The UK’s biggest folk band, The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, mark their 20th anniversary year with a new album, Painted, and a series of special appearances.
The band’s touring line-up features a stage-challenging 50 members. Among them are 15 horns, four cellos, five percussionists, five electric guitarists, plus fiddles, flutes, clarinets, double-bass, electric bass, euphonium, acoustic guitar, octave mandola, and a harp. They sing too.
Officially kicking off the anniversary is a truly unique hometown appearance at Birmingham’s Town Hall (12 May 2017). Opening night of the Imagined Isle festival, the show will see the current line-up joined by as many former members as possible. This could see 80, 90 or more musicians take to the stage for a never-to-be-repeated spectacular.
“However many guests come along, this will be the biggest ensemble ever, a great celebration of those 20 years, a real party,” says ensemble leader Joe Broughton.
The show will be followed by a series of headline dates, including the ensemble’s own Power Folk 4 festival (11 Jun 2017, Birmingham), and a trip to Shrewsbury, where they’ll be opening the folk festival (25 Aug 2017).
Formed in 1997 at Birmingham’s prestigious Conservatoire by fiddle player and arranger Joe Broughton (The Urban Folk Quartet, The Albion Band, Joss Stone), the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble have established a reputation for creating energetic and powerful shows. Their increasingly popular live appearances – especially at such festivals as Cropredy, Towersey, Shambala and Kendal Calling – have left audiences ecstatic and even (at Towersey) moved to tears.
Still based at Birmingham City University’s Conservatoire, the personal influences of each member shapes the set-list, as traditional English and Celtic reels slide into full-on rock grooves, funk, jazz, hip-hop, ska and reggae. Eastern European and Asian flourishes can also be heard, reflecting the rich cultural heritage of the group..
Painted is the ensemble’s first full studio album, and follows two live collections (2009’s Sardines, 2014’s The Official Bootleg) and a live DVD (2007).
With a cover image by fiddle player Ning-ning Li, which echoes the distinctive make-up sported by several band members at shows, its 10 tracks aim to document the breadth of the ensemble experience.
Combining new arrangements of traditional tunes with several original compositions, highlights include Joe’s deliciously raucous take on the classic ‘Fairy Dance’ and ‘William Taylor’, which features a commanding vocal by vocalist/ cellist Julie Claire. Later, Rosie Tunley and Rosemary Wilkes take on vocal duties for ‘Rain And Snow’, where harp lines and strings are soon joined by percussion, bass and electric guitar, making one of Painted’s most intricate cuts.
Classic Irish tune ‘The Butterfly’ gets the full-on Folk Ensemble treatment before seguing into guitarist Josh Wunderlich’s frenetic arrangement of Japanese duo The Yoshida Brothers’ ‘Kodo’.
With a nod to their 20 year history, they even revisit a pair of Bulgarian tunes (Ruchenitsas) first played by the band back in 1997, when the ensemble numbered a mere 14 members, while elsewhere, the percussion section morph from African drumming to Samba, to out-and-out rock, always pinning the band down, while bringing an excitement and studied richness to the material.
“The challenge for us has been really capturing the power and intensity of the ensemble without it impacting on the delicacy or fragility of the quieter, more subtle moments,” says Joe, who produced the album. “There’s such energy, when the entire ensemble perform together, but these are world class musicians, and the tracks on Painted really demonstrate how skilful their individual playing is.”
The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble’s Painted (SAE Records) is released on Sunday 11 June 2017.
Artists’ website: www.folkensemble.co.uk
‘The Butterfly/Kodo’ live:
Remaining Tour Dates
Friday 25 August 2017
Shrewsbury Folk Festival
West Midlands Showground, Berwick Road, Shrewsbury, Shropshire SY1 2PF