Showing posts with label Folk Festival. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Folk Festival. Show all posts

Monday, May 07, 2012

It Takes All Sorts

Bristol Folk Festival
5- 7 May
Colston Hall

Bath Ales have ludicrously re-branded “Barnstormer” as “Barnsy”. I would no more order a pint of Barnsy than I would eat a Snickers bar. The organizers of the second Bristol Folk Festival had evidently taken to heart some of the complaints about last year's refreshments: the addition of a “beer tent” on the ground floor and some festival friendly snacks at the caff were a great help, although the Mexican frajita place over the road did very good business.

On Monday evening the compère does the Folks Men joke again. Everything is folk music, he says, because everything is written by and performed by folk, not by, say, plants or animals. So the Anglo Celt Sound System is totally folk.

They play a sort of young people's night club dance music; with that drum rhythm dominating everything, while a front man in a turban does his thang on one of those huge drums and another one plays Irish whistle or Northumbrian Pipes. I could recognise it has as having some connection to instrumental folk – several musicians all doing their own thing on their own instruments in such a way that it all comes together into a single thing that you dance to. In that sense it was quite similar to what the people in the bar were doing with fiddles and squeeze boxes. (Folk-buddy #1 claims that they even went into Cuckoo's Nest -- a Morris tune with filthy words that no-one ever sings -- but I had evidently stopped paying attention by that point.) The band definitely had a following: people were forming a queue an hour before they were due to come on stage. But I couldn't help noticing that other people were also leaving before the end.

Doubtless if you liked this kind of thing this would be the kind of thing that you liked. But it was a bit niche to finish the festival on. Last year we had Bellowhead and glitter coming from the ceiling. Everyone likes Bellowhead. This year we had a very good night club band; and a sense that the actual folk festival finished with Sam Sweeney and Hannah James doing their delicate traditional tunes and clog dancing (how can a form of dance based on having blocks of wood on your feet be so damn graceful?) before we let the Young People do their thing for a couple of hours before bed time.

Did I not once tell you to avoid anything with the words "Celtic" or "Fusion" in the main job description?

There was a big stand on the bridge outside the main hall selling "old fashioned" sweets – white chocolate things with hundreds and thousands on them, rice paper sherbet flying saucers, Hershey bars, multi flavoured pretzels. I liked the Finnish liquorice best; soft like a truffle, sugary on the outside, salted on the inside, a very strong liquorice taste without the chewiness I like the taste of salty licquice, by usually find that much salt is a little nauseous. I think that liquorice like porridge, should taste of itself rather than being used as a sugar delivery mechanism. I think the same thing about Krispy Kreme Donuts, but wouldn't go as far as putting salt on a donut.

When I said that I didn't like “Celtic” music, some people affected to believe that that meant that I didn't like Celtic music. Which would obviously be ridiculous. Sunday's headliner, for example, was the slightly too ethereal for my taste Cara Dillon, backed up with what (I am assured) was a who's who of famous Irish instrumentalists. I am no expert in what is technically known as the diddly-diddly-dee sub-genre (sub-sub-genre “look how fast I can play this damn whistle”) but that doesn't mean that I can't enjoy it. Ms Dillon, of course, didn't use the c-word. She called it “Irish music” or more specifically “this is a tune from County Tyrone.”

Ewan McLennan was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. He came on to the stage and practically whispered "A Mans and Man For A'That". And then, in case we'd missed the point, played "Auld Land Syne" on his guitar. You forget that these tunes, belted out at so many drunken parties, have a real proper melodic beauty if you trust them. But the soft, feathery delivery could wrong-foot you: before long he's bringing the same style to protest songs; turning "Banks of Marble" from a rabble rousing soap box thumper into a meditation on injustice and then topping it with an almost too painful to listen to version of Old Man’s Song.

