Live | 2015

Cahalen Morrison and Eli West | The Greystones, Sheffield | 24.01.15

For their Sheffield debut, the Seattle-based bluegrass/old time duo Cahalen Morrison and Eli West managed to attract a maximum capacity audience tonight, as an orderly queue gathered through the centre of the bar area at The Greystones.  The completely sold-out Backroom venue had an air of anticipation about it as drinks began to line up on the front of the stage, whilst the audience took their seats for what promised to be an exciting show.  There’s little wonder really, Cahalen Morrison and Eli West’s reputation arrived long before them; with three album releases, a string of concert tours and numerous festival appearances to their name, the two musicians arrived in a city all ready for them and they in turn were prepared to deliver precisely what was expected of them.  The concert began with an opening set by West Yorkshire-based four-piece band True North, whose singer Maria Wallace not only acted as compere for the evening, but was also responsible for the actual event itself through her True North Music promotions.  Maria was overheard to say of the venture “we do this to help out a few friends really”, which is as good a reason as any for putting on quality music anywhere.  Furthermore, helping friends in a music genre such as this is not only admirable but also very much appreciated by many, not least the artists themselves as well as the people who make an effort to come out and see good music in this area.  The band played a gentle set, which included both self-penned songs and contemporary country/folk material, with songs such as Steve Earle’s “Hometown Blues”, Boo Hewerdine’s “Harvest Gypsies”, Jean Richie’s “The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”, as well as one or two of Maria’s own songs including “Home Again” which the band finished with.  The band also featured James Munroe on double bass, Neil Diffley on guitar and John Beevers on fiddle.  Cahalen Morrison and Eli West could probably be identified as the shorter one and the taller one respectively, but also as the one who plays the banjo and mandolin with equal virtuosity and the one who might possibly be one of the best flat-pick guitarists ever to have stepped onto the Backroom stage.  Both descriptions might very well be correct when identifying their mutual differences, but where the two meet right on the button is in their beautifully tight harmony voices; so tight in fact, that you often wonder which voice is actually coming from whom.  Tonight the duo were on top form right from the start, despite a near fatal disaster at the beginning, when Eli’s guitar strap came loose from the guitar before a single note had been struck.  Catching the guitar just in time, the thoroughly relieved guitar player said: “it isn’t even my own guitar, so that would’ve been bad”.  His musical partner went on to say “we like to smash up our guitars before a show, not after”.  This opening mishap was more an ice-breaker than a guitar-breaker in the end, which helped to strike up some banter between the duo and the audience, which remained good humoured throughout the evening.  Opening with “Fiddlehead Fern”, the song that also opens their current album, the duo got into their stride from the first note and continued throughout their two sets with the highest standard of playing.  Neither overly extroverted nor shy, the two musicians maintained a business-like approach to their stage craft throughout, the emphasis always being on their standard of musicianship.   “Over the hump of a three week tour” as the duo put it, Cahalen and Eli appeared refreshed and devoid of the usual traits that an exhausting tour schedule often presents.  Comfortably attired and fully alert to the task in hand, the dexterous picking that followed was just about note-perfect throughout, giving everyone present precisely what they had come for.  If to some the duo’s music was only previously known through their three album releases, The Holy Coming of the Storm (2011), Our Lady of the Tall Trees (2012) and their latest offering I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands (2014), then those particular members of the audience would not be in the least bit disappointed.  What had previously been heard on those recordings was pretty much carbon copied tonight at The Greystones, albeit with that all important additional spark that a live performance always brings.  The songs selected for tonight’s performance covered the duo’s entire repertoire from early songs such as “My Lover Adorned” and “On God’s Rocky Shore” to more recent songs including “Anxious Rows”, “Off the Chama”, “James is Out” and “Livin’ in America”, the opening line from which the duo’s latest album gets its title.  Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” made a welcome appearance as did the duo’s hybrid version of “Church Street Blues”, borrowed from the singing of both Tony Rice and Norman Blake.  The duo also performed a couple of brand new songs including “Come and Save Me”.  Personally, the performance of the night came during the second set, when the duo performed a stunning “A Lady Does Not Often Falter”, reminding us once again of Cahalen Morrison’s command over storytelling, the lyrics of which could easily be mistaken for traditional song.  Greeted and ultimately rewarded by an audience unafraid to whoop and holler between each song, there was the feeling that Cahalen and Eli made some friends in Sheffield tonight and I dare say it won’t be long until they return.  Rarely has Northern Sky been so late getting to a first gig of the year, so well into January in this case, but tonight’s concert has raised the bar pretty high for the rest of the year.  That bar has also been set for True North Music, who will hopefully bring more great music to the area in the coming year.  No pressure there then eh?

Bombino | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 28.01.15

As a somewhat cold, grey and potentially snowy January afternoon turned into a wet and bleak winter’s evening, the Leeds rush hour came to an end just in time for the parking meters to become ‘free’ once again and the city’s theatre land to open for business.  When it’s wet, the reflected lights dance upon the pavement and help add something of a sparkle to an otherwise dreary city night and in a way make the streets appear more inviting.  The very thought of winter would inevitably disappear during the course of the evening, it always does once the rhythms of the world are audible. Tonight those rhythms would be delivered by the Tuareg singer and guitarist Omara ‘Bombino’ Moctar and his band as they continue their current UK tour before jetting off across Europe and then on to Australia.  With all the sound checks wrapped up and the theatre suitably equipped with an ambient atmosphere, the Howard Assembly Room steadily filled up with people.  Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a member of staff who said “You’ll enjoy tonight’s concert, I’ve just heard the sound check”, encouraging words indeed, but then again, I haven’t so far attended a duff night at the popular Leeds venue since I started visiting it a few years ago.  Making my way to one of the side alcove seats I noticed that the stage boasted two full drum kits.  “There’s a support act then?” I enquired.  “Yes, a duo from Manchester called Walk” said my new friend, “they sounded good during the sound check too”.  A double dose of encouragement then.  I like the Howard Assembly Room, especially the acoustics.  My only gripe about the venue in the past has been that the lighting has always been a little too subdued for my liking; I prefer to see what I’m listening to.  Tonight, all the correct light switches had been flicked on and therefore both the lighting and the sound was just perfect throughout.  The Manchester-based duo who might like to be referred to as a ‘sequencer blues project’, as indeed they have been in the past, consists of guitarist/singer Rik Warren and drummer/sequence-fiddler, David Schlechtriemen.  If a guitarist/drummer combo sounds like an odd arrangement, then we’re obviously forgetting White Stripes already, whose similar format did them no harm at all.  Funky blues with one or two odd sounds injected, seemed to be more than a suitable warm-up for the main band tonight, in fact I thoroughly enjoyed them.  With some fine strategically-placed guitar improvisations, utilising to good effect the good ol’ wah wah pedal, the duo pretty much kept the funk to the fore.  The extended guitar solo in the middle of “Rocket” for instance, was almost reminiscent of Steve Hunter in full flow during Lou Reed’s live version of “Rock n Roll” on the Rock n Roll Animal album back in the day.  After a short break, Bombino casually wandered onto the stage with his four-piece band, each dressed in traditional African robes.  Without speaking, they picked up their instruments and began to play what turned out to be a full-on eighty-minute set, which featured some of the music that can be found on the band’s current album Nomad.  The 35-year old musician whose chosen name is Goumour Almoctar, grew up amongst nomadic Tuaregs in Tidene, Niger, a few miles northeast of Agadez and as a child endured the hardships and upheaval of his country’s troubled history.  Some of that comes across through his music, which for all intents and purposes is nothing short of a hard edged blues-based onslaught, which occasionally goes off in the general direction of ‘hypnotic trance-like groove’, something you can’t help but to go along with.  As with most music that falls under the ‘World Music’ banner, there’s always the urge to dance at some point and during the set, two women on the balcony (stage left), danced along throughout the entire set, much to the delight of the band, which also consisted of Boston-based guitarist Avi Salloway, Mauritanian bassist Djakrave Dia and American drummer Corey Wilhelm.  “If you feel the fire, get yourself out of your seat and let it rip” Avi advised midway through the set.  Whether the rest of the audience got up to dance or just swayed along in their seats, it didn’t stop Bombino and Avi, both smiling from ear to ear, demonstrating their own nifty foot work as the twin Fender Strats sparred to the energetic and pulsating rhythms.  After the one encore, which received a well-deserved ovation, the band made their way to the concessions stand whilst I made my way to the exit, in the hope that the car wasn’t competely covered in the white stuff that was promised.  Fortunately the snow held back and I was able to climb over Andy Kershaw on the theatre steps, who was chatting to the bassist over a ciggy, and made my way to the car to hit the M62 with Bombino’s Nomad shaking the speakers as it had previously done on my journey into Leeds just three hours earlier.  

Martin Simpson | The Greystones, Sheffield | 05.02.15

Tonight Martin Simpson played the second of two consecutive nights on his home turf at The Greystones in Sheffield.  Greystones Road appeared to be the only thoroughfare in the city still lined with mounds of snow, a remnant of a bitterly cold January, but inside the warmth circulated the pub creating a welcoming atmosphere as the concert room, or to be more precise, the Backroom, filled up once again for the latest in a long line of Bright Phoebus concerts.  The warmth from the radiators was echoed equally by the warmth provided by our hosts who welcomed us all in for the evening, namely the father and daughter team, Roy and Kit Bailey.  It makes a refreshing change to see the artists, sound technicians, promoters and assistants mingling with the audience instead of hiding away backstage or in the green room, especially in an age where we are used to darkened dungeons serving as venues with little or no introduction and barely any communication between the artist and audience whatsoever.  Not here though; Bright Phoebus is all about communication, community and social connection.  The family connection tonight was apparent from the start as Martin’s father-in-law Roy Bailey opened the show with one of the songs immediately associated with the singer, Si Kahn’s “What You Do with What You’ve Got”.  “I’ll do just the one song” Roy smiled, going on to say “because he hogs the gig”.  Introducing his son-in-law, Roy referred to Martin as “my accompanist… at any opportunity”.  Despite covering the relatively short geographical distance between his birthplace of Scunthorpe in North Lincolnshire and his adopted home of Sheffield in South Yorkshire, Martin Simpson’s world is a much travelled place, both in terms of his widespread peregrinations and the music he makes along the way.  Tonight some of those locations were covered in song, one of the most effective ways of taking us to those places without actually leaving the room, places like the French Quarter of New Orleans, Gary, Indiana and the meandering banks of the Mississippi.  A life lived for sure.  Some of that life can be traced along the crow’s feet and laughter lines upon his face, effectively captured in the portrait on the front cover of his latest album Vagrant Stanzas.  Opening with the traditional “In the Pines”, complete with an instrumental introduction reminiscent of something from the soundtrack to Wim Wender’s flick Paris Texas, so similar in fact that we wouldn’t have flinched if Harry Dean Stanton walked aimlessly into the room at any given moment, grabbed Nastassja Kinski by the waist, slung her over his shoulder and soically made for the door, returning from whence he came (red baseball cap and all.)  Martin Simpson brought the backroom to a complete silence as that metal tube navigated those freshly applied strings.  During the first set, long-time collaborator Andy Cutting joined the guitar player for a couple of songs including Charles Causley’s Morris Noir “Angel Hill” and the ‘broken token’ ballad “Plains of Waterloo”.  It was towards the end of the first set that Simpson turned his (and our) attention to his stateside years, with his own meandering travelog “Delta Dreams”, where his journey through the Deep South in a 55 Chevy came immediately to life.  Richard Hawley once again made just the one cameo appearance at the end of the first set sharing the verses of “Heartbreak Hotel” with Martin, reminding everyone that the last time this happened was at the Royal Albert Hall.  If you’re going to name drop a posh venue, then it might as well be that one.  “They’re all true stories” Martin quipped during the second set, before launching into “Never Any Good”, a warts-and-all tribute to his own father and now a firm favourite amongst his loyal audience.  Andy Cutting once again provided some empathetic melodeon as the song effortlessly conjured up thoughts of our own respective fathers.  I guess we all have a tale to tell truth be known.  Legend has it that Martin once arrived at a folk club sometime in his distant past and startled his audience by playing the banjo all night.  To some, this would be akin to wartime torture, but in the hands of this particular musician, the banjo is an implement of beauty.  The instrument stood patiently on its stand throughout the first set and for most of the second until it came out for a couple of songs toward the end of the night.  With Kit and Roy dealing with the obligatory raffle, another fine Bright Phoebus night reached its conclusion with a little tribute to the late Mike Waterson, one of the two singers who provided the inspiration behind the collective’s name, along with Mike’s sister Lal.  It’s good to see Martin Simpson in such good spirits amongst friends, some of whom have no doubt been with the musician for a long time, if not right from the start.

Kathryn Tickell and the Side | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 17.02.15

It was way back in the mid-1980s when I first became aware of the 16 year-old Northumbrian smallpipes player Kathryn Tickell, who popped up on stage at the now defunct and lamented Rockingham Arms Folk Club in Wentworth, with her strange and unusual looking (and sounding) instrument in hand.  In she flew on that memorable mid-summer evening, unpacked her strange and delicate kit, shyly yet confidently stood up on stage in the spotlight and proceeded to perform a short instrumental set, then quickly made her exit before the audience had time to settle down for the main guest.  An impression must have been forged that night as almost thirty years later I can vividly remember Kathryn, yet not the headliner.  Having said that, it’s rather strange to admit that I haven’t actually attended a single Kathryn Tickell show since that night, even though there have been dozens of opportunities.  Okay I confess; I’m not the biggest fan of the Northumbrian smallpipes, but I wouldn’t go as far as to employ the over-used Marmite analogy, of having to either love or hate the instrument.  Let’s just say I only tuck into Marmite if I’m really hungry.  So why did you go to this gig I hear you say; well it’s simple, Kathryn Tickell is a master musician, not just on those crazy pipes, but also in regard to her command over composition and arrangement and let’s not forget she’s also a pretty nifty fiddle player.  Added to this, Kathryn has recently put together an exciting all-female band of musicians capable of mixing traditional folk tunes with classical elements, which is something that immediately appealed to me, providing me with enough encouragement to try and put things right on the pipe-phobia score.  The new four-piece ensemble ‘The Side’, features alongside Kathryn, Amy Thatcher, the nimble-footed clog dancing Amelie-like accordionist from The Shee, together with two classically-trained musicians, Louisa Tuck on cello and Ruth Wall on harp.  The stage was set out for these musicians when I arrived at the Howard Assembly Room tonight and I felt an air of anticipation amongst the audience as the seats began to fill up almost to maximum capacity.  On another night, it might possibly have been a sell-out, but Fairport Convention had a gig not two minutes away at another Leeds venue and therefore the folk crowd may have been slightly divided.  Opening the concert was one time Fairport touring playmates Gilmore and Roberts, playing for the first time at this venue.  No strangers to Leeds having met at the music college here a few years ago, the duo immediately found their comfort zone and soon settled into their opening set.  Kat and Jamie performed songs from their current album The Innocent Left, including “Doctor James”, “The Stealing Arm” and “Silver Screen”, with a couple of newer songs, including “Cecilia”, which the duo opened with.  With Jamie’s idiosyncratic lap-guitar style and Kat’s increasing use of mandolin over her distinct fiddle playing, the duo delighted the audience with their unique music.  The set also included “Billy Green”, one of the songs from a recent project the duo contributed to, Songs for the Voiceless, based on moving stories from WWI.  Closing with “Scarecrow”, the opening song from their current album, the duo certainly made an impression with this highly receptive audience.  After a short break Kathryn Tickell and the Side took to the stage to deliver a superb set of instrumental pieces, mixing traditional and original folk tunes together with classical influences and arrangements.  During the set, Kathryn pointed out that prior to the formation of this quartet there were no known scores for this particular combination of instuments; Northumbrian pipes, cello, Celtic harp and accordion.  The performance tonight really beggars the question why no one thought of it before now; it all seems such a natural musical combination.  Nowhere was it more noticeable than during “The Waters of Tyne” set, which featured a beautifully rendered instrumental take on the familiar North East folk song, which morphed almost seamlessly into a classical piece from the pen of composer Augustin Fernandez, which employed the combined talents of both Louisa and Ruth.  Throughout the concert the sheer grace and elegance of Ruth’s harp was augmented by the fire and passion of Louisa’s cello; probably the most determined player since Jacqueline du Pré in her heyday.  The theatricality of playing was further enhanced by a couple of ‘cello spins’ in mid performance, which posed the question ‘did that cello spin just the once or twice?’  The speed made it difficult to tell.  Kathryn Tickell is not quite as shy as that 16 year-old I saw at The Rock all those years ago.  With a wealth of musical experience on stages all over the world, the Northumberland-born musician has also developed a pleasing and relaxed rapport with her audience and ‘on the road’ stories come thick and fast.  With beautiful playing throughout, along with inspired and inspiring arrangements, the set was peppered with a couple of clogging routines courtesy of Amy Thatcher, who kicked up the dust whilst the band played a couple of speedy hornpipes, which the dancer had no problem keeping up with; in fact at times it looked like the band was having to keep up with Amy.  I arrived in Leeds pretty much a smallpipes sceptic and left very definitely an enlightened enthusiast.  My ears have obviously become more attuned to the pipes over the years, which tonight sounded as sweet as they possibly could, ultimately forcing me to re-think my stance.  Maybe I should also try Marmite again, I may have been wrong about that too.

Hannah Sanders | The Ukrainian Centre, Doncaster | 21.02.15

Once again the Ukrainian Centre in Doncaster provided the venue for another Spring Showcase, an early fundraising event in aid of the forthcoming Doncaster Folk Festival, which is due to take place in mid-May.  Tonight the stage was set for four diverse acts; a couple of solo singers, a duo (in effect) and a full six-piece band to finish the night off with.  The main achievement of the planning stage of the event, it has to be said, was to secure an appearance by singer Hannah Sanders, whose debut solo album has just been released to critical acclaim.  The Norwich-born, now Cambridgeshire-based singer was the first to arrive at the venue this afternoon along with fellow musician, producer and collaborator Ben Savage.  Huddled in the dressing room behind the stage, the two musicians planned their set, whilst the PA was being set up by Mick Jenkinson and John Curry.  Mick assumed his regular role as the familiar face of the festival’s organising committee, hosting the event from the stage and introducing each of the acts in turn, delivering parish notices and keeping everyone informed as the evening went on.  The event not only provided a well-considered programme of singers and musicians, but also an appetising homemade supper, which also contributed in turn to a warm and welcoming atmosphere, in much the same manner as the organisers strive to achieve at the main festival each year in May.  Tonight’s concert attracted a healthy audience in terms of numbers, with regulars and new visitors to the venue, which is always good to see.  Opening the concert was singer/songwriter and local record shop owner Alistair Pearson, whose self-penned songs were just the thing to get the concert off to a good start.  Starting with his song “Utopia”, the relaxed singer, whose record shop name was emblazoned across his chest, eased the audience into an evening of fine music all around.  Alistair closed his set with a song called “The Music”, which is his own homage to the music that rescued him after a successful lung transplant in 2010.  Dashing in literally at the last moment was local singer/poet/writer Jade-Lee Saxelby, whose appearance was largely due to the fact that she won the festival’s songwriting competition last year.  The singer quickly managed to get a drink from the bar, slip her coat off and place her guitar on her knee within seconds, launching almost exhaustedly into her first song, a clever amalgam of her own Hip-Hop styled rap “Lonely People” and the Fab Four’s “Eleanor Rigby”.  Jade also presented a brand new song called “The Porch Song in Yellow Major”, revealing the fact that this performer sees all musical chords in colours.  Well, don’t you?  By mid-evening, the stage was reorganised for the main set by Hannah Sanders, for whom a cluster of seats and mike stands had been arranged so closely together that the intimacy of the performance was already suggested before it had begun.  Opening with a delightful a cappella rendition of “A Sailor’s Life”, Hannah’s voice was treated to the silence it so very much deserved.  Accompanied by Ben Savage of Cambridgeshire band The Willows, who are no strangers to this venue themselves, having played at the festival twice already, the two musicians huddled quite close together throughout the set.  The set included a selection of songs from Hannah’s much discussed debut record Charms Against Sorrow including “I Gave My Love a Cherry”, “The Werewolf” and “Bonnie Bunch of Roses”, coupled with the instrumental “Mayflower Stranger”, which demonstrated the fact that Hannah’s no mean guitar picker.  The duo also popped into the set a fine rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key”, memorably developed by Billy Bragg and Wilko for the Mermaid Avenue project.  Towards the end of the set, Hannah produced her exquisite baritone dulcimer for an excellent reading of “I’ll Weave My Love a Garland”, with Ben accompanying her on dobro, two instruments that go so well together.  Whilst the duo were in mid-flow, it crossed my mind that a perfect end to the set would be a Joni Mitchell song such as “A Case of You”, one of the singer’s best loved and most iconic mountain dulcimer accompanied songs.  Astonishingly, this is precisely what Hannah sang next.  “When you buy a dulcimer you have to sign an agreement that in every set you play a Joni Mitchell song otherwise you get your license revoked” quipped Hannah; “rightly so” replied an audience member.  The concert was brought to its conclusion courtesy of the Jon Palmer Acoustic Band, whose fine blend of stomping rebel songs, country rock-fused foot-tappers and feel-good dance numbers provided a fitting climax to a much enjoyed concert, with songs including “Deadmen”, “Friday Night in a Northern Town” and the crowd-pleasing “Dirty Old Town”.

