Sunday, February 19, 2012

Frome Wasn't Built in a Day

Frome Folk Festival 
18 -19 February

Frome, pronounced Frome, is a picture-skew town between Bristol and Bath; small tea-rooms and quaint terraces into which a small modern shopping centre has been unceremoniously dropped. It boasts one of the only surviving branch railway stations from Brunell's era, and no trains back to Bristol after 10PM at night. Up to this point in my life, I have always found my lack of a drivers' licence to be a very minor inconvenience. I have a very good working relationship with Megabus and regard, to the occasional consternation of visitors, distances of up to 70 minutes as "well within walking distance". Having recently discovered that the main thing I wish to do with my leisure is attend music festivals, the lack of a car becomes quite a nuisance. This weekend was, I therefore swear, the first time in my adult life I have stayed in a hotel my by myself. A pleasant room above a pub, with tea making facilities and a trouser press. Only one though: since I was there for a folk festival, there should surely have been two corbies. (1) 

This was the first time there has been a folkfest in Frome: I note that if I had turned up a week late, there would have been a potato festival in the same venue. (2) The main venue was the cavernous Cheese and Grain; sometimes used for shows but clearly often used for markets. One of the acts commented that, looking out into the audience -- some of us eating egg-and-bacon breakfasts, some of us (I use the term "us" advisedly) in Morris dancing kit, bunting and flags hanging from the ceiling and a big advert for an Indian curry house on the wall -- was the most English scene you could possibly have imagined. (3) There were also smaller gigs in an absolute gem of a local cinema, with a proper sweet kiosk and tip-up seats, just like cinemas used to be in the olden days; and a small room in a masonic hall. Since my various folkbuddies had crazy ideas about wanting to attend friends weddings and take care of elderly relatives I was on my own. I always find that a level of obsessive panic descends under such circumstances: if I had had folkbuddies with me, I would have happily sat out one of the acts to have lunch or a beer – as it was I felt I was doing something appallingly wrong if there was a single minute of the day when I wasn't listening to music: even if it was only the little girl with the "I love Sam Sweeny" cardigan playing her fiddle to an empty "open mic" cinema or escaping from the rain into the Blue Boar pub where a lady from one of the morris groups was standing at the bar singing my fifth favourite folksong. (The version in which the miller is hanged and the elder sister is boiled in lead.) Not to mention a man with a mandolin singing about the Yankie Clipper. 

And music there was a lot of, provided by many of the most eminent Usual Suspects – a veritable "who's who" of modern English flok, impressive for a brand new festival, albeit in a lower key than some: Spiers and Boden sans Bellowhead; Jim Moray sans trio, Steve sans Phil, etc. And – I mean this in a caring way – it was nice to see the weekend get progressively less shambolic as it went on; as if the organisers were (very understandably) spotting things which weren't going right and sorting them out. The main venue, the Cheese and Grain, had a bar in the back, which very naturally meant that there was a lot of ambient bar noise, some times quite intrusive, during the acts. They progressively put up notices and kept the bar lights down to minimize this. I got the impression – knowing nothing whatsoever about this, admittedly – that the sound engineer didn't know what was about to hit him; having to set up for a big loud five piece like Mabon and immediately re-jig for the very exacting guitar stylings of Chris Wood. (Or maybe the machine was experiencing machine problems. Or maybe the bands were being stroppy.)

Chris Wood was evidently getting annoyed by the P.A problems. Someone remarked on the Sunday morning that he had "used the f-word." I didn't have the heart to tell him that a gig in which Chris Wood doesn't use the f-word is more comment worthy. One of his songs (the funny tongue twisting Carthyite one about man who doesn't want to get married yet) completely broke down; I rather suspect he finished on John Barleycorn because it was an absolute foolproof crowd pleaser. But who is going to complain about having to listen to Chris Wood singing John Barleycorn? The compère was at least acknowledging that the PA had been a problem on the last day; it actually seemed to be much improved at the end of the weekend and will presumably be thoroughly sorted next year.   

