At first glance Ordinary Giants seems like a sequel to Robb Johnson’s wonderful Gentle Men but it isn’t. It’s more of a companion piece; there is no formal spoken narrative – Robb won’t spoon-feed us, although he helps us along here and there – and the album encompasses the last hundred years of British history interleaved with the story of his family and in particular his father, Ron Johnson. It’s rather like an audio advent calendar with each track displaying a snapshot of a moment in time. This is a triple-CD set with a book so it isn’t something you can rush through nor, I suspect, will anyone listen to it in a single sitting.
Although the songs are arranged with a light touch there is a big supporting cast; among them Roy Bailey, Matthew Crampton, Rory McLeod, Phil Odgers, Tom Robinson, Miranda Sykes as the main female voice, Boff Whalley, four community choirs, Frances O’Grady and Dennis Skinner. Robb wrote nearly all the songs – there’s a traditional tune, a couple of borrowed melodies and the assistance of Robinson on ‘Holding Hands With Hitler’. He succeeds in capturing the style of each period, particularly in the first part, covering the years 1918 to 1939 and puts the most appalling words in the mouth of Adam Clayson as the Mosley-supporting Major Utterswine. The problem is that the same words reappear in the third part covering the period from 1970 to the present day.
Inevitably, Ordinary Giants, is a very political record; you’d expect nothing less from Robb, but the politics are embedded in the words of ordinary people and often creep up on you when you’re not expecting them. The first ‘Lou’, one of Frances O’Grady’s three spoken word pieces is a perfect example, starting innocently enough but ending in verbal conflict. There are causes close the Robb’s heart such as ‘Craven Vale Hall’, dated 1958 and celebrating the building of the first post-war care homes.
The final tracks of the second disc and all of the third can be quite painful because Robb’s view is that things haven’t changed that much and it’s hard to argue with him. The songs are peppered with political slogans and he makes his points with humour and sharp insights in songs like ‘Goalkeepers’ and ‘Who Buggered Bognor?’ but beneath that is the realisation that we’re still fighting the same battles in whatever guises they appear.
The City Roots Festival shakes open its umbrella (and hauls on its snow boots) for a second year of folk and roots events. As before, a loose collection of venues and artists are brought under the festival banner, from the already-scheduled to the specially commissioned.
New this year is an extended, two-week timespan. With something happening just about every evening and a few of the daytimes too, is there enough to keep fans busy? Well, it is hard to imagine it being a destination for the whole festival fortnight. But for those within travelling distance (admittedly a pretty wide area) – or those who don’t enjoy the whole festival experience – coming along to individual events seems to work well enough. The potential downside of this is that it tends to favour bigger names who might be touring here anyway. The challenge remains, as ever, to expose upcoming acts to wider audiences.
Inevitably, it’s also harder to keep up continuity across a multi-venue, multiple day festival. Branding is generally more visible this year, which is a definite plus. Some of the artists, though, seem barely aware that they are part of the festival – at least they don’t mention it. In fact, one act, busy lamenting a lack of inclusion (so far) in the summer Cambridge Folk Festival schedule, seems blissfully unaware that they are part of the winter one!
Last year’s closing acts, Sona Jobarteh and Muntu Valdo open the festival this time, bringing welcome African warmth. Haitian voudou from Chouk Bwa Libète goes head to head with a live interview at the University Union with Wilko Johnson. Other acts featuring in the main line-up include Megson, Tom Robinson, Rich Hall, Wildwood Kin and Ward Thomas. As with traditional festivals, there are overlaps, forcing a decision about which act to see!
Although headline acts have been flagged up for some time, a lot more, smaller, ‘fringe’ gigs are still being announced right up to the last minute. This means keeping in constant contact with the website is essential, to pick up on late changes. A lot of the smaller events are admirably free of charge too, cementing the impression of a confident local music-making community.
A family fun day at the Guildhall hosts live acts, children’s activities and a well-attended ukulele workshop. It’s heartening to see so many youngsters taking up their brightly coloured ukes. The downside is that they missed out on a superbly intimate follow-up gig by Muntu Valdo in the hall next door.
In this vast space, his tiny colourfully-dressed figure is surrounded by pedals, coaxing unexpected sounds from his guitars and building up intricate loops. He delivers an impeccable slide blues with an unmistakeably African slant – oh, and he plays a mean harmonica, too. It’s like watching Jimi Hendrix play a Sunday afternoon tea dance: thrilling and strange. As the sun streams in through the civic stained glass, it’s tempting to run out and drag the shoppers in from the streets outside to make them listen to this highly original talent.
Barbara Wibbelmann delivers some fine a capella Gaelic songs and finishes, accompanied by Quentin Rea on guitar, with a delightful ‘La Vie En Rose’. Martin Baxter’s Alternative Arrangements lend some mid-afternoon Americana as well as an upbeat ‘John Barleycorn’. The miles of empty space between seating and stage finally makes sense as ceilidh band Frog On A Bike whip up the dancers to wrap up the afternoon.
