Great British Folk Festival 2018

Live Review | Butlins Holiday Resort, Skegness | Review by Allan Wilkinson

The timing of the Great British Folk Festival is just about right, especially for those of us who particularly enjoy Wintertime; it sort of sets the seasonal mood and should any of the billed performers include just a little seasonal spirit within their set, then it’s all the more enjoyable. A Winter Union, a folk supergroup of sorts, featuring two established duos, Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts and Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage, along with the superb singer Jade Rhiannon from The Willows, did this to the nth degree by reworking several seasonal songs during their impressive Saturday afternoon set. It’s not just about Christmas or seasonal good cheer though, the festival endeavours to provide a broad range of music loosely associated with the folk and acoustic music scene and this year was no exception. By Saturday afternoon, visitors had pretty much settled into their comfortable chalets, acquainted (or reacquainted) themselves with the site, probably sampled some of the local cuisine and enjoyed a good night’s sleep following the two concerts staged the previous night.

The weekend actually got off to a start a little earlier on Friday afternoon when The Salts opened the Introducing Stage, one of the now well established attractions of the festival, situated directly beneath the Skyline Pavilion, the focal point of this coastal site. Organised once again by Stephen Stanley and Alan Ritson, the stage saw the emergence of no less than a dozen newcomers to the festival over the weekend, one or two of the acts having been around on the folk and acoustic music scene for years, Steve Turner for instance, but also a few newer acts, each given the opportunity to compete for a main stage slot at next year’s event.

The main stages, namely Reds and the Centre Stage began almost simultaneously on Friday evening save for around fifteen minutes, with ex-Steeleye Span guitarist Ken Nicol and one of the winning acts from the previous year’s Introducing Stage, Honey and the Bear, who played an impressive opening set. The other two winning acts from last year Joshua Burnell and the very young Salutation would get their moment in the spotlight throughout the weekend. The one unexpected surprise for Honey and the Bear was that they were asked to cover for an absent band, The Eskies who had been forced to cancel at the eleventh hour, the duo effectively playing both main stages on the same night, a slice of good fortune for them both.

Jon Boden got down to business with his eleven-piece orchestra, the Remnant Kings on the Centre Stage, resplendent in military tunic and confidence, whilst Ralph McTell provided a rather more laid back set midway through Friday night in Reds, with BBC radio DJ Janice Long hosting the concert. Merry Hell were on form with their utterly entertaining late night set, filling the dance floor once again with relative ease.

After covering all but one of the previous festivals here in Skegness, I’m frequently asked about the event by both curious musicians and equally curious potential visitors alike. “What’s it like?” they ask, going on to further enquire “is it run by Redcoats?” and “are there any knobbly knee competitions?” the usual tongue-in-cheek routine enquiries. The Great British Folk Festival is rather unique on the festival calendar in that it’s one of the few major festivals where tents, camping stoves, wellies and children are surplus to requirements. It’s also one of the most misunderstood festivals in that artists still don’t bring enough merchandise to flog, failing to fully appreciate the kind of healthy crowd they are about to play for. We’re talking around 3,500 in one concert stage and 2,500 in the other, potentially around 6000 music fans eager to take some of the music home with them. The festival is generally rich in atmosphere and every effort is made to make each act sound as good as possible, even if this means over-long turnaround times.

People seem to come from all around and it would be nice to know precisely who travelled the furthest to be at the festival this weekend. One couple had come all the way from Hamburg to see their favourite band Lindisfarne and my photographer pal and I helped obtain autographs from each member of the band, which they scribbled onto this couple’s much valued CD, the reward for our efforts being delicious chocolate Santas. These moments are precious to our own particular GBFF experience.

I will never quite understand why audiences are divided over LAU; one moment the casual quip about their music being a cure for insomniacs, the next minute grumbles about the trio’s wild improvisational Hendrix-isms. The trio, made up of guitarist/singer Kris Drever, fiddle player Aidan O’Rourke and accordion and keyboard FX wizard Martin Green are extraordinary on any day of the week. Their music is original, exciting, thrilling and highly complex. They could quite easily please audiences with expertly played bog standard fiddle tunes but they don’t, and that’s the difference. Easily the best performance of the weekend.

Most people who visit the festival are by now fully aware that this event employs a rather loose take on what we think of as ‘folk’ music, by including in previous years such diverse acts as Phil Cool, Ed Tudor Pole, Deborah Bonham, Tom Robinson and String Driven Thing, yet such acts as Steve Harley, whose only real claim to folk music is the fact that he cut his teeth in the British folk clubs of the late 1960s is a rather welcomed addition to the usual folk fare. Whatever allegiance we may have to the confines of the folk community, there’s nothing quite like seeing and hearing Harley launch into “Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)” on a Sunday afternoon. I almost took to the dance floor myself.

By Sunday evening, things took an awkward turn in regard to the dance floor, when for some unfathomable reason, the festival suddenly, and with little explanation, prevented any dancing in front of the stage in Reds, just as Lindisfarne was about to take the stage. Although there’s a case to be drawn for both sides – those who want to dance and those who want to see the stage from the comfort of their front row seats – it did look rather ludicrous as the generation roles swiftly reversed. It’s one thing witnessing middle-aged men attempting to keep order amongst the mosh pit youths at a punk gig in ‘77, but seeing people well passed retirement age being held back by young security guards was an amusing sight to behold. I think sense and reason prevailed by the time Rod Clements launched into “Meet Me on the Corner” and the dance floor was full once again, whilst the security guys went for a cup of tea.

Earlier in the evening, the Centre Stage played host to Stillhouse, playing their final concert as double bassist Matthew Mefford returned to the States after exhausting his visa, rendering their appearance here at the festival emotionally charged as Jonny Neaves (guitar, vocals) and Polly Bolton (mandolin, vocals) bid farewell to their friend and bandmate. A fantastic set of great songs and tunes, with all eyes on the remarkable mandolin skills of Polly Bolton, a musician whose sheer joy of performing is tangible.

Other notable sets over the weekend include Fisherman’s Friends, The Strawbs and The Men They Couldn’t Hang on the Centre Stage, whilst the Reds stage saw fine performances by Oysterband, Me, Thee and E and The Willows, together with an infectious performance by Daria Kulesh on the Acoustic Stage in Jaks, a smaller and much under used venue within the complex. There was also notable performances by Elliott Morris, The Shackleton Trio and Emi McDade on the Introducing Stage, as well as some entertaining French Dance routines in the Beachcomber Bar. I think we should also tip our caps to the Butlins staff, the catering and bar staff, the chalet cleaning staff and everyone who makes this festival work so well.

All in all, another great Skegness weekend of fun and music, something to warm up the chilly North Sea coastline as it approaches a much anticipated festive season.