THE WEST COAST FOLK FESTIVAL – Damian Liptrot reports

West Coast Festival

The West Coast Folk Festival 2024 proved to be a mesmerizing celebration of musical diversity, fostering a sense of community and unity among folk enthusiasts. Hosted in the fabulous setting of Blackpool’s Winter Gardens, the festival’s eclectic lineup and welcoming atmosphere left attendees with lasting memories and hopes for a swift return.

As one would wish for a 3-day event, the festival showcased a tapestry of folk traditions, with the carefully curated lineup that brought together seasoned veterans and emerging artists, creating a dynamic blend of established classics and fresh voices and in true seaside tradition, in musical terms, we had all the fun of the fair and something for everyone, whether you wanted to be kissed quickly (Tom Robinson bringing in a version of ‘Grey Cortina’ in under 2 minutes) or squeezed slowly, as final headliner Eddi Reader left to couples waltzing to her rendition of the Sinatra linked standard ‘In The Wee Small Hours’.

The venue itself was a perfect choice, providing a magnificently picturesque backdrop for the diverse array of performances, a complete contrast to the delights of Butlins Skegness, as the intention was to replace the old and much missed Great British Folk Festival with something different but not different, if you get my meaning. With multiple stages offering performers of different levels of recognition, including an Introducing Stage, giving artists the chance to book themselves a replay next year (hopefully) but having earned a transfer to the biggest stage.  In another contrast to Butlins, there was only one main stage, so events in the most opulent of spaces were the focus of the festival, rather than a choice dilemma many of us have faced over the years!

As braced as braced could be by a walk in the January sea air, Thrifty Malone opened the Introducing Stage with a much needed hi energy, Poguesy set that showed that the artists were up for a good time as much as the audience were hoping to be shown one. Lizzy Hardingham then provided a signal of the diversity on offer, with a solo set that fully illustrated why she is appearing on more and larger stages within the folk world.  The Superphone then fused classic and indie rock, folk and fine musicality to good effect, before Anna Renae, battling against voice issues, demonstrated why she, along with former classmate Lizzy are pushing the solo troubadour format from its traditional base to new generations.

Our first sighting of the Empress Ballroom and the main stage therein suggested that the chosen performers would have to be on top form to match the grandeur of the surroundings. Bella Hardy then proceeded to sparkle, figuratively (self admittedly in terms of her outfit) and musically, more than ably accompanied by Sam Carter.  Now, while the term legend now applies to anyone who can cross a road unaided after two pints of weak lager and a kebab, Tom Robinson showed that he is the real deal.  A marvellously selected set offered nostalgia in spades but the addition of relatively new material and a chance for individual members of his band to shine, made this more than a simple run through a greatest hits by the numbers set – especially with the between song commentary.  Of course, there was intermittent pogoing in the bar area and a floor filling finale with ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ causing major traffic in the direction of the dance area.

With no other venues to attend, a mercifully quick change over left time for a comfortable chat (other audience members giving a big thumbs up to all aspects of the day’s events – a quick mention for the cleanest festival toilets ever, that remained that way for the whole 3 days) and Skerryvore announced their stage entrance through a barrage of synchronised lighting and a graduated entrance that drew the crowd back to the dance section.  The energy level rose to a crescendo and then rarely diminished over the next 90 minutes, other than to give a few anthemic moments and for the phone lights to sway without endangering neighbours.  It was the nearest they got to health and safety, as those who had booked nearby hotels were probably glad of the choice, as many were left in need of a good lie down – and only one day in!

Day Two started with a folk club feel in the third venue.  The Victoria Bar offers a small stage and so performances were limited to solo or duo acts. Adam Nosworthy divides his time between singer songwritery and playing in a blues band – his feet in both camps the apparent legacy of mixed parenthood, genre wise.  His songwriting style is folk focused but with bluesy hints – especially in the guitar department, with an overall downbeat take on life, apparently leading Gary Barlow to both appreciate the writing whilst telling him to ‘f*****g cheer up’.  Will Riding by contrast – and it was a weekend of contrasts – gives us an intimate view of his world, one where the smallest observations can be a source of wonder, a celebration of his favourite shoes being a case in point.  A stalwart of the North West Folk Club scene, you will be able to catch him as he flits around the region.  Similarly, although also contrastingly, Louise and Chris Rogan are no strangers to the area.  Bury based and in understandably big demand on the circuit and beyond.  The father/daughter duo complement each other as well as would be expected, having spent considerable time developing their act at family gatherings before launching themselves into the ears of public.  An easy-going atmosphere and an interesting mixture of songs retained a fair crowd, despite attractions elsewhere.

