Archive: Live 2014

The Dovetail Trio | Live Review | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.01.14

The summer house at the bottom of the Jones family garden, known variously as the ‘Wheelhouse’ and sometimes the ‘Cabin’ but more often than not simply as ‘Hedley’s Shed’, tonight became the chosen venue for the first live appearance by the brand new English folk ensemble The Dovetail Trio.  Formed in the summer of 2013 the trio, made up of Wiltshire-born singer Rosie Hood, Brighton-based multi-instrumentalist Matt Quinn and Barnsley’s own Jamie Roberts on guitar, have spent the last few months rehearsing a repertoire of mainly traditional English material, whilst simultaneously ‘dove-tailing’ their slick arrangements and developing their own distinctive sound.  The choice of venue for such an occasion was just right in this case.  One of the region’s best kept secrets, The Wheelhouse in Wombwell (near Barnsley) has provided an intimate stage for many guests over the years, including notable singers and musicians from the UK (Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, Rory McLeod, Jez Lowe), Australia (Chloe Hall, Emily Barker), South Africa (Laurie Levine), Europe (Claude Bourbon, Flossie Malavialle) and countless visitors from the United States and Canada including Devon Sproule, Madison Violet, Anna Coogan and The Good Lovelies to name but a few.  More often than not, each of these visiting musicians are made welcome not only from the hospitality of their hosts, Hedley and Lynn Jones, together with their family dog Rory, but also by the fact that Hedley always tries to fly his guests’ national flag above the shed, providing a more personal gesture of welcome.  The size of the band has never really presented Hedley with a problem.  From solo artists to duos and trios, the venue has also been known to squeeze into its intimate space full bands including Atlanta’s Larkin Poe, Chicago’s JT and the Clouds and multi-national The Outside Track.  Even the full 6-piece Albion Band, complete with drum kit and double bass, has been known to fill that little stage.  If the full-on folk rock presence of the Albion Band wasn’t enough to rattle the cabin’s walls and raise the roof, then the natural elements have also attempted to leave an indelible mark on the structure with one or two devastating floods over the last few years.  There’s not many English garden sheds that have witnessed such a range of diverse activity in such a short space of time and The Wheelhouse has survived to tell the tale.  Tonight, the atmosphere seemed to be of eager anticipation as the new trio prepared to go onstage in order to make their long-awaited debut.  Surrounded by wooden walls plastered in signed promo posters, the audience soon took their places, leaving no chairs, settees, stools or beer barrels unfilled.  The ‘jungle drums’ once again attracted a full house (usually around 40 people) all of whom gathered for this, the first event of the New Year, featuring headliner Phil Beer, who drove up from Exeter to check out the venue.  His Show of Hands band mate Miranda Sykes would no doubt have mentioned the cosy little venue to Phil, having already sampled the place a couple of years ago when she appeared with her other musical partner, the mandolin wizard Rex Preston.  Although most of the attendees, including folk legend of this parish Dave Burland, had come along specifically to see the Devon-based singer and multi-instrumentalist, The Dovetail Trio’s debut appearance gave the evening some additional excitement and there was a sense of expectation running quite high.  After a warm introduction by The Wheelhouse host Hedley Jones, the trio opened with their own arrangement of “When I Was a Young Maid”, a version of “The Female Drummer”, which proved to be an ideal opener, not only for the trio’s maiden voyage, but also as the first Wheelhouse song of the year.  With the stage deliberately uncluttered by instruments due to the trio’s economical use of instrumentation (just one guitar and duet concertina), their strength was demonstrated through their unified voices, which together served to illustrate the band’s choice of name; it all did indeed fit together like fine carpentry.   The short set also included a version of the old favourite John Barleycorn, featuring a lead vocal by Matt Quinn, a version of “The Bold Grenadier” renamed “The Lady and the Soldier” and an arrangement of “Poison in a Glass of Wine”.  Just as our ears became accustomed to the trio’s ‘sound’, Jamie, Rosie and Matt surprised the audience with their a cappella version of the Dixie Chicks’ caustic “Goodbye Earl”, with some of the most delicious three-part harmonies.  Throughout their set, it soon became apparent that it wasn’t just the music and songs that endeared them to the audience, but also their engaging and playful charm.  It would be difficult not to like them.  And just to ensure the new trio were completely on their toes tonight, fate delivered one or two surprises, not least the power failure during the count-in to their final song, committing the room to complete darkness for a few seconds.  Handling the situation remarkably well, by joking with the audience whilst Hedley fixed the problem, the trio went on to bring their set to its completion with a rousing version of “Two Magicians”.  The remainder of the evening belonged to Phil Beer, who acknowledged The Dovetail Trio during his set, for which the trio received another round of applause.  I feel it’s important to note that the trio stayed around to enjoy the rest of the evening, where others have been known to flee once they’ve done their bit.  In fact, the only noticeable absence during the evening was when they sneaked away with me to do a quick interview.  Suitably impressed, I can only recommend that you see the trio at one of their forthcoming gigs or catch them at one of their festival appearances; it just might be the start of something good. 

State of the Union | Live Review | Roots Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 08.02.14

As the Doncaster Roots Music Club gathers momentum and continues the legacy of the very much established and equally very much missed Friday night Rockingham Arms club, formerly presided over for many years by Rob Shaw (who was present tonight), the standard of the booked guests is also returning to form.   With the likes of Martin Simpson, Billy Mitchell, Henry Priestman and Sean Taylor already forming an orderly queue to play at the venue, the Roots Music Club is beginning to show signs that some pretty good decisions have been made over the last few months and a popular club is beginning to establish itself.  Tonight, the Ukrainian Centre filled up pretty quickly for the debut appearance in the town by State of the Union, the popular duo made up of Cambridge-based singer/songwriter Boo Hewerdine and Georgia-born, now relocated to Cambridge singer/songwriter and guitarist Brooks Williams.  The two musicians arrived at the club separately, both having busy schedules as solo artists, and soon connected in perfect harmony during a quick and problem-free sound check.   Those who were present for that instantly knew they were in for a good night.   The Barnsley singer/guitar player and fine artist Richard Kitson was there to provide support, performing a handful of self-penned songs during which the audience made themselves comfortable for a potentially great night of music, once again introduced by music enthusiast, radio presenter and club organiser Jonti Willis.  Opening with their very own snappy theme tune, a novel idea that Boo Hewerdine has added to State of the Union’s list of concessions items; an offer to write your own theme tune, which the duo would be only too pleased to perform at your nominated workplace.  Yes, Boo was on form with his dry wit from the start, which remained intact throughout the two sets.  Sandwiched between the theme tune and the closing theme, yes there was a closing theme tune too, which you could easily imagine being accompanied by rolling credits at the end, the duo performed a selection of songs from their two album releases, including the catchy “23 Skidoo”, the country-inflected “Haunted” and the title song from their current release “Snake Oil”, all of which were delivered with a distinctly vintage character; you get the feeling that you’ve heard some of these songs on old 78s, yet they’re all new and original.  Midway through the duo’s first set, Brooks temporarily vacated the stage leaving Boo alone to perform a couple of solo songs including a song we’ve definitely heard before, “Patience of Angels”, remembered mostly as a hit record for Eddi Reader, from the pen of Boo Hewerdine.  Boo also retold the story of Bonnie and Clyde with a sensitive performance of “Blaze of Glory”, the song that opens the current State of the Union album.  Reciprocating during the second set, Boo left the stage to allow Brooks some space to perform a couple of his own solo songs in his own distinctive style including “Mercury Blues”, which under any other circumstance would have had the dancers up on their feet.  Brooks also performed the jazz-inflected “Teach Me”, which appears on Brooks’ current EP More New Everything.  After two sets packed with thoroughly engaging songs, even a Pet Shop Boys cover “Rent”, along with plenty of banter, the duo finished with Boo’s “Sweet Honey in the Rock”, sharing verses out between them before returning to the stage for no less than two encores; Brooks’ gorgeously sensitive dance floor closer “Three Little Words” and the duo’s joint composition “Distant Memory”, both sandwiched between their closing theme, which was in all probability the same little shuffle as the one that opened the show.  Without doubt, one of the best Doncaster gigs this reviewer has attended in years.

Petunia and the Vipers | Live Review | Town Hall, Selby | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.02.14

The close up and personal Selby Town Hall provided the ideal setting for tonight’s intimate performance by Canada’s Petunia and the Vipers, who rolled into town like tumbleweed across the Prairie.  The five-piece Vancouver-based outfit led by the charismatic Petunia on acoustic guitar and occasional trumpet kazoo, provided a liberal mix of styles that so often are difficult to explain but quite easy to understand; broadly speaking, these range from western swing and rockabilly to lounge jazz and gothic country, with the occasional bluegrass number thrown in for good measure, but then, there’s so much more besides.  Heavy on the music and light on the chit-chat – there could’ve been no more than twenty words spoken during the entire concert – the band’s highly dramatic arrangements made up for the lack of anecdotes, song introductions or indeed any band/audience banter.  You got the sense that it was all pretty much said in the music itself.  Joined by Stephen Nikleva on electric guitar and mandolin, Jimmy Roy on lap steel, Marc L’Esperance on drums and Patrick Metzger on upright bass, Petunia cast a convincing front-man persona, almost like a rockabilly version of David Byrne, with the inaccessibility of, let’s say, Harry Dean Stanton on a break from shooting a scene in Paris Texas.  If the twangy guitars, slapped bass and heavy on the snare elements signify the tenets of rockabilly, then the frequent use of the kazoo recalls the heyday of the jug band era, especially on such numbers as the Memphis Jug Band’s catchy “Jug Band Music”, for which Petunia, Patrick and Stephen gathered around a single microphone to deliver, much in the way these bands once did in the twenties and thirties.  Throughout the evening the spirit of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams seemed to hover above the balcony as the band’s retro roots music bounced off the walls beckoning the audience up on the dance floor, had there been a dance floor to get up on to that is.  Midway through the first set, a broken string forced Petunia off stage temporarily, the space being filled instantly with a jazz-inflected instrumental by The Vipers, the singer returning to the stage just in time for the next song.  To conclude the first set, the band launched into their most infectious song, the yodel-fuelled “Cricket Song”, which effortlessly held the audience transfixed.  It has to be noted, this is probably not the sort of music a normal Saturday night in Selby is used to.  The second set featured a handful of songs performed around the single microphone Grand Ole Opry-style, which one suspects is the band’s comfort zone, together with probably the set highlight, Petunia’s unique and singular interpretation of the old Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust”, complete with a stunning lap steel solo courtesy of Jimmy Roy, which received the greatest applause of the evening.  It’s probably true that few of us left the Town Hall in Selby this evening with any further knowledge of who exactly Petunia and the Vipers are, but the music they played has definitely left an indelible mark.

Anaïs Mitchell | Live Review | Memorial Hall, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.02.14

I appear to be working my way through the abundance of good Sheffield music venues simultaneously with Anaïs Mitchell, tonight’s Memorial Hall concert being her third show in as many years at different locations and each time organised by the same promoters.  Tonight however, was the first time I’ve seen Anaïs performing solo in Sheffield, her previous visits being with musical collaborators Michael Chorney at The Greystones a couple of years ago and then again with Jefferson Hamer at the Library Theatre last year, performing songs from their critically acclaimed Child Ballads album.  Tonight was the turn of the mighty Memorial Hall within the even mightier Sheffield City Hall building to play host to the enigmatic singer/songwriter.  The Library Theatre concert last year saw a blonde haired singer with a bump.  Tonight, the blonde hair was replaced with a more natural cropped brunette and the bump, now renamed Ramona, was somewhere backstage with her dad.  Appearing with her trusted vintage sunburst Gibson Kalamazoo acoustic guitar, Anaïs was relaxed and at ease with her surroundings from the start, pleased with the fact that there’s always a man on the front row who shouts ‘whaaay’, something that apparently doesn’t happen in the States too often.  Anaïs also took the ‘City Hall’ name quite literally by pointing out that a City Hall in America would not necessarily be equipped with a bar.  No one volunteered to point out that this hall not only has a bar but has seen very little in the way of civic business over the years, but rather taking its rightful place as one of Sheffield’s premiere music venues.  Starting her set with the atmospheric “Cosmic American”, the singer managed to put aside all the excitement of the previous week, namely her appearance at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at the even mightier Royal Albert Hall with Jefferson Hamer, who not only between them performed a song from the Child Ballads collection, but also picked up the award for Best Traditional Song, which Anaïs pointed out has now been taken back to the States to its new home behind the Brooklyn bar where the ‘Ballads’ were first performed.  Tonight was all about putting everything into perspective and to re-visit some of the songs that may have been ignored of late, songs that first brought Anaïs Mitchell to our attention such as “Santa Fe”, “Old Fashioned Hat” and “Shenandoah”, despite the call for “Mockingbird” being put aside, the singer conceding that that particular song has been “slipped into the great beyond, where songs never get played again”.  There was also all the goodies that are almost unimaginable to escape inclusion in Anaïs’s set, “Wilderland/Young Man in America” and “Shepherd” for instance or at least two from her celebrated folk opera Hadestown, “Why We Build the Wall” and the gorgeous “Wedding Song”.  Thankfully, a busy schedule and becoming a mother hasn’t got too much in the way of her song writing and tonight Anaïs performed one of her newest songs “Now You Know”, at the same time encouraging her Sheffield audience to join in the simple wordless refrain.  The opening act for tonight’s concert was Philippe Bronchtein, aka ‘Hip Hatchet’, who joined Anaïs for her final song “Dyin’ Day”, before she finally concluded the show with the award-winning and traditional “Willie O Winsbury”, which provided a fitting conclusion to yet another superb concert by one of America’s most engaging singer/songwriters.

Paul Lamb and Chad Strentz | Live Review | Roots Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 01.03.14

Tonight, the Roots Music Club in Doncaster, in keeping with its policy of bringing an eclectic mixture of music genres to the town, treated its regulars to an evening packed chocker with blues standards courtesy of special guest Paul Lamb, one of the most accomplished British blues harp players, along with fellow King Snake Chad Strentz on guitar/vocals.  The Ukrainian Centre on Beckett Road, a short walk from Doncaster town centre, once again played host to the event, which tonight attracted a small but enthusiastic audience.  Returning to the acoustic folk blues songs of Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and a whole list of other notable bluesmen, the seated duo focused on the more laid back and soulful blues repertoire from of a bygone era.  Choosing material from the likes of Ray Charles “Take These Chains”, Solomon Burke “Cry To Me” and Joe South “Games People Play”, the duo took an almost joyful wander down memory lane, which was received with gratitude from the Doncaster audience judging by the applause.  Sporting a zipped-up black leather jacket and a pair of the brightest red winkle-pickers ever to have trodden the Ukrainian Centre boards, Paul peppered the set with anecdotal memories of his forty-odd year career, which includes working alongside blues giants Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Brownie McGee, as well as Paul’s chief mentor, the legendary Sonny Terry.  Towards the end of the first set, the musician paid tribute to Terry with a free-flowing harp and holler instrumental, accompanied by a walkabout amongst the audience and never missing a beat throughout.  As with all musical virtuosos, you get the distinct feeling that there isn’t a single fibre of the instrument that hasn’t been fully and successfully explored.  After an opening set that also included Roosvelt Sykes’ “Ida May” and Lee Dorsey’s “YaYa”, the duo returned for their second set, which opened with Paul Lamb’s own interpretation of the old Gershwin classic “Summertime”, suitably re-named “Summer Tyne”, in homage to his own particular neck of the woods, together with Rice (Sonny Boy Williamson) Miller’s “Fattening Frogs for Snakes” and a handful of blues standards including “Baby Please Don’t Go”, “Careless Love” and finally “Key to the Highway”, this time with both musicians going walkabout.  Support was provided by the local five-piece band The Nervous Trigger Men, who opened with a handful of R&B Classics including as Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster” and Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain”, both associated with The Rolling Stones, the band’s iconic Sticky Fingers logo emblazoned across singer John McKevitt’s chest, together with one or two not so well known blues numbers such as Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move” and Blind John Reynolds’ “Outside Woman Blues”.  Keeping an eye on the onstage sound meter, which tentatively flickered into the red, the band, which includes Dave Stanton on lead guitar, Dave Walker on bass, Mike Leonard on drums and Jason Stewart on rhythm guitar, finished with a stonking version of Captain Beefheart’s “Sure Nuff and Yes I Do”, completing a fine warm up set for the remainder of the evening to follow.

Moonbeams March Folk Weekend 2014 | Live Review | The Bell, Driffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 09.03.14

