The Great British Folk Festival

Live Review | Butlins, Skegness | Review by Allan and Liam Wilkinson


On Sunday night, midway through his Centre Stage set, Martyn Joseph jumped off stage and wandered Elvis-like through the crowd, singing without the aid of a microphone, safety net or risk assessment possibly, in order to be united with the Skegness audience who had come along to see him play.  It was probably the defining moment of the festival; a sort of ‘wouldn’t want to be anywhere else’ moment, a moment that was shared amongst the 2000-plus audience.  The festival by this time was preparing for the final home run, the climactic finale to another successful three days of folk music or at least folk roots music at the second annual Great British Folk Festival.  Despite it being a bit cold, it normally is on the east coast of Lincolnshire in December, the weather was much kinder than it was during the inaugural folk festival last December, which was plagued by a veritable tempest of blizzards and snowfall, which resulted in at least one or two of the headliners abandoning any hope of getting through, not to mention some of the audience as well.  This year however, the sold-out festival saw thousands of visitors arrive unhindered by such problems, bringing with them for the most part, an air of seasonal cheer.  Of course there were one or two grumblers, but that comes with the territory I’m afraid.  Who could forget the lone voice interrupting Dave Pegg mid-sentence on Saturday afternoon with the bizarre request to ‘do something about the buzzing’.  I heard no buzzing.  Maybe the owner of the voice mistook the alleged ‘buzzing’ for the almost inaudible whirring of the heating system that was busy keeping us all warm and snug?  For one of the cheapest and most comfortable festivals in the country today, this reviewer found it difficult to complain about anything really.  Friday evening saw the first series of concerts get underway with an energetic set by 3 Daft Monkeys, who opened proceedings on the Centre Stage with a simultaneous performance by Scottish songstress Emily Smith and her band on the Reds Stage right next door.  The geography of the Butlins resort is easy to navigate; two main stages located adjacent to one another, one under the central Skyline Pavilion and the other just a few metres away, providing easy access to both stages.  The two main stages could quite easily have been referred to as the ‘upstairs stage’ and the ‘downstairs stage’, but the festival kept to the Butlins standard with the clearly marked ‘Reds Stage’ and ‘Centre Stage’ to avoid any confusion.  There was also Jaks Nightclub offering open mic sessions during both Saturday and Sunday afternoons.  And if that wasn’t enough, there was also one or two impromtu sessions taking place in the Sun and Moon pub.  Plenty then to keep us going for the weekend. With both 3 Daft Monkeys and Emily Smith opening the festival on each of these respective main stages, you sensed that the festival had excelled in their programming, each of these acts providing a good well-balanced choice for everyone.  Lots of energy on one stage and something sublime on the other.  The great thing about this festival is that should you have a taste for both, as this reviewer certainly has, then you could hop between the two and see a bit of both; “Traiveller’s Joy” on one hand and a bit of “Paranoid Big Brother” on the other.  That’s unless you had staked your claim on a chair and dared not budge from it.  While Chumbawamba brought a mixture of humour, folk song and political satire to the Centre Stage, the legendary Ralph McTell delighted the Reds audience with an engaging hour of self-penned songs such as “The First and Last Man”, “Around the Wild Cape Horn” and the timeless “Streets of London”, together with a moving tribute to the late Bert Jansch followed by the challenging for all budding guitarists instrumental “Anji”, which McTell segued into both “Hit the Road Jack” and “Lullaby of Birdland”.  Rounding off Friday night there was a choice between two Celtic flavoured crowd pleasers, Scotland’s Peatbog Faeries on the Centre Stage and Quill on the Reds Stage.  Whilst the Isle of Skye-based Faeries created their distinct Gaelic fusion, incorporating predominant pipes and fiddle together with contemporary beats, the Midlands-based Quill chose just about every chart song ever to have included a mandolin or fiddle with one familiar hit after another from “Moonlight Shadow” and “Roots” to “Copperhead Road” and “Fisherman’s Blues”.  An indubitable party to close the opening night.  