The Unthanks | Sheffield City Hall, Sheffield | 28.02.15

The rather damp and drizzly evening began with the last of the rush hour traffic leaving town, making way for the city’s night life to commence on cue.  Saturday night in any city can be a noisy affair, which always seems to be preceded by a calm before the storm scenario as dusk descends upon the skyline.  Umbrellas bobbed along the sodden pavements leading down to the imposing City Hall where an orderly queue had already begun to form at the side entrance leading to the ornate art deco ballroom that lies beneath the main auditorium.  Down a few flights of stairs and a quick visit to the bar, where Unthankians of all ages were beginning to congregate, the much anticipated entourage had arrived in Sheffield via their impressive tour bus for the seventh date in their current Mount The Air tour, which began in Southampton a week ago and which has been steadily moving northwards ever since.  The most noticeable thing upon entering the ballroom tonight was the absence of chairs, save for a few scattered around the sides for those who needed them most.  I’ve been to a few Unthank soirees in my time but this was the first standing only gig I can recall.  I sensed that this wasn’t going down well with some of the ticket holders but I guess it had to be this way in order to squeeze as many people in as possible.  Others didn’t seem to mind and were more than happy to stand, especially those hugging the safety barrier in front of the stage.  I have to say, with a set that provides little opportunity to dance, the sight of a wall of shadowy standing figures all facing the same way silhouetted by the well-lit stage, did look a little like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just as the mother ship lands on the foreboding Devil’s Tower.  Fortunately, that films now iconic five-note sequence was tonight vastly improved upon by some of the most exquisite music The Unthanks have ever delivered.  Before their arrival on stage though, Adrian McNally introduced the young London-based singer/songwriter Raevennan Husbandes to the stage, who had joined the tour a couple of nights previously in Cardiff. Her first time in Sheffield, the singer casually walked on stage to perform a handful of songs, all of which were courteously received by the audience.  “You’re so quiet” the singer said as she peered out at the audience, shading her eyes from the spotlight, to which someone from the back of the room responded “it’s reverence”.  The quiet may have been a little disconcerting to the singer, but it was more than welcomed by the audience who could hear every nuance of each of her songs, including “Box of Innocence”, “Sirens” and “Solitude and Stone”, together with “House of Wood”, the song Raevennan contributed to Adrian McNally’s Harbour Of Songs project back in 2012.  Finishing with the beautiful “To the Sea”, a song that appears on an album Raevennan recorded with Manchester-based singer/songwriter Tracey Browne, the charismatic singer’s set went a good way towards making new friends in this particular neck of the woods.  After a fairly lengthy break, allowing ample time for Raevennan to chat with people at the concessions stand, the ten-piece ensemble that makes up the latest Unthanks touring band, opened their 90-minute set with Hawthorn, one of the songs from their new critically-acclaimed album.  Victoria Rule’s trumpet and Adrian McNally’s delicate piano blended perfectly as Becky Unthank almost whispered the song’s lyrics, joined at strategic intervals by sibling Rachel, who provided some gentle harmonies that would recur throughout the set.  After the more determined Madam, which brought in the full band and featuring the lead voice of Rachel, the band turned their attention temporarily to older material with “Felton Lonnin” and “Lucky Gilchrist”, from The Bairns and Here’s The Tender Coming periods respectively.  There always seems to be a mixture of tension and release in everything The Unthanks do and more so when delivering any new piece of work.  “Last Lullaby” and “For Dad” are both extremely delicate yet daringly venturesome at the same time, in that the former starts with part of a 17th century lullaby by Thomas Dekker, later reworked by The Beatles as “Golden Slumbers” and the latter featuring a recorded intro, the same spoken sample that appears on the new album, which prefaces Niopha Keegan’s graceful fiddle composition.  All this then seamlessly segues into the band’s arrangement of the traditional “Magpie”; you could sense the audience holding their collective breath.  If anyone was holding their breath mid-way through the concert, it very well may have been Becky Unthank as she debuted her own song “Flutter”, a rather unusual dream-like composition, which at times sounds as if it could be a curious musical bedfellow to “Died for Love”, which itself came along after a tribute to two of the band’s leading influences, Robert Wyatt and Antony Hegarty with “Out of the Blue” and “Spiralling” respectively.  The Unthanks have never hidden nor shied away from their influences and in some cases have dedicated entire album projects to one or two of them, notably Wyatt and Hegarty.  Over the years, the band have also tipped their caps to Nick Drake, Tom Waits and even The Beatles.  The material performed tonight, whether self-written, traditional or contemporary, made effective use of the eight-piece band, featuring a string quartet, trumpet and flugelhorn, piano, double bass and drums, together with a variety of other instruments about the stage.  Without a shadow of doubt the two outstanding performances of the night came towards the end of the set, with both “Starless” and “Mount the Air” back to back and both featuring some pretty tasteful note perfect trumpet soloing courtesy of Victoria Rule.  Anyone familiar with King Crimson’s final 1970s album Red, will know the sprawling closer “Starless”, which Becky and Adrian treat with utter reverence and probably, for my money, the definitive version.  With no time to recover from that, the band launched into their own epic, the title song from the new album Mount the Air, all ten minutes of it, intended as the set’s bold climax.  “Mount the Air” could quite easily have been the concert finale and I doubt anyone would’ve been disappointed in the least if it had been.  The band however did return to the stage for a couple more songs, concluding with the title song from the band’s fourth studio album Last, a suitable lullaby written by Adrian McNally to conclude what turned out to be a most enjoyable and compelling concert.

Kelley McRae and Josh Harty | The Greystones, Sheffield | 26.03.15

I almost missed tonight’s Wagon Wheel double-bill, featuring Kelley McRae and Josh Harty due to some increasingly difficult traffic along the M1 between Nottingham and Sheffield.  My fault completely it has to be said.  I was browsing through some vintage vinyl at Bob’s Records in Nottingham, blissfully unaware that time was moving on and that the rush hour was fast approaching.  I say ‘rush hour’, but these days that could easily be extended by a couple of hours either way.  That’s how long the gridlocked traffic now occurs almost daily, especially on slip roads on either side of the M1 northbound or south.  No matter, my patience was rewarded by clear roads all the way between Doncaster and Sheffield half an hour before showtime and I arrived at the Greystones unscathed, relaxed and ready for a good night of music with all of ten minutes to spare.  Upon arriving at the venue, I found that the advertised double-bill was augmented further by a surprise support set by local Sheffield father and son duo M&J Blues, featuring Jeff Lyall on guitar/vocals and son Mark on guitar.  Playing a mixture of country and blues standards, the duo relaxed into their thirty minute set, which featured some blistering guitar solos courtesy of the younger Lyall, the twangy type on a vivid red Gretsch along with some tasty bottleneck on a blonde solid-bodied Danelectro.  Songs as diverse as Merle Travis’ “Sixteen Tons”, Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Early in the Morning” and surprisingly, Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song”, made up their all too short set.  Wondering what had just hit him, Josh Harty took to the stage to provide something slightly less blistering than the electrifying blues set that had just gone before.  The North Dakota-raised singer/songwriter referred to the preceding set as ‘awesome’ before launching into his own set of solo acoustic numbers.  Although Josh’s set might have been slightly less frantic than Mark and Jeff’s, his acoustic Gibson certainly looked like it’s had some hammer over the years.  Occasionally attacking his instrument with the sort of hand slaps John Martyn used to treat his guitar to, Josh performed a selection of self-penned songs, some of which appear on his most recent mini-album Nowhere, such as the brooding “Whiskey and Morphine”.  Having grown up playing guitar with his father, interestingly both a preacher and police chief in Fargo, which in itself conjures up all sorts of pictures, Josh has been writing and recording his music since the age of nine and admits to have had ‘an interesting upbringing’.  Putting his distinctive John Martyn-like hand slap guitar to good use, Josh included a rather up-tempo take of “May You Never”, possibly Martyn’s best known song, before inviting Kelley McRae up on stage to join him for a couple of songs including Blake Thomas’ beautiful “World of War” and his own “Holding On”, both of which were to provide a taste of what was to come later.  Finishing his set with the upbeat “Which Way I Go”, the singer returned for an unexpected encore, completing his mid evening set with a song that he clearly cites as an all-time favourite, Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”.  Returning to the stage, this time with partner Matt Castelein clutching his real pretty Gretsch Boxcar resonator guitar, Kelley McRae opened her own set with one of her most familiar songs “Alone”, which appears on her last full-length album Brighter Than The Blues, released in 2012.  Born and raised in Mississippi, Kelley moved north to Brooklyn and spent many years there before teaming up with Matt, whose expressive guitar playing and harmony vocals fit hand in glove with Kelley’s overall sound.  Swapping their apartment for a VW camper van a few years ago, the adventurous couple hit the road and continue to clock up thousands of miles, covering a lot of ground, whilst writing new songs and collecting stories along the way, some of which were relayed to the Sheffield audience tonight.  It’s easy to warm to both Kelley and Matt, not just through their songs but because of their highly approachable nature.  Not the sort of people to hide away backstage or up in the green room, but to make themselves available right there with the very people who buy the tickets and come to their shows.  Tonight, the duo’s hour-long set included such songs as “Brighter Than the Blues”, written after being unexpectedly handed a hundred dollar bill by a complete stranger in a biker bar who asserted that he “really loves to see people following their dreams”, Johnny Cash, written a couple of weeks after the great country singer’s death, based largely on some eloquently written graffiti Kelley saw ‘Johnny Cash Died of a Broken Heart’, along with a couple of more recent songs from Kelley’s new mini album release Easy On My Mind, “Fair Weather” and “Full Cup”.  Kelly McRae could easily hold an audience on her own, just as Josh Harty did before her, but with Matt’s explorations up and down the fingerboard, not unlike that of David Rawlings, the overall effect is as sweet as it gets.  Towards the end of the night, Kelley reciprocated by inviting Josh Harty up on stage for a gorgeous interpretation of Ryan Adams’ “Oh My Sweet Carolina”, before the duo closed with one final encore.  Three great sets by three great acts and a full five stars to Wagon Wheel for putting on the event.

Kris Delmhorst | The Ropewalk, Barton upon Humber | 10.04.15

There was a little Anglo/American weather reversal going on as Kris Delmhorst embarked on her current UK tour, leaving a snowbound Massachusetts behind for a surprisingly bright and warm Manchester on Thursday morning.  After an opening night in Anglesey, the Brooklyn-born, now Massachusetts-based singer/songwriter continued her non-stop eleven day tour at The Ropewalk in Barton upon Humber with her touring partner Hayward Williams by her side.  The last time I attended a gig at this particular venue was around five years ago, when I faced the task of talking to a slightly tetchy Tom Russell about his then new album Blood And Candle Smoke for Northern Sky.  I don’t know why it’s taken so long to return to the venue but it was indeed good to be back tonight and to talk to a songwriter whose work I’ve admired for some time.  The Ropery Hall is housed within the unfeasibly long Ropewalk building, which is almost as long as the Humber Bridge, the area’s most famous feat of engineering striding majestically across the river just a little way further down the lane.  I arrived as tonight’s headliner was preparing the stage for the second show of her tour, her first visit here for seven years.  Whilst Kris was alert, determined and highly articulate, especially during our interview, Hayward Williams was, by his own admission, a little ‘out of it’ due to jetlag, pacing around the green room with his guitar slung over his shoulder, warming up to Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” of all things.  After finding a relatively quiet corner, a small room with a few stacked chairs and a pushbike, Kris and I soon settled into a relaxed conversation about her twenty-year career in music thus far, reminiscing about her earliest recordings on cassette tape, her classical music upbringing as a cellist, her move from Brooklyn to Boston around twenty years ago and the musical connections that came with that decision to move, together with her observations of the British way of life, our love of Hobnobs, the damp green countryside and the abundance of regional accents, including the utterly bewildering Geordie accent.  “Basically, as soon as you get to Newcastle you cease knowing what anyone is saying to you until you’ve left the city limits”.  About ten years ago Kris moved out of the bustling city and set up home in what she describes as a ‘tiny town’ a hundred miles west of Boston and since her last UK visit seven years ago, the singer has given birth to a daughter and has continued to juggle a musical career with that of a working mum.  This explains why it’s taken so long for the singer to return to the UK.  “It’s taken me a while mostly because of being a mother and being married to another touring songwriter, the logistics are quite complicated” Kris explained.  Subsequently though, Kris has managed to follow up her critically acclaimed Shotgun Singer with an album of covers by the Boston rock band The Cars as well as Blood Test, a brand new album of originals initially released just under a year ago.  Whilst we chatted, the sound of footsteps outside indicatated that an audience had arrived for tonight’s show and that we ought to now join them in the Ropery Hall in order to watch Hayward’s supporting set.  Opening with a song about ‘not moving to Los Angeles, California’ the Milwaukie-based singer launched into “I Know It Now”, a song from his current album The Reef.  With a laid-back demeanour and a surprisingly soulful voice, Hayward managed to hide his jetlag temporarily as he performed a handful of stripped back to basics songs from the album including “High Street”, “I Was in Love”, “Beginnings” and “Helpless Hands” each of which were well received by the ‘polite’ audience.  “English audiences are so polite” quipped the singer, going on to add “So far!”  Kris Delmhorst broke the venue’s obligatory format by choosing to play the one full 90 minute set instead of the usual two sets, which allowed the performer to settle into her songs, which were spread over her prolific repertoire, the emphasis being on the new songs from the new record.  Kris said she preferred doing just the one long set for two reasons, “one, I’m bad at breaks, I go to the back and pace around and get very nervous and two, I don’t want to keep you from going to your next engagement, it is Friday night after all”.  With Hayward now switching to electric lead guitar, Kris opened her set with the title song from that new record “Blood Test”, soon settling into the sort of groove that we have pretty much come to expect from the singer.  With two perfectly balanced instruments and a handful of outstanding songs at their disposal, the new album was showcased for the first half hour of the set, with songs that included “Saw It All”, “Bees”, “Homeless”, “We Deliver” and “Little Frame”, each song performed with an intuitive assurance and a collaborative flair.  After a beautifully performed “If Not for Love”, one of the songs from the singer’s acclaimed Shotgun Singer record, released back in 2008, Hayward left the stage to allow Kris the space to re-visit a few older songs, including “Early Everlasting”, “Riverside”, “Sea Fever”, “Water Water” and “Juice+June”.  With her tongue firmly in her cheek, Kris questioned the psychology of British audiences who request songs after the show and encouraged people to call out for anything they cared to hear during the show instead.  Tonight, the songs seemed to be satisfying this audience in precisely the order they came, which is testament to the quality of the repertoire.  After choosing one of the songs from The Cars covers album “Magic”, Hayward re-joined Kris on stage for a few more songs including the nostalgic “92nd Street”, the uplifting “Temporary Sun” and finishing with the contemplative “Lighthouse”.  After some enthusiastic appreciation demonstrated in the volume of the applause, Kris returned to the stage alone for the first encore song, the achingly sad “My Ohio”, for which the audience were asked to help out on during the chorus, with one further encore song, which saw the return of Hayward for a rousing performance of “Everything is Music”, one of the songs requested by someone in the audience earlier in the evening.  Not only a great show in its own right, but a great show to end the current season of Friday night concerts at the Ropewalk. 

Larkin Poe | The Greystones, Sheffield | 13.04.15

The audience started to arrive relatively early tonight at the Greystones, just as the lone sound of a kick drum pulsated to a steady beat in the back room, driven by the foot of drummer Marlon Patton, busily navigating the mandatory sound check.  Larkin Poe’s reputation has steadily grown over the last couple of years, not least as a result of some high profile engagements, such as their appearances at Glastonbury, Cambridge and Cropredy festivals, not to mention a recent live session on Wogan’s Sunday morning radio show.  Tonight they returned to The Greystones with a much more ballsy attitude than previously, with their amps turned up to eleven.  There was an additional buzz running alongside Marlon’s pulsating beat, not emanating from the house speakers though, but rather from the audience who had steadily formed an orderly queue in the bar, their collective anticipation clearly audible.  Despite the band’s move from bluegrass-based folk to a much harder rock-based approach, the audience demographic is still hovering around the bus pass territory, or to be brutally honest, exceeding it by some measure.  The reason why younger people have not yet started to patronise this sort of gig in droves is still a mystery to me.  Having said that, the music Larkin Poe now plays is pretty much aimed at anyone with even a passing love for bands such as Little Feat, The Allman Brothers and early Ry Cooder and as we already know, the bus pass generation grew up on that and can still rock like the best of ‘em. All the seats had been removed for tonight’s show allowing for a shoulder to shoulder mosh pit situation, with a long side bench for those that don’t do standing anymore.  Mostly though, the audience seemed to be happy to relive their youth by moshing in the mosh pit despite some creaky bones.  With no support, the band, featuring the charismatic Lovell sisters, Rebecca on electric and acoustic guitars and mandolin, elder sister (by 18 months) Megan on lap steel guitar and Marlon Patton multitasking on both drums and bass pedal, took to the stage to some ecstatic applause.  Kicking off with an explosive “Sugar High”, the band soon filled the packed room with sound, going on to perform songs from their debut full-length album Kin, but not before the band’s deep-rooted swamp gospel of the traditional “Wade in the Water”, a mainstay of the band’s repertoire.  Apart from this song, Larkin Poe have clearly put the past behind them, most notably at the concessions table from where I was standing, where their current album was the only music available tonight in both CD and vinyl format; no EPs, no collaborative projects, Year Zero. After such songs as “Mad as a Hatter”, “Jesse” and “Stubborn Love”, Rebecca announced that after a couple more songs from the album they were going to perform some brand new songs.  “See how we’re building up the suspense” the singer quipped.  The first of the new songs came in the form of the Rolling Stones influenced “As American as Apple Pie”, complete with a distinctly bluesy groove throughout.  Utilising the bass pedal, Marlon Patton kicked off “Hey, Sinner”, which included one of Megan Lovell’s most explosive lap steel solos, which eventually morphed into Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” ala Ram Jam. “Dandelion”, another song from the album, demonstrated the sort of hard driving blues once heard on “The Principle of Silver Lining”, one of the band’s pre-year zero songs, featuring some fine guitar soloing from Rebecca Lovell, before the band launched into yet another new song, the funky “When God Closes a Door”. Finishing with the good-time rocking “Jailbreak”, the band left the stage to an enthusiastic response from the 140-plus crowd, returning for just the one encore, the band’s dramatic rendition of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)”, the old Cher/Nancy Sinatra hit, which the audience treated to the silent respect it deserved.  The proverbial pin hitting the ground would’ve been thunderous. The band played well tonight and left the audience definitely wanting more.  I have to say though, as a long term fan of the band, that although I appreciate the direction Larkin Poe have taken, after spending a good couple of years searching for their chosen path, that I really would have liked the audiences at Glastonbury, Cambridge, Cropredy and even the millions who tuned into Wogan last week, to have heard such peerless songwriting as “Praying for the Bell”, “Burglary”, “We Intertwine”, “Long Hard Fall” and “Trance”, but we may just have to wait for the Larkin Poe tribute band for that to happen I guess, the new Larkin Poe have definitely moved on.

Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes with MonaLisa Twins | City Varieties, Leeds | 07.05.15

The City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds just happens to be one of those beautiful back street Victorian theatres, tucked away amongst the city centre department stores and fashionable bistros.  It could easily be missed were it not for the iconic illuminated arched sign that spans the narrow cobbled lane where the theatre has stood since 1865.  The grand old building remains almost unaltered, save for the steel and glass extension that houses the theatre’s newly installed lift system, something the Victorians didn’t have at their disposal back in the day.  Neverltheless, the interior still carries evidence of its Victorian past.  Yes, the music may have changed over the years but the atmosphere inside remains the same; you can just imagine the footlights illuminating the painted faces of the actors, dancers, magicians, acrobats, clowns and comic performers who populated theatre land’s past.  No jokers or clowns tonight though as one of the UK’s legendary guitar players relaxed backstage before the show.  Tim Quinn introduced his two protégés, the Austrian-born, now relocated to Merseyside, Mona and Lisa Wagner, collectively known as the MonaLisa Twins, who appeared fresh from their current residency at Liverpool’s ultra famous Cavern Club, where the band can be seen every Saturday night.  The MonaLisa Twins brought some of their retro-1960s beat pop to Leeds, with a set of infectious songs written long before the twins were even born; in fact, I dare say even their folks would be too young to remember.  With beautiful sibling harmonies and vintage Rickenbacker and Gretsch guitars, Mona and Lisa re-visited some of their favourite Beatles classics, such as “Revolution” and “This Boy”, with a handful of rock and roll standards thrown into the mix, “Blue Suede Shoes” and “That’s All Right Mama” for instance.  The twins don’t necessarily see their music as particularly nostalgic or retro, they feel these songs are just as valid today as they were when they were first written and performed by some of popular music’s most iconic giants.  The duo’s own songs stylistically reflect this period, songs like “June” and “This Boy is Mine”, both of which are the type of songs that could easily have been heard by John and Paul on their local Wimpy Bar jukebox way back in the black and white days.  No corner of popular music seems too alien for the MonaLisa Twins, who have already recorded such songs as The Doors’ “People Are Strange”, The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and The Easybeats’ “Friday on My Mind”, together with a whole bunch of other Beatles songs.  Tonight the twins, who are always identified not by their contrasting hair colour or length, but by the way they are arranged alphabetically, both on stage or in photographs, brought to Leeds some of their infectious charm, whilst rocking the Grade II listed building to its core.  With James Rookyard on bass and Jake Brown on drums, the band concluded their all too short set with a rip-roaring take on Pete Townsend’s “My Generation”.  The thought of smashing those expensive instruments up before our very eyes in true frenzied Who style may possibly have crossed the minds of one or two in the audience.  Albert Lee witnessed much of the MonaLisa Twins repertoire first hand having begun his musical career in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, whilst playing in several bands, who were equally at home with R&B, Country and Rock and Roll.  Lee stretched his musical wings further in the late 1960s with Heads, Hands and Feet, which also featured Chas Hodges of Chas and Dave fame.  A first rate guitarist even back then, Lee has continued to develop his reputation as a hard working musician, either as a solo performer, with his own band or in collaboration with others.  Tonight Lee was joined by his long-time band Hogan’s Heroes, currently featuring four outstanding musicians, Gerry Hogan on pedal steel, Peter Baron on drums, Chris Palmer on bass and now with the utterly electrifying Doña Oxford, who recently replaced Gavin Povey on keyboards, whose collective collaborative credentials form a veritable who’s who of music giants from Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith and Elkie Brooks to Van Morrison, Levon Helm and the Everly Brothers.  Albert Lee himself has a CV that includes stints working with Emmylou Harris as part of her legendary Hot Band, together with Dolly Parton and Eric Clapton and many more.  During their two sets tonight, the band covered a lot of ground, performing familiar songs from the pen of Gram Parsons such as “Luxury Liner” and Flying Burrito Bros-era “Wheels” together with one or two lesser known Everly Brothers songs.  Although the focus was pretty much on Lee’s nifty guitar playing, a speed of playing that doesn’t seem to have slowed down much over the years, the guitarist was happy to sit out and allow his individual band members to take the spotlight occasionally, with drummer Peter Baron offering a pretty soulful rendition of Elton John’s “Border Song” at one point.  If there was ever a case of upstaging the boss, then it would be with Doña Oxford’s blistering piano solos and soulful vocal prowess, on such songs as “He’s My Baby” and the country rocker “It Comes To Me Naturally”.  Towards the end of the break between sets, Peggy Lee could be heard singing “Is That All There Is?” over the PA as the band picked up their respective instruments once again.  ‘It’s my Aunty Peggy’ quipped the guitarist before launching into a pretty faithful version of The Traveling Wilburys’ “Handle With Care”.  Albert Lee also put his guitar down a couple of times in order to seat himself at the piano for a couple of songs, which proved to demonstrate his versatility.  Towards the end of the night the band pulled out all the stops for a blistering “Country Boy”, Lee’s signature tune, which offered ample space for each member of the band to show their chops, not least Lee’s astonishingly dexterous guitar playing.  Albert Lee and the band will be taking a break from performing in the UK and Europe after this current tour in order for the guitarist to spend more time at home on the other side of the pond.  To his fans over here, Albert Lee will always be and will always remain one of our most accomplished and most cherished guitar players and hopefully he will return to these shores in the not too distant future. 

