The Great British Folk Festival

Live Review | Butlins, Skegness | Review by Allan Wilkinson

As dusk fell upon the bitterly cold Lincolnshire coastal town of Skegness, normally populated by thousands of families during the summer months, woolly hats, scarves and gloves replaced the usual array of brightly coloured festival-wear reserved for much warmer climates.  The famous Butlins holiday resort provided some much needed warmth and hospitality for those brave enough to weather the December chill coming in off the North Sea, as well as presenting a programme of suitably diverse musical artists and styles, loosely falling under the broad banner of ‘folk music’.  As the resort filled with enthusiastic festival goers on Friday evening, Donovan’s “Catch the Wind” could be heard over the site tannoy system above the Sun and Moon pub, a system presumably reserved for children’s holiday announcements ala Hi-di-Hi during other times of the year.  The central hub chosen for the festival was the Skyline Pavilion, a structure dominating the Skegness skyline, providing a beacon for approaching festival goers diverging on Skeggy from presumably all four corners of the country and further afield.  The concerts throughout the weekend were shared between two main stages; the Centre Stage, housed within the pavilion itself and the similarly-sized Reds, suitably named after the famous Butlins Redcoats, situated within easy walking distance of the pavilion for those wanting to slip between acts.  Due to the adverse weather conditions leading up to this much anticipated event, some of the planned acts were forced to cancel at the eleventh hour, calling for some nifty programme changes.  Replacements were immediately sought and Nine Below Zero, Diesel Park West and an odd little band called Pie replaced Stackridge, The Unthanks and John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee respectively.  The initial concerns about whether or not a folk event would work at a holiday camp were soon dashed as those who did attend the festival weighed up the pros and cons.  There could be no argument over the fact that a nice warm chalet with hot running water won hands down over an ice cold tent and an old bucket, just as a nice warm concert venue won hands down over some chilly old marquee in a field.  Butlins also went to great lengths to ensure that real ale was in good supply as well as great food, despite the slight miscalculation over the quantity of Guardians required at the onsite newsagents.  Well at this their inaugural folk festival, they couldn’t be expected to get everything right.  The truth is, at this time of year, Butlins provides a perfect venue for a folk festival.  In hindsight, the event probably should have been re-titled The Great British Folk Rock Festival as much of the programme gravitated towards that specific genre with representatives from the cream of British folk rock’s heyday, including current or former members of such bands as Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Jethro Tull, Fotheringay, The Strawbs, The Albion Band, Magna Carta and the list goes on.  With an impressive line-up featuring a handful of major folk luminaries such as Kate Rusby and Oysterband as well as a few acts bordering the blues and rock-based fringes of folk music such as Sandi Thom and The Strawbs, together with an appearance by one of the giant figures of 1960s folk/pop, namely Donovan, there promised to something for everyone.  The festival got underway on Friday evening with the Blues Band’s Gary Fletcher opening with a solo blues-based set on the Centre Stage, whilst at precisely the same time four original members of the 1970s folk rock outfit Hunter Muskett provided a nostalgic and gentle set of songs, reminding us once again that folk rock doesn’t necessarily have to consist of jigs and reels played on an electric guitar.  Doug Morter, Terry Hiscock, Chris George and Rog Trevitt visibly enjoyed themselves as they re-visited songs from the band’s two original albums of the early 1970s.  Whilst Pie stood in at short notice for Pentangle’s John Renbourn and Jacqui McShee, the Acoustic Strawbs, featuring Dave Cousins’ distinctively rasping voice performed a handful of memorable songs from a similar era to Hunter Muskett, once again flicking the nostalgia switches for those old enough to remember the originals.  Opening with the hymn-like “Benedictus”, the trio consisting of Dave Cousins, Dave Lambert and Chas Cronk, performed a handful of familiar songs from the band’s back catalogue including the particular crowd pleaser “Lay Down”.  Completing the evening with a spot of Lancastrian humour, The Lancashire Hotpots entertained the remaining few Strawbs left-overs, whilst the Centre Stage filled to bursting point for one of the UK’s best loved live acts.  Oysterband have a knack of livening up any room or party and their Friday night headliner set was no exception.  The outstanding set, packed with energy-driven Oysterband standards, resulted in a complete sell out of Oysterband stock at the Little Pot Stove concessions stall outside in the hall.  On Saturday, the Centre Stage played host to an afternoon of concerts featuring a London-based duo and two comedians, which was possibly the only bit of ill-advised scheduling of the weekend.  Nevertheless, judging by the crowd reaction, Phil Cool and Richard Digance’s back-to-back sets didn’t jar quite as much in practice as on paper.  Phil Cool’s unique brand of comedy combining surreal humour, hilarious facial contortions and brilliant impressions kept the audience happy during a relaxed afternoon on the Centre Stage.  