We're living on the Pension now and it doesn't go too far 
 Not much to show for a life that seems like one long bloody war
When you think of all the wasted lives it makes you want to cry 
 I don't know how to change things but by Christ we'll have tae try

Oh, and an audacious reworking of Bob Dylan’s Blues from the Radio 2 Freewheelin' project. Take a silly, filler song. Slow it down. Deliver the lines as if they mean something even if you don't have the faintest idea what. Someone said that he sang it better than Bob Dylan's version. I don't think that's true. I think that this sort of cover is always sort of kind of engaging in an inter-textual debate with the original. If we didn’t know how Almighty Bob sung it, we wouldn’t we gasping with amazement at Ewan’s reworking.

Celtic indeed.

I think that I shall become the kind of person who likes liquorice I shall make a big thing of it. It's the sort of thing you might right on a character sheet in an RPG to show that you have an interesting personality.

Luke Jackson was by some distance the best thing I heard over the entire weekend. I wish I hadn't raved about him quite so much after Frome, because the set he did in the more intimate Colston Hall 2 was on a whole different level. Five years from now, he will be the biggest thing in folk, unless they steal him from us an make him into a pop star. The photos on his Facebook page show signs that someone is trying to brand him, which would be a shame. There's an honesty, even a naivety to his performance; telling us that a particular song is the one that been in his act for the longest (he's not yet 18) or introducing a traditional number with “I'm not quite sure who wrote this.” He has a deep, mellow voice which lets him pull off an old spiritual like Poor Wayfarin' Stranger with an intensity that I can hardly believe. There's absolutely no sense that he's mimicking a more experienced singer: you feel he's felt it himself. But its the self-written songs which crystallize his own experience: climbing trees, riding his bike in the park, realising he's going to lose track of his three best friends, hearing people on the bus running down teenagers. They are so perfectly done that listening to them almost seems voyeuristic. He encores with Oakham Poachers ("Steve Knightley asked me to do something traditional”) and while its clearly a cover of the Show of Hands arrangement, it suddenly, startling goes into his own bluesy riff on the final line. Astonishing.

"You may now cross off "dead children" on your O'Hooley and Tidow bingo card" tweeted Folk-buddy #1. This was immediately retweeted by O'Hooley and Tidow. Twitter is a powerful friend and a dangerous enemy. At one level, live tweeting events like this is great fun; and occasionally helpful, when other twits tell you what is going on somewhere else. At another, it tempts you to spend the event in the twittersphere, not in the moment (which is always a problem for a writer, even without the 140 character limit). And the acts themselves are reading your tweets. Since Folk Buddies #1 - #4 refused to eat the Hershey bars I purchased from the liquorice shop I idly tweeted "I wonder if the band like American chocolate" "Yes please" tweeted back Mawkin "Enjoy the set..."Which is sweet: but it makes one immediately reluctant to tweet “this band sucked”. Actually, my general rule, being one who does not know anything about music but knows what he likes is to only review acts I've enjoyed. When I hear someone I don't think much of, I generally leave well alone.

(Which is not, by the way to be construed as meaning that if I don't review something I thought it was awful. I had a great time listening to Andy Irving at the the Folk House in May. He's one of my favourite singers. Specially liked his straight down the middle version of the It Was Sad When the Great Ship Went Down to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the wassisname, and his very traditional Stewball. I just didn't get around to putting pen to paper. I also failed to say anything about the very wonderful Monty Award Winning Chris Rickets at the same venue. His version of Leaving of Liverpool reduced the entire audience to tears, and I was impressed as hell that he finished up with What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor. Not ironically or post- modernly; he just seemed to trust the song. Neither Andy Irvine nor Chris Rickets were at the folk festival. Now I've confused everybody.)

Instrumental folk is not always my most favourite thing, but Mawkin do it better than anyone I've ever heard. That was precisely 140 characters, that was.