Shepley Spring Festival 2015 | Shepley Village, Shepley | 17.05.15

The sun was particularly kind to those arriving for the festival in Shepley on Friday afternoon and there was a fair bit of anticipation in the air.  This may be due in part to the fact that there was no festival last year due to unforeseen problems, which resulted in a gaping absence of Shepley’s name on the annual festival calendar.  Friday’s warm sunshine and mild weather was just the thing to put a smile on the faces of the organisers, volunteers, stall holders, performers and general festival goers each of whom had begun to congregate on the newly located site, which is situated just across the road from the original festival site on the grounds of the local cricket club. I arrived in the village around mid-afternoon, approximately an hour before Steve Turner’s opening set in the Village Hall just down the lane. After parking up the car at Cliffe House, my home for the weekend, I took a pleasant walk up to the main festival site and checked in at the artist’s reception.  A smiling Kate Atkinson was there to sort out my pass, one of those lanyard type passes with three capital A’s boldly emblazoned on the front, my name printed quite correctly along the bottom.  I also picked up a programme for the weekend, which actually describes me as the ‘Festival Reporter’.  So, with notebook and pen in hand, together with my camera and trusy recording device, I put my reporter’s hat on once again and set out to record the feelings I have for one of the most enjoyable events of the season.  Shepley worked out long ago that the person who undertakes the responsibility of ‘Festival Reporter’ has to have access to all areas in order to do their job properly.  From this point on, I knew instinctively that my notebook would gradually be filled with scribbled reminders, artist’s names, times, locations and details of possible interview rendezvous, one or two notable song titles and a record of the varying colours and styles of a multitude of dance tunics, each of which would whiz past me throughout the weekend.  I soon familiarised myself with the main stage area, the green room to the rear of the stage, the public bar, which would come in useful at strategic points of the weekend, notably late into the night, one or two stalls and the main outdoor arena, where all the dancing would take place on both Saturday and Sunday.  I then took a pleasant walk down to the Village Hall where the opening concert was due to start promptly at 3.30pm, passing a Shire horse clip-clopping up the lane in the opposite direction just outside the Farmer’s Boy pub, where one or two had already started to gather for an afternoon pint.  Down at the Village Hall, one or two people were seated on the old stone wall that divides the hall from the church yard, whilst Steve Turner sound checked on the stage inside.  The mixture of the English concertina, the bells of St Paul’s Church and the birds singing in the surrounding trees made for a delightful pastoral setting, just the thing to get a festival off to a good start. Even the apparent friendliness of the duty steward is worthy of a mention, as he politely spoke to those sitting along the wall and on the Village Hall steps, saying ‘you can all go inside now, just leave your things on one of the seats and then you can come back outside into the sun until the show starts’.  Civilised behaviour for sure.  Steve Turner was a regular performer on the British folk circuit in the 1980s, traversing the UKs motorway system and arriving at clubs with a concertina under one arm and a mandolin case under the other, bringing traditional songs to the widespread network of folk fans up and down the country.  After a long break from performing professionally, Steve returned to the scene a few years ago and these days sings and plays pretty much for the fun of it; when he gets a moment to leave his violin shop that is.  On Friday afternoon the singer and musician played a couple of engaging sets, the first in the Village Hall and then again much later in the evening at the Coach House in the grounds of the nearby Cliffe House. Barry Goodman, one of my two rooming partners for the weekend – the other one being photographer Phil Carter, whose pictures can be seen to right of this scribbling – introduced each of the acts during the afternoon concert.  After Steve Turner’s well-received set, the stage was rearranged for a young band from Bath, who successfully blend their bluegrass, country and Americana influences with a distinctly English sensibility.  Multi-instrumentalists Charlotte and Laura Carrivick, together with mandolin player Joe Tozer and double bassist John Breeze, otherwise known as Cardboard Fox, provided a contrasting set of songs with tight arrangements and dexterous playing, each of the members demonstrating their ‘chops’ for the first time of the weekend.  The band closed their set with a couple of Bob Dylan songs, “Don’t Think Twice Its Alright” and the lesser known “Walking Down the Line”.  Scottish band Salt House performed twice on Friday, firstly closing the afternoon concert in the Village Hall with a hugely enjoyable set and shortly afterwards opening the evening concert on the Main Stage.  This excellent band was introduced by Sam Hindley, whose spirited and infectious love for folk music circulated around the marquee via the house PA system, a marquee that was soon filled to capacity.  The festival organisers Mac McKinlay and Nikki Hampson decided during the planning stage of the festival that they would like Sam to introduce the acts from the Main Stage and insisted that the huge stage would not be an obstacle for them. A metal lift was installed right next to the stage and remained there for the duration of the festival.  It was a lovely gesture by the festival and a proud moment, not only for Sam himself, but for his many friends who would not only hear the Sheffield Live presenter introduce the evening concert acts, but also see him up there wearing his familiar smile.  By late afternoon, my handy recorder had already been placed in front of all four members of Cardboard Fox, who spoke to me on the Church steps and then once again in front of Moore, Moss, Rutter, before their Main Stage set on Friday evening.  The trio are no strangers to Shepley Spring Festival, in fact Jack Rutter is a Shepley native, raised at his home in throwing distance of the festival site.  The trio, made up also of Tom Moore and Archie Churchill-Moss, has grown over the last few years both in physical stature, in confidence, but most importantly as a musical force to be reckoned with, not least due to their complex arrangements and exciting stage presence, which has changed slightly these days in as much as the boys now stand instead of sitting huddled in their once customary LAU-like stage composition.  Wandering away from the festival site just before Welsh band Calan took to the stage, a decision I now confess to regretting slightly, I headed back down the lane to the Coach House in order to catch some of the acoustic concert taking place.  Having pre-arranged chats with one or two of the artists appearing on the bill, I missed Calan’s entire set and most of Steeleye Span’s, but it did free me up to see Steve Turner’s second set of the day, together with the bold shanty singing tour-de-force of Kimber’s Men, who between them wrapped up proceedings on Friday night at the Coach House.  The five-piece band featuring Joe Stead, Michael Beeke, Neil Kimber, Gareth Scott and John Bromley, brought a flavour of the high seas to the very much inland Shepley with their now familiar full-throttle vocal prowess, whilst the audience hesitated little in singing along.  As the red lights climbed the imposing mast of the Emley Moor Transmitting Station, effectively illuminating the night sky above the village on Friday night, the sound of one of folk rock’s most enduring bands Steeleye Span, lifted and carried itself along on the breeze, making it pretty difficult to determine from which direction the sound was coming, as I headed back up towards the main festival site for a night cap in the crowded bar; a night cap that would last well into the early hours.  Come Saturday, the morning light filtered in through the skylight above my head, in an attic space on the second floor of Cliffe House.  The light revealed a promising day ahead weather-wise, as this blurry-eyed festival reporter shook off the detritus of a very late night in the bar the previous night.  The downstairs dining room was a little too far from the dormitory where I lie to actually smell the breakfast cooking below, but somehow I sensed it was there.  A long day lie ahead and a hearty breakfast was the only thing that stood between me and it; best do something about it then.  After a brief flick through the festival programme, during which the snap crackle and pop of the Rice Crispies took an unexpected assault on my dizzy head, I noticed that Calan would be playing once again, this time in the Parish Church just down the lane, starting the day off with a ‘meet the band’ session.  The five members of the band, hailed as the ‘new ambassadors of cool’, spread themselves out in a crescent shape in front of the altar, surrounded by their unusual instruments, and played a few songs and tunes whilst fielding some routine questions from the audience.  The quintet came over as both warm and cheerful, as the morning got underway.  On the way to the main festival site just up the lane, I called in at the Coach House for a chat to singer/songwriter Fabian Holland.  There’s nowhere in Shepley quite as peaceful as the Coach House, especially in the daytime as the sunlight beams in through the glass roof onto the stone floor below.  Fabian was just about to begin his set when I arrived and so I sat and enjoyed a moment of peaceful repose, whilst listening to his beautiful songs together with a small but equally relaxed bunch of people.  It was difficult to actually ascertain whether the audience were just enjoying the music or rather taking advantage of the peace and tranquility of the setting, either way, there was a lot of relaxation going on and I was pleased to be a part of it.  Fabian’s totally acoustic set was actually one of the highlights of the festival thus far; a fine singer and guitarist performing well-crafted songs, peppered with memorable stories and anecdotes and finishing with a fine reading of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”.  Well, it doesn’t get much better than that.  After his set, Fabian opened a small concessions outlet consisting of his two fine album releases and chatted with members of the audience.  Whilst he busied himself with that and before we both sat down for a chat in the beer garden, I gently sneaked into the adjacent Cliffe House to catch a few moments of Catriona Price’s Orcadian Fiddle workshop, which was taking place in one of the ground floor rooms.  One half of the duo Twelfth Day, Catriona was already well into her workshop, going through the various bowing techniques and idiosyncratic fingering styles unique to the Orkney Islands with three attentive female fiddle students.  It all seemed, to someone who could quite easily make a strangled cat sound infinitely more soothing on the ear than his fiddle playing, quite beautiful and enchanting.  The steep dip in the road between Cliffe House and the main festival site provided some exercise for my ageing legs.  It’s not a walk I planned to do too often during the weekend and although a Big Red Bus service was in place to carry festival people about, I took the coward’s way out and climbed into my car and drove up to the main site in order to catch the second set of the weekend by Cardboard Fox on the Main Stage.  The lunchtime concert also saw the second set of the weekend by Fabian Holland, together with a nice set by the Dovetail Trio, featuring Rosie Hood, Jamie Roberts and Matt Quinn.  With only a few minutes to spare I hot-footed it (okay, I confess, I got back into the Kia for the short drive) down to the Parish Church to see Festival Patron Roy Bailey entertain a full congregation.  Roy has been the patron since day one of the festival back in 2007 and continues to support Shepley with his regular spot, An Hour with Roy Bailey, which is always amusing, thought provoking and most importantly fun.  There’s not many performers who can hold an audience with a children’s song, but his daughter Kit’s song, written for her daughter in turn, “Molly’s Garden”, is simply a treat for young and old alike.  Before heading back to the dorm for a freshen up, I spoke to Sam Hindley in the church, who had by this time finished his MC duties and was once again a free man. After recharging my proverbial batteries, I headed back up the hill to catch The Mae Trio, who were making their first ever appearance on a Yorkshire stage.  The Melbourne-based trio made up of siblings Maggie and Elsie Rigby together with cellist Anita Hillman brought some delightfully harmonious singing to Shepley, wearing ill-advised sleeveless dresses as the breeze rattled the marquee around them.  The evening concert also included sets by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith, the wonderful Mischa Macpherson Trio and the extraordinarily nifty Gordie Mackeeman and His Rhythm Boys, the surprise hit of the festival.  A song and dance man through and through, the Canadian fiddle player dominated the stage, whilst wearing out his fiddle bow, his tap shoes and probably parts of the stage as well.  It all has to be seen to be believed.  There was only one band who could follow that and Saturday night’s headliners always feel very much at home at this particular festival.  The Demon Barbers XL showcased just how far the band have come in the last few years, appearing now as a multifaceted, multi-dimensional song and dance spectacular.  With a set that now incorporates Clog Dancing, Morris, Hip Hop, Street Dance and even aspects of Ballet, the collective concluded the Saturday night concert in a style that the audience have clearly come to expect and depend upon.  The whole thing unraveled whilst I watched on from the side of the stage, interested not only in what the band were doing, but also the audience’s reaction to it.  A memorable show which could only be followed with one thing, another late night in the bar.  On Sunday morning, the Frumptarn Guggenband woke the sleeping hoards from their slumber with their big brash brass and drum sound, which you could probably hear over in Huddersfield.  It’s become something of a Shepley institution over the years, whether the participants are donning their vivid red Beefeater costumes, their monochrome Holstein Friesian cattle outfits or their latest tartan and steampunk get up, the sound remains the same; a full-on, vibrant, thumping, oom-pah-driven, deliciously entertaining wake up call for the entire village.  A short walk away, in the green room behind the main stage, musicians had started to arrive from all corners of the country, with James Delarre arriving from Canterbury to join Saul Rose for the duo’s opening set on the Main Stage.  The two outstanding musicians provided a tightly-crafted set, with each of the two musicians stamping their own distinctive mark on both traditional and contemporary music. Saul and James were followed by Scottish duo Twelfth Day making their Shepley debut.  Orkney’s Catriona Price and Scottish Borders-based Esther Swift provided an almost ethereal set of songs and complex instrumental arrangements on both fiddle and harp, during their opening set on the main stage, a set that included both traditional-inspired originals and pop songs, together with pieces with Classical elements, such as Schubert’s Romanze. With their beautifully delicate music, slightly hindered by the Guggenband’s thundering and domineering bass drum pounding in the distance (probably in Huddersfield!), the duo managed to take their audience on a restful journey, perfect for a pleasant Sunday afternoon.  With Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar doing what comes naturally to them, followed by the Celtic Fiddle Festival’s multi-cultural approach to fiddle playing, I drove back down to the Coach House just in time to catch Lynne Edmondson’s winning song “The Pony’s Tale”, which the singer entered in the Shepley heat of the John Birmingham Cup Song Writing Competition.  Although the competition failed to attract many entrants this year, it’s still an important feature on the festival programme.  The late afternoon concert in the Village Hall got underway shortly afterwards, featuring performances by Said the Maiden, Sarah Horn and James Cudworth, Twelfth Day and The Mae Trio, during which I magabed to catch a taste of Dave Eyre’s onstage interview with Bob Fox in the Parish Church, another regular feature of this festival.  Throughout the weekend, the stages, the local pubs and in particular the main festival site arena played host to a variety of dance displays, mummers plays and street entertainment, most notable the floral spectacle of Earlsdon Morris, the local White Rose Morris, the Sheffield Steel Rapper and the Bradshaw Mummers, all of whom attracted enthusiastic audiences throughout the weekend.  At one point I even noticed a bulky Peppa Pig tustling with a four year-old over a teddy bear! Dance was also represented on the Main Stage, albeit a tongue-in-cheek look at our beloved traditional dances, especially the one man solo Rapper Dance.  As the inevitable end of the festival drew closer, most noticeable by the shutting up of shop by most of the concessions stalls and the on coming of evening, the final Main Stage concert was ready to begin as gentle splashes of rain began to fall upon the tarpaulin.  I interviewed both Tim Dalling and Leila Cooper back to back just prior to The Tweed Project’s set, which was essentially the teaming up of fellow Young Folk Award winners Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar and The Mischa Macpherson Trio.  The collective, which apparently started as a bit of a joke between Mischa Macpherson and Ciaran Algar, became a reality as they made their debut appearance on the Main Stage on Sunday night.  Shortly afterwards, Bob Fox found his way from the Parish Church up to the Main Stage, fully intent on getting the audience to flex their tonsils, which he succeeded in doing so, followed by this year’s closing act, The New Rope String Band making their Shepley debut.  So appealing was the band’s onstage antics, their hilarious slapstick humour and their often absurd behaviour, that at one point festival organiser Nikki Hampson leaned over and whispered to me side stage ‘why have we never had these here before now?’  A good question and a timely one too as the band plan to call it a day later in the year.  As darkness fell upon the Main Stage marquee and most of the swords, bells, handkerchiefs, fiddles and melodeons were safely packed away for another weekend, there was only one fitting conclusion to the Shepley Spring Festival, a finale that has become something of a tradition over the past few years.  Nikki Hampson nervously walked onto the stage with a head full of the names of people she wanted to thank, probably wondering not only where the last three days went, but more than likely where the last two years went.  After the thank yous, only one thing remained and that was to ask local builder, drystone waller, stone mason and noted ‘carrier of the songs’ to lead the audience in a rousing chorus of “The Holmfirth Anthem”, which effectively marked the end of another great and successful Shepley Spring Festival.  Until next year..

Eliza Carthy and Tim Eriksen | CAST, Doncaster | 24.05.15

The CAST Theatre’s strict no photography policy is really not all that dissimilar to British Law Courts, prompting me to think a little outside the box and use what little creative skills I have left.  I thought perhaps of doing a sketch with a pencil and a few coloured crayons, but alas the auditorium was far too dark once the house lights went out.  This also ruled out oil paints, an etch-a-sketch machine or sculpting the scene in play-doh.  I decided therefore to use the old tried and tested method of illustrating the concert simply by describing it.  The two spotlights in the darkened theatre were focused on the centre of the stage as Tim Eriksen wandered out to perform his opening unaccompanied traditional Serbian folk song, followed shortly afterwards by Eliza Carthy, who did likewise, albeit with a song from much closer to home.  Eliza, taking up her position to our right, stood partially obscured by a makeshift percussion rack filled with a variety of trinkets including a couple of fiddles, various beads and jangly jewellery, finger bells and a large cymbal, together with a large kick drum at her feet, branded with Eliza’s name and anchor motif, plus the tiniest amplifier mounted atop an upturned yellow beer crate to her left.  The singer, fiddle player and percussionist wore a low-cut turquoise dress, emphasising her striking figure and matching hair, whilst her companion of the road to her right, chose the less imposing ‘Johnny Cash black’ from neck to foot, surrounded by an array of stringed instruments including both electric and acoustic guitars, another fiddle and a banjo.  The theatre wasn’t nearly as full as it should have been tonight but there again Doncaster, however much I hear you protest, is still not the music capital that it should be in comparison with the likes of Sheffield, Leeds or York, but there again it is a town and not a city.  Sadly, a band has to appear on primetime TV or in front of Simon Cowell to spark any interest or enthusiasm in this town, but some discerning music promoters and fans are trying regardless.  The relatively new CAST theatre in the centre of Sir Nigel Gresley Square could be the crowning glory of a thriving Doncaster music scene if it were supported more.  With a couple of unaccompanied songs effectively introducing the two distinctive voices, the duo continued by performing the lead song from their new album release, which forms the bulk of this and other shows on the duo’s current tour.  The raunchy electric guitar and fiddle-led opener Buffalo, drew together Eliza and Tim’s so-called Anglicana and Americana roots, with a vibrant and utterly convincing performance.  During Eliza’s opening statement a little earlier, we observed that a tickly throat was intent on interfering with her singing, but by applying her usual determination, along with her trusty lozenge, the singer was able to successfully shrug off the pesky frog midway through the first set.  One of the highlights tonight was the duo’s performance of the haunting “Logan’s Lament”, which was imbued with the same restrained drama as the recorded version on the duo’s album, which was due in part to Tim’s effect-laden Telecaster.  For much of tonight’s repertoire, the two musicians swapped and alternated around all the available instruments on stage in order to provide a rich variety of sounds, such as a banjo and percussion combination, guitar and fiddle, a fiddle duet and at one point an a cappella vocal duet on “May Song”.  The instrumental variations and combinations kept the performers on their toes and the audience attentive throughout the two sets, which also included such songs as “Prodigal Son”, “The Whitby Lad” and the title song from the new album Bottle, ‘a mediaeval song about orgasms’ according to Eliza, plundered from an 18th century collection of songs by Thomas d’Urfey, “Wit and Mirth”, or “Pills to Purge Melancholy”.  The Copper Family’s song collection was also re-visited during the set, with a beautiful reading of “Cats and Dogs”, accompanied by some intuitive plucking and picking from Eliza and Tim respectively.  Finishing the second set with the thundering battle cry of Traveling, the duo completely left inhibitions aside for a rip-roaring conclusion to the concert.  One sensed that if the duo could have reached for the volume switch to take it up to eleven they would have done.  Shortly afterwards, Eliza and Tim returned to the stage for a final song, without any of the current dilly-dallying over the merits of encores as a thing, but just getting on with it, which is the way of things I reckon; why fuss over a long established tradition?  The final song therefore was a song from Tim’s established repertoire Gabriel’s “Gonna Blow”, completing a memorable concert by one of folk music’s most inspired collaborations.  

The Young’uns | The Greystones, Sheffield | 29.05.15

It seems like quite a while since I last bumped into The Young’uns, which was probably at Leeds Irish Centre when the trio were supporting The Unthanks on their excellent Mount the Air tour earlier this year.  Since then, the Teesside trio have made an impressive splash in the annual folk award pool, picking up the award for best band at both the annual BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and FATEA awards, together with the Best Live Band award over at Spiral Earth.  This might explain why every seat in the house was taken a good 45 minutes before the three Teesside lads climbed up on stage in The Backroom tonight.  Being a Friday it was pizza night at The Greystones, with Nether Edge Pizza Company cooking up some tasty wood-fired Italian delights right there in front of the pub.  The Young’uns were just completing a pretty lengthy sound check, whilst their assorted partners and friends relaxed upstairs in the comfortable and spacious green room.  Between the sound check and the performance, the lads had agreed to a catch up with Northern Sky and we were soon sitting around a table chatting as promoter Chris Wilson prepared what looked like a delicious feast.  If Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes were tired and weary after a gruelling day of travelling and a seemingly endless sound-check, then they hid any symptoms of it during the interview and subsequent performance on stage.  We spoke about the early days of the group, their tentative singing at Stockton Folk Club, their development as performers, their recorded output thus far, particularly their latest release Another Man’s Ground, together with their song choices, Sean Cooney’s increasingly mature songwriting and their shirts!  The Young’uns’ profile has obviously changed since their success in Cardiff last month, but it hasn’t changed their thoroughly engaging personalities.  As the hot food started to arrive, I rounded up our little chat and left the party to relax before their concert.  “Join us for something to eat Allan” offered Michael as I packed my notebook and recording device away.  A tempting offer, but alas I had some notes to make and a place to secure downstairs in The Backroom.  The illuminated stage with its now familiar backdrop was already prepared for the band as the audience arrived.  A keyboard, two guitars on stands, a black Vignoni accordion at the foot of one of the three microphone stands at the front of the stage, together with an additional one over the keyboard.  With no support act and a full, possibly sold out concert room, the Young’uns took to the stage to some enthusiastic applause from an eager Sheffield audience.  Opening with Billy Bragg’s “Between the Wars”, the three singers soon found their voices with this revered anthem to the working man; essentially, a cappella singing at its best.  The onstage banter throughout both sets was irreverent and playful, but at times almost argumentative and confrontational, bordering on inter-bandmate bickering.  If one sang a note slightly off key, the other would let them know about it in no uncertain terms, taunting their bandmate mercilessly, albeit in a half-joking manner.  “It’s important that we do the last note out of tune, well done Sean for that” quipped Mr Eagle at the end of the shanty “Shawnee Town”.  Mind you, if you dared criticise, you could be certain of a perfectly timed retort.  ‘I wondered why you only lasted two years as a councillor!’ responded Mr Cooney.  After almost 30 nights on the road, the familiar adage of ‘many a true word spoken in jest’ almost becomes a reality.  The first set was pretty much entirely made up of songs from the new album including the local protest song “You Won’t Find Me on Benefits Street”, the tender “Private Hughes”, the heart-wrenching “The Streets of Lahore” and the uplifting “Tom Paine’s Bones”, with the one exception, the aforementioned shanty “Shawnee Town”.  After a short break, the songs continued with a set made up of more familiar fare, such as “The Battle of Stockton”, “Jack Ironside” and the wonderfully ironic “A Lovely Cup of Tea”, whilst the banter stepped up a notch to boiling point, especially with some unexpected audience participation.  It’s probably the first time a heckler has been handed a microphone with an open invitation to shout up if he required an additional reverb or ‘more in the monitor’.  Whether the mocking was tongue-in-cheek or semi-sincere – I’m pretty convinced it was the former – the audience loved every minute of it.  Whilst explaining the source for “Jimmy Go Down To Your Uncles”, a song learned from the singing of Mary Duffy, a mystery voice from the past, David said that one day she will pop up at the back demanding her royalties, to which Sean responded ‘She’d probably say leave the good looking one on the end alone, he’s got a cold’.  Priceless banter.  Reminiscent of the folk club days of the past, when the clubs up and down the country were filled with an equal measure of music and belly laughing, the Young’uns managed to bring such an atmosphere to the Backroom tonight, right now in the current era, which made for a most entertaining evening.  Leaving the stage after the final song of the set “John Ball”, which the entire audience joined in with, the boys returned to perform a couple of audience requests, a song that the Young’uns usually perform for kids in schools, “No More Frying Bacon” and finally the communal shanty “Tilbury Town (Rolling Down the River)”.  Tonight’s appearance in Sheffield confirmed that 2015 is most definitely their year and left the audience in little doubt as to why The Young’uns have been recognised as both the Best Band and the Best Live Band by various sources.