Kicking off the afternoon was the London-based duo Ay Ducane, who provided a relaxed set of self-penned material and the one R&B cover “Baby Please Don’t Go”, demonstrating the duo’s command over Everly Brothers type harmony singing and excellent song writing credentials.  Galih Richardson and Francis Newington’s blend of acoustic indie-folk proved to be a great and well received opening act for the Saturday afternoon concerts.  During the open mic sessions over in Jaks nightclub a short distance away from the main hub of activity, American-born Jerry Donahue was on hand for some guitar talk, inviting audience members to ask questions about guitar picks, straps and strings as well as enquiring about what it must be like to have played a vital role in two of the best loved folk rock outfits of them all, Fairport Convention and Fotheringay.  Jerry was later joined by Lindisfarne’s Ray Jackson and the Albion Band’s Doug Morter for a reduced version of The Gathering, a six-piece band also featuring ex-members of Steeleye Span (Rick Kemp) and Jethro Tull (Clive Bunker) as well as Jerry’s daughter Kristina, all three of whom couldn’t make it to the festival.  Despite there being just fifty percent of the band present, the trio filled the set with crowd pleasers such as “Lady Eleanor”, “Wake Up Little Sister” and “Meet Me on the Corner”, which may well have been played simultaneously on the other stage where the song’s composer Rod Clements was also performing.  Saturday evening initially presented a dilemma in that both Sandi Thom and The Unthanks were due to be performing at precisely the same time.  Due to the unavailability of the latter, Sandi Thom drew an even larger crowd than anticipated and provided an exciting and vibrant blues-infused set, despite feeling decidedly under the weather.  Even “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker” was transformed into a toe-tapping stomper.  As Saturday evening drew to a climactic close, there was a choice once again to consider.  Two contrasting performances were on offer with Devon-based Jiggerypipery featuring ex-Boomtown Rat Simon Crowe, whilst on the Centre Stage Deborah Bonham provided some soulful blues, performing a storming set which included a song from her late brother John’s most celebrated album Led Zeppelin IV and “The Battle of Evermore”, together with a fitting tribute to him and two other much missed family members with the gorgeous “The Old Hyde”.  On Sunday afternoon, as busker Phil Knight entertained the queues outside in the main pavilion, guitarist Gordon Giltrap prepared to dominate the Centre Stage with a master class of guitar dexterity.  Equipped with three guitars, the musician brought a little sunshine to Butlins with George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” and his own “Heartsong”, the theme tune to the BBC’s Holiday programme.  More sunshine was provided by Shinjig’s lively Sunday afternoon set, which gave those dying for a dance the opportunity to do just that in front of the Centre Stage.  Nine Below Zero then went on to bring it all back home with an outstanding set of blues classics both new and old courtesy of Dennis Greaves’ hard rocking vocal and Mark Feltham’s sparring harp.  The most eagerly anticipated sets of the weekend arrived with some lengthy queuing in two directions, one queue to see Donovan, whilst the other queue waited patiently to take their seats for a seasonal performance by Barnsley’s best export since its famed bitter. Kate Rusby giggled as the curtain was raised for what turned out to be a delightful couple of sets filled with Christmas and seasonal songs.  Her ten-piece band included a brass section, bringing the sound of traditional yuletide Yorkshire to an enthusiastic and appreciative Lincolnshire audience.  Away With the Faeries kicked off the evening concert on the Reds stage with some suitably ethereal folk songs before Donovan’s solo set, featuring some of his best loved acoustic numbers such as “Catch the Wind” and “Colours”.  Donovan returned to the stage after a short break with his full Irish band, to recreate as closely as possible all the hits of the mid 1960s such as “Sunshine Superman”, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and “Season of the Witch”.  Finally, a handful of seasoned folk rockers took to the Centre Stage for the final concert of the evening and indeed of the festival as The Dylan Project reminded us of the genius of Bob Dylan, with veteran rocker Steve Gibbons performing some of the best loved Dylan classics such as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “You Got to Serve Somebody” and even the Travelling Wilbury’s “Handle With Care” bringing the festival to a suitably frenzied climax with “Twist and Shout”.  Fairport’s Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway were on hand to provide an outstanding rhythm section, whilst PJ Wright gave a blistering performance on lead guitar.  During the weekend it was refreshing to hear helpful suggestions being bounded about for next year’s festival rather than criticisms, all of which will no doubt be taken onboard by an organisation keen to make this potential annual event work.  There is indeed a large area inside the Skyline Pavilion that would be superb for dance teams and the Sun and Moon pub would quite rightly be great for singarounds.  Fortunately Butlins have a team who are eager to please and will no doubt be looking forward to providing something even better in 2011.  Judging by the queue at the booking desk on Monday morning, I think those preparations are already in hand.