THE GREAT BRITISH FOLK FESTIVAL, Skegness, 4th-7th December

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.

Friday

THE GREAT BRITISH FOLK FESTIVAL, Skegness, 4th-7th December
False Lights

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.

Wayward Band 2
Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band

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.

Richie Prynne 2
Richie Prynne

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.

Saturday

Moulettes
Moulettes

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.

Chris Simpson
Chris Simpson

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.

Sam Carter
Sam Carter

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.

The Unthanks
The Unthanks

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.

Sunday

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
TradArrr

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
The Band From County Hell

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.

Chris Cleverley
Chris Cleverley

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.

Vo Fletcher
Vo Fletcher

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.

Steeleye Span
Steeleye Span

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’.

Nick Gibbs
Nick Gibbs

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.

Dai Jeffries

TRADarrr – Cautionary Tales (Hedge Of Sound HOS02)

CautionaryTalesI have to say this, just to get it out of the way – TRADarrr is not a great name. Particularly when it’s attached to a great band. There, I’ve done it – you may now heap opprobrium on my head.

TRADarrr are (or arre) Gregg Cave, Marion Fleetwood (of Jigantics and ColvinQuarmby) and Guy Fletcher, Mark Stevens, and PJ Wright (of just about anybody you can think of). The music isn’t all trad. arr. but it’s close enough for folk – when you can list Ralph Vaughan Williams, Oliver Goldsmith and Shirley Collins in your credits nobody is going to be picky.

The album starts with a brilliant idea: ‘English Folk Song Suite Pt 1’ (we can hope that part 2 will emerge later) – folk songs turned into an orchestral piece by RVW and then returned to folk or rather reworked as folk-rock.. Perhaps I should also have said that Cautionary Tales is folk-rock at its very best. Next up is ‘My Lagan Love’, which owes something to Fairport’s arrangement of ‘The Quiet Joys Of Brotherhood’ with Marion taking the lead vocal. Actually Tradarrr boast five vocalists although they also recruit Chris Leslie and Pete Scrowther to take some lead lines with Gregg handling the rest. Other guests include Jerry Donahue, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, Marcus Parkinson, Simon Care, Gareth Turner and Kristnaps Fisher with the melodeon trio featuring on ‘Princess Royal’ and ‘Upton Stick Dance’. I’m not sure that they need all these guests, except to have more fun in the studio, and I’m a bit iffy about importing lead vocalists.

The sound that gladdens my heart on this record is that of Mark Stevens’ cornet. It doesn’t have the power of Brass Monkey in their pomp but it brings a contrasting texture to what is essentially a string driven album – brass is such an evocative sound in folk music – and it’s the perfect finishing touch.

Dai Jeffries

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BLAIR DUNLOP – House of Jacks (Rooksmere Records, RRCD112P)

Blair_Dunlop_-House_of_Jacks_Son of Ashley Hutchings he may be, but ‘Something’s Gonna Give Way’, the riff driven opening track on his sophomore album, firmly suggests the influences of Seth Lakeman and, more pointedly, especially in the third person narrative murder ballad lyrics about school bullying revenge, Richard Thompson.

In tender musical contrast, the fiddle-soothed ‘Fifty Shades Of Blue’ is a slow waltzing meditation on denial that (soaring vocal intro recalling Chris De Burgh) gives way to a title track anchored to the heart and its sometime inability to articulate the depth of its feelings. Clearly not a songwriter to settle for simplistic clichés and the mundane, ‘Chain By Design’ is a simple acoustic slow march exploration of determinism and free will, the more progressive folk rock sonorous, organ underpinned ‘Different Schools’ addressing the need for and barriers to communication and, inspired by Robert Hasting’s poem and, set to a scurrying fingerpicked rhythm, ‘The Station’ muses on life’s journey to its final destination and appreciating the scenery along the way. Continue reading BLAIR DUNLOP – House of Jacks (Rooksmere Records, RRCD112P)

TICKLED PINK – Ceilidh (Rooksmere Records RRCD101)

The term Ceilidh, meaning “…an informal social gathering at which there is Celtic dancing, singing and storytelling” is now regularly being adopted by many English ‘folk-dance’ bands in preference to the term ‘barn dance’. Something of a throwback to the influential days of the Albion Dance Band and Ashley Hutching’s album “Kickin’ Up The Sawdust”, I certainly hope Tickled Pink won’t be too offended by my mentioning another band but, let’s face it the folk-rock being produced at that time (around 1977) certainly influenced a majority of those of us that enjoyed a good old fashioned folk knees-up. The music wasn’t precious or pretentious the way many of today’s artists try to pretend it is. No, this music was very much born of a case of the “…let’s get stuck in and have a good time” attitude. Therefore, uninhibited by any restraints of attempting to be ‘artistic’ it sounds very much as if Tickled Pink were given the freedom of playing (more or less) whatever they wanted in the studio and release their pent up energy as if they were performing ‘live’ for an audience of eager dancers. The length of the set pieces (often one tune repeated many times over) allows plenty of room for each of the musicians to shine and with the creative juices of Simon Care, Gerald Claridge, Rob Kay, Mark Jolley, Trevor Landen, Mark Hutchinson and Guy Fletcher in full flow you can’t help but be swept away by the infectiousness of it all. This is the kind of CD that will make you smile, laugh and above all ‘want’ to dance. PETE FYFE