The Demon Barbers XL | CAST, Doncaster | 30.05.15

As I drove into town tonight, I gently introduced the music of the Demon Barbers to my wife who was sitting next to me in the car.  Her usual aversion to folk music has been considered for medical examination, but I was in the mood for experimentation.  Whilst driving along listening to “May Song”, avoiding eye contact with my passenger, Damien Barber being possessed of one of the most overtly ‘folkie’ voices on the planet, I tried to count up how many times and in how many guises I have seen the band over the years.  I ran out of fingers as I drove along Thorne Road and had no intention of taking off my shoes and socks whilst driving.  The thought came to me that in all this time, fifteen years now it seems, I’ve never actually sat down in front of the stage with the audience to take in the entire spectacle; nor have I ever had my wife sitting next to my whilst doing so.  So tonight was going to be a first; no running backstage to speak with the band, no contorting myself at the side of the stage in order to get that crucial photograph of Bryony Griffith’s distinctive profile whilst husband Will Hampson hangs in the air mid-flight just over her shoulder, no running on stage with an MCs microphone in hand to introduce the band in whatever guise they might be.  It was time to sit down and simply enjoy the show with the rest of the audience. I think I chose the right night to do so.  Having seen the XL version of the band from the side of the stage at Shepley Spring Festival just a couple of weeks ago (from where the accompanying photographs to this review were taken), I noticed that the dancers who took part at the Shepley gig, those not on stage tonight, were actually sitting right there in front of me in the audience, including Tiny Taylor and Damien Barber’s mum.  There has always been a great sense of family about the Demon Barbers. Damien and Tiny (partners), Tiny and Fi (siblings), Bryony and Will (husband and wife), Bryony and Ben (siblings), there’s probably more I don’t know about and probably more on their way.  I could just see little Jonah taking up a sword at some point, you never know. As the audience arrived at the Doncaster venue tonight, there was already an air of excitement as the local Maltby Phoenix got busy getting people in the mood by the fountains of Sir Nigel Gresley Square, whilst pre-show drinks were being served in the CAST bar.  The familiar red and yellow hooped socks rapidly rotating with swords aloft as a crowd gathered outside the venue, something that Paul Davenport and his team would be thanked for by Damien towards the end of tonight’s show.  For the final show of the current Demon Barbers XL tour, Damien Barber appeared cheerful, playful and sincerely pleased to be in Donny.  Forging an immediate rapport with the audience from the start, the band’s leader and namesake announced ‘Hello Doncaster, we’re gonna give you some folk songs and tunes… and some dances as well’, going on to mention the name of the band’s latest album release Disco At The Tavern on more than one occasion, to which the audience responded with customary whoops and hollers.  Opening with the infectious “Ranzo”, the band, which tonight featured established members Damien Barber, Bryony Griffith, Will Hampson and Ben Griffith, together with relative newcomers Angus Milne on bass, Jonny Doherty on keyboards and Ali Mac on percussion, was soon joined by tonight’s cloggers Fiona Taylor and Laura Connolly, doing what comes naturally to them, a feature of just about every Demon Barbers show.  After getting into their stride with a couple more songs from the new album, “Rambling Rover” and Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song”, the band launched into “Three Ravens”, which introduced tonight’s three Hip Hop dancers Laura Simpson, Rusty Kennedy and Lauren Haywood, whose utterly infectious dance routines created sparks.  Once the full-on dance spectacle was underway, there’s no way to take it all in at once.  One is faced with making a considered decision on who to keep one’s eyes on. My wife, who was clearly impressed by the whole show, decided it would be Lauren Haywood, whose extraordinary speed and inventiveness is something to behold.  I confess personally to keeping my eyes trained pretty exclusively on Laura Simpson as her tiny frame defies gravity during some of the more energetic routines.  Rusty Kennedy comes into his own during the “Two Brothers” sequence, when he and Laura perform a graceful ballet, one of the most accomplished routines to have recently been added to the show’s repertoire of set pieces.   Having already established the fact that my companion for the evening was very much into both the dancing and the music alike, I was partially tentative when the swords came out.  No need to worry, she enjoyed the Rapper Dance equally.  During tonight’s dance, the band chose to abandon their customary red socks and sashes and went for a more casual look.  This provided two firsts for me; never before have I seen a female participant during the Demon Barbers performance of this particular dance, tonight that place being taken by Laura Simpson and secondly, never before have I seen drummer Ben Griffith perform the dance; impressive on both counts.  With a fine balance of songs shared out between singers Damien and Bryony, such as “Bitter Withy”, “Sally Free and Easy”, “Go Boy Go (Chemical Workers Song)”, “Sir Lionel and the Boar” and a couple of songs from the Captain Ward album “Bonny Boy” and the old Grateful Dead cover “Friend of the Devil”, the band was pretty much cooking from start to finish, with just the one unfortunate performance mic malfunction, which Bryony soon got around with some quick-thinking creativity.  Concluding the concert with “Disco at the Tavern”, all tonight’s participants came out to play their own part in the finale, once again demonstrating that the Demon Barbers tick all the right boxes in their tireless pursuit of examining and cross-referencing a multitude of styles, bringing together a multi-genre fan base and a lot, and I mean a lot, of happy customers.

Heritage Blues Orchestra | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 04.06.15

After a pleasant and rather uneventful drive into Leeds tonight, on what could only be described as a warm and untypically seasonal midweek evening, I took a slow and leisurely walk into the city towards New Briggate, almost tempted to sit myself down at one of the tables on the pavement outside the Brotherhood sports bar on the corner of Merrion Street, in order to take the weight off, with a tumbler of something cold and with plenty of ice.  We do tend to feel that summer just might finally be upon us when we see people sprawling out on the street in an almost Parisian manner, just before the sun goes down in Leeds.  A few doors along, patrons had started gathering on the steps of another establishment, this time the more imposing Grand Theatre and Opera House, presumably awaiting the arrival of their friends, their dates or even their colleagues to join them for a bit of Perfect Nonsense courtesy of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster.  Alternatively, they might just be having a last cigarette before taking their seats upstairs in the Howard Assembly Room for an evening of raunchy blues courtesy of the Heritage Blues Orchestra. After a coffee in the theatre bar I joined what appeared to be a full house, all primed and ready for some blues from across the pond.  Oddly enough, the support could be described as anything but the Blues.  The quirky three-piece version of The Sentimentalists, a sort of Divine Comedy from Castleford, delivered a short and at times rather bizarre set of songs, all of which would probably sound better read rather than actually sung.  Philip Fowler’s honest poetry/songs are pretty good and the sort of topics that would normally grab my attention, Northern Soul and 45rpm records and the like.  Equally the concert piano and acoustic guitar accompaniment was equally good.  Put the things together though and it all appears to go sadly awry, so much so that people began to leave sporadically throughout the set, presumably heading for the bar.  Still, despite failing to keep the entire audience of Blues fans enthralled, The Sentimentalists have secured a booking at this year’s Glastonbury Festival and Mark Radcliffe thinks they are ‘truly marvellous’, so I guess that’s okay then.  I actually like the way the Howard Assembly Room mixes the genres, which provides a more eclectic and therefore more interesting evening of music.  The venue could easily have booked a blues singer or band as support, but with The Sentimentalists, we were treated to something different.  The five-piece Heritage Blues Orchestra that followed was suitably equipped and ready to give the audience precisely what they came for, some authentic blues from a band who appear to know their stuff.  Although not the full orchestra, which includes a horn section, the slightly trimmed-down five piece band began with an authentically delivered field holler, courtesy of Bill Sims Jr.  The seated singer, guitarist and pianist, dressed in grey suit, bow tie and straw fedora, delivered Leadbelly’s words as if he was hollerin’ into John Lomax’s tape recorder at Washington’s Library of Congress.  Sims’ daughter Chaney continued the song, a soulful rendition of Leadbelly’s “Go Down Hannah”, which provided some real grass roots folk blues to whet the audience’s appetite before the band launched into the set with the gospel-tinged “Get Right Church”, featuring the rest of the band, Junior Mack on guitar, Vincent Bucher on harmonica and Barry Harrison on drums.  The set covered a lot of ground musically speaking, with tightly arranged adaptations of Son House’s “Clarksdale Moan”, Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues”, Memphis Minnie’s “Joliet Bound” and Eric Bibb’s “Don’t Ever Let Nobody Dray Your Spirit Down”, each peppered with some fine harmonica playing by Vincent Bucher, who at times was almost on fire.  Occasionally each of the individual musicians were left to do their own thing, whether it be a blues harp solo courtesy of Bucher, a Barry Harrison drum solo – whilst Chaney danced along beside him – a hand-clapping duet courtesy of the father/daughter combination or an acoustic country blues classic delivered by Junior Mac (Slidin’ Delta), the band kept it all pretty spiced up throughout the 90 minute set.  One particular stand out moment has to be Chaney Sims’ heartfelt reading of “St James Infirmary Blues”, with her dad’s piano accompaniment, including the bluesy Beethoven introduction on the Steinway (“Fur Elise”).  The blues came to Leeds tonight and it didn’t disappoint.

 Çiğdem Aslan | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 06.06.15

The Howard Assembly Room was set out differently tonight to the usual uniformed rows of seats in the stalls, which were replaced by a spread of round tables and chairs, which for all intents and purposes looked pretty much more conducive to an evening of dreamy Turkish music and song.  Even the sublime African Kora music from Mali, which was playing over the PA system as visitors arrived and took their seats, provided a rather more ‘settling’ atmosphere than usual.  Never before have I felt more comfortable at the venue, with the possible exception of Jackie Oates’ “Lullaby” concert a few years ago, when the seats were replaced by comfy sofas and standard lamps.  Now that was a dreamy evening indeed.  I suppose a few heads were scratched and chins stroked midway through the opening set by Family Elan, whose rhythm section of drums and bass were completely drowned out by a modern day Jimi Hendrix on electric – and heavy effect pedal – bouzouki.  Despite calls from the audience for the instrument to be turned down – okay, I don’t normally object to loud music having been raised on The Who and Led Zeppelin – but I had to agree with the audience on this.  It wasn’t that it was too loud; it was just ill-balanced with the other instruments.  I had to giggle to myself when the singer said to the audience ‘for this next song, forgive my poor Turkish’.  It didn’t really matter, there was no way we were going to hear any of it!  I’m almost reluctant to write this in a review but I feel compelled to, the singer actually said over the PA ‘I don’t mind if anyone leaves’.  I’m pretty sure the main act minded.  After banging our ears with the palms of our hands during the break, the peace and tranquillity returned to the hall for what turned out to be a delightful concert of Turkish, Greek and Kurdish music and song courtesy of the London-based singer Çiğdem Aslan and her band.  The volume was perfect, the balance was even and the playing was exemplary.  With the fiddle playing of Michalis Kouloumis and percussionist Vasilis Sarikis, together with the invaluable contribution of Nikolaos Baimpas on the traditional kanun (κανονάκι), who also arranged much of the set, the three-piece band opened the single 90 minute set with a complex instrumental piece before the singer joined the band for the remainder of the concert.  The singer continued with “Vale Me Stin Agalia Sou (Take Me In Your Arms)”, one of the songs that appears on her current album Mortissa.  Almost apologetic for her English introductions, which were actually perfectly fine, the singer weaved through the set, swaying along to some of the instrumental passages and fully in control of the emotional nuances of each of the songs, which also included “Usakli Kiz (Girl From Usak)” and the sprightly “Aman Katerina Mou (Oh My Katarina)”.  ‘We brought you the sound and the stories of the Mediterranean’ said the singer as the appreciative audience called for a final encore, which the singer was only too pleased to oblige us with, concluding a fine evening of music from a rich and multi-faceted culture. 

Vashti Bunyan | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | 13.06.15

A Saturday night in Leeds City Centre is slightly different from the lazy midweek evenings I’m getting used to lately.  The lights seem much brighter and the people more colourful, showing signs of eager anticipation of a good night ahead.  Hen parties gather and voices grow louder as the burly suited doormen look slightly less at ease, chewing on gum with their earpieces fixed firmly to their ears as the evening begins.  A swarm of female twenty-somethings head down Vicar Lane towards the Headrow, each sporting their own self-fashioned tinsel wigs in a variety of vivid colours, hoping to pass a bunch of eligible bachelors in their shirt sleeves on their path and probably hoping to avoid other hen parties at all costs.  It’s another Saturday night in Leeds.  The steps that lead up to the bar at the Grand Theatre were heavily populated tonight as theatre goers arrived to see Jason Manford and Ross Noble in a production of Mel Brooks’ hilarious The Producers.  I imagined Vashti Bunyan relaxing backstage somewhere on the next floor at the Howard Assembly Room trying to get “Springtime For Hitler” out of her head.  During the break tonight, just before her set, it became obvious that the audience were having a ball down there with their communal laughter echoing along the corridor.  People took their seats in the relatively subdued Howard Assembly Room, where the dimly-lit stage was set for at least two people; two seats, three microphones and accompanying stands, two guitar stands one occupied with a left-handed acoustic guitar and a small table with a bottle of Buxton mineral water all at the ready.  There was also a small cluster of pedals and wires behind two stage monitors, or should I say in modern muso parlance, ‘wedges’.  York-based singer-songwriter Gary Stewart provided the support for the evening, delivering a gentle set of songs, some self-penned, others borrowed, Davy Graham’s “Anji” for instance.  It’s been a while since I’ve heard that particular guitar tune performed on stage, a tune that in earlier times was an essential initiation piece for any budding Bert Jansch, Davy Graham or Paul Simon wannabe.  I guess if I was pushed to compare Gary Stewart to any living performer it would be to a young Paul Simon.  There’s that familiar soothing voice and gentle rhythmic guitar style, unsurprising rhythmic to someone who is also often seen behind a drum kit.  Tipping his hat to Simon, Gary closed his short set tonight with Simon’s “Song for the Asking”, but not before performing a handful of songs from his own pen; including “Busby”, “Jekyll and Hyde” and the highly melodic Mediterranean flavoured “Behind the Door”.  Gary Stewart told me after the show that he deliberately toned down his set to meet with the ambience of a Vashti Bunyan gig, applying gentle guitar and voice throughout his set.  By comparison to what followed, he might as well have played Death Metal.  I actually don’t recall ever attending a concert of such delicate, almost whispered and soothing songs.  Testament to the acoustics in the Howard Assembly Room, everything was audible, but it could not have been any quieter.  With Vashti’s nine-year guitar accompanist Gareth Dickson sitting beside her, the singer-songwriter, who some like to refer to as the ‘Godmother of Freak Folk’ began her gentle set with “Here Before”.  With just the two guitars and two voices, the set unfolded with a dozen more songs, none over-long, in fact most of the songs were particularly short, the entire set being over and done within the hour.  The song introductions were quieter still, revealing only a little about the singer, her life and her music.  We are told that the now Edinburgh-based singer once lived out in the country on a farm, that before that she once lived a life outside with a horse, a caravan, a dog and a boyfriend, that she once had a poet leaving poems for her in an empty milk bottle on her doorstep – ‘wonderfully romantic, it’s a pity I didn’t like him’.  Memories of a much simpler life gone, exemplified in possibly Vashti’s most cherished song, “Diamond Day”, which tonight was the second song of her set.  The song was memorably used in a TV advert for a mobile phone company.  Much of the set featured more recent songs though, such as “Across the Water”, “Gunpowder”, “Here” and the title song from her latest record Heartleap, each demonstrating that the songwriter’s muse is still very much present.  Vashti handed over the spotlight to her friend and musical accompanist to perform one of his own songs, the sublime “Two Trains”, to which Vashti provided some ethereal backing vocals.  “It wasn’t a bad result for me getting hooked up with Vashti obviously” declared the guitarist.  It’s hard to believe that Vashti Bunyan’s debut LP Just Another Diamond Day was released 45 years ago and here we are still listening to at least one of the songs from it, performed in the same thoroughly enchanting manner.  We don’t often get the chance to do this and if we do, it’s usually delivered by someone who is almost embarrassingly well past their sell by date.  We don’t get that with this performer; with Vashti Bunyan time seems to have stood still.  

Beverley Folk Festival: The Bootleg Beatles | Beverley Racecourse, Beverley | 18.06.15

It seemed a little strange arriving at the Beverley Folk Festival on a Thursday afternoon, a day earlier than usual.  I normally arrive to the familiar hustle and bustle of campsite activity, tent pegs being driven into the ground, stewards running around trying to be helpful, musicians with instrument cases striding across fields in order to promptly get to their sound check and all manner of other activity.  Then there’s all the concessions people arriving in their vans and anxious organisers crossing, then re-crossing their fingers for minimal problems, no fatalities and more importantly, no rain.  The historic Racecourse is now pretty much established as the home of the festival, which this year celebrates its 32nd event (the last three have been held at the Racecourse).  This afternoon the site was pretty deserted save for a handful of hi-viz jacketed workmen putting the finishing touches to the festival site.  Things would begin proper on Friday as usual, but tonight, the priority was to keep the festival site restricted until everything was complete, with access only to the Main Stage marquee for a special supplementary event and a special treat for Beatles fans.  Leila Cooper quite rightly said in her introduction, that we sadly no longer have the opportunity to see The Beatles play live; firstly, the iconic Sixties band gave up playing live back in 1966, with only a brief appearance once again on a London rooftop at the end of the decade.  Then we spent the next decade speculating if and when the band would re-form and if so, for how much?  Finally with the events of that dreadful night on 8 December 1980, all that speculation ended and the world knew that The Beatles’ long and winding road had definitely come to an end.  For those of us who grew up to the sound of the Fab Four, the Bootleg Beatles provide the only real opportunity to hear those songs once again played live, with the possible exception of Paul McCartney growling some of the songs during his own shows (Happy Birthday Macca by the way) and in the case of the Bootlegs, keeping pretty much faithful to the original recordings.  When The Beatles played live, you couldn’t hear them for two distinct reasons; unsubstantial equipment for the job in hand and the deafening screaming of the fans.  The other notable thing is that by the late 1960s, there was no real way to recreate on stage, the sounds that these boys were making in the studio.  Today though, with advanced technology, you can do just about anything on stage and “I Am the Walrus” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” are both relatively easy.  The Bootleg Beatles may not be a folk purist’s idea of a great opening act for a folk festival but I do.  Everyone knows these songs, they are part of our culture, part of our history and the music transcends all barriers.  Most importantly, the songs of The Beatles appeal to a wide demographic; a Beatles tribute band of this standard can’t really fail to entertain and enthuse an audience eager to be entertained and enthused.  Tonight, the audience was already sitting in the palm of their hands before the band even climbed up on stage.  Starting their first of two sets in Brian Epstein-era suits, embodying the characters of John, Paul, George and Ringo, the Mop Tops plowed through one familiar classic after another including “A Hard Day’s Night”, “This Boy”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “I Wanna Be Your Man” and “Help”.  Midway through the first set, the band began to control their legendary goofing about and settled down into the Beatles’ next phase, the Rubber Soul/Revolver era, with such delights as “Day Tripper”, “Taxman” and “Paperback Writer”, which also included ‘Paul’ serving up probably the band’s most famous song, “Yesterday”, complete with string duet of cello and violin.  After a short break the band returned to the stage in full Sgt Pepper regalia, complete with different hairdos, moustaches and National Health specs, opening with the theme song from the iconic 1967 LP Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  This segued nicely into “With a Little Help From My Friends”, featuring drummer Ringo’s carefully rehearsed out of tune voice and no guessing to what the next song might be, sung by a seated ‘John Lennon’ at the piano.  For me, they could’ve gone straight into “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” after “Lucy”, but I guess the band had to move on.  The musicians had already increased onstage with the addition of both brass and string sections and there was no song more apt for all this further orchestration than the Summer of Love’s anthem “All You Need is Love”, which had everyone singing along.  Whilst the other three members of the band were offstage getting into their Let It Be/Abbey Road period costumes for the final home run, Beatle George performed a beautifully rendered acoustic version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, with that all important additional verse that we all discovered much later.  The fun continued with songs such as “Let It Be”, “Get Back” and the mother of all sing-along refrains, “Hey Jude”, which provided the Beverley audience with a night to remember.  All together now Na Na Na Na Na Na Naaa.