Upon arriving at the car park to the rear of the hotel, I soon found myself assisting Steve Tilston with a few hand signals as he squeezed into one of the limited parking spaces left available.  The car park effectively provides an outdoor social space between the two main stages, the first being The Maple Room, which is on the first floor of the main hotel, a dark and intimate room complete with a twinkle stars backdrop on stage.  The second is situated within the Town Hall, a larger space that I assume could be made even larger for bigger occasions with some clever partition juggling.  You get the distinct feeling that the Bell Hotel has been completely given over to the festival as people gather in every nook and cranny around the building, not only in the two main stage rooms but also in the front bar where all the sessions take place and which also boasts one of the most impressive whiskey collections outside of Scotland.  Then there’s the restaurant area, which serves up some specially priced festival grub (and I might add, good grub it is too!) together with the main welcoming area in the foyer, which serves as the festival hub and is where I was welcomed with open arms, literally.  Despite so many areas to cover, I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t going to have to do a great deal of walking over the weekend, everything being so close at hand.  The festival commenced proper relatively early on Friday afternoon with a singers and musicians session in the bar area, which attracted one or two relatively local performers, providing a relaxed welcome to those ready to kick off their shoes and make themselves comfortable for the duration.  The collection of Wold Top beers just happened to be far too irresistible for me to adhere to a ‘on the wagon’ policy and therefore before I knew it, my senses soon became familiar with a delightful little brew going by the name of Wold Gold, courtesy of Drew Black’s recommendation.  Drew and Peter also recommended several malt whiskeys on offer, but I felt compelled to put that particular avenue of pleasure off for at least another couple of hours or so.  Hosted by Leila Cooper, the Friday night Town Hall concert opened with South Yorkshire’s best kept secret Kirsty Bromley who bravely took to the stage armed only with her own confidence and a handful of unaccompanied songs, some traditional, some contemporary and even one of her own songs.  Kirsty couldn’t possibly be short of stories having just recently returned from New Zealand and Australia, where the singer took the opportunity to swap a few Sheffield Carols for some traditional Maori songs.  A good start to the festival by a singer who is just beginning to make her own mark on the folk scene.  Singer/songwriter Steve Tilston was up next for the first of two sets, alternating between guitar and bouzouki/guitar, featuring songs new and old from his prolific back catalogue, including one or two favourites such as “Rocky Road”, “Weeping Willow Replanted” and “The Fisher Lad of Whitby” together with much older material from the early days; “Reaching Out” for instance, a song written way back in 1972.  Finishing with “Sometimes in This Life are Beautiful”, Steve quickley changed stages, hot-footing it over to the Maple Room for his second appearance of the weekend.  Linda Kelly and Hazel Richings, otherwise collectively known as Hissyfit, treated the audience to some fine a cappella singing, centred around Linda’s own songs, written in a highly convincing traditional style.  The Beverley-based duo soon had the audience singing along to their songs, some of which are influenced by their own local area.  Linda and Hazel could also be heard singing in the informal sessions throughout the weekend.  Over in the Maple Room, MC Martin Peirson hosted the other concert, which not only featured Steve Tilston, but also singer/songwriter Andy Stones, who played just the one set of the weekend on Friday night.  A popular local musician, Andy was greeted by his own young fanbase, who between them held up a personalised banner demonstrating the fact that One Direction are not alone out there and that other more discerning singers can be treated to the star treatment.  Performing songs from his latest EP, along with a couple of well-chosen covers, such as Andy’s own interpretation of Lindsay Buckingham’s “Never Going Back Again” and Tom Waits’ “O’l 55”, the singer went down a storm with his fans and the rest of the audience alike.  Playing their second set of the night, Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston, who a little earlier opened proceedings on the Maple Room stage, continued to work their magic on the audience in the Town Hall with a set of songs and tunes utilising a variety of stringed instruments of various sizes from the double bass right up to the ukulele.  With Miranda taking care of the four-strings, whilst Rex doubled up the string count on mandolin and bouzouki, the two shared singing duties on songs such as the traditional “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”, Bill Jones’ “Turn To Me” and Boo Hewerdine’s epic “Me and My Sister the Moon”.  Concluding Friday night’s concert in the Maple Room, The Nick Rooke Band took to the stage treating the audience, most of whom had congregated from other areas of the festival for an entertaining knees-up, to some well-chosen and high-energy foot-tappers, before everyone found either the whiskey bar or their beds.  The concerts continued on Saturday afternoon with an appearance by singer/songwriter Wendy Arrowsmith, whose delicate songs provided just the right tonic for all hangovers, even songs about chocolate.  Wendy brought husband Paul up on stage during her set and between them, soon had the audience joining in with the hand movements as well as the songs.  One of the rising stars of the acoustic music scene is Blackpool-born Dan Wilde, who delivered a fine and assured performance during Saturday afternoon with a handful of self-penned songs, together with one or two non-originals, including John Martyn’s “May You Never” and Justin Townes Earle’s “Momma’s Eyes”.  Not only is Dan a very capable performer of songs, he’s also managed to find a highly engaging rapport with his audience with hilarious stories, such as the preamble to his song “Take Me Home”, which showcases precisely his budding credentials as a folk raconteur, all told in such a dead pan manner.  There are some songs that have always struck a chord with me and York-based singer Carol Henderson began her afternoon set in the Town Hall with two of them, Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and Tom Waits’ equally enchanting “Shiver Me Timbers”.  Finally on Saturday afternoon, the popular Teesside trio The Young’uns, made up of David Eagle, Michael Hughes and Sean Cooney, brought to the festival some of their great vocal arrangements and inimitable banter, ensuring a good time was had by all before everyone toddled off for tea.  Between the afternoon and evening concerts, musicians gathered in the bar for an informal singers and musicians session, which was occasionally visited by one or two of the main guest musicians appearing elsewhere over the weekend.  This not only provided a relaxing environment to recharge the batteries before the next concert, but also served as an ideal opportunity to catch up with old friends.  There’s a great sense of family about the Moonbeams Festival, both in terms of actual family and also in terms of the Moonbeams family, which everyone attending seems to belong to.  Saturday evening saw the arrival of even more people who came along specifically for the festival finale, which included the second performance of the day by festival favourite and Moonbeams family member Edwina Hayes.  In her introduction, Leila pointed out that it’s not really Moonbeams without her long-time pal, who fortunately found a day free in her busy schedule, which has recently been pretty much exclusively supporting Fairport Convention on their current tour, to come and play a few of her songs.  Saturday evening also saw the arrival of Ewan McLennan, making a welcome return to the festival.  Having already played a handful of great songs in The Maple Room earlier in the evening, including “Bob Dylan’s Blues”, “Tramps and Hawkers” and his own song “The Yorkshire Regiment”, the singer continued with more of the same putting in a top-notch mid-evening performance in the Town Hall.  It’s always nice to see a new act (to me at any rate) at a festival and this weekend was the turn of North East-based trio NE3Folk comprising Cathy Geldard on fiddle, Chris Meredith on guitar and Victoria Laurenson on accordion, joining a list of combos carrying the musical gauntlet thrown down by folk super group Lau, including Moore Moss Rutter and Tyde.  It’s a formula that works and NE3Folk carry it off well, utilising all their instrumental dexterity to pull it off, even if some of the Hendrix-like accordion pyrotechnics do come close to what Martin Green has been doing for some time.  The arrangements also occasionally take on that familiar Lau-like tension building, which eventually explodes into something quite breathtaking.  Certainly the darlings of the festival and therefore a perfect band for Moonbeams.  Towards the end of Saturday night as the Nick Rooke Band prepared to return to the stage once again for their final set, effectively closing the concert part of the festival with just the one survivor’s session remaining on Sunday morning, I headed for the A614 southbound, completely relaxed, suitably fulfilled and with another bunch of friends added to my Christmas card list.  Well done Leila and Moonbeams, see you at the next one.

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 20.03.14

For the penultimate appearance in their short UK tour, Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba brought to the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds some of their own distinctive brand of African rhythms.  The venue was suitably filled with discerning music fans eager to sway together in their seats in lieu of a dance floor; it’s difficult to sit and watch this stuff without your body automatically going into a variety of rhythmic spasms.  Brandishing their own distinctive weapons of rhythm, the Ngoni, an ancient West African lute, which would probably (for those uninitiated) be mistaken for something you hit a ball with rather than play, the Kouyate family band, which consists of leader Bassekou, his wife Amy Sacko, his two sons Madou and Moustafa, together with two brothers and a nephew, played for eighty minutes, exploring the capabilities of the ngoni, in all its variants, from the bottom end up, together with some highly energetic percussion work.  Bassekou’s own instrument of choice, the smaller version of the ngoni, pretty much packs the vital punch in the band’s overall sound and probably comes across nothing like the original traditional acoustic instrument, Bassekou adapting his to suit a more modern sound, complete with wah-wah effect.  This is emphasised further when the musician places one foot on the monitor, or for the more savvy amongst us, the ‘wedge’, arches his back, makes circular motions with his head and for all intents and purposes momentarily transforms into the African equivalent of a Rock God.  It’s highly engaging, extraordinarily sexy and at the same time effortlessly cool.  The entire band are cool with each member suitably robed for the occasion, Bassoukou dressed slightly differently from the rest in his own personalised robe, like a modern day African version of the ‘Nudie Suit’, his name and image emblazoned on the back, singling him out as the leader.  The band broke down any lurking language barrier with their expressive music alone, leaving no one in any doubt as to what their music means.  It’s that universal language that needs no interpretation.  French speaking, Bassekou occasionally expressed himself in English, not least when introducing his band or when cajoling the audience to sing.  Having played the instrument since the age of twelve and subsequently having worked alongside some of the most revered names in African music such as Toumani Diabate, Keletigui Diabate and Ali Farka Toure, Bassekou Kouyate has become one of Africa’s leading musicians, not only in the cultural expression of his chosen instrument, but also in the promotion and awareness of the ongoing crisis in his homeland of Mali, particularly through his current album Jama Ko, which translates to ‘big gathering of people’, from which some of tonight’s performance derived.  A generous musician, Bassekou left tonight’s encore in the capable hands of his nephew, whose ‘talking drum’ solo, probably left the audience talking about it all the way home.

Doncaster Spring Showcase | Live Review | Ukrainian Centre, Doncaster | Review by Allabn Wilkinson | 23.03.14

The Ukrainian Centre in Doncaster has steadily become the central hub for all things ‘folk’ in the town, being the new home of the Roots Music Club, formerly the Rockingham Arms Folk Club, which a few years ago received a special folk award, during one of the years when they actually acknowledged folk clubs, but also as the home of the burgeoning Doncaster Folk Festival and all its additional fund-raising add-ons.  These particular shindigs are becoming equally as important these days, attracting not only major league artists but also major league audience numbers.  When I arrived at the venue tonight, just in time to catch the opening act, organiser/compere Mick Jenkinson shared with me one or two reassuring words; “I have a good feeling about tonight Al”, which proved to be quite prophetic, as the concert went on to be quite a hit amongst those present.  The Cambridge-based folk roots quintet The Willows headlined the fund-raiser billed as a Spring Showcase, bringing with them their own brand of rootsy, country-tinged folk balladry, which provided a taster of what we might expect at the festival proper in May, where the band will be headlining the Friday night concert.  Undoubtedly the focal point of the band’s sound is the stunning voice of Jade Ward, but this takes nothing away from the rest of the band, which also features husband Cliff on guitar, banjo and occasional fiddle, his sister Prue Ward on fiddle, Ben Savage on guitar and band newbie Evan Carson, Steve Maclachlan’s replacement on drums and percussion, who is currently working in the Lucy Ward Band.  Offering a varied programme tonight, the Spring Showcase also included a spoken word section, featuring local performance poet Joe Kriss whose observational musings included a short campaign in favour of ‘the beard’, an optimistic look at an alternative to the news and a heartfelt ode to two of Sheffield’s most famous landmarks, the lamented cooling towers of Tinsley.  The last time I saw a vibrant and youthful twenty-something with Eternal Sunshine blue hair on this stage was a couple of years ago when Lucy Ward played her first ever festival headliner spot.  Tonight, Sally Jenkinson proved to be cut from similar cloth with her immediately engaging personality, one minute serious and poetic, the next fantastically scatty and at one point reminding the audience made up of mature folkies where Bristol was.  “It’s just underneath London”, pointed out one of Bristol’s newest residents.  Sally went on to confess that she’s always having to tell people down there where Doncaster is and I had all on stopping myself heckling “it’s just above Manchester”.  Sheffield singer/songwriter Shaun Hutch returned to the Ukrainian Centre once again to perform a few songs, some traditional, some self-penned, equipped with his acoustic guitar.  Songs included “Spencer the Rover”, “Pigeon Park” and “Tom Payne’s Bones”, together with a rather complicated Classical guitar instrumental, which was rewarded with a deadpan and very Yorkshire “not bad” just as the last note faded out before the applause.  It was that kind of no nonsense tell-it-how-it-is crowd at the Ukrainian Centre tonight.  Opening the Spring Showcase tonight was the Yorkshire-based shanty band Monkey’s Fist, who provided just the sort of thing to get the night off to a good start.  Named after a type of sailing knot, the quartet made up of Colin Devey, Steve Flude, Alan Collier and John Horsey, made it their task to cajole the audience into some rousing choruses, even at such an early time of the night.  All in all a very good night of music, poetry and fun and a good taster of what’s to come at the festival in May.

Henry Priestman and the Men of a Certain Age | Live Review | Roots Music Club, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 29.03.14

It seems like almost a lifetime ago since the young Henry Priestman shared major stages with the likes of The Sex Pistols, The Tourists, The Police and many of the other bands that fell under the ‘New Wave’ banner, emerging around the mid to late 1970s.  I have hazy memories of watching Henry’s first successful band Yachts from a piss-soaked field in Reading when we were all a lot younger and probably a lot dafter.  Just around the corner was Henry’s biggest commercial success to date with the Liverpool-based soul band The Christians, which served as a strong and viable vehicle for Henry’s highly melodic and thoughtful songs, some of which were performed tonight at the Roots Music Club in Doncaster.  If we fast forward to 2008, Henry re-emerged after a long absence from singing to launch his debut solo album Chronicles of Modern Life, which was at the time misinterpreted by one high profile radio presenter as ‘music for grumpy old men’, which was a little bit like generalising that Leonard Cohen writes nothing but depressing songs, which is clearly not the case.  Henry Priestman did what a lot of ageing rockers ought to do and that’s to grow old gracefully and address grown up issues rather than pretending to be 16 all over again, singing about girls and cars.  I guess that’s why music lovers of my generation love him so much.  Joined by a couple more ‘Men of a Certain Age’, Martin Pierson on guitar and mandolin and Pete Robinson on bass, Henry clearly intended to enjoy himself tonight as he introduced one great song after another, songs that included “Goodbye Common Sense”, “We Used To Be You” and “It’s Called a Heart” as well as re-visiting such vintage songs as “Ideal World”, “Forgotten Town” and “Born Again” from The Christians back catalogue.  Paying tribute to two important women in his life, his mother and his mother-in-law, both of whom he lost within seven months of each other last year, Henry opened the second set with a heartfelt solo rendition of “At the End of the Day”, the song that also opens his recently released second album The Last Mad Surge of Youth, which features contributions by Katriona Gilmore, Graham Gouldman, Lotte Mullan and Probyn Gregory.  A tender moment in an otherwise fun-filled couple of sets.  The second set continued with other notable Priestman originals such as the gorgeous “Grey’s the New Blonde”, a fine song about grown up love if ever there was one, together with the corporate protestations of “No to the Logo” and a rousing finisher “Don’t You Love Me No More”, before returning for an encore of “The Coolest Dance (Irish Jig)”, for which the band were joined by Calum Sutton on cajon from support band Crash Blossoms.   The Hull-based trio, which also consists of Danny Bradley on guitar and vocals and Andy McMillan on bass, kicked off the night with a handful of non-originals such as Mark Knopfler’s “Romeo and Juliet”, Tom Petty’s “Freefalling”, a nice arrangement of The Boomtown Rats chart topper “I Don’t Like Mondays” and a couple of Dylan covers.  Another night of fine music at the increasingly popular Donny venue.

Barnsley Acoustic Roots Day | Live Review | Horizon College, Barnsley | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 30.03.14

The second annual Barnsley Acoustic Roots Day widened its remit today, stretching its programme further to include two main concerts.  Last year’s event, which then featured just the two acts, Georgia’s Larkin Poe and their friend and musical collaborator Blair Dunlop, was so successful that this time the event included no less than six popular acts on the folk and acoustic music scene.  Choosing a handful of established musicians, including Sheffield’s Melrose Quartet, Doncaster’s Rita Payne, York’s Blackbeard’s Tea Party and Barnsley’s Dave Burland, the programme also included two acts new to a lot of people in this area, Milwaukee’s Peter Mulvey and one of the newest folk combos on the British folk scene, Dovetail Trio.  The Horizon Community College in Barnsley provided the venue for this all-day event, which not only featured the two main concerts in their impressive purpose-built theatre but also dance displays in the bar area and craft stalls in the expansive main foyer.  One of the dance teams, the Horizon Hellbillies, who recently took part in the national Dancing England Rapper Tournament (DERT) in Leeds, opened the afternoon concert in the theatre, having only been asked moments earlier, in order to provide an entertaining start to the concert as the audience took their seats.  Organised in partnership with the College and the Barnsley Acoustic Roots Festival, with Dave Burland, one of the festival’s two patrons in attendance, the fun day was unfortunately in direct competition with Mothering Sunday hence the half-full venue.  You might notice that for the sake of positivity and optimism I chose the ‘half-full’ option rather than the submissive alternative.  The Barnsley Acoustic Roots Fesival organisers have always strived for excellence in their programming over the years, bringing some of the most important names on the acoustic music scene to the town, including Eliza Carthy, Show of Hands, Lau, Martin Simpson, The Demon Barbers, Cara Dillon, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman and Karine Polwart to name but a few, so it will always be a complete mystery why these music events are not selling out immediately.  Maybe this time it was due to Mother’s Day and was therefore unavoidable, but fortunately those who did attend had a very good day indeed, whether they were actually taking part in the foyer, the bar or the main auditorium or just relaxing to some good music and songs.  Doncaster’s Rita Payne opened the concert after the surprise rapper dancers, with a set made up of new songs from their forthcoming second album as well as a couple of familiar ones from their established repertoire.  With dozens (if not hundreds) of gigs under their belt so far, it became immediately apparent that the duo’s stage craft has organically evolved into something quite engaging, with Pete and Rhiannon have no difficulty holding an audience’s attention not only with their songs, but also with their relaxed between song patter.  The musician who probably travelled the furthest today was Milwaukee-based singer/songwriter Peter Mulvey, who delivered a fine set of self-penned songs, some of which were being introduced for the first time to UK audiences.  Opening with “You Don’t Have To Tell Me”, from his brand new Chuck Prophet-produced album Silver Ladder, the songwriter relaxed into an assured set of mature songs augmented by some well-travelled and anecdotal stories.  Headlining the afternoon concerts was Sheffield’s Melrose Quartet, featuring the combined forces of two very well established duos, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan and Jess and Richard Arrowsmith.  With some fine four-part harmonies and great musicianship, the quartet dazzled the audience with their fine four-part harmonies, with every word clearly audible thanks to the expertise of the sound crew at the theatre.  The quartet, who were one of the four bands nominated for the award in the Best Band category at this year’s BBC Folk Awards, delivered an impressive hour of skillfully arrranged traditional songs.  After a break, the evening concert opened with one of the folk scene’s newest outfits, Dovetail Trio featuring Sheffield’s Rosie Hood, Barnsley’s Jamie Roberts and Brighton’s Matt Quinn.  The trio played their own arrangements of both traditional and contemporary material, with some fine musicianship and accompanying harmony singing.  Opening with the traditional “When I Was a Young Maid”, the three slightly nervous musicians soon settled into their set before an appreciative audience.  The name Dave Burland is synonymous with the town of Barnsley and once again the singer returned to his home turf to perform some of the songs he is best known for, such the traditional “Banks of the Sweet Primroses”, his own “The King George Hunt”, Cyril Tawney’s “The Grey Funnel Line” and Richard Thompson’s bleak “The Poor Ditching Boy” together with one or two music hall songs such as “The Twenty Pound Dog”.  Paying a heartfelt tribute to his late mother in celebration of Mother’s Day, Dave sang one of her favourite songs “The Water is Wide” before finishing with the old rock n roll Classic “Don’t Be Cruel”.  For a more than suitable conclusion to what turned out to be a great day of music, the York-based ceilidh band Blackbeard’s Tea Party delivered a highly energetic performance, which would almost certainly had people up on the dance floor, had there been a dance floor to dance on.  A great fun set from six energetic musicians who covered more ground during their set than most and that included the steps, the aisles and the backstage area.  Emerging from the Horizon Community College as darkness hovered over the sleepy town of Barnsley, the foyer now cleared of any trace of a bustling craft stalls that had taken up residence during the afternoon, all ready to return to normal business as usual on Monday morning, the urge to wind down the car window as I made my way home and tell the locals what they had just missed was thankfully resisted, but only just.  Will there be another one next year?  I sincerely hope so, but it will need to be better supported.  I mean, all this for just a tenner?

Mokoomba | Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.04.14

Tonight the National Centre for Early Music in York was awash with the sounds of Zimbabwe as the six-piece band Mokoomba filled the room with their youthful energy and playful exuberance, albeit with a stripped-down version of their usual sound, devoid of keyboards and tantalising brass arrangements as showcased on their current Rising Tide album.  After a brief introduction by NCEM’s Duty Manager Mark Hildred, Mokoomba’s charismatic lead singer Mathias Muzaza entered the venue from the main entrance at the back of the hall, prowling amongst the crowd whilst holding a tribal mask in traditional fashion.  The richly textured a cappella vocals of the five remaining musicians soon resounded around the hall in a call and response style as they made their way to the stage to join their enigmatic leader.  The audience didn’t have to wait too long before the sounds of the Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) region of Zimbabwe infiltrated the surrounding medieval venue from the stone walls and leaded windows all the way up to the rafters.  The music was complemented by the colours of Africa with the presence of the Zimbabwean flag, with its vivid green, yellow, red and black stripes and iconic native soapstone bird draped amongst the traditional African drums on the back riser as well as attached to the headstock of Abundance Mutori’s bass guitar.  As with much of what we now know and recognise to be World Music, language is conveyed much more coherently through music than in words and during the two sets that followed, there was little banter between the songs, allowing the music to speak for itself.  Before the second song was through, people of all ages, young and old, formed a line at the back of the hall and proceeded to dance and sway to the infectious rhythms of Southern Africa.  Hailing from one of Zimbabwe’s smallest rural villages, the band sing in Tonga, a language pretty much unfamiliar even to most of the band’s fellow countrymen let alone this York audience.  Tonight the words of the songs were understood simply through the passion of the performance, not least through the strength of Muzaza’s inimitable rasping vocals.  After the short break, Trustworth Samende and Abundance Mutori opened the second set with an instrumental duet for guitar and bass, before one of the most expressively emotional performances of the evening.  With his hand resting upon his chest, the seated Muzaza delivered a powerful and heartfelt performance, indicating once again that language is neither a barrier nor a hindrance when conveying emotion; tears are tears in any language.  Midway through the second set, the band launched into what appeared to be Mokoomba’s party-piece, where each of the band were invited to join Mathias in the spotlight in order to perform their own particular drumstick dance.  Each stepped forward brandishing their sticks in tribal manner before Mathias opened the invitation up to the rest of the audience, one or two of whom took up the offer, even a teenage break dancer who twirled around on his back as six African musicians looked on in delight.  Returning to the stage for the one encore, the band concluded with a percussion only performance, with each of the six musicians grabbing the nearest drum, rattle or stick, for a show-stopping finale, featuring the band’s leader on djembe, once again in call and response mode, only this time with beats rather than words.  Joining Mathias, Trustworth and Abundance were percussionists Donald Moyo, Ndaba Coster Moyo and Miti Mugande, each contributing in no small part to the band’s highly individual Zimbabwean heartbeat.  A memorable evening of inspirational music and song from one of the most important bands in African music.