With a well-stacked Guardian pile in the newsagents and a well-stocked belly full of breakfast, Saturday morning came along to greet the blurry-eyed.  If the morning sun alone couldn’t bring on the smiles, then the staff most cetainly could.  Wherever you wander throughout the festival, the Butlins staff are there to please, even the security people who at other festivals are usually less approachable.  Saturday afternoon got underway with an open mic session in Jaks nightclub, beginning with a highly charged performance by Suffolk-based singer/guitarist Robert Brown, who performed a confident set, which included songs from his current mini-album Road Dog, together with the traditional ballad “Lord Franklin”, learned directly from Nic Jones himself.  I personally could have done without the percussionist in the audience who clicked and rattled sporadically throughout the set, but I chose to put up with it with a smile.  It didn’t seem to bother Robert so why grumble?  Over on the Centre Stage, Richard Digance returned to the festival to take his place on the very same stage and at precisely the same time as his last appearance a year ago to the day, bringing his usual wit and banter.  There was an unexpected surprise for those attending the open mic session in Jaks on Saturday afternoon, when Chicago’s JT Nero turned up with Po’ Girl’s Allison Russell, together with Texas guitarist Joe Faulhaber, to perform songs from JT’s new record Mountains/Forests.  Arriving almost unexpectedly after their Liverpool gig was cancelled at very short notice, the trio hot-footed it over to Skeggy, where an opportunity to play had arisen.  The good people running the open mic session managed to slot the trio in for a delightful 45 minute set, which was followed by an unprecedented queue at the concessions table, where copies of the album were dealt out like playing cards to keen and enthusiastic fans.  The festival had a very good line up already but these unexpected treats do seem to pop a cherry on top sometimes.  A sell-out Great British festival means some predictable Great British queuing.  The serpentining queues in the Skyline Pavilion before each of the concerts was a necessary evil in order for sound checks to be conducted but fortunately no one had to wait around too long.  This reviewer found it such a good spectator sport to watch the most eager queuers race for their favourite seats as soon as the doors were opened in the spirit of good holiday camp entertainment.  The cider scrumping Wurzels provided much of the entertainment on the Centre Stage during Saturday afternoon, bringing with them recorded intros and outros as any self-respecting cabaret act would.  The music continued on Saturday night with a choice of Merry Hell on the Reds Stage whilst the legendary Steve Gibbons performed a solo set on the Centre Stage.  Despite it being a solo set, Gibbons played a good few rockers that included “That’s Alright Mama”, preceded by an informative Elvis monologue, “Tryin’ to Get to You” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away”.  The newly re-formed Matthews Southern Comfort, featuring founder member and former Fairport singer Iain Matthews, brought a touch of class to the festival with a superb set of songs new and old, each featuring the quartet’s close harmonies and intuitive musicianship.  The current band, featuring three Dutch musicians BJ Baartmans on guitar, Bart De Win on keyboards and Elly Kellner on acoustic guitar, who also shared lead vocals with Matthews, selected songs from their current album Kind of New as well as re-visiting older songs such as Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, incorporating a new soulful arrangement of the song that brought the band some considerable chart success in 1971.  The final concert for Saturday came in the form of the kwassa kwassa rhythms of Inongo’s very own Kanda Bongo Man, who brought a taste of the Congo to Skeggy.  Sunday’s special afternoon concert on the Centre Stage was almost exclusively given over to Dave Pegg’s Fairport Connections project, which was devised specifically for the Great British Folk Festival.  A capacity audience filled the room as Peggy and guitarist PJ Wright opened the Connections concert with a suitably chosen Richard Thompson song, “Keep Your Distance”.  As cheerful as ever, Peggy not only performed the Fairport classic “Flatback Caper” but also regaled the audience with Fairport anecdotes, such as the time he allegedly hammered a nail in a wall to hang his mandolin upon, which resulted in a hole the size of his head, from where he observed his neighbour Dave Swarbrick performing feats of agility any man would be proud of.  