O'Hooley and Tidow were by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend. The last time I reviewed them, I described them as "depressing" (a fact they apparently remember). Actually, this isn't entirely fair. I would now be more inclined to say "haunting". Some of their songs pass almost unnoticed at the gig and then come back and kick you in the teeth three days later. The musical setting of a sentimental Victorian poem called Little Boy Blue, for example. They hold it, as so many of their lyrics, at arms length; there is something detached, and therefore chilling, about their performance. The verse is pure sentiment; it could almost be an Edwardian parlour ballad. But in the middle of the song, something altogether more contemporary cuts in; with percussive piano and declarative singing, it's an unsettling ultimately very moving shift in direction. (Clever, too: the line "but as he was sleeping an angel song awakened our little boy blue" would have been cloying.) But the tune is deceptive; I suddenly found the melody (“what has become of our little boy blue”) drifting to the top of my consciousness a week later and making me feel sad for no reason at all. There own lyrics love to hold up the ordinary for observation: the astonishing song about the old couple's coach trip to Blackpool piles trivial detail on trivial detail ("and the handbag with the fiddly catch that sometimes nipped her finger / but it matched her coat and sunday shoes so it really didn't matter") with an urgent, driving rhythm. It ends "'Have you enjoyed your day trip?' Vera says 'It were real'." Lancashire people do use "It were real" to mean "I had a good time"; but the line is taken up and repeated over and over until it becomes a sort of Samuel Beckett existential yell at the universe. Or something.

I have also previously raved about Solarferance. Folkbuddies #1, #2 and #3 all bought their album, which proves that I was right. They are the ones who stand on the stage with Macbooks, making strange noises with mortars and pestles and musical saws and live looping them, while singing very detailed close harmony versions of traditional songs. I think Folk-buddy #1 is probably correct that they need to work on their stage personae; Nick in particular has a slight tendency to look like someone doing a send up of disc jockey; but it's early days and what they are doing is fantastically difficult. "I never had but one true love" is awfully clever, The multi lingual Cutty Wren is still the best thing they do; the point, at which, I think, they passed beyond being awfully clever to actually making music. 

Every folk festival, I assume, involves a young woman singing "I'm Being Followed by a Moon Shadow", "Streets of London" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane." I have no problem with this. I would be sorry if it didn't happen. The sense of being at folk festival is an important part of being at folk festival. I have more than once been in a not very pleasant venue drinking not very nice beer when a not very talented young man with a hat, beard and guitar sits on a chair and sings a not very good song about the banking collapse and how it relates to the young lady who is no longer dating him and thought "this is exactly what I signed on for". I described her on twitter as "charming". Folk-buddy #1 wanted to know if my liquorice had been drugged.

Show of Hands did a fairly restrained set. By their standards. Regular readers will be aware that last year's performances was the best set ever done by anyone anywhere and they made no particular attempt to top it. They are never less than very good. We had a Cousin Jack and an AIG, Phil got to do Jamestown and Innocents Song, Steve Got to Home of a Million Dreams (which I don't think is as good as he obviously does) everyone did Keys of Canterbury, and we wound up with Now You Know Will You Come Back To Me. There was a hen night. A group of young ladies with a big banner that read "Getting married but still in love with Steve and Phil". (There are some folk performers, such as Seth Lakeman for example, who you can easily imagine young ladies adoring for their boyish good looks. Phil Beer and Steve Knightley, not so much.) This rather boosted the party atmosphere. I don't think Steve did as much banter as he usually does, since he spent most of the period between the songs engaging in call and response with the girls. Which was fine. In fact it rather underlines what a showman he is; quite able to fool around with the hen party, and then dedicate his last song to them, and say "good luck for the big day" in a stage whisper before quitting the stage. Wanting to postpone the debate about whether objecting to the common fisheries policy -- or indeed listen to a song about a character who objects to the common fisheries policy -- makes one a Nazi, I hung around in the hall and had a chat with the ladies. They'd were serious Show of Hands fans. They'd been calling out for him to sing Poppy Day, which is an incredibly depressing song about a drug dealer and had been at the Albert Hall concert the previous month. They said Now You Know was their favourite song; I said that Cousin Jack always makes me cry because my Daddy was Cornish. We left feeling that we were the best of friends.

That's the kind of band they are: not necessarily my favourite song writers (1) or my favourite live act (2), but never failing to catch the mood of the hall (angry last year, festive this year) and create a corporate experience. Godlike, in other words.