Kelley McRae | Live Review | The Greystones, Sheffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.04.14

One of the most fulfilling and enjoyable aspects of regularly going out to see live music is when you get the occasional opportunity to see someone for the very first time.  This is probably even better when you only become aware of that particular artist a few days before the actual gig. In the case of tonights, there wasn’t much time to fully absorb Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Kelley McRae’s music prior to the show, so much of tonight’s set was completely new to me.  I arrived at the Greystones early enough to enjoy my usual Americano at the bar, whilst Hank Williams warbled “Your Cheatin’ Heart” over the pub’s sound system.  That’s the great thing about music venues like The Greystones, all the staff are clued up musically and they always pop the good stuff on the player.  David J Roch, one of tonight’s two support artists, was doing a sound check in the next room, conveniently referred to as The Backroom, which I heard from the street whilst parking the car.  A good powerful voice that man has. Organised by those good Wagon Wheel people, who regularly put on Country, Alt Country and Americana artists at this pub as well as elsewhere in the city, the concert not only featured Kelley McRae and David J Roch, but also Barnsley singer/songwriter and guitarist Richard Kitson.  For their very first appearance in this part of the country, Kelley McRae and husband Matt Castelein seemed quite relaxed as they opened their set with a song called Alone, one of the songs from Kelley’s most recent album Brighter Than The Blues.  Originally from Mississippi, Kelley met Matt in Brooklyn and embarked on an extensive three year period travelling, the two musicians crossing continents in their little VW camper van, where many of these songs were allowed to grow and develop.  With just two guitars and a couple of empathetic voices, Matt kind of playing David Rawlings to Kelley’s Gillian Welch, the couple performed tonight for a little over an hour, their set mainly made up of self-penned songs such as “Other People’s Love Songs”, “Stay Close To Me” and “Fair Weather”, with the odd cover thrown in, such as Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” and John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery”.  With the beautiful opening line ‘I heard that Johnny Cash died of a broken heart’, Kelly sang one of her most heartfelt songs “Johnny Cash”, written a couple of weeks after Cash’s death.  Older songs such “Rare Bird” got an airing as did a brand new song, “A Long Time”, but as I said before, they’re all new to me.  Even competing with the quiz being run in the bar next door, Kelley and Matt managed to play a gentle set with some great songs and some great playing, keeping the audience engaged throughout.  Before the main headliner set, David J Roch took to the stage to perform a couple of solo songs before inviting his band up on stage to fatten out some of his unique and highly emotive songs.  Before David’s set, Barnsley singer/songwriter and guitarist Richard Kitson kicked off the night with a handful of self-penned songs, some of which are destined for Richard’s new album Hermit Hill, due for release in October.

Doncaster Folk  Festival 2014 | Live Review | The Ukrainian Centre, Doncaster | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.05.14

The Doncaster Folk Festival certainly seems to be going from strength to strength at the moment, once again this Bank Holiday weekend attracting visitors from outside the area as well as a strong local following, not least the handful of folk music enthusiasts who endeavour to keep folk music alive and well in the town and have been doing so for more years than I or they probably care to mention.  Although Doncaster has sporadically hosted folk music festivals in one shape or another for quite some time, the festival in its current format is relatively new.  This year, the organisers once again put an impressive programme together, featuring four main concerts, three at the Ukrainian Centre on Beckett Road, the usual home of the festival concerts, as well as one concert at the new Cast Theatre.  There was also a Ceilidh at the Doncaster Communication Specialist College (Deaf College) as well as singers and musicians sessions around the town and dance displays in the town centre organised by Paul and Liz Davenport, no strangers to the local folk dance scene.  The Friday night concert got underway with the singer/songwriter team of Reg Meuross and Jess Vincent who returned to the town, cheerfully opening the festival with a selection of songs new and not so new, whilst taking the bold step of starting their set with a brand new song “River, Rail and Road”, which was barely a couple of days old and therefore making its debut appearance anywhere.  Reg and Jess accompanied themselves not only with the usual guitars but also with dulcimer and shruti box, or alternatively banjo and ukulele, their set culminating with another new song destined to be chosen as the title song of Reg’s forthcoming album England Green and England Grey.  Following Reg and Jess and making his first appearance of the weekend was Gavin Davenport, who was suitably equipped with guitar, bouzouki and concertina, who went on to perform a selection of traditional or re-workings of traditional songs including “False Knight”, “Jim Jones in Botany Bay” and “Farewell to Yorkshire”.  Gavin’s solo set on Friday was a prelude to his Saturday night set with a full band.  For over thirty years Manchester-born, now Texas-based singer/songwriter Clive Gregson has treated audiences around the world to his prolific catalogue of beautifully crafted songs, the sort of songs that seem to quite effortlessly get your feet tapping (“I Love This Town”, “Trouble With Love”) or alternatively get your eyes moist (“We’re Not Over Yet”, “Touch and Go”) and by midway through Friday night, Clive had achieved both.  Undisputedly a class act, Clive’s fifty-minute set was over all too soon, leaving the audience wanting more.  Finally on Friday night, the Cambridge-based quintet The Willows returned to Doncaster to deliver another multi-influenced set that falls somewhere between Bluegrass, Americana and full blown English Folk Rock.  The band treated the audience to an hour of songs ranging from the familiar “Roseville Fair” to their own highly engaging “Bella’s Fury”.  On Saturday morning the Day of Dance got off to a damp but cheerful start along Priory Walk, where a couple of dance sides braved the elements to bring some traditional dance to the festival once again.  It may have rained but it didn’t prevent Doncaster’s passing shoppers from stopping by for a minute or two in order to enjoy the fun with Doncaster’s own Green Oak Morris and the Maltby Phoenix Sword Dancers.  More dance teams arrived a little later as Paul and Liz Davenport led the dancers into the precinct during the drizzly spells and back into the coffee bars when the Heaven’s opened.  It has to be said, the weather didn’t stop the smiles though.  Saturday afternoon’s concert at the Ukrainian Centre was pretty much curated by two of the rising stars of the local folk and acoustic music community Rita Payne, whose influence was felt during the afternoon.  Having recently won the Doncaster Songwriter’s Competition, which the festival organised in partnership with Sine FM, Jade-Lee Saxelby opened the concert with a short set of songs before Huddersfield-based Sci-Fi Folk quartet Maia took to the stage.  Performing a beguiling set of original and unique songs with intriguing titles such as “Living in the Alligator”, “More Strangely than the Moon” and “Small High Whistle from a Bird”, the band performed their complex arrangements, not only for guitar, banjo and percussion, but also for trumpet, keyboards and ukulele with the occasional appearance of a frying pan!  Each sporting Paisley patterned shirts, the band resembled an Anglicised version of the Beach Boys, albeit miles away from the nearest coastline or indeed the sun.  Strange, quirky but utterly watchable, Maia certainly made an impression midway through the afternoon concert.  For someone with such a small physical stature, the Manchester-based Little Rach is possessed of a big personality and an even bigger voice.  Starting her Saturday afternoon set with a re-vamped version of “You’re the One That I Want”, the young singer/songwriter went on to engage the audience with a handful of well-crafted self-penned songs.  Completing the afternoon concert, Rhiannon Scutt and Pete Sowerby of Rita Payne chose to leave the stage after a couple of songs in order to perform the remainder of their set right there amongst the audience with the house lights up, creating an intimate acoustic setting for their songs, some of which are now firmly established together with one or two brand new ones from their forthcoming and much anticipated second album, including the infectious sing-along “Me and You”.  On Saturday evening, BBC Radio 2 Folk Award nominees Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker brought some of their special magic to Doncaster for the first time.  Opening with a Sandy Denny song, “Like an Old Fashioned Waltz”, the duo performed a relaxed set of traditional, contemporary and self-penned songs, showcasing Ben’s virtuoso guitar playing and Josienne’s almost otherworldly voice.  You could have heard a pin drop during the duo’s extraordinarily beautiful versions of the traditional “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose”, Sandy Denny’s “Fotheringay” and Josienne’s own break-up song “Done” which concluded their set.  Already twice nominated at the Folk Awards, the duo are set to make a name for themselves this year with a new album due for release in October.  Gavin Davenport returned to the stage on Saturday night, this time with his full band featuring Tom Kitching on fiddle, Saul Rose on melodeon and Tom Wright on upright bass.  The full band gave Gavin the opportunity to stretch-out sonically, performing some of the songs on his current album The Bone Orchard.  Concluding Saturday night’s concert, the prickly Chris Wood made his Doncaster debut with a superb set of songs ranging from the traditional “John Ball”, his own version of William Blake’s “Jerusalem” to a handful of his own highly original songs such as “None the Wiser” and “My Darling’s Downsized” as well as the much requested ‘atheist spiritual’ “Come Down Jehovah”.  The singarounds continued into Sunday with the now traditional ‘survivor’s session’ with the final concert on Sunday night at the new Cast Theatre featuring Jim Moray.  The singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist played two sets, the first being completely solo, accompanying himself on guitar and piano, whilst the second set featured his full band featuring Nick Cook on melodion, Dave Burbridge on drums and Barn Stradling on bass.  Working in partnership with the theatre, the Ukrainian Centre, the Doncaster Communication Specialist College and various other locations and venues in the town, the Doncaster Folk Festival looks set to continue to grow and develop and maintain a healthy presence on the national folk music calendar for some years to come.

Tinariwen | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.05.14

The rush hour traffic was particularly kind as I negotiated Leeds City Centre this evening and so too was the fine weather, which managed to stick around after a bright and sunny May Day Bank Holiday weekend.  Tonight, the Howard Assembly Room once again filled to bursting point with discerning music fans, each of whom had come along to hear some highly distinctive and vibrant Sahara Desert blues from Northern Mali, courtesy of Tinariwen, a band that has been around in one form or another for at least thirty-five years.  As the pulsating rhythm of an African chant played through the sound system, the band, dressed in full Tuareg costume, walked calmly onto the stage through floor-hugging mist (from a smoke machine).  Peering at the audience through the opening in their respective tagelmust head dresses, the musicians proceeded to pick up their instruments and began to play their highly distinctive, almost trance-like songs.  The band’s guitar-driven assouf repertoire soon had the audience spellbound during their single eighty-minute set, with little (if any) spoken dialogue save for the occasional “It’s okay?” from guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni, which at one point received the single word response “wonderful” from a lone female voice in the crowd.  The sea of swaying shoulders indicated that the audience very much enjoyed what they were hearing.  With the band’s original name Azawad taped to Eyadou Ag Leche’s bass guitar, the band’s turbulent history was clearly in the minds of the musicians as they performed their music, occasionally swapping around instruments between themselves.  The band stayed pretty much intact, vacating the stage just the once in order to allow guitarist Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni to perform the one solo acoustic song of the night, which stilled the audience momentarily, before the band returned to the stage for their brisk finisher.  With no encore, the band left the stage to rapturous applause, greeting and shaking hands with some of the people hanging around the dressing room door.  Once again it was the language of music that formed the communication between the people of two continents, on this fine and warm Spring evening in Leeds.

Wath Festival 2014 – An MC’s Perspective | Live Review | Montgomery Hall, Wath upon Dearne | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 11.05.14

Wath Festival is nothing short of a relaxing holiday for me, despite being asked every year to stand up on the main stage and introduce all the acts; what easier task could there be, especially if you’re fond of all the singers and musicians up there and have a splendid back-up team milling about here and there?  Being the voice up there on stage on behalf of a hard working committee is a labour of love for me but one I take seriously.  This year especially, I found a smooth running operation, where I was able to arrive at the festival in the morning confident that stage manager Leila Cooper would have all the artists feeling comfortably at home, whilst the organising team and stewards would be there out front greeting the audience with warm smiles.  All I had to do was be there ready to be handed a radio microphone at the appropriate time and then pop up there on stage to introduce someone I quite like.  Simples, as they say.  Voted the best ‘Village Festival’ in 2013 by Fatea Magazine, the Wath Festival celebrated its 42nd year over the Bank Holiday weekend, once again bringing together the community in a celebration of music and dance together with street theatre, arts, crafts and photography and of course the 200 year-old tradition of throwing bread from the church roof on Saturday noon.  Having a well-established pedigree, the festival this year stretched to almost a week, starting with a photography exhibition by the Dearne Valley Camera Club, a dance showcase at Montgomery Hall the Saturday before and drum, pan pipe and ukulele workshops during the week leading up to the weekend.  The focus of the festival came on Saturday morning, when the community gathered in the town square for various dance showcases, featuring Wath Morris and visiting dance sides, rapper dance, a samba band, school dance teams, street theatre and even this year for the first time children dancing around the maypole.  The traditional ritual of reading out Thomas Tukes’ Will followed by a procession up to the Parish Church, whereupon dozens of bread loaves were hurled to the masses from the church roof, brought back memories of previous festivals over the years.  Having stood in that churchyard many times before, with camera in hand, I knew instinctively to keep my eye on the bread buns or otherwise have one land squarely on my forehead.  It has happened, much to the amusement of onlookers.  Meanwhile Montgomery Hall played host to several concerts throughout the weekend, which was where my particular focus lay.  The opening concert on Friday night featured British Columbia’s The Sweet Lowdown who, concluding their current British tour brought a taste of Bluegrass and Old time music to the festival. Gathered around a single microphone in Grand Ole Opry fashion, the trio featuring Amanda Blied on guitar, Shanti Bremer on banjo and Miriam Sonstenes on fiddle, delighted the audience with a set of songs and tunes from a bygone era.  Lau’s Kris Drever followed with his first solo appearance in four years by his reckoning, with a relaxed set of both traditional and contemporary songs, whilst headliner’s Ashley Hutchings’ Morris On Band provided a superb set of Morris dance tunes, peppered with humorous doggerel, eccentric dance routines including the Clay Pipe Dance courtesy of Simon Care, the Sweeping Brush Dance courtesy of Guy Fletcher and some Morris dancing by Five Rivers Morris, along with some songs including one by guest singer Judy Dunlop.  One of the relatively new features of the festival is the annual Young Performers Award, which was once again presided over by Charlie Barker.  This year the competition was held on the main stage on Saturday afternoon for the first time.  This gave me a break from my duties, which enabled me to join the audience and thoroughly enjoy the competition.  The shortlisted contestants included singer/melodeon player Ollie King, singer/songwriter Dylan Brierley and singer/fiddle player Hannah Cumming, all of whom performed three songs before the festival audience as well as the three chosen judges.  Judging this year’s competition was the former Chairman of the festival David Roche, one of the current organisers Danny Stockdale and special guest Flossie Malavialle, who after some deliberation chose Somerset-born Hannah Cumming as this year’s winner.  Hannah followed in the footsteps of previous winners Luke Hirst and Sarah Smout (2011), Sunjay Brayne (2012) and Rose Redd (2013). The concert also featured a set by last year’s winner with her trio, followed by a closing set by Flossie Malavialle.  The only downside to being in Montgomery Hall on a fine spring day is that you might be missing out on the sunshine outside.  Good fortune was on the side of the Wath Festival this year as in many of the previous years, as the sun did indeed come out to play and simultaneously put a smile on the faces of everyone on the village green.  As the beer flowed, music and dance continued throughout the afternoon with several bands and artists performing on the outdoor marquee stage, including Sheffield’s The Broken Saints, whilst children’s events and activities took place on the village green.  Saturday night’s concert at the Montgomery Hall featured a show-stopping performance by The Demon Barbers XL, which included various dance styles from traditional clog, rapper sword and energetic street and hip hop dancing, with the core Demon Barbers band on top form.  Earlier, Rhyl’s Goat Roper Rodeo Band brought some of their very distinctive ‘cosmic country’ flavourings to the festival with a highly energetic opening set, followed by Teesside’s husband/wife team Megson, who performed some of the new songs from Stu and Debbie Hannah’s brand new album In a Box due for imminent release.  With little rest for the wicked, largely due to some very late night hotel nightcaps, the concerts continued on into Sunday afternoon, opening with a relaxed performance of unaccompanied songs courtesy of South Yorkshire singer Kirsty Bromley. Making a welcome return to the festival, singer / songwriter / frapper Pete Morton delivered a storming set of self-penned songs, predominantly from his new album The Frappin’ and Ramblin’ Pete Morton, a veritable feast of social observation, which at one point saw the singer compressing the history of England into one single song.  After Pete’s highly engaging set, the four-part vocal group The Teacups took to the stage to engage the audience further in some well-arranged traditional songs and shanties.  Headlining the Sunday afternoon concert was Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston, who brought a touch of class to the afternoon concert, featuring both traditional and contemporary songs arranged for two diverse stringed instruments, the double bass and the mandolin, with the occasional bouzouki thrown in.  On Sunday evening, festival concert programmer Hedley Jones took a gamble on the New York-based psychedelic rock outfit Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, whose highly entertaining stage show soon garnered the appropriate support from the Wath audience.  Hedley’s initial concerns were dashed as the Sunday night concert became the weekend’s first sell-out show.  After a slight technical hitch at the beginning of their set, the band presented their ‘Grand Slambovians’ show, which incorporated just about everything from Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”, Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man” and even Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons” to their own hugely invigorating blues stomper “Trans-Slambovian Bi-Polar Express”.  Earlier in the evening Sam Carter made his Wath debut with a fine set of self-penned songs, followed by local favourites Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, who performed a sublime set of songs both new and old, including the stunning “Ballad of Andy Jacobs”.  For the first time in the history of the Wath Festival I was pleased to announce to the audience on Monday afternoon “welcome to Wath Festival Day Four”, as the festival added an extra concert on Bank Holiday Monday with a concert featuring Rusty Shackle and The Dovetail Trio, who both delivered well-received sets.  A late addition to the programme came in the form of Driffield-based singer/songwriter Edwina Hayes, who performed a spotless opening set of self-penned songs with one or two well-chosen covers including Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” and John Prine’s “The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”.  Switching off the radio microphone and handing it back to one of the sound crew for the last time before the final song of Rusty Shackle’s set, I felt that I wanted to go back to Friday and do it all over again.  Each year, we tend to feel that we’ve made a few new friends from all over the country, this weekend including a couple from as far away as California.  Over the years Wath has played host to many of our top performers on the folk and acoustic roots scene from Fairport Convention, Battlefield Band and Lau to Eliza Carthy, Cara Dillon and Dougie MacLean, but this year I had an inkling that we might have just witnessed our best year so far.  So here’s to the next 42 years.   

Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard | Live Review | NCEM, York | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 05.06.14

I can’t remember the last time the trees were quite as green as I walked along the path through the grounds of St Margaret’s Church tonight, leading up to what is now home to the National Centre for Early Music.  It seemed to me that Nature itself was inviting me along to the venue with the full spring bloom enhanced by some unexpected blue skies and yes, the sun was even out in all its glory on this fine spring evening.  It really had to be if the natural forces were to match the highly spiritual musical event that was soon to commence in the concert room.   With a quietly congregated audience already seated, presumably due to the fact that no alcohol was going to be served on the premises this evening, avoiding the usual spirited hustle-bustle around the bar area, the audience had their bums on seats before you could say Kamancheh Spike Fiddle.  No sooner had I arrived than I was led into a large side dressing room, the door of which appeared to be three feet thick. Inside sat tonight’s main attraction, the Iranian Kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, whose moustache Don Van Vliet would’ve been proud of, and santur player Ali Bahrami Fard, both of whom jumped up onto their feet immediately as if they were about to dutifully greet the Lord Mayor of York, or perhaps even the Grand Old Duke of York.  “It’s only me” I said, shaking both musicians by the hand.  “I’m Allan from Northern Sky” I continued, pausing for breath.  “I’m here to write nice things about you”.  The two musicians noticed I had my camera dangling over my shoulder and immediately stood side by side posing for a shot, which I immediately took advantage of.  The dressing room was devoid of the usual detritus created by your standard issue folk combo; no beer bottles left sideways across a table, no half-eaten triangular sandwiches, no carefully piled cairn of peanuts in the middle of the table, nor even the obligatory bowl of assorted fruit, usually left until the end.  The room was in fact as tidy as an airport prayer room on a Sunday morning.  After a few words with the two musicians, both of whom were warm and graceful and who radiated a certain serenity, I took my seat in the concert room for what promised to be a meditative and contemplative evening of music.  The mood was enhanced by the diffusion of light that filtered through the leaded stained glass windows, which reflected onto the surrounding stone walls of the Centre.  The covered grand piano had been pushed into a corner beneath the specially installed acoustic panels, one of the only modern aspects of the otherwise venerable surroundings.  A raised platform had been erected in the usual stage area with a perfectly fitted carpet covering the entire stage area down to the last millimetre.  Greg Lake was vilified in the Seventies for his Prog Rock-era excesses, especially when it came to his own personal Persian carpet, which required its own articulated lorry.  In the case of tonight’s performance, a Persian carpet could not possibly be more fitting for the Persian music we were about to be treated to.  With no official introduction, the two musicians approached the stage from the rear of the hall, both dressed in comfortable looking collarless silk shirts; they faced the audience and took a respectful bow before taking up their respective instruments.  As Ali Bahrami Fard uncovered his bass santur, a 96-string hammered dulcimer and made himself comfortable sitting on two cushions, Kayhan Kalhour knelt down a couple of metres away from his collaborator and began bowing his instrument during a short period of tuning.  Once the tuning between the two instruments was complete, the concert began in earnest.  It soon became apparent after forty minutes of what we all imagined to be the opening piece, that there was going to be no intervals but instead, one long segued piece of mostly improvised music.  This was utterly refreshing; no talk, no jokes, no applause, no endless re-tuning. With no breaks or pauses, the no-alcohol policy was probably spot on for this occaion. Our beloved folk stars could learn a lot here.  The piece ran for just over an hour and a quarter, during which the interplay between the two instruments flittered between the serenely introspective, the incredibly haunting and the thrillingly climactic.  During the performance, one or two people got up from out of their seats, for no other reason than to take a closer look at the two musicians at work; to watch their fingers, to see how they communicated, not only through their instinctive and empathetic ears but also through their eyes, their glances at one another.  At times the delicate bowing of the Kamancheh was so gentle it sounded like a wind instrument, its whispered breath-like quality effectively creating the same resonance as a low whistle.  Nowhere better was the music realised than during the complex interplay between the instruments in an almost call and response manner.  Mostly bowed but occasionally plucked, the Kamancheh’s closest musical cousin has to be the violin, but on this occasion, Kayhan introduced a specially modified five-string version, the Shah Kaman, in order to create the low bass sounds.  The santur, which resembles the hammered dulcimer, has also been modified to cater for the bottom end.  After the 75 minute suite finished, which was rewarded by some lengthy applause and a standing ovation, the two musicians rose to their feet with ease.  After sitting on my calves for over an hour I would require assistance from two aides to get me back on my feet, but it just looked like second nature to these two.  Repairing to one of York’s fine hostelries at an earlier than expected time, for a well deserved Guinness, I pondered on the realisation that those endless tuning festivals, the pointless between song patter and the frequent spells of applause sure do clock up the hours at gigs.  Much better to perform your piece, make your statement and send us off to the bar blissfully contented.

Toumani and Sidiki Diabaté | Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.06.14

Once again, relying heavily on my trusted TomTom, I negotiated the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic on the outskirts of Leeds, particularly where the M1 meets the M621, in order to arrive relatively early for a concert that I’d been looking forward to for what seems like a lifetime.  Yes, although I’ve been to the Howard Assembly Room on several occasions before, I still require the aid of modern technology to get me through Leeds, a city I’ve never quite been able to get used to.  I suppose I ought to be thinking along the lines of, if a father and son combo from Mali can find it, then why can’t a Donny lad?  Tonight the traffic was particularly kind, the weather bright and cheerful and the staff at the Opera North box office cheerful and helpful.  This venue has always provided the discerning music lover with a comfortable and intimate space to see and more importantly hear some of the world’s most interesting sounds, whether it be Portuguese Fado, Sahara Desert Blues, Cuban Soul or something closer to home, Northumbrian folk songs perhaps?  The most recent treats the venue has had on offer have been mainly from Africa; the young Tuareg band Tamikrest and Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba and Rokia Traoré.  The musical agenda seems limitless and tonight it was the turn of Mali once again, this time with the emphasis very definitely on the traditional kora, played by two of the instrument’s leading players, both from a family that boasts a 70 generation Griot oral tradition pedigree.  My initial aim was to catch up with the two musicians backstage before the concert but alas that particular avenue of opportunity was closed off to me by heavy duty yellow and black striped roadwork barriers.  I did however get the nod for a few photos during the first couple of numbers, albeit hindered by lighting that hadn’t quite managed to progress from ‘fantastically subdued’ to ‘slightly better’ and wasn’t likely to anytime soon.  No matter, I steadied my hand and slowed down the shutter speed and managed to record one or two images for you dear reader.  There appeared to be a further challenge for anyone who actually wanted to see the duo by the use of dry ice, which effectively obscured the visuals with a smokescreen that serves no apparent purpose other than to sting your eyes throughout the set.  Just a little niggle, but not worth getting in a tizzy about.  Toumani Diabaté and his son Sidiki, named after Toumani’s father, who was and still is regarded by many as the grand master of the instrument, have joined forces for the first time as a duo for a series of concerts in the wake of the release of their first collaborative recording Toumani & Sidiki, one of only three albums of instrumental kora duets ever to have been recorded.  With Sidiki Diabaté opening the concert with a fine instrumental solo, he was soon joined by his father, dressed almost identically in a traditional shiny blue robe, looking much more like an older brother than a father, who once seated at his instrument let the fireworks begin.  If Sidiki approaches the instrument with animated vigour, then Toumani’s posture suggests a much more relaxed attitude, as if he was sitting on the river bank tying flies before casting off.  I think the word I’m looking for is ‘cool’.  Having worked with the likes of the flamenco group Ketama, bluesman Taj Mahal, American jazz trombonist Roswell Rudd and Icelandic nymphet Björk, not to mention Ballaké Sissoko and the late Ali Farka Touré, I guess you need to know your chops and tonight those chops were very much on display.  What I didn’t quite expect, although I really should have, was the virtuosic mastery of the instrument as demonstrated by Sidiki, who attacked the kora with youthful spirit as his father proudly looked on providing the necessary rhythmic arpeggios.  Performing two instrumental sets, Toumani and Sidiki spoke little throughout, until the end of the concert that is, when the older musician addressed the sold out audience with a few words of peace and love, describing the hardships and struggles that the poverty stricken endure trying to get to Europe, with devastating results, but reassuring those who have taken an interest in Mali’s turbulent history in recent years, that the Diabaté ‘family business’ does what it can through music, which has its own in-built healing propensities.  A warm embrace between nations to end on before the duo returned for a final encore.  When the house lights came up at the end of the concert, flooding the room with the light I could’ve done with an hour ago, the two koras stood majestically on the now deserted stage, giving the curious audience members a chance to inspect the beautiful detail, albeit from a couple of metres away.  Meanwhile in the bar area, a table had been provided for CD and Vinyl signing, the father and son cheerfully engaged in conversation with their growing legions of fans.  I waited around until the end, chatting to one of the organisers, before seizing the opportunity to take that photograph I initially wanted earlier in the evening.  Mission impossible finally accomplished to the strains of the iconic Lalo Schifrin theme tune.

Stacey Kent | Live Review | Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough | Review by Liam Wilkinson | 21.06.14

Described by Jamie Cullum as having been “quietly sitting on top of the world of jazz vocals for many years”, Stacey Kent is currently engaged in a mammoth tour which has seen her stand quietly on various stages throughout five continents.  She is introducing the world to her quietly stunning new album The Changing Lights which further explores Kent’s effusive love for all things Brazil via the compositions of Vinicius De Moraes, Newton Mendonça and Antonio Carlos Jobim.  Along with drummer Josh Morrison, bassist Jeremy Brown, pianist Graham Harvey and saxophonist, flautist, guitarist, arranger and husband Jim Tomlinson, New Jersey’s foremost jazz songbird arrived at Scarbrorough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre this evening to give a performance which was as warm and amiable as the salty June air outside.  Where the spotlight would more commonly find an Ayckbourn farce, Stephen Joseph’s theatre-in-the-round provided the perfect stage for a gently enchanting tour of Brazil’s musical heritage.  Indeed, if it weren’t for the muffled sound of Scarborough’s seagulls circling the theatre’s imposing Art Deco tower, tonight’s show could well have transported the audience to the foot of Rio’s Sugarloaf Mountain, where hundreds of English football fans are currently drowning their sorrows having seen their team drop out of the World Cup.  Stacey confessed, thankfully, that her interests were more with music than football and illuminated each song with accounts of her recent visits to the country that inspired the 1964 album Getz/Gilberto.  A fourteen year old Kent would discover her love for Bossa Nova upon purchasing this groundbreaking jazz album at New York’s Tower Records on 66th and Broadway – and it’s a love that has survived long enough to inspire tonight’s show.  Renditions of Jobim’s “Waters of March” and Mendonça’s “One Note Samba” were mingled with new compositions by Tomlinson and author Kazuo Ishiguro such as the brilliant encounter in a French restaurant entitled “Waiter, Oh Waiter” and the album’s title track “The Changing Lights”.  There were also performances of highlights from Stacey’s back catalogue such as “The Ice Hotel” from 2007’s Breakfast On The Morning Tram and the Astrud Gilberto classic “Dreamer” from Stacey’s 2011 live album, Dreamer In Concert.  Equally silent and bewitched, the Scarborough crowd were treated, this evening, not just to Kent’s confident yet gently innocent vocals and heavily pregnant pauses between verses, but also to the delicate tip-toeing of Jim Tomlinson’s sax notes and sinuous flute lines.  Both husband and wife dabbled nonchalantly in some impressive Bossa Nova guitar playing whilst Graham Harvey explored the possibilities of just about every jazz chord on his grand piano. Jeremy Brown seemed to distort the darkness as he plumbed the depths of every double bass note and Josh Morrison’s inventive exploration of his modest drum kit was, at times, explosive – not least on De Moraes’s “Samba Savarah”, which closed the show on an energetically euphoric note.

Beverley Folk Festival 2014 | Live Review | Beverley | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 23.06.14

Well, I guess a lot can happen between the beginning and the end of a music festival.  They usually start with some degree of optimistic anticipation upon arrival, closely followed by anything from mild satisfaction to unbridled euphoria as your favourite bands, singers, musicians, comedians, authors or dancers take to the stage.  Then there’s the celebratory drinks, the late nights and the hangover that often comes with it, not to mention the frequent belly laughs. John Hegley can certainly make that happen with or without a hanky on his head.  Inevitably though, along comes the bottom lip, which makes an appearance at the end of the festival as we pack away our tents for another year and return to the life we left behind a few days ago.  It’s a tried and tested and totally acceptable way of going about things.  The bottom lip has finally returned to a smile as I sit here poised and ready to reflect on what was possibly one of the best Beverley Folk Festivals that I’ve attended in a good while.  As far as the weather was concerned, it looked promising from the start with the sun sticking around pretty much for the duration.  As the tent pegs were driven into the soft ground on Friday afternoon, to a beat, the first rhythmic pattern of the weekend, a sound that appeared to mingle with the popping of celebratory corks, old friends were reunited whilst new friends were made, all on a green field bathed in glorious sunlight.  That sunlight was reflected in the faces of those who arrived early, all celebrating in tandem as musicians sound checked beneath the white marquee roofs.  Beverley Minster peered majestically across the pastures as stalls were being erected, tents were being pitched and Wold Top beer was being poured.  The pleasant atmosphere we found upon arrival at the town’s historic racecourse, the new home of the festival for the second year running, didn’t happen by accident.  A carefully selected band of friendly yellow jacketed munchkins were there to assist on that score, helping visitors with directions, programme details and other general information.  One or two of them even applied colourful bands to our respective wrists, carefully ensuring the sticky bit didn’t touch our skin.  It’s that sort of attention to detail that I like.  By the time I arrived on site, stories were already circulating about Billy Bragg sightings, as if he were a rare bird.  Suddenly everyone seemed to be twitching with their bins at the ready as Friday night’s headline performer found time to wander around the festival village, chatting to anyone who wished to stop for a natter, before stopping to watch the footy.  “I wonder if the bookies are taking bets on whether I’ll be singing “Between the Wars” tonight” he joked.  The odds were definitely in favour of that.  Yes, everyone had their own Billy Bragg story to tell and by mid-evening the man would have his own stories ready to deliver before a large gathering in the main stage marquee.  The radical socialist-turned-Country crooner with a penchant for espousing socialist rhetoric and an additional fondness for name-checking The Clash at every given opportunity, not to mention his long palship with one Martin Carfy (more of later) and his humble role as benefactor to the sacred texts of Woody Gaffrie, all contribute to Billy Bragg’s appeal, although there’s much more besides.  I guess Billy Bragg would hate to be thought of as a national treasure, an overused term to say the least, but certainly the term ‘local hero’ works, despite the singer coming from another part of the country altogether.  Whilst Billy worked his magic on the main stage, something quite different was happening on the concert and dance stage at the other side of the village, as Quebecois quartet Le Vent Du Nord, the name of which everyone seems to have difficulty in pronouncing (La van duh’nor), took to the stage for the first of two billed performances over the weekend.  I first witnessed what this band could do at the Shepley Spring Festival in 2011 and last year I was delighted to be given the job of introducing them myself at the Elsecar Madfest, but this was their Beverley debut and the excitement was tangible prior to their long awaited performance.  Earlier on Friday evening the Sheffield-based singer/songwriter Neil McSweeney got everything off to a good start with a selection of his own songs, whilst inadvertently being upstaged by a couple of magpies circling above his head.  By contrast, the other stage saw a performance by a young flamenco guitarist from the other side of the Pennines. Relaxed in black T shirt and matching Bogart hat, Louis Brookes performed some fine instrumental music, seemingly surprised by the applause after each piece.  Other appearances on the two main stages on Friday night included The Nick Rooke Band who were in fine fettle, the young Anglo/Canadian quartet Sail Pattern bringing some of their youthful spirit to the concert stage and Country crooners Good Intentions, who added their own brand of Americana to the proceedings.  A mandolin-wielding Mitch Benn stirred things up in the comedy club, whilst the Wold Top marquee, home of the Area 2 sessions, featured some surprisingly good sets by some of the younger performers appearing at the festival, presided over by Sam Pirt and Jim Molyneux.  If the opening night brought any personal disappointment at all, then it was the fact that I stupidly missed singer/songwriter Jo Bywater by a gnat’s whisker, having spent far too long erecting my tent and going on to reward myself with a cup of tea for my efforts afterwards.  However, Danny Pedler and Rosie Butler-Hall made up for it with some fine accordion and fiddle playing, with some Hurdy-Gurdy thrown in.  The sun definitely had its hat on once again on Saturday morning as the festival limped into action after a late night in the Wold Top Marquee, with Le Vent Du Nord stealing the show.  As the village stirred and the sky filled with colour, the legendary broadcaster Andy Kershaw arrived on site with his faithful companion Buster the dog in order to deliver one of his entertaining No Off Switch talks.  The presentation, centred around Kershaw’s autobiography of that name, is accompanied by slides showing pivotal moments in the broadcaster’s long and eventful career, not only as a music promoter, radio DJ and TV presenter but also as an intrepid travel journalist covering some of the world’s hottest of war-torn hotspots, all delivered to a soundtrack made up from a handful of life changing records.  Earlier in the morning I saw a somewhat agitated Kershaw pacing up and down the concert and dance marquee, worried that the unexpected and intense sunshine would make the slideshow redundant in an outdoor marquee.  In the nick of time a decision was made to relocate the event to a more conducive venue, the Rapid Lad Bar.  “I’ve played in some strange locations in my time but never before have I played in a bookies” Kershaw quipped.  Kershaw’s talk was amusing, informative, entertaining and in all fairness, probably a bit rushed.  There’s so much to fit in that time constraints made it impossible to cover everything.  When compere Miles Salter gave the ‘ten minutes left’ signal, Kershaw protested that he was only half way through and his journey into World Music and in particular the Bhundu Boys had only just begun.  True to his moniker, the man really doesn’t have an ‘off switch’ and he proceeded to run well over time.  Meanwhile on the main stage, Artistic Director Chris Wade introduced one of this year’s festival highlights, featuring author Michael Morpurgo, who took to the stage to retell his celebrated War Horse story, straight from the horse’s mouth as it were.  As the children’s author took on all the characters in the book with convincing accents and characterisation, at times bringing some of the audience to tears, John Tams and Barry Coope performed some of the songs from the original National Theatre production.  Martin and Eliza Carthy have appeared in various guises at the festival over the years but never as a duo.  To coincide with the release of their debut album as a duo, The Moral of the Elephant, Martin and Eliza’s two sets, the first being on Saturday afternoon in the concert and dance marquee and then again on Saturday evening on the main stage, were made up of material from the album.  Andy Kershaw, fresh from his exhaustive talk, relaxed in the wings during the afternoon concert.  At times reminiscent of those early Carthy/Swarbrick days, particularly during the tunes featuring Eliza’s no fuss fiddle playing, the duo took command not only of the stage, but also their material and their audience throughout two highly engaging sets.  Over on the main stage, the Crossing Continents concert took place featuring the Scots/English powerhouse band Manran, complete with twin bagpipes, together with another lively appearance by Le Vent Du Nord, both bands delivering high octane performances throughout the afternoon.  As a special treat, the two bands united at the end, filling the stage and the marquee with an unexpected blend of Scots/English/Quebecois music that soon had the audience on their feet in front of the stage.  One of the most popular areas of the festival village is the Wold Top Marquee, which is home to several contrasting events throughout the weekend.  During the evening the Area 2 Sessions take place, providing a platform for young musicians; the straw bales and sofas scattered around the marquee offering a relaxed and cosy atmosphere for both performers and audience alike.  This gave us all an opportunity to check out the potential headliners of the future.  The importance of Area 2 cannot be overestimated.  During the afternoon, Leila Cooper went on to stage her annual Moonbeams sessions, introducing a variety of local performers as well as those from further a field.  Over the weekend we saw appearances by the likes of Jess Morgan from Norwich and Dan Wilde from Cambridge, both of whom provided slick performances of some of their best songs to date, as well as the young 17 year-old Katie Spencer from Hornsea, who charmed the audience with her distinctive breathy voice and uncomplicated guitar style, whilst giant dragonflies hovered above.  If the relaxed atmosphere permeates the Wold Top marquee through the afternoons and evenings, all hell breaks loose after hours, when Leila provides some of the best late night entertainment a folk festival can possibly offer, with some of the main stage artists popping along to provide impromptu performances that go on well into the night.  It’s not easy to calculate precisely how many music stages there are at Beverley Festival, they seem to crop up just about everywhere.  We know the two main stages occupy the extreme ends of the festival site, strategically placed so that the music doesn’t interfere with one another.  But then there’s the Wold Top Marquee somewhere in between, the Paddock View room within the Grandstand complex, where the Comedy Club takes place, this year featuring such notable figures as Sean Hughes, Mitch Benn and Fake Thackray.  Then there’s the platform in front of the main racecourse building where I sat for a while listening to the young Lincoln-based singer/songwriter and guitarist Elliott Morris, whose main stage appearance can’t be too far off in the future.  Midway between the Wold Top marquee and the main stage there’s also an open air acoustic stage for impromptu busking and several colourful dance displays, perfect for hot sunny days such as these, and yes, there were pirates up to no good too, courtesy of Nashville’s Tom Mason and his relatively local Blue Buccaneers.  On Saturday night there was two main concerts, which included the Mid-Summer Special featuring performances by The Home Service, who brought some of their own brand of brass-led Folk Rock to the festival, Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy once again together with the wide-eyed and highly animated Duncan McFarlane Band, whilst the concert and dance marquee played host to the Celtic Connection concert featured Ireland’s Caladh Nua, Scotland’s Manran and a welcome return to the festival by the mighty LAU.  Oh yes, there was Aidan O’Rourke, master musician and current holder of the ‘Heavyweight Champion of the Musical World’ title, according to the powers that BBC!  His instrument, the humble fiddle, makes redundant the old saying ‘scraping the horse’s hair over the cat’s gut’.  What Aidan does with the fiddle is nothing short of angelic.  Then there’s guitarist Kris Drever, whose upturned eyebrows and pouting lips could at first sight be mistaken for smugness, but again there’s more to it than that.  To me, the expression says ‘glad you’re enjoying this because I certainly am and I’d be doing it even if you weren’t here’.  Finally there’s Martin Green, mad professor of this parish, slouched Gollum-like over his accordion, almost totally camouflaged by gaffer tape and surrounded by various angled keyboards and an assortment of obscure instruments that look for all intents and purposes like they were made out of old bits of junk.  The angle of the keyboard suggests that one night the instrument accidentally fell over due to some heavy handed application and the musician found that he actually preferred it that way.  Never before have I seen a musician surrounded by so many wires.  The marquee was full to capacity once the trio started and the stewards were running a ‘one-out-one-in’ scheme.  I couldn’t help feel for those queuing up outside all of whom probably fully aware that their hopes of getting in were slim.  I half-hoped that the powers that be would at some point lift the side flaps to let the music spill out over the surrounding area, which would in turn have provided the festival with its most heart-warming nod to the ‘peace and love’ generation, but alas, it was an opportunity missed.  As the Minster bells heralded in Sunday morning, a large gathering filled the main stage for one of the festival centre pieces as local students from Longcroft School joined forces with students from Bremerhaven in Germany to present, along with others, the War Horse project.  Part music and poetry, part spoken word and theatre, the production was both dramatic and moving at the same time and soon had the audience reaching for the Kleenex for a second time this weekend. Michael Morpurgo, whose purpose seems to be making grownups cry, sat amongst the audience and watched intently as Joey the horse, created by the Millers Day Centre, was led around the marquee.   Despite their reputation for being the British folk scene’s merchants of melancholia, the twice BBC Folk Award nominated duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker have an offstage manner that betrays this notion.  Good humoured and conversational, Josienne and Ben sat for a chat after their sublime set, which saw Ben alternating between classical and regular guitar, whilst Josienne delivered some of her fine readings of traditional, contemporary and self-penned songs with a voice that could quite possibly define the genre in the not too distant future.  Yes, I like this duo a lot and I simply can’t wait to hear their new album, which is by all accounts all ready in the can and ready to go.  Shortly after Josienne and Ben’s set, CoCo and the Butterfields returned to the Beverley stage after their successful performance last year, with a set that showcased their unique blend of folk and pop, with their distinctive hip hop credentials on show for all to see.  Completing Sunday afternoon’s concert on the main stage was the eagerly anticipated appearance by singer/songwriter Thea Gilmore, whose prolific back catalogue was rifled through in order to present a set that included some of the singer’s best loved songs such as “Old Souls”, with the occasional cover, such as The Beatles’ classic “All You Need is Love”.  For those who prefer something more along the lines of Bluegrass, Country and Old Timey, the concert stage hosted the now traditional Americana Concert, this year featuring such delights as the Kansas-based duo Truckstop Honeymoon, one of the surprise acts of the festival, who brought to the table some authentic New Orleans roots music, performed on upright bass and five string banjo.  I spent some time the previous night (or should I say morning) on a sofa with Katie and Mike, both of whom were sweet and charming, only to discover moments later the sheer power of their frantic performance when they played the late night Wold Top stage.  Once again the duo startled the audience on the concert and dance stage on Sunday afternoon, sharing the stage with Gentlemen of Few, Whiskey Dogs and the fun-loving swashbuckling antics of Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers, where Nashville met Driffield and Hull in one fell swoop, ooh arr me hearties!  By Sunday evening the festival village began to rest beneath a blanket of peace and quiet as the last of the burgers and Whitby fish and chips were consumed in the calm before the storm of the final concerts.  There were already signs of the camp dispersing as tent pegs were pulled and car boots were filled.  My tent was already in the van ready to make a quick getaway after the concert.  I was still humming the tune of one of the songs performed earlier by one of the best bands I’d seen all weekend, Barcode Zebra, Jess Gardham’s outfit, whose tight rhythm section puts some bands to shame (Note: Emma Whitehead, fantastic drummer, must keep an eye on).  Still to come though was the Festival Farewell Party Night in the concert and dance marquee, featuring some of the acts that had already played, such as Manran, CoCo and the Butterfields, Truckstop Honeymoon and Green Diesel.  Alternatively, there was the Finale Concert on the main stage featuring Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, whose set was not only filled with great music but also great fun as the duo joked around, at one point Ciaran Algar being consoled by backstage crew member Mick Harding after being teased by both his musical partner and the audience alike.  Sometimes all you need is a hug from a stagehand!  Old friends Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes played an all too short set midway through the concert, with a set of standards including Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman”, promising to return next year with a fuller set.  The two singers accompanied themselves on a couple of guitars and performed with no frills, creating music that you could easily imagine being played in your living room.  Finally, the festival went out with a good old knees up as popular entertainers Chas and Dave took to the stage, slightly later than advertised, to perform a whole bunch of sing-a-long favourites.  By the time Chas and Dave were taking their final bow and the final Wold Top session was about to commence, this Beverley regular was well on the way home with the strains of ‘give me a London girl everytime’ playing on repeat in my head.  A fine and fitting end to this year’s festival, although my abiding memory will probably be of Le Vent Du Nord’s charismatic accordion/bassist Réjean Brunet reaching out to bid farewell to the audience.  A cracker of a festival.

