Beverley Acoustic Roots Festival 2010

Live Review | Various Venues, Beverley | Review by Allan and Liam Wilkinson

“Do you want the quiet camp?” asked one of the friendly box office stewards as I checked into the Beverley Acoustic Roots Festival on Friday afternoon, to which I responded, without hesitation, “oh noo, put me down for the noisy camp!”  Of course there’s nothing that could really be described as ‘noisy’ at this charming little East Riding festival, not even if you happened to find yourself right next to the speaker stacks during Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams’ extraordinarily vibrant set on Saturday night, or if you chose to postpone sleep temporarily in order to squeeze into the Wold Top Marquee for one of their popular late night sessions.  The normally sleepy town of Beverley does however come alive at this time of the year for a weekend full of quality music, poetry, comedy, storytelling and dance events, all of which run simultaneously on various stages throughout the weekend, including one main indoor stage, three marquees of varying sizes, an indoor club room and the nearby Friary, not to mention the village green, the towns many welcoming pubs and the beacon that is Beverley Minster itself.  Time lapse photography would probably best capture the steady transformation from the normally tranquil deserted sports field to the packed festival site as guitar and fiddle cases, double basses and harmoniums, clogs and swords together with a whole bunch of arts and crafts paraphernalia, pour onto the festival village site as night time falls.  The normally clearly audible Minster chimes that ring every fifteen minutes are soon obscured by other sounds throughout the evening and well on into the early hours.  On Friday evening, as the likes of Lydia Noble, Jack Rutter and the Blackbeards Tree Party Trio got things going in the Wold Top Marquee and the Dreams of Apollo quartet drew attention to themselves in the open air, the two main stages played host to two contrasting opening acts on the Concert Marquee stage and the main Leisure Complex hall respectively, with Bowie, Bliss and Cockerham kicking things off on the former and a bunch of brave school kids on the latter.  The young representatives from the Longcroft School made their big stage debut, after introductions by the Mayor of Beverley, the playwright John Godber and finally by local hero Henry Priestman, who spent much of the week leading up to the festival conducting songwriting workshops at the school.  The former Yachts/Christians songwriter made a welcomed return to the festival accompanied by guitarist Pete Riley.  Famously referred to as ‘songs for grumpy old men’, Priestman’s current repertoire largely made up of songs from his solo album Chronicles of Modern Life manage to speak to a good majority of the audience, who possibly empathise with some of the sentiments, this reviewer included.  As the songwriter warmed up the audience for the evening’s headliner Eddi Reader, a young Brighton-based exponent of World Music of the Turkish/Cypriot variety Dogan Mehmet together with his band The Deerhunters, charmed the audience over at the Concert Marquee for an energetic set including much of the music from his current album Gypsyhead.  Whilst County Sligo’s Dervish filled the Concert Marquee with their own brand of Irish Celtic music and songs, Glasgow’s first lady of folk pop Eddi Reader weaved her spell over a packed main hall audience with songs from her current album Love is the Way as well as a handful of songs that have made her voice instantly recognisable throughout the world, some written by her band mate Boo Hewerdine “Patience of Angels” as well as the uplifting anthem Perfect, from her Fairground Attraction days.  Late into the night, after the main guests have left their respective stages and the halls are cleared for another day, one of the festival’s most popular sessions takes place in the carpeted Wold Top Marquee, presided over by Miles Cain and Leila Slater, who welcome festival artists onstage for impromptu and intimate performances that go on well into the early hours.  So popular are these session now that an orderly queue forms outside running a one out, one in system.  On Friday evening musicians and songwriters such as Leddra Chapman, Boo Hewerdine and Dogan Mehmet rubbed shoulders with poets Mitch Benn, Rory Motion and Oz Hardwick with further performances from both Eddi Reader and Henry Priestman.  