Peggy was joined by Fairport drummer Gerry Conway who as the band’s rhythm section provided support for the handful of guests who followed during the three hour session including some of the songwriters who have either contributed to the band’s repertoire or who have supported the band on tour over the years.  The guests included Anna Ryder, Bob Fox, Anthony John Clark and Steve Tilston.  Anna (or should that be annA?) Ryder (rydeR?) surrounded herself with an array of horns, keyboards and accordion for some of the most quirky yet astonishingly beautiful songs of the session.  A gifted musician, Anna not only plays her instruments well, but also plays more than one at a time.  One forgets that a trumpet and an accordion are in entirely different keys, making the task even more difficult.  Anna stuck around to help Peggy and PJ perform the Red Shoes song “Celtic Moon” written by Carolyn Evans.  Bob Fox is the sort of performer who can have you in fits of laughter one minute and close to tears the next with his own particular brand of storytelling.  Borrowing from Ewan Maccoll both “The Iron Road” and “Champion at Keeping Them Rolling”, Fox is best known for delivering faithful interpretations of songs from his own neck of the woods including “The Waters of Tyne”, which the singer cleverly segues into Jimmy Nail’s powerful Big River and Jez Lowe’s “Greek Lightning”, the only song I know to mention both The Beatles and Demis Roussos in the same verse.  With no rehearsals prior to the afternoon concert, therefore no clear concept to how long these songs would take to perform, time began to run out for the performers even before Steve Tilston took to the stage, therefore, Steve Tilston had to cut his set down by at least a couple of songs due to the over-run.  On form and singing probably better than ever, the singer/guitarist chose one or two songs from his current album The Reckoning including “Weeping Willow” and “Oil and Water”, the song he recently performed on the Jools Holland programme, together with the earlier “The Road When I Was Young”.  The Sunday evening concert on the Centre Stage opened with an atmospheric set by Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle, featuring the jazz fusion stylings of Spencer Cozens on keyboards, Gary Foote on sax and flute and the tight rhythm section of Alan Thomson and Gerry Conway on bass and drums respectively.  Opening with the traditional “She Moved Through the Fair” the band created a new canvas for the older established Pentangle songs to rest including “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and the Miles Davis inspired “I’ve Got a Feeling”.  Whether we like to refer to Martyn Joseph as the Welsh Woody Guthrie or not, one thing’s for certain, the singer-songwriter with a similar mission to Bruce Springsteen, can certainly stage a good performance, which has all the power of a rock band in just the one guitar, just the one voice.  With songs such as “Turn Me Tender” and “On My Way”, Joseph’s set ranked amongst the most memorable performances of the weekend.  Once again, the Butlins Great British brand provided a great alternative folk festival experience and more importantly, without a single tent in sight.    


Back in the dark-ages, before my old man had begun stuffing me into his rucksack and taking me to folk festivals, I had enjoyed a string of summer holidays at several British holiday camps. You know the kind of thing – damp little chalets, amusement arcades, knobbly-knee contests and plenty of good, clean, British fun.  My nostrils still retain the olfactory memory of starched bedsheets and cheap-and-cheerful canteen grub, whilst my head cherishes its memories of many a happy summer in a world that is reported to be crumbling like the cliffs beneath those few remaining camps.  Strange, then, to arrive at Butlins, Skegness this weekend and find that the holiday camp is not only alive and well but is also being completely revitalised by the same company whose intent, so the old slogan insists, ‘is all for your delight’.  And what a delight it is to discover that Billy Butlin’s oldest camp is now home to one of our finest festivals of folk.  The Great British Folk Festival, now in its second year, takes over the entire Skegness camp between Friday and Monday, hosting performances from the likes of Seth Lakeman, Chumbawamba, Matthews Southern Comfort, Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle and Cara Dillon to name just a few.  