The Nights At The Circus Folk Club is the newest edition to Birmingham’s heritage of guest-booking folk clubs.
Starting in January 2017, the club has brought a hugely varied programme of nationally touring folk artists to the Second City, including such renowned names as Sam Kelly, winner of the 2016 BBC Radio 2 Horizon Folk Award, and David Campbell, son of Birmingham-based folk revival legend, Ian Campbell.
According to club founder and organiser, Chris Cleverley, the club’s mission is quite simple:
“We started the club with the aim of creating a monthly Contemporary Folk and Roots night to showcase the next generation of breakthrough artists from the new British Folk Scene. NATC offers a platform for some of the UKs most innovative, honest songwriters and dynamic interpreters of traditional song, bringing the breakthrough names of the modern underground scene to an attentive, artist focussed environment.”
Upon its inception, NATC joined the likes of The Red Lion Folk Club & The Black Diamond Folk Club, to become Birmingham’s newest member of the organisation Folk 21, a national voluntary group which promotes, supports and provides a voice for the guest-booking folk club circuit across the UK.
NATC has fully embraced the current National Folk Scene as it develops into the 21st Century, with a programme of artists that spans generations and myriad sub-genres. In doing so the club has exposed some artists to Birmingham’s music lovers by hosting their first live, headline appearances in the city.
September’s headline act is Russian songwriter Daria Kulesh, described by The Times as “Haunting and Enigmatic”. With her striking voice and strong Russian and Ingush heritage, Daria Kulesh is a rising star and a unique character on the UK folk scene. Daria’s new solo album Long Lost Home is mainly inspired by Ingushetia (Ghalghai Mokh) – the lost home of Daria’s grandmother Fatima Akhrieva. But above all, Long Lost Home is an album for our times, exploring themes of displacement and (in)tolerance, identity and integrity, humanity and strength in the face of adversity, hope against hate. The September audience can expect powerful, timeless human stories beautifully told in an eye-opening and profoundly uplifting musical experience.
The club is hosted by The Dark Horse in Moseley, which offers a spacious, modern environment, to perfectly reflect the progressive and innovative nature of the artists appearing on the programme. The experience is further enhanced by the pub’s cornucopia of world beers, making NATC one of the few settings in Birmingham at which audiences can enjoy live folk music and craft beer.
Marion Fleetwood and Gregg Cave met with the formation of TRADarrr and things went from there. Unlike their parent band, Fleetwood Cave’s debut album, People Like Us, consists of original material plus one cover version. Supporting Marion and Gregg are Tali Trow and Paul Johnston on double bass and drums with guest appearances from Simon Nicol, Chris Leslie, Anna Ryder, Gerry Colvin, Edwina Hayes, Debs Earl and Chris Cleverley.
Like TRADarr Fleetwood Cave enjoy big arrangements with lots of fiddle but the opener, ‘18th Day Of May’ is a relatively simple and very catchy slice of folk-rock beginning with gorgeous acapella harmonies and a nod to ‘Bonny Black Hare’ in its refrain. ‘Dancing Girls’ follows: initially a gentle song with Marion’s voice and Gregg’s acoustic guitar and some delicate electrics (Gerry Colvin?). It ups the power after a couple of minutes but maintains the mood even through its big finish mainly because Marion avoids the histrionics that pop music would demand.
There are delightful twists all the way through the album so ‘Guinea Golden’ slips into a Morris tune in the middle; ‘Gypsy Queen’ sounds biographical but is probably a rural myth written sometime last year and ‘Passage Of Time’ turns into a growling, driving rock song. There is one instrumental, the wild flying ‘Lazarus’ which gives everybody chance to go to town and the cover is Fairport Convention’s ‘Wizard Of The Worldly Game’ taken rather more slowly than the original. It’s an overlooked part of the Fairport canon but this version will undoubtedly revive its popularity.
There is a huge amount of festival potential here with anthemic songs and great hooks. I can imagine sitting in the sun singing “The bigger the tree, the deeper the roots”. This is a really good debut.
Fleetwood Cave, the new folk duo featuring Marion Fleetwood and Gregg Cave, will be launching their new album, ‘People Like Us’ with a tour of England and Wales starting in late January 2017.
