Monday, 28 February 2011

Kitty At The Feast

Feast Of Fiddles comes of age this year after 18 years of bow action … and that's a whole year older than the special guest on their spring tour of the UK.

Taunton’s Kitty Macfarlane - aged just 17 - will take to the stage of Exeter’s Corn Exchange on Friday, April 22 for her biggest concert to date when she guests with the fabulous fiddling sextet and their inventive backline.

Feast Of Fiddles in action
Kitty Macfarlane
The celebrated 11-piece collective combines the talents of some of Britain’s top fiddlers in a flourish of fingerwork – Fairport Convention’s Chris Leslie, Steeleye Span’s brilliant bowman Peter Knight, Bully Wee Band’s Ian Cutler and ex-Battlefield Band man Brian McNeill joining forces with Garry Blakeley (Band of Two) and Tom Leary (John B Spencer Trio/Albion Morris).

The sizzling “backing band” is led by band founder Hugh Crabtree on accordion and iconic folk-rock drummer Dave Mattacks, who has played with Fairport, Steeleye and Richard Thompson as well as the likes of Paul McCartney, Elton John and Chris Rea.

Also in the engine room are John Underwood and Martin Vincent on acoustic and electric guitars and Dave Harding on bass.

Kitty, who lives in Milverton, is an acoustic singer songwriter and has been playing her songs in local folk clubs for some time, as well as being featured on BBC Radio 4's Excess Baggage travel show. Presented by Sandy Toksvig, the show selected Kitty’s observational song Bus Stop, which tells of her journey home from Taunton on the 25B bus! 

Kitty was subsequently asked to perform at the Cambridge Folk Festival while a leading London record label have invited her to their studios for a recording session this Easter.

Currently, Kitty is interweaving her budding music career with her A-level studies at Wellington School, where she is head girl.

The uplifting annual musical extravaganza that is the Feast of Fiddles tour began as a humble one-off for Oxfordshire’s Nettlebed Folk Club and has grown into a full-blooded two-and-a-half-hour show.

The feats of the fiddlers know no bounds and audiences should be prepared for anything – from trad numbers to Deep Purple; Fairport standards to The Shadows and theme music from James Bond to the Magnificent Seven!

The 14-night 2011 Feast of Fiddles tour will open with two nights at Nettlebed Folk Club on April 11 and 12 and continues until April 24, including one standing gig at Manchester’s Band on the Wall.

Show Of Hands’ busy multi-instrumentalist Phil Beer will be unable to take part in the whole tour but will appear at both Nettlebed gigs to join in on the 18th birthday celebrations, back where it all started!

Phil also features on Feast Of Fiddles’ latest CD, Walk Before You Fly, which the band will be showcasing on tour – their first all-in-studio album for 16 years! Mixed in with the well-known tunes are originals by Crabtree, Leary, Blakeley and McNeill.

Tickets for the 7.30pm Exeter gig, price £15, are available in person from The Corn Exchange in George Street; by calling the box office on (01392) 665938 or online via this link

Full tour schedule:

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Folk Lookalikes 2

Rolf Harris

Bob Dylan

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Hadrian's wall of sound heads south

Cumbrian/Geordie duo Hadrian's Union – Stew Simpson on guitar/vocals, and Danny Hart on violin – are heading for London.

Both Danny and Stew are well known solo artists, having played with the like of Tom McConville, John Kirkpatrick, Roy Bailey, Tom Robinson and Chris While & Julie Matthews.

For their London show they will be joined by Nick Gutt of the Missouri Gutts for one night only.

Saturday March 12th,

Aldersbrook Bowls Club
34 Aldersbrook Rd
Wanstead Park
E12 5DY
£5 on the door

Hadrian's Union say they have been likened to "Show of Hands and Mumford & Sons meets Jez Lowe". FolkCast can spot the Show Of Hand influence, and maybe the Jez Lowe, but struggles to identify Mumfordisms ... but judge for yourself: you can hear samples of their work here. Track 2 (Anything You Dream) is especially good.

Their debut album – Trapped In Time – will be on sale at the gig, but is not yet available on line.

