Beverley Folk Acoustic Roots Festival

Live Review | Beverley | Review by Allan and Liam Wilkinson

Part One: A Note or Two About Beverley..

It doesn’t take visitors long to acclimatise themselves to the sights and sounds of the Beverley Folk Acoustic Roots Festival, whether it be the music coming from the main hall in the Leisure Complex or the various marquees scattered around the festival village, the club rooms, the local pubs, the occasional duelling horns outside the Chango Music stall or just from the camp site, as musicians of all ages break out their instruments for a bit of a play, after the tents are up that is.  It may even be the sound of BBC Radio Humberside coming from a neighbouring tranny (transistor radio if you will) whose presenters would keep the town and surrounding area informed of the festivities via their live outside broadcasts throughout the weekend – although why Friday’s broadcast started with Irene Cara squealing out the infamous Fame theme bewilders me still.  These sonic delights would mingle with the familiar sounds of the area, those sounds that can normally be heard in Beverley all year round; the frequent chimes of the nearby Minster bells for instance, the dulcet tones of which would become a handy alarm clock over the next three days, especially for those who might need to be up on the hour (every hour!), or the passing trains on the Northern Rail line, the drivers of which must have had enormous fun making sure campers were awake, if the bells hadn’t quite done the trick yet.  When headliner Paul Carrack took to the main stage on Friday night with his band, he rather sheepishly pointed out to the audience “we’re not actually a folk band”, to which someone in that audience responded “well this isn’t actually a folk festival!”  I have to agree, this annual festival has developed over the years into something else entirely, a festival with an eclectic agenda, mixing folk, blues, jazz, country, bluegrass, Americana and World Music with everything else in between.  Lest we forget, Buzzcocks actually headlined a couple of years ago!  The programme is also peppered with lashings of poetry, comedy and literature events and even for the first time this year, a mini film festival. Something for just about everybody then.  On Friday night the choice of music was as eclectic as it could possibly be with performances by BBC Young Folk Award winners Moore Moss Rutter, Country-flavoured singer-songwriter collective Ahab and Celtic folk instrumentalist Michael McGoldrick in the Concert Marquee, whilst on the main stage York-based Jess Gardham opened with a soulful performance with her own band, including a performance of Bob Marley’s anthemic “No Woman No Cry”, followed by some bluesy song writing, courtesy of Sean Taylor, making the first of several appearances at the festival over the weekend, delighting the audience with tales of Dean Moriarty amongst others, whilst tipping his hat to Richie Havens with a stunning version of “Freedom”, the improvised gospel workout famously etched in the annals of popular music history in the Woodstock film.  One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Beverley Festival is the late night Wold Top Marquee sessions, which have grown in recent years both in physical size and in popularity.  Leila Slater hosted three consecutive nights of these impromptu sessions, often featuring some of the artists that appeared on the main stages throughout the weekend.  On Friday night Ahab, Henry Priestman, Blackbeard’s Tea Party, Jess Gardham, Sean Taylor and Moore Moss Rutter performed in the packed marquee, which was decked out in all manner of decoration from fabrics to flags, bails to bunting and parachutes to patchwork quilts, whilst the audience stretched out on the settees provided until the early hours.  On Saturday the festival was a hive of activity from mid-morning onwards, with a harmony singing workshop, a melodeon workshop, storytelling with Adrian Spendlow and many children’s activities including face painting (not just for kids, but also for emerging folk singers), whilst the town itself hosted a programme of dance displays throughout the day, all in the spirit of community.  There was also the chance to discover who is actually behind artisic endeavours in this region with the Beverley Arts Trust, Beverley Theatre Company, Fruit, Hull Jazz Festival, Musicport and Pocklington Arts Centre representatives.  Once again the Wold Top music sessions began at midday with Moore Moss Rutter stepping into the breach for opening act Paul Liddell who unfortunately couldn’t make it due to unforseen circumstances, followed by a variety of performers ranging from songwriters Wendy Arrowsmith, Gerry McNeice and Dan Wilde to local duo TWO and the Dan Webster Band amongst others.  