Live Review | Montgomery Hall, Wath Upon Dearne | Review by Allan Wilkinson
The May Day bank holiday weekend traditionally brings light and colour to the small South Yorkshire town of Wath upon Dearne and has been doing so for at least thirty-nine years in the form of the annual Wath Festival. Three days of fun and music may have been the famous Woodstock slogan back in the day, with memorable stage announcements such as ‘some hamburger guy had his hamburger stand burned down last night’, bringing a momentary frown upon proceedings at the iconic 1969 festival in upstate New York. A similar frown appeared on the faces of the good people of Wath on Friday night when a portaloo was torched in similar fashion down by the War Memorial, damaging part of the stone memorial, the perpetrator seemingly unconcerned about the distress this silly act may have caused the families of our local heroes. But there’s always one isn’t there? Just the one glitch then in an otherwise fun-filled, warm and friendly festival, where much of the town was out in support of the festivities throughout the town including a variety of street entertainment, stalls, crafts, face-painting, street theatre, dance displays, stilt walkers together with Moonarooni, the new and exciting audio visual experience down on the Brook Dyke green space. With various singarounds in the Red Lion and the Sandygate, as well as some fine chorus singing led by Wath Morris in the Rugby Club, together with a whole host of major folk music acts performing at the Montgomery Hall, including The Tannerhill Weavers, Frances Black, Chris Wood and Drever, McCusker, Woomble and Talbot, the weekend had something for everyone. On Friday night Ray Hearne opened the main concert section of the festival, with a short set of down to earth self-penned songs such as “Things to Say”, diverting our attention from the other main event of the day, towards the more important things in life, that is, good thought-provoking songs for and about ordinary people. Ray then continued to host the rest of the Friday night concert in his own inimitable way. The theme of songwriting and storytelling continued throughout Friday evening with a visit from the North East’s favourite son Jez Lowe, making a welcome return to the festival, whose songs seemed to reflect some of the images that adorn the walls of the Montgomery Hall, most notably the one depicting the area’s history of coal mining. Alternating between his usual guitar, cittern and mandolin, Jez sang a selection of songs from his repertoire including “The Judas Bus”, “Taking on Men” and “Will of the People2. There’s always something warm and enchanting about an appearance at Wath Festival by festival patron John Tams, who always tries to make himself available during this annual weekend. With Barry Coope on keyboards, Tam’s gentle approach to communicating with his audience brought the Montgomery Hall to a hushed silence as the Derbyshire songwriter delivered a handful of uplifting songs whilst regaling the audience with some of his random stories, from a chance meeting with Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall outside the Dakota Building in New York to the plight of the Manchester Ramblers. Friday’s headliner saw the first of this year’s strong Celtic contingent, with one of Ireland’s finest singers, who Nanci Griffith once referred to as the ‘sweetest voice in Ireland’, Frances Black, together with her small band, bringing the sound of Dublin to South Yorkshire with such songs as “The Sky Road”, “Ready For the Storm” and “After the Ball”. As Wath Morris, Barnsley Samba and Maltby Phoenix Sword Dancers congregated outside Montgomery Hall early on Saturday morning, in order to lead a procession down to the main town square, the sun came out on cue to flood the town with colour. Thomas Tuke’s will was read out twice during the morning, firstly in the town square and then a few moments later in front of the All Saint’s Parish Church doors, whilst 40 dozen bread buns were hoisted up to the lofty bell tower. The suitably attired Mike the Travelling Minstrel put the Will to song and music as the buns were hurled down upon the masses with hundreds of hands reaching skywards to receive their share of the bread. Shortly afterwards Rob Shaw took to the Montgomery Hall stage to welcome a handful of quality folk acts to the festival including Charlie Barker and Harriet Bartlett, two songbirds on guitar and accordion respectively, the aptly dressed Bernard Wrigley in Dennis the Menace shirt, who brought an hour of music, song and comedy to the stage and finally a headline appearance from Irish singer-songwriter Kieran Halpin, with a set of the type of songs that actually mean something. Elsewhere during the afternoon, Lou Marriott presided over the Silver Roots Competition at the Red Lion whilst Wath Morris Team ran their ‘Mostly Chorus’ session at Wath Rugby Club. Bernard Wrigley then returned to the main Montgomery Hall stage to present an evening of music starting with a fine performance by Scarborough’s Anna Shannon. Chris Wood made his debut at the festival with an engaging performance, with a selection of songs that span his solo career thus far, as well as a handful of songs from his current album Handmade Life, such as “Spitfires”, “My Darling’s Downsized” and “The Grand Correction”. Another debut for Wath Festival was Paisley’s Tannahill Weavers, a band that has been around for a good 43 years and quite possibly the first band to incorporate the Highland Pipes as an integral instrument, rather than being just a solo instrument. Roy Gullane led the Weavers through a storming headliner set rounding off Saturday night’s concert. The sun hung around for Sunday as Wath Festival stalwart Gary Wells introduced Shropshire’s Flaxenby, featuring Sam McLeod’s versatile voice blending folk, rock and jazz influences, together with Chris Buttery’s mandolin and guitar and Andy Jones’s informed fiddle. The band were also responsible for encouraging the first bit of impromptu dancing in front of the stage, not bad for so early on a Sunday afternoon. York’s Holly Taymar and partner Chris Bilton returned for their third consecutive visit to the festival, demonstrating that Wath Festival knows a good thing when it hears it. Holly’s trademark between song rambling was interspersed as always by a delightful set of songs including “Toes”, “Beautiful Days” and “Keeping Time”. The combined musical dexterity of Anna Esslemont and Cormac Byrne, collectively known as Uiscedwr, went on to demonstrate some of their highly rhythmic sounds in a breathtaking set of songs and tunes, featuring Cormac’s outstanding command over a variety of percussion instruments and Anna’s virtuoso fiddle playing, not to mention her remarkable voice. Returning to Wath once again was Kris Drever, one third of the groundbreaking power trio Lau, the singer/guitarist playing a solo spot, which included a set of songs including Ewan Maccoll’s “Freeborn Man”, Boo Hewerdine’s “Harvest Gypsies” as well as the traditional “Green Grow the Laurel”. Whilst Holly Tamar ran a ukulele workshop in the St James Room, Charlie Barker hosted the Wath Young Performers Award 2011, with three finalists performing before a panel of judges including radio presenter Dave Eyre, and musicians John McCusker and Kris Drever. The winners were Luke Hirst and Sarah Smout who went on to open the final evening concert, which also featured a welcome return of Merseyside’s Elbow Jane. Festival regulars Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby paid another visit to Wath with some of their most cherished songs such as the moving “Alice’s Song”, the superb “That Old Guitar” and finally the showstopping Native American tale of “Accanoe”. Finally, and bringing the festival weekend to a close, an eagerly anticipated appearance by Kris Drever, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble and Heidi Talbot, who performed songs from each of the collective’s respective performers, including “Steel and Stone”, “My Secret Is My Silence”, “The Poorest Company” and “Start It All Over Again”, whilst at the same time adding a touch of class to the proceedings. The thought on a lot of minds I dare say, bearing in mind this was the 39th festival, is how the Wath Team can follow it next year, when the festival will be celebrating its fortieth birthday. If this year is anything to go by, then the organising committee led by David and Ann Roche, together with Gary Wells and a team of dedicated supporters will no doubt be getting their thinking caps on in order to try and make the next one even better than this year. It has to be said that each year the festival becomes a harder act to follow.