Normafest 2017

Live Review | Whitby Pavilion, Whitby | Review by Allan Wilkinson

A blanket of thick fog hovered above the meandering hillside road leading down to Whitby on Friday afternoon, giving the cliff top’s ancient Abbey an eerie atmosphere that its reputation very much deserves.  The hazy Gothic silhouette majestically peered through the mist as the little seaside town came into focus.  There was the slightest drizzle, but nothing compared to the expected cold at this time of year.  The town was recovering from its New Year’s celebrations with Christmas trees still evident in windows along the narrow streets and Santas loitered regardless upon local rooftops.  Whitby appeared to be resting between busy seasons as friends approached from far and wide for a rather special family reunion.

The celebrations began with a low-key, low-volume, yet highly informal chat with Martin Carthy, one of the principal players of this weekend’s family gathering, conducted by Hardeep Singh Kohli, whose casual manner was echoed in the cheerful demeanour of his interviewee.  As the TV chef prepared a finger buffet of sorts, the legendary singer recalled some of the notable events during his long and illustrious life and career on the road and at one point suggested that his daughter Eliza should locate the nearest fiddle for an impromptu duet.  Performing totally acoustic from beside the makeshift kitchen table, Martin and Eliza performed one or two familiar songs, at one point struggling to remember all the lyrics to “Dominion of the Sword”, skipping seamlessly into a fiery instrumental break instead, until a thoughtful audience member delivered the words via the Internet on his smartphone.  It was whilst Martin and Eliza played these songs, that a whisper began to circulate the pavilion that Norma Waterson, matriarch of this festival, would not be attending due to ill health.  Later in the evening both Eliza and Martin would deliver a heartfelt message from the main stage, with apologies for Norma’s absence, emphasising that if it was at all possible for her to be there, she would have been there.

After some smooth relaxing sounds in the cafe area, courtesy of DJ Dolphin Boy, the writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton introduced Stick in the Wheel, whose startling interpretations of traditional songs such as “Bows of London”, “Hard Times of Old England” and “Poor Old Horse”, brought an entirely new emphasis to these well-trodden stories, with their no-nonsense approach.  Shortly afterwards, a musicians’ session got underway with Sam Sweeney, Saul Rose and David Delarre at the helm, joined by several musicians, including fiddle player and harpist Rachel Newton, relaxing before her standout appearance on Saturday afternoon with the Furrow Collective.

In the main concert hall next door, the stage was set for the main course of the evening, featuring the Waterson Family and Peggy Seeger.  Saul Rose was first up with a short opening set of songs and tunes, interspersed with one or two memories of first meeting the Waterson/Carthy clan.  Shortly afterwards, the multi-generational family band formed a line that spanned the entire stage with Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, Neill MacColl, Emily Portman, Lauren McCormick, Davoc Brady and Jim Causley, together with Watersons Marry, Anne, Erin and Ella, for a celebration of superlative songs and music.  If “Some Old Salty” elicited a modest reaction from the audience, then the rousing “Bright Phoebus” brought the best out of the Normafest crowd, both songs in celebration of Norma’s siblings Lal and Mike respectively.  Marry Waterson, Lal’s daughter, bore an uncanny resemblance to her mum both in voice and stance, whilst Mike Waterson’s widow Anne assumed the matriarch role with remarkable effect.

Concluding Friday night’s concert, folk stalwart Peggy Seeger was eager to take to the stage, offering a few jokes as she awaited her allotted show time.  “I just don’t like seeing you waiting around doing nothing” she declared.  Firstly accompanied by Eliza Carthy and then her son Neill MacColl, the New York-born singer and activist alternated between banjo, guitar, piano and autoharp, whilst drawing from a broad repertoire, with the obligatory Donald Trump song receiving quite predictably the loudest applause of the set.

It wasn’t about politics though, it was about celebrating the life and work of Norma Waterson, whose repertoire ran wide and varied and more so in her absence.  Long gone are the days when it was considered crucial to sing songs only from one’s own particular neck of the woods.  During Peggy’s set, Neill sang “Freight Train”, which was preceded by Neill’s reminiscences of the days of the famed Singer’s Club once run by his parents.  “I lived in a house with an Englishman who pretended to be a Scotsman and an American mother, so I can sing what the fuck I like!”