Lucy Ward is beautiful and lovely and funny and clever and I think I am probably in love. She drew a little heart on my CD and was just as lovely meeting the fans off stage as talking to them on stage. The picture of her on her album makes her look like a fey Monroe-ish starlet In real life she has bright blue hair and says that the best thing about Shrewsbury is that every third shop sells cakes. (She lived on macaroni pie during the folk week, apparently.) She has a sense of humour and comic timing which makes you think that she could probably hack it as a stand up comedienne if she wanted to; but in between the bubbling are some very dark songs. Alice in the Bacon Box is about a lady who ends up in the workhouse because someone takes her cardboard box away. Its based on a true story. She's good at making unexpected turns, as with her “traditional English song by Jarvis Cocker” which she does so well and, er, audibly that it made me go back and listen to the original. The recording which catches her stage act the best is Maids When Your Young, which is sung with an absolutely conspiratorial level of filth which is a joy to behold. She was by some distance the best thing I heard over the weekend.

Many people thought that Lady Maisery was the best thing over the whole weekend. There was a squeeze box, clog dancing and a strange Norwegian thing which may really be called "diddling" in which you sort of sing instrumental numbers. And there was a song about a fairy.

Dan Walsh plays the banjo and Will Pound plays the harmonica. Half way through, Dan did his banjo solo. You know that thing where the music gets so quick that's its obviously the climax, and everyone claps, and then he gets even faster? He did that three or four times. Brilliant (and he was properly playing a tune as well, not just showing off.) It was obviously the best bit of musicianship anyone did over the whole weekend the whole weekend (seriously).

"Hmm...8 out of ten" said Will when he returned to the stage.

Some years ago I was involved in the design of a computer game about pirates. There were different kinds of pirate ships, each with different attributes. (It was, as I may have mentioned before, described by the Daily Telegraph as "adequate".) In several years of writing documents and setting up auto-correct functions, I still discovered new ways of miss-spelling "manoeuvrability".

I feel very much the same way about liquorice

I didn't get very near the free stage this year because there was so much going on in other place, but would award several points to an Irish student Celidah band, quite possibly called Really Potcheen, who did things like Galway Girl very nicely and honestly. They described New York Girls as a Bellowhead cover, which says something about the nature of the Tradition.

And the Appliejacks who did appallachian clog dancing. At one point, the nature of the venue meant that the music from upstairs and the music from downstairs was in competition. English Morris dancing and American clog dancing. On Sunday, the man with the big Indian drum taught some of the morris dancers how to dance. 

Now, that's what I call fusion.

(1) Chris Wood
 (2) Chumbawamaba

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.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival (4)

Saturday Evening

The regular reader of this column (I know where he lives) may remember that Clarrie and I have a long standing friendly disagreement about Steve Knightley and Phil Beer.

I say "I am going to a Show of Hands concert", and she says "Don't you mean 'rally'?". I say "I'm going to another Show of Hands concert" and she says "Don't forget your jackboots". I say "I'm going to hear Phil Beer doing a solo gig" and she says or "I expect soon they'll let you join the Party."

This is because they once wrote an ambivalently patriotic song called "Roots" to which we may possibly be returning before too long. We tried to explain this friendly disagreement to a young person in a Watchmen tee shirt in the queue. (We decided it was prudent to form a queue before the headline acts started to be sure of a good position. I think that the main hall was big enough to hold everyone who was at the festival.)

"My friend sometimes calls me a fascist because I like Show of Hands"I remarked.

"You what?" he explained, in a tone of face which suggested "I hope they have found a cure for being crazy when I am a terrible old person of nearly 35."

I have myself in the past sometimes expressed an ambivalence about the group. While I thought that Steve's solo gig at the QEH earlier in the year was splendid, and very much enjoyed Phil fiddling in the Cabot's Circus jazz club the other week, I had to admit that I just didn't think their Cathedral gig was terribly good, and felt myself manipulated, albeit possibly in a good way, by their Colston Hall gig last year.

