Sunday, 9 December 2012

Great British Folk Festival 2012

The FolkCast Crew had a great time at the Great British Folk Festival, held in Butlin's Skegness, over the first weekend of December 2012. You can hear our series of special "FolkCast Blast" interview podcasts but here are our reviews of the festival facilities and the music we heard. 


FolkCaster Mark with happy waitress Erzsebet
As a new-comer to the GBFF and Butlin's at Skegness I, like just about all first-time visitors I guess, was apprehensive about what we'd find when we arrived on the site, which sits right on the beach on the Lincolnshire coast.

And, like just about all first-time visitors I guess, I was soon very impressed by what we found. Our accommodation was modern, comfortable and - most importantly for the middle of winter - warm and cosy! There were five in our party: myself (Phil) and Jo, Babba, and our friends Mark and Jenny, who came armed with camera and laptop and a steely determination to document as much of the weekend as they could.

Phil updates FolkCast's Twitter/Facebook massive
from the apartment at Butlin's
As for me, I was carrying my iPhone, so our Twitter and Facebook feeds were kept updated on events instantly, and my audio recorder for the interviews.

Once we'd settled into our 3-bed apartment, complete with bathroom, well-equiped kitchen and a lounge with big telly and DVD player, we set out to find the music. It was only a five minute walk away, and with the weather set cold and mostly bright for the weekend that was good news! 

The entertainment hub of Butlin's houses the main "Centre Stage" venue, plus various bars, restaurants, shops, amusement arcades and family fun facilities. 

Separate rooms and self-catering is available, but our accommodation package came complete with breakfast and evening meal in the Yacht Club - a pleasant carvery where very attentive and welcoming staff showed us to our seats and brought us drinks from the bar while we helped ourselves to a wide choice of good-quality food.
Jo, Phil and Babba all set for folkie fun

From there it was off to Centre Stage and the slightly smaller second venue, Reds, for the weekend's entertainment. This got under way on Friday evening, and importantly for a folk festival there was well-kept real ale on at the bar (Pedigree and Hobgoblin on handpump) and prices were reasonable, too. 

We couldn't see everything, but here are reviews of some of our highlights.

Fake Thackeray (review by Babba)

I approached John Watterson's performance as "Fake Thackray" with some reticence. 

I'm old enough to have seen the blessed Jake Thackray in concert. He was a unique artist, with a unique delivery and many complicated chords casually dropped into a languid performance, and the last thing his memory needs is a copycat tribute act that dilutes the genius. 

It's fair to say that I sat down to watch John Watterson with more than a degree of bias, my pen loaded with bile and my notebook dripping with scorn. He'd not sung five words before I turned to the FolkCast team and said "He's got it!" ... as, indeed, John proved for the next hour. 

This is a true tribute. It's not an impersonation of Jake, it's not an impression of him, it's a studied reading of the way that Jake Thackray delivered his songs. There are nuances and emphases in the vocals that made Jake's songs so unique, pronunciations and rhymes that only work in a broad Yorkshire accent, and John's mastered all of them. 

Many of the well-known songs were here - "The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle", "On Again, On Again!" (featuring the marvellous opening line "I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day"), "Bantam Cock" and the sidesplitting "Sister Josephine", together with a nod to Jake's sentimental side with "The Blacksmith and the Toffeemaker". All good, all complicated chords in place, and, as many other reviewers have concluded, it was almost like having Jake back for one last wonderful night. 

Fake Thackray is the support for Fairport Convention's Wintour. As a long-time fan of Jake, I urge you to see him.

Oh Susanna (review: Mark and Jenny)

Oh Susanna
Canadian born Oh Susanna was touring in Scotland but took the time to pop down and be the opening act at Reds. She is a singer-songwriter and, dressed in “keep death off the road” black, she entertained us with songs about sad and serious subjects, but the songs themselves were more upbeat. The subjects included gambling, the hanging of a stagecoach robber, the death of a husband and desertion by a husband. She excused all this sadness and anger by saying “well it is a folk festival”.

She said that the Rolling Stones introduced her to music and dedicated one song to Mick Jagger. However, her style on this song was more Melissa Etheridge than the Stones. Her style for the rest of the material was gentler. A good start to the folk festival. Would we go and see her again – yes, as she left us wanting to hear more.