The North Sea at midnight on Friday night was like a millpond, with no breeze coming off the coastline.  The chimes rang out in a whisper over the harbour as visitors returned to their respective hostelries.  The drizzle was no longer a problem on Saturday morning as the town once again came to life, with one or two gathering in the Pavilion café and bar to peruse the morning papers. Saturday lunchtime saw a matinee screening of the early 1970s Alan Plater film Land of Green Ginger, originally shown on television as part of the Play for Today series back in 1973 and featuring an engaging performance by the young Gwen Taylor, later of Duty Free, Heartbeat and Coronation Street.  The play also featured a soundtrack of Watersons songs, the quartet themselves appearing midway through in a familiar folk club setting, looking every bit 1970s in the period when Bernie Vickers was the resident ‘outsider’.

Saturday at times felt like a Sunday for some reason, it had that lazy Sunday feel and especially when writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton shared some valuable memories of first meeting Norma Waterson from the main stage.  Reading his richly anecdotal and thoroughly heartfelt essay Looking for Norma, it seemed all the more poignant reading it in Norma’s absence and I dare say Ian would’ve been slightly more nervous had Norma been listening in the wings.

With the action shifting further up coast, as far as Scotland, the fascinating documentary film, Where You Are Meant to Be, featuring and narrated by ‘cult-pop raconteur’ Aidan Moffat, brought to our senses the magnificent voice of Sheila Stewart, with both archive and recent footage of the 79 year-old balladeer.  Despite an unambiguous ‘language’ warning delivered by Joanie Crump in her introduction, there was no warning at all declared prior to the scene where the singer merrily skinned a rabbit whilst crooning her brilliant song “Blue Bleezin’ Blind Drunk”.

As darkness descended upon the North Sea coastline, the eagerly anticipated set by The Furrow Collective came and went in a flash.  The songs, together with their inspired arrangements, made for compelling listening, each song showcasing the combined talents of Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Lucy Farrell and Rachel Newton.  Both delicate and bold, the songs were magical in their delivery, taking the audience to other places completely.

The last of the three films to be shown in the theatre over the weekend was Derrick Knight’s highly evocative mid-Sixties documentary film centred around the Watersons at home and on the road.  Travelling for a Living is a crucial film for anyone with even the slightest interest in Norma Waterson and her family.  There’s something touching about seeing the young Norma, together with Mike and Lal and the fourth member and original ‘outsider’ of the group John Harrison, in what could be described as a companion piece to A Hard Day’s Night; two very different takes on musicians on the road, from two different coastlines in the industrial North of England. 

After getting used to the fact that Norma wasn’t going to be at the festival, more disappointing news came early on Saturday evening as it was announced that special guest Richard Hawley was no longer able to play also due to illness.  The night continued regardless with an opening set by Dublin-based band Lankum (formerly Lynched).  Having won the hearts of the Musicport audience back in October, the quartet soon rose to the top of the Normafest wish list and Eliza couldn’t wait to get up to join the band during their encore with the rousing sea shanty Billy O’Shea.  It was a good choice and the band played a superb set, immediately bringing the evening to life with a variety of songs and tunes from the old country.

Attired in a vivid blood red dress and with one of her daughters by her side, a tearful Eliza Carthy opened the Gift Big Band’s set with Loudon Wainwright’s affectionate lullaby “Dreaming”, a song written especially for Norma, whilst the slightly reduced band stepped up to the mark to deliver a stella performance, each musician pulling out all the stops by way of compensation for the missing component parts.  Joined by her dad, together with Neill MacColl and Marry Waterson, the band performed a variety of songs in a variety of styles such as “Fred Astaire”, “Al Bowlley’s in Heaven”, “Ukulele Lady/(If Paradise is) Half as Nice”, “Grace Darling” and Richard Thompson’s bleak but beautiful “God Loves a Drunk”.

One of the features on the main stage throughout the weekend was the presence of a golden fairground horse, which at times dominated the stage. During the Gift Big Band’s concluding set, the carousel horse provided a resting place for a certain little ones’ sleepy head, which was a lovely poignant image to behold.  If Norma was too unwell to appear, then why not let her daughter and her granddaughter take centre stage in her absence?  And so there we have it, the Waterson Family legacy continues on into the future and long may it continue.