The other thing they'll get better next time around is the programme, which listed names and times but no other information, leaving those of us who still don't know everything about music at a bit of loss to know whether "Fallen Tide" or "Hips and Haws" was more likely to be the kind of thing we would enjoy. (And no use of the interwebs, even though lots of us can haz smart phones nowadays: what price a fromefolkfest hashtag to tell us that such-and-such a set has been cancelled and so-and-so are starting late?) So my listening was a bit random and I probably missed some good stuff. 

I'd never heard Belshazzars Feast before: a duo consisting of the One From Bellowhead Who Is Niether Spiers Nor Boden and A Man With a Beard. This is quite definitely the best fiddle + squeezebox comedy duo you will ever heard. It really does come across as musical stand-up comedy: sequences in which Paul leads and Paul appears to follow with the wrong notes; sequences in which the audience is asked to sing along with tunes which keep changing; songs with silly words. It takes a very high level of musicianship to pull this kind of thing off. I don't know how long it would stay funny for – I don't think I'd necessarily want an album – but this set was brilliant.

Jim Moray did a characteristically splendid acoustic set, complete with "a song about a sinister woodland elf rapist" (Hind Ettin) and an "invisible child murderer who can walk through walls" (Long Lankin.) Also "If It's True What They Say", on piano, from the Orpheus folk operetta, off the new album, in which he veers convincingly into "My Way" territory, having a fully fledged dramatic emotional crises at the keyboard. And he wound up with one he said he hadn't song before, the old American ballad "Peg and Awl". It really is very impressive the way he turns his hands from the traditional song to the power ballad to the folkie sing-a-long to the sweeping semi-classical piano accompaniment. I think I'm starting to like his stripped down acoustic act almost as much as the fully fledged electronica he's made his name with.

Pilgrims Way get better every time I hear them. (Bristol's Best Known Citizen Folk Journalist suggests that they need to pay more attention to building a set rather than just playing some songs.) There's an increasingly long list of "good ones" while waiting for their eponymous signature song – Handweaver and the Factory Maid, Tarry Trousers, and Light Hussar are all first rate.

Greatly enjoyed Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. I've been trying to work out what "Carrie Love", the unbearable account of a miner during the 1980s NUM strikes, reminds me of. It's completely original; but it somehow sounds like June Tabor interpreting Bill Caddick, without being much like either of them. Really deserves to be much better known.

Spiers and Boden did a Spiers and Boden set, frankly, but you can never have too many Prickley Bushes and Spotted Pigs. I like the way they now finish up with New York Girls, but it does rather rub in the fact that Bellowhead now informs Spiers and Boden rather than vice versa. Earlier in the weekend, one of the acts whose name has erased itself from my notebook tried to get the audience singing along with one of his songs. The left hand side were to be singing a different tune from right hand side; everyone was supposed to be clapping on the off-beat. Total disaster. You can't help but admire Boden's  expertise in getting this kind of thing to work. "Volume is more important than accuracy here...good. And don't worry too much about the consonants, just do the vowels...."

Steve Knightley wound up the weekend. No-one, as I have mentioned, works a crowd like Steve Kightley. Phil without Steve is a completely different act: Steve without Phil is, well, pretty much Steve without Phil. (This evening he went as far as delivering some of his one-liners to the spot where Phil would have been.) He did take the opportunity to do slightly more restrained versions of some of his numbers. I don't quite think that the thumping angry A.I.G quite works as a slowed down Dylanesque guitar piece, but it was worth a try; on the other hand the Galway Farmer is in its natural environment as an unaccompanied piece of story telling. There's real complexity and multiple levels to his song-writing: he opened with a piece about drugs and drug pushing that I hadn't heard before: the dealer travelling round the M25 selling heroin is a "poppy seller" like the British Legion charity sellers on Remembrance Day; the heroin comes from the poppy farms in Afghanistan, where soldiers are still being killed, like in Flanders Fields, which is where the poppy metaphor got started....But it's all worn lightly, and one feels one has heard a story, not a leading article pro or against the warren drugs. "Transported" is basically just a good old funny "trick" song about the modern sheep thieves who pull the wool over the police's eyes. Steve plays the audience for all they're worth in the refrain

There's no transportation down under
No gallows in the old county gaol
At best in the morning we're fined with a warning
At worst in the evening we're back out on bail... 