The Fureys with Davy Arthur
After an unseemly long time taken to change over, The Fureys and Davy Arthur arrived on stage. The Fureys are not so much soft and furry as (fairly) fast and furious. They played traditional Irish songs with shaggy dog tales which kept everyone well entertained. 

Performers often dream of the day when, after a few chords of a song, the audience breaks into spontaneous applause on recognising a song that they love. This happened several times during the Fureys set. 

The Fureys: decades of touring equals mic stand pint rests
They also had the audience clapping and singing along to all of the choruses. The audience had swelled to see them so there was standing room only and it all made for a great atmosphere. The audience included people from Ireland and Glasgow. Strange that the cheers from the Glaswegians seemed to come mainly from the bar area.

Songs included 'Will You Gang To The Highlands, Lizzie Lindsay?'; 'The Old Man', a tribute to their father and missing your old man; the amusing 'Her Father Did Not Like Me Anyway'; and 'Leaving London', a song from their new CD 'Songs Through The Years', which will be released in January.

They ended with an anti-war song, 'The Green Fields Of France', which is about the 1914-18 war, but is sadly still relevant today. There was almost a standing ovation at the end of their set and the audience wanted more but time prevented them from having an encore, much to some people's disappointment. Again a band that left the audience wanting to hear more.

Patsy Matheson (review: Mark & Jenny)

Patsy Matheson
Patsy opened the Saturday afternoon session in Reds and created a relaxed and intimate folk club atmosphere, with mostly her own material. Towards the end she gave a third airing to her new song “Seven Buttons” all about longing. Her last song, ‘Under Your Wing’ included the lines: ‘Find me a place to sit under your wing and an angel will teach me how to sing’. With her slightly breathy voice Patsy has already found that place. 

Deborah Bonham and band (review: Mark & Jenny)
Deborah Bonham

I stepped out from the loos at the beginning of Deborah Bonham's set and thought I had been transported to a Shania Twain concert. Deborah was swaying on the stage belting out the opening number in the style of 'Man I Feel Like A Woman'. It was a great start and only got better as she treated us to a series of great songs, including “Feel So Alive” and “Battle Of Evermore”. She has the voice for which songs such as “Stay With Me Baby” and “Piece Of My Heart” were written for.

She carried on the hippy tradition of performing barefoot, albeit on her own carpet. A passing fellow singer, well known for her own sartorial elegance even in muddy fields, commented “She is the first person I have ever wanted to steal her stage outfit, she looks fabulous'. Sadly we had to leave before the end of her set as we wanted to catch Roy Mette and his pirates.

  • We were all distressed to hear that shortly after appearing at the GBFF, and after she had returned home, Deborah suffered a very nasty fall and was hospitalised with a broken eye-socket and cheekbone and facial trauma. FolkCast sends her our warm wishes for a speedy recovery.

Roy Mette & Triangle (review: Mark & Jenny)

We then moved on to Roy Mette in one of the bars (...The 'Jellyfish Lounge', Ed). He performed his original pirate songs covering the low life of London and the River Thames in the 18th and 19th Centuries. 
Roy Mette with Triangle
Roy was accompanied by a backing group of Sue, Mim and Sophie, who also perform in their own right as the a capella group Triangle, and Pete, the percussion player from Mc2. Is there an East Anglian connection to all of this? The bar filled up as he was singing and he went down well. 

For aspiring pirates, who suffer from seasickness, one song revealed that some pirates never went to sea but just stole booty from ships tied up in on the Thames in London. This led to the development of the London docks to create a safe harbour from thieves as well as the sea. He played again on Sunday afternoon but by then his Triangular  pirates had sailed away to sing in the Messiah at the Royal Albert Hall.

Fay Hield And The Hurricane Party (review: Phil)

It's fair to say that a couple of the bands on the bill at the GBFF raised eyebrows from the more conservative festival-goers, and the traditional cry of "that's not folk" was heard on one or two occasions. But that's not a charge that can be levelled at Fay Hield - her roots are strong enough to withstand a hurricane.

Her voice is strong enough to brew up a storm, too - clear, pure and purposeful. Couple that to a focused stage presence and willowy Fay becomes the eye of this particular musical party while her band of multi-talented multi-instrumentalists rage around her with fiddles, squeezy things and guitars, plus more exotic instruments. 

Fay's material favours traditional territory, too. One song - "Naughty Baby" - memorably takes a trad. lullaby, mixes it with the German national anthem (!) and is accompanied on the nykelharpa. The song tells how the child is first beaten and then eaten. Now that just must be folk music!

