Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival

Live Review | Various Venues | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Barnsley has been sadly bereft of a folk festival for almost twenty years now and this year a small group of local music enthusiasts, namely Carol Roberts, Stephen Dolman and Hedley Jones, together with a handful of volunteers, decided to put that right and stage a memorable show over the weekend at a couple of familiar locations in the town.  Under the heading of the Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival, this formidable team gathered together some of the best known names in the business for three days of fun and music starting at the Civic in the town centre on Friday night, with a concert featuring the inimitable Eliza Carthy Band as well as local hero Dave Burland and the ‘small town boy’ Gerry McNeice.  These days Eliza Carthy’s concert appearances bear little resemblance to those we witnessed a few years ago as she boldly takes on some of the most extraordinary and complex arrangements for her own unique songs.  Mostly centred around her latest album Dreams of Breathing Underwater, Eliza and her band filled the already packed Civic auditorium with an incredible sound for a good ninety minutes on Friday night, introducing no less than four brand new songs during the course of the evening, including “Thursday”, “Hansel” and “Monkey”, embracing both her folk and music hall influences but at the same time maintaining a very contemporary feel.  Her band featured Emma Smith on double bass, Phil Alexander on keyboards and accordion, Willie Molleson on drums, who also provided the engaging spoken part in the magnificent “Mr Magnifico” and finally the Imagined Village’s amazing Barney Morse Brown, whose Hendrix-like pyrotechnics almost stole the show.  Hard to imagine all that coming from the cello player!  Barnsley-born Dave Burland, who is also one of the festival patrons (along with singer Kathryn Roberts), is no stranger to this town and likes to think he knows Barnsley and those who live here very well.  In fact there was a sense that many of those who came along to Friday’s concert were very much looking forward to seeing Dave once again on his home turf.  His distinctive velvet voice and warm personality has changed little over the years and he made sure that much of his set centred around songs that are at once familiar to this particular neck of the woods including “Spencer the Rover” and “The Dalesman’s Litany”.  Opening the evening concert was Gerry McNeice, a singer songwriter from Otley, who performed a handful of songs from his new record Small Town Boy including “Danger Sign” and “Home”.  Gerry, who was also the MC for the evening was helped along by a couple of friends, who together for one night only made up the Small Town Boy Band, including Barnsley’s own Dominic Howell on cajon and bodhran and Michael Adams on trombone.  On Saturday the festival moved up the road to the Kingstone School, by way of some dancing in the town centre.  The rain didn’t seem to deter the enthusiastic traditional dancers as a distinctly festive spirit returned to the town.  The School provided the perfect venue for the rest of the weekend, where you could not only see several excellent concerts in the main hall, but also bump into the artists in the foyer, share a joke or two with them and have your CD signed, buy a drink from the real ale bar, run by volunteers Andy, Bernie and Grace, enjoy some delicious food provided by the regular school catering staff, or even take along your instrument to the open mic session held in one of the classrooms.  On the main stage on Saturday afternoon 17-year-old fiddler Sarah Horn and 18-year-old guitarist James Cudworth brought a taste of some of the promising fresh talent we have in Yorkshire, with Sarah’s note perfect fiddle playing set against James’ guitar accompaniment, taking on not only familiar Irish folk tunes but also tackling complex arrangements such as Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five”.  Singer-songwriter Emily Slade, who has been pretty much absent from the countries stages for some years now due to raising a young family, returned to these parts with a handful of well-crafted songs interspersed with stories of bringing up baby, stuff she really knows about.  Also a gifted guitarist, Emily performed some delicate arrangements of her own songs as well as one or two well chosen covers such as Pete Morton’s much covered “Another Train”, some of which can be found on her two album releases 2003’s Fretless and the earlier Shire Boy from 2001.  Kerfuffle’s outstanding set brought together the multiple talents of brothers Sam and Tom Sweeney, the versatile accordion, clogging and singing talents of Hannah James and local guitarist Jamie Roberts, making his first of two main stage appearances of the weekend.  With some tight arrangements and some seasonal songs, the band made the right of passage from being a young talented folk band to becoming, for all intents and purposes, a grown up and seasoned band.  Rounding off the afternoon concert on the main stage was County Durham’s favourite son Jez Lowe whose songs are now as familiar to us as most of the ones already in the tradition, but with very contemporary themes such as “London Danny”, “Taking On Men” and the hilarious “It’s a Champion Life”.  