It’s difficult to describe the appeal of these shows other than that you feel the performers are equally as relaxed as the audience by this time, where the dividing barrier between performer and audience is lifted and honesty replaces showmanship.  Saturday got off to a good start with a difficult choice of activities to consider, such as Barbara Dickson’s autobiography presentation, where the singer was interviewed on the Acoustic Stage, talking candidly about her life in music, whilst Jeni and Billy conducted a songwriting workshop in the Friary.  The Beverley Festival and Brown’s of Beverley support the Teenage Cancer Trust charity and the TCT Sessions in the Wold Top Marquee got off to a great start with up and coming singer-songwriter Leddra Chapman who performed an excellent set of songs from her Telling Tales album, which is attracting the attention of the MOR DJs on Radio 2.  With the delightfully seasonal “Summer Song”, Leddra and bandmates John Hall on guitar and Tom Beech on keyboards, brought to the festival an extra ray of sunshine.  Saturday afternoon also saw Dave Burland tie up his faithful pooch temporarily whilst he took to the Festival Marquee stage in order to treat his audience to a set of familiar songs both traditional and contemporary together with his trademark nod to the music that really flicks his switch, exemplified in his version of “I Knew the Bride When She Used to Rock and Roll”.  Dave Burland will always be a rocker at heart, despite his penchant for turning out gorgeous renditions of much older songs with an unmistakable voice and a warm personality to match.  Whilst Plum Hall delivered the goods on the Concert Marquee stage and Edwina Hayes resurrected Don McLean’s “Vincent” for her growing army of admirers in the Acoustic Marquee, it was the guitar that drew crowds to the main hall.  There was no shortage of guitarists over the weekend with Saturday playing host to both Martin Simpson and Sean Taylor on the very same bill.  With now familiar pork-pie hat and guitar in hand, Sean Taylor delivered a superb set of songs, some from his forthcoming fourth album Walk With Me as well as from his more familiar Calcutta Grove.  Having done his homework, the young Kilburn-born blues singer turned in a stunning version of Skip James’ “Killing Floor Blues” with its thoroughly haunting intro.  Martin Simpson is no stranger to Beverley and together with Andy Cutting on melodeon and Andy Seward on upright bass, the Scunthorpe-born guitarist once again dazzled his audience with another masterful performance of songs culled from a seemingly bottomless pit of a repertoire.  With several BBC Folk Award gongs on his mantlepiece, Simpson’s place on the British festival circuit is undisputed, as one of the most gifted guitar players this country has produced and Beverley had the pleasure of his company twice over the weekend.  Contrasting with the one off concert performance by the Brighouse and Rastrick Band over in the Minster, which was for all intents and purposes a ‘sit-down’ event, as the conductor brought things to order with almost regimental precision, the main hall played host to an evening of a more challenging spectacle of music and dance.  The grandly named Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams played a cameo performance at the 2009 festival during an afternoon billed as The American Party, which was so well received at the time, it not only secured them a gig in the town a few months later but also secured them an invitation to return this year to play on the main stage.  Described variously as mystical, quirky, versatile, fresh and accomplished, the Hillbilly Pink Floyd returned this year to provide yet another memorable performance with outstanding versions of “Flapjacks from the Sky” and “Picture”, dividing the audience equally into the confused and the converted.  The Demon Barber Roadshow was probably the only band that could follow that.  Named the Best Live Act at the 2009 BBC Folk Awards, those who packed into the main hall on Saturday night were treated to a show worthy of that title.  The core band consisting of Damien Barber, Bryony Griffith, Will Hampson, Lee Sykes and Ben Griffith were joined by some of the most versatile performers in contemporary and traditional dance including Tiny Taylor, Fiona Bradshaw, Laura Connolly, Hannah James, with their various colourful and energetic clogging routines, whilst Dogrose Morris’ David Hall and James Boyle proved once again that Morris dancing isn’t necessarily uncool anymore.  