Beverley Folk Festival

Live Review | Beverley Racecourse, Beverley | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Before making my way to the Racecourse itself on Friday afternoon, I deliberately took the alternative route at the Walkington junction and headed straight towards Beverley itself as if magnetically drawn to the imposing Minster, which stands majestically on the outskirts of town. Even the steadily building rush hour traffic couldn’t keep me away, although I will point out that despite my passion for great works of ecclesiastical architecture, it wasn’t the actual Minster I was interested in on this occasion, but rather the equally majestic – in my books at any rate – Minster Records, a hive for the discerning vinyl record fan. The sun was hot, the skies were blue and I had the sudden urge to bury my face in treasures immeasurable. Shortly afterwards, with a copy of Kathryn Tickell’s On Kielder Side tucked under my arm, I had a quick wander around the festival village, which revealed that not much has really changed since the last time I visited the Beverley Folk Festival. There’s the usual craft stalls, the food outlets, the large food marquee and the kid’s area including a couple of fairground rides, yet the main stages appear to have taken on a more circus-like feel, with the stripy Big Top and the Little Big Top marquees, both of which could be seen for miles across Westwood pastures, where cattle and sheep freely roamed throughout the weekend. And what’s this? The Atom? Where the heck is the Wold Top Marquee? It’s true that we British can be a fairly fickle lot at times, especially when it comes to beer and the great British weather. Twenty-four hours of burning hot sun and we cry ‘drought’ in unison – or sometimes in harmony – and then reach for the factor 15. I raise my hand and confess to being a guilty party when it comes to this and feel no compunction in describing the heat at this year’s event as ‘far too hot’ to say the least. Not the festival’s fault at all, the responsibility landing squarely at the feet of Mother Nature herself. Okay, I acknowledge that we don’t get much of this so we should indeed rejoice deliriously, but when faces of artists are pouring with sweat even during the slow ballads, then you know something’s amiss. Personally, I could’ve done with a slightly more moderate temperature along with the occasional cool breeze, which I believe would have created a less lethargic, less flat atmosphere. More dancing was required, more movement, more energy, that’s what a festival should always have. One of the hottest spots in Beverley over the weekend was right there in the town centre, where on Saturday morning a gathering of traditional dancers congregated, which was enjoyed by festival goers and Beverley shoppers alike, each standing beneath awnings of the local shops. The high street festivities were vibrant and rich in colour, due in no small part to the sunshine, but also to the town’s apparent community spirit. I didn’t detect one single histrionic shrug or negative melodramatic gesture from the locals all of whom stopped to watch as the procession passed by beneath banners spanning the narrow streets advertising the festival. Before the parade, we had already witnessed a rather pleasant opening night at the main festival village site situated across town in the middle of the racecourse.

On Friday night, the largest of those marquees saw performances by Jon Boden, who had managed to untangle himself from the dangling fiddles that had illustrated his promotional material for several months prior, Heidi Talbot, whose beautiful Irish vernacular and distinctive voice rejoiced in song from the same stage a little earlier in the evening, together with the ‘progressive acoustic’ trio Stillhouse, who opened proceedings on the main stage, with a set of original songs from the pen of Jonny Neaves, whilst Polly Bolton danced and swayed with her curvy mandolin. Elsewhere on Friday evening, namely on the Little Big Top stage, we saw solo sets by two Yorkshire-based performers, York-based Alex Golisti and Bradford-based Bella Gaffney, a young singer songwriter, who treated the audience to her own rendition of the traditional “Gallows Pole”, famously performed by Leadbelly then claimed by Led Zeppelin as their own. Polly Bolton joined her family on stage for a performance of even older songs as The Whiskey Dogs returned as festival regulars. It has to be said though, that the night was pretty much owned by Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys, whose performance effectively woke up the audience from their Friday evening slumber, shaking the tent poles and heralding in the festival proper. Heidi Talbot joined Sam and the lads as a bunch of younger audience members formed a line in front of the stage, swaying, swooning, swimming in sweat. Throughout the weekend, I took in what I could, which in all honesty was treated in the same manner as when visiting an art gallery, popping in and out of each of the marquees, concert rooms and workshop spaces, taking a brief glimpse here and there and soaking up the overall atmosphere, rather than making myself comfortable for the duration of a full set – although Saturday night’s performance by LAU was an exception. One or two remarked that LAU are like Marmite, you either love them or hate them. I’m a bit like that too; I love LAU and I hate Marmite. Over the last few years the festival has supported the genre we now reluctantly refer to as Americana and this year was no exception with two concerts labouring under that banner.

From both sides of the Atlantic, American roots were explored by such acts as North Carolina’s Underhill Rose, Guildford’s Jonas and Jane and Cheshire’s Jaywalkers. The two concerts also saw appearances by banjo maestro Dan Walsh, Helen Chambers, Jessica Lawson (with Phil Simpson), Lauren Housley and Pete and Polly Bolton, concluding with a main stage performance by the rather colourful band, The Ale Marys, led by Gerry McNeice, whose pink guitar matched Ani’s familiar hair colour, as they treated the audience to some good old country twang. Throughout the weekend the newly named Atom Stage, formerly the Wold Top Marquee, saw its usual multi-purpose activity, which included the afternoon Moonbeams showcases, featuring a host of invited guests, including the Jon Palmer Acoustic Band, which concluded with the entire town of Otley on stage, the young singer-songwriter Brodie Milner, looking more Ryan Adams than previously, and Nick Hall who at one point was joined by Union Jill’s Helen Taylor for an airing of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”. The marquee was also home to the evening Area 2 showcases, presided over by Sam Pirt and Dave Gray, who introduced some of the newer names to the party, including Ben Cook, Fiona Lee, Mina Budworth and Tilly Moses as well as being used for the traditional late night sessions introduced by Leila Cooper, featured some of the artists appearing elsewhere on the bill for some rather informal and impromptu after hours performances. Often at festivals like this, it’s impossible to capture more than a fraction of it, as so much happens simultaneously. Referring back to my rather weak art gallery analogy, it leaves me with the only option available to me that is to relay just a flavour of what I found rather appealing over the weekend.

LAU’s ‘mad professor’ antics at the beginning of their extraordinary set on Saturday night; Gren Bartley’s highly melodic and gorgeous songs on Sunday afternoon, accompanied by his trio featuring Sarah Smout and Kath Ord; Daoiri Farrell joining Reg Meuross on stage on Sunday afternoon to perform “England Green and England Grey” and “Dragonfly”, which I haven’t heard for ages; chatting with Eliza Carthy as she headed towards the main stage to ‘wake dad up’ in time for their Sunday evening set; listening to Eddi Reader’s extraordinary voice on Sunday night, surrounded by a bunch of stella musicians, including a heavily bearded and almost unrecognisable Boo Hewerdine; having a chat with the legendary Michael Chapman over a cup of tea on a lazy Sunday morning as the church bells rang; sipping tea from a china cup and munching on lemon cake as I reflected on LAU’s Saturday night set, with Hinba still ringing in my ears; being privy to five rather good performers of song – Daoiri Farrell, Reg Meuross, Kelly Oliver, Rachel Croft and Edwina Hayes – at Saturday afternoon’s Song Circle; hearing Kathryn Roberts’ beautiful voice once again as husband Sean Lakeman accompanied her with familial empathy; and did I mention bumping into Damien O’Kane, Alan Johnson, Dan Webster, Henry Priestman, Ewan McLellan, Sam Carter, Jim Moray, the Yan Tan Tether girls and photographer pals Phil, Pete and Robbi etc. whilst having way more than my fair share of ice-cream? That’s Beverley for another year.