Stew said: "It is an exclusive to our fans and friends. It will stay off line until the first 200 copies have been sold. This will ensure the music gets to the hands and ears of the people who love the music."

If you can't make it to Wanstead Park, Hadrian's Union will be playing rather closer to home at the end of March:

March 25th
Off the wall Cafe
Cumbria CA8 1NG
Free Entry
Tel: 016977 41600 Email:

March 27th
North Terrace
Spital Tongues
Newcastle Upon Tyne
Free Entry

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Mumford Paradox

I'd like to congratulate Mumford & Sons for their success in the Brit Awards. I'd like to slap them on the back and tell them "well done" for being the folk band which took on the best of the rest of British talent and triumphed. 

I'd like to ... but I'm struggling. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Mumford Paradox!

The Brit Award for Best British Album of 2010 going to the Mumfords for Sigh No More has been hailed as a coup for British folk music, with the band beating competition from pop megalith Take That (the obvious favourites) and a clutch of flavour-of-the-year contenders. This should be good news for folk music in general, and some fans obviously feel it is, judging by comments I've read online. But I'm not so sure.

The rise and rise of Mumford & Sons has certainly been remarkable. In a little over three years they've gone from meeting and playing in London's acoustic club scene to making a debut album that's sold well over a million copies worldwide and performing with Bob Dylan at the Grammys - and I suspect that the Brit Award is really in recognition of that rapid, unlikely flowering rather than for the album itself. 

The record industry can smell a burgeoning phenomenon, a sensation, and it has used its biggest sparkler - The Brits - to light the next stage of the booster rockets on Starship Mumford, aiming to blast it out of mere orbit and on its way to profits of intergalactic scale.

I certainly hope that's why they won, because the award makes little sense otherwise. 

Let's leave to one side the fact that the "best British album of 2010" was released and charted in October 2009. Let's ignore the fact that musically it's repetitive and constrained, like one long song split up into a dozen near soundalike chunks. And let's not go on about the record's lack of ideas, or the buzz-saw drone of Marcus Mumford's lead vocals, or that the banjo player only knows one riff, or that the percussion lacks subtlety or range or that the production has been applied with a shovel (cue another Brit for the producer, Markus Davis). 

Sigh No More is probably not a landmark album (we won't really know for 20 years), but it does have its moments. The Shakespeare-inspired title track is by far the best, and scattered here and there through the forest of musical undergrowth are clearings of promise, little quiet segments of delight that hint at songwriting sensitivity and give a suggestion of the light and shade that's otherwise missing. But then the banjo comes clattering in again, the acoustic guitar is thrashed and the Mumford machines goes crashing off down the hill, gathering pace, fury and assorted unnecessary instruments - trumpets, trombones ... a flugelhorn! - until it smashes itself to pieces in a wreck of shouted lyrics, honking brass and manic keyboards.

All of that is utterly unimportant. The Brit Awards are not about music; they are about marketing, and today the Mumfords are in all the papers. Again. Job done! 

And what's so bad about that? That brings me back to The Mumford Paradox.

The Mumfords are British, they are a folk band and they are successful. That's got to be good for British folk music in general, right? Erm, not necessarily.

While the Mumfords are certainly British, and play music labeled as "folk", they are not a British folk band. They don't play British folk. Their music is far more influenced by American folk, by pop singer-songwriters, by country and bluegrass. 

They aren't the first British band to take sounds from across the Atlantic, repackage them and sell them back to the States. The Beatles did it, The Rolling Stones did it, Led Zeppelin did it and so have many, many more. American blues and rock 'n' roll have inspired lots of wonderful British pop and rock down the decades. So why can't Mumford & Sons do the same thing for country and the midwest acoustic sound that's also produced American bands such as Midlake or Fleet Foxes?

Well, they can, but it has very little to do with British folk.

