Derbyshire is famous for many things to those in the know, but for the casual mainstream music fan the county that gave the world Rolls-Royce has added little to history’s record collection, aside from one hit wonders White Town and Candy Flip.
In folk circles, however, it is a different story and to mark the 12th year of the city’s folk festival it held its first-ever Made in Derbyshire evening, showcasing three of the county’s foremost talents.
It helps enormously that two of the talents are the festival’s patrons, five-time BBC Radio Two Folk Award winner John Tams and the highly féted Lucy Ward, with the trio completed by festival regulars and local favourites Cupola.
And so it was Cupola, the trio made up of Doug Ounson, Sarah Matthews and Oli Matthews, who kicked off the evening, good-humouredly persevering through the early gremlins in the sound system to showcase their mix of traditional three-part harmony English and European folk, drawing on a song list built up during their 10 year career.
Cupola are accomplished musicians with a worldwide following and this was just one of three different manifestations the band adopt. Later that evening they performed at another venue as DanceCupola, while halfway through their set they invited Lucy Ward on stage to form Cupola:Ward, performing the dark and twisted Willie’s Lady from their 2016 collaborative album Bluebell.
Their last song paved the way for DanceCupola by blending three up-tempo compositions written by Doug Ounson before the stage was set for John Tams, in tandem with long-time collaborator Barry Coope on keyboard.
Beginning with ‘Only Remembered’ from the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, John and Barry went onto deliver a virtuoso set interspersing their songs with easy and witty patter, passing comment on pretty much everything from John’s creaking limbs and forgetfulness to Teresa May and the parlous state of world politics.
Fitting to the geographical flavour of the night, John didn’t forget his roots, recalling a meeting 40 years ago at Sudbury Hall near Ashbourne with George Fradley from Cubley, before performing his song ‘Nowt Do To Wi’ Me’, with plenty of audience participation.
Later, he gave new life to Ewan McColl’s gorgeous ‘The Manchester Rambler’, inspired by the Kinder Mass Trespass of 1932, an act of civil disobedience on the slopes of Derbyshire’s highest peak which gave rise to the Ramblers Association. There was even time for a rendition of Lionel Richie’s ‘Hello’ – sung in a broad Derbyshire vernacular.
John and Barry brought their set to a close with ‘Will I See Thee More’ and ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’, earning a standing ovation and reasserting John’s status as Derby Folk Festival’s favourite eminence gris.
And so to Lucy Ward, the former local schoolgirl with four albums and a host of awards under her belt, who was back to the folk scene after a short hiatus.
Singing the stories of the people of Derbyshire is one of the joys of her career, Lucy had explained backstage before the show, especially her best-known composition Alice in the Bacon Box, which she has performed all over the world and which, inevitably, she performed in the heart of her home city too.
But first, with her customary greeting “Ay Up!” she began her set with material from her new album, Pretty Warnings, including ‘Silver Morning, Sunshine Child’, a tender and moving tribute to her 20-month-old son, and ‘Cold Caller’ – which, she explained, the audience was free to either interpret as a title inspired by the story within the song or by an unsolicited PPI inquiry.
Backed by her four-piece band, Lucy mixed up her set expertly, weaving in a jazzy feel to ‘Maria Martin’ and, by her own admission, a heavy glam rock influence on ‘Marching Through The Green Grass’.
And, just to keep the audience on their toes, she threw in a folk version of Elvis Presley’s ‘A Little Less Conversation’, a contrast to the heart-breaking content of ‘Mari Vach’, a bygone tragedy brought achingly to life.
Her performance was a prime example of someone totally at home – in more ways than one – and at the height of her powers, and as a showcase of Derbyshire’s musical talent, her triumphant return to action, John’s musicianship and storytelling and Cupola’s uplifting melodies, the evening was a resounding success.
Which makes it even more of a shame that such a friendly, well-run and increasingly popular event has to be held in large, slightly chilly, tent which, as John Tams had explained, is so because its usual venue, the city council-owned Assembly Rooms, is still closed following a fire in the neighbouring multi-storey car park in 2014.
“It stands like a large empty tomb,” he remarked, pointing out that to reopen it would apparently cost £10m, when, in his opinion, all it requires is a good going over inside with a dustpan and brush.
And so, while John wore a smart jacket and waistcoat and Lucy Ward looked every inch a star in a sparkling top, the audience who’d paid their money to enjoy their talents were doomed to sit hunched up in their coats to keep out the autumnal cold.
Fully four years after the fire, it all feels a bit embarrassing – the festival and its heroic organisers deserve so much better.
Festival website: http://www.derbyfolkfestival.co.uk/
Here is the ‘dynamic duo’ performing “The Manchester Rambler” from the Gosport and Fareham Easter Festival back in 2007.