Friday Afternoon and Evening
Officially, the Bristol Folk Festival started at noon on Friday, although there was no scheduled music until three. Until then you could hang around and buy kaftans and hammered dulcimers and having your feet nibbled by fish, though. There were two men dressed as Wallace and Grommit outside the theatre. Whatever anyone else may say Wallace and Grommit are from Bristol. And Banksy. And Blackbeard. And Cary Grant. There was also the biggest collection of Morris Dancers ever assembled in captivity. One of the best things about the festival was hearing the tinkling of tiny bells and noticing that the person behind you in the queue at the bar was in full Morris regalia.
Oh, what foreigners must think of us, and how little we care!
However, I think the festival really began at 8.15PM, when Three Daft Monkeys, (a sort of sub-Bellowhead gypsy influenced dance band) performed a song about the legend of the Strasburg dancing-plague -- when lots of people supposedly developed a mental illness which meant that they heard music in their heads and couldn't stopped dancing to it. "They danced, they danced, they danced, they danced..." went the refrain. "Can you guess what they did then?" asked vocalist Tim Ashton? "They danced...they danced...they danced". Now, this isn't precisely my kind of thing. I'm more in my comfort zone when it's a guy with a guitar telling me he wants to share a very old story, about a lady, probably one sitting in a tower, very probably sewing a silken seam. Never mind. Everyone was seated, in a very English decorum Westminster Abbey kind of way. We worked out that the closest we could get to dancing...and dancing...and dancing...was swaying...and swaying...and swaying....in time with the music. We swayed. A couple in the front row got up and bopped vaguely. And then two people started dancing. It was perhaps more a tango than a waltz. Didn't matter. We were at a folk festival. And the folk were dancing. Dancing in the aisles....
Actually, I'd already had two personal highlights by that point. The first group on the main stage were Sean "Seth's Brother" Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. Initially, I thought they were going to be a bit shouty and electric for my taste. But two numbers in, Kathryn announced that she was going to sing her favourite song "which I learned from the singing of June Tabor." (And there is no better place the world to learn you favourite song.) This was a lovely deep expressive cover of a Pete Bond's Joe Peel, the beautiful terrible ballad in praise of an ordinary life. "You'd never have believed it you'd known / How many people mourned your going / And how lucky folks still feel / To say they knew Joe Peel". Broke my heart all over again. Really. She also did her own, rather brilliant modern song in the persona of a coal-miner, explaining to his wife why its his duty to join the strike, even though their livlihood is going to fall apart.
I was indifferent to Phoenix River Band – local sub-American electrical country rock, although I did enjoy the mock dust bowl ballad about praying to God for rain.
But next up (we didn't stir from the main hall for much of Friday) was Jim Moray, one of my utter favourite performers. Rather surprised he wasn't a bigger draw, actually, although it was early in the festival and he was up against the reasonably large name Bella Hardy in the other hall.
To be honest, I am indifferent to some of his electrical jiggery pokery. He had an apple mac on the stage ("just need to check my e-mail") and was doing clever things like sampling his voice on the spot, so that he ended up singing multi-part harmonies with himself. All jolly clever, but I don't think his voice needs that kind of enhancement. (Not that the electrical stuff and weird traddy/ hip-hop mashups on the Low Culture album aren't brilliant, or course.) He's at his best sitting at the piano singing the cod-traditional Poverty Knock -- often done as light Morris style sing a long, (Poverty poverty knock / My loom it is singing all day-oh / Poverty poverty knock / The gaffers too stingy to pay-oh) but here a mournful lament to a life wasted in the factory; or standing with the guitar to draw out the melody of the Rufford Park Poachers or yet another version of the Cruel Sister. ("Here's a song about beating your sister to death with a stick and throwing her body in the river".) I find his voice impossible to describe: I keep resorting to words like "choirboy" "innocent" "cheeky" "ethereal" -- the album covers with him as a kind of nature spirit somehow seem appropriate. There's a perpetual catch in his voice, as if the story of Lord Bateman's love for the King of Turkey's daughter or the three poachers murder trial is bubbling up from inside him, or as if it's so sad he can hardly bare to sing it. He really is something extremely special and unusual. And he clearly loves the traditional song book enough to muck around with it.
I can't remember one thing about Ruarri Joseph, so I assume I didn't like him very much.
The headline act, Seth Lakeman, I hadn't ever heard him before. He's the patron of the festival, and very popular. I'm afraid he was the one low point of the weekend for me. I just didn't quite see the point of him. Certainly, he's a mean fiddle player, and the climax of his main set, doing that faster-and-faster -and-faster blazing fiddles thing, was quite exciting. Intellectually, I understand what this kind of music is meant to be doing: my heart is supposed to beat in time with the rhythm (horror movie makers try the same trick, I am told) and this is supposed to make me so excited that I want to dance to it. All as theoretical as some of that young people's electrical drum and guitar music I've occasionally heard. (Nick made me listen to someone called The Wedding Present last year. Very interesting they were, but I kept thinking "I wish he'd send this nasty band away and let me listen to the obviously quite clever lyrics.") Of anthropological interest only: the main lyrics were clarly based on traditional folksongs, but it was so overwhelmed by rhythm that he could have been singing anything at all. Do folkies like this kind of thing, or is he "the folk musician for people who don't really like folk music?" I quite like the Pogues and seem to remember enjoying Gogol Bordello a year or three back, so clearly electric noise and folk can be brought together in ways I like. He went down very well with the rest of the audience.