So I should probably come straight out and say it: this evening was simply the best live gig I've ever seen, by anyone, ever.

Steve comes on stage at 7.30 to introduce Fisherman's Friends. He (Steve) had apparently been asked to put the evening's programme together, and he's treating it as a sort of "Show of Hands revue" He is, after all, the Greatest Living Devonian: they are genuine Cornish fishermen who hit the big-time when they were given a multi-million dollar deal with Universal Music, and a dozen other folk bands all said "Hey! That was meant to be us!"

It's an unusual act by anyone's standards. Ten older men line up on the stage and bellow out shanties and other nautical themed songs, mostly unaccompanied, a few to a single accordion or guitar. There isn't much in the way of sophisticated harmony; and there doesn't seem to be a great deal of interest in the purity of the Tradition. This is, when it comes down to it, eight guys singing "What shall we do with the drunken sailor?" and "Sloop John B" and "Dance to your daddy, my little laddy." (I remember hearing Bob Fox singing a pure, full on geordie version of the song in a pub last year, full of history and his love for his new granddaughter. It almost broke my heart. This was just a catchy tune.) But the sense of fun, and boisterousness and catchiness and lets be honest the sheer volume of the group just carries you along with it. I enjoyed "I thought I heard the captain say / Come lay your money down" and "Bound for south Australia" and "A sailors not a sailor not a sailor any more". It's a mark of how mainstream and commercial they are that they didn't sing the Whale Catchers or Come All Ye Trawler Men (authentic songs about whalers) but did sing the decidedly modern and non-traditional Last Leviathan (about how the last whale has been killed by the horrid fishermen). But they sang it awfully well. And they have a nice line in banter. "I had a sore throat this morning. The doctor told me to such a fishermen's friend.'m not going to say it. Those sorts of joke leave a nasty taste in your mouth." (Apparently, the reason they have to be referred to as Port Isaac's Fishermen's Friends is to avoid infringing the cough sweets trademark.)

"Do you like Irish music?" says Cathy Jordan, front man Dervish, in her very broad Limerick accent. "Oh...that's grand, because that's really all we do." Initially I wondered about her diction (I like lyrics, as you know, and was having a problem making them out); but of course she was singing mostly in Gaelic, making strange dance movements, almost seeming to weave a story in the air with her hands. She sings and plays bodhran and sometimes gets out a penny whistle: there's also fiddles, mandolins, accordions and guitars, all contributing to what is technically know as the diddly-diddly-dee style of music. There's an English language ballad about a girl jilting her husband at the alter because she has a man who has more money, more houses, and a better donkey. (It's dedicated to Kate Middleton.) And there's a remarkable re-reading of Bob's Boots of Spanish Leather. If I had a penny for every time I'd heard that song, I'd have £2.53, and I'd never before noticed that there is nothing whatsoever to indicate which side of the dialogue is male and which side is female. When Bob sings it, I'd always thought it was about a girl leaving a boy. Cathy makes it quite clear that it's the girl whose demanding some nice footwear as a consolation prize.

And then, then, then on comes Show of Hands.

Up to this point, you would hardly have know you were in Bristol, or that Bristol had been front page news, all round the world, for all the wrong reasons. "Some of my songs go out of date" says Steve "And some don't". And he launches straight into a song, entirely new to me, called "Is there anything left in England...that's not for sale." It's about going back to his old school and finding the playing fields have been sold and built on. And about politicians taking bribes. And about high streets being taken over. "By Tescos?" he asks. And then straight into Santiago (Chilean exiles returning home), which is usually kept back for the end of the show, and then straight into Phil's fiddle led cover of Springsteen's Jamestown (steel town dies when the industry closes down) and then -- of course -- Country Life (supermarkets selling cheap food and destroying the rural way of life.) 