The race however for the undisputed highlight of the show was divided between two joint winners; JB’s extraordinary beatbox display, in which he takes out the rest of the band with a ray gun before speeding away on his Vincent and the celebrated rapper dance courtesy of the boys in the band.  Then there’s Bryony Griffith’s rendition of “Bonny Boy” isn’t there?  Back to the polling booths methinks!  Sandwiched between these two high energy driven outfits was Forro Porro, a quartet formed from two established duos The Hut People and Mambo Jambo, providing the night with a touch of South America to add the word ‘fiesta’ to the programme of music, dance, song and fun.  The chimes of the Minster bells merged effortlessly with the various choirs that congregated in the Concert Marquee on Sunday Morning.  Whilst over at the Friary, Karen Tweed provided a packed room of accordion, fiddle and whistle players with some expert advice, the Black Umfolosi 5 together with the Swinemoor Choir and the Beverley Community Choir, came together in harmony with both children and adults alike.  The sun came out during the afternoon in order to illuminate the Festival Village, already alive with various dance displays, including maypole, clogging and Morris as a unicyclist rode by and a bloke juggled with a sweeping brush.  The Wold Top Marquee played host to another fine programme of singers and musicians including local siblings the Hall Brothers (with Jon Carey), Norwich-based singer-songwriter Jess Morgan and guitarist Gren Bartley, to name but a few. Jess Morgan’s debut at the festival included a handful of songs from her debut album All Swell, including “Pamela”, “Eels” and “At Sea” together with one or two new songs.  One of the most eagerly anticipated sets at this year’s festival came from an unlikely source.  Charlie Dore and the Hula Valley Orchestra, whose authentic take on 1930s American pop songs brought a completely different sound to the festival village.  Taking standards by the likes of Jimmie Rogers, Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin and Al Bowlley and giving them a Hawaiian feel, helped along by Julian Littman’s lap steel guitar and Steve Simpson’s western swing fiddle, Charlie demonstrated just how appealing the old songs can be when played with such dedicated professionalism.  Joining Charlie on stage was old friend Barbara Dickson, who joined the band for a fine rendition of “Roll Along Kentucky Moon”.  Keeping with the oldies, songs that is, not the artists, the newly formed Whiskey Dogs appeared throughout the weekend, covering the spots reserved for the much loved Alley Cats, who have been reduced to the mum and dad duo now that the kids have toddled off to university.  With newcomer Brian Swinton on mandolin, Pete and Janey Bolton continue the family tradition of keeping alive their fine repertoire of country blues, bluegrass and folk classics.  Jeni and Billy described themselves as America’s smiliest couple when they made their debut at the 2009 festival, being their first ever appearance in the UK.  They return this year with a new record Longing For Heaven, the follow up to last year’s Jewell Ridge Coal, with their smiles and their engaging stage presence intact.  Jeni and Billy played more shows at this festival than they bargained for after fellow American performer Jerry Harmon was forced to pull out following a domestic accident.  As evening set over the towering spires of Beverley Minster, the final concerts got underway featuring the Lau-like Tyde, The Black Umfolosi 5 and The Proclaimers on the main stage, whilst the Concert Marquee played host to some festival favourites including Jeni and Billy, The Whiskey Dogs, Koshka and once again Charlie Dore and the Hula Valley Orchestra, topped off with some Blazin’ Fiddles, bringing an all round Scottish finale to the festival.  Having Blazin’ Fiddles and the Reid twins share a stage at the end of the night instead of the two seperate stages they actually played, might just have been the perfect end to what is steadily becoming a firm favourite on the British festival circuit.  However, Charlie and Craig’s hugely popular “500 Miles” sufficed and became the tune that rung in my ears as I left Beverley for another successful year.

