Live Review | Elsecar Heritage Centre | Review by Allan Wilkinson
There’s certain advantages to being the MC at a small festival, not least the fact that one could be privy to some potential gossip in and around the Green Room, not that there’s much of that going on really. The imagined glamour of being around a bunch of artists partying at the expense of the festival coffers is wildly exaggerated; you are more likely to stumble upon any number of reclining musicians casually picking grapes from the available complimentary cluster, whilst sipping coffee, or catching forty winks after a long and arduous journey up the M1. Alternatively, they might just be taking advantage of the golden opportunity to finish off the final chapter of that book they’ve had lying around in their gig bag for the last two months. Nowadays there’s also the only too familiar appearance backstage of the ever present laptop or iPhone! The Green Room in this instance, located within the Building 21 complex at the Elsecar Heritage Centre in the heart of South Yorkshire was populated by several people on Friday night, including four young musicians from the South having just arrived in the nick of time after negotiating the aforementioned M1 motorway traffic during the notorious Friday afternoon rush hour; one ex-pat Texan guitar virtuoso, reclining in one of the more comfortable chairs, relaxing for a moment in a calm before the storm sort of way. Then finally, a little later, the room saw the arrival of several slightly older musicians, either blowing into a saxophone or tuning up a guitar or two, whilst the band’s leader scribbled out a well organised set list prior to the exciting opening night concert ahead. It’s customary for the MC to make a few routine enquiries to make sure everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and also to make sure everyone is comfortable with the show times. It’s all to do with team work and the MC has no greater importance than the steward taking the tickets or the door or the man who makes sure the sound gets to the eager audiences collective ears. Each plays his or her part in the show. Then there’s the decision of what exactly to say when introducing a band. A band such as Ay Ducane for instance, who may or may not be known by everyone in the audience. The idea is to make it simple for everyone, maybe just a mention of the band’s current location perhaps, or a little note of what the band means to the MC personally. So this is where I started. When I first saw London-based Ay Ducane just a little under a year ago, they were just a duo, featuring singer-songwriters Galih Richardson and Francis Newington, perched upon two high chairs with acoustic guitars. On Friday night, the duo had expanded into a full blown four-piece, all of which helped to flesh out the songs and provide a more exciting sound. Ay Ducane turned out to be the ideal opener, just as expected by Hedley Jones, the man who booked them. Once you’ve witnessed a Rodney Branigan performance, you are left wondering where he gets all his energy from. With the usual complement of tricks, usually incorporating two guitars, a rolled up trouser leg and some juggling skills; it’s important not to overlook the great songs. Friday night’s high energy performance delighted the audience in Building 21, more than adequately preparing them from an equally energetic performance by the concert headliners. Rounding off the opening night of the festival was Sheffield-based Boy on a Dolphin, fronted by John Reilly, who dominated the stage with some of the now familiar songs that have earned the band almost cult status, garnering a huge following in this region in particular. With a set largely based upon Reilly’s own songs, one or two choice covers were thrown into the mix especially to get the audience on their feet, The Who’s “Squeezebox” for instance. On Saturday morning the husband and wife partnership of Gerry and Ani McNeice were both busy preparing their respective stages for a full programme of events, featuring music and dance acts from far and wide. Whilst Ani took care of the open mic marquee, which would soon be showcasing some of our familiar local singers and musicians, Gerry McNeice was twiddling with knobs next to the much larger ‘outdoor stage’ in front of the imposing chimney stack of Elsecar’s complex of former industrial buildings. The Barnsley Music Service Folk Ensemble was first up on stage, with several youngsters already demonstrating their potential as future folk music stars. Qdos Creates provided the first dance act of the festival, with three young break dancers under the guise of Street Kings, with a brief but impressive performance, before Chris McShane and John Fuller returned to the stage and who managed to start an impromptu ceilidh in front of the stage. Wakefield singer-songwriter Fran Smith brought some of her own distinctive songs to the concert, either singing unaccompanied or seated at the piano. Starting with the traditional “Recruited Collier”, Fran performed a confident set, made up of her own songs with one or two well-chosen covers, including Ron Sexmith’s enduring “Secret Heart”. Having been delayed slightly, The Belles of London City arrived to bring something refreshingly different to the festival; corseted female Morris dancing. The familiar red and white corsets, one of which was recently seen on the cover of Bellowhead’s current album Hedonism, brought something rarely seen in this predominantly male dominated art form, glamour. Their performance drew a healthy crowd, including a couple of toddlers who were given white hankies in order to join in the fun. I was half hoping they would give me a couple of hankies too, but alas. The Frumptarn Guggenband up until recently have been renowned for their vivid red Beefeater tunics, usually delighting festival crowds with their exuberant performance of instantly recognisable pop and rock tunes that can be heard from a couple of miles away. With a recent change of costume, even this MC found himself numbered amongst those few individuals who mistook the ensemble’s new image for the coats of a certain breed of Croation dog; 101 to have famously populated one of Disney’s most enduring animated features. Wrong. I was corrected on numerous occasions throughout the afternoon. “They’re cows” came the cries from the audience. Upon closer inspection it did indeed appear that the black splodges actually resemble those of a Friesian cow. I did however notice during Saturday afternoon, that a passing Dalmatian was showing keen interest in the band. Obviously he had his suspicions too! Whilst the Silver Darlings performed their set on the outdoor stage, I managed to slip away for some steam action. During both Saturday and Sunday afternoon, a steam train left the Rockingham Station adjacent to the Elsecar Festival site for a brief excursion down the track and back, with each journey augmented by a performance from the local folk outfit Treebeard. With some well-chosen folk songs and pop