But I loved the way he followed it up with the contrasting traditional and depressing Oakham Poachers. ("Oh it never happened before / Three brothers hanged together / For the doing of one crime.)  I thought the only off note was winding up with a medley of Cousin Jack and Country Life; not that the two songs don't work as a medley and not that the audience didn't mournfully join in with the "aaa-aaa-aaa" bit. But honestly. "No schools / No homes / No shops / No pubs / What went wrong? What went wrong?" It's a bit of a downer to finish a set, let alone a festival on. I accidentally heard him doing more or less the same set in Bristol a week or two later, and he very sensibly added the sing-a-long Aunt Maria from the Cecil Sharp Project, which also has a very serious point, but is a much more up beat song with which to finish an evening.

Highlight of the weekend, in many ways was Luke Jackson, introduced by the aforementioned Steve Knightley, if only because I had never heard, or heard of, him before. Luke is, I think, seventeen. He has a powerful, deep voice and can pull off bluesy Americana like Poor Wayfarin' Stranger as well as anyone; but he also writes his own songs.

Now, nearly every third support act you hear is a singer-song-writer. They all have exactly the same floppy hair and self-effacing stage manner; they are all pretty good at guitar picking; and they all sing the same agonized monologues about having been dumped by the same girl, set in the same flat at the same time of day (4AM.) God often becomes involved in the proceedings, although the singers mood isn't improved by having to admit that he doesn't actually believe in God. Luke Jackson is not like this.

Luke Jackson writes honest, hugely affecting songs about his actual life. "Kiss us at the door and wish us luck" he sings to his parents.  "' 'Cos everyone grows up." Oh. My. God. That's actual proper poetry. There is something enormously affecting about the way in which his big deep singing voice sometimes gives way to a spoken phrase which sounds terribly immature and teenage. When a man in his forties talks about "childhood" (4)  it can come across as romantic bullshit; when Luke Jackson talks about taking his dog for a walk in the park and hanging out with his friends and adds "seems as if my childhood songs have been song" he's not talking about those blue remembered hills. He's talking about last year. (Two years ago at Trowbridge he was singing about the school bus, I'm told.) 

I was born in the countryside
But I spend my day in town 
Waste the whole morning sleeping in
And then just wander round...
But who are you to judge me?
Who are you? Let me be.

You or I might have had those kind of sentiments when we were 17. We might even have written them down in that kind of poetry. But you are or I didn't have a killer voice, an impressive guitar style and Steve Knightley as a mentor. Frankly, I've got no right to be listening to his album. It ought to be being passed around every sixth form in the country as a big secret that the old people won't really understand. His Youtube stream is instructive, as well: he covers a lot of songs which are frankly much to big for him – it clearly isn't 25 years or more since he did anything at all – which seems to be exactly the right kind of mistake for a person of his age to be making. And actually, his version of Blowin' in the Wind is rather brilliant: note the way he combines elements of Young Bob's version of the song with elements of Old Bob. 

So, essentially: roll on next year's Frome, and see you all at the Brizzle fest in May.

(1) Sam Dodsworth, all rights reserved. You will, Oscar, you will.

(2) Oooo that's mean. Local gardeners getting together to sell or exchange seed. Perfectly sensible.

(3) Sensitive readers, freaked out by my reference to the toxic brand "England" are given due warning that by the end of the weekend I may well find myself listening to Mr Steve Knightley. 

(4) Say with reference to old comic books and space movies