Holmfirth Festival of Folk

Live Review | Various Venues, Holmefirth | Review by Allan Wilkinson

It is by way of a gradual process that you become aware of the rural charms of Holmfirth; once you leave behind the usual red brick chaos of the city or town from whence you came and descend upon this sleepy town in the rolling hills of West Yorkshire.  The familiar brown stone buildings, dry stone border walls and astonishingly beautiful panoramic hillside views allow you to breathe once again as the old A635 meanders down towards a different and much more conducive kind of chaos, that of a small town community willing to embrace some of those almost forgotten local traditions, whether they fully understand them or not. Winding down my car window and switching off the irritating drone of Radio 4, currently dominated by recent political events, I followed the sound of drums and jingling Morris shins, both of which appeared to be coming from the general direction of the car park of one of the town’s numerous pubs, which I later discovered was the Old Bridge, the designated hub of the festival and the obvious initial stop-off point.  First though, I had to negotiate the almost grid-locked traffic.  It was lunchtime on Saturday and I found my self bumper to bumper along the Station Road, impatiently awaiting some sort of movement down in the town centre.  Maybe Slubbing Billy’s Morris side had spilled out onto the street or a bunch of stray cloggers were attempting to re-create the Abbey Road album sleeve on the zebra crossing on the corner of Victoria Street?  These inconceivable fantasies crossed my mind as I became steadily more concerned that whilst I was in the car, I was missing out on the fun that I could plainly detect was happening all around me.  After finally getting parked up, the first person I met up with was Cath Ingham, one of the festival organisers who gave me a few minutes of her time in order for her to fill me in, being a Holmfirth virgin and all.  I needed to catch up on what the festival was all about and what had happened so far this weekend.  The festival began on Friday night I was told with a concert by Show of Hands at the Picturedrome next door.  Stafford Galli strutted their Celtic stuff at the Post Card, whilst Belshazzar’s had a Feast of fun entertaining their audience in the cavernous Old Bridge function room.  Cath by her own admission hadn’t seen the main concert, concerning herself more with the task of ensuring all her venues were running smoothly for the weekend.  It’s an arduous task running a festival.  You could ask a hundred people about their own Holmfirth Festival of Folk experience and you would no doubt get a hundred different accounts, each bearing little or no resemblence to one another.  It all depends on what you want.  There’s so much to do and so many venues around the town, that it’s quite impossible to see it all.  One of the festival artists, guitarist Wizz Jones was playing at nearby Maltby on Friday night and therefore I missed the start of this festival.  Had I known Wizz was also one of the festival artists, maybe I would’ve left it until his appearance at Holmfirth in order to also catch Show of Hands.  Never mind, I got to Wizz twice in one weekend.  Bargain.  By Saturday lunchtime, Barnsley’s favourite son Dave Burland was settling into an hour of songs and stories in a ‘Lunch with Dave Burland’ session in the upstairs room of the Carniveria across the road from the Old Bridge.  It was standing room only and several eager festival goers had taken to sitting on each of the steps leading up to the upstairs loft room where Dave sang some old favourites including “Here’s the Tender Coming”, “The Banks of the Sweet Primroses” and “Rosie Anderson” as well as the obligatory handful of Richard Thompson songs.  Outside Hervey’s the outstanding fiddler Sarah Horn was thrilling not only those who had come specifically to see her and her partner James Cudworth, but also passers by who had lined the parimeter wall as the duo played a selection of songs and tunes including Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five”, the traditional “Black Jack Davey” and the debut of a new fiddle tune called “A Cup of Tea”.  During the afternoon several activities were taking place simultaneaously such as Gary Stewart performing on the outdoor stage, Owen Phillips at The Nook and local singer-songwriter Roger Davies in the Parish Church.  Niamh Boadle, the winner of the recent Young Acoustic Roots Competition, which took place at the Wath Festival over the May Bank Holiday weekend, made an unexpected solo appearance, having been billed to appear with Gerry McNiece who was unfortunately unwell, opening the late afternoon concert in the Old Bridge function room.  