Marion and Gregg met through new folk supergroup TRADarrr, who will be visiting Canterbury later in the year. Both are familiar faces on the folk circuit, having played many folk clubs and festivals between them, including Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival. Marion has a voice which has been described as ‘mesmerising’ and ‘siren-esque’, and plays all things bowed. Ashley Hutchings MBE has said she ‘deserves to be ranked amongst the finest singers in this country’. She has been a well known figure on the Stratford music scene for many years, and is multi-instrumentalist and singer with new folk supergroup TRADarrr. She was a member of Meet On The Ledge, The Jigantics and the award winning ColvinQuarmby – now known as The Gerry Colvin Band, which she still performs with.
Since forming folk-rock band CAVE when he was 18 years old, Gregg Cave, has been performing in concerts and at festivals in the UK and mainland Europe. In recent years Gregg has collaborated with musicians and storytellers and has been commissioned by the Arts Council and National Trust to produce two separate pieces of performance. He sings lead vocals with TRADarrr.
Their debut album as a duo, People Like Us, was Crowdfunded in eight weeks and recorded over five days in a village hall in Northampton, with the added musical input of Tali Trow (double bass) and Stratford based musician and producer Paul Johnston (drums and percussion). It includes new material from both Marion and Gregg, along with one cover – Fairport Convention track ‘Wizard Of Fhe Worldly Game’ (with the definitive lyrics to the final verse sent to them by Simon Nicol himself after an exhaustive on-line search showed much confusion!). Friends of the pair joined them to complete the recording and include Simon Nicol and Chris Leslie of Fairport Convention, Anna Ryder, Gerry Colvin, Edwina Hayes, Debs Earl and Chris Cleverley.
Their 25 date tour includes gigs across England and Wales, from Hull to Redruth and Canterbury to Wigan. They are also taking their music to Holland later in the year.
The People Like Us tour starts in Kingston, Canterbury with a gig for Folk In The Barn on 22nd January and ends at Cecil Sharp House on April 30th.
With Oscar fever rising to a climax it’s time to say “Welcome To The Folkies” – the 2016 Folking Awards. We’ve sifted through the albums and performances of 2015 – always a long and difficult task punctuated by bouts of thumb-wrestling to settle disputes. Adopting the pattern followed by everyone else, here, in no order of precedence, are our nominations. With the exception of one category we have restricted our choices to British acts.
All nominations are 2016 Folking Awards winners.
Soloist Of The Year
Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin
India Electric Co.
Show Of Hands
Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman
Blackbeard’s Tea Party
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
Best Live Act
The Demon Barbers XL
Blackbeard’s Tea Party
Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band
Layers Of Ages – Peter Knight’s Gigspanner Head Heart Hand – Megan Henwood The Girl I Left Behind Me – India Electric Co. It’s Not Your Gold Shall Me Entice – Elle Osborne Disco At The Tavern – The Demon Barbers
Folking’s Rising Star
India Electric Co.
Best International Artist
Gandalf Murphy And The Slambovian Circus Of Dreams
Justin Townes Earle
To give the awards a further edge, we opened the vote to our visitors and run a public poll in all of the 8 categories (as listed above).
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The idea of holding a folk festival in Skegness in December probably raised a few eyebrows when it was first mooted. The suggestion that it should be held at Butlin’s may have caused a pursing of lips but it makes perfect economic sense. The artists have a major venue and a captive audience to add to a winter tour and the camp and its staff gets extra use and revenue. There are two main venues, both are very large and both were packed on Friday evening.
Entering the Pleasure Dome, sorry, Skyline Pavilion trying to figure out where everything was it was nice to be greeted by the harmonies of Said The Maiden on the Introducing Stage – the third open venue in the middle of the pavilion. It was nearly the end of their set, unfortunately, but we stayed to hear Kings Of The South Seas before insinuating ourselves into the Centre Stage for False Lights. Live, they are less reliant on Jim Moray’s synth wizardry and proved themselves to be an exceptionally good folk-rock band in the classic style. They may prefer to think of themselves as mould breakers but they are actually doing what some bands seem to have forgotten how. Their attempt to perform ‘How Can I Keep From Singing’ without PA was not a success, however; the natural acoustics of the room are not as good as they believed.
At an event like this you can’t hear everything so I was now faced with a decision – Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band or Billy Bragg? The fact that we now had decent seats settled it and we stayed put for the first half of Eliza’s set. Her twelve piece band are set to be the next Bellowhead (whatever anybody says) and are more than up to the task. As well as old favourites, including a “duelling fiddles” interlude with Sam Sweeney in ‘My Boy Billy’, there was a new song, ‘Devil In The Woman’, slated for their first studio album. Bragg called, however, and we arrived for what seemed like the mellow end of his set with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’. No! Amongst the polemic he sang ‘Between The Wars’, still powerful and relevant, and ‘There Is Power In A Union’. I reflected that the latter needs some revision with the unions battered down. We may discover that there is power in unity. ‘A New England’ wrapped up his set perfectly.
