Is it just me or is Halsway Manor, a 15th Century manor house a few miles outside Taunton, one of the folk world’s best kept secrets? As the National Centre for the Folk Arts, it organises a year round programme of courses, workshops and concerts in folk music, song and dance. Tutors scheduled for this year include John Kirkpatrick, Karen Tweed and Paul Hutchinson.
Each Easter, the Manor hosts the Hothouse project, a residential week introducing young people to the folk arts, culminating in a public performance for the project participants. The performance this year was linked to a larger event. Billed as “a one day folk festival for the next generation” and sponsored by Folk Radio UK, it showcased some of the best young talent on today’s scene.
After the weather the UK has experienced this winter, you’d think the organisers might have regretted calling this event The Hothouse Festival. But no, the sun shone and visitors who packed both house and grounds were treated to an afternoon and evening of superb music, traditional and self-penned, tunes and songs, acoustic and full electric. Some artists were already established names, some yet to reach a national audience, but the common link was youth. Some were firmly in their teens, most looked to be in their early 20s, maybe one or two had reached the dizzy heights of 30, I didn’t want to pry. But they typify a generation of musicians that is taking folk, roots and acoustic music by the scruff of the neck and knocking it into new shapes and forms.
The afternoon opened with a frenetic set from The Drystones, Ford Collier and Alex Garden, teenagers from the Priddy area playing guitar, fiddle and whistles. Many tunes are their own compositions and they specialise in high energy, foot stomping arrangements. A scan of their web pages (www.thedrystones.co.uk) shows just how much these two youngsters have packed into the two years since their debut gig at the 2011 Priddy Festival.
Much more fast-paced instrumental music followed later in the day but a nicely contrasting face of acoustic music is presented by the singer/songwriter/guitarist. The afternoon included sets from two first rate exponents, Ceilidh-Jo Rowe (ceilidh-jo.com) and Kitty Macfarlane (www.kittymacfarlane.net), both of whom are building strong followings with festival appearances and winning invitations to play support for such established acts as Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo and Feast of Fiddles.
The unaccompanied voice has long been a cornerstone of traditional music, both solo and in harmony. With The Teacups (www.facebook.com/theteacupsquartet) and The Ballina Whalers (www.theballinawhalers.com) both giving jaw-droppingly entertaining a capella sets, the future of this particular sub-genre seems in safe hands. The Teacups are four students from the Newcastle University Folk and Traditional Music degree but their music is far from being an academic exercise. They’ve devised fresh, exciting arrangements of both traditional and contemporary material and deliver it with infectious humour. The name leaves you in no doubt that The Ballina Whalers have a focus on maritime material but they are far more than a shanty crew. They describe themselves as “exploring ballads, shanties and seafaring songs that tell tales of whaling ships, lost loves, roaring storms and hardship out at sea.” Expect some familiar songs but not necessarily with familiar melodies and delight in three voices weaving harmonic patterns that draw the audience into the songs and hold them there.
PART 2 Tomorrow
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Video Sessions by Songs from the Shed (Recorded live at Halsway Manor)
Live Audio Recordings by Folk Radio UK (Recorded live at Halsway Manor*)
*Except The Drystones track which is taken from their debut release ‘The Album’.