Niamh performed a selection of traditional songs including “The Month of January”, “Lass of Glen Shee” and “My Lagan Love”, either unaccompanied or with her guitar.  The concert also featured appearances by Scots singer-guitarist Ewan McLennan and stalwart of the British folk revival, Miriam Backhouse.  The evening concert at the Picturedrome featured Bellowhead’s Rachael McShane with her band.  Performing songs from her debut No Man’s Fool album, Rachael and co brought their own mixture of jazz-inflected folk songs, with Rachael herself alternating on either fiddle, cello or one of those cylindrical things you shake.  Whilst Dave Burland played his second set of the day, this time in the Old Bridge, sharing the stage with Paul and Liz Davenport, Muldoon’s Picnic, Chris Coe and Zoox, Mr Fox’s otherworldly torch and drum procession marched by scaring the neighbours to death and filling the kids with joy at the same time.  Gerry McNeice had recovered sufficiently to provide a sweaty open mic session over at the Cricket Club whilst Richard Kitson and Wizz Jones brought some of that old school magic to the upstairs room in the White Hart.  It’s hard to escape the influence of the long running TV series Last of the Summer Wine when visiting Holmfirth.  Sid’s Cafe is central to a lot of activity over the weekend as it sits adjacent to the Parish Church and between the two, provides a sheltered sun trap for dance displays, the Sunday service and other activities throughout the weekend.  Whilst Gerry McNeice and Niamh Boadle delivered a guitar workshop in the upstairs room of the Carniceria, Gerry baffling his audience (including me) with C Modal tuning, and Niamh choosing DADGAD to further baffle the guitar players who showed up, Hamish Currie was doing something similar but with less strings; his Ukulele session.  On Sunday morning a large gathering had congregated to sing Lord of the Dance amongst other songs, whilst presided over by two giant fibre glass figures.  Hull’s Hazel Richings and Linda Kelly collectively known as Hissyfit sang a couple of seafaring songs in the shadow of the Parish Church bell tower whilst Ray Hearne rolled into town to do something very similar to what Dave Burland did at the same time on Saturday, a lunchtime meet the artist session.  Soon afterwards, Gerry McNeice once again gathered a few friends to perform a handful of songs in the Parish Church with his fluctuating band consisting this time of Katriona Gilmore, Niamh Boadle and Dominic Howell.  The performance included four songs from Gerry’s Small Town Boy record “Legend of Black Jack”, “Danger Sign”, “Braw Sailing” and “The Shadow of Skiddaw” together with one of Katriona Gilmore’s impromtu jokes.  Hamish Currie started the Sunday afternoon concert with a few tongue loosening warm ups including “Shady Grove”, Davey Steele’s “Beaches of St Valery” and Dave Taylor’s “The Barmaid” finishing with Davie Robertson’s “Star O’ the Bar” before Australian singer-songwriter Rory Ellis surrounded himself with a couple of guitars and a banjo in order to perform his outstanding set of self-penned songs such as “Street Angel House Devil”, “Bojangles” and “65 Pontiac”, with everyone joining in on the single word chorus of “Work”.   The trio comprising singer/flautist Maggie Boyle and guitarists Gordon Tyrrall and Gary Boyle were next to take the stage at the Old Bridge during the afternoon before Ray Hearne’s infectious personality found its way to the front, where he brought a different sort of sunshine to Holmfirth with his songs including “Melting Shop Chaps”, “Things To Say” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”.  Jeff Warner comes from a folksong collecting background, both parents heavily involved in field recording the likes of Frank Proffit in post war America.  Dressing in collarless starched white shirt and black waistcoat, both of which could easily have been borrowed from a wax museum figure, gave an authentic taste of what Warner does.  Playing guitar, concertina and spoons, Warner brought home the old songs that had probably started around here in the first place only to have made a long voyage half way around the world where he picked them up.  The finale of the festival, even though music could still be heard in the Picturedrome with an outstanding performance by the young band Ottersgear, was the gathering of friends in the Old Bridge, where Will Noble took the lead on the traditional festival closer “The Holmfirth Anthem”, bringing a most enjoyable community festival to an end for another year.