The Beatles, Stones and Zeppelin were inspired by blues but were never labeled as "blues bands" because they weren't blues bands. Blues is a simple style to categorise because it's easy to explain exactly what it is. Folk is a far tougher subject. Folk music means different things to different people in different places, and the term can be used so generally, be so all-inclusive, as to be an utterly useless. Indeed, blues itself is a kind of folk music, and shows that we need to sub-divide "folk" if the term is to serve any real purpose.

There are lots of different kinds of folk music and on Sigh No More the Mumfords play one variety - I'll call it American folk-rock. It's very different from British folk or British folk-rock.

And there's the paradox: while Mumford & Sons are a folk band, and they are British, they aren't a British folk band.

But does any of that matter? There are those who say that labels, pigeon-holes and genres are restrictive, unhelpful and uncreative. Musicians tend to hate labels because they don't want to tailor their music to fit any box they've been stuffed into, and that's understandable - but audiences do like labels because they want to be able to find more of the artists that appeal to them.

Therefore, labeling Mumford & Sons as a British folk band is not only inaccurate it's unhelpful, not only to their fans hoping to find more of the same but also to genuine makers of British folk music.

Mumford fans looking to find a rich seam of Mumfordesque music within British folk are instead going to be presented with a far headier brew. If they can take it they are in for a treat, but I fear that many will stagger away in shock and - possibly - anger and resentment.

Some may get to "acquire the taste", as some rock fans did when in previous generations bands such as Jethro Tull introduced them to folk, or when the original followers of Fairport Convention saw the band make a remarkable transformation from jingle-jangle imitators of US artists such as The Byrds and
Dylan into something that dug deep down into their native, British traditions and reinvigorated the British folk music scene.

But that was 40 years ago. Music fans then had ears that were accustomed to hearing a far wider range of sounds than are the lugholes pinned to the teens of today, who are trapped in the programmed, confined, ghettoised world of pop radio where anything that's more than six months old is a "golden oldie". How would today's typical Mumford fan react if suddenly confronted by Coupe, Boyes & Simpson, June Tabor or Dick Gaughan? Nurse, the screens!

That's not to say that there's no more "Mumford" style music to be found in Britain. They are not alone in reinterpreting the folk sound of America, with the likes of The Travelling Band and ahab doing a similar job and, in my opinion, with more interesting results. 

We must beware of being a musical snob and I'm not knocking this style of music. In fact, I like the best of it - but much more in the way that I also like the best of Scissor Sisters and Take That than in the way I love The Demon Barbers or Lau

I can recognise good songwriting and performance in any genre. I can enjoy the skill that goes into making a quality pop record. I can get a buzz from a beat or a groove. But it doesn't touch me deep in my core; it doesn't connect with something right inside me the way that, say, Show Of Hands does.

So, where does that leave us? If things go badly, the Mumfords will become more transatlantic, more bland and more disconnected. But if things take a different turn, there could be real cause for celebration.

If the Mumfords can "do a Fairport" and reach out to their own roots, rather than picking out the processed echoes of a cousin culture, that will be a marvellous thing to see and hear. If they can immerse themselves in British folk's heritage and create something new from what they find then they'll have achieved something truly worthy of an award.

Mumford & Sons - barbery course hairs...
Their greatest achievement so far is to generate a remarkable amount of publicity and a pop following. What they do gets noticed. They've laid a foundation, and hopefully they'll build on that in interesting and bold ways, creating something that will last a lifetime.

I do congratulate them on building that solid foundation, but I'm not taken in by them winning just another daft award in yet another ludicrous event, and they shouldn't be taken in by it, either. At least they were unexpected winners, the outsiders beating the industry giants. But best album of 2010? Give me a break!

Meanwhile, we continue to welcome anyone who does find folk, via the Mumford route or otherwise. Welcome to all who want (or thinks they want) to listen to British folk music. That's why FolkCast exists - to help anyone anywhere experience some truly magical sounds.

Turn on, dig in, folk out! I hope it blows your mind.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Stuart Maconie is a gent

It does a poor podcaster's heart good when one of the biggest names on British national (nay, international via the web) radio keeps his word like a good 'un.