covers, the four-piece band of minstrels entertained passengers with their versions of well-known songs including the almost prophetic “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (it did on Sunday) and David Bowie’s “Heroes”. The line was originally built to serve Earl Fitzwilliam’s collieries and ironworks, so I suppose it was a little like Black Diamond Dogs then? I don’t know if it was just by sheer chance or deliberate, but the songs finished bang on cue as the train stopped at both ends of the journey, each excursion encouraging lots of waving from folks out walking the dog along the footpaths beside the rolling stock. With Gerry McNeice performing a gentle set of self-penned songs and the odd cover, Richard Thompson’s brilliant “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” for instance, together with one final burst from the Guggenband, the afternoon soon turned into evening just in time for the second main concert of the weekend. The concert opened with a performance from the exciting traditional five-piece band The Outside Track, featuring musicians from as far and wide as Cape Breton, Vancouver, the Scottish Highlands and Ireland. With the combined talents of Norah Rendell, Mairi Rankin, Ailie Robertson, Fiona Black and Cillian O’Dalaigh, the band played material from their current album Curious Things Given Wings, setting the standard for the remainder of the evening, with songs such as the traditional “Flash Company” and the band’s arrangement of their own Panic! It soon became apparent that one class act was just following another during the course of the evening and we had to look no further than the delightful Kathryn Roberts and husband Sean Lakeman for evidence of that. Performing a set of beautiful traditional and contemporary songs, such as “Granite Mill”, “Huldra” and especially the utterly gorgeous “Ballad of Andy Jacobs”, Kathryn and Sean soon brought the Elsecar audience to a hushed silence for their outstanding set. Headlining Saturday night was Mercury Prize nominated Turin Brakes whose set was just as well received by their fans who had come along specifically for their performance as well as the general festival goers sticking around for the duration. With intuitive harmonies and highly melodic songs, the band pulled out much of the material that has been good to them over the last ten years, with ongs from their debut The Optimist LP though to their most recent Outbursts album, providing the Madfest with one of the highlights of the weekend. One couple were celebrating their fifth wedding anniverary and had asked for a specific Turin Brakes song to be played, as it had been played on their wedding day, to which the band gladly responded. On Sunday it decided to rain on our parade, heralding in autumn as if right on cue. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop the Monkey Ukulele Ensemble from taking no less than nineteen ukes from their little cases along with a double bass (one extreme to another), in order to kick things off on the main outdoor stage. Several dance teams had also gathered in front of the stage to display not only their dancing talents, but also to demonstrate some of that now familiar British spirit. It was my job to entice people out of the nearby tea rooms in order to watch or listen, until it was fit to return outdoors. With their familiar red and white hooped tights, the Sheffield-based women’s dance team Lizzie Dripping were the first dancers to demonstrate that rain really doesn’t hurt you. The rain was probably at its heaviest during Halifax-based Folk on Fire’s performance, the first of two fiddle/guitar duos to appear on the outdoor stage on Sunday afternoon. A bit of quick thinking from the festival team soon made three gazebo-type marquees appear in front of the stage in order for the audience to keep relatively dry during the rest of the afternoon’s concert. The weather had somewhat brightened up in time for the first of The Duncan McFarlane Band’s two sets during the afternoon. The band featuring Anne Brivonese on fiddle, Nick Pepper on drums, Tony Rogerson on bass, Geoff Taylor on guitar and Steve Fairholme on melodeon, who between them brought a good measure of fun to the afternoon, with a tight set of songs, ideal for showcasing the ‘motorbike dance’, courtesy of festival marshals Helen and Alice by the Brambles Tearoom. Whilst other events took place around the festival site including the Chol Theatre’s Extraordinary Pod, which almost devoured this MC, being rescued just in the nick of time by Kevin Dempsey, whilst Pete Shaw’s open mic concert took place simultaneously throughout the afternoon, together with several stalls and additional events in and around the Heritage Centre. As the sun eventually broke through the clouds during late Sunday afternoon, the festival saw more dancing, this time in the form of Chesterfield’s Feet First, the longest running UK Appalachian dance team, who brought a very special taste of choreographed clog dancing to proceedings. Accompanied by their own band of guitar and twin fiddles, Feet First demonstrated some fast steps, high kicks and thoroughly enjoyable dance routines. One of the final Sunday night concert acts arrived early and took advantage of a free slot that had come available during the afternoon concert. Kevin Dempsey and Joe Broughton brought a smile to some of those visiting the festival during the afternoon and provided those who had tickets for the evening concert with a taster of what was to come later. Returning to the stage in the evening, this time in Building 21 for the final concert of the Madfest, Kevin and Joe delighted the audience with their astonishing dexterity on both fiddle and guitar, with each of the musicians bringing a wealth of experience from a collective CV that includes working with The Albion Band and Whippersnapper to The Urban Folk Quartet and Percy Sledge. If musical dexterity was explored in full during their set, it was song writing we turned to next with an appearance by song writing team Amy Wadge and Pete Riley, who’s new collaborative album Rivers Apart, was launched earlier this year. Headlining the Sunday evening concert and providing a fitting finale to this year’s Madfest was the incomparable Barbara Dickson whose easy going stage presence and occasional banter with the audience proved to be a success with everyone concerned. Performing some of her best known material such as “Caravans” and “Answer Me”, alongside well-chosen covers such as The Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone” and Boudleaux Bryant’s enduring “Love Hurts”, Barbara also revealed some of the traditional songs and ballads that the singer has recently returned to, such as “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “My Donald”. With this MCs duties over immediately after introducing Barbara Dickson onto the stage, all that was left for me to do was to sit back and enjoy the finale and reflect here on what turned out to be a most enjoyable little festival.