‘Ello Beverley: The Wordy Side of the Beverley Festival

“Ello Beverley!” begins Rory Motion as he steps into the pink-yellow glow of the acoustic stage lights.  “It feels quite intimate, saying ‘ello Beverley” he continues in his familiar, friendly North Yorkshire accent, referring to the town as if it were an old mate of the same name who had, perhaps, been waiting there since last year’s festival.  And as Rory begins shuffling his scraps of paper and nudging his guitar, harmonica and vibraphone into position at his feet, one feels almost compelled to respond with a jovial “welcome back” or a much more suitable “how’s tha been, feller?”  The intimacy of the Beverley Festival, with its palpable sense of community and warmth, is very much a part of the lure.  The festival has, in recent years, enhanced this vital element by creating a ‘festival village’ – complete with assorted eateries, shops and a village green – all situated within the grounds of the town’s Leisure Centre.  The acoustic tent is located at the heart of the village and, from the Friday to the Sunday, is the setting for a plethora of diverse informal concerts, not only boasting folk, acoustic and roots music but also performances from poets, authors, comedians and storytellers.  Thanks to the people behind the festival, the layout of this year’s acoustic tent has been arranged to complement the intimacy of the event, the stage being at the centre of the space rather than at the far end, and the ambient lighting heightening the cosy informality of the concerts.  Rory Motion, of course, is an old friend of the festival and, for those of us who’ve seen him here before, it feels only correct that he should begin the proceedings of this year’s wordy side of the Beverley festival in his own inimitable manner.  In what could be described as a cosmic weaving of true stories and surreal musings, interlaced with outlandish passages from his family history and peculiar tales from his caravan in York (so crap they named it once), Rory Motion delights his audience with his spoon-reflection accounts from the life of a man whom we presume to be a human being (a status that is soon thrown headlong into doubt as he shows us his staggeringly accurate tree impressions).  Rory’s one-line observations of life’s peculiarities, peppered with ingenious puns and wily word-play, not only amuse the festival-goers who have spent much of the day grappling with cumbersome and complex camping equipment, battling to put up their tents in the exceedingly strong Beverley winds, but also warm them up for a weekend that promises to be nothing short of marvellous.  What’s more, Rory even plays a vibraphone with his head.  Hot on the heels of Mr Motion is Mitch Benn, a man of whom the pocket-size programme says “is one of the best writer/performers of comic songs in the country”.  What the programme neglects to mention is the fact that Mitch Benn is clearly the result of a genetic fusing of Jack Black and Bill Bailey, with any of the 1970s British Saturday afternoon wrestlers thrown in for looks.  His delivery is as eloquently aggressive as a restored 19th century steam engine careering through the crowds at a village fete.  His songs are reminiscent of the American rock band Boston, had they decided to write on themes of spontaneous combustion, murdering schmaltzy chart-topping singers and adopting African babies.  All of the above, of course, makes for a riotous night in a blustery tent in Beverley, but it isn’t until Mitch performs his Jeff Wayne-inspired rendition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar that the festival crowds realise exactly what they’re seeing – a world-class comedian with enough comic-energy to keep the Beverley Leisure Centre’s swimming pool heated throughout the weekend.  On Saturday morning, after a cheap and cheerful cup of tea from Big Al’s, it’s back to the acoustic tent to find a living legend testing her microphone for what promises to be an intriguing hour-long interview.  From the folk clubs of the 60s to the theatres of the 70s, from hit singles that made her a household name to appearances in dramas that delivered her to the screens of millions of household televisions, Barbara Dickson seems to have done it all. And despite the bulging luggage of her success, Barbara is by no means the diva that, by rights, she should be.  On the contrary, her presence puts one in mind of a friend who has popped in for one of Big Al’s cups of tea and a light-hearted chat about her dazzling fifty-year career as one of Britain’s most cherished entertainers.  Incredibly, one can even detect a nervous shake in Barbara’s hands as she picks up her guitar at the end of the interview and sings, with an impeccably beautiful voice for such an early hour, her rendition of “The Recruited Collier”.  Later, it’s over to the club room, another of Beverley Festival’s intimate venues, to poke my nose into the Larkin Project.  As a life-long fan of the poet Philip Larkin, I’m already aware that this year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the poet’s untimely death at the age of 63 and am excited to see his life celebrated here at Beverley.  