Stuart Maconie
Via the wonder that is Twitter, Stuart Maconie - of BBC Radio 2's Radcliffe & Maconie - announced that he was preparing a piece on the reissue of Traffic's landmark 'folkadelica' album from 1970, John Barleycorn Must Die.

FolkCast immediately contacted Stuart to steer him towards our Story Behind The Song about the title track which is, of course, an ancient British folk song.

Not only did Stuart take time to download our show from September 2007, and listen to the relevant segment, but he also recounted a version of Babba's tale on his show AND gave FolkCast a credit for it, as he had previously promised.
Click the above to hear the relevant clip from the Radcliffe & Maconie show.  Click below to hear the Story Behind The Song of John Barleycorn (Must Die).

Cheers, Stuart - you're a gent and a scholar.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Folk Lookalikes 1

Babs from Dinnerladies


Sticky questions about the Folk Awards

This week's BBC Folk Awards were the usual jolly, boozy affair (sadly FolkCast's invitation must have got lost in the post...), and musicians love them - at least, those who get nominated love them. 

Folk fans feel a bit patronised by them ("don't tell me who to like!"), and those musos who don't get nominated grumble about them begrudgingly, and probably make bad jokes about invitations being lost in the post...

Mike Harding - great!
But those who win an award really love them, because they can put that highly prized, lucrative phrase "BBC Award Winning Musician" on their gig posters, next to the quote from Mike Harding proclaiming them to be the best in the world and his favouritest ever, ever, ever.

Treating any part of the Arts like a sport, packaging it up into a competition and then picking a winner by secret and mysterious processes is utterly artificial, whether it's on The Oscars, The X Factor or The Folk Awards, and only really any good when the little guy beats the bookies' big name favourite, but it's true that the publicity generated by the Folk Awards helps make non-folkies briefly more aware of folk music ... which might even be a good thing.

Yet there are grumblings about the BBC Folk Awards beyond the usual complaints from the non-nominated. For instance:
  • Who judges these awards and how? ("They are top men" Who? "Top. Men.")
  • Why is time that could be filled with music given over to long speeches - and not even speeches from the winners?
  • Why does BBC Radio 2 give out awards for cutting edge folk music when for the rest of the year, apart from one hour a week on a Wednesday evening, Radio 2's idea of cutting edge folk music is Fiddler's Dram or The Wurzels?
  • What happened to the Folk Club Award? There's absolutely no recognition of the non-musicians who make the folk scene in Britain function by running clubs and festivals, organising workshops or making instruments.
  • Donovan? Seriously?
All hail The Stickies!
Then there are other questions being asked. Some critics have declared that the whole event is out-dated, cliquish and run by folkie fuddie-duddies, probably with beards, tankards and knitwear, who won't give new bands all the gongs. 

Actually, the Folk Awards doesn't give gongs, it gives ugly metal stickmen. As the awards desperately needs a good nickname I'll call them The Stickies until one comes along...

Adam Sherwin, a reporter from online entertainments publication Beehive City, is one such critic, saying that the bands Mumford & Sons and Noah & The Whale should be given Stickies, and claiming that the reason that they don't get them is down to "traditionalists" who prefer such staid old antiques as, er, Bellowhead or The Imagined Village...

Sadly, to fully argue against that, one has to dip into the age-old "what is folk?" discussion, and that way lies madness, so I'll resist.

(At this point I also have to warn that anyone trotting out the hackneyed Louis Armstrong quote featuring horses will be made to explain exactly why they think that rap, krunk, soul, bubblegum, opera, death metal and grindcore should all be filed in one big category marked "Folk Music", and why that would be remotely useful to anyone. Satchmo was joking, you know, and while his sentiment was both cute and literally correct it's also as much use in the real world as a timber merchant declaring that "all wood is trees" and refusing to arrange his warehouse by species.)

However, the reason that the Mumfords, Noah etc haven't been nominated is not that they've simply been ignored. It's not even that they aren't folk, beyond a simplistic definition dreamed up by a journalist looking for an angle. No, the real reason is that there is a great deal of far more interesting music out there, and even that doesn't all get a look in.

