Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival

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

This weekend, the second annual Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival reached an even wider audience than the first one back in 2010, proving at least two things; that the organisers are getting it right and that the word is getting out there.  The three-day festival was once again held at two venues across town, the Barnsley Civic for the opening night and the Kingstone School for the rest of the weekend. Sixteen main concert events and countless open mic appearances, together with a couple of singaround sessions made up one of the first festivals of the year and one that seems to be gathering enough interest to establish itself as a fixture on the annual festival calendar.   On Friday night, two Devon-based duos appeared at the sell-out concert at the Civic, featuring Show of Hands (okay, technically a trio) and their current tour guests Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin. With a dazzling performance, the dobro and the harmonica met the fiddle and the banjo head on in a set that featured a handful of songs from the duo’s current album Live in the Living Room, including updated versions of the O’Carolan tune “Shebeg and Sheemore”, Gillian Welch’s “Wichita” and a stunning harmonica solo based around Sonny Terry’s “I Wanna Boogie” coupled with the old Blind Willie Johnson classic “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”.  Henry’s virtuosity on the harmonica was apparent as he played two simultaneously on “Death and the Lady”, effectively doing the work normally reserved for an accordion, with a little beat boxing thrown in.  One of the highlights of the set was Hannah’s beautiful banjo-accompanied “The Painter”, which featured a confident vocal performance by the young singer.  Show of Hands’ Steve Knightley and Phil Beer, together with Miranda Sykes on double bass, performed a relaxed and it has to be said, flawless set, which included many familiar anthemic songs including “Is There Anything Left in England That’s Not For Sale”, “Country Life”, “Santiago” and “Cousin Jack” as well as some newer songs including “Stop Copying Me”, a song highlighting the perils of social networking and the brand new and highly topical “We’re All In It Together”.  Forging an ongoing reputation as being the archetypal ‘English’ folk band, Show of Hands are never afraid to show their American influences, on Friday including in their set Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown”, Bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)” and Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”.  Miranda Sykes was also left alone on stage to perform a delightful solo version of Kate Rusby’s “Old Man Time”, accompanying herself on bowed double bass in her own inimitable style.  On Saturday morning, the inaugural Seth Lakeman Rising Stars Competition took place in the ‘open mic’ room at the festival, with seven young acts competing for the new trophy that Seth Lakeman was only too happy to sponsor.  With ages ranging from 12 to 19, each act performed two pieces, either songs or tunes, before the three judges, the performers Dave Burland and Kayla Kavanagh as well as Shepley Spring Festival organiser Kate Atkinson.  Sarah Horn and James Cudworth, Jennifer Beadnell and Olivia Clifton, Dylan Brierley, Amy Condrey, Josh Lockwood, Lydia Noble and Mia Symmonds performed in good spirits and gave the three judges something of a task, the outcome being revealed shortly afterwards when it was announced that 13 year-old Dylan Brierley took the overall first place and the trophy, with Amy Condrey taking joint first place in the older category and classical guitarist Josh Lockwood as runner up.  Opening the afternoon concert on the main stage was Barnsley’s own Richard Kitson who performed songs from his debut solo album Home and Dry, including “Robin Hood’s Bay”, “My Love”, “Low Tide” and “Gambling Woman”, together with a tribute to Davy Graham with the timeless finger challenging guitar piece “Anji”.  Nashville-based singer-songwriter Stephanie Lambring has now got herself an impressive day job, in that she works in an office specifically writing songs for BMG, just as in the old Brill Building days.  Some of those songs were performed on Saturday afternoon by one of the most confident young performers working out of Nashville today.  Mixing some of the new songs “I Will” and “You Too” with the more established repertoire such as “Sober”, “Vincent” and “Lonely To Alone”, Stephanie won a few new friends with her distinctive voice and mature song-writing.  Continuing the afternoon’s theme of singer-songwriter based performers, producer and musician Nigel Stonier came out from behind the studio console to perform a handful of his own songs.  