This time I have the advantage of knowing who Bemis are before I start. Actually the Portsmouth band have gone through a change of line-up with Nathan Shervill stepping aside again for the return of drummer Kayleigh Thomas and vocalist/guitarist Ian Scarbro coming in to expand the line-up. The After Hours is their ninth album and the changes seem to have brought a new subtlety. Bemis is still a string band but with four acoustic guitars and acoustic bass available they can show their softer side.
Take the opening track, ‘Machismo’, which you might expect to be a hard-hitting rocker but it’s quite the reverse. The singer is made of “straw and sticks, not concrete brick” and it’s the big bad wolf who is the macho man. Guest flautist Gavin Thomas has a big part to play in the sound as does organist Dominic Elton and the second track, ‘This Ain’t Love’, ventures into the territory of nightclub jazz – or is that a bossa nova we can hear? Ian Scarbro’s first writing contribution, ‘To Be There’, an unashamed love song, is next but Bemis are always there to build up to the song’s climax however simply it begins.
The title track is by chief songwriter Gareth Howells and I do wish I had the lyrics at this point. It’s a typical Bemis song: strong melody, catchy hook and a great arrangement but it will take several more listenings before I can figure it out properly and that’s a shame. I’m sure it’s a matter of budgets and that may be an even bigger shame but don’t get me started on the iniquities of the music business or we’ll be here all day. Brother Louis Howells strikes out alone with ‘Drown’ – great bass part from Dillon Hughes and acoustic lead guitar which might be Louis or Mark Finn but I’m not sure – and ‘Jess’, which is an almost-solo guitar instrumental. I wasn’t expecting that. Two more songs that deserve special mention: ‘Gaslight’ is openly political and ‘Stay Where You Are’ is rather more nuanced and with more jazzy flute but they bring The After Hours to a satisfying conclusion.
Bemis deserve wider exposure so buy their albums, go to their gigs, write to your MP…whatever it takes.
“I’ve got the new Bemis album for you”, said the boss. ‘Fine”, I said wondering what he was going on about. I Googled them and it turns out that they make toilet seats. Ah, not them, then. Bemis are a folk-rock band from Portsmouth and A World Of Difference is their sixth album and they have been playing support slots to some big names and festivals up and down the country for years. The point of the above silliness is that I hadn’t heard of them despite living in the same county – I suppose that’s the way the music business is these days.
Actually, rock-folk is a probably better description of what Bemis do. On the one hand we have banjo, mandolin and bouzouki but there is also a solid foundation from Dillon Hughes on bass and Nathan Shervill’s drums. Guest musicians include Gavin Thomas on harmonica and flute and Sam Jenkins’ brass. The songs are written by Gareth Howells, some in partnership with son Louis, and embrace a range of styles.
The opening track, ‘Age Of The Paranoid’, is a bit of classic rock introduced by wailing harmonica. As a festival song it’s a great singalong, wave your arms in the air anthem. The title track, which follows, is a little lighter with Mark Finn’s electric guitar leading the way and Dillon’s banjo adding a folky element. It’s a song that embraces diversity and is another great festival tune. Bemis take their foot off the loud pedal for ‘From The Inside’ with its flute and acoustic guitar but there is nothing weak about the song. ‘Wartown’ brings in Louis’ bouzouki and I’m guessing that living in Portsmouth has some bearing on the lyric. It’s also a chance for the Howells to show off their harmonies.
By now you’re going with the flow because A World Of Difference is one of those albums that sweeps you along – catchy tunes and great lyric hooks and arrangements that never get dull. Straight after the guitar driven ‘Keep On Going’, the brass comes in to decorate ‘What You Are’ and keep you alert. We frequently talk about bands who slog away for years without ever really getting their turn in the spotlight. Bemis is one such – turn on the radio and you’ll hear stuff that doesn’t hold a candle to this.
Squelch… Wickham Festival finally kicked off to a great start with sets from Low, Barker, Morris & Tunstall which sounds like a firm of solicitors instead of musical, dance and poetry partners in festival law; Andy Fairweather Low, Les Barker, the Wickham Morris Sides and KT Tunstall.