CC Smugglers followed with the sort of set that only a band as youthful as them could have the energy to play but shouldn’t have the chops to pull off. They have played so many gigs since I first saw them, even ones they weren’t invited to, and have become so tight and slick. Richie Prynne prowled his stage like a circus ringmaster, never still and rarely silent, cajoling and haranguing the audience, the songs and even his band-mates like a true showman. If the idea of the last set of the night was to wind the audience down then CC Smugglers were not the right choice.
The first and last time I heard Moulettes was at very uncomfortable gig and I was looking forward to hearing them in a nice chair. Actually, the best seating for the band is a bean bag with a lava lamp, joss-sticks and a guy dishing out small squares of blotting paper. Sadly the only mind-altering substance available was a pint of Hobgoblin. This was the final gig of the Constellations tour and Moulettes were also previewing their new album, Preternatural, with songs which, for want of more specific titles, we’ll call ‘Octopus’, ‘Nematode’ and ‘Behemoth’. I love the sound of the band, I love their instrumentation and their style but I really don’t know what they are about a lot of the time. “Surreal dreamscapes” were mentioned and I guess that’s about right.
I chatted to Ruth Skipper after the set to ask her impressions of the festival. It turned out that they had only just arrived and gone straight on stage, which accounted for some of the sound man’s problems. At their simplest Moulettes can be two guitars, bass and fiddle but at various times will be added electric cello, bassoon, autoharp, some meaty drums and keyboards and a balance that’s right for the beginning of a song may be wrong by the end. I did discover that the band were looking forward to the water-slide and hearing more music later which proves that I have no future as an investigative reporter.
Next up were Magna Carta. Chris Simpson on-stage is pretty much the same as Chris Simpson off-stage – he’s a raconteur, discursive and philosophical and Doug Morter is his perfect right hand man. Chris has surrounded himself with some very fine musicians but the set felt loose and the decision to give Morter a solo of one of his own songs seems questionable. Back on the firmer ground of The Fields Of Eden things were much more sure-footed and ‘Airport Song’ was a nice encore.
The queue for Tom Robinson curled twice round the pavilion and things were clearly running late so what might have been another difficult decision was made easier and we settled in to hear Sam Carter. He opened his set with ‘Yellow Sign’, the song he began with when I first heard him, and I was shocked to realise that that was six years ago. He has grown as an artist so much. Just when we were settling into the style of his own songs he switched to ‘The Wife Of Ushers Well’, which he sings with False Lights, and ‘Rocking The Cradle’. He played a superb set which showed the power of one man and his guitar. Sam was probably the highlight of the weekend for me.
We got back just in time to catch the end of Tom Robinson’s set so I did get to sing ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ again before The Unthanks appeared on the Centre Stage. With the full ten-piece band on stage it’s easy to overlook the contribution of Niopha Keegan to the group but her trumpet playing was the fondant icing on several songs. The technical problems rolled on so The Demon Barbers XL were thirty-five minutes late on stage, almost taking the gloss off their excellent set which began with traditional songs and ended as a dance display featuring hip-hop, interpretative dance and a fearsomely fast rapper. It’s quite disconcerting to see a stage bare of wires, mic stands and other clutter but they needed all the space they could get. I got to bed by 2.00 am, more or less – it was a long day.
By midday the pace was beginning to tell and the queues for the afternoon sessions were noticeably lighter and some people I spoke to were planning a power nap in preference to more music. No such luxury for your man on the spot.
TradArrr were excellent. They can really rock and with Marion Fleetwood on lead they can turn in a bittersweet ballad like ‘My Laggan Love’ or ‘Silver Dagger’. Between them they boast five lead vocalists, a full string quartet, a keyboard player who frequently added unexpected flourishes and two drummers, one of whom plays cornet. There were hints of high camp as PJ Wright planted a foot on the foldback and Guy Fletcher prowled the stage hunched over his mandolin but they restrained themselves well. It was then a choice between waiting for Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle or scurrying off to catch The Band From County Hell – sorry Jacqui.