Moonbeams Festival 2014 | Live Review | Wold Top Brewery | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 13.07.14

With the GPS set at ‘somewhere on the North Yorkshire Wolds’ and the windows on both sides of the car wound down as far as they could possibly go, I made my way north to my first Moonbeams Festival.  Leila Cooper, music promoter, people person and general all round good egg, has been putting this festival on for about six years now and having been told by a number of people just how wonderful the event is, I marked the dates in the Northern Sky diary in thick black indelible ink, dog-eared the corner of the page and just to be on the safe side, popped a bookmark in there too.  This year I was definitely going to my first Moonbeams Festival to see what it’s all about.  The weather was particularly kind on Friday afternoon as I negotiated the narrow lanes leading up towards the small village of Hunmanby, home of the nearby Wold Top Brewery (yes, this festival takes place in a brewery!), possibly too kind judging by the red arms hanging out some of the passing car windows.  Scuttling along the narrow lanes suitable for one vehicle only, I soon caught sight of the tip of the yellow and blue circus marquee in the distance, which would house the main stage over the weekend.  There was an immediate sense of community as I approached the camping area, with both stewards and fellow campers alike offering help with directions and tent erecting skills respectively.  With a light breeze up on the Wolds, it was handy to have my newfound weekend neighbours Ronnie and Andy around to help keep my tent this side of Filey.  Even on a hot sunny day, the Wolds can soon drum up the occasional strong breeze.  Once I was suitably settled in my new environment, I was eager to look around the festival site and familiarise myself with the geography, which was made all the more easier for me with Leila by my side to give me a guided tour.  Five minutes later I was completely up to speed and fully aware that those who visit the festival don’t have to do an awful lot of walking, everything being in such close proximity.  My basic senses were immediately aroused by the blend of sights, sounds and smells combined; the colourful garden and courtyard in full bloom, bands sound checking on both stages (the main stage and the garden stage) together with the enticing aroma of the legendary Moonbeams curry being served.  The anticipation was tangible as friends of the festival new and old began to arrive.  Once all the tents, tourers and camper vans were in place, the Nick Rooke Band delivered a fine opening performance on the garden stage, finding an immediate rapport with everyone in the packed marquee as Gerry and Ani McNeice made sure the band sounded as good as they possibly could.  The Moonbeams Festival 2014 was underway.  After the two opening sets, the second set provided by the all-female five-piece Raven, both bands effectively easing the festival into action, the main stage was all sound-checked and ready to go as Andy Atkinson took to the stage to introduce a humdinger of a concert featuring Peatbog Faeries, Breabach and the newly revitalised 4 Square.  The new line-up of the four-piece band features the dextrous mandolin playing of Michael Giverin, together with Nicola Lyons, Jim Molyneux and Dan Day on fiddle, piano and percussion respectively.  Nicola also threw in some clog dancing for good measure.  After the young band’s opening set, the audience was treated to a veritable feast of Scottish music supplied by two of the finest Celtic bands on the music scene today.  The contrasting sounds of the two highly distinctive bands, kept the momentum going throughout the evening, with Breabach providing a handful of songs to augment what was essentially an instrumental concert.  It was the highly charged energy of Peatbog Faeries though that caught the imagination of the audience, the band giving a powerhouse performance that truly saw the festival in.  The Wolds were covered in a blanket of mist on Saturday morning, which offered some stunning views over the meadows as far as the mist would allow the eye to see.  As the campsite stirred following a late night session in the Big Sky marquee, which alternates between kids events through the day and open floor sessions through the early hours of the morning, there was a choice of activities on offer.  Dogfinger Steve went through the rudiments of building a three-string cigar box guitar with five students, who then went on the play the instruments, which was fascinating to hear.  Whilst the cigar box band played “Sloop John B”, the tranquil gardens nearby offered a quiet place for yoga, where a group had gathered with instructor Bec Thompson.  Throughout Saturday, it became pretty obvious that Ade the Face Painting Fairy had been busy with children (of all ages) popping up all over the festival site in cunning disguise, even some of the bar staff and our festival organiser.  Maisey and the Thompsons, a band that was formed at last year’s Moonbeams Festival, opened the morning concert on the garden stage with a set of well-constructed songs, whilst local heroine Edwina Hayes, drew a large crowd to the main stage, where the singer/songwriter alternated between some of her own songs and some of the songs that have shaped her musical integrity over the years.  “It feels like home” said the Driffield-based singer as she dominated the big stage with her equally big personality.  Providing a refreshing break from acoustic (and electric) guitars, amplified drums and bass, not to mention fiddles, squeezeboxes and let’s not forget the bagpipes, no less than three sets on Friday night alone, the courtyard became temporarily taken over by the soothing sound of the Yorkshire Wolds Versatile Brass, who performed the especially composed Wold Top March, written by Scarborough’s Dave Clegg.  It was all perfectly timed to catch those passing by from one stage to the other, with some stopping to listen.  Which brings me around to one of the things that seems to work particularly well at the Moonbeams Festival, the concert programme.  Designed to ensure that there’s very little waiting around between sets, whilst one concert finishes on one stage, the next concert begins on the other stage with just enough time for everyone to make the short walk across the site.  On Saturday afternoon, this went like clockwork as London-based Van Susans followed folk club favourite Les Barker, who in turn followed North East band Tarras who followed Plumhall before them.  The structure works particularly well not only for the audience, but also for the bands and in particular for the sound technicians who are much less pressured by shuffling feet and anxious comperes.  The four acts mentioned above also indicates a varied programme, offering something for just about everyone, with Van Susans being one of the big discoveries of the weekend, with their hard-edged approach to contemporary folk/pop.  The band also provided a touching moment when the four band members left the stage to perform acoustically in the middle of the audience.  As the sun got hotter on Saturday afternoon, the ice-cream got tastier and the Wold Top festival beer got even more refreshing as the concert programme maintained its user-friendly flow, with performances from the Newcastle-based NE3Folk, returning to Moonbeams after their spring showcase in Driffield earlier this year.  With some well-structured instrumental music, the trio featuring Catherine Geldard on fiddle, Chris Meredith on guitar and Victoria Laurenson on accordion, had fun on stage whilst delivering some highly engaging traditional and contemporary tunes.  Whilst all Merry Hell broke loose on the main stage, with an energetic performance from the band of that name, the Tom Townsend Blues Band prepared to take to the other stage for a smooth set of jazz-inflected blues numbers, including such delights as T Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday Blues”, Sleepy John Estes’ “Floating Bridge” and a gospel-tinged “People Get Ready”, a fine cover of a Curtis Mayfield classic.  Somewhere in the middle of the band’s set, the sun finally went down and evening arrived, followed by a refreshing and much appreciated evening cool.  Nick Hall returned to the garden stage this time with sibling Duncan as the Hall Brothers appeared with their five-piece extended band, for a full-on folk rock knees-up.  One of the more risky bookings at this year’s festival was the newly reformed duo Nizlopi, featuring singer Luke Concannon and bassist John Parker, whose human beatboxing may have proved too much for the less adventurous folkie amongst us.  Yes, one or two got up after the duo’s first song but for me it was one of the highlights of the festival, although I dare say a good percentage of the audience was chomping at the bit with the anticipation of the duo’s airing their one big hit “JCB”, which they eventually performed right at the end of the set.  If Leila had arrived on site at that precise moment, driving a big yellow tractor, pretending to be BA Baracus and wearing Bruce Lee’s numchuckers, I dare say it would’ve definitely made my festival.  With two final concerts courtesy of the Jon Palmer Band and the Duncan McFarlane Band, whose reputation as a fine live band goes before them, the festival highpoint came midway through Saturday night when singer/songwriter Martyn Joseph hit the main stage for what could only be described as a top class performance.   Once again, as the two main stages wrapped it up for another year, some of the late nighters settled down over straw bales in the Big Sky marquee for some gentle after hours lullabies.  With Rob Fearnley at the helm, the Nick Rooke Band were around to start things off, with contributions from the Jon Palmer Band and singer/songwriter Andy Stones plus an unexpected appearance by Leila’s daughter Mia, who fought her nerves to deliver a lovely performance of Robyn’s “Call Your Girlfriend”, accompanied by Gerry McNeice on guitar.  Well it took a good while for me to eventually get to the Moonbeams Festival, despite all the urging from the people who know a thing or two about these things.  The initial feeling of ‘community’ I first sensed when I arrived on site on Friday afternoon was soon replaced with a stronger feeling of ‘family’.  Moonbeams is a family festival, which doesn’t only mean you can bring your own family along, it means you can become a member of theirs.  The next one can’t come soon enough. 

Cambridge Folk Festival at Fifty | Live Review | Cherry Hinton Hall | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.08.14