Famed for his production work with Thea Gilmore, Fairport Convention and more recently Katy Lied, Nigel launched into his set with “Wild and Beautiful”, going on to perform songs from his current album Notes from Overground including “Whole Lotta Nothin’ Going On” and “Set You Free”.  Perching himself on the edge of the stage, effectively abandoning the sound system, Nigel performed an unplugged version of Donovan’s “Catch the Wind”, which was well received by the audience.  Headlining the afternoon concert on the main stage was Karine Polwart and her trio consisting of brother Steve on guitar and Inge Thomson on everything else.  Karine is without question one of our most treasured songwriters, whose intelligent songs are several notches above the normal standard.  Starting with “Resolution Road” from her debut album Faultlines, Karine went on to perform several of her best loved songs including “Daisy”, “We’re All Leaving”, “River’s Run”, “Sorry”, “Beo” and “This Earthly Spell”, together with her memorable take on the Blue Nile’s “From Rags to Riches”.  Karine finished her set with the optimistic “I’m Gonna Do It All”, which was rewarded with a unanimous call for more, Karine’s trio returning for a final encore of the gorgeous “Follow the Heron”.  Whilst the afternoon concert was taking place on the main stage, other activities were going on elsewhere throughout the school, with Gerry McNeice presiding over an open mic session, which saw some of the festival artists performing informally together with other singers and musicians popping in and out throughout the afternoon.  Lou Marriott also ran a singaround in one of the other classrooms for those who preferred a more laid back session.  Saturday evening’s concert on the main stage began with an appearance by festival patron Dave Burland, fresh from judging the Rising Stars competition, who joked that he accepted the role as he intended to patronise everyone in the place before the evening was over.  Dave’s own star rose in the early 1970s, but his eclectic choice of songs are still remembered and cherished today in this area in particular.  Starting with Richard Thompson’s “Hard Luck Stories”, Dave went on to perform such much loved songs as Bob Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country”, the traditional “The Water is Wide” and the old Louis Jordan rocker “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens”.  Dave finished his set with the old Lowell George classic “Willin’”, which had everyone singing along in typical Little Feat harmony.  The Devon-based twins Laura and Charlotte Carrivick brought a taste of bluegrass to Barnsley, with songs from the Carrivick Sisters’ Jupiter’s Corner album.  Starting with “Waiting For a Train”, the sisters alternated between guitar, mandolin, dobro and fiddle, for some of the weekend’s most dextrous musicianship.  Mixing Old Time with Bluegrass, the twins played an assured set featuring songs such as “Stars”, “Martha’s Witchalse”, “Garden Girl”, “The William and Emma and Charlotte Dymond”, as well as their take on the Alison Krauss song “Gentle River”.  From the tiny town of Nokomis, in the Saskatchewan province of Canada, Little Miss Higgins together with partner Foy Taylor, brandished their respective electric guitars for some retro-blues, rockabilly and jazz-tinged vaudeville, delivering on cue some of their eagerly anticipated numbers from their most recent album Across the Plains. Starting with “In the Middle of Nowhere”, from their previous Junction City album, the duo stomped out their own brand of blues, making an immediate impression on the unsuspecting Barnsley audience.  With a slight technical hitch, which effectively took guitarist Foy Taylor out of the picture for a few minutes, Little Miss Higgins took up the mantle and soon had the audience in the palm of her hands with the unaccompanied “Gather My Fruit”.  With a particularly good time feel, songs like “The Tornado Song”, “Snowin’ Today: A Lament for Louis Riel” and the infectious “Bargain! Shop Panties”, brought a sense of fun to the evening.  With a last minute name change from the advertised Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams to the simplified The Grand Slambovians, Josiah Longo and his merry band brought some of their famed hillbilly Pink Floyd to Barnsley.  One of the most exciting retro bands on the scene at the moment, the Slambovians notched up yet another successful UK festival appearance, adding another bunch of enthusiasts to their word-of-mouth gathered fanbase with songs such as “Picture” and “The Trans-Slambovian BiPolar Express”.  Sunday afternoon began with a couple of classical guitar pieces played by 12 year-old Josh Lockwood, runner up in the Seth Lakeman Rising Stars competition, playing impressive note-perfect recitals of “Waltz in E Minor” and “Ausurious Leyanda”.  The overall winner, 13 year-old singer-songwriter Dylan Brierley, went on next to perform a couple of self-penned songs including “My Hero”, a song about Dylan’s mum, just for Mother’s Day.  