The Band From County Hell are a Scots/Irish group from Lincolnshire and are huge fun – ‘The Day My Granny Died’ is a song everybody should hear at least once. They have been around for a quite a while, with six albums to their credit and it seems odd that they aren’t better known – although they don’t lack for support. The first notes played by Blazin’ Fiddles were on keyboard and guitar which is, I’m sure, their little joke. It’s not logical to find them restful but they are so tight and their music is so hypnotic. I promise that I didn’t nod off but I was definitely on a different plane of existence for a lot of their excellent set.
I returned to the Introduction Stage to hear Chris Cleverley whose debut album, Apparitions, I really like. His set, mixing traditional songs and his own compositions didn’t disappoint and he’s already working in new songs including ‘All I Want’ which will send me back to Joni Mitchell’s Blue as soon as time allows. I stayed for Polly And The Billets Doux, who won the day’s vote for a main stage slot next year, and The Black Feathers, who really needed a more sympathetic environment.
The Ric Sanders’ Trio have finally come out as a fun band with their new album and set of old blues, string band and swing numbers. It might be called the Vo Fletcher Trio since it is his guitar that forms the foundation and his voice that sings the songs but when the singing stops it is Ric’s flights of instrumental fancy that take their music to another place. The album is a lot of fun and their set reflected that. Then it was decision time again. I’d been told that Fotheringay would be playing the same set that they had toured all year “only better”. That was true but I missed the excitement of the earlier gigs when the band were still finding their way into, or back into, the music. Nevertheless, theirs was the set everyone wanted to hear.
Since they lost Messrs. Knight and Zorn I really wanted to hear what Steeleye Span would do. With two new musicians to induct the answer was to go back to first principles so ‘All Things Were Quite Silent’ was followed by ‘Blackleg Miner’ and ‘Weary Cutters’ was teamed with ‘New York Girls’ featuring Maddy Prior on ukulele. And they rocked. Julian Littman added a rap to ‘Boys Of Bedlam’ and Spud Sinclair played the sort of electric guitar that we haven’t heard in the band since Bob Johnson’s time. As a final touch they closed with an a capella version of Rick Kemp’s ‘Somewhere Along The Road’.
There is no getting away from the fact that playing the final set of a festival after Steeleye Span have gone off to rapturous applause is a daunting task but Folklaw threw themselves into it with energy and aplomb. Fiddler and songwriter Nick Gibbs was joined by Gaz Hunt on a minimalist drum kit, Martin Vogwell on bass and mandolin and Bryn Williams on guitar and bodhran – not to mention crossing the venue floor on the backs of chairs! They sent the crowd off exhausted but happy.
So does a December festival work once you get over the culture shock of rocking up at 5.00 pm on a Friday in the dark? This is still Skegness and with Storm Desmond blowing around us “bracing” just didn’t begin to describe it but when the wind dropped on Sunday it was mild and pleasant. The accommodation and facilities were excellent and the unsung stars of the weekend were the Butlin’s staff who were friendly and helpful and worked long hours. However, this was folk music adapting to Butlin’s not the other way round. The artists existed in a bubble of stage/backstage/ accommodation or arrived, performed and left and there were quite a few I would have liked to have spoken to so I apologise to them. A bulletin board for messages or to arrange meetings wouldn’t take much to set up and would be a big help, too. But, yes, it works and if you have considered going but not done so I can recommend it.
The debut album from singer-songwriter Chris Cleverley really doesn’t fit a pattern and that’s great. It’s so refreshing to hear someone who doesn’t obey the rules – every time you think you have a handle on this record he dances away to something new.
Apparitions opens with a short solo instrumental, ‘Transience’ and Chris makes the point that he’s a fine guitarist. Then we move to possibly the album’s best track, ‘The Dawn Before The Day’, a love song with a delightfully natural vocal, almost conversational, decorated by Marion Morgan’s violin. ‘Lesson’ follows in the same vein; confessional with Amit Dattani’s slide guitar laying a strong foundation. ‘I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground’ sees Chris switch to banjo. It’s an old American traditional song and includes the warning that railroad men will “drink up all your blood like wine” – where have I heard that before?
‘Acetylene’ feels like a random title although I suppose it means something to Chris and the track features some haunting backwards guitar. Then comes ‘O Shenandoah’, taken must faster than the usual dirge-like pace and with some really good finger-picking. You get the impression that Chris could do anything his fancy turned to from his apparently chosen path as a singer-songwriter to a career as a skilled interpreter of traditional songs. Whatever he does he’s going places, that’s for sure.
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