The prospect of spending four days walking around the grounds of Cherry Hinton Hall doesn’t at first seem all that much of an arduous task; the park is pretty flat after all and it’s all relatively small in comparison to other notable parks in the UK. I did however pack three pairs of assorted footwear to see me through the weekend; Doc Martens for the heavy going stuff, a good pair of trainers for the busy periods and beach sandals for the chilled-out workshops and sessions that lie ahead.  I was suitably prepared for a weekend of walking, talking, standing still, watching, listening and scribbling.  The arrival in itself always seems to conjure up the same sort of giddy excitement that a child experiences on Christmas Day; the anticipation of receiving a stocking full of goodies with a slight inkling as to what’s in store, usually because you’ve been going on about it for the last twelve months.  Although that stocking is chock full of stuff you have always desired, there are inevitably one or two unwanted gifts that you automatically throw back in Santa’s face.  There’s also one or two pressys that you seem to have been given time and time over, not unlike a predictable pair of socks.  For the 50th anniversary year though, Cambridge Folk Festival came up with a memorable bill and presented us with a special treat that most music lovers would be very pleased with indeed.  The sun beamed down on Cherry Hinton for most of Thursday, from first thing in the morning where campers formed an orderly queue alongside the perimeter fence and down along Walpole Road towards the car park at St Bede’s School.  If the locals’ collective hearts were pounding at the thought of another four nights of late night noisy music, then you really would’ve thought they were used to it by now.  After all, it has been happening every summer for the last 50 years.  Yes, 50 years of festival fun with no breaks for war, drought or even Ted Heath’s three day week.  Cambridge Folk Festival is not only a local institution, nor a national institution, but arguably an international institution, rightly recognised as such earlier this year at the BBC Folk Awards, where festival manager Eddie Barcan picked up the Good Tradition Award on behalf of the festival, alongside Joan Woollard, widow of festival founder Ken Woollard.  As the queues developed, the ‘selfies’ began to pop up on social media sites, encouraged by the festival’s media team, with smiling faces all around.  When the sun’s out, Cambridge smiles a lot and this year was certainly no exception.  After dropping my bags off at a local B&B, followed by a bite to eat at the nearby Robin Hood pub, I began my annual walkabout starting at the gates of the Cherry Hinton Hall grounds, dodging the double-decker buses that had already started to bring in fresh punters from St Bede’s car park and Coldhams Common, the subsidiary camp site across town.  The first stop was the concessions stand, where I picked up one of the better T shirts before they were all snapped up, leaving the not so spectacular ones behind.  I wasn’t all that impressed with the ‘guitar pick-shaped logo over the left tit’ variety, but the one I managed to pick up featuring John Holder’s cartoon musicians, was just right.  The artwork is one of the aspects of the festival that seems to have slipped lately, which is such a shame because it used to be so good.  John Holder’s delicate illustrations that featured on T shirts and posters in the early days seems to have given way to blandness.  The posters over the last few years have developed into a plain list of names, whereas Holder’s illustrations gave a real sense of time and place.  Although 2014 is the festival’s 50th year, I came in at number 25 in 1989, the Silver Jubilee year, in which Ken Woollard featured in caricature on the cover of the black and white programme and accompanying poster.  The eclectic bill back then featured everything from The Watersons, Al Stewart and the Boys of the Lough to international visitors such as Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Ali Farka Toure.  The festival site remains pretty much the same these days as it did back then, the only real difference being that stage two was where the concessions tent now stands and vice versa and the Hub and the Den were a good few years off in the future.  Although I hadn’t managed to visit the festival until that point, I was well aware of it not least through the wonderful old posters that dominated the walls of friends’ living rooms, boldly advertising the fact that I had already missed Doc Watson, Ry Cooder, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee and the Woodstock Mountain Revue, to name but a few.  I was reminded of this as I walked through to the media caravan area on Thursday afternoon, stopping to watch one of the crew members on their hands and knees preparing fifty replica posters from each of those fifty years in celebration of the festival’s half century, all of which would later be displayed in a long gallery along the privet wall leading down to the main stage.  After choosing my T shirt, which I believe sold out completely by close of play on Thursday, together with the obligatory commemorative mug, the only glass wear allowed on site, I made my way to the front of stage two with camera in hand to see the first act of the day. Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin were actually half way through the opening set on stage two when the heavens opened, which fortunately served to clear the muggy atmosphere and remind us once again that we were back at the Cambridge Folk Festival.  Other acts on Thursday night included the much discussed London-based Irish outfit Crossharbour, who delivered the goods on the club stage, whilst St Louis’ Pokey LaFarge brought a taste of an entirely different era to Cambridge, harking back to a time at least a couple of decades before the very first Cambridge Folk Festival in 1965.  Hat Fitz and Cara, a sort of grown up version of White Stripes appeared in the club tent mid-evening with a bluesy repertoire, which was followed by Skinny Lister whose set featured a crowd-surfing double bass player; yes, he was actually perched upon his instrument as it was passed around the crowd.  Headliner Newton Faulkner returned to the festival once again and was in a playful mood as he performed a crowd-pleasing set on stage two, rounding off the opening night.  Thursday’s highlight though was Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita’s set, the duo making their Cambridge debut with a soothing set of instrumental music that brought together the diverse influences of the Classical harp and the traditional African Kora.  At first I thought the rain was going to interfere with the gentle music as it pounded upon the marquee roof, but miraculously, the rain stopped during the duo’s line check and the sun came out once again just in time.  Introduced by the editor of Songlines Magazine Jo Frost, Catrin and Seckou’s set was just as good as I had hoped.  On Friday morning, Nancy Kerr encouraged a ‘hands on’ fiddle workshop with a dozen or so budding fiddlers present.  Meanwhile over in the Den, Sam Lee addressed a gathering of emerging musicians, giving advice about the music business, advice on how young musicians should promote themselves with some cautionary advice on one or two of the pitfalls; ‘Mumagers’ for instance, that is, mums who take on their dutiful role as manager, mentor and promoter.  It was made clear that a pushy mum could be the very thing that keeps a young musician from getting far in the music industry, despite their good intentions.  Jo Frost was also present to give advice along with a singer/songwriter whose name escapes me now.  One of the great things about the Cambridge Folk Festival is that it goes to great lengths to encourage young performers, with a packed programme of workshops for singers, musicians and dancers.  If those young musicians are not playing on either of the stages, queueing up to sign on for a slot in the club tent or attending a workshop, they can usually be found busking somewhere around the park and more often than not they are very good.  I came across mandolin player Joe Tozer and fiddler Aneirin Jones by the duck pond, basking and busking in the sun and playing so well that the thought of why they were not on a stage somewhere inevitably crossed my mind.  This year’s Mojo interview featured representatives from two British folk music dynasties as Colin Irwin interviewed Martin and Eliza Carthy, together with Richard Thompson, who’s relaxed and highly informal reminiscences entertained everyone present, especially Thompson’s recollections of supporting Chuck Berry back in the day.  I’ve attended every one of the Mojo interviews since they started with Loudon Wainwright back in 2004 and to be honest, this was far from the best.  Martin was unusually quiet, Richard was occasionally witty but it’s clear he doesn’t really enjoy talking in public and Eliza just made it up as she went along, some of her anecdotes devoid of a suitable punch line.  Just to have those three people on stage together was in itself a treat.  Most of the action that I wanted to see on Friday afternoon took place on the main stage.  After the unexpected excitement of seeing for the first time the New York powerhouse Hazmat Modine, featuring multi-instrumentalist Rachelle Garniez and guitarist Erik Della Penna, whose distinctive sound filled the main stage marquee, I stayed around to hear a couple from the crowd pleasing Fisherman’s Friends, whose set included a rousing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the festival.  I popped over to the Den to catch a little bit of Bridie Jackson and the Arbour, whose name had been circulating the site, getting back to the main stage in time for the second set of the weekend by Pokey LaFarge who once again delivered the kind of music that took the festival to an entirely different place. Colin Irwin, during his Mojo interview with Richard Thompson earlier in the morning, pointed out that the singer/songwriter/guitarist had just released a new album entitled Acoustic Classics and inquired as to whether this would be the basis of the evening’s set?  “No” Thompson responded.  “It’ll be made up of songs from my next album, Obscure Classics”. What Thompson actually delivered was a bit of both, the highlights being “I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight”, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”, “Valerie” and the obligatory “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, which received nothing short of rapturous applause from the packed marquee.  If Thompson had entered crowd-pleaser mode midway through “Wall of Death”, then the inclusion of “Beeswing” stilled the audience temporarily as Thompson’s most beautiful song was rightly aired at Cambridge Folk Festival’s special birthday celebrations.  Armed with just the one acoustic guitar, Thompson, clad in black with his now customary matching beret, gave the audience precisely what they wanted.  Almost as a matter of course, “Persuasion” was dedicated to someone in the audience, on this occasion someone called Chris, who I assumed just might have been Chris While, who does a pretty tasty version of the song herself along with her daughter Kellie, both of whom would’ve no doubt been on site.  Sinead O’Connor followed Richard Thompson and played a surprisingly good set, which I wasn’t expecting at all.  If any artist at this years’ festival delivered a passionate, heartfelt and completely spell-binding set, it was Sinead O’Connor.  I heard the first three numbers from the pit, whilst I was taking photos and then headed to the back of the field to hear the rest.  I was soon comparing notes (and snacks) with Norwich singer/songwriter Jess Morgan as Sinead sang her big hit “Nothing Compares 2U” before heading off to the club tent to watch Jess’s own set, sitting in the side enclosure with fellow journalist Jeremy Searle, both of us confident in the fact that we were now hearing a quality singer who deserves more attention.  Friday night wouldn’t be the same without a good choice of crazy dance bands and this year was no exception.  I managed to catch a little of both the Afro Celt Sound System, who closed proceedings on the main stage and Molotov Jukebox on stage two, featuring the charismatic singer/actress Natalia Tena, who put aside her Harry Potter and Games of Thrones roles, to pick up the accordion and rock out.  Saturday was probably the most exhausting day so far at the festival with so much happening and therefore so much to do.  My initial plan of not trying to do everything was close to being ignored on Saturday as I flittered from one stage to another, completely forgetting to eat or drink and even forgetting my coat as I left the B&B in the pouring rain.  Despite being reminded by my host that it was going to rain, I headed over to the festival site in one of Fatea’s new 50th Anniversary T shirts, which I’d promised to wear, ducking under trees and traversing all the covered areas leading around to the club tent where I took refuge during a relaxing whistle workshop conducted by Michael McGoldrick along with guitar player John Doyle.  Local duo Ezio opened proceedings on the main stage on Saturday lunchtime with a feelgood set, which suitably warmed the audience up as the sun once again made an appearance.  The former La Bottine Souriante accordionist Yves Lambert and his trio brought a taste of French Canadian Québécois music to the afternoon with a set of songs and dance tunes on fiddle, accordion and guitar with a sprinkling of Jew’s Harp and slide whistle, which was rewarded with a great audience response.  From Canada we returned very much to the British Isles and a set by one of England’s finest duos who just happen to be father and daughter.  Martin and Eliza Carthy are no strangers to the Cambridge Folk Festival having played many times over the years in various combinations.  This year though saw Martin and Eliza appearing as a duo for the first time, performing songs from their debut collaboration album The Moral of the Elephant, which was very well received by the audience.  If there had to be a very English contingent on Saturday afternoon, then there also had to be a very American contingent too and this year the festival welcomed back David Bromberg along with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell who between them delivered a nostalgic set, the kind of folk festival repertoire that’s been plundered relentlessly over the last five decades, songs such as “Mr Bojangles” for instance.  It was the closest the festival got to 1960s Greenwich Village, which suited me just fine.  The North Mississippi Allstars were one of the big surprises at this year’s festival, a band that provided one of the most exciting sets of the day, with a blisteringly good rocking blues set, with guitarist Luther Dickinson at one point playing a tin of beans!  Earlier on Saturday afternoon Brian McNeill once again took the helm on stage two for his annual festival session, the regular part of the weekend where just about everybody was likely to show up and play.  I was passing by just as the young South Yorkshire-based unaccompanied singer Kirsty Bromley was invited up on stage to sing as sweetly as a nightingale.  Other guests included The Mischa Macpherson and Yves Lambert Trios, Feis Rois and Sarah Jarosz amongst many others.  Later in the afternoon, Sarah Jarosz returned to the stage with her own trio to perform the first of her two weekend sets, performing songs from her rapidly growing repertoire of bluegrass inflected self-penned songs.  The hugely popular O’Hooley and Tidow also put in an appearance during the afternoon as did Moulettes, delivering a musically complex set that challenges categorisation.  Over on the main stage it was time for the appearance of not one but two super groups so to speak, the first being the very English Full English, featuring a bunch of English folkies singing English folk songs including Fay Hield, Martin Simpson and Seth Lakeman amongst others, followed by a sort of mini Transatlantic Session as the Celtic end of the famed TV sessions took to the stage featuring Ali Bain, Phil Cunningham, Michael McGoldrick, John McCusker and John Doyle, all of whom were in good form.  I’d seen Loudon Wainwright backstage earlier talking to David Bromberg and decided that if there was a time to slow down, take it easy and relax, then it would be during Loudon’s set on the main stage.  Appearing in white American sports wear with ‘Wainwright 50’ emblazoned on the back of his shirt in big red letters, the singer/songwriter delighted the audience with a thoroughly engaging set, packed full of songs new and old peppered with his sardonic wit.  That wit comes in handy when confronted by a half-witted heckler who probably started in the bar too early.  Replacing the Hot 8 Brass Band on stage two was the late addition to the programme Ian Siegal and the Mississippi Young Bloods, made up of members of the previously seen North Mississippi Allstars, who performed yet another great electric blues set.  Even though Rosanne Cash, Peatbog Faeries, Eddi Reader and Seth Lakeman continued the evening’s music on the two main stages, together with The Mischa Macpherson Trio and The Young’uns in the club tent, there was nothing that could really follow Loudon Wainwright, who is without any shadow of doubt one of the festival’s most popular entertainers, so I soon found myself enjoying another pint of Guinness at the bar.  Saturday ended a little later than the other three days with Jim Moray’s late night Silent Ceilidh, which is always a strange thing to see, a marquee full of people with only the sound is shuffling feet.  The sun was out early on Sunday morning as Martin Simpson demonstrated a master class of guitar playing, no doubt leaving a marquee full of budding guitarists manically depressed.  There’s one way of playing a guitar and then there’s Martin’s.  Elsewhere Teesside’s The Young’uns took to the main stage like ducks to water, their Mojo signing queue being apparently the longest of the entire weekend, due in no small part to the trio’s infectious spirit and good humour.  Sarah Jarosz went down equally as well shortly afterwards; Jarosz relishing in the fact that she was not only playing the main stage at the festival, but also at the very special 50th anniversary.  The worst kept secret of the weekend was the ‘surprise guest’ appearance by Kate Rusby, who performed on stage two during the afternoon after a much hyped game of Chinese whispers.  I’m not sure why we were subjected to all the secrecy, I can only assume it was due to the fact that Kate had just had her own festival just a couple of weeks before and felt that it may have affected numbers.  The programme entry ‘surprise guest’ was never going to be the surprise everyone had hoped for, it became immediately apparent once the Barnsley diva arrived on site, her instantly recognisable curls bobbing along through the festival site prior to her set.  Kate’s set however was as popular as expected, the singer delivering a bunch of songs from her new album Ghost, which was officially launched a couple of weeks earlier at Kate’s own shindig up in Barnsley.  After taking a few photos during the first three numbers of Kate’s set, I rushed over to catch the rest of Jason Isbell’s set, who was already onstage with his singer/fiddler wife Amanda Shires, the two of them performing a superb set.  Having missed Eddi Reader when she played her stage two set on Saturday, I was pleased to hear that the singer would be playing once again in the club tent on Sunday and rushed over to catch her set.  Kirsty Bromley had the difficult job of following Eddi with a couple of unaccompanied songs and was then joined by Jamie Roberts on a guitar he borrowed from Hobgoblin for the last number, all of which was enjoyed by the few people who stayed behind after Eddi’s predictably popular set.  One of the most eagerly anticipated sets of the weekend for me personally was The Rails, featuring Kami Thompson and James Walbourne.  I had a feeling I was going to enjoy their show having played their debut album to death leading up to this weekend.  I wasn’t at all disappointed as the band played a great set on stage two on Sunday afternoon.  Wearing sunglasses throughout the first three songs, the singer, who just happens to be Richard and Linda’s daughter, took them off a couple of minutes before the end of the third number, just in time to give the photographers a peek at the face behind the shades.  The other notable appearances on Sunday were country singer Lindi Ortega, who soon had the audience on her side, performing delightfully entertaining set and Ladysmith Black Mambazo of course, whose distinct harmonies resounded throughout the festival site early on Sunday evening as the sun went down.  The celebrated African vocal band also invited a huge chorus line onto the stage with them, probably breaking the record for how many people could fit onto the main stage this weekend.  Rumours circulated the festival site all day with regard to Van Morrison’s appearance.  I lost count of how many times I heard the joke ‘there are two kinds of people, those who like Van Morrison and those who have met him’.  Repeating the joke to someone was like saying ‘you need a saddle on that’ to a Great Dane owner or ‘you should stop then’ to someone called Mr Smokestoomuch.  The joke had worn thin by the time the great man arrived on site.  The truth is that despite the infamous nightmare of the personality, Van Morrison provided one of the best sets of the weekend, delivering on cue some of his most familiar songs, such as “Gloria”, “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Moondance”, all backed by a first rate band of stella jazz musicians.  I want to hate Van Morrison but I just don’t.  I think we have to accept that he is one of the handful of living artists who deserves the right to be difficult, along with someone like Dylan.  So with 50 years of festival fun almost over, together with a personal 25 years under my belt, there was only one more thing to do as Lunasa and the Peatbogs saw out the final night and that was to relax in the bar with a few friends and chat about our own personal favourite moments of both this festival and all the others that we had collectively attended over the years.  We all seemed to be in agreement, that if this wasn’t the best festival in its 50 year history, then it was pretty close.  Who’s for number 51?

Roddy Woomble | Live Review | The Bell, Driffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 10.10.14

The Bell Hotel in the centre of Driffield is home to a number of events throughout the year, organised under the Moonbeams banner, with each visiting artist carefully hand-picked and presented by Leila Cooper.  Tonight saw the return to the candle-lit venue of Idlewild frontman Roddy Woomble, whose unassuming presence on stage bears little resemblance to what you might imagine an indie rock band’s frontman to be.  Seated to the extreme left side of the stage and certainly out of the spotlight, the singer’s composure and restraint throughout the set was echoed by the audience, who listened intently, that is aside from a couple on the front row, whose ‘sweet nothings’ began to grate after a while.  Talking whilst the band is on stage might be okay at an Idlewild gig, but tonight’s band deserved some considered attention and that’s precisely what they received from the rest of the audience.  The band, consisting of Sorren Maclean on guitar, Seonaid Aitken on fiddle and piano and Craig Ainslie on bass, was given the opportunity to play their own set prior to Roddy’s appearance on stage.  The Isle of Mull’s Sorren Maclean is currently at that exciting stage just prior to the release of his debut album, where the songs are being broken in before live audiences and good songs they are too.  Each song was treated to a fine arrangement, helped along in no small part by a bassist who clearly knows what he’s doing together with some tight harmonies and fiddle playing courtesy of Fife’s Seonaid Aitken, whose own story deserves further investigation.  Sandwiched in the middle of Sorren’s own songs was a pretty cheerful cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not For You”, which was nice to hear again.   Once the Idlewild frontman took to his stool, it felt like one familiar song after another, with a repertoire that covered just about every corner of the songwriter’s career thus far, from Idlewild material to his own solo songs, starting with a song from his most recent album Listen To Keep (2013), the bluegrass-tinged “Trouble Your Door”, which in effect demonstrated the tightness of this outfit from the get go.  There would no doubt have been some in the audience eagerly awaiting the Idlewild songs, which dutifully came a couple of songs into the first set, with new arrangements of “You Held the World in Your Arms”, “Quiet Crown” and “Take Me Back to the Islands”, before going on to deliver the gorgeous “My Secret is My Silence”, which is the sort of song that you feel, if only for a few moments, that you are hearing the best song you have ever heard in your entire life, helped in no small measure by Gerry and Ani McNeice’s superb twiddling at the sound desk.  The second set was made up predominantly of songs from Roddy’s solo repertoire, including some of his most recent songs such as “Leaving Without Gold” and “Travelling Light”.  Like Sorren before him, Roddy included a well-chosen cover to infiltrate his set, with a toe-tapping take on John Prine’s “Speed of the Sound of Loneliness”, which included Sionaid providing some fine fiddle accompaniment.  Sionaid also duetted with Roddy on the anthemic “Waverley Steps”, before concluding with the brooding “Old Town”, the band returning for one final encore, with the highly appropriate Idlewild song Goodnight.  It has to be said that it was slightly baffling why the room wasn’t full to the rafters for such a quality night of music, but the relatively small audience was treated to a top class show nevertheless, with three excellent sets plus an unexpected opening appearance by the young Bridlington singer / songwriter / guitarist Brodie Milner, whose youthful confidence, reminiscent of a young Ryan Adams, brought a distinctive spark to the evening. 