Over many years, it has become apparent that most (but not all) folk festival habitues have arrived by one of two routes – given that they are also of a certain age demographic.  Group one are lifetime folkies, seduced early in life by the likes of Fairport, Steeleye and The Albion Band – as well as the classic solo artists – make your own list – and have stayed loyal since, adding new names to their musical circle but still carrying a torch for their first loves.  Group two by contrast seem mainly to have graduated – some may say matured – toward the folkier end of the spectrum from a starting point in rock or prog.  (it’s only a theory) and therefore Craig Joiner will please many in both camps.  Starting from a folky base and broadening out into stadium filling rock with ‘Romeo’s Daughter’, elements of both lives are combined in his set – folky base, trad influenced lyrics – rock flourishes, what more could you want/..From a seasoned artist to one of the weekend’s youngest performers, yet perhaps among the oldest souls, Joshua Burnell’s blend of folk, prog and classic rock took many of the audiences back to the musical delights of our fondly remembered 60s and 70s youth.  Close your eyes and you could see tie dye shirts, tottering stacks of Marshall speakers and musicians with fags hanging from the corner of their mouths.  Those were the days my friends and who would bet against him riding a wave of new nostalgia all the way to his stated goal of The Albert Hall. Modern reinterpretation of an old folk tale anyone?   All the above boxes ticked with an encore called ‘Tam Lin’, with time for foot on the monitors guitar heroism – we liked that!

As the main stage closed in preparation for the evening session, the Introducing Stage offered yet more varied fare (or fayre depending on your group of origin).  Rob Clamp booked a main stage spot at next year’s event (fingers crossed for that), with an upbeat, often up-tempo 45 minutes, with stylish guitar accompaniment throughout.  And here comes another theory!  Performers show their age through their self-penned songs.  Those in the younger group – let’s say around or below 30, offer songs that reference the relationship with their parents – seemingly most often their father – and even their grandfather – as Rob did, whereas the older group – let’s say 50 or over (leaving a transitional group in the middle) may reference their parents, particularly their father it seems, but in terms of things they wish they had listened to, things they have only recently come to understand or value, or that they wish they had known or said.  Just a theory – but certainly one borne out over the weekend.  Back to contrast, as Hayley McKay (along with fiddle and guitar accompaniment) upped the energy levels with a more country feel to her folk than others in the line up and a delight in performing that would have shone in the darkest of venues.  Having been thoroughly introduced to two newcomers, Katie Spencer is someone who I have seen rise from her earliest gigs, as she had performed a well-received support set at a pre-Covid gig.  In contrast to some of the young aspirants of the time, she survived the lack of both activity and impetus, coming back stronger and carving a series of ascending footholds on the gig and festival ladder.  As ever, her guitar playing was sparse and controlled, her voice adding colour but always leaving space.

Introductions complete for the day, the first main stage appearance was a genuine surprise.  Kiki Dee and Carmelo Lugerri gave us a performance that defied categorization, so having arrived with no expectations, we were left with no easy description. Suffice to say that that it managed to be both relaxed, at times to the point of meditative calm, whilst demanding attention to both the guitar mastery and vocal intrigue, helped by an interesting mix of hits, suitably rearranged where required, tastefully arranged covers – Kate Bush and Neil Young would be good choices under any circumstances – but these were reimagined versions, not reproductions – and for that they deserved the applause they received.  Inevitably ‘I’ve Got The Music In Me’ brought the set to a suitably funky finish and provided the only predictable, if welcome, element of an hour well spent.

With Cara Dillon unable to attend, Louise and Chris Rogan  made a second appearance of the day, and although the size of  both the venue and the audience were multiplied from their earlier set, the quality of their offerings remained at the same high level.  It would be churlish to offer a commentary on their performance without mentioning a voice that has been described as ‘sublime’ and ‘unrivalled on the current folk scene’ by club organisers whose judgement I respect – so if you get the opportunity to catch Louise on her current solo tour – then you will get the chance to experience it as well!

For anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the folk scene of recent decades, then you would think you would know what to expect from Richard Thomspon.  True, he did offer all the qualities you would want from his solo set, along with a fine set of career spanning songs – but what you wouldn’t have been prepared for was a Stanley Holloway cover, as he both perplexed and delighted the crowd with an a recitation of the famous monologue ‘The Lion and Albert’ (abridged).  Playing what was billed as his only solo UK date of the year (he has a new band backed album and tour upcoming), if the event is to continue (yes please) then attracting artists of this calibre and stature will only help guarantee its future success.  By the way Richard, if you ever read this, particularly loved the version of Genesis Hall!