Each festival concert is held beneath the gigantic Skyline Pavilion at the centre of the camp, where two sizeable stages presumably give up their late-night discos and kids’ club party dances in favour of the best in live folk music.  Both ‘Reds’ and ‘Centre Stage’ are plush, comfortable nightclubs – a welcome sight for those folkies who might be more accustomed to muddy fields and portable toilets. And then there’s the hospitality.  Who could fault the cheerful, friendly nature of the Butlin’s staff and the warm and comfy apartments that have replaced the pebble-dash chalets of yore?  Even before the music begins, you wonder why you ever bothered hammering in a single tent peg.  Whilst Butlin’s is busy showing us how much it has changed, Ralph McTell wanders onto the stage at Reds on Friday evening to demonstrate how some things never change. Just as us campers are making ourselves at home, Ralph takes us on a brief journey through his life story, bundling us all into the back of his exquisite, sincere songwriting and driving us off into the hazy distance.  At the end of a year that has seen the departure of too many of our most cherished singer-songwriters, it’s a  welcome pleasure to stand in the wings as Ralph performs to a bunch of cosy folkies, embracing their glasses of Butlins True Delight.  Over on Centre Stage, Chumbawamba are injecting the catchy melody of “Add Me” into the ears of another roomful of appreciative festival goers.  Mixing their brand of comedy, politics, and traditional folk with oodles of spine-tingling harmonies, Chumbawamba once again manage to craft  a family reunion out of their large audience. Shortly after inviting ‘anyone who fancies it’ to jump on stage and sing a Johnny Cash song, you get the feeling that those thousands of people sitting around you are old friends and, before the first night of the festival is over, you understand the thinking behind the name of this ‘Great British Folk Festival’.  Shortly after a hearty breakfast in the Yacht Club and a nice frothy coffee under the canvas of the pavilion, it’s time to hit Centre Stage for a set from Richard Digance – a familiar face to folk fans and Countdown devotees alike.  Even before he’s reached the mic stand, singer-songwriter and funny-man Digance is already prompting a belly-laugh epidemic with a few digs at the sound-man.  The jibes soon give way to a selection of songs that go from side-splitting to tear-jerking at the turn of a chord.  “I’ve Won the Lottery” is a singalong celebration of getting your own back on your boss, Jobs addresses the baffling concept of Peter Andre and Katie Price whilst his memorial song to the Christmas truce of 1914 provides the festival with one of its most beautiful and memorable anthems.  A little later, Centre Stage is overwhelmed by the distinct aroma of fermented apples when The Wurzels dish up an outrageously funny yet slick and impressive set.  A couple of decades have passed since these West Country superstars last topped the charts and, whilst it might be easy these days to dismiss the band as mere novelty, their performance in Skeggy this weekend proves otherwise.  Like a good swig from a scrumpy jug, each song insists that the entire room dances and sings along as if their prize bullock depended upon it.  One might be inclined to blame the cider, but the programme does indeed state that Matthews Southern Comfort, Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle and various artists connected with Fairport Convention are to perform sometime over the next twenty-four hours.   And what a treat it is to see such folk legends as Ian Matthews and Jacqui McShee take to the stage on Saturday and Sunday night whilst Bob Fox, Steve Tilston, Anthony John Clarke, Anna Ryder and PJ Wright perform as part of a Fairport-themed showcase on Sunday afternoon, each performing a selection of songs from their personal repertoire before being joined by Dave Pegg and Gerry Conway to demonstrate their particular Fairport connection.  Matthews’s Saturday evening set is a mesmerising affair comprising new and old songs from a man whose voice and vitality are very much untouched by the decades that have passed since he joined Fairport in 1967.  Similarly, Jacqui McShee sounds cooler and more relevant than anything the X Factor might be churning out on the telly this weekend.  As the Sunday evening concert draws to an end, I’m reminded of the final nights of all those happy home-grown childhood holidays.  The red coats might not be waving goodbye to us tonight, but as the Dylan Project strum their final chord and The Magic Tombolinos attempt to replace the roof they just blew off, this happy camper can’t help feeling that he doesn’t really want to leave.