Great vocal harmonies and subtle instrumentation make the Hurricane Party the flip-side of Bellowhead, despite sharing various members of that rollocking big band, including Fay's partner, Jon Boden.

Fay knows when to take the spotlight and when to let the band do their thing, standing stock still with head bowed when not singing. But if anything this added to the effect and the audience was mesmerised by Fay by the time the set edged towards its conclusion.
"Here's our last song: it's a story about a corpse," she grinned. We all grinned too. 

Show of Hands (review: Babba)

Show Of Hands
The last gig of a tour can either be good or less so, depending on how the tour has gone. You may get a lacklustre performance from artists who have been on an unforgiving road for too long. Alternatively, when the tour has gone well, the band may rip the place up. I can only assume that Show of Hands have enjoyed their autumnal travels, because they fairly shredded Centre Stage on Saturday night.

Shortly before the start, the "House Full" signs went up outside, and stayed there until the last encore was done. Kicking off with "Haunt You" from the new album, "Wake The Union", Steve, Phil and Miranda delivered a crowd-pleasing set that featured many new songs and lots of old favourites. Of the new material, "Stop Copying Me", "Katrina" and "Cruel River" all deserve inclusion on future setlists, and "Coming Home/Bonny Light Horseman" left few dry-eyed. Classic songs like "Country Life" and "Cousin Jack" benefited from additional words, which surprised some who were enjoying the singalong but didn't put them off joining in. 
Phil, Steve and Miranda

Steve Knightley revealed the character he adopts when cold-called by utility companies and ambulance-chasing solicitors, to much hilarity. A word of advice to those in the cold-calling business - if you find yourself talking to a West Country farmer who is wonderfully free of the ravages of intelligence and welcomes your call, end it as soon as you can. It's Steve, and if you stay on the line he will make you so frustrated you'll burst into tears. And he will have won. Again. 
Steve Knightley: phoney farmer

As did Show of Hands on Saturday night. That they were enjoying themselves was apparent. That their audience were enjoying them was obvious. And when it came to the singing of "Roots"... well, if the lid of Centre Stage burst up into the cold night air at the mass shout of "It's my flag too, and I want it back!" I wouldn't be a bit surprised.

After fourteen songs, they left the stage and the house lights came up. The applauding crowd didn't move. Two encores later - "Now You Know" and "King Of The World" - and that was it. If the organisers of the Great British Folk Festival have more than half a brain cell (and I know that they have many to call on), Show of Hands will be back very soon.

Merry Hell (review: Phil)

While Babba, Mark and Jenny and about 85% of the rest of the GBFF crowd squeezed into Centre Stage to see Show Of Hands, Jo and I had an appointment with some old friends that we'd never met before.

Hey, it's a long story, but several decades ago and in another life I was the music editor of a North West England newspaper and often ran stories about a band from Wigan called The Tansads. Despite loving their records, however, I never managed to see them play live. They disbanded well before the end of the last century and that seemed to be that.

Then I heard about Merry Hell. Featuring the core of the Tansands in the shape of The Kettle brothers three, Merry Hell mix indie rock, pop and folk (in that order) to produce a brilliantly bouncy sound that's full of energy, power and passion. Rock provides the banging backbeat, pop produces memorable melodies and singalong choruses, and folk chips in with the lyrics which are sharp, smart and witty observations of life in all its guises.

"I miss you like a World Cup penalty, the disappointed crowd looking back at me..." croons Andrew Kettle - head back, voice like a finely-tuned buzz saw - before the gloriously tuneful Virginia Kettle (wife of guitarist brother John) joins in with the refrain: "Here it comes... one more day without you" as brother Bob's mandolin chirrups cheekily over the solid bass, drums and keyboards backing. The song is One More Day, and man it's brilliant!

Virginia, disconcertingly dressed as though she's just come from her day job as a bank clerk (she's actually a museum guide in Chester), strums an acoustic guitar and commands the audience to "Bury me naked, I want to go out the way I came in...". The song is called Bury Me Naked, it's the title track of their next album, it's coming in Spring 2013 and it features a certain Dave Swarbrick guesting on one track. Bury you naked? Well, you'll have to slip off that pinstriped jacket first, love...

