Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival (5)


I have done a bad thing.

Last night I drunked beer, and this morning I woke up feeling distinctly woozy, and found that I had nothing in the fridge for breakfast. What a shame there isn't some kind of, I don't know, supermarket at the bottom of my road. (OH! YOU CAD! YOU BOUNDER!) So I walked in via Cabots Circus and taken breakfast in, er, McDonalds. Not a very traditional way to greet the first day of May.

Apparently some of the Morris sides really did get up before the break of day-oh to great the May-oh at 4AM on the patch of grass behind the shopping mall-oh. (Fay Hield tells us later that the Newcastle's version involves washing you face in the May-dew, or, since the park in question is much frequented by pet-owners, the May-poo.) My enthusiasm doesn't extend quite that far, but when I get to Colston Hall, the seating has been removed from the main auditorium, and various groups are hey-nonny-no-ing away.

Some ladies are doing rapper dancing in doc martin boots, with a caller in a top hat. Another all-female group are doing something possibly connected to a May Pole dance, holding long flowery sticks in the air and making arches; followed by one of those ones where they bash sticks together. There is tiny girl of about eight, who seems to be as good a stick-basher as any of the others. A male group leaps around and waves hankies in the air.  "Before we go, can I draw your attention to this spot" says the old-timer who leads the group, pointing to one of the places from which seating has been removed. "That's where I was sitting when Bob Dylan played the Colston Hall in 1966."

Yeah. There can be nu-folk and folk-rock and punk-folk and people I wouldn't swear were folksingers at all but I deeply respect and approve the way the festival has tried to establish links with the old, the traditional, and, indeed, the silly.

Dyer Cummings, who I have never heard of, were a nice bouncy dancy band, who played a lot of infectious tunes with the usual fiddle-accordion-guitar combo, but topped out the set by leading the audience with an akapella John Ball (the aforementioned Sydney Carter carol about the preacher who was killed for supporting the Peasants Revolt). "Are all Protestant hymns like that?" asked Clarrie.

Only caught a little bit of today's Open Mic but I was glad I did. Tony O'Hare is a guitarist who haunts local folk clubs. He sang a silly ballad about the brouhaha that blew up a year or so back when a wartime bomb was discovered in the river (it turned out to be a supermarket trolley, of course). And a song about busking all day and earning "six quid and a banana". And splendid piece about MPs expenses, with increasingly preposterous Dylanesque rhymes for "sleaze". (The joke was compounded because the song used the harmonica riff from Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, and I would totally have noticed that if Clarrie hadn't pointed it out.) He wasn't the best writer, singer or guitarist of the weekend. But he came the closest to embodying my idea of what a "folk-singer" ought to be like: a guy ploughing his furrow in the bar, playing to anyone who'll listen and trying to make them laugh. (He was also clearly a believer in Tom Lehrer's maxim that singing 50 verses is twice as enjoyable as singing 25). And he was the person during the weekend who most strongly made me think: "I want to learn to do that."

And thence to the main hall for the sellider (pronounced "barn dance) led by, get this Spiers and Boden. (That's like saying that you've waltzed to Yehudi Menuhin, isn't it?) There is in existence photographic evidence of me on my feet, wondering what a willow is and why one might want to split one, whether I am couple one or couple two, and precisely which is my left and which is my right. I may have initiated a couple of collisions. Tim, I hear, caused a major pile up. Clarrie claims to have taken a superb picture of Tim and I, but found no evidence of it on her camera when she got home, and has therefore supplied the above line drawing. Jon Boden sang the one about the spotty pig, but mostly, the two Jo(h)ns just played perfectly bounced tunes, with ebbing and flowing rhythms that you can't help dancing to. Well, or badly, as the case may be.

The Fay Hield Trio I almost overlooked, owing the fact that the programme decided helpfully to tell me which other artists her record label published, rather than the salient fact the other two members of the trio were Robert Harbron (as in "Kerr, Fagan and") and Sam Sweeny. That is to say: one of the best squeeze box men in the business and one of the best fiddlers in business. "Sam is in another group called...." explained Fay. "Bellowhead!" shouted the audience. "Kerfuffle!" I suggested. Actually, the trio could usefully have been billed as "a bit like Kerfuffle", in that you had virtuoso fiddling and melodian-ary behind exquisite female vocals, doing traddy material like King Henry and nearly traddy stuff like Oak, Ash and Thorn. (Mr Kiplings Poem, set to music by Peter Bellamy, who may have been mentioned before and may indeed be mentioned again.) Fay Hield is Jon Boden's partner. The last day of the festival was, as you might expect, Bellowhead-centric.

The small hall was a very nice space when it was half empty: you could sit on the floor or lean against walls -- but when there was nothing going on in the main hall, it got awfully crowded and became "standing room only". Balshazzar's Feast perform seated, so I only got a glimpse of the tops of their heads. This was a little frustrating, as it meant that one could hear frequent ripples of laughter from the front three rows who were (I assume) the only people who could see what were (I assume) hilarious on-stage antics. So I can 't say whether I would have found them terribly funny or (as I suspect) terribly irritating. I will certainly try to hear them again and see them for the first time at some point.