Beverley Folk Festival | Beverley Racecourse, Beverley | 21.06.15

The 32nd Beverley Folk Festival got underway on Friday night after a day of recovery from what proved to be a successful opening night featuring The Bootleg Beatles.  Some of those memorable songs would no doubt have still been ringing in the ears of those who had already set up camp for the weekend. For those who did stay over on Thursday night, the campsite remained a relatively quiet and peaceful area as the final preparations were made on the main festival site throughout the day.  A walk into the nearby market town of Beverley proved to be just the thing to shake off the previous evening’s over-indulgence of Wold Top Ale, with a visit to the historic Minster, a cuppa in one of the handful of coffee houses and cafes, as well as a long overdue visit to Minster Records in order to offload some cash in exchange for a bag full of LPs.  Come Friday evening at least four stages were all ready and prepared for a varied evening of entertainment, covering everything from music concerts and sessions, comedy events and the all-important young people’s showcases, which could in all likelihood provide us with the headliners of tomorrow.  As this is the Beverley Folk Festival, the entertainment would of course stretch well into the early hours with the Late Night Festival Club hosted by Leila Cooper under her now popular Moonbeams banner.  Things got underway with the Area 2 Youth Programme, hosted by Sam Pirt and Jim Molyneux.  With a planned programme of six new acts, each taking to the stage of the intimate venue throughout the evening, the spotlight was definitely on some new hopefuls whilst the audience relaxed on the comfy sofas and straw bales provided.  The young singer, harmonium and mandolin player Tilly Dalglish was the first musician on stage, getting the evening underway with a short set of enchanting songs.  Tilly looked slightly nervous with her hands shaking a little as she played her harmonium, but this is what it’s all about.  The one thing that’s immediately noticeable at the Beverley Folk Festival is the healthy presence of young people.  Both the Main Stage and the Concert Marquee evening concerts began simultaneously with the young Kent-based quartet Gentlemen of Few making their return to the festival on the Main Stage, whilst the riotously shambolic Hillbilly Troupe frantically wielded such Skiffle items as a washboard and a banjo on the Concert Marquee stage.  Gentlemen of Few’s Newgrass style, featuring keyboards, banjo, guitar and bass, was an instant hit with the festival last year and it was encouraging for both the band and the festival’s youth programme to welcome them back once again, this time to open proceedings on the Main Stage.  In contrast to those two highly energetic opening acts, comedian Patrick Monahan opened the comedy club in the Paddock View bar with one of his own distinctively energetic routines.  By mid-evening festival favourite Lucy Ward was back to do what only Lucy Ward can and that’s entertain people with no small measure of her own inimitable charm.  There’s nothing pretentious about Lucy, she’s exactly the same offstage as on and her lust for life is practically tangible.  If Lucy can’t get an audience singing then no one can.  Drenched in a vivid red light throughout, making her look like she was about to expose photographs in a dark room rather than sing a bunch of songs, the Derbyshire singer smiled throughout, save for the moments when delivering some of her more sensitive and passionate material.  Meanwhile on the Main Stage, the Australian/Irish duo Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson brought a taste of their distinctive backwoods swamp blues to Beverley; a sort of White Stripes for grown-ups.  Headlining the Concert Marquee on Friday night was The Mighty Doonans, the Tyneside family band featuring Mick Doonan on whistles, pipes and sax and Rosie Doonan, one of this country’s finest singers.  The band were in a particularly playful mood, ‘let’s show them Americans that we can sing louder than them’ quipped Mick Doonan midway through the band’s set.  The band, known for their hilarious stage antics encouraged the audience at one point to help themselves to a ‘selfie’ whilst the band played behind them.  Meanwhile on the Main Stage, those aforementioned ‘Americans’ Hayseed Dixie were kicking up a storm with a veritable barrage of popular rock classics played in their own distinctive hillbilly fashion.  With the audience completely on their side from the start, the band pleased the crowd with both their musical chops and their masterful showmanship.  Once the headliners left their relative stages, the night was still young according to Leila Cooper, who managed to entice some of those acts onto the stage at the now legendary Moonbeams Sessions in the Wold Top Marquee.  On Friday night the Hillbilly Troupe continued to be riotous, Gentlemen of Few continued to be gentlemen, Lucy Ward continued to be Lucy Ward and The Rachel Hamer Band sweetened the decibel levels with a delightful end of the night set, followed shortly afterwards by Driffield’s own cigar box guitar wizard Dogfinger Steve, who finally drew Friday evening to a close.  Come Saturday, I was curious to find out more about the Westwood Sessions, a special area of the festival site specifically for younger performers, where not only do they get the opportunity to perform in front of people, often for the very first time, but also they are given the chance to record their first demos.  Throughout the weekend The Touch Above bar provided a space for young performers to work under the supervision of Nikki Airey, the co-founder and event co-ordinator of the Westwood Sessions who is incidentally only 19 herself.  One of the Westwood Sessions success stories is that of the young 16 year-old Wiltshire-based singer-songwriter Josh Wolfsohn, who returned this year to play the Area 2 stage.   Although the forecast threatened rain it didn’t stop enthusiastic dance teams congregating in front of the Grandstand throughout the morning, who between them added colour to a somewhat grey sky.  By midday, the music commenced in the Wold Top Marquee for the first of the weekend’s two Moonbeams Sessions, featuring such performers as Katie Spencer, Dogfinger Steve, Martin Peirson and the fine female a cappella trio Yan Tan Tether.  By mid-afternoon, the Main Stage marquee had once again filled up for an afternoon concert under the banner ‘Blues, the Tradition, Humour and Great Music from Across the Globe’, featuring the third appearance of the weekend by Lucy Ward, whose engaging personality dominated the festival’s largest stage.  After the second set of the weekend by Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson, it was time to introduce three award winning musicians from the English Folk scene, who brought the afternoon concert to a close with a delightful set of songs and tunes from the tradition.  Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr have the ability to hold an audience on their own as individual performers, but collectively they demonstrate precisely why their respective mantelpieces are cluttered with awards.  Simultaneously, well almost, over in the Concert Marquee, the annual Americana Concert got underway featuring the second appearance of the weekend by the young Deal-based band Gentlemen of Few, whose enthusiasm was almost tangible.  The band was obviously glad to be back at the festival.  Gentlemen of Few were followed by the Newcastle-based band Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra, an outfit whose collective showmanship evokes another era entirely.  Their audiences may be startled to discover that the band seem to always dress this way, arriving earlier on Saturday morning in a van wearing the same outfits.  If a steady build-up of showmanship was the order of the day, then Curtis Eller’s American Circus was the perfect headline act for Saturday afternoon. No stranger to the festival, Curtis Eller brought along the four-piece version of his current touring band, who between them delivered some of the most unique and original songs of the weekend, leaving an audience spellbound with such songs as “Taking Up Serpents Again” and “The Heart That Forgave Richard Nixon”.  By early evening, there appeared to be a record breaking queue developing for Saturday night’s double headliner featuring Seth Lakeman and Peatbog Faeries.  The queue stretched from the Main Stage door and continued to serpentine all the way back to the Concert Marquee at the other end of the Festival Village.  Once everyone had squeezed into the Main Stage marquee, made the decision to either sit on the chairs provided towards the back or join the moshers up front, the evening’s concert began with an energy-driven set courtesy of Seth Lakeman and his current band, followed by a pulsating and strobe-laden Celtic-fest from one of the best bands on the scene, Peatbog Faeries.  Despite the huge interest in both Seth Lakeman and Peatbog Faeries, both of whom delivered thoroughly exciting performances, the Concert Marquee also attracted a full house for Beverley Festival virgins and Sci-Fi Folk evangelists Maia, together with a second set by both Curtis Eller’s American Circus and Messers Simpson, Cutting and Kerr.  Whilst making an attempt to choose one concert and stay with it, I found it impossible to resist occasionally popping into the Area 2 Youth Programme stage in the Wold Top Marquee to see what was happening.  I soon became aware of a contrasting feel to the festival each time I visited the marquee, observing relaxed and gentle performances by such artists as singer and multi-instrumentalist Naimh Boadle, a seventeen-piece youth orchestra from Northumberland called Stocksfield Stompers, whose age range was between 11 and 16, together with some contemporary rock music courtesy of the three-piece all-female outfit The Velvet Dolls.  Once again, the day ended with the second late night Festival Club, hosted once again by Leila Cooper of Moonbeams. As Wold Top Ale flowed well into the early hours, Curtis Eller arrived to entertain the packed marquee, indicating that he intended to go easy and save his voice for his Main Stage set on Sunday.  He actually went on to deliver possibly his strongest vocal performance of the entire weekend with a raucous reading of the traditional “Mole in the Ground” together with the more laid-back and utterly beautiful “Buster Keaton”.  Like most events of this nature, the Beverley Folk Festival is a place where you can either put away your cares for a few days, relax and take the weight off, or alternatively, walk from one end of the Festival Village to the other several dozen times a day and completely wear yourself out in the process.  The upside of this act of endurance is that you are likely to meet new friends along the way.  You may pass them several times during the course of a couple of hours and during that time you’re bound to say hello at some point.  On Sunday alone, you could actually confess to having met a handful of new friends, a couple of three-foot tall Irish bull hounds, a team of Morris Dancers with blue faces and sticks and even a plastic gnome who answers to the name Clint!  On Sunday afternoon, you could also cite the sun as a new friend, which finally beamed down on the Festival Village for the remainder of the day.  The second Moonbeams Session got off to a good start with Crooked Weather and Neil Barron, before a rather fine acoustic set by guitar player Mike Gledhill, who soon had the audience’s emotions stirred.  Playing just instrumental tunes, the guitarist dedicated one of his compositions to his late father especially for Father’s Day, the introduction alone moving the audience to tears.  Later in the afternoon there were also fine performances from singer Lucy Marshall, Driffield-based folk rock sextet Under the Bridge, the six-piece all female Scarborough band Raven, together with a couple of regular bands led by Nick Rooke and Gerry McNeice respectively.  One of this year’s surprise hits was the Newcastle-based seven-piece band Holy Moly and the Crackers, who opened the Main Stage during Sunday afternoon’s Summer Solstice Party.  With their own mixture of gypsy folk, New Orleans brass-laced jazz, Jewish Klezmer and Jamaican Ska, the band stormed the marquee with a lively set of songs, which included their soon to be released single “A Punk Called Peter”, a sort New Orleans funeral march mixed with some fine and highly danceable Reggae.  Curtis Eller’s American Circus followed with another highly entertaining performance, before the headline performance by the blue-suited rhythm and blues outfit King Pleasure and the Biscuit Boys, who entertained throughout the afternoon in their own inimitable style.  Around the same time, over in the Concert Marquee, the award-winning Devon-based duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin once again showcased their unique blend of traditional and self-penned songs, followed by the collaborative Anglo/Scots quintet The Tweed Project, made up of the duo Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar with the Mischa Macpherson Trio.  By way of contrast, the two main stages provided something for everybody during the afternoon; pure entertainment on the Main Stage whilst something slightly more ethereal took place on the Concert Marquee stage, either way you chose it all made for a hugely enjoyable afternoon.  The choices for the rest of Sunday were just as eclectic, with literary events such as a fine collaboration between crime author Mark Billingham and the country duo My Darling Clementine, who demonstrated their unique way of bringing an engaging saloon story to life, some fine choral singing with the All For One Choir, a couple of music-based films Searching for Sugarman and The Watersons filmed live at the Hull Truck Theatre, and a songwriter’s circle featuring Ted Key, Michael Weston King (fresh from his appearance with Mark Billingham) and Driffield’s very own songstress Edwina Hayes.  The festival regular also opened up the evening concert on the Concert Marquee stage later in the evening, once again showcasing her beautiful and much-loved voice, then making a final appearance closing the late night Moonbeams session in the early hours, effectively closing the festival for another year.  Before that though came the festival finale concert.  After covering Beatlemania and the Summer of Love on Thursday night, courtesy of The Bootleg Beatles, followed by the Hillbilly-fied driving Rock and Roll of Friday night with Hayseed Dixie, together with the pulsating Celtic dance-fest provided by Scotland’s Peatbog Faeries on Saturday night, we headed towards its final concert of Beverley Folk Festival 2015, with three legends of the British Folk movement; Barbara Dickson, Ralph McTell and Wizz Jones.  The original plan was to have Rab Noakes but unfortunately the singer-songwriter was unable to attend.  ‘Rab sends his love’ said Barbara Dickson from the Main Stage.  Both Barbara and Rab played a short set at last year’s festival and fully intended to appear this year.  Rab’s place on the bill was taken by singer-guitarist Wizz Jones, who stepped in to fill the void, suitably equipped with the ‘legend’ tag.  It’s difficult to measure the influence that Wizz Jones has had on guitar players over the years, notably Ralph McTell and Bert Jansch, and on Sunday night the guitarist had no problem holding the audience with his superb playing and engaging anecdotal stories.  Ralph McTell was on fine form when he walked out on stage, going on to perform a selection of his best known songs, such as “From Clare to Here”, “Streets of London” and even at one point “Michael in the Garden”.  Barbara Dickson was also in fine voice, despite a tickly throat, performing some of the songs from her own impressive back catalogue, including a fine interpretation of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”.  A good friend of Beverley Folk Festival, the singer appeared with a small band and delighted the audience with an almost nostalgic set of familiar songs.  With several outdoor marquees and indoor bars, hidden rooms and supplementary spaces, stages positioned at every available location and a packed programme of events occurring simultaneously, it’s impossible to see and hear everything at the festival, but it’s always a nice challenge to try and get around as much of it as possible.  As the sun set down on the Festival Village on Sunday night it was nice to sit on one of the benches outside the Wold Top Marquee with a pint of Wold Top bitter and reflect on four days of fun and music.  This year the festival boasted its best ever attendance, which goes a long way to indicate that there’s no stopping it now and we can look forward to next year’s event with a great deal of anticipation. 

Moonbeams Festival 2015 | Wold Top Brewery, Hunmanby | 11.07.15

The sunshine always seems to bring an additional sprinkling of joy whenever I drive, especially when I’m on my way to a festival; is there really any better feeling than having the sun burn down on your upper arm as you drive along the labyrinth of country lanes on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds, knowing that you will soon be joining friends for a weekend of good music and oodles of fun?  I think not.  The Wold Top Brewery, as its name suggests, is perched upon the Wolds close by the seaside town of Filey, set amongst miles of sweeping countryside as far as the eye can see right alongside the rugged North Sea coastline; a perfect place to hold an annual music festival.  The seventh Moonbeams Festival now holds the distinction of being the first in the festival’s short history to completely sell out well before the event itself.  This is no longer due to the calibre of acts festival organiser Leila Cooper books to appear over the weekend, but rather that the regulars have got used to looking forward to meeting up at this event, one of the UK’s best loved family festivals, so much so that in some cases those who have missed out on tickets this year have made their disappointment known.  ‘The phone hasn’t stopped’ said Leila.  Just arriving at this festival each year is almost an event in itself.  The narrow lanes that weave along the Wolds eventually lead to a cute hand-painted signpost that in turn leads to the final climb towards the farm-like brewery, which sits at the top of the hill overlooking the vast panoramic landscape, where you are greeted by smiling stewards who are only too eager to help you find your spot for the weekend.  After arriving on site I immediately erected my old tent, which really has seen better days.  It was immediately dwarfed by the site’s largest tent, the blue and yellow Big Top Circus marquee that dominated the skyline.  I soon settled in by enjoying a certain brew of my own making, the type that requires a kettle, a perforated bag and a drop of milk, rather than the amber stuff flowing in the next field, which I decided to leave until much later in the evening.  The music got underway at just after 6pm with The Nick Rooke Band on the Garden Stage. Before the band’s set I spoke to Wee Dog Sound’s Gerry McNeice, an attendee at all seven Moonbeams festivals, who likened the event to a ‘garden party with a barbecue and a few bands on’.  With the family dog Fred at his feet, Gerry looked after the sound during the only concert on the Garden Stage on Friday night, which featured Barnsley-born, now Driffield-based, Nick Rooke and his band, who effectively warmed up the crowd with a selection of folk rock stompers.  The remainder of Friday night’s action took place on the main stage in the Big Top, referred to by festival organiser Leila Cooper as ‘dancey night’, opening with Orkney duo Douglas Montgomery and Brian Cromarty, otherwise known as Saltfishforty.  The two musicians who’ve known each other since school, have been playing together since 2002 and their musical cohesion has developed in such a way that their music could not fail to attract an enthusiastic audience on Friday night.  Quebec’s infectious Le Vent du Nord stormed the Moonbeams main stage by mid-evening on Friday, with an energetic set of Québecois roots music that could not fail to get feet tapping around the marquee.  A driving force in progressive folk, Le Vent du Nord capture all the energy and excitement of a party, which is precisely what Moonbeams is, best served with lashings of Wold Top ale. Festival patrons Skerryvore transformed the party atmosphere from a French Canadian jamboree into an Isle of Tyree knees-up, with a set built for an end of night party, with every song an anthem.  A little earlier the festival site was well aware of Skerryvore’s presence as Daniel Gillespie’s highland pipes could be heard over the site during a last minute tune up.  On stage, those pipes brought out the true power of the instrument during the band’s hugely popular set.  After Skerryvore delivered their final encore, a small crowd gathered in the Big Sky marquee, which was utilised during the daytime for various children’s events and then again after midnight for a couple of hours of acoustic performances, specifically for those who were not entirely done for yet, as well as the sleepy few all crashed out on straw bales scattered around the marquee.  Friday night’s session was hosted by an evening-suited and booted Andy Atkinson, who awarded each of the volunteer performers a bag of Revels for their efforts.  A rather dignified and very English way of going about things I would say.  Even Skerryvore’s frontman Alec Dalglish was persuaded to get up and sing a song, going on to perform a tender version of Dougie Maclean’s “Caledonia”, as well as young singer-songwriter Katie Spencer and Andy Stones amongst others.  On Saturday morning, as the bacon sizzled on the grill and coffee was served out in the open festival arena, a small gathering congregated at the Big Sky marquee for the start of a five mile morning walk upon the Wolds, whilst others gathered on the lawn in the garden for a morning Yoga session.  Once the group of around 30 had embarked on their walk, singer-songwriter Anna Shannon conducted her song writing workshop in the marquee, talking about the construction of her own songs.  ‘I think it’s extremely important to carry on writing folk songs’ Anna later told me, ‘What I’m doing today I suppose is to try to capture stories of real life and hopefully those songs will touch people’s emotions’.  One song writer who is carrying on the tradition of writing songs and definitely touches people’s emotions is Edwina Hayes, who opened proceedings on the main stage on Saturday morning.  Edwina provided a beautifully laid-back set to get the day off to a good start, not only performing her own songs but also one or two songs written by her own personal heroes such as Richard Thompson’s “Galway to Graceland”, which Edwina treated with the respect the song deserves.  The afternoon continued with a whole range of diverse acts from the blues of Scarborough’s Tom Townsend with his band, who performed a blistering set of raw blues numbers, followed over on the Garden Stage by another engaging band, this time led by Hull-born singer-songwriter Henry Priestman, who wore his ‘local hero’ credentials well during his highly entertaining set.  For some reason I kept thinking that Saturday afternoon was Sunday afternoon, it had that sort of lazy Sunday afternoon feel.  It was difficult to imagine towns and cities up and down the country simultaneously fighting the hustle-bustle of traffic congestion, busy department stores and gridlocked motorways.  Moonbeams was in a typical Sunday afternoon mode, relaxed, de-stressed and in a state of communal repose as the music drifted over the festival site.  As the Wold Top beer flowed both indoors and out, the music continued with Yorkshire-based quartet Barcode Zebra, singer-songwriter Paul Liddell, the only musician at the festival to play the guitar and trumpet simultaneously, the inimitable Martyn Joseph, who once again won over the crowd throughout his mesmerising set, together with husband and wife team Plumhall making a welcome return to the festival on the Garden Stage, appearing with their own extended band.  Possibly the most anticipated set of the afternoon came with the arrival of Hunter and the Bear, making their much anticipated Moonbeams debut.  Their appearance was largely due to Leila’s Aunty Gill, who suggested a quick look on YouTube at this relatively new band.  This would be the first booking for the Moonbeams Festival based solely on seeing the band on the popular video sharing website.  The selection process usually involves quite a lot of physical research, with Leila and her team scouring festivals up and down the country for potential and suitable Moonbeams acts.  Thanks to Aunty Gill, who also celebrated her 65th birthday on Saturday, the band was brought to Leila’s attention and actually went down a storm.  All four member of the band, Will Irvine, Jimmy Hunter, Gareth Thompson and Chris Clark, thanked the birthday girl personally by singing Happy Birthday to her at the Moonbeams bar, where she was working, which just added to the party atmosphere.  As evening approached, Blair Dunlop played a solo set on the Garden Stage, whilst Saturday’s headliners Show of Hands prepared for their set on the main stage.  One of the most sensible aspects of the Moonbeams Festival is that the two stages work so well together, alternating throughout the day. Whilst one act performs on one stage, the next act is preparing on the other stage and the audience simply moves between stages at strategic points.  It really does work well in that we don’t have to sit through sound checks and we don’t miss anything.  One of the things I particularly watch out for at festivals is impromptu collaborations, when one act asks another to join them on stage.  During Show of Hands’ set, Martyn Joseph joined the trio midway through for a special outing of “Cardiff Bay”, which was one of the highlights of Saturday night.  Steve Knightley also re-appeared later in the night when he got up during the late night session in the Big Sky tent.  Before that though, there was two closing acts to see the festival out.  With their own blend of Old Time Americana the Whiskey Dogs delighted the Garden Stage audience, with a selection of familiar old songs that lifted the audience with their feel-good approach to music making.  Finally, rounding off things on the main stage was the Duncan McFarlane Band, delighting the audience with their raucous Folk Rock boozy singalong numbers, delivered as always by the band’s deliriously animated frontman.  The seventh Moonbeams Festival will no doubt be remembered for its fine programme of performers, not just on the main stage, but on all three stages.  The festival will also be remembered for the fine summer weather, which is always welcome at any festival.  Even the rainfall through the night served to clear the air and make things more comfortable throughout Saturday.  The final notes, choruses and refrains to be heard on Saturday night, or to be more precise Sunday morning, were performed once again on the late night club stage in the Big Sky marquee, this time hosted by Ben Sutton, effectively bringing another fine Moonbeams Festival to an end.  Roll on next year.  