I wouldn't necessarily say this was a "political" set or that it was "about" the police invasion of Stokes Croft. Steve is always political, that's why (joking apart) people can get annoyed by his lyrics. And he believes that songs -- and I take it, folk songs especially -- can acquire new resonances when they are sung in new contexts. As he always says: he wrote Santiago about Chilean exiles returning home after the fall of Pinochet, but the references to miners, and people emerging from darkness, has linked it irrevocably with the Copiapo disaster. He has a vision of England, just as surely as Guthrie or Dylan had their visions of America. And tonight that vision -- that imaginary England, if you like -- caught, or expressed, the mood of the audience. Of me, anyway. He does all the angry, crowd-pleasing songs. "The coffin of our English dream / Lies out on the village green / While agri-barons CAP in hand / Strip this green and pleasant land"  "Toxic springs you tapped and sold / Poisoned every watering hole / Your probity, you exchanged for gold" Even the lighter songs have an angry edge to them tonight. "Stop Copying Me" is about silly children who think it's funny to repeat the last thing you said. Silly children who think its funny to repeat the last thing you said. But it also becomes a rant about people who computers have put an end to real communication. "You know I've got no space to hang around on Facebook or give my front page another tweak / With mindless wittering, another twat Twittering, when I communicate I SPEAK."

He started to wind up a relatively short set with "Now you're gone / Will you come back to me" a fairly straight and uncharacteristically sunny love song about begging a departed girlfriend to come home.

But Steve doesn't do "encores". Steve prepares a show. A set which had consisted entirely of showstoppers was but the hors d'oeuvre. He brought Fishermans Friends back onto the stage, to join them in Show of Hands answer to a sea-shanty. ("Now give to me a cornishman to eat a tasty pasty / And if inside it's most cold beef he'll never thing nasty"). And then, in what was clearly going to the climax to the entire weekend, the Greatest Living Devonian lead the Worlds Richest Cornishmen and the entire audience in his (yes, heavily romanticized) song of the Cornish Diaspora. Dammit, if the irish and scottish and yorkshire and geordies can get all maudlin from time to time, then I see no reason why the rest of us shouldn't.

The soil was to poor to make Eden,
Granite and sea left no choice
Though visions of heaven sustained us,
When John Wesley gave us a voice...

if we are gong to treat songs as arguments rather than artefact's then I admit I could do without the line in which the 19th century Cornish emigrant howls in horror about a future where the English will live in "our" houses and the Spanish will fish in "our" seas. But this a poem and a performance and Steve is playing the audience like Phil is playing his fiddle. I don't think I've ever been so caught up by a live performane, not even at the opera. I was sobbing by the end of it.

And then. Then. And you have to admire the audacity of the man, the sheer barefaced cheek, he says: "How can we follow that? Well, actually, we can...." And, of course, he does. He brings Dervish back onto the stage, and does a full dress performance of his cod-Irish ballad of the farmer who bets all his money on a horse that he's dreamt will win the big race. ("Lady Luck had come half-way/The horse's name was "Galway Bay"./20-1 the odds that day./I went to make my wager."). Cathy contributes to the vocals: the whole band backs up the climax with a massive, full-on minute of diddly-dee with the audience clapping along to signify the final lap of the big race.... (ten to go, and from the track the hooves were drumming thunder.) I said before that his unaccompanied version at QEH was "as nature intended" but this is as good as the song, or any song, could ever be. I can only hope someone was recording. I have no words. I have no words.

I've said it before, but whatever else he does, Steve Knightley is a folksinger to his core. He wound up the evening by lining up Dervish and Fishermen's Friends on the stage and singing the farewell shanty ("haul away your anchor / tis our sailing time.) Straight. Unaccompanied.

No Roots.

And then everyone piled back into the Fred Wedlock room where Jims Moray and Causley were still engaged in their "silent disco" (where you listen on headphones and choose which DJ you want to listen to). (Jim Causley seems to have done a set of his own, unless he was one of the surprise guests in the programme and I missed him.) Steve and Phil and the friendly fishermen came into the disco as well. The DJs stopped to sing "happy birthday" to Steve. Steve danced with his wife, even when Jim Moray put on "remember you're a womble".