Buskers too, are apparently abroad on this cold and sunny day but, despite several slogs around town, they remain stubbornly invisible. Only stalwart singer-songwriter Matt Hammond can be found chilling his fingers, engaging passers-by with his percussive guitar style and promoting his new single, ‘Skylines’.
One of the hazards of a winter festival is always going to be inclement weather and, as with most of the rest of the country, the big hit of snow takes its toll on players and audiences alike. Still with a few line-up tweaks, it seems that all the shows go ahead, which is very impressive.
Following an afternoon masterclass in Miller’s Music shop, CC Smugglers (currently crowdfunding their new album), squash themselves into a tiny corner of the 1815 bar on a snowy evening. Playing a relaxed, mainly acoustic set, this cheery crew deliver their own bluesy, skiffly songs with some great join-in choruses, alongside lounge standards. The keyboard player in particular brings a distinct jazz style to the set, as a small crowd of Lindy Hoppers push back the chairs to whirl around the floor.
SJ Mortimer (now also performing with Morganway) And Her Flying Pigs bring lashings of country, the monthly New Routes night at the Junction features several Americana artists, and traditional music goes on in pubs and clubs across the city. Even the serious business of making a living is once again the subject of a workshop day to encourage musicians to focus further than the next creative impulse.
With such diversity of music to choose from, with venues from snug to cavernous, seated or standing, the organisers have plainly tried to cater for many tastes within the broad spectrum of folk and roots. There is something for everyone here and, as well as the national/international artists, it’s a valuable reminder of what incredible home-grow talents exist across the Eastern region at the moment. See you in 2019!
Plans to create a unique archive of traditional music from Shropshire have been revealed by Shrewsbury Folk Festival.
Organisers of the annual music event have commissioned county folk musician John Kirkpatrick to pull together the first ever collection of music that has its origins in the county as part of its All Together Now project.
All Together Now is the festival’s two-year programme of activities for musicians, dancers, schoolchildren and communities to introduce a new audience to folk and world music.
The project received an £86,410 investment from the National Lottery through Arts Council England, a £5,000 Arts Development award from Shropshire Council, and £2,000 from Shrewsbury Town Council. The festival will meet the remaining cost.
John, who lives near Bishops Castle, will put together a collection of tunes that are specific to Shropshire. It will form an online teaching resource pack including music, notes and short video demonstrations that will be available to Shropshire schools and others and he will perform some of the music at the 2017 festival.
John is one of the most prolific and respected figures on the English folk show, known for performing solo and with groups including The Albion Band, Steeleye Span and Brass Monkey. He also formed one of the county’s leading morris sides, the Shropshire Bedlams.
John said: “I am honoured to have been asked to take on this important project that will preserve and share the music from our amazing county with future generations.
“Part of the appeal of folk music is its ability to give us an insight into how times have changed. Some of this music has been played for dances and social events for many years. Having lived in the county since 1973, I consider myself a Salopian and I am delighted that the festival is making history with the first ever formal collection of Shropshire dance music.”
All Together Now Project Manager Joy Lamont added: “The archive will be a wonderful legacy of this project. As well as commissioning new pieces of work, we felt it was important to make sure that tunes that originated in our county were not forgotten and could be permanently recorded in an archive so they didn’t disappear from our history.”
The All Together Now project has already included new music and dance commissions performed at the 2015 festival, music workshops and mentoring opportunities and the launch of the Shropshire Youth Folk Ensemble for gifted and skilled young musicians.
Future initiatives will see percussive dance workshops in Shropshire schools and dance schools, with a premiere showcase at the festival in August 2016. There will also be a two-week music residency in two Shropshire primary and two secondary schools that will result in a short performance piece to be shown at the festival.
For more information about the festival, go to www.shrewsburyfolkfestival.co.uk. Tickets are on sale now for the 2016 event that will be held at the West Mid Showground, Berwick Road, Shrewsbury, from August 26 to 29.
Headliners including Grammy Award winning American singer songwriter Rosanne Cash, folk rockers The Levellers, Eliza Carthy And The Wayward Band, Tom Robinson, and world music star Raghu Dixit.
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.
Staged in a corn field and with three stages linked by alleyways of food and crafts stalls, Wickham proved to be a good nursery slope for my family of first-time festival goers: no intimidating vast crowds and a relaxed atmosphere which built steadily through what turned out to be some swelteringly hot days.
Musically, in the main All Time Grates big top stage it was folk with a twist of vintage pop and rock: from crowd-pleasing sets by folk stars such as Seth Lakeman, Show of Hands, Eliza Carthy, Lisbee Stainton and Martin Carthy to The South – Beautiful South survivors Dave Hemmingway and Alison Wheeler – 10CC, Billy Bragg, Cockney Rebel, Wilko Johnson and The Proclaimers.
The crowd was an eclectic mix of folk devotees and commuter belt families, but overall the demographic was mature and knowledgeable so that at times the main stage had the contented air of a cricket match, with festival goers seated sensibly underneath sun-hats on folding chairs, sipping real ale and completing sudokus to the sound of music.