Cambridge Folk Festival 2015 | Cherry Hinton Hall, Cambridge | 02.08.15

Woke early this morning, made a brew and continued my usual pre-festival pursuit of researching some of the newer acts that will be appearing over the weekend at the festival, such as Crewdson and Cevanne, Angaleena Presley (no relation), The Elephant Sessions and Alvin Youngblood Hart.  When I say new, I mean new to me.  Some of those acts have probably been around for a good while but they’ve only just appeared on my own personal radar.  One of the fun things about this festival has always been the discovery of new artists.  The drive down to Cambridge was almost uneventful, I say ‘almost’ as Phil’s car developed a slight problem with the windscreen wipers; they stopped working just as we got onto the A1, and as it was raining buckets, visibility was almost down to zero.  We battled regardless and arrived in Cambridge slightly later than planned, albeit only by half an hour or so.  After meeting up with the usual suspects for lunch (Neil, John the Jacket and Morag) at the Robin Hood pub, then dropping my things off at Clarian House, we were on the festival site by mid-afternoon, where I helped Neil tie up the FATEA banner by the Club Tent, whilst Phil went off to get his car fixed.  I also managed to sell my spare ticket, albeit at a slightly discounted rate.  In all the years I’ve been coming to the festival, this is the first time I’ve used ‘the tree’ as a service.  A young woman came up to me by the tree and asked ‘are you buying or selling?’  If this had happened anywhere else on the site I may have been in trouble!  A quick phone call to her friend and the deal was done and I got £130 for my £150 ticket.  It pays for the accommodation.  Tonight was all about meeting up with friends; Mick and John and their respective partners, Phil and Jessica, Hedley and Lynn, Kit, Leila and Barbara, Ian and Katy, Steve (the record man), Tracey, then there’s my old pal who’s actually been over here since May (I really should have made the effort to see her before now), together with all the photographers and press people backstage.  The media caravan has been moved to a new location, which is much better.  Rather than being stuck along the disabled access track, where the narrow walkway always seems to get cluttered with chairs and bags, the new location is situated a little further towards the main stage near the Smooth Operations base, in a rather more spacious garden area.  Much much better.  The music tonight was rather good, Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker being the highlight of the night, with the duo starting their set with Sandy Denny’s “Like an Old Fashioned Waltz”, accompanied by a small band that included Jo Silverston on cello and Anna Jenkins on viola, together with a double bassist and a keyboard player.  Other acts tonight included the bluegrass trio Jaywalkers, Hannah Sanders (with Ben Savage), The Elephant Sessions and the bizarre but brilliantly entertaining Scandinavian all-girl group Katzenjammer getting up to their usual tricks.  A good start to the festival and surprisingly, back at Clarian House by 11.30pm.  The attic room on the second floor of the Clarian House B&B is so comfortable to wake up in, especially when the sunlight filters through the windows on either side of the roof space, that I’m seriously thinking about moving in permanently.  This morning I was up just after 6am and immediately busied myself with the task of editing yesterday’s photos, assisted by a strong will to do it and a copious amount of black coffee.  The room is located just too far from the kitchen to be aware of the smell of breakfast being cooked, breakfast being fresh duck eggs courtesy of the family pets at the bottom of the garden, which my bedroom overlooks.  After a short while however, the thought of one of Helen’s fine breakfasts sprang to mind midway through my journalistic endeavours.  After breakfast with the FATEA team, I headed across to the festival site, just a short walk away, to catch a little of Bella Hardy’s singing workshop.  If there’s a better way to start the day then I would like to know about it.  The two or three hundred people who turned up to sing a few rounds were of the same opinion and were soon in full swing, singing a few songs, one in particular about having a nice cup of tea in the morning.  Towards the end of the workshop, there was an expression of sheer joy on Bella’s face when she closed her eyes to listen to everyone sing the songs that she had just taught them.  Shortly after the workshop, the music journalist Colin Irwin hovered sidestage, slightly nervously contemplating the interview he was just about to present with Frank Turner, who had actually replaced Wilko Johnson, the planned interviewee.  Relaxed, candid and smiling throughout, Frank talked about his life in music, his approval of the song writing credentials of Abba, his admiration for his old friend Billy Bragg and his disdain of talking to journalists about his privileged background.  ‘You brought it up’ protested Irwin.  Despite his initial apprehension, Colin Irwin conducted an interesting and thoroughly entertaining interview.  With camera in hand, my usual early afternoon walkabout revealed quite a hive of activity throughout the site, with the Youth programme getting under way around at the Hub under the supervision of Rosie Hood, the newly appointed co-ordinator.  The small marquee was full to capacity with young musicians circling the red tent, holding their respective instruments before them, ready for a weekend of tuition, collaboration and most importantly fun.  Breabach’s Ewan Robertson and Megan Henderson were both there to lend a hand and some of their own experience.  Meanwhile, other slightly younger kids were being entertained on Stage Two by David Gibb.  Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino took the main stage by storm this afternoon, with their infectious dance-based rhythms.  The first three song rule, which photographers abide by here at the festival, were treated to one of Silvia Perrone’s dance routines during the second song of their set, which was a relief.  None of us would have liked to have missed any of that.  By contrast, country singer Angaleena Presley followed with a set of self-penned songs.  The coal miner’s daughter from the hills of Kentucky and one third of the trio Pistol Annies (along with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Moore), showcased some of the songs from her current album American Middle Class, bringing a flavour of southern country to Cambridge.  The sun was probably too hot this afternoon and I found myself looking for cover by dipping in and out of marquees, although resisting the bar until a little later.  I found refuge in the Stage One Guest Area where I sat down for half an hour with Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker for a chat.  Quite a lot has happened since we last spoke and so there was a lot to catch up on.  My original plan to focus on women in music, which I had second thoughts about just before the festival, was apparently one of the things Josienne was actually looking forward to talking about.  No matter, we soon covered the interview with all sorts of other non-specific things, some of which Ben could also get involved with.  I sat under a tree in the shade just by the Hub Cafe to talk to Bella Hardy.  I originally intended the interview to be quite brief, just a sound bite for the radio show, but alas we got involved.  We actually went on to talk for over half and hour about just about everything under the sun.  Bella was a delight to talk to and it was a well overdue chat.  Today I also met up with the singer-songwriter Tracey Browne backstage at the Club Tent, where she works throughout the weekend as part of the stage crew.  Chris Smither was on stage singing Link of Chain yet it was Frank Turner that we could hear throughout the interview, who was performing solo on the main stage some distance away.  Once again, the interview was well overdue and it was nice to finally sit down and catch up.  The other music today was wide and varied and I managed throughout the day to catch little bits of Wilko Johnson, Hattie Briggs, Twelfth Day, Blackbeard’s Tea Party, The Proclaimers, Nick Mulvey, Peggy Seeger and Frank Turner, who incidentally closed his set with Queen’s “Somebody to Love”, bringing a bit of Live Aid to Cambridge. Another fine day and not yet midway through.  I guess it’s an indication of a particularly good day when Joan Baez is actually fourth on your list of people to see.  Had the iconic American folk singer been available for a chat with me for my radio show, then she would still only have made it to number two on my list of priorities on today’s schedule, which included meeting up with the relatively new Olivia Chaney, my own personal Cambridge highlight of the weekend.  Would Olivia’s set meet with my lofty expectations and more importantly, what would she be like, would she be a lovely outgoing personality or would she be a miserable pain in the neck?  These thoughts come to you when you’re about to embark on unchartered territory and these thoughts were certainly with me over breakfast and then stayed with me for a good part of the day.  By the time I arrived on site this morning Peggy Seeger was already on stage in the Club Tent talking to Colin Irwin about her life and work, which in all fairness is the same thing. Could there be a more iconic figure in the folk community?  This is Pete Seeger’s kid sister for Heaven’s sake.  It was another beautiful morning with blue skies and plenty of sunshine.  The bars were already open and people had already begun to set out their stalls on the grass in front of Stage One, casually thumbing through copies of the Guardian and chatting to their neighbours about how good Wilko Johnson was yesterday, and ‘what’s the name of his bass player again?’  I had an appointment to meet up with Maya, Oliver and Charlie of Pennsylvania’s The Stray Birds backstage and I was eager to get my first planned interview of the day out of the way.  I sat for a while with their UK PR man Loudon Temple and their bassist Charlie Muench, wrestling with an irritating wasp who was interested in my matching yellow and black pen, whilst the band’s manager went off to try and locate the other two members of the band.  I now understand why they’re called Stray Birds.  The Irish band Goitse had already started their Main Stage set, getting the afternoon concert off to a good start and the trio were up next, which was all a little too close for comfort for me to be bothering them with an interview.  I did suggest moving it back to after their set but once Maya and Oliver joined us shortly afterwards, they were happy to go ahead and we sat for a while to chat.  It’s always good to get the first interview out of the way; it kind of loosens the tongue and prepares you for a day of talking.  The ‘official’ talking is always good, but just bumping into people like Chris While and having a right old natter off mic, like old mates, is equally fulfilling.  I keep promising myself to take it a little easier when I’m at Cambridge and to choose one occupation and then focus on that one thing; either to write about the festival for the website, do interviews for the radio show or take photographs with the ‘proper’ photographers in the pit.  Year upon year though, with increasing predictability, I completely ignore my own good advice and attempt to squeeze it all in. Shortly after the Stray Birds interview, I was down in the pit in front of Stage One pointing my camera at the three musicians who went on to deliver a wonderful set.  Three musicians, one microphone, it’s all you really need. With so much going on at the festival, there’s bound to be clashes in the programme and the ability to be in two places at the same time would be a very useful thing.  With the arrival of The Den a few years ago, those clashes became all the more frequent.  For me personally, today’s big clash was Gretchen Peters and Olivia Chaney on Stage One and Stage Two respectively.  It was all the more disappointing as I had an interview lined up with both musicians after their respective sets.  Some clever manoeuvres enabled me to catch the beginning of Gretchen’s set and then a quick sprint over to the second stage to see all of Olivia’s set, so far this weekend being the only full set I’ve managed to sit through in its entirety.  I wrote Olivia’s set list out in my head prior to the festival and then quite amazingly, she went and performed it more or less how I had imagined, apart from the opening Barbara Allen, which I didn’t expect.  I’ve been banging on about Olivia’s rendition of “There’s Not a Swain” since I first heard and reviewed the album a few months ago and despite Olivia telling me a few weeks ago that she would perhaps not be performing the song at Cambridge due to its complex tuning, it was both a surprise and a delight to finally hear her sing the song live.  After her set I grabbed about twenty minutes with Olivia in her cabin next to the stage and chatted to her whilst her dad, a younger version of whom appears on the cover of the album, left us there and went for a wander around the festival site.  I can report now that Olivia is certainly not a pain in the neck, which was a relief.  She was actually the perfect interviewee and I must say, I left the cabin shortly afterwards rather pleased with myself, whilst hot-footing it over to the backstage of Stage One to meet my next appointment with Gretchen Peters.  I met up with Gretchen in precisely the same place that I’d spoken to the Stray Birds earlier in the day and the same wasp was there, endeavouring to irritate me further.  Wearing shades and appearing totally relaxed, the New York-born, now Nashville-based singer-songwriter was only too pleased to field the barrage of questions I had lined up for her.  Actually, this is not quite true.  When I first met up with Gretchen a few years ago, I exhausted all those questions then.  This was more or less a catch up, but perhaps if I were to be totally honest, it was just an excuse to spend a few minutes with one of the nicest artists on the planet.  Gretchen is such an easy person to chat to and I left her shortly afterwards feeling rather uplifted by the experience.  The rest of the day was equally exciting with some great music from the likes of Rhiannon Giddens, The Skatalites, Stick in the Wheel, Alvin Youngblood Hart (what a great name), The Unthanks and Joan Baez of course. I also had a few words with the young Cotswolds-based singer-songwriter Hattie Briggs who I’d seen performing in The Den earlier on at the festival and who was happy to chat to me whilst we walked towards the main stage where the John Butler Trio were playing.  ‘My guitarist has just texted me to tell me not to miss this act whatever I do’.  I left the festival in the capable hands of the Treacherous Orchestra, demonstrating the fact that Saturday night is indeed alright for piping!  A good day to be at the festival, and I managed to return to Clarian House with a significant feeling of accomplishment.  The fourth day at the Cambridge Folk Festival gently eased itself in with The Archers Omnibus edition, which was once again broadcast over the PA system, a tradition that the festival just can’t seem to (or doesn’t want to) let go of.  Even at Cambridge, the gentle goings on in Ambridge are just as important today as they were yesterday.  The sun was almost uncomfortably hot as a crowd began to develop for what promised to be a great finale with Sunday newspaper supplements resting upon assorted knees across the main arena, providing a blanket of vibrant colour.  I soon embarked on my usual midday walkabout with camera in hand and a heavy bag on my back, which after three days was becoming an equally heavy burden.  Do I really have to carry my laptop everywhere?  After popping by the Club Tent to catch some of Adam Sutherland and Innes Watson’s fiddle workshop, which had attracted a reasonably large gathering of fiddlers all eager to pick up some tips, I headed over to the front of Stage One to take photographs of the Quebecois trio De Temps Antan.  Taking to the stage at 11.30am prompt, the band soon swept away all trace of sleepy Ambridge and with little encouragement, soon had everyone on their feet, especially down at the front.  This was ‘wake up’ music if ever I heard it.  Whilst the band entertained a pretty full main stage crowd, I slipped into the bar next to the stage to catch up with Rosie Hood, who had been busy all weekend with the young musicians around at the Hub.  Rosie filled me in on the progress of the Hub Band, who we were all looking forward to hearing perform later in the day.  There was no rest planned for Cambridge as the next band, Brooklyn’s The Lone Bellow, continued in quick succession to create a bit of a stir with their infectious music, with most eyes on the fantastically named Kanene Donehey Pipkin, who threw herself into the set as if there was no tomorrow.  My usual pleasant and fruitful pursuit of discovering less familiar bands over the course of the weekend was fortunately paying off in dividends and The Lone Bellow made it onto the list of outfits I’ll be playing on my radio show for weeks to come for certain.  Just before Bella Hardy’s much anticipated set, I had an appointment with the other Hardy girl over at the Club Tent.  I’d already been introduced to Ange Hardy on Friday night and so all formalities were over and done with leaving us to chat about the important stuff in a relaxed manner in the welcomed shade of the backstage cabin, where we caught up on such details as who Ange Hardy actually is and how she managed to secure herself one of the handful of lucrative showcase spots in the Club Tent over the weekend.  We chatted for a while and I came away feeling a little more informed and was looking forward to seeing the singer later in the afternoon.  Bella Hardy soon followed The Lone Bellow on Stage One, with a sublime set, which included much of the singer’s new record, the achingly beautiful With the Dawn.  I’m not sure the audience were actually quite ready for such personal and emotionally charged songs but I certainly was and although I was given the privilege of standing in the pit to take photographs, I found myself standing stock-still, right there in front of the singer, completely transfixed, from Anna Massie’s delicate banjo introduction of “First Light of the Morning”, through to the end of the three opening songs.  Had I not been required to leave the pit after those three songs, I would have been more than happy to stand right there on that very spot until the end of Bella’s set.  One of the things that actually motivated me to move from my spot in the pit, was the tip off from the media team that there was going to be a photo opportunity over in the Guinness Tent, where the very popular Mike Rosenberg, otherwise known globally as Passenger, had agreed to perform a handful of songs in the place where his Cambridge journey began four years ago, on that occasion back in 2011, busking before a handful of willing listeners.  A lot of water has subsequently gone under the bridge and this afternoon it soon became obvious why this un-billed appearance had been kept such a secret.  I have to say, Passenger had kept pretty much off my own personal radar until this moment, but I instantly understood his appeal, especially amongst the young.  One young girl asked Mike to sign her little green ukulele, which I’m sure she will now treasure.  This afternoon I continued my walkabout even though my feet had stopped talking to my head after a heated disagreement.  My feet wanted to throw in the towel around mid-afternoon but my head was determined to go on and so developed a dispute, which continued well into the evening.  It was almost as if I was attempting to fit in as much as I possibly could over the fading few hours of the festival, catching glimpses of, either visually or audibly, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and Joan Armatrading on Stage One, Ange Hardy and Matt Woosey in the Club Tent, Sorren Maclean in the Den and The Stray Birds and Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting (who I also saw briefly conducting his melodeon workshop in the Flower Garden) and Nancy Kerr on Stage Two. My feet rather sarcastically reminded my head that it was simply impossible to see everything so why bother trying?  The Punch Brothers were responsible for the eventual truce between my feet and head, when I finally sat down to hear some absolutely brilliantly executed note perfect music from a group of musicians whose reputation preceded them.  The last time I saw Chris Thile on the main stage here at Cambridge was way back in 2006 when he appeared with his then band Nickel Creek.  He stole the show back then and he did the same today with an excellent set, demonstrating right there before us, a master class of pure musical craftmanship.  The sun, which had delighted everyone throughout the day, began to fall by mid-evening as Keston Cobblers Club rounded off their Stage Two set, making way for the unexpectedly vibrant Ben Miller Band, whilst Passenger made his solo debut on Stage One, all on his own but certainly not alone as he showed his gratitude for being so openly welcomed back to Cambridge, performing an engaging set of self-penned songs.  My last appointment of the day (and in fact the festival) was to nip over to the Club Tent to see Mishaped Pearls and have a quick chat with them by the Mojo signing tent.  The only thing that could possibly follow such a full-on, busy and hugely enjoyable weekend, would be a feast of music, song and dance courtesy of the Demon Barbers XL on Stage Two, whose music saw out the evening as the tarpaulin covers were once again draped over the bars for another year.  For me, it was back to Clarian House and a comfortable bed, with an assortment of music new and old going through my head, together with a certain sense of satisfaction and contentment.  This, my nineteenth Cambridge Folk Festival, is probably up there with the best of them, which is largely due to the friends, colleagues and partners I’ve made over the years, but also the diverse and sometimes challenging music the organisers continue to bring to the festival year upon year.  Long may it continue.

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention 2015 | Cropredy, Oxfordshire | 15.08.15

The first time I visited Cropredy was way back in 1980 when I distinctly recall standing in a field wearing an unsuitable great coat, getting soaked through to the bone as the Heavens opened upon the relatively small crowd.  Small that is compared to today, when each August 20,000 plus descend on the village for a weekend of fun and music. Richard and Linda Thompson were getting equally soaked through up there on the stage, Richard protected by a pre-beret-era cloth cap, whilst his then wife Linda was almost totally obscured by a waterproof coat buttoned up to the nose and a red floppy hat meeting the same nose from above.  The only clue that we had to it actually being Linda Thompson, was her highly distinctive voice, which rang out as clear as a bell, in the days when we were privileged to witness such a thing.  If it rains at Cropredy, then you’re going to get wet, even if you are Richard and Linda Thompson.  On Thursday night these thoughts came flooding back to me as the rolling meadows of Oxfordshire became engulfed once again in a watery deluge, this time with the rain falling on another high profile duo, the Country legends Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell who headlined the festival’s single stage.  In all fairness, we did see it coming, despite being fooled by a gorgeous red sky above the festival village on Wednesday night.  All the forecasts looked similarly dreary as they not only promised, but actually guaranteed, some rain throughout the weekend, prompting some wag to put up warning signs in front of the stage, one saying ‘No Swimming in the Pit!’ and the other warning ‘No Water Skiing in the Pit!’  The worst of the rain fell slightly later than advertised, just as Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell took to the stage at around 9.30pm and then eased off an hour or so later after the duo’s final song.  This is what we like to refer to in this country as ‘Sod’s Law’.  The village of Cropredy itself came alive by mid-morning to coincide with the start of the twenty-odd thousand expected people arriving in the area throughout the day.  The two village pubs organised and provided entertainment during the day, offering an un-ticketed fringe festival of sorts.  There was also various stalls, garage sales, buskers, a concert in the local church etc, each serving to take advantage of the sheer volume of visitors coming into the village throughout the day.  As tent pegs were being rhythmically driven into the ground on the nearby camping fields, the singer-songwriter Benjamin Folke Thomas could be heard performing in the packed covered beer garden at the Red Lion, just prior to the opening of the festival gates for the first time of the weekend.  The gentle sprinkling of rain teased us throughout the day as the music started on the main stage by late afternoon as MC Anthony John Clarke introduced the five current members of host band Fairport Convention, Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Chris Leslie and Gerry Conway, who went on to perform their opening acoustic set, now a tradition at the festival, which this year featured one or two Full House-period numbers, including “Walk a While” and the Dirty Linen instrumental set.  As the crowd poured into the arena by mid-afternoon, many of the visitors taking up their usual spots, the concert began in earnest with a performance by folk rockers TRADArrr, ska/dub/reggae outfit Dreadzone and Scandinavian all-female quartet Katzenjammer, each taking to the stage in quick succession and each providing widely contrasting sets, all of whom encouraged some sporadic dancing.  Fresh from their recent appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival, Norway’s Katzenjammer’s Marianne, Turid, Solveig and Anne provided their familiar soul-infused pop and ‘gypsy-punk’, but also a reading of Fairport’s “Crazy Man Michael”, which might have been seen as rather daring depending on which side of the Sandy deification fence you sit.  All roads (and rivers) led to the climax of the opening night’s programme, with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s Cropredy debut, whose set included songs from the duo’s new album Traveling Kind, the title song itself paying homage to those who have gone before, such as Susanna Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons and Jesse Winchester.  The duo also treated what remained of the brave audience to a veritable catalogue of classic songs, such as Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You”, Rodney Crowell’s Cajun influenced “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, Gram Parsons’ “Luxury Liner”, and a show stopping rendition of Boudleaux Bryant’s timeless “Love Hurts”, a song Emmylou famously recorded with Parsons in the early 1970s.  I was probably one of only a handful of people walking around the festival site at 6am on Friday morning, me and one or two yellow hi-viz jacketed stewards, each offering broad smiled greetings.  The dew had settled on the surrounding hedges and was steadily melting off with the gentle sprinkling of rain.  The forecast was slightly more optimistic for the rest of the weekend, once the grey skies had been given the chance to clear by late afternoon.  It’s difficult not to talk about the weather at Cropredy as it does feature quite frequently in all the casual gossip, the ice-breaker conversations and even in some of the stage announcements, not to mention the way the rain affects the visual spectacle of the Cropredy arena; the arrangement of colourful umbrellas, the matching fashion accessories, the floral wellies and creative cover-alls and so on.  Some of the folks not only looked like they had come prepared for a bit of rain, they also looked like they were fully equipped to trudge through the Tundra Biome.  Whilst most of the action took place throughout the day on the imposing main stage, there were other activities going on behind the scenes, such as Bob Harris’s Under the Apple Tree Sessions, which run throughout the weekend.  The tiny studio at the back of the main stage provides an intimate recording space, where sessions are filmed and recorded for Bob’s website.  I observed from a respectable distance, although I did get the chance to meet and shake hands with the man who was chiefly responsible for shaping my own musical journey.  On the main arena field, there was also the BBC Radio Oxford tent, where regular punters were invited to witness brief radio interviews, together with a short session by some of the festival’s main guests.  It’s the main stage though where all the clearly visible action takes place and Friday morning’s concert started with Talisk, the winners of the BBC Young Folk Award 2015, performing a set that showcased the talents of Mohsen Amini on concertina, Hayley Keenan on fiddle and Craig Irving on guitar, who between them delivered a set of tightly arranged instrumentals, leaving the audience in little doubt as to why the trio were chosen for the prestigious award.  With a fair amount of globetrotting behind them since their first appearance at Cropredy, ahab were in playful mood as they performed some of their most familiar songs, utilising their tight four-part harmonies.  The band’s country-infused Americana was just the thing to get the afternoon going.  Judith Owen has been building a reputation for herself on both sides of the Atlantic for some time now with her slick stage presence and world class songs in the manner of Carole King and James Taylor.  Having Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel on board for the recording of her current album Ebb and Flow, did nothing to hinder the growth of that reputation.  On Friday afternoon Lee Sklar joined the songstress for a set that began with Bill Withers’ noted feel-good yet optimistic summer song “Lovely Day”.  Husband Harry Shearer (The Simpsons/Spinal Tap) joined the band on stage for a song towards the end of the set.  Then, for the first time of the weekend, during Judith’s rendition of James Taylor’s “Hey Mister That’s Me up on the Jukebox”, the sun appeared to fight its way through the clouds, which in turn changed the mood of the festival.  Skinny Lister have now pretty much secured their firm reputation as a live band, not least for their crowd pleasing antics such as crowd surfing with a double bass.  Maybe it was the huge stage or the gulf between that and the audience, or maybe it was simply health and safety regulations that may have prevented the band from performing this slice of madness at Cropredy, but it didn’t stop their charismatic singer Lorna Thomas joining the crowd midway through their set, nor did it stop the band inviting Lorna’s dad up on stage for a crowd-pleasing number.  Skinny Lister’s rogue folk definitely provided the audience with a memorable set and something to talk about later at the bar.  The Isle of Tyree’s Skerryvore, another young band, this time from North of the border, literally stormed the stage with their highly infectious Highand Pipes-fueled Celtic anthems, a sound that Cropredy seems to have been waiting for. If the Highland pipes are not specifically your cup of tea, the band does endeavour to divide its set equally between ultra-Scots pipe-driven stompers and highly accessible melodic songs that stay with you once the party’s over.  As evening drew closer and the skies turned into something that delights shepherds, Marillion’s ex-frontman Fish paced the stage whilst performing a selection of familiar songs, such as “Kayleigh”, for possibly the last time as the singer heads for imminent retirement.  The announcement towards the end of his set ‘My name is Derek and I’m a fish’ was also possibly the quote of the weekend.  The sky over Cropredy turned a fiery red as The Proclaimers took to the stage midway through this evening, as the crowds waited patiently for their obligatory “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” before Level 42 brought the concert to a close with a selection of familiar songs that this reviewer had actually forgotten about.  Mark King’s trademark funky playing, performed on an illuminated headless bass guitar, his right thumb being the most over-worked digit at the festival, provided the audience with something to dance along to.  In sharp contrast to the previous evening, the campers returned to their tents with a spring in their step in the knowledge that the rains were finally over and that the final day promised to be damp-free and sun-filled and therefore much more comfortable to sit out in.  Like Fairport’s regular appearance at both the beginning and the end of the festival, another regular feature is Richard Digance’s Saturday morning set, which brings a touch of joy to the festival.  The appearance of blue skies and bright sunlight, which brought out the colours in the abundance of festival t shirts as the arena filled up once again, came along just in time to thankfully ensure we wouldn’t leave this year’s festival thinking it was a complete wash out.  If there were any umbrellas in view on Saturday morning, then they were there serving as a shade from the sun.  By the end of the opening set, the arena was awash with white hankies for Richard Digance’s marathon “Morris Dance”, now a regular feature of the festival in its own right.  Conducting my now regular festival walkabout, which is essentially an endeavour to try to capture the atmosphere of the festival in photographs, I circumnavigated the site one or two times, whilst taking in the music on the move.  Saturday afternoon saw performances by Kevin Dempsey and Rosie Carson, The Newgrass Cutters, The Band of Friends and Toyah Willcox, each of whom contributed their own slice of the eclectic programming to the stage, from Kevin and Rosie’s transatlantic collaboration, The Newgrass Cutters’ bluegrass take on familiar pop songs such as “Good Vibrations”, “Voodoo Chile” and even “Oxygene” of all things, The Band of Friends’ homage to Rory Gallagher and pop princess Toyah’s nostalgic return to such chart hits as “It’s a Mystery” and “I Want To Be Free”.  It was Sheffield-born singer-songwriter Paul Carrack however, that brought to the festival a touch of class, as the singer revisited some of the songs he was best associated with during his years playing with the likes of Ace (“How Long”), Squeeze (“Tempted”) and Mike and the Mechanics (“Over My Shoulder”, “The Living Years”).  During Saturday afternoon I bumped into a couple of former Fairport singers, Judy Dyble, out walking her dog and Iain Matthews just out walking, both of whom played in the band way back in 1967, when the band was still a British version of such bands as the Jefferson Airplane.  Whilst the former presumably sat watching in the audience, the latter joined his musical partner Egbert Derix on stage for the penultimate set of the weekend.  Iain Matthews had already indicated that he wouldn’t be airing his ‘hit’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” during his Radio Oxford session earlier in the day, but despite this, the duo delivered a fine set of songs as the sun set down on Cropredy for another day.  Concluding the event on Saturday night was Fairport Convention whose members took their place on stage along with a handful of special guests, in order to deliver a two and a half hour set.  Opening with “Sir Patrick Spens”, the band performed songs and tunes new and old, revisiting such delights as Sandy Denny’s “Fotheringay”, James Wood’s “Weightless”, for which the singer-songwriter joined the band on stage, as well as much more recent material such as the title song from the band’s current album Myths and Heroes.  Joe Broughton and the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble joined the band as did Kevin Dempsey and Rosie Carson, with the appearance of very special guests Dan Ar Braz and Clarisse Lavanant from Brittany, whose version of “She Moved Through the Fair” was outstanding.  Cropredy wouldn’t be Cropredy without two songs in particular, that the band have performed more times that they would like to hazard a guess at.  The traditional “Matty Groves”, complete with Simon Nicol’s sneering vocal, fortunately devoid of the jokey yet irritating lyric changes, together with Ric Sanders’ manic fiddle, followed by the predictable sing-a-long finale of Richard Thompson’s timeless “Meet on the Ledge”, for which the band were joined by a whole host of friends including Fish, Anthony John Clarke, Kevin and Rosie, Iain Matthews and assorted members of TRADArrr.  The last time I visited Cropredy was back in 1988, when I specifically came along to see the Richard Thompson Band; a weekend ticket would cost £17, the late Diz Dizley presided over the event and Champion Doug Veitch was “Jumping Into Love” on repeat over the PA system.  My perception of the place has changed over the intervening years, such as the fact that I didn’t realise how close the village was to the festival site.  I don’t ever recall walking into the village on previous visits (1980, 1987 and 1988), which really is an essential thing to do.  I also have a skewed memory of the size of the festival site. When I was there in 1987 specifically to see John Martyn and Danny Thompson, I imagined the walk to the back of the arena (to get the best sound), was a major trek.  It’s actually a stone’s throw.  It’s funny how time affects the memory.  The thing that impressed me most this year was the organisation both on and off stage, with everything running smoothly and with good sound throughout, something I couldn’t have said in 1987.  As an ex-printer, I should also mention the quality of the programme.  No stapled-together job here, but a finely crafted and properly bound 100-page colour booklet, most of which would be taken home dog-eared and slightly damp after this weekend, that is if you didn’t have the good sense to buy two copies, one for a keepsake, which I failed to do.  I don’t know why it’s taken almost 30 years to return to Cropredy, but it’s nice to know it’s still there, virtually unchanged and there whenever I need it.  If I’m there next year I will take more waterproofs, a tub of sunblock and an open attitude to eclectic music, which I hope I have at all times anyway.