Whilst Blackbeard’s Tea Party got everyone up on their feet for a ceilidh in the Concert and Dance Marquee, the Americana Concert in the main hall featured an appearance by Grammy-nominated Jerry Harmon, a native of North Carolina from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, whose mixture of story-telling and songs brought a taste of authenticity to the afternoon’s programme, which also featured performances by the Jess Gardham Band and Sean Taylor.  The afternoon concert concluded with the much anticipated performance by The Southern Tenant Folk Union, whose blend of Caledonian Bluegrass and Sci-Fi Folk, soon had the audience on the edge of their seats. Gathered around a single microphone as in the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry, the Edinburgh-based band featured songs from their growing repertoire.  Immediately after the Americana Concert, the band hot-footed it over to the Festival Hall for the launch of their new album Pencaitland, which the band performed acoustically in its entirety, before leaping up onto the Festival Village open air stage for a bit of a hoedown.  The headliner for Saturday night was the incomparable Barbara Dickson, who returned to the festival having tested the water last year, where the singer/actress came along to talk about her recently published autobiography, signing copies of ‘A Shirtbox Full of Songs’ and going on to make an unannounced guest appearance with her friend Charlie Dore and her fabulous Hula Valley Orchestra.  Barbara returned this year with her own full band, which included Bad Shepherd Troy Donockley, for a class performance featuring some of her best loved songs selected from a repertoire spanning four decades.  BBC Horizon Award winner Ewan McLennan also appeared at the concert along with the very busy Moore Moss Rutter, once again covering for one of the unavailable artists, this time the legendary Martin Carthy who was unable to attend due to illness.  The Wold Top Marquee provided another late night session, this time welcoming onto the stage Broken Ground, the engaging duo Sea Fret, the astonishingly dextrous jazz-infused quartet 4 Square, the poet Adrian Spendlow and the Southern Tenant Folk Union before the strength of the stage was ruthlessly challenged by the giant All Stars band, featuring over twenty musicians led by Sam Pirt, opening with a song by the delightful Jessica Lawson.  The Minster bells saw Sunday in as the blurry-eyed campers welcomed the arrival of more established artists to the festival including Bellowhead, the Fay Hield Trio, Spiers and Boden and Reg Meuross, together with a variety of World Music acts for the World Goes Local Concert, including The Jody McKenna Band, Dilzar Shanga, The Nile Band and the charismatic Hekima with his Bongo Flava.  Sunday afternoon also saw eagerly anticipated performances by the autoharp-huggin’ Jessica Lawson and local favourite Edwina Hayes, whilst Andy Stones delighted the audience with his take on Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean, Moonwalking at the Moonbeams no less.  Other performances included Rebekah Findlay and Circus Envy amongst others.  Reg Meuross first appeared at the festival a couple of years ago, performing alongside Karen Tweed in an almost improvised impromtu set over at the Friary in 2009.  This year Reg appeared on the main bill with two or three appearances during Sunday; first over brunch in the Wold Top Marquee, then back at the Friary running a songwriting workshop, before his main set in the Concert Marquee, where he performed a handful of his best loved songs.  That concert also saw performances by Ewan McLennan and the Whiskey Dogs Hoedown Band, who soon has everyone on their feet for a final chance to take their partners for a barn dance.  The Fay Hield Trio also played a couple of times during the day as did husband Jon Boden, firstly with long-time partner John Spiers in the afternoon concert and finally with Bellowhead, the Sunday night headliners, who attracted the longest queue of the weekend, spilling out of the Leisure Centre foyer and almost out of the gates. Some of the headliner concerts over the weekend would obviously leave festival goers without a seat at the main events, but no matter, the programme always allows for great alternatives.  This reviewer favoured an evening of Cheshire-based rising stars Pilgrims’ Way, the delightfully complex 4 Square and the Folkways Summer School collective Raj Raj Raj, led as always by the ever-smiling David Gray, before the last Wold Top midnight feast of fun, music and late night dance, once again featuring some of the artists who had appeared on other stages throughout the day.  As far as music is concerned, this festival could not have possibly packed more in during the three days.