Sharon King and the Reckless Angels performed a gentle set on Sunday afternoon, with a handful of songs from Sharon’s growing repertoire, including “Lady Tuesday”, “High Times”, and “Shiny Shoes” from Sharon’s current album Reckless Angels.  The seated trio were relaxed throughout their set, which also included “Travelling Ways” and “Josie”.  The legendary Vin Garbutt returned to the Barnsley after a long time away to perform some of his most enduring songs such as “The Turner’s Song”, “The One Legged Beggar”, “Morning Informs” and “Not For the First Time” and sounding just as good as ever.  With his familiar between-song banter, a handful of remarkably poignant songs and the odd whistle tune, Vin’s hour-long set seemed over before it began, testament to the Teeside Bard’s command over engaging with his audience.  Possibly the most eagerly anticipated set of the festival this year was North Georgia’s thoroughly exciting Larkin Poe, with the Lovell Sisters Rebecca and Megan dominating a stage for a set filled with some of the most spirit-lifting bluegrass-inflected music of the weekend.  Starting with the infectious “Long Hard Fall”, Larkin Poe brought to life the music British audiences had only previously known on record over the last twelve months.  Their debut UK tour reveals that Larkin Poe are just as good if not better live than on their four seasonal EPs Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter.  Performing favourites “In My Time of Dying”, “Teardrop”, “We Intertwine”, “Sea Song”, “Trance”, “Praying for the Bell” and the soulfully bluesy “Principle of Silver Lining”, the band endeavoured to bring the sleepy afternoon audience out of relaxation mode and up on the dance floor with varying degrees of success.  With Knoxville’s Vince Llagan on bass and Chad Melton on drums, joining siblings Rebecca Lovell on guitar, mandolin and fiddle and Megan Lovell on dobro and lap steel guitar, Larkin Poe demonstrated some remarkable craftsmanship whilst having tremendous fun at the same time.  A memorable performance by any standard.  As Sunday evening approached, the two winners of the Seth Lakeman Rising Stars competition, Amy Condrey and Dylan Brierley, gave the audience of a taste of what to expect in their future endeavours as artists and performers.  Sam Lakeman, who was at the concert specifically to play with headliner Cara Dillon as part of her band, came on stage to present young Dylan with his trophy, sponsored by his brother Seth.  With a few words of encouragement, Sam handed over the trophy to the proud young performer.  The evening continued with something of a family affair with each of the acts having within its ranks either a Roberts or a Lakeman and in one case both.  Award-winning duo Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, no strangers to the Kingstone School, delighted the audience with a set of songs and tunes, including “All I’ve Known”, “Suzannah”, “Shepherd” and “Fleetwood Fair”.  With a brilliant performance of “The Badger’s Set”, which was unfortunately brought to an abrupt end seconds before the planned end, by a string breaking on Jamie’s guitar, the duo switched instruments for one of Jamie’s most original songs, “The Bookseller’s Story”.  Keeping it in the family, Jamie’s big sister Kathryn Roberts, who shares the title of festival patron with Dave Burland, took to the stage next with husband Sean Lakeman beside her, in an all too rare duo performance by the ex-Equation band mates.  Opening with “Granite Mill”, the duo demonstrated an intuitive musical empathy with Kathryn occasionally visiting the piano stool for songs such as the stunning “Joe Peel” and the debut of an achingly sad song concerning the miners strike, which had the Kingstone School Hall in complete silence throughout.  Other familiar songs from the Roberts/Lakeman repertoire included “The Red Barn”, “Lord Gregory”, “The Buxom Lass” and “The Whitby Maid”, finishing with the sublime “Jackie’s Song”.  Rounding off the final evening and completing an excellent second Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival, it seemed fitting to go out with one of folk music’s most delightful voices, Northern Ireland’s Cara Dillon.  Once again the family connection remained intact with husband Sam Lakeman joining Cara on stage as part of her band for the festival finale.  Starting with “Johnny, Lovely Johnny” from Cara’s current album Hill of Thieves, the band went on to perform such songs as “Johnny Mo Mhile Sor”, “Spencer the Rover”, “The Lass of Glenshee” as well as one or two older songs such as “I Wish You Well” and “Garden Valley” from Cara’s After the Morning period and “Black is the Colour” from her ten-year-old self-titled debut.  With an encore of the aptly titled “The Parting Glass”, Cara Dillon brought a touch of class to the festival, a festival that will no doubt grow in popularity once the word gets out.