And please note. Here is a man who has just done an awesome and presumably exhausting set, who then walks out into the body of the theatre, and who is not mobbed by fans and autograph hunters, but politely approached, one at a time, by people wanting to shake his hand or offer him a CD to sign.

Why, I may have asked before does, anyone ever listen to any other kind of music?

"Show of Hands are a very good live act" said Clairre.


Bristol Folk Festival (3)

Saturday Afternoon

Arrived about 12. Clarrie and Tim inform me that I have missed the first spontaneous full on standing ovation of the weekend, for Wildflowers, a trio consisting of three children around the age of thirteen (two fiddles and a guitar). They do a spontaneous set in the bar later in the evening, and they do indeed seem to be astonishing.

I start the day in the upstairs bar where the always reliable Hodmadoddery are applying their inventive guitar stylings to John Barleycorn -- and what better way is there of feeling that it is really spring and you are really at a folkfest then by listening to two men with guitars singing John Barleycorn in a bar? This is followed by an open night. The standard is extremely high, as you'd expect. She has a beautiful voice, but isn't at all confident on the the guitar (says me, who can't play a note). A young girl named Catherine Holt, accompanied by her father on the guitar, looks fantastically nervous, and then delivers a flawless, and quite emotive cover of the Soldier and the Princess.
Tim and Clarrie went off to see the Mummers Play about the life of Brunel. (If you don't know what a Mummers play is, it's part way between Morris Dancing and a pantomime. If you don't know who Brunel was, then, all you need to know is that he came from Bristol. They said it was great.) I stayed in the bar to hear a band called the Bristol Shantymen, because they come from Bristol and sing sea shanties. They were stunning. Not because they sang great tunes, were a decent choir, and had one man with a rather weak voice but who was brilliant at doing the funny lines and the silly long-drawn out yodels, but because they really, really, really, really, cared about the history of sea shanties. They could tell you about particular old sailors who used to sing these songs in pubs in the 60s. They cared about which songs were specific to Bristol and which came from elsewhere. They sang a shanty with the "call" lines in French but the "response" lines in English, because that's how French sailors sung it. They loved their material. It oozed authenticity and love for tradition. This is the kind of thing I'm here for.

Had to take a bet on whether I'd be more likely to enjoy Mabon ("interceltic funk folk") or Pilgrim's Way ("gimmick free folk at it's finest) in the smaller Fred Wedlock stage (named after Bristol's oldest swinger in town.) Naturally went for Pilgrim's Way. They ran though some very adequate versions of traditional songs (Weaver and the Factory Made, Tarry Trousers) before utterly blowing us all away with the songs which gave the band its name. They called it "a great humanist song" but I must admit that during the compulsory "all join in" bit, I sang "The people Lord, thy people are good enough to me" (as opposed to "the people, oh the people"). Because that's what Kipling wrote. What a great poem! It deserves to be far better known than the horrible "If..." And what a stonking tune Peter Bellamy made up for it. I have occasionally thought that a couplet from might stand very well at the top of this very blog:

And when they bore me over-much, I shall not shake my ear
Recalling many thousand such whom I have bored to tears
And if they labour to impress, I shall not laugh or scoff
Since I myself have done no less and sometimes pulled it off

Phil King has a big local following. Lots of people clapped him. I could really take him or leave him. He can play his guitar, no doubt about that, but his voice doesn't excite me, and his songs seem.... Artificial. Inauthentic. It reminds me of that review of Virginia Woolf, where the reviewer wanted to shout "No, she didn't!" after every line of the novel. Apparently, when the singer was stung by a scorpion, it reminded him that Orion, the only constellation he can recognise, died from scorpion wound, and that he feels as if that hunter has somehow watched over him through his life. "No, he doesn't!"

Other people seemed to like him a lot.

Caught the very end of Elfynn in the main hall. They appeared to be rather good.

Bristol Folk Festival (2)

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 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.

Bristol Folk Festival (1)

Friday - Morning

I walked out on a bright may morning, like a hero in a song
Looking for a place called England, trying to find where I belong...