I soon found out that for a parent festivals have to be enjoyed in the round. My children weren’t there for the music, but found instead joy in the laser quest – a shoot-‘em-up inside a series of sweaty, dark inflatable tunnels – the solar-powered Groovy Movie cinema and the digital funfair, a quirky installation where gamers played Space Invaders while sitting on a stationary bike or racked up high scores by slapping two headless mannequins on their plastic buttocks in time to music.
After a while it became possible to enjoy the music while waiting for them to complete their activities or resisting their pleas to spend the GDP of a small country in the various food and craft stalls, simply via the proximity to the three stages, especially the acoustic stage, where a varied line-up of young up-and-comers and older veterans strummed, picked and twanged their way skilfully through a mixture of their own material and interpretations of popular classics, finding favour with a sprinkling of punters lounging back on the straw-coated ground.
At the top of the festival was the sweatier and rockier Bowman Ales Stage 2 tent – which hosted performances from Edward II, headlining prog rockers Stone Cold and Damn Beats – but I confess that, as a first-timer wanting to immerse myself in folk my visits there were fleeting so I concentrated on the main stage, where a succession of acts filled the afternoons and evenings with musical stories from every corner of Britain and beyond.
From the lilting Northumberland romance of Kathryn Tickell and the Side, to the seasoned yarns of Huw Williams and Maartin Allcock and the acapella oddness of the Spooky Men’s Chorale, it is fair to say there was something for everyone’s tastes, but the big top came into its own later on as the sun dipped behind the food stalls and the headliners took to the stage.
Among the highlights was the life-affirming return to action of Wilko Johnson, the welcome familiarity of The (Beautiful) South’s hits and the appearance of Billy Bragg, whose wit and political zeal brought Friday night to a close. The next night, Seth Lakeman gave a rollicking masterclass of modern folk rock, sweeping the audience along and raising the temperature in the big top.
Despite the passing of years, festival headliners The Proclaimers hadn’t seemingly aged that much and their set was a polished resounding collection of love songs, devoted to Scotland as much as to the objects of their desire. The large TV screens showed that the Reid twins had their committed fans who knew all of the words, but as the night continued, you did get the feeling that most people in the tent were waiting for their signature tune – I Would Walk 500 Mile – like a seashore full of surfers all readying themselves for the big wave that would take them right to shore.
And, duly, at about five to 11, it arrived: cueing a joyous outburst of jigs and a singalong in affected Scottish accents. This provided the most exuberant moment of the weekend, before it drew to a close with a thank you and good night, and the boys left the stage.
The third night was over, but the next day the sun again rose hot and strong. Family holiday commitments meant I had to slip away early, but in my absence the crowds returned with their chairs and sun hats, eager for more.
At this years 2015 Radio 2 Folk Awards, Lifetime Achievements went to the legendary “Peace Trained” musician Yusuf / Cat Stevens and Grammy Award-winning “double lifetime” artist Loudon Wainwright III.
Ewan MacColl was inducted into the Radio 2 Folk Awards Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame exists to recognise the special contribution of an individual to the world of folk music; someone whose impact and influence has had a lasting impression.
Meredydd Evans is the 2015 recipient of The Good Tradition Award. The award is given to a person, group or organisation for their contribution to the preservation, dissemination and continuance/progression of traditional music over a number of years.
BEST DUO WINNERS – Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker
Nominations: Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker O’Hooley & Tidow Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar Chris While & Julie Matthews
BEST TRADITIONAL TRACK WINNER – Samhradh Samhradh – The Gloaming
Nominations: Bedlam – Stick In The Wheel Handsome Molly – The Furrow Collective Manus Mo Rùin – Cruinn Samhradh Samhradh – The Gloaming
HORIZON AWARD WINNERS – The Rails
Nominations: Ange Hardy Maz O’Connor Stick In The Wheel The Rails
BEST ORIGINAL SONG WINNERS – Swim To The Star – Peggy Seeger/Calum MacColl (performed by Peggy Seeger)
Nominations: Swim To The Star – Peggy Seeger/Calum MacColl (performed by Peggy Seeger) The Necklace Of Wrens – Michael Hartnett (performed by The Gloaming) The Pitmen Poets – Jez Lowe The Spider And The Wolf – Paul Simmonds (performed by Naomi Bedford)
BBC RADIO 2 YOUNG FOLK AWARD WINNERS – Talisk
Nominations: Cup O’Joe Roseanne Reid Talisk Wildwood Kin
MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR WINNER – Sam Sweeney
Nominations: Martin Green Will Pound Sam Sweeney Kathryn Tickell
BEST ALBUM WINNER – Tincian by 9Bach
Nominations: Fair Warning – The Rails Nothing Can Bring Back The Hour – Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker Sweet Visitor – Nancy Kerr The Moral Of The Elephant – Martin & Eliza Carthy Tincian – 9Bach
BEST GROUP WINNERS – The Young ‘Uns
Nominations: Bellowhead The Furrow Collective The Gloaming The Young ‘Uns
FOLK SINGER OF THE YEAR WINNER – Nancy Kerr
Nominations: Cara Dillon Julie Fowlis Nancy Kerr Jez Lowe