a set of intelligent songs from one of the most captivating performers in the country. Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley returned to their original duo form for an outstanding set of songs and tunes peppered with Sherburn’s ever-present charismatic wit. Last Night’s Fun may have called it a day but this duo can still deliver some of the onstage magic of one of the best live bands of the last couple of decades, not least in their beautiful rendition of “Roseville Fair”. Closing Sunday afternoon’s concert was the outstanding Uiscedwr. Fiddler Anna Esslemont and percussionist Cormac Byrne were joined for the first time by guitarist James Hickman for a set of songs and tunes by arguably one of the most engaging of contemporary folk bands in Britain today. Equally at home with jazz, Latin, blues and klezmer tunes as they are with traditional folk music, Uiscedwr brought their own distinct taste of world Music to Wombwell, which was well received by a very appreciative audience. Once again bridging the gap between the afternoon and evening concerts, Lou Marriott led a sing-around in the bar of the Conservative Club, where a small gathering of musicians and song writers had gathered to share songs or play favourites from the likes of Bob Dylan, Ray Davies and Steve Tilston, whilst a portrait of The Queen looked down, wondering the same thing as me, what catastrophe in politics would have led to folkies entering a Conservative Club? What do you reckon Mr Brown? These thoughts were evaporated as soon as the sandwiches arrived, once again courtesy of the staff. During the session, Reg Meuross and Karen Tweed walked in for a quick listen. Meuross cut his musical teeth as one half of the popular duo The Panic Brothers with Richard Morton in the mid-Eighties but has more recently established himself as one of the foremost singer songwriters in the UK today. Described by Hank Wangford as having ‘The best high tenor voice this side of the Atlantic’, Meuross kicked off his Sunday evening appearance at the festival with a series of beautiful songs from a couple of his most recent albums Dragonfly and Still, including “Lizzie Loved A Highwayman”, “William Brewster Dreams Of America” and the thoroughly engaging “And Jesus Wept” before being joined on stage by Phil Beer and Karen Tweed for more of the same. Phil Beer’s own set, which followed soon after, was made up of an eclectic mix of songs from some of the Devon musician’s many influences from Little Feat “Willin”, Robbie Robertson “Acadian Driftwood” and surprisingly The Hollies, with his superb take on the classic hit “Bus Stop”, proving once again that a stripped down acoustic version of a familiar hit record always brings out the essence of the song. Finishing Sunday night and the 2009 festival was the all-out no stops barred folk rock of Little Johnny England. Referred to by Phil Beer as ‘the only real folk rock band in the world’, P.J. Wright and his band of folk rockers, culled from such notable outfits as the Steve Gibbons Band, The Dylan Project, The Albion Band, Clarion, The Vikki Clayton Band, Dansaul and Tickled Pink, played one of the loudest and most energetic sets of the festival, once again encompassing genres from around the world including Cajun, Celtic and Eastern European influences. On the national festival circuit, Wombwell Mad-Fest is a relatively small family affair, organised by Hedley Jones and his immediate family, with a handful of good friends willing to help out in any way possible; even the bar staff are volunteers whose weekend takings are ploughed directly back into the festival. As a weekend of pure entertainment and quality, Wombwell Mad-Fest is up there with its peers. No question.