Musicport 2014 | Live Review | Various Venues, Whitby | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 24.10.14

There are few more pleasant ways to arrive in Whitby than on a crisp autumn afternoon, bathed in unseasonable sunshine.  After parking the car and checking into The Captain’s Lodge B&B on Crescent Avenue, we made our way across the Royal Crescent, past the house once frequented by Bram Stoker, and to the Whitby Pavilion where this year’s Musicport Festival was being unpacked stage by stage, stall by stall.  By the time this pair of excitable festival reviewers had arrived, Maia had already kicked things off in the Pavilion Theatre – just one of the handful of stages at the venue – accompanied by a throng of musical pupils from the Fyling Hall School.  Sitting in the deep black shadows, a crowd of local adults and children showed warmth and appreciation for this free festival opener, providing a positive start to what promised to be a weekend of diverse music, dance, poetry and even cooking!  After grabbing our wristbands, passes and programmes, we were fortunate enough to run into the very busy-looking Jim McLaughlin and Pete Holden who were on hand all weekend to ensure artists and press alike were looked after with what seemed to be typical Musicport hospitality. With this being Northern Sky’s first visit to the ‘international, inclusive, inspirational’ North Yorkshire festival, it was notably reassuring to arrive at what turned out to be an exceptionally well-organised and friendly event.  And, before the festival was officially opened, we left the organisers and stewards to their busy preparations and headed into the stunning coastal town for some grub.  Later, with a hearty Magpie Cafe meal inside of us, we returned to the West Cliff where the Beastie Drummers and Fire Jugglers were lighting up the Whitby dusk with swirling fire and bone-shaking percussion.  The Scottish group then led a procession down the cliff and into the Pavilion where, on the main stage, the festival was launched by organisers Jim and Sue McLaughlin, followed shortly afterwards by a performance by Zimbabwe’s Rise Kagona and the Jit Jive Band.  If any music was guaranteed to get things off to a flying start, it had to be the sound of the former Bhundu Boys guitarist’s infectious Jit, which was evident immediately as the dance floor filled before the second song was underway.  Down the spiral staircase, on the North Sea stage, a handful of intrepid young singer songwriters were warming up the crowd for Attila the Stockbroker.  The Punk Poet gave a typically angry, politically-fuelled performance which, in turn, gave his like-minded audience a chance to whoop and holler in appreciation for poems and patter on the subject of Tory politics, the demise of Old Labour and Margaret Thatcher’s death.  A shame that left wing politics has to sink to celebrating death, but nice to hear the bubbling of honest performance poetry nonetheless.  Amongst Attila’s repertoire this evening were poems such as Poison Pensioner – a delightfully acidic attack on that useless, self-centred relative we all know so well, who turns up in a crisis to enjoy the tea and biscuits – as well as Guy Fawkes’ Table which lamented the loss of Old Labour from Fawkes’ table in the Mother Shipton Inn, Knaresborough.  If you’re going to host a festival with a handful of poets on the bill, you might as well get the ball rolling with Attila the Stockbroker, who never fails to give a spirited, thought-provoking performance.  Soon, and with great contrast, the Chinese flautist Guo Yue appeared on the Galley stage to give a demonstration of traditional Chinese cooking.  Opening with a tantalising wisp of bamboo flute, the demonstration soon drew a large crowd of onlookers with its aromas of light soy sauce, finely chopped ginger and chilli oil.  Along with his sidekick, Mim Suleiman, the Beijing cook and musician prepared a delicious dish of seasoned glass noodles for all present.  The very humble and warm Guo also talked briefly about his two books, his friendship with Peter Gabriel and his restaurant in London – a tantalising treat for those looking forward to Guo’s Main Stage performance on Saturday.  After the mesmerising cooking demo, and with the lingering taste of fine Chinese cuisine on his tongue, this reviewer headed back upstairs for Friday night’s closing acts on the Main Stage.  The Main Stage had been in the capable hands of Jo Freya and Michelle Scally Clarke throughout the evening who introduced such bands as Tantz, who brought a feast of vibrant Klezmer music to the festival, their set including the obligatory Hava Nagila, a pretty laid-back acoustic set by Scots band Idlewild, featuring Roddy Woomble, who even at one point played the guitar!  That’s got to be a first.  The opening evening concert was brought to a climax by Brixton’s Yaaba Funk, who provided an exhilarating and highly charged performance, which effectively saw everyone cheerfully off to their beds.  For those whose bed could wait a little longer, Andy Kershaw took to the turntables in the Hub, relishing in what he does best, that is to introduce great music to the masses, cherry picking from his alleged seven ton record collection, with some highly danceable Reggae tunes.  Not even twenty-four hours in, it became clear that the Musicport Festival was not simply a cavalcade of Tashi Lhunpo Monks performances from a diverse range of world musicians.  Along with the ever-present song of seagulls and the billowing of salty sea breezes, the festival exuded a constant sense of cultural awareness and the appreciation of world traditions.  This morning’s opening performance in the Theatre embodied the entire spirit of the festival as the Tashi Lhunpo Monks gave a ninety minute demonstration of meditations, chants, dances and even traditional Buddhist argument rituals.  Now re-established in India, after the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery preserves the traditions of the Tibetan monks and this morning’s performance offered a glimpse into their practices.  This enchanting demonstration included ancient masked dances such as the haunting Durdak (Lords of the Cemetery), the Shanak (Black Hat Dance) and Bakshi (The Lords of Death) interspersed with moments of entrancing calm as the monks led the crowd in sessions of Kunrik meditation.  This perfect way to begin the second day of the festival was also the ideal precursor to various other performances from the monks scheduled for the remainder of the event.  With a clear and relaxed mind, this somewhat enlightened reviewer floated out of the Theatre and down the corridor and downstairs towards the North Sea stage, where writer, storyteller and broadcaster Ian Clayton was being grilled by Heath Common about his life and career, with an emphasis on his new book Song for My Father, which the author was only too happy to sign in the cafe directly above.  Ian Clayton was the first of two authors to be interviewed at the festival on Saturday, the other being The Fall’s Steve Hanley who appeared in the Theatre later in the afternoon.  On the Main Stage the New Rope String Band managed to undo much of the tranquillity with their typically energetic comedy performance.  Fusing musical dexterity with Pythonesque comedic genius, this trio of lunatics filled the room with belly laughs as they incorporated clever optical tricks, such as walking in and out of the projected film and appearing to sprout several new limbs.  And if this wasn’t enough, the show reached its zenith with perhaps the only inflated lilo-fuelled double melodica performance this crowd will ever see.  A return to tranquillity came after the New Ropes had departed to rapturous applause.  The Yorkshire-based spoken word troupe A Firm of Poets gave their first reading of the festival as the stage was being set for the Perunika Trio.  A Firm of Poets consists of four northern wordsmiths who took turns in bringing their own brand of spoken literature to the festival.  Geneviève L Walsh, described as a ‘scary, sweary, verse-writing fairy’, admitted that, as a Goth, she had somehow arrived a fortnight early (Whitby’s Goth Festival being just two weeks away) before she gave an air-stilling recital of elegantly blunt poems in a Halifax accent.  Ralph Dartford and John Darwin stabbed the air with concise yet captivating poems on subjects as diverse as the Hillsborough disaster and stealing Mars Bars, whilst the indefatigable Matt Abbott pummelled the atmosphere with his swiftly-delivered social poems that always packed a political punch, giving Attila a run for his money, for sure. Shortly afterwards, the Perunika Trio appeared on the Main Stage dressed in traditional Bulgarian costume.  Their distinctive voices and close harmonies, reminiscent of (if not identical to) Trio Bulgarka, soon resounded around the room bringing a certain stillness to proceedings.  Once again down on the North Sea stage another Yorkshire poet was sitting with her notebook, compiling a set list for what became a highlight of the festival’s spoken word bill. Leeds-based performance poet Michelle Scally Clarke brought a charming warmth, as well as a profound silence, to the North Sea stage as she pin-balled between poems occasioned by the pain of her turbulent early life and amiable, unguarded stage patter that melted the audience like butter.  Her delivery was, more often than not, tinged with the eager questions of a soul desperate to find its sense of belonging.  But these sincerely serious poems were always coloured with humour and, best of all, a motherly compassion that had this reviewer rushing out for copies of Clarke’s books, I Am and She Is.  With Clarke’s poetic lines tied around my mind, I made my way up to the Main Stage to catch Guo Yue’s second performance of the festival.  Having already sampled his delicious cooking, I was eager to enjoy a serving of Guo’s celebrated flute playing.  Lying on inflatable beds in front of the stage, the Musicport crowd were treated to a recital of Guo’s meditative compositions from such recordings as White Jade and Music, Food and Love.  Each tune was introduced with the tale that inspired them including the one about Guo’s childhood attempt to train a dragonfly, culminating in the utterly bewitching composition Dragonfly – just one of many performances from this charmingly humble musician that managed to lull the afternoon audience into a state of quiet rapture.  It’s impossible to see everything at Musicport with so much going on simultaneously and pretty soon both of our respective programmes were being marked in earnest with circles and arrows ensuring we didn’t miss any of the really important events, but alas this was beginning to happen quite frequently.  Saturday afternoon was particularly packed with those aforementioned important events, with appearances over three stages by the likes of Mosaik, Haddo and The Bevvy Sisters. The Sudanese singer Shurooq Abu El Nas performed her afternoon set in the Theatre, bringing songs from the Arab world to Musicport.  Equipped with a couple of percussionists and a keyboard player, together with a pair of unfeasibly high-heeled red shoes, the singer brought a taste of Khartoum to a very appreciative Musicport audience.  Later in the afternoon, the youthful Warsaw band Mosaik provided a set richly imbued with the traditional sounds of Poland, before London-based Turkish singer Oclay Bayir settled into a classy set of songs from the regions of Anatolia and Mesopotamia; a perfect time to take the weight off and take advantage of the space in front of the stage, as dancing feet were temporarily replaced by reclining bodies.  Renowned musical comedian Mitch Benn was on hand to launch the evening’s musical entertainment in the Theatre.  A regular contributor to the BBC Radio 4 programme The Now Show and the man behind such Edinburgh Festival successes as Don’t Believe a Word and Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle, Mitch has just become a Sci-Fi author with the publication of his novel, Terra and its sequel Terra’s World.  Fortunately, Mitch was able to find a small space in his busy schedule to bring comedy and song to the Musicport Festival.  Ensuring that all small children were ushered out before he debuted the strongest of his swear words, Benn went on to impress with a repertoire of cunningly composed songs on such subjects as break-ups, the Beatles and his beloved Doctor Who.  As musical comedy goes, Mitch is up there with the best of them and each cheek bone in the Theatre was surely aching as this superlative writer of comedy songs launched into his Billy Joel-inspired “I’m Proud of the BBC” which is built from a long list of classic BBC shows, rhymed for our pleasure.  Saturday evening’s concert on the Main Stage continued with an appearance by Derby’s Lucy Ward and her eponymous band, which the young singer led with utter conviction, charm and enthusiasm.  Appearing with Belinda O’Hooley, Heidi Tidow, Sam Pegg and Steve Maclachlan, the band also featured the surprise inclusion of Anna Esslemont, who was standing in for regular fiddler Joy Gravestock.  It really cannot be denied that Musicport is prepared to take risks from time to time and this year was no exception.  The inclusion on the bill of Robyn Hitchcock, one of England’s true eccentrics, was for some of us a rather inspired decision.  For those unfamiliar with Hitchcock however, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see one or two leave before the second song.  Intelligent, uncompromising and at times decidedly odd, Hitchcock set out to entertain his audience with a bunch of songs new and not so new.  Sporting one of his trademark polka dot shirts, the wispy silver-haired icon of strange who often dreams of trains had fun playing with the sound crew, who variously provided such sonic atmospheres as cathedral, toilet or whatever sprang to mind at the time, much to the amusement or bemusement of the audience, depending on which side of the Hitchcock fence you’re on.  After Hitchcock’s performance, the Theatre stage was reset for Heath Common and the Lincoln 725.  Described by R2 Magazine as an original from the same ranks as Ivor Cutler and Syd Barrett, Heath Common took us on a spoken word tour of his intriguing past, stopping at such events as seeing Jimi Hendrix fall into the back of a cab in Soho and catching a glimpse of Mick Jagger on the set of Performance in the late sixties.  His meandering, and often hard to believe tales, were accompanied by the music of the Lincoln 725 – a four piece band whose musical backing often stole the show.  Headlining Saturday night was the much anticipated Lo’Jo, whose band name letters hung like Spinal Tap monoliths in the background, following the waving lines of the Musicport logo as if it was always meant to be there.  The main hall was packed for this highly enjoyable set and provided the ideal finisher for what turned out to be an almost exhausting day of fun and music.  If Saturday morning hadn’t already filled our heads with the enthralling meditations and rituals of the Tashi Lhunpo Monks, then this morning’s performance was sure to have us spilling over with respect for Buddhist traditions.  The monks led a procession down West Cliff to the windy Whitby beach where, in full traditional regalia and with Tibetan dungchens sounding from the beach huts, they blessed the sea and allowed us another chance to witness their ancient rituals up close.  And as the rituals passed, many of the crowd stripped down to swimming costumes and plunged straight into the October-cold waters for a morning swim.  This kind of thing doesn’t happen at many of these events and, once again, Musicport’s place in that special category of must-do festivals was confirmed.  Back at the Pavilion, the final day was about to commence with another packed programme of music, dance, poetry, storytelling, workshops, cinema and cooking.  The Big Ukulele Busk was just coming to a close when we arrived at the North Sea stage, especially to catch some of Barcode Zebra’s set, led by Jess Gardham.  Having seen the band earlier this year at the Beverley Folk Festival, Jim McLaughlin made the right decision to invite them along this weekend.  Great songwriting was celebrated during the first couple of hours of Sunday afternoon as the inimitable O’Hooley and Tidow once again returned to the Main Stage in order to deliver one great song after another, perhaps none so powerful as “Two Mothers”, which brought the hall to silence.  By contrast, after a thoroughly engaging set by the four-piece Sandrani, whose fusion of classical Indian raag and gypsy jazz proved to be much more dextrous than expected, singer songwriter Kathryn Williams took to the Theatre stage to deliver some of her best loved songs in her own enchanting style, with some nifty loop pedal work thrown in during “Little Black Numbers”.  Uncertain whether this was by complete chance or by deliberate design, the three consecutive performances that followed on the Main Stage on Sunday afternoon were probably the best of the entire weekend.  One superb set followed another starting with a beautiful performance by Amira Kheir, the ‘Diva of the Sudanese Desert’, whose voice was just as enchanting as the programme suggested.  It’s hard to explain but it just seemed that the quality had been raised a notch over the next three hours and it was futile to venture out of the Main Stage area.  Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita followed Amira Kheir and were rewarded with respectful silence for much of their set.  The duo from Wales and Senegal respectively, performed some of the delicate pieces from their celebrated album Clychau Dibon before a thoroughly enchanted audience.  The complex interplay between the Welsh harp and the African kora in the hands of these two musicians cannot be overestimated, yet the duo perform with such flair and playfulness at the same time.  It’s utterly spellbinding.  After their set, the jury was out on things getting any better, but then the surprise darlings of the festival turned out to be the multi-faceted Världens Band, whose energetic and ever-changing performance kept the audience thoroughly engaged right through to the end.  The fourteen-piece collective from three continents took most of us by surprise and probably even took themselves by surprise too, especially when Seckou Keita got up on stage in his civvies to sing with the band.  Nobody in the room envied Jo Freya’s task of bringing the set to its eventual close.  Whilst the music kept most of us busy on all the stages throughout the weekend, there was always something going on elsewhere in and around the area.  By the east entrance of the Pavilion for instance, Sol Cinema, the world’s smallest solar powered movie theatre, entertained eight people at a time whilst other events took place in just about every available space, including Tai Chi, African singing, spoons and percussion demos, storytelling, flag making and music tots workshops.  Plenty to do for all the family.  There was even dancing in the street over by Johnny Baghdad’s ultra busy kebab van.  Meanwhile over in the Theatre, the broadcaster Doctor Rock was in the process of interviewing Whitby’s famous son Arthur Brown, who was seemingly relaxed as he reminisced over his formative years as a Whitby lad, dodging the bombing campaigns of WWII, together with his memories of first hearing rock and roll, which would form the basis of his subsequent career path.  As Sunday drew to its inevitable close, there was a couple more bands to enjoy.  Zimbabwe’s extremely energetic drum and dance combo Siyaya, made a welcome return to the festival just over a decade after their last visit, with some colourful dance moves, stepping in at the last minute for Amine and Hama who sadly had to cancel their visit to the UK.  Finally it was down to the Whitby native himself to close this year’s Musicport Festival, with a highly entertaining set.  Dressed in familiar regalia – face paint, masked, robed and helmeted – the 72 year-old moved across the stage with the energy of a teenager, performing such songs as “I Put a Spell on You” and the obligatory hit single from 1968 “Fire”, complete with its amusing preamble.  Arthur Brown was still in full flight as we passed through the Pavilion cafe area, up the steps and out into the mild October evening, the lights of Whitby illuminating the darkened coastline.  The feeling that we had stumbled upon something very special accompanied us during the drive home, along with the obvious question; why did it take fifteen years for us to get to Musicport?  The answer to that question is anyone’s guess, but get there we did and a return is definitely on the cards for 2015.  

Songlines Music Awards 2014 Winners’ Concert | Live Review | The Sage, Gateshead | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 06.11.14

The evenings tend to draw in quite early once November comes around and even earlier on drizzly cloudy days like this.  The quayside was grey and dismal by late afternoon as raindrops rippled the surface of the Tyne, but there was an expectancy of colour and vibrancy awaiting those with tickets for tonight’s concert at the imposing Sage Gateshead, as the Songlines team prepared for an eagerly anticipated evening of music from around the world.  It wasn’t any old evening of music though, but a veritable feast of award-winning music courtesy of three of the four recipients of the four prestigious awards in this year’s Songlines Music Awards.   The 100th edition of Songlines magazine, published back in June this year, saw the announcement of the four winners from an original shortlist published a couple of months prior to that.  The four categories as voted by Songlines readers were for Best Artist, Best Group, Cross-Cultural Collaboration and Newcomer.  All four winning acts were due to perform at tonight’s concert but unfortunately Best Artist recipient Bassekou Kouyaté had to return home unexpectedly to join his family in Bamako due to a serious family illness.  The other three recipient outfits, Family Atlantica, Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita and Tamikrest adjusted their sets to suit and the eagerly-awaited event went ahead as planned.  Songlines editor-in-chief Simon Broughton was our compère for the evening, who also conducted a pre-concert ‘chat’ with Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita high up in the bar on the third level.  The purpose of the relaxed and informal interview was basically to provide an insight into the ‘intriguing project’ the duo put together eighteen months ago.  The two musicians from Wales and Senegal respectively, described their music to a small but attentive audience along with some of the ideas behind the songs, before Simon threw out an open invitation for questions from the floor.  The main concert opened with the recipients of the Newcomer award, the London-based Family Atlantica, whose infectious rhythms set the bar high for the rest of the concert to follow.  Fronted by the ukulele-wielding Venezuelan Luzmira Zerpa, whose buzz-word for the night was simply ‘family’, the band created an instant party atmosphere with their mixture of Cuban, Venezuelan, Ghanaian and Ethiopian rhythms, which soon had the aisles bouncing with those eager to dance the night away.  Newcomers that we should hear a lot more about in due course.  After a short break, the stage was set for the return to the venue of Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, who played here back in May.  The duo’s hypnotic music soon brought the audience to a respectable silence and took advantage of the venue’s superb acoustics.  Performing a selection of compositions from their celebrated collaboration album Clychau Dibon, including “Ceffylau”, “Bamba” and the entertaining “Future Strings”, which saw the duo playfully sparring in a Duelling Banjos manner, but in this case duelling Classical harp and African kora, the duo delighted their audience to the sort of musical fun you can only really experience in a live setting.  The set concluded with a rare vocal performance from the duo, with Catrin’s whispered words complemented by Seckou’s rich refrain in an almost call and response style.  The concert finale was left in the capable hands of Mali’s Touareg blues rockers Tamikrest, whose highly distinctive Desert groove permeated throughout the hall as the audience once again took to the aisles in order to move their bodies to the infectious rhythms of West Africa.  Perhaps a small front of house dance area would have been better for those who wanted to be on their feet but it was so refreshing to see dancing in the aisles with none of the usual irritating H&S concerns often seen in other venues.  A fitting conclusion to a highly rewarding evening of music, not just for the award winners themselves, but for we the audience.