This swayalong anthem is described as "an ecologically sound funeral plan" and is quite the most joyous last will and testament I've ever heard. "Bring a smile to my eyes/Bring Me Sunshine by Morecambe and Wise".

Both Andrew and Virginia Kettle are strong, distinctive singers - and each gets their solo songs in the spotlight - but it's the combination of their voices that is the Merry Hell trademark. It's a most exquisite mix - his a powerful, strident, musical salute; hers sweetly soaring above before blasting through with jaw-dropping eloquence and bravura. Wow!

Then they reached into their old band's back catalogue and - BANG! - it was the early 90s all over again and it's almost like Maggie never left No 10. Ahem...

Songs like Iron Man and Up The Shirkers are mighty, and had me on my feet saluting the ceiling with a pumping fist. Are you allowed to do that at a folk festival? You are here - get in!

But while they can rock out they can also be smoother than a moleskin G-string on fabulous folkie charmers like Lean On Me Love ("When boredom fills your kitchen sink/and the world is standing at the brink/when the bars are closed and you need a drink/lean on me love") and intimate Rosanna's Song. Then they are off into the massive The War Between Ourselves and the room is rocking again.

I saw Gordon Giltrap watching intently, and he later Tweeted appreciatively of their stage presence, good fun and good songs, before casually offering to be another guest on a future record! Nice one, GG.

Merry Hell are Lancashire's answer to The Saw Doctors or The Levellers ... and the answer is: "Alreet? Cop This!"

Gordon Giltrap (review: Phil)

GG walks on stage to anticipatory applause and with a big smile on his face. And why not? Here are a couple of thousand people ready to hang on the bend of  every finger.

Gordon Giltrap at GBFF - enthralling

Chatting to Gordon the day before the show he had amazed Babba and myself by declaring "My biggest regret is that I'm not a better guitarist"! What does he want, a third hand?!? But while Gordon doesn't quite believe he is as brilliant as he really is, he's determined to get better and better. That means that he practices. A lot. And he's still mad keen on music in its many forms, and was a regular visitor to other gigs throughout the GBFF weekend, soaking up the styles and the sounds.

A solo guitarist who doesn't sing is quite a rarity. It could be a bit samey, you might think. Not a bit of it. GG is joined by a large cast of supporters - his acoustic guitars - and each brings something new to the party so that the result is constant variety and lots of interesting light and shade.

The man himself is instantly engaging, entertaining, amazing. In turns he's amusing, enthralling and enchanting. Not only is he a superb musician (no, really Gordon!) but his jokes are funny, too.

He plays Here Comes The Sun. We applaud. "I'm glad you like that... I only finished writing it a week ago," he grins.

Here Comes The Sun is a charmer, but Giltrap's own Lucifer's Cage is a great snarling, yelping beast of a tune that is eye-poppingly exciting to watch, let alone hear, as GG wrestles the devil of his own devising - a match that has been played out nightly at his gigs since 1969. He tells me it's never the same twice, and on this occasion I think Gordon just about managed to pin Lucifer to the canvas, but at times it was a damn close-run thing.

Dodo's Dream is a masterclass in live looping, with GG setting phrase after phrase repeating through his effects pedals, layering one on top the last to build a mirage of a tune that is part live, part recorded right there and then. It's like watching someone spinning plates and one false move could bring it all crashing down horribly. Nothing crashes, and we are agog.

Gordon's supporting cast
The show was being filmed and projected live on to screens around the room (as were all the shows at GBFF) and this proved to be a valuable addition as it afforded close-up views of his hands as they flew over the strings. Cue crowds of guitarists gawping at the screens in an attempt to figure out exactly what he was doing ... and how! 

Those audience members of a certain vintage will always associate one GG tune with the jet set. Heartsong was used as the theme to the BBC's Holiday programme back when Cliff Mitchelmore was TV's Mr Travel, and it's still a joyous, heartlifting refrain, played with fluid lyricism by its author.

Gordon Giltrap may not be a folk artist, but he's certainly a member of the allied trades and proved to be a memorable crowning moment in a weekend packed with more highlights than a hairdresser's conference.

The Great British Folk Festival returns to Butlin's Skegness from November 29th - December 1st 2013. Headliners will include Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, St Agnes Fountain and Martyn Joseph. Tickets are on sale now. See you there!


Anonymous said...

How would a band go about getting booked for this festival?

FolkCast said...

Practice, son, practice...