Part Two: A Word or Two About Beverley..

If you dip your ear carefully into the gentle mix of guitar, fiddle, bongo, bodhran and bass that floats like a folky fog over the Beverley Festival Village, you might just catch a few naked words as they expose themselves in dimly lit corners.  A poem here and there, a joke, a story, perhaps a small fragment of a lecture.  You might spot a long-haired, bearded storyteller nestled somewhere between the ethnic drum stall and the crepe stand or spy a stand-up comedian tucking into a sarnie from the hog roast.  Yes, there’s an unplugged and unaccompanied side to the Beverley Festival and, each year, it seems to get better and better.

 Hosted by York-based writer and musician Miles Cain, the ‘Poetry & Toast’ sessions presented breakfast-time readings from a handful of local and not-so-local poets. Miles himself read poems from his forthcoming debut collection including the brilliantly alarming “Instructions For Downloading The Human Heart” and the dramatically-paced “Thirty Seconds” – a poem that explores the chaos of time’s passage within our daily lives.  Stuffed generously with delicious imagery and an unmistakable verbal-musicality, Miles’s poems were a very welcome bowl of festival cereal on both mornings.  York’s Oz Hardwick delivered another couple of his usual engaging performances by reading poems from his various collections and speaking about his recently-published study of English misericords – those intriguing little shelves on the undersides of church choir stalls.  In poems such as “The Green Man” and “The Trail of the Fox”, Oz expertly fuses nature, history, mythology and reality together with the touch of a modern-day Beat poet.  His poems, especially when recited by their author, plunge the listener deep into the foliage of their subjects.  Fellow Yorkie Dave Gough was on hand to drag us out of the ethereal mists of Oz’s poems and into a world that slants like a wry grin.  His poem English Summer with its rainy refrain, wet picnic plates and dampened cricket ground is a soggy postcard from an England we all know and love whilst “I’m Turning Into Philip Larkin” perfectly demonstrates Dave’s trademark dry poetic humour.   Amongst the other subjects that causes Dave to pick up his pen are Cresta Orange Juice, the naturist tendencies of William Etty and the link between The Monkees and toilet paper.  Whilst Dave Gough’s poems tip their heads slightly to view their world, Andy Humphrey’s poems poke a pen into their subjects until they roll over.  There’s an abundance of humour in  those poems, but its often tinged with a quiet yet palpable sense of melancholy.  Nick Toczek, however, who is well-known in schools up and down the land for his hilarious children’s poetry and energetic performances, brought a fistful of political performance poems to this year’s Beverley Festival. With their addictive rhythmical patterns and unremitting verbal fireworks, poems such as “Bring Me The Coffin of Nicholas Griffin” and “New York Chant” clearly delighted the appreciative Sunday morning audience.  David Cooke has had a long break from poetry, and we’re all the more lucky for his recent resurfacing and for the emergence of his latest collection, In The Distance (Night Publishing, 2011).  His Irish roots were showing during his performance at Beverley, especially in the poems about his father and grandfather.  “Your two great fists impressed me, for they were pondering chunks of granite, notched carelessly for fingers” he writes in Visiting – a poem about his grandfather that, like most of Cooke’s poems, is crafted with equal amounts of poetic mastery and a vivid, haunting memory.  Renowned British poet Antony Dunn was a welcome addition to this year’s festival line-up and it was a treat to hear him read poems from past collections as well as a selection from his latest publication, Bugs (Carcanet, 2009).  A technical master of his art, Dunn has a magnetic personality that held the crowd just as tightly as any Boden, Dickson or Taylor may have done on the other festival stages this weekend.  As well as poetry readings, storytelling drifted through this year’s festival like a streamer in the wind.  Festival regular Adrian Spendlow expertly handled stories of the fictional variety with his regular storytelling sessions whilst musician Jim Boyes, his wife and folklorist Georgina Boyes and local author Peggy Dunn took care of the non-fiction.  Jim and Georgina Boyes could be found in the Club Room on Saturday, each with their own short talk on their specialised subjects.  Georgina, author of The Imagined Village: Culture, Politics and the English Folk Revival (Manchester University Press, 1993) straightened the crooked picture-frames of the history of song collecting, revealing the truth behind the often exaggerated life and work of Cecil Sharp and highlighting the problem of those all-to-familiar rules and regulations that still exist in various corners of the folk world today.  Jim, armed with his Powerpoint presentation, guitar and a sprawling knowledge of his family history, took us back in time to retrace the footsteps of his grandfather and the great war he fought in Europe whilst Peggy Dunn could be found on Sunday in the ‘Village Hall’ tent where she regaled a small but appreciative crowd in tales of the local hind house that her mother tirelessly ran during the second world war.  For lovers of true stories and British history, Beverley 2011 was not the festival to skip.  Also on a storytelling theme, this year’s festival presented a series of films, kindly projected by the Beverley Film Society.  ‘Morris – A Life With Bells On’ and ‘A Mighty Wind’ were both shown in the Club Room during the festival, as were the Waterson Family films ‘Travelling for a Living’ and ‘The Waterson Family – Live At Hull Truck’, both of which managed to fill the gap left by Martin Carthy who was, sadly, unable to attend this year’s event due to illness.  ‘Travelling for a Living’, in all its grimy, grainy black-and-white, stands as a monument to those early days of The Watersons and has never seemed more impressive than the moment it flickered into life on the big Beverley screen.  Watching a youthful Norma and a cheeky twenty-something Mike was made all the more poignant by the fact that both Watersons have been quite ill of late.  Thank goodness for the time-capsule of film.  This year’s Beverley Festival Comedy Club, once again, refused to disappoint its loyal crowd.  On Saturday evening, the Club presented performances from Welsh pun-master and one-line merchant Noel James, whose often aggressive and unrestrained act managed to split the audience in two before putting it back together again in time for Bernard Wrigley’s set.  Bernard, whose face will be familiar to fans of Phoenix Nights, Dinner Ladies and Emmerdale, returned to Beverley this year with his hot pot of comedy songs, side-splitting short poems and naturally funny bones. As usual, he entertained by mongering plenty of laughs and proving that he’s the only funny man on the folk scene whose voice precisely matches the sound of a bass concertina – an instrument he so expertly demonstrates in his performance.  Beverley Festival reminds us annually that the spoken word is as much a part of the folk scene as its musical sibling.  It does so by offering its stages to writers, storytellers and musicians alike – surely a good enough reason to head to the Humber next year.