Adam also declares that the awards will have to expand to take in country music and world music, because the Beeb has scrapped the World Music awards, and should bring in more foreign musicians. Oh yeah? The Stickies recognise a section of uniquely British music that's massively under-represented on mainstream radio and television in England and Wales (the Scots get lots of great folk on their "local" BBC stations). Yes, British folk is part of an international family, and that's acknowledged and celebrated, but these are Britain's folk awards; other countries and other genres have their own.

The Mumfords etc can and do help bring new ears to folk music, and anyone who comes to listen will find a wide variety of sounds ranging from traditional shanties to electronica. Folk is no longer a narrow path, it has many turnings, but it's not boundless and if the BBC is to start sharing out the Stickies among comparatively conventional pop or rock bands just because those bands occasionally play a mandolin then the Stickies will lose what meaning and impact they do have.

Another charge is that too many of the awards go to the same group of people: "Each year these awards are shared out between a collective of musicians and sometimes even family members. There’s the Martin Carthy/Norma Waterson dynasty, the Bellowhead/Imagined Village troupes and various members of Fairport Convention", writes Adam at Beehive City.

He has a point. The same names do crop up with dull regularity, and of course those whom he describes as "old stagers" shouldn't automatically get nominated or win year after year. However, while Martin Carthy's wife and daughter won two categories, he himself has been oddly ignored for the Lifetime Achievement award even though he's achieved more than most actual recipients could dream of.

So should that be an excuse to bring in chart-bothering bands and famous international names, to shake it up a bit and generate more publicity? Hardly. There's enough genuine  folk talent in this country to choose from without turning to popstars and megastars. Where would it stop? The Pet Shop Boys for Best Duo? Lady Gaga for Musician of the Year? Justin Beiber for Lifetime Achievement? The ghosts of Shergar and Louis Armstrong doing a shock guest appearance to duet on a version of The Angels Took My Racehorse Away?

The BBC Folk Awards are not the only folk awards in Britain but they do get noticed in the wider world and provide a focus for the year for everyone involved in folk - performers and audiences, promoters, media and organisers. If others get into folk music by seeing and hearing the ceremony, great ... but that's not really what it's about. The Stickies should be a celebration of all facets of British folk, not simply an advert for the download of the compilation album.

The Stickies already recognise and promote young musicians through the Horizon Award and the Young Folk Award. If the BBC can extend that spirit to include those of all ages who toil away year after year without the profile generated by a major label release or an appearance at Cambridge Folk Festival, they'd be right on target.

And when Mumford or Noah - or anyone else - makes music that contributes to folk rather than simply trading on its echo then they should be on the nominations list faster than the perma-shaved Frank Skinner can do that old joke about the folk band who had beards, moustaches and big sideburns ... and that was just the women!

Funtime Frankie sings When I'm Cleaning Whiskers...

Saturday, 5 February 2011

For the May Day is the great day...

Britain's Minister for Days Off wants to move the May Day Bank Holiday to October.

Why? Partly because there are too many bank holidays (public holidays) in the spring and none in the autumn (which is true) and partly because May Day Bank Hol was a nasty Old Labour introduction from the Seventies, and still carries the shade of socialism - which apparently upsets some Conservative MPs. If so, they really should grow up a bit..

The true May Day itself, with all its folk traditions, would be largely unaffected by this move, because the bank hol is rarely actually on May 1st anyway - its official name is "Early May Bank Holiday" and in 2012 it'll be a week late, on May 7th! 

Abram Morris Dance
By the way, I'm delighted to see that May Day Morris is not confined to Britain. See here. Now, if the UK government wants to boost tourism, it's no good simply shifting the days off around - instead they should introduce more.
We're getting an extra day for the royal wedding this year, and another for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee next year (both in the first half of the year), so why not actually just have one more bank hol in the second half of the year, and leave May Day alone? 

That would truly boost tourism and bring us a bit more into line with the rest of Europe, nearly all of which has more public hols than the UK.

East Kent Morris
A bit more, I say, but not actually "in line". The average number of public holidays in Europe is 11 - the UK gets 8. So go on, minister, give us three extra days off. I'd dance to that!