This was really the only logistical issue over the whole weekend. People formed neat, British queues without any rioting at all outside the main hall before the headline acts, but actually I think this was hardly necessary. For Bellowhead on Sunday night, frixample, everyone in the standing area mosh pit could see perfectly, and anyone who wanted to be there could be.

(Question: Why does Belshazzar's Feast use an image of two heads on platters on their album cover? Surely that was Herod? Belshazzar's was the fellow with the writing on the wall?)

Sheelanagig, preceded Bellowhead on the main stage. I could take them or leave them. They were clearly very good. I think it was slightly ill-judge to precede Bellowhead with a rhythmn based klezmer (didn't look it up, taking a shot in the dark) party band. However good they were (and Clarrie observed a small child, just in front of our party, who seemed likely to explode with excitement) they weren't going to be as good as Bellowhead. I suppose having gone to the trouble of clearing out all the chairs, it made sense to have another band people could dance to to. I'd maybe have preferred a total contrast. This was the only point where I felt I was watching a support act and waiting for the main group to come on.

Bellowhead are fantastic. Bellowhead are always fantastic. It is their job to be fantastic. There is plenty of space in the main hall, so people can stand if they want to. They can jump in the air to Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth. They can indicate with their fingers whether Jack is up to the rigs or down to the jigs of London town. They can shake their heads in time with the Slo Gin set. There are rumours, in fact, that Bristol's Only Celebrity Folk Blogger (TM) may have attempted to few faltering polka steps with Bristol Leading Citizen Folk Journalist (TM) during Oh You New York Girls, Can You Dance The? Jon Boden eschews witty banter, and simply sings. When I first heard it in the Old Vic last year, I had my doubts about Port of Amsterdam, but I now think it's the best thing he does. A signature song. He seems to be in melancholic agony every time he sings it. He sings about the girl who will only marry the lord if he can answer six questions ("and that is three times two") as if no such song as ever been sung before, seeming to scratch his head and think for a moment before realizing that the cock was the first bird that did crow and the dew did first downfall. There is just the faintest trace of surprise in his face when he tells us that the finest month in all the year is the merry, merry month of May, as if he has only just noticed that he's singing the song on May Day. I still think that there are moments when the performance blots out the song: The Two Magicians ("wizard copulation") is too good a story to get lost amongst the ska style brass (I looked it up) -- and we only get to sing bide lady bide (there's nowhere you can hide a couple of times. But the Broomfield Wood utterly remains a folk song. You can hear the pique in the horse's voice when he's blamed for not waking up the sleeping lord. And Jon chews up the furniture for Cholera Camp, as always. ("Theeee chaplain's got a banjo....!") (Cholera Camp, Pilgrim's Way, Oak, Ash and Thorn: we have rather been followed around by Mr Bellamy's interpretations of Mr Kipling this weekend. You can't listen to Folk Song a Day and not realise what high regard Boden holds Peter Bellamy in.) The stage sprays the audience with confetti during the final number. With their songs about lusty blacksmiths seducing shape shifting wizards, and knights falling into magical sleeps in broomfield woods, and jolly sailors being ripped off by jolly prostitutes, and jolly prostitutes being ripped off by jolly sailors, and happy beggars, Bellowhead are, in their highly idiosyncratic way, painting a picture of yet another England. It is not clear with their piratical stylings are intended to impart a john barleycornish new life to Merrie Englande, or if they are actually taking the piss out of the whole thing. Probably both at once.

The bar stays open after the show finishes. It hasn't run out of beer. (When I first saw the revamped Colston Hall, I thought "Why have they attached an airport lounge to the theater." It has grown on me. How many theaters are there where you can get a drink after the show?) Someone starts playing the fiddle. Half-a-dozen ladies in civvies get out their rappas and start dancing; another lady, starts calling out the moves, just like she was doing, in her top hat, on the floor of Colston Hall this morning. The bar-staff turn off the lights as if they want us to leave, and then possibly think better of it and turn them on again. The rappa-ing finished, a guy and a girl start unselfconsciously doing leap-in-the-air scottish country dance steps. Someone produces an accordion to accompany them: it turns out to be Jim Moray. (Twenty minutes earlier, he'd been up on the main stage, giving Bellowhead the Froots prize for Best Album of 2010 in his capacity as winner of the best album of 2009. Hedonism was, incidentally, no way the best album of 2010. I think he regularly plays the squeeze box for Nonesuch Morris.)

In the end, Bellowhead is a party: a party going on on stage, to which the audience is invited. They aren't what this music is about. It's about ballads that make you think and make you cry and make you cross. It's about someone being up on stage one minute, and playing in the bar to an audience of none the next, presumably because he likes it. It's about amateurs who care about which work-song was sung on which ship when and strumming away to silly ballads about something they read in the newspapers.

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

You write this stuff brilliantly, Andrew, and make me want to be there. Since I live in the Forest of Dean, Bristol is not so far away, and I might well make the effort next year.

On the other hand, I went to Oxonmoot last year mostly on the basis of your write-up of an earlier moot, and was terribly disappointed how little actual Tolkien was involved. I don't know whether I was seduced by your writing, or whether it's just gone downhill a lot since then.