“Things often get out of hand when working with the Folk Ensemble,” reckons founder and leader Joe Broughton. “You just mention an idea and before you know it it’s ten times bigger than what you intended – I guess because the band is ten times the size of a normal band.”
With fifty members, The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble has never been a ‘normal band.’ A perfect example of that in action is the band’s latest release, ‘Sleepy Maggie’. It began life as a one-off, stand-alone track, before ideas of an EP took hold, and it eventually spiralled into a ten-track album!
“The ideas started flowing …” explains Joe of what soon became Sleepy Maggie + Remixes Reworkings and Rarities, and features a succession of radical revisions of an already radical take on a traditional track, calling on chunky guitars, EDM, beats and Chinese grooves, and more. If Joe told you there was a kitchen sink in there – you wouldn’t argue.
The arrival of ‘Sleepy Maggie’ coincides with the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble’s own mini-festival, the appropriately named Power Folk 5. Taking place in their hometown of Birmingham and featuring such special guests as Will Pound, Threaded and the Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar Trio, along with DJ spots and appearances from many ensemble members, it regularly sells out in advance – and this year is no exception.
“Power Folk really is a unique event,” says Joe, who founded the group 21 years ago. “With almost 100 musicians playing over the course of the day and the evening in such an intimate venue, it’s powerful and really exciting.
“I always make sure that there are brilliant new bands that nobody has seen before, as well as established acts that everyone wants to see. Everyone playing has some kind of link to the Folk Ensemble, which gives it a really close family vibe.
“Even though it’s just in a pub, it’s the best pub in the world!” he says of The Spotted Dog, in the city’s Digbeth area. “Added to this is, we still keep to high production values with great sound and a slick show – where appropriate!
“There’s a BBQ and a few other interesting little things to do while you are there too. I think it always sells out because it’s just how a gig should be – friendly and laid back, but with a well organised killer show and a good bar!”
To cope with the increased demand for tickets, Joe’s expanded the event, increasing capacity, but believes the relative intimacy of the venue is very much part of the appeal.
“Well, we have sold more tickets and added an hour to the programme since last year, but I really don’t want it to change too much,” he says. “If it got too big I think it would spoil what is good about it.”
Last year saw the band, based at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, celebrate their 20th anniversary with a Birmingham Town Hall concert featuring as many former members as they could fit on stage, a studio album (the Folking.com acclaimed Painted), and a lauded summer tour, which concluded with a storming Shrewsbury Folk Festival set.
“It was just an incredible tour, everywhere we went felt like a huge party to me. I’m so pleased that everyone got on board with the 20 year anniversary theme because really it’s only me who has been doing it for that long! It really meant something to me that everyone celebrated …”
As fifty members squeeze into a tour bus over the summer, taking in Green Man and Kendal Calling, as well as several headline dates, Joe is already setting his sights on 2019, and keen to keep the momentum going.
“Looking further ahead we have plans for another full album – but I really want to do a live album, because I love live albums. There’s also a rumour that we’ll be making our first trip abroad…”
Artists’ website: https://www.joebroughton.com/the-folk-ensemble