Sadly, I missed Joe Bayliss opening the Acoustic Stage on the final day, but a trusted source described him as operating somewhere between John Martyn and Nick Drake, meaning that, future replacement buses permitting, he will be checked out.  I was glad to catch Chloe Chadwick, who impressed with a surprisingly soulful voice and extra credit for performing with stand in accompaniment, as her usual partner was unfortunately indisposed.

The main stage offered the delights of Honey And The Bear, the duo of Lucy and Jon now almost unbelievably celebrating 10 years of musical partnership.  Despite that, this was a rare visit oop North.  They travelled well, charming the crowd, enabling them to make a whole new bunch of friends and hopefully setting them up for a return trek from their Suffolk base.  Gaelforce is such an evocative name, and having seen it bandied about quite often, I was keen to discover just how descriptive it was.  The presence of a piper gave credence to the Gael and the remainder of the musicianship had plenty of force, so yes, they fulfilled expectations.  There were jigs and shanties for the traditionalists, along with classic and prog rock stylings but as a Lancshire Lad, the song that left the deepest impression was their version of local writer Ted Edwards’ ‘The Coal and Albert Berry’, for those unfamiliar with it, a dark and brooding personalised contemplation on the eternal battle between the miner and the seam that both feeds and threatens him.  Often delivered by solo artists in these parts, this was a different take, and all the more powerful for it.

Having been introduced to Palmerston, a 5 piece good time mixture of classic laid back harmony rich folk rock and adrenalin driven folk-punk madness, with good natured humour from fine musicians really enjoying themselves, it was back to contrast – Hannah Scott, is another artist who needs little introduction to many, but rarely seems to travel North.  She screams class but in the quietest way possible, giving us a delicate, personal and intimate set that, on leaving the hall, an audience member was heard to say that they had been moved to tears. The final Introducing act took as to the opposite end of the folk spectrum with the Jon Palmer Acoustic Band, both raucous and electrifying, in a way that belied the name, with a tour-de-force folk-rock performance that crackled with energy, joy and some positive social commentary.  Definitely a major find of the weekend as it drew to an end, with just the final acts on the main stage to come.

Dean Friedman was smoothly entertaining, self-effacing, humorous and sophisticated in pretty much equal measure in both songs and between song chatterage, while The Webb Sisters, apparently returning to performances after a break, illustrated why they have been voices of choice to accompany the likes of Leonard Cohen, Tom Petty and Sting.  Musically tight, accompanying themselves mainly on harp and guitar, the interplay of their voices and harmonies of heaven was sublime, before they surprised all present by abandoning the stage and wandering amongst the audience as they delivered their own version of Cheap Trick’s ‘I Want You To Want Me’.  No doubt they will be gracing further festivals as the year progresses.

The responsibility for bringing the event to a close fell to Eddi Reader, who then delivered exactly what was needed.  Acknowledging the greats that had graced the stage in years past, along with the quality musicians she had assembled around her, she stamped her own presence on the historic boards.  Two sides of Robbie Burns got an outing, the bawdy celebration of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s popularity with the ladies – not so much a knees up, as a storming kilts up, followed later by ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, a tender goodbye to love unfulfilled.  We romped through anecdotes of family parties in 60s Glasgow, the down and decidedly dirty on The Donald’s Scottish heritage and the suggestion that 35 years passed was time enough for the dust to settle and to contemplate a Fairgound Attraction reunion.  All this, and there was still time for a nod in the direction of Frank Sinatra, as couples took the chance of a last waltz around the floor to a dreamy version of ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ – not strictly folk, but then again, what is?

There you have it, the first but hopefully not the last West Coast Folk Festival.  Magnificent setting, great venue, CLEAN TOILETS, lovely staff, new music, old favourites, pure and trad folk (yes, OK, arguments on a postcard) folk-rock, Celtic folk, country folk, folk-prog and any other folks that you would like to think of and as much history as you would expect from a set of folkies.  Highwaymen in Wigan, peace ducks in Dublin and spiritual manifestations in Yugoslavia, plus all the hits and more.  A hugely positive audience and the chance to meet old friends and make a few new ones.  Can we do it all again please?

PS Apologies to those I missed, in a packed schedule I did my best but there were human needs to attend to.

Damian Liptrot

Festival website: (you’ll need this for next year)