Skerryvore | Live Review | The Bell, Driffield | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 22.11.14

There was a sense of anticipation hovering in the air at The Bell Hotel in Driffield this afternoon as Fraser West, Skerryvore’s drummer, went through his sound-check in the main concert room just over the courtyard in the Town Hall.  Although the room was pretty deserted save for the drummer and one or two sound technicians, each busying themselves with the usual pre-gig routine, the rest of the band were mingling with regulars in the bustling hotel bar, an extraordinarily welcoming haven with an impressive whiskey collection on display and some of the best beer around.  It was only 4pm, yet the place was already buzzing, largely due to the singers and musicians session that had just started in the bar.  Skerryvore were not due on stage until around 9.30pm, over four hours later, but that sense of excitement was already permeating the winding corridors throughout the hotel.  When it comes to Scottish Celtic Rock in these parts, the healthy music community of Driffield doesn’t hold back on its enthusiasm.  Arriving at the venue a little earlier than usual, specifically to interview the band in front of a live audience, I have to confess, I was myself in the early stages of excitement.  Then there was another surprise just around the corner as Leila Cooper, our host for the evening, sprang this one on me: “I’m going to ask Skerryvore to be the patrons of the Moonbeams Festival tonight” going on to ask “what do you think?”  Well I thought it was a very good idea and fortunately the band thought exactly the same as they graciously accepted the invitation later in the evening.  All seven members of the band joined me in one of the hotel’s cosy lounge areas, a room that had recently been furnished with a fully decorated Christmas tree just in time for the festive season. A small audience of fans as well as curious visitors also joined us for the informal pre-gig chat, which was intended to give the audience something of an insight into the almost ten-year career thus far of one of the Isle of Tiree’s most famous exports.  The band, consisting of singer/guitarist Alec Dalglish, brothers Daniel and Martin Gillespie (accordion, pipes respectively), fiddler Craig Espie, drummer Fraser West, bassist Jodie Bremaneson and keyboard player Alan Scobie, soon relaxed into their comfy chairs as I fired a bunch of routine questions at them, before inviting the audience to fire one or two of their own questions at the band.  Formed in 2005 on the Isle of Tiree by the four original members Dalglish, West and the Gillespie brothers, the band are hardly an overnight success, having worked hard over the last nine years to get to this stage in their career.  Their star is now certainly on the rise, particularly in Europe with a touring schedule that has taken the band literally all around the world, which of course includes this side of the border.  Five albums into their recording career, the band have progressed from a standard issue Ceilidh band to a world class Celtic Rock band, with more influences than you could shake a stick at.  Through all the changes and refinements during the band’s development, they have always maintained a strong commitment to their Scottish roots, which comes over in their music loud and clear.  If their songs at times veer off into pop-infused anthems, the highland bagpipes soon bring it all back home and this is precisely what the audience seems to like the most.  Having recently signed to the Adastra agency who specialise in folk, roots, acoustic and world music, the band are hoping to further expand their popularity in this part of the world with a return to the Moonbeams Festival next summer.  The concert opened with performances by three local acts, Jasper Bolton, Dogfinger Steve and the five-piece band Under the Bridge, each taking to the smaller stage opposite the main stage, which was all suitably set up for the headliners.  All Moonbeams events, whether it’s the main summer festival, the March Folk Weekend or any of the other seasonal gatherings, provide a platform for local singers and musicians and tonight was no exception.  The three support sets had a dual role, that of showcasing local talent and to effectively warm up the audience for the main event with some familiar songs such as Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”, CSN’s “Teach Your Children” and The Band’s timeless “The Weight”, as well as a few self-penned numbers, in the case of Dogfinger Steve performed on a homemade cigar box guitar.  The sold-out concert continued with Leila Cooper introducing the headliners as succinctly as possible, simply by announcing “are you ready? … SKERRYVORE” as the band walked out onto the dimly-lit stage and into the spotlight.  The welcome was both loud and enthusiastic, with just about everybody in the room out of their chairs and on their feet.  Opening with the lively “Oblique Blend”, an instrumental piece from Skerryvore’s brand new record Chasing The Sun, the band delivered the sort of set designed to keep the audience on their feet for the next 90 minutes or so, which they did.  Selecting songs and tunes from the new album, including “By Your Side”, “Here I Am” and “Moonraker”, the band also drew from their back catalogue with such inclusions as “We’re the Lucky Ones”, “Angry Fiddler”, “Clueless Wife” and “Simple Life”.   There’s little doubt that Skerryvore made new friends in Driffield tonight, as well as maintaining the strong following that is already there.  This is largely due to the band’s credentials as a first rate live band.  If you’re out and about in and around Driffield during the run up to Christmas and you see the word Skerryvore on chunky hoodies, boarder beanie hats or woolly pompoms, you’ll have a good idea where they came from.  

Great British Folk Festival 2014 | Live Review | Butlins, Skegness | Review by Allan Wilkinson | 04.12.14

Once again the original Butlins holiday resort in Skegness on England’s East Lincolnshire coast plays host to the Great British Folk Festival, now celebrating its fifth successful year with a varied programme of folk music, folk related music and ‘not really folk at all but who really cares?’ music.  In just five years the annual December event has built up a strong and stable following by providing great facilities, warm chalets, good food and drink and most importantly an impressive programme of top quality acts.  If your memory of those last five years conjures up looming question marks surrounding what is and what isn’t ‘folk’, then a quick reminder of who’s played so far will confirm the festival’s credentials as an important feature on the folk music calendar: Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Albion Band, The Fureys, June Tabor and Oysterband, Kate Rusby, Show of Hands, Ralph McTell, Cara Dillon, Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party, Emily Smith, Heidi Talbot, Chumbawamba, Martyn Joseph, Ashley Hutchings’ Morris On, and the list goes on.  The festival has taken a few risks with its audience over the years and continues to, but it’s all in the pursuit of eclecticism and variety.  A good section of the audience is completely on board with the idea of a bill that includes anything from 1960s legend Donovan, comedian Phil Cool, cider guzzling Wurzels, rock vocalists Deborah Bonham and Sandi Thom and a local band whose guitarist plays a sewing machine, which may not be strictly akin to Cecil Sharp’s idea of folk music, but there again this isn’t 1911.  The opening night provided the same sort of musical eclecticism that has been demonstrated previously since the first festival back in 2010.  If the winter chill tonight made for a few shivers, it was nothing in comparison to the frosty inaugural festival, where the snow and ice was so harsh it prevented some of the acts from getting here, such as The Unthanks and John Renbourn.  Tonight, the two main stages Reds and the Centre Stage, hosted by Sue Marchant and Jim Moray respectively, saw major league bands Bellowhead and Altan, rubbing shoulders with ex-members of Ocean Colour Scene, together with the staggeringly dextrous Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson, not to mention the voice largely responsible for us all having a lovely day in Bangor back in the 1970s.  Cathy LeSurf didn’t actually delight us all with Fiddler’s Dram’s memorable novelty hit but instead opened up the concert in Reds with her new band Wolfescote, performing at their first ever folk festival.  The band, made up of Cathy with Gary Southwell, Isobel Morris and Jim Kimberley, played to a packed house (Bellowhead were up next) with a gentle set of mainly traditional material including a fine interpretation of “Here’s the Tender Coming”, featuring a guest appearance by guitarist Gordon Giltrap.  Earlier in the afternoon, the newly established ‘Introducing Stage’ under the Skyline Pavilion saw performances by the York-based singer/songwriter Ashley James, the infectious and harmonious Doncaster-based duo Rita Payne (Rhiannon Scutt and Pete Sowerby), singer/songwriter Lotte Mullan and rounded off with the much talked about Coco and the Butterfields.  The Steve Cradock Band opened proceedings on the Centre Stage, with a relaxed set of highly melodic songs suited to the band’s rich blend of harmony singing and almost psychedelic accompaniment, which included one or two choice samples on such songs as “Any Way the Wind Blows”.  The Ocean Colour Scene guitarist’s five piece band, which includes Cradock’s wife Sally on keyboards, brought to the festival a taste of Nineties Moseley Britpop that would be further explored later in the evening with Merrymouth, featuring other OCS members Simon Fowler and Dan Sealey and a guest appearance by John McCusker on fiddle and low whistle.  By mid-evening, County Donegal’s Altan made their Great British Folk Festival debut with a delightful set of songs and tunes from their own particular neck of the woods, something the five-piece band have been doing quite successfully for the best part of thirty years now.  Led as always by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, whose infectious smile and equally infectious fiddle playing dominates the band’s onstage presence, provided a perfect counterpoint to the sheer musical exuberance of the main headlining band next door.  With the festival’s impressive track record as indicated above, it was only a matter of time before Bellowhead, clearly the country’s leading live band on the folk and roots circuit today, took to one of the resort’s main stages.  The queue outside Reds was one of the longest we’ve seen in five years and one that was rewarded with an energetic and full concert-length performance.  There may have been a slight kerfuffle front of stage prior to the show, but once the over-enthusiastic fans were moved on in order for those who had queued the longest to get those front row seats, the band appeared onstage on time, on cue and in full throttle to entertain their audience accordingly.  A fine start to a promising weekend.  The only real difference between a Great British-themed weekend and a regular family holiday here at Butlins in Skegness, apart from the obvious specialist ‘entertainment’ provided and the noticeable absence of all those jolly-faced ‘Redcoats’, is the fact that things take a little longer to get going in the morning.  Under normal circumstances those fresh-faced Redcoats would soon have you working out playfully by the swimming pool at the crack of dawn, especially during the sunny season!  Of course there’s also the absence of kids, those human alarm clocks who would usually be tugging at your bed clothes at dawn in order for the day of fun to start.  Thankfully those mini-hangovers from Friday night can be suitably slept off and the day can begin on your terms.  This child-free zone also means that the festival doesn’t necessarily have to concern itself with the usual variety of circus tricks, face painting and musical workshops designed to nurture our next generation of folk singers and musicians.  This is really neither a plus nor a problem for those who come to the festival; the audiences are now pretty much used to the subtle differences between this and other similar sized festivals.  After a slow and sleepy start to the day, the camp gradually came alive this morning to a soundtrack provided by the constant piped music filtering across the village from the Sun and Moon’s PA system, as the various additional amenities opened their doors for those wanting a swim or the whole ‘Spa Experience’, a movie at the cinema or a quick blast on Guitar Hero, a challenge that Jim Moray took today; activities that you don’t usually get at your standard-issue common or garden folk festival.  Once the Saturday morning sound checks were all done and dusted in the two main concert halls, Matt and Sueleen opened proceedings on the Centre Stage with a polished set of songs including the memorable Justin Hayward classic “Forever Autumn”, whilst The Hut People took to the Reds Stage in order to deliver some of their own unique blend of highly rhythmic instrumental music designed specifically for accordion and percussion.  Starting with a Québécois influenced tune entitled La Bottine, the duo, made up of Sam Pirt and Gary Hammond, eased the day of music into action, Hammond joking that he was probably conceived here at this very holiday resort.  Whilst Sam introduced a variety of musical styles on his accordion, Gary demonstrated the broad scope of musical possibilities on a selection of exotic percussion instruments, from his own 600-plus collection.  The Springfields made a welcome return to the Butlins stages after receiving a great reception at last year’s festival, with a crowd-pleasing set of memorable sing-along favourites such as “Sixteen Tons” and “Cottonfields”; essentially retro folk/pop from a retro folk/pop trio.  Meanwhile on the Reds Stage the Sheffield-based Melrose Quartet gathered closely to perform a set of richly-carved songs from the tradition both accompanied and a cappella, their unique blend of voices being this quartet’s secret weapon.  With mature musical arrangements, the Melrose Road resident couples Nancy Kerr and James Fagan and Jess and Richard Arrowsmith soon relaxed into their set, which was treated to a warm reception by their appreciative audience.  During the late afternoon sessions on the Introducing Stage, singer/songwriter Lucy Marshall wowed a large gathering with a selection of self-penned songs as well as more familiar material, such as Richard Thompson’s “Beeswing” and the seasonal “Fairy Tale of New York”.  Also making their festival debuts on this stage in the Skyline Pavilion were Bad Cardigans, Ramble Gamble and Merlins Keep.  One of the highlights of Saturday however, was the festival debut by Scots quartet Salthouse who rounded off their current tour with a delightful set of songs and tunes from their celebrated debut album Lay Your Dark Low, including “She’s Like the Swallow”, “Katie Cruel” and “Freshwater Salt”.  The band, made up of Siobhan Miller, Lauren MacColl, Ewan MacPherson and Euan Burton were almost like rabbits caught in the headlights as the giant safety curtain rose at the start of their concert on the Centre Stage, later admitting that they had no idea what to expect here at the festival.  They only brought along a handful of CDs, all of which had gone minutes after they finished their set, which was testament to how good their set was.  As celebratory t-shirts began to appear next to the stage depicting Alan Hull’s fifty years on the planet, a life cut cruelly short in the mid 1990s, Lindisfarne band mate Ray Jackson took to the stage with a bunch of friends to deliver some of the Newcastle-based band’s best known songs.  It was one of those rare moments that every single song was not only familiar, but we knew every single word and didn’t take too much persuading to sing along to songs such as “Road to Kingdom Come”, “All Fall Down”, “Wake Up Little Sister”, “Lady Eleanor”, “Together Together”, “Winter Song”, “Warm Feeling”, “Train in G Major” and the list goes on.  The material itself guaranteed a crowd-pleasing set, but was all the more enjoyable when delivered by the ageless voice of long-time front man Ray Jackson and further enhanced by the uncannily similar voice of Alan Hull provided by his son-in-law Dave Hull-Denholm, whose reading of “Winter Song” was one of the evening’s highlights.  The fun element continued throughout the set with references to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” on Caught in the Act, the gorgeous “Run for Home” as well as set essentials “Meet me on the Corner” and “Fog on the Tyne”. Meanwhile Eddi Reader and her band took to the Reds stage slightly later than advertised due to some unnecessary faffing about during the stage set-up of the opening band.  Eddi was on form, doing what she does best with songs from her latest album release Vagabond as well as some of her more familiar material such as “Find My Love” and her number one hit “Perfect”.  The final festival choice on Saturday night was between the highly engaging set of well-crafted songs courtesy of Del Amitri singer/songwriter Justin Currie and Home Service, one of the finest live bands the English folk scene has produced.  Like The Hut People’s Gary Hammond’s confession earlier in the day, John Tams was also allegedly conceived at a Butlins holiday resort, only in his case it was up the coast at Filey.  As the band delivered on cue some of their rich brass arrangements during some of the band’s most memorable songs such as “Walk My Way”, “Alright Jack” and “Rose of Allendale”, John Tams spent much of the set having a good old chat with an audience who were only too pleased to engage themselves in the conversation.  Great music to bring the second day of the festival to a fitting climax and with still one more day to go.  Sunday offered a rare opportunity to both start and finish the day with a Full English, which was probably the main reason for climbing out of the bed so early.  Despite the seasonal cold, the weather has been quite mild over the course of the weekend, making walks along the beach not entirely unthinkable.  This morning however, the only walk I felt inclined to do was between the chalet and the Yacht Club, the place where the first of my two Full English delights of the day was experienced.  It didn’t take long before the music started up again, just after midday with two fine bands making their festival debut and appearing simultaneously on the two main stages.  On the Reds Stage, the contradictory We Banjos 3, a band that can only actually boast two banjos and whose repertoire includes a set of tunes entitled American Polkas, which is neither American nor consists of any polkas, whilst next door on the Centre Stage, the Scots band New Celeste Acoustic, who between them have no banjos whatsoever, but instead have at least two guitars, a double bass and a fiddle, made their presence known.  Whilst We Banjos 3 delivered their own brand of Irish dance music, the sort of fare that made them such a hit at the Cambridge Folk Festival last year, the Scots band tackled such material as the Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Music for a Found Harmonium” with relative ease, both bands providing an excellent start to the Sunday concert programme.  If the two opening bands were similar in number, content and sound, the afternoon’s headliners couldn’t have been more dissimilar.  The mighty Treacherous Orchestra filled the Reds Stage in terms of both personnel and sound, going on to present the capacity audience with a full-on Celtic blast, encouraging the people to get up, dance to their hearts content but most importantly have a good time.  Meanwhile on the Centre Stage guitarist Robbie McIntosh played a gentle set of rock and pop fuelled songs, accompanied by the distinctive guitar playing that served Paul McCartney well a few years ago.   Further into the afternoon, the Skyline Pavilion stage once again fulfilled its promise to introduce a handful of new names to the festival, starting with a lively set from The Band from County Hell, whose complete black attire blended in quite well with the backdrop, drawing a large crowd and a full dance floor.  This rogue folk element was shortly afterwards replaced by the much more blues-oriented performer in the shape of Matt Woosey, whose acoustic blues permeated throughout the Pavilion, attracting curious festival goers each stopping by enroute to their respective eateries.  The tea time shift was covered by Steel Threads, featuring the combined talents of Neil Wardleworth and Laura Wilcockson, who between them have been steadily building a reputation for themselves as an assured live act as well as a consistent recording duo. As the afternoon seamlessly segued into evening, the conical party hats appeared on several heads suggesting we were going to have a party night, but not before the curtain rose for guitarist Gordon Giltrap’s solo set.  It must have felt quite strange sitting in the middle of such a large stage, surrounded by a collection of acoustic guitars as the curtain rose all around him to reveal a packed room of people staring back, but Gordon Giltrap has been here before and is probably used to it.  There hasn’t been all that many solo performers at the festival over the years, possibly due to the fact that these stages are rather large and suit larger outfits.  None of this phased the guitarist who had no problem filling the stage with a set made up principally of self-penned material such as “On Camber Sands” and the memorable “Heart Song”.  Gordon also paid tribute to his friend the late Bert Jansch with his own interpretation of Davy Graham’s “Angi”.  “It helps keep the memory of Bert Jansch alive” said the guitarist.  Warm and extremely charming, the guitarist remained seated throughout the set as he built an immediate rapport with the audience.  That sort of rapport building was like water off a ducks back to the three Teesside lads known as The Young’uns, who were busy making friends of their own on the other stage.  The trio of David Eagle, Michael Hughes and Sean Cooney already have a strong following up and down the country and have a reputation for being not only fine singers, but also engaging entertainers and killer songwriters; they could also be perfect contenders for next seasons Redcoats.  It’s difficult not to be taken by this trio, whose popularity grows with every show.  The collective known as The Full English served up a delicious set of traditional English songs and tunes, performed by some of the best known names on the British folk scene. Democratically sharing out the material, which included such songs as “Creeping Jane”, “Arthur O’Bradley” and “Man in the Moon”, the members of the band, Fay Hield, Nancy Kerr, Seth Lakeman and Martin Simpson on the front row, who each took to the spotlight in turn, created a sense of purpose with the material they were delivering, whilst encouraging people to get involved by at least visiting the Full English website to discover for themselves what it’s all about.  With further contribution from the rest of the collective, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and Ben Nichols, the performance was also accompanied at one point by some footage old footage of early folk dancing from the English Folk Dance and Song Society archive.  English song and dance had a very special place tonight on the Centre Stage, whilst another English performer played an excellent set on the Reds Stage.  Derbyshire’s Bella Hardy is one of the hardest working musicians on the folk scene today, who undertakes various projects simultaneously, with many fruitful collaborations.  Tonight Bella was at the festival to do what she does best, greeted by a large receptive audience.  The final two performances of the festival came courtesy of Scotland’s Capercaillie, who drew a large crowd to the Reds Stage, whilst Jethro Tull guitarist Martin Barre fronted his own band on the Centre Stage for a riff-driven rock set that included a handful of Tull classics such as “Sweet Dream” and “Song for Jeffrey”, which was dedicated to the band’s original guitarist Mick Abrahams, who is ill at the moment.  The tight band, which also featured Dan Crisp on guitar and vocals, George Lindsay on drums and Alan Thomson on bass, also threw in some pretty tasty arrangements of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”, with some anecdotal between song chat courtesy of Barre.  I’m sure there was a certain point somewhere in the festival village by midnight, where you could perhaps hear the mingling sounds of a Scots Gaelic tongue along with Michael McGoldrick’s fine whistle playing, together with some of Martin Barre’s bluesy rock riffs, but I didn’t attempt to find out where.  I was completely fulfilled musically speaking after a long day of eclectic music and returned to my chalet to the throbbing sound of Jethro Tull still going around in my head.  It’s always difficult to say at this point whether or not this was the best one yet, the five years seem to just melt into each other.  It was certainly up there with the others, that’s for sure.  So, until next year, night night campers.