Although Larkin’s memory has been preserved to some extent around Hull, where he lived and worked for most of his life, it is only in this anniversary year that we are beginning to see an appropriate appraisal of the man’s life and work.  Today’s session begins with three astounding short-films inspired by Larkin’s poetry, featuring narrations from the brilliant Hull-born actor Sir Tom Courtenay and Bob Geldof – a choice of voice that, at first, seems bizarre but one that soon becomes wholly justified.  The films then give way to a live performance from Peter Knaggs who reads a handful of original poems that celebrate the mundane details of domestic life.  Peter’s poem in praise of tin-openers is most certainly a highlight.  It’s always with held breath and white knuckles, however, that one approaches a tribute to Larkin.  It’s well-documented, by now, that Philip wasn’t exactly a cheery poet, nor was he the kind of community-spirited poet that this country seems to insist on producing these days.  Larkin is the figurehead for all misanthropic poets who was happier to report on what he saw from his window, be it that of his flat or the carriage of a train, than actually mingle with the people that populated his work.  A roomful of poetry and music lovers in an East Yorkshire leisure centre would, perhaps, have terrified Larkin, especially as a handful of them attempt to put some of his poems to music.  Strangely, however, some of the songs seem to work well and have been compiled on a CD that is available to listen to in full at http://www.allnightnorth.com.  A duo going by the name of Man Made Noise turn Larkin’s Mr Bleaney into a dreamy, Pink Floyd-esque song that manages to capture the dusty, post-war England that Larkin described so well.  Kristian Eastwood’s rendition of At Grass is also a refreshing reading of Larkin’s work, as is Edwina Hayes’s This Be The Verse, but, perhaps, neither are as refreshing, nor as strange and otherworldly as Far Out by the band Awash with Antler – three young ladies who appear to have overdosed on an almost lethal cocktail of Bjork, The Unthanks and Philip Larkin’s Collected Poems.  If it wasn’t so intriguingly entertaining, I suppose I could simply sit and listen to the distant sound of Mr Larkin, spinning wildly in his grave.  One of the huddle of poetry lovers that gathered in the club room in memory of Larkin was Miles Cain, a familiar face at the Beverley Festival and a man who appears to inject more energy into the event than the Saltend Power Station.  York-based writer and entertainer Cain not only presents the late night festival club in the Wold Top tent from 11 until 2am on each night of the festival, but also finds time to perform some of his own poems and songs throughout the weekend.  Shortly after the Larkin event, I head over to the acoustic tent to catch Miles as he entertains a very appreciative crowd with his agreeable blend of Americana folk and imagery-laden poetry.  Whilst his songs charm the crowd, it is his poetry that leaves Cain’s audience enchanted.  In his poem about the summer of 1977, Miles writes “We were eighteen…full of bones and sex…four letter words fermented inside our cheeks…our bodies grew chains overnight”, encapsulating a whole generation in just a few lines.  His poems sprawl like landscape paintings, but possess all the vitality of abstract expressionism.  In his poem The Devil Invents Fast Food, Miles delights us with lines such as ‘the brief adoration that burns human fibre’ and ‘dentists shoved metal into addicted molars’ – lines that are, themselves, good enough to eat and extremely moreish.  On the final day of the festival, two more British institutions set foot onto the Beverley stage.  Roy Bailey and Tony Benn have been touring theatres and festivals across the country with their show The Writing On The Wall and, as a special treat, have come to Beverley to show us what all the fuss is about.  And it’s a quiet fuss, a gentlemanly fuss, a fuss into which one can’t help being absorbed. Sitting in and, occasionally, attempting to get up out of their armchairs, seventy-five year old Bailey and eighty-five year old Benn serve up a mixture of songs, anecdotes, snippets of great speeches and oodles of political philosophy in order to paint a clear and truthful picture of our country’s political history.  Letting those two voices rest in one’s ear for an hour and a half is to receive great wisdom and to see the current political climate with new eyes.  And though it might be tempting to use the word ‘lecture’ when describing this unique travelling show, its use would be completely inaccurate due to the fact that both Bailey and Benn simply present their material, allowing the audience to make up their minds.  Of course, there is nothing more powerful than that.  And even if we weren’t to stay around for this evening’s festival finale, to go home after Bailey and Benn’s set would be to leave Beverley 2010 with a sense of immense satisfaction and fulfilment.  Bravo.