It's the banality which gets to me. The father of the bride is "proud". The couple are "happy". The dress is "white, with lace". Some of the crowd has "waited for days to catch a glimpse of the happy couple". Someone had the good sense not to let Rowan Williams, Arch druid and Incredible String Band fan, into the pulpit. He would have said something incredibly incredibly inappropriate and controversial, although it would actually have made much difference, because no-one would have understood it. The curate who stood in for him gave the sort of sermon you could have heard in any parish church in the country: apparently, it's not just about being in love but also about the serious business of learning to live together. When the groom's Mum got married, there was a song by a proper popular opera singer. When she died, there was a song by a pop singer I'd actually heard of. This was all fourth rate classical music, with Perry promoted to the rank of "England's best loved composer" on the say-so of Dimbleby-lite. I, along with everyone else, I get, was astonished to learn that he (Perry, that is, not Dimbleby-lite) wrote anything apart from Jerusalem, and wouldn't Billy Blake have laughed to have heard his great revolutionary and mystical poem described as "a great patriotic hymn".

All said and done, I would still rather be a cynical monarchist than an enthusiastic republican. I like the way we all get together ever ten year or so to play dress-up and pretend that we're a fairy tale kingdom with palaces and glass coaches and princesses. This is, I think, a big part of the story that we've been telling ourselves about ourselves for the last thousand ears, and I haven't heard anyone suggest a better one. (When it all became too much for me, I just muttered "President Blair, President Blair" under my breath.) But this week, it's a story which feels hopelessly corrupted and appropriated -- a story which is meant to be about All of Us was one from which I felt pretty comprehensively excluded. It was clearly not a coincidence that Cameron (Tory) and Major (Tory) were invited to the big shindig, but Blair (Labour, alleg.) and Brown (Labour) were not. (Thatcher (Tory) was invited but asked that a very polite refusal be conveyed to King George on her behalf.) The message "The head of State is a Tory, the British State is a Tory only club, is you ain't Tory you ain't part of the story" was hard to avoid. It started to make you wonder if the President of the USA wasn't quite our sort of chap, either, and thanks to the Guardian for pointing out that the King of Yugoslavia got an invitation. (*) The State seemed to have spent the week before the wedding making pre-emptive strikes on anyone it thought might have voiced Dissent on the happy day. It may or not have been a coincidence that seven days before the happy day, my street became a riot zone. It almost certainly was a coincidence that, at the exact moment when the next head of state but one ws taking his marriage vows, the police finally closed down the building which absolutely no local person has ever referred to as Telepathic Heights. (The local name for it is "that building with the pretty mural that I've walked past a thousand times and never paid the slightest attention to." The night after the Riot, the building next door hosted a gig by the Wurzles.) It was undoubtedly a coincidence that when I set out to go to the folk festival, I found that I couldn't walk down my own street because the police, who swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen, had erected barricades. Again. But it all seemed awfully symbolic.

A big old wall there tried to stop me / a sign was painted, it said "No entry"
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing / that side was made for you and me

[*] No such country as Yugoslavia exists, and anyway, it isn't a monarchy.

Bristol Folk Music Festival (0)


This weekend I have

1: Drunk Gem Ale

2: Worn flowers in my hair (artificial)

3: Danced (there may be photographic evidence)

4: Drunk Gem Ale

5: Eaten three different kinds of hamburger

6: Played a hammered dulcimer ("You might want to hold those sticks by the other end")

7: The flowers, I mean, not my hair

8: Laughed (e.g at the little man singing about busking, and at Phil Beer's joke about the nerd in the music shop.)

9: Cried (about Joe Peel, John Ball and (actual proper sobs) Cousin Jack)

10: Points 1, 4 and 9 may be related.

11: Joined in, frequently.

12: Worn a union jack tie

13: Seen Steve Knightley dancing along to Remember You're A Womble

14: Seen Jim Moray playing his accordion in the bar

15: Seen English people queueing politely for the bar

16: Drunk Gem ale.