Evan Christopher’s Django à la Créole | Yellow Arch Studios, Sheffield | 08.10.15

The old abandoned Victorian factory workshops in the Neepsend area of Sheffield provides an alluring setting for the complex of creative spaces that make up the Yellow Arch Studios.  In recent years the studios have provided recording and rehearsal spaces for the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Goldfrapp, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Hawley, The Albion Band and many other local and national artists of note.  The studio also now provides a performance stage with an almost Bohemian-feel, perfect for an outfit like Evan Christopher’s Django à la Créole, one of the most dazzling bands to emerge in recent years to celebrate the music of New Orleans and the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt.  Opening with an impassioned plea for the local charity ASSIST, an organisation set up to help destitute asylum seekers in the Sheffield area by providing accommodation, food and support, promoter Andy Whitehouse encouraged the audience to dig deep to help this particular section of the community, who really do need it the most.  For Andy’s first ever event at this venue, he was also keen to show his gratitude to the staff at Yellow Arch for making him and tonight’s performers feel so welcome.  With the Yellow Arch banner dominating the backdrop, its setting sun illuminating the Sheffield skyline, the concert room effortlessly pays homage to this city’s musical heritage, with photographs of the Human League and Richard Hawley displayed on the surrounding painted brick walls.  An upended baby grand piano is shackled to the wall at the side of the stage, with upturned umbrellas hanging from the rafters as the candle-lit room filled with a crowd of discerning music fans eager to hear a band that Andy has been describing as ‘some of the greatest musicians of all time’.  After the introduction, the musicians approached the stage from the back of the room, with Don Vappie ‘wearing’ his guitar as he strolled through the packed room.  Later Don would claim that the room reminded him of the smoky jazz joints of New Orleans from an era long gone, hastily reminding the audience not to actually smoke.  Even the creaking stage floorboards added to the mystique of the place.  The room would be smoking in an entirely different way before the first set was over.  After the two guitarists, the rhythm guitarist being Dave Kelbie, settled themselves in their seats and Sebastian Girardot picked up his double bass, Evan Christopher appeared from back stage with his clarinet in his hands, thanking the audience for coming out mid-week, ‘this is Thursday night, don’t you have jobs?’ Evan went on to give a brief introduction as to the aims and purposes of Django à la Créole; ‘it’s an opportunity to musically blend two different worlds, the world of Django Reinhardt’s gypsy swing and the music of New Orleans’.  The ‘Creolising’ of this music combined with influence of the Caribbean, Cuba and Brazil, creates a sultry sound, which was pretty much conducive to the surroundings tonight.  Opening with Django Reinhardt’s sublime Douce Ambiance, followed immediately without introduction by the flighty toe-tapper “That’s a Plenty”, which introduced Vappie’s self-designed banjo albeit due to a technical issue with his guitar midway through, set out the course of the evening in stylish fashion.  Jelly Roll Morton’s “Mamanita” was treated to a Spanish flavour, with some fine clarinet soloing throughout.  Evan’s control over his instrument was no better exemplified than on the band’s fine interpretation of Duke Ellington’s “The Mooche”, which also featured some virtuoso playing courtesy of both Don Vappie and Sebastian Girardot.  Evan joked with guitarist Dave Kelbie, saying that up until meeting the clarinettist it was all just chomp chomp chomp.  ‘You can’t go back now though can you?’  Testament to each of the players’ contribution to this music.  Evan shared his joy of having New Orleans’ guitarist Don Vappie on this particular tour, replacing the band’s regular guitarist David Blenkhorn.  Don was given the spotlight on a couple of things during the two sets, including Buddy Bolden’s Blues, a jazz crooner if ever there was one.  Don compared the song to a ‘picture book of New Orleans’, the place where the musician grew up.  Peppered with anecdotal stories of the days of Duke Ellington, Django Reinhardt, Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges, with just the one vocal performance by Evan himself, “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight”, which was an audience request, the music was of a high standard throughout the two sets, with featured spotlight solos from all four musicians.  Most definitely an ensemble performance, with each musician afforded the space to truly step up to the mark, which all four did.  A memorable performance for an inaugural night.  

Eric Taylor | The Ukrainian Centre, Doncaster  | 09.10.15

Doncaster has never been what you might consider to be the Mecca for Texas-based singer-songwriters, but tonight Eric Taylor’s visit to town completed a trio of performances by three accomplished Texan artists, albeit twenty-five years apart.  When Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt both played shows at the now demolished Toby Jug in 1990, I always anticipated a third concert in the series, ideally featuring Eric Taylor.  Technically, Eric is not a Texan singer-songwriter by birth though, being a native of Georgia, but the musician and erstwhile husband of Nanci Griffith has always claimed that his songwriting was born in Texas, therefore a Texas songwriter he must surely be.  I must say I’m always mildly amused at the response Eric Taylor receives when he performs in the UK.  It’s almost as if a warning should be placed on the door, that if you expect a Martin Carthy-type folk night, one song after another with a bit of patter in between, then you really ought to forget it.  Nor should you expect a Vin Garbutt type of night, where the extensive patter is interrupted briefly for a song, the patter being enormously amusing and engaging, something that actually kept the folk club scene alive throughout the 1970s.  An Eric Taylor performance is more like a stream of consciousness experience that is wonderful if only you allow yourself to be captivated by it.  It didn’t surprise me that some people left half way through tonight’s show.  For one, the venue was completely wrong for such a performance; a gulf separated the man on stage from his audience a good few metres away.  The lighting was also wrong and the atmosphere was almost completely absent.  The ideal setting for an Eric Taylor experience is a small, purpose-built blackened out music room, with one single spotlight trained on the man, his guitar and the glass of whiskey beside him.  The audience should be close-up and personal in order for the connection to be made and for the magic to flow.  Unlike your usual folk singer, Eric Taylor is likely to begin a story, then pause and stare into space momentarily, privately recalling that specific moment in the story.  The pause may go on for longer than the accepted folky norm, creating a sort of dead air moment that so many radio presenters are terrified of.  Why not just go with Eric at this point?  If you let yourself be captivated by it, then you can also be there, in that moment, almost sharing the memory with the singer.  Eric might also start a song after talking for fifteen minutes, much to the relief of those who seem to think they’ve paid for their ticket per song, only to then abruptly stop playing when another thought springs to mind.  Eric might also deliberately make his song endings ambiguous, so no one really knows when to applaud.  As if that really matters at all.  I’m sure Eric doesn’t care.  It’s all part of the experience.  Tonight I had to personally block out other people in order to enjoy the show.  If I concentrated too much on the people across the room fidgeting, whilst Eric informed the audience that ‘1957 was a good year for cars and a bad year for haircuts’, then it might just spoil the moment.  So tunnel-visioned, I allowed myself to be swept away by the story of Dean Moriarty, with its vivid Kerouac panorama unfolding before me, its cinematic prose traversing the back roads of America, Neal Cassady and Sal Paradise our tour guides through the medium of Eric Taylor.  Seated, relaxed, softly spoken and with a familiar growl, this storyteller, for that’s what he is, exercised his unique ability to create vivid pictures during ninety minutes of music and spoken dialogue, providing the sort of escapism needed in our times.  I accept that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea and that the venue and organisers of the Roots Music Club in Doncaster cannot be blamed for the lack of atmosphere, in fact a well done should be offered for risking the booking.  For those who might not have necessarily enjoyed the show, they really ought to be thankful for being given the correct recipe for making a margarita.  Every cloud eh?  By the end of the night, Eric concluded with a performance of one of his most cherished songs, “Texas, Texas”, a song written after a disastrous and tragic night with Townes Van Zandt as a storm took the lives of three horses, a poetic tribute to friends passed.  What normally follows such a performance is an ovation of sorts, followed by one more song.  After some brief applause, the singer sat up there on stage whilst the audience grabbed their coats and left.  No encore, no apparent desire for one, no clue to what they had really just witnessed.

Musicport 2015 | Whitby Pavilion, Whitby | 18.10.15

There’s a potent sense of voyage and discovery about the Musicport Festival, which sets sail from Whitby every October.  Indeed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Pavilion, with its tall windows and invigorating view of the North Sea, had unmoored itself from the West Pier in search of a world of diverse rhythms, melodies, food, dances and poems.  In truth, the festival, complete with its six stages and impressive line-up of global performers, needn’t go anywhere.  Every autumn, the delightful northern seaside town of Whitby provides the only destination for which you’d need to steer to sample an exciting variety of world-class world acts.  The Festival Hub is central to most Musicport activity, a place that serves  a variety of purposes including a space for relaxation, where cool jazz can be heard over morning coffee, a bustling reception area where helpful stewards signpost you in the right direction, a general meeting place between concerts, where friends can discuss the music they’ve just heard, a location for buying festival merchandise, books, second hand LPs and importantly, information about your favourite World Music magazine Songlines, yet also later in the evening, it provides a perfect DJ area for discerning music fans intent on dancing the night away.  Throughout the weekend, whether you’re going to or coming from any of the various stages, the Hub is the place where all points diverge.  Excluding the Rusty Shears Tea Room, which provided the festival with an off-site fringe venue this year, all the stages are within a few steps of one another.  Indeed, the Shears, which hosted such artists as Marry Waterson and David A. Jaycock, Attila the Stockbroker and O’Hooley & Tidow at this year’s festival, is only really a salty pebble’s throw away.  This is the kind of festival which, thanks to some nifty programming, allows you to see a bit of everything without tying yourself in a knot and with a beautifully presented pocket-sized programme in hand, it’s easy to carve a personalised path through the festival to ensure that you’re suitably fulfilled when you make the journey home across the purple moors.  We begin our festival walkabout on Friday evening, just as distant drums sounded off up by the Whalebones, courtesy of Runaway Samba, with members of the West Cliff Primary School Samba group, effectively waking the town from its afternoon slumber.  It has to be said that the town is pretty much used to hosting vibrant weekends of this nature by now, with the sound of folk music during the annual folk week, then something a little heavier during the now legendary Goth and Steam Punk weekends and then again something more along the lines of the Big Dance Bands of the 1940s as Whitby is transformed into a wartime seaport, where you’re likely to bump into a middle aged couple from Milton Keynes dressed as a WWII fighter pilot and a Bletchley Park code breaker respectively.  The weekend actually started with some choral singing a little earlier on Friday afternoon, followed by a healthy mix of Samba drums and fire juggling out on the street.  The opening procession made its way along the cliff side path, from the lofty statue of Captain Cook down to the Pavilion below, the band reaching its climax in front of the main stage as the audience settled for the evening concert.  After a brief introduction from festival director Jim McLaughlin, the music started with a specially commissioned set featuring the collaborative efforts of kora player Sura Susso, pianist Jessica Wright doing a bit of Philip Glass, together with the five-piece Project Jam Sandwich, a band that speedily re-positioned themselves moments later over in the Theatre in order to perform their own festival set.  Familiarity intervened shortly afterwards as Terry Hall, formerly of The Specials, lined up some of his favourite reggae records in preparation for his DJ set on the main stage, whilst the local Waterson dynasty was represented by Marry Waterson and David A Jaycock, making their live debut together down the road at Rusty Shears, performing some of the songs from the singer-songwriter’s soon to be released Two Wolves album before a packed room.  Friday night also saw the eagerly anticipated return of the highly engaging Världens Band, who’s highly charged 2014 set earned them a re-booking at this year’s festival.  Headlining the main stage, with the ever smiling and infectiously animated melodeon player Dave Gray to the front, the 13-piece orchestra fused the sounds of East Africa, India and Scandinavia, with a fair dose of English and Scottish influences thrown in for good measure.  If their debut appearance created a buzz at Musicport last year, then Friday night’s performance confirmed them as the band to watch out for in the future.  If Friday night went out with a blast, then Saturday morning arrived as gently as the morning dew, with performances by Frances Watt and Jo May, otherwise known as Windbeaten, whose mixture of flute and percussion provided a flavour of world rhythms to get the morning off to a good start.  The Dutch quartet Maalstrom invited festival MC and sax player Jo Freya up on stage with them in order to gently ease the audience into the swing of things, providing some fine musicianship and equally fine harmony singing throughout the set.  Meanwhile over on the Main Stage, The Kora Band provided some highly organised jazz, albeit with an African flavour as the kora conducted some intricate and complex conversations with the piano.  On a more grass roots level, the Canadian troubadour Ben Rogers appeared on the Theatre stage in cowboy hat and boots for his afternoon set, delivering some fine songs with a Townes Van Zandt sensibility and a Woody Guthrie attitude.  Rogers held his audience captivated with his Dylanesque songs of and for the people.  If the seats in the darkened Theatre were comfortable, they could not be at all compared with the luxury of the much sought after giant cushions in front of the main stage as Najma Akhtar took to the stage for her afternoon set.  Singing in both Urdu and English, the singer explored the relationship between spiritual Asian music and Western Country, with a band that featured a prominent telecaster and fiddle, together with Najma’s almost ethereal Indian harmonium.  No stranger to Musicport, writer and broadcaster Ian Clayton held a workshop in the Blundabus, a double decker bus parked just outside the entrance of the Pavilion.  Ian explored his love of music and poetry in an hour-long workshop, where the writer invited his audience to experiment with memories of their own particular musical awakening after reading sections from his book Bringing it All Back Home.  Ian’s session was preceded by a performance courtesy of the Frumptarn Guggenband, all squashed in as tightly as possible on the lower deck with little room left for conductor or indeed driver.  Judging by the yellow and black polythene pocket stuck to the windscreen, the inspector had already been around and wasn’t best pleased.  The music continued throughout the afternoon with fine sets courtesy of The Cajun Roosters, bringing a flavour of Louisiana to the festival, together with the highly popular Scandinavian band Frigg, whose fiddle-led dance tunes based on the traditional music of Finland and Norway, aroused the audience’s collective dancing feet once again.  Meanwhile for those seeking the mellow atmosphere of just six strings, Will McNicol demonstrated his credentials as one of the most accomplished acoustic guitarists on the music scene today, assisted by drummer Luke Selby.  Making room as always for a prominent English voice on the British folk scene, the festival welcomed Naomi Bedford onto the Theatre stage in order for her to showcase her own very distinctive voice, assisted by her partner Paul Simmonds.  Rounding off proceedings on Saturday night in the Theatre was the highly entertaining and original set by Duke Special, whose almost burlesque two man show featured the highly animated Chip Bailey, his speciality being to hammer a cheese grater with a stainless steel piano whisk, amongst other things.  At the core of the set though were the songs, delivered in the Duke’s confident and assured voice. Certainly a set to remember.  On Saturday evening, it was a pleasure to see renowned poet, musician and cultural activist Yussef Ahmed.   The British-born poet of Trinidadian descent brought his distinct brand of warmly delivered, empowering poetry to the Theatre stage, much of it set to the music of guitarist Mel Jones and vocalist Shaz Akira.  His captivating performance of poems such as Yes You Can Can and Occupy the Airwaves, which inspired his audience to contemplate cultural harmony and the simple joy of peaceful living, never departed from a tenderly optimistic delivery.  As a cultural voice for us all, Ahmed sits comfortably amongst such peers as Benjamin Zephaniah, Linton Kwesi Johnson and Lemn Sissay, but it’s his meditative and cordial manner than sets him apart; the very same approach to his art that made him a must-see at this year’s Musicport.  Saturday night really belonged to the main stage though with three choice sets back to back starting with Afrikan Boy who was determined from the start to get people on their feet.  Dub Colossus followed with their own sultry brand of dance before Fanfara Tirana met up with Transglobal Underground for an exciting finale to what was essentially a superb day of music, dance and spoken word.  With a like-minded message to Yussef Ahmed but more caustic delivery, Attila the Stockbroker made the crockery rattle over at the Rusty Shears on Sunday morning, along with musical support act Joe Solo.  Like Yussef Ahmed, Attila is a performance poet with harmony and peace at the heart of his message, but with a great leather-booted leap to the political left and a machine of a mouth that, like Guthrie’s guitar, is eager to kill fascists, this poet’s show is pitched from a very different soapbox indeed.  And yet, despite the rally-call of his opening poem My Poetic License, an affirmation of Attila’s persona as ‘MC of ranting rebel poetry’, Attila is quite capable of pitching his spirited protest in such a way that the more gentle and emotional moments, such as looking after his mum when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and forging a close relationship in recent years with the step-dad he once despised, are elevated to instances of acute tenderness.  It’s this Attila that I like best.  Whilst his air-punching socialism seemed to be preaching to the choir at what is, naturally, a left-wing event, the moments of genuine and universally shared emotion sprang from the poems of unadorned, indiscriminate human experience.  Perhaps these moments make for the most absorbing chapters in Attila’s autobiography Arguments Yard, which was launched in Whitby during the weekend.  Sunday also saw two performances of a similar nature, each accompanied by a slide show presentation to illustrate the songs being performed.  The first was at midday on the North Sea Stage, when singer-songwriter Paul Armfield presented his Found show, which featured songs written around a series of photographs gathered from the flea markets of Berlin.  Accompanied by multi-instrumentalist JC Grimshaw, Paul’s engaging show demonstrated a connection with the past through music, song and pictures.  Equally engaging but for entirely different reasons was Ribbon Road’s show based on the No Redemption Songs project, which looks at the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike, again in words and pictures.  After Scatch Choir’s workshop in the Theatre on Sunday morning, Sam Pirt and Gary Hammond of The Hut People brought to Musicport once again some of their highly entertaining tunes, this time interspersed with songs by Norwich-born singer-songwriter Jess Morgan, whose songs and highly individual vocal prowess, perfectly complemented the Hut People’s antics, which at one point during the set, featured dancing pigs.  Later in the afternoon, two important things appeared to be missing from the Emily Portman Trio; Rachel Newton and Emily’s voice.  It’s always one of the major fears of a performer when the voice goes.  No matter, Lucy Farrell stepped up to the mark and took the lion’s share of the singing with Emily filling in where possible, whilst Sam Sweeney’s celebrated violin provided an admirable replacement for Rachel’s harp.  Probably one of the best timed sets of the afternoon, if not the entire weekend, was that of the Demon Barbers XL show, which was once again fiercely entertaining, highly energetic and wonderfully received.  The stars of the show were the dancers, who incorporated into the set such diverse styles as Morris, Rapper, Clog and Hip Hop, with dazzling effect.  This takes nothing away from the core band, who provided the soundtrack for some of the most entertaining moves of the weekend.  Poetry was also given a deserved spotlight on Sunday afternoon when spoken word outfit Firm of Poets were promoted to the Main Stage after their ‘a few feet in front of the Main Stage’ performance went down a storm last year.  Once again, Ralph Dartford, Matt Abbott, John Darwin and Geneviève L. Walsh each took turns in stepping forward to present their distinctive poetic style, delivering a highlight performance of the festival.  Self-proclaimed Goth and lifelong Depeche Mode fan Walsh gave an enigmatic performance, packing as much emotional punch as spit-your-Merlot-out humour into her outstanding poems whilst Ralph Dartford showed just how effective a few choice words can be, especially when they’re palindromes.  John Darwin’s Buster Keaton-esque deadpan delivery delighted the ever-growing crowd whilst Matt Abbott’s good looks, confident stage swagger and politically-fuelled, fast-paced poems prompted one nearby audience member to remark, with more than a little surprise at his presumably new found love for poetry, ‘this is utterly, utterly brilliant!’  As they have done at all shows on their current tour, the Firm of Poets invited a group of amateur wordsmiths who had joined the group for a poetry writing workshop earlier in the day to perform their work on stage and, thanks to the good sense of the Musicport organisers, the power of poetry held the attention of hundreds of festival-goers for forty-five very memorable minutes.  Throughout the weekend, poetry wasn’t confined to spoken word performances.  Some of the finest and diverse lyrical lines made their way to Whitby courtesy of a selection of fine musicians.  Keith James gave an affectionate and absorbing hour-long recital of songs by Nick Drake on the Theatre stage on Sunday afternoon.  Reminding us of such classic Drake compositions as “Fruit Tree” and “River Man”, James ran a distinct thread of technical appreciation through his performance, noting the influence of William Blake on the young Nick Drake, as well as Nick’s ingenuity when it came to chord structures.  Ngwang Lodup ushered in Sunday morning with a satisfyingly meditative performance of Tibetan folk songs and original compositions.  Accompanied by his electric mandolin and Dramnyen lute, Ngwang sang of his native snow-capped Himalayan mountains as well as his homesickness at having to live so far from his parents and homeland with a warmth that captivated the crowd in its entirety.  Gareth Bonello, better known as The Gentle Good, mingled Welsh-language songs with the story of a Tang Dynasty poet during his performance in the Theatre on Sunday evening.  The thoughtfully dexterous guitarist intermingled his delivery of heartfelt Welsh and English self-penned songs with absorbing tales of their inception, many of them recalling the exploits of the poem-scribbling, wine drinking Chinese poet Li Bai, who is the subject of The Gentle Good’s latest album release, Y Bardd Anfarwol.  And although Gareth was extremely apologetic that his Musicport performance was greatly stripped down in comparison with the album, which features string quartets and Chinese ensembles, there was something distinctly enchanting about the simplicity of this fine artist’s festival show.  Whilst the taste of assorted words on the tongue might be enough to whet anyone’s appetite, the festival also offered a string of culinary performances throughout the weekend.  Having strutted their stuff on the bigger stages, a selection of artists made their way to the Galley stage for cooking demonstrations and food tasting.  Sheema Mukherjee was one such artist who managed to entertain with both sitar and frying pan alike, thankfully refraining from getting the two mixed up.  On Saturday afternoon, I watched as Sheema cooked up a traditional North Indian treat, which was then devoured by a very appreciative audience.  Later that evening, whilst watching Sheema perform as part of Transglobal Underground, it was disarming to see the same great care with which she handled her grandmother’s recipe going into the delicious melodies of her sitar playing.  It’s this multifaceted aspect of Musicport that allows the festival-goer a chance to get to know their favourite performers and catch a glimpse of more than just their stage personas.  Looking back over the weekend, it’s difficult to identify a single aspect that might have been missed.  There was plenty of music, dance, poetry and food from literally all over the world, far too many names to be mentioned here and equally far too much to see absolutely everything.  A special mention though must go to Sunday’s finale concert on the main stage, which was really second to none.  After Grupo Lokito’s highly infectious set of Congolese and Latin American rhythms, just the thing to get feet moving on a Sunday evening, the final concert was handed over to local lass made good Eliza Carthy who brought with her the extraordinarily adventurous Wayward Band.  It seemed only fitting to end such a festival with a musician so inextricably linked to the area and one equally loved and appreciated for simply being Eliza Carthy.   Having taken risks from the start, Musicport is a festival that doesn’t shy away from giving its punters what they didn’t know they wanted.  The heady mix of musical, culinary and spoken word performances has a re-energising effect that manages to give your mind a good scrubbing before you return to the daily grind.  Because of this, Musicport is not just a festival to which we look forward, it’s one that’s become an annual necessity.