Now tell me… where are you going to get a “bend me, shake me, a sermon from the church of the holy undecided, a strip the willow and a black horse and a cherry tree all the the same place!
Here is the moment when the sun came out and everyone forgot about the thirteen days of rain that fell on the site the day before it opened which caused the “elf and safety” three hours delayed start.
The main Thursday night event on the All Time Grates Stage was 10CC, who played all their hits, which they performed as a masterclass in song-writing. They even offered us the following words of wisdom from their extensive mantra…
Life is a minestrone
Served up with parmesan cheese
Death is a cold Lasagne
Suspended in deep freeze …
Friday afternoon had a definite garden party feel that went off with a Wizz, bang and Spooky side-splitting Tickell. It all started with the legendary Wizz Jones who rolled out all his hits including ‘When I Leave Berlin’ which Bruce Springsteen covered.
TheSpooky Men’s Chorale followed, the Antipodean Blue Mountain settlers, that worry local livestock to such a degree that the local farmers club together to pay for their international tours (so long as they agree to do reworked Abba and Bee Gees choral arrangements). Luckily, Kathryn Tickell was there to restore order, Northumbrian Pipe Style, who together with The Side brought Wickham back into the hear and now with evocative slow airs that could break your heart one minute and then fling you seamlessly into life-affirming jigs and reels the next.
In between Tickell and the Spookies (great idea for a band name!) I managed to dash across to the Hapi Stage to catch a bit of the fab Portsmouth based band Bemis. I also managed to grab a copy of their excellent new album A World of Difference that I encourage you all to go and check out for free here
There was barely enough time for a quick change over before it was pedal to metal down the West Country highway in search of Fishy Friends, Seth Lakeman and Show of Hands. All three did the West Country proud and I think its was a great bit of programming to put Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends, Seth Lakeman and Show of Hands all on the same stage and evening bill.
Here is my favourite moment of Friday night, when Show of Hands treated us to a slowed down version of the Don Henley classic “Boys of Summer” . Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Saturday opened with more Wickham Festival goodies… Alas, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, and Bill Oddie didn’t make it for the reunion but folk legends, Steve Tilston & Jez Lowe turned up on the All Time Grates Stage in the afternoon. Then it was a quick hop and skip across to the Hapi Stage for a blistering set from Gilmore & Roberts with festival energy in a bakers bun-dance. Then back again to the All Time Grates Stage as master Dhol drummer, Johnny Kalsi fired up the furnaces of the drums of the mighty Dhol Foundation to create a high-energy, pulsating folking brilliant musical soundscape of Punjabi beat, rhythm and intensity.
If that was not enough excitement for one day, there was a just enough time to sponge down before the main evening event of the big punk-folk-rock 3. I’m sure you will all know who they all are, as the Saturday evening, three in a row line-up, for many, was one of the dream festival programming highlights of this year (dreamt up by the mind of that festival organising genius, Mr Peter Chegwyn) which even included a returning Chopper as part of the Oysterband mix. For those who have not worked it out, it was of course The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Oysterband and The Levellers. I also legged it across to the Hapi Stage to see some of my old matesChris Sherburn & Denny Bartley set with the lovely Emily.
Time had flown by and before anyone knew it, it was “Sunday folk fun-day” and the fourth day of Wickham.
I’ll start with Ray “Chopper” Cooper who opened on the Hapi stage…
Fay Hield then blew in with the Hurricane Party on the All Time Grates Stage and Glasgow boys Imar followed and got the main stage dancing. Wickham festival favourite Duncan Chisholmfollowed with his Gathering before the afternoon slot was brought to a riotous close with Tankus The Henge (a great festival band).
LAU opened the Sunday evening slot which felt like a kaleidoscope of colour washing over the All Time Grates Stage. The power went off at one point so we even got a couple of un-amped numbers.
The finale for me was the crowned Queen of the Wickham Festival crowd, Eliza Carthy with Sam Sweeney & the rest of her merry Wayward Band. Unfortunately, I had to leave early so missed the Peatbog Faeries set but Eliza said that they tore the place apart, so I have been lamenting the early departure ever since.
I was bitten by a Ferocious Dog on the way out and am looking forward to repeating the experience at one of their other gigs soon.
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.