Whilst volunteers cleared the concert hall in preparation for the evening concert, many singers and musicians gathered in the packed open mic room for an informal session whilst North Carolina’s Dana and Susan Robinson provided an old time fiddle and banjo workshop, inviting musicians along to learn a few new tunes in an authentic Appalachian style.  Damien Barber kicked off proceedings for the evening concert with a fabulous dance display by children from local schools, Kingstone, Dodworth St John’s and Shawlands Primary, keeping traditional rapper, Morris and clog dancing alive and well in South Yorkshire.  Damien and his team worked throughout the week leading up to the festival with the children in these schools and the amazing results of just one week’s work was presented on the main stage to thunderous applause, which was fully deserved.  Local singer Steph Shaw, who lives just down the road from her old school, captured the hearts of most of the audience, even bringing a tear to the eye of some of the burliest blokes at the bar, with her stunning rendition of “Over the Rainbow”.  Charming and unaffected, Steph is a credit to the area and provided the festival with its heart; a very justly deserved inclusion to the programme.  Dana and Susan Robinson went on to perform their main festival set, bringing to Barnsley a taste of Appalachian Mountain music, with a set of fiddle and banjo accompanied songs.  Rounding off Saturday night was the full on energetic force that is The Demon Barber Roadshow, which incorporates the famous rapper dance, the mighty Dogrose Morris, some sprightly clogging by the four colourful Demon Barber pixies as well as some percussive sparring between beat boxer Johno and drummer Ben Griffith, all aided and abetted by the rest of one of the tightest outfits in roots music comprising of Damien Barber, Bryony Griffith, Will Hampson and Lee Sykes.   The Sunday afternoon concert was dominated by Martin Simpson, whose peerless guitar playing is now legendary.  With no less than 23 nominations in the annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and winning six, the Scunthorpe-born singer and guitarist brought the audience to complete silence as he delivered an outstanding set of songs, some self-penned such as his award winning “Never Any Good” as well as some familiar favourites such as Chris Wood’s “Come Down Jehovah” and Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”.  Before that though, opening the Sunday afternoon portion of the weekend was Tom Doughty, an outstanding lap slide guitar player with a gentle manner, who eased the audience into an equally gentle Sunday lunchtime concert.  Demonstrating his expert command over bottleneck playing on both National Steel guitar and the Weissenborn, an early version of the Dobro, Tom won a few new friends in Barnsley and I shouldn’t imagine it will be long until he returns.  The Kittiwakes brought their own distinctive sound, which included some fine intuitive playing on two fiddles courtest of Kate Denny and Jill Cumberbach and accordion from Chris Harrison, but also some impressive three-part harmony singing, showcasing some of fiddler Kate’s original material from their debut album Lofoten Calling.  Teeside husband and wife duo Stu and Debbie Hannah, better known collectively as Megson delighted the audience with their astonishing singing and playing.  Twice nominated in the Best Duo category of the BBC Folk Awards, the couple performed an effortless set of their own songs whilst their dog Moog waited in the wings for his afternoon walk. Martin Simpson finished off the afternoon concert and then almost immediately appeared at his own ‘Meet the Artist’ session, where his audience was given the opportunity to ask any questions they liked.  The Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival approached its eagerly anticipated home run, the evening concert, which featured arguably the best folk trio in the world.   Last month, Lau picked up their third consecutive award in the category of Best Group at the BBC Folk Awards, no doubt filling the individual mantelpieces of guitarist Kris Drever, accordion wizard Martin Green and fiddler Aiden O’Rourke.  Their headlining appearance at the festival was eagerly awaited and they endeavoured not to disappoint (they didn’t).  Centred around their current Arc Light record, the trio alternated seamlessly between furiously dextrous playing to sublime moments of pure beauty, which left the audience spellbound.  Earlier in the evening, local Barnsley duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts opened the final concert with a set of self-penned songs and tunes from their current album Shadows and Half Light, accompanied in places by Dominic Howell, again providing percussion.  Singer songwriter Pete Morton then delivered the goods in his excellent set, featuring songs from his 25-year career as a leading English songwriter, utilising words and language in the best and most effective way.  All three acts provided a memorable finale to this festival.  Festivals now dominate the music calendar up and down the country, and provide the best platform for performers both well known and established as well as up and coming and new.  I see no reason why Barnsley shouldn’t have its own annual festival and if they do decide to continue, they will have a job trying to top this one.  I look forward very much to next year with fingers crossed.