Ranagri | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 02.12.15

Returning to the Wheelhouse almost exactly one year on from their first appearance at the House Concert venue near Barnsley, the four-piece Celtic folk quartet Ranagri were greeted like old friends as they stepped out onto the small stage, a stage that appeared to be purpose built specifically for them.  For twelve months, the Wheelhouse has been standing silent and still, with each of the myriad of smiling faces of artists who have played at the venue previously staring down from the posters on the surrounding walls, just waiting for the music to return.  Whilst Mr and Mrs Jones enjoyed a year-long sabbatical, the regulars, me included, began to show definite signs of withdrawal over the last few months and it’s great to see the place alive with music once again.  Not only does the venue provide first rate house concerts, the Wheelhouse also serves as a meeting place for friends, supplemented with a well-stocked bar and great food and it has to be said, that friendly atmosphere was very much evident and tangible tonight.  The standard of musicianship tonight was second to none as the band delivered two excellent sets, each starting with an instrumental, including “Idris”, one of the band’s highly inventive pieces.  Ranagri seem to have got it right; there’s the driving sound of an acoustic guitar and an occasional bouzouki, together with the beat of a bodhran, each keeping the rhythm fluid throughout, provided by Donal Rogers and Tad Sargent respectively.  The two musicians are flanked by Jean Kelly, an Irish electric harp player whose arpeggio flurries further drive the songs and instrumentals along, topped by Eliza Marshall’s virtuoso playing on an array of wind instruments such as flute, bass flute (giant paper clip!), bamboo flute and a variety of smaller members of the whistle family.  It’s these instruments that pop a cherry right on top of each performance.  Then, there’s Donal’s voice, the focus for each of the songs and possibly the heart of what Ranagri is all about.  Tonight some of the band’s musical magic was evident in some of the most flawless playing the Wheelhouse has been witness to over the last 77 shows the venue has staged.  With a repertoire that covers original material such as “Rhythm Takes You Back”, “The Bogeyman” and “Tremors”, together with their own highly inventive arrangements of such traditional songs as “P Stands for Paddy I Suppose”, “The Snows They Melt the Soonest” and “High Germany”, the band has a wide palette to base their set upon.  Delicate, tender and poignant in places, “Voices” for instance, the band are also equipped with suitable credentials for delivering beautiful power ballads such as “Underdiscovered” as well as highly engaging singalong choruses.  Towards the end of the house concert tonight, there was a distinct feeling that everything was delivered and nothing was thrown away, with two sets of expertly played music, all of which hit all the right buttons and I guess there’s nothing more you can expect from a group of musicians than that.  In the end, it also proved difficult for the band to leave the stage, with the audience demanding not one but two well deserved encores after the band’s final song “Sad Songs”, which despite the title, has an uplifting, joyous and highly infectious chorus.  Returning one final time, the band tackled a song that they don’t normally play without their recent collaborator Tony Christie (yes of “Is This the Way to Amarillo” fame, cheekily played as an intro at the beginning of the concert by Hedley Jones), for a performance of “Star of the County Down”, which Donal had a brave stab at to conclude what turned out to be a superb show.

The Great British Folk Festival 2015 | Butlins Holiday Resort, Skegness | 05.12.15

If you were to pick up a pencil, draw a spiral starting from the outer edges of the page and work your way into the centre in ever decreasing circles so as to illustrate the pinnacle of Friday night’s concert on the Centre Stage, that point would lie squarely at the moment Eliza Carthy sat at the front of the stage to sing “Willow Tree”; specifically the moment when a female fan went right up to the singer and planted a kiss on her cheek.  Now I don’t know about you, but I think that constitutes a memorable moment; maybe not as memorable as Dylan’s ‘Judas’ heckle at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in the mid-1960s, nor the moment Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, but a memorable moment nonetheless.  Now firmly established on the annual festival calendar, the Great British Folk Festival is a curious affair in that it’s the only folk festival that I know of, where you might be asked by the person standing next to you ‘who is Eliza Carthy anyway?’ followed by ‘is she any good?’  Then an hour or so later that same person comes up to you and says ‘you’re right, she’s amazing’.  This did happen, as did the moment when a Fairport Convention fan (the t shirt gave it away), who was standing in the extremely long queue at The Unthanks concessions table, surprised me when he claimed ‘I’ve never heard of The Unthanks before, but I thought that was blimmin’ fantastic’ as he went up to his newfound heroes to get a copy of Mount the Air signed.  This is all extremely good and encouraging, that folk music is being discovered by an entirely new audience and what’s more at the highly unlikely setting of a Butlins Holiday Resort in Skegness.   That’s the thing about this festival; it’s not entirely populated by ‘folkies’ but rather ‘musos’, people who just want elements of folk music in their eclectic musical lives.  They’re willing to give anything a try and in some cases that attitude presents positive results.  Of course the die-hard folk festival regulars who know perfectly well who Eliza Carthy is and who The Unthanks are, might have previously frowned upon the festival’s booking policy, but this year, the festival’s sixth year, we saw possibly one of the strongest line-ups so far, with a programme that included such bang up to date folk-related acts as False Lights and Moulettes together with old favourites such as Steeleye Span, Sharon Shannon, Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle and the beautifully re-imagined Fotheringay.  Over the weekend the two main festival stages were presided over by Jim Moray on the Centre Stage, who kept the audience entertained with his eclectic selections from the likes of Traffic and King Crimson to the odd soul classic and 1960s hit, whilst local radio personality Sue Marchant kept everyone happy on the Reds Stage.  Looking after the Introducing Stage under the Skyline Pavilion was promoter Stephen Stanley, who was helped along by Alan Ritson, between them making sure the newer artists and bands got a fair hearing, artists such as Said the Maiden, Itchy Fingers and the highly watchable Polly and the Billets Doux, each of whom were voted the day’s best act respectively over the three days.  Those acts will automatically be featured on the main stages at next year’s event, although some of the other acts, if not all of them, probably deserve a place on the bill as well, including Chris Cleverley, Gilded Thieves, Dan Webster and The Black Feathers, all of whom performed well during the weekend.  Although the festival actually got underway as early as Friday afternoon with the first four acts on the Introducing Stage, the main evening concerts started in earnest as the safety curtain rose to reveal the relatively youthful figures of Jim Moray and Sam Carter’s False Lights project, the band going on to present a lively set of hard rocking traditional songs, each one treated to an old fashioned, yet very much contemporary, folk rock arrangement.  Could there be a better opening song than the galloping “Skewball”?  It wasn’t all galloping folk rock though as the band slowed to a gentle trot with their a cappella performance of “How Can I Keep From Singing”, as each of the members of the band, including fiddle player Tom Moore, stood at the front of the stage to sing with no amplification whatsoever, which is no mean feat.  That’s a heck of a large room to attempt such a thing.  This wouldn’t be the last we saw of both Jim and Sam throughout the weekend with the former acting as DJ on the Centre Stage and the latter delivering his own solo set on Saturday night.  Next door Billy Bragg walked on stage to whoops and hollers as his faithful fans awaited a few words of unity after a week of frustration in world affairs.  There was anticipation in the air as his audience hung onto his every word.  His opening statement was less political than imagined as the singer-songwriter and activist, electric guitar hung over his shoulder, greeted the audience with the revelation that he actually likes folk festivals for the simple reason that, unlike other festivals, everyone involved is ‘actively encouraged to grow old’.  Grey beards are apparently in at last.  Meanwhile on the Centre Stage Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band stormed the party, our heroine suitably attired for an evening at the Folies Bergère, with white boa attached and barcode zebra dress.  The 12-piece band delivered just the sort of set that gets any festival off to a good start and midway through I began to feel for the band that had to follow.  One of the more inspired ideas at this festival is the fact that the music doesn’t get underway until well after midday on both Saturday and Sunday afternoon.  This allows for a leisurely start to the day.  There’s no need to rush to find some grossly under-attended fiddle workshop or banjo demonstration, although I do believe there are French dancing classes.  Breakfast can therefore be enjoyed slowly over the morning papers.  On Saturday morning there was a change to the programme and a quickly cobbled together outfit featuring the first appearance of the weekend by guitarist Jerry Donahue stepped in to replace a poorly Sam Lee.  Moulettes’ highly inventive arrangements were initially marred by poor sound in the vocal area, which was soon resolved by their own sound engineer.  Once those teething problems were sorted the band played an entrancing set, which featured the band’s newest recruit Raevennan Husbandes on electric guitar.  Magna Carta followed, re-tracing a repertoire from decades before, when just about every other house on the street had a copy of the Seasons LP knocking about somewhere.  On Saturday afternoon the band, still very much led by founder member Chris Simpson, performed songs old and new before an attentive Skegness audience.  With their colourful van ‘Frank’ parked backstage, Coco and the Butterfields took over the Reds stage by mid-afternoon and treated the audience to another rousing display of energy with the enigmatic Dulcima Showan’s fiddle pretty much to the fore.  Their Canterbury busking days may be over now but their youthful energy is still intact as the band delighted their audience with their own brand of folk, rap, country, rock and blues.  

Saturday night’s concert started with a performance by Tom Robinson.  Seated and flanked by Adam Phillips and Gerry Diver, the singer-songwriter and broadcaster delved deep into his repertoire to include in his set such delights as “Glad to be Gay”, which was prefaced by a priceless tale of being confronted by Alex Harvey in the mid-1970s, the poignant “War Baby” and the crowd pleasing “2-4-6-8 Motorway”, which soon had arms flailing with determined fingers pointing upwards.  One of the first bands booked for the inaugural Great British Folk Festival back in 2010 was The Unthanks, who try as they may, couldn’t get through the Northumberland Tundra during that particular icey cold December weekend.  They were not alone, the late John Renbourn couldn’t get through that year either, more’s the pity.  This year the weather was kinder and after six years of trying, the festival finally managed to get one of the UKs leading folk acts over to play at the festival on Saturday night.  This band, it has to be said, has unintentionally provided the folk world with the ultimate ‘Marmite’ test.  As a long-time fan of the band I feel qualified to say that this band, simply based on what I have heard, witnessed and experienced, is either loved with a passion or hated through sneering gritted teeth and I haven’t come across many people who actually say ‘they’re just okay’.  It really does seem to be a case of love ‘em or hate ‘em.  After their superb show on Saturday night I found myself asking people ‘did you love ‘em or hate ‘em?’  I was curious to know because I personally can’t see what’s not to like.  Saturday’s set drew easily the biggest audience of the weekend, a set that included both older and new material, from Cyril Tawney’s mournful “On a Monday Morning” through to the epic title piece from their current album Mount the Air, by way of one outstanding performance after another.  If the upward spiral mentioned earlier placed an imaginary spotlight on the most memorably positive aspect of this festival weekend, then the inverted downward spiral pointing towards the most negative aspect could be attributed to the dreaded 30 minutes before the Demon Barbers came on.  This set-up over-run could have been down to any number of things, from a tangled wire to a faulty instrument, a stray Hip Hop dancer locked in the dressing room, a possible mix-up of clogs, you know the scenario, ‘this one’s Becky’s, that one’s Rachel’s, no it’s Laura’s, but there again where’s Tiny’s?’, that sort of thing, or even for all we really knew, a wild animal left over from the Great British Rock and Blues Festival could have been let loose backstage.  The audience, as audiences do, chose to lay the blame squarely at the doorstep of the sound crew, who in my opinion do a stella job throughout the weekend.  The fact that the turnaround time ran over by half an hour between such bands as The Unthanks and the Demon Barbers is probably understandable when you think about it; those are two big bands with lots of radio mics, amplified clogging boards, string quartets, brass sections and any number of other things to consider.  The demands, slow hand claps and at one point shouting from side stage was all completely unnecessary.  The highly-charged Demon Barbers however, did eventually come on stage at around midnight and performed brilliantly.  Their energy-driven dance spectacular, which included Hip Hop, Clog, Morris and even at one point contemporary Ballet, was certainly worth the wait.  It was Saturday night going into Sunday morning and who was in any hurry for breakfast anyway?  Once the dawn broke a few hours later, campers rose for the final day of the festival, which saw the arrival of Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, whose gentle songs eased in the afternoon.  The timing of the set was actually perfect, a gentle cure for any late morning hangover, as one of the most musically accomplished husband and wife teams engaged with their attentive audience.  There was a late addition to this year’s line-up as TRADarr replaced the previously billed Acoustic Strawbs.  This rather tasty collective, made up of Greg Cave, Marion Fleetwood, Guy Fletcher, Mark Stevens and PJ Wright, all seem to know how to enjoy themselves on stage, whether performing hard-core Folk Rock anthems, delicate ballads or the odd Morris tune, the band’s enthusiasm was reciprocated by their audience who clearly enjoyed the set.  Returning once again to the festival on Sunday afternoon was Jacqui McShee, who first appeared here in 2011.  Joined by the latest incarnation of her celebrated band Pentangle, the singer opened with “She Moved Through the Fair” and included in the jazz-inflected set, one or two classics from the band’s repertoire, including “Once I Had a Sweetheart” and “I’ve Got a Feeling”, concluding with the much-loved and highly memorable “Light Flight”.  Sunday night’s concert on the Centre Stage began with an easy going set by the Ric Sanders Trio, whose set featured a bunch of standards including Leadbelly’s “On a Monday” and Willie Dixon’s “Diddy Wah Diddy”.  The interplay between Ric Sanders and singer/guitarist Vo Fletcher was both complex and entertaining at the same time.  Whilst Steeleye Span delivered their usual blend of rocked up or rocked out folk songs before their fans on the Reds stage, returning to the festival once again after their last appearance a couple of years ago, the highlight on Sunday night was a performance by the re-formed, rejuvinated and re-established Fotheringay, a band I never thought I would ever see.  Original members Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway and Pat Donaldson were joined by PJ Wright, pretty much doing the late Trevor Lucas’s job and both Kathryn Roberts and Sally Barker sharing vocal duties in lieu of Sandy Denny.  This in itself was an inspired idea, to bring in the voices of two prominent female singers, who neither attempt to sound like nor imitate the inimitable Sandy Denny.  However the two singers certainly made a good job of bringing Sandy’s songs to life once again, songs such as “Solo”, “The Sea” and “No More Sad Refrains”, whilst PJ took care of “The Ballad of Ned Kelly” and the like.  We can all get sentimental and teary-eyed about Sandy Denny even now, almost 40 years after the singer’s untimely death, but as we witnessed on Sunday night, the songs haven’t died; they’re not even slightly ill. Well, six years of the Great British Folk Festival and things have only gone from strength to strength with the festival now easily selling out in good time.  Some things don’t change though; the weather is usually quite chilly, which is compensated by warm chalets and warmer concert halls, the food is always good, depending upon where you wish to dine, the beer is reasonable, unless your tankard quivers at anything other than the real stuff, and the entertainment, as has been proved once again this year, is second to none.  Yes there could be quicker turnaround times between acts and yes there could be shorter queues, but I am really loathe to criticise this very enjoyable and important event on the festival calendar. Long may it continue.  

Jefferson Hamer with Rosie Hood | The Wheelhouse, Wombwell | 11.12.15

The Wheelhouse in Wombwell provided the setting for an intimate performance by Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jefferson Hamer tonight, whose gentle songs, both traditional and contemporary, with a handful of originals, were delivered with the crystal clear voice of a seasoned storyteller, accompanied by an informed guitar picking style throughout.  Most will remember Jefferson’s collaboration with Anais Mitchell recently on the Child Ballads project, one of the songs, “Willie of Winsbury”, earning the duo a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award at the Royal Albert Hall in 2014 for best traditional song.  One of the songs from that project, “Riddles Wisely Expounded”, was performed tonight with the audience stepping in to cover the absence of Anais Mitchell on the oft repeated refrain.  Before this though, Jefferson’s current collaborator Rosie Hood took to the small Wheelhouse stage once again to get things off to a good start performing three unaccompanied songs, one of which was written by the Wiltshire-born, now Sheffield-based singer and given its very first airing in front of a live audience, “The Furlong of Flight”, which was only completed a couple of days ago.  Opening with Bonnie Shaljean’s “Billy Reilley”, Rosie soon settled into her stride, closing her short set with a confident reading of the song variously known as “The Undaunted Female”, “The Beautiful Damsel” or “The Girl with the Box on Her Head”.   Introduced by House Concert host Hedley Jones as ‘fresh from a heavy night with Eliza Carthy..’ Jefferson gently eased the audience into his set with one or two self-penned songs, “A Seed and a Feather”, a song recorded by Jefferson with one of his many collaborators, Laura Cortese, followed by “The Busker”, both songs that demonstrate his credentials as a first rate songsmith.  Inviting the audience to join in on the choruses, the Wheelhouse regulars were in good voice throughout Jefferson’s arrangement of Stan Rogers’ “North West Passage”, a song ‘usually sung at full volume by powerful bearded men’, with its highly melodic and infectious chorus. Jefferson invited Rosie up on stage on a couple of occasions, firstly to perform one of the songs the two singers have been working on together, “Must I Be Bound”, which showcased the duo’s empathetic harmony singing.  Rosie was then invited back towards the end of the concert, where the two singers ditched the microphones and unplugged the guitar for a totally acoustic and impromptu “The Old Church Yard”, effectively bringing the concert to a close, but not before the obligatory encore, which Jefferson honoured by delivering a beautiful rendition of Si Kahn’s “Aragon Mill”.  A suitably tender conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable and gentle evening of song.