Staging the 2014 Folk Awards at The Royal Albert Hall might well be considered a mark of how seriously the BBC is taking the annual celebration of folk music these days. The awards have sort of been on tour since the BBC moved much of its operation out of London. The RAH setting certainly added to the prestige feel, with the front ranks of seats removed to seat the VIPs around tables close to the stage.
The stage was the other notable advantage and with the hosts Mark Radcliffe and Julie Fowlis off to the side, it gave a decent performance space for the various musical interludes with folk’s biggest big band getting the evening off to a swinging start. Bellowhead will be back to the venue soon for one of their two 10th anniversary specials and although not in the running for any awards this year, their Roll The Woodpile Down provided a suitably upbeat introduction.
Bellowhead – Roll The Woodpile Down
The teaming of Radcliffe, the BBC’s main folk champion with Julie Fowlis was another nice touch, putting someone with a decent history of performance and a career of music making at the focal point. It was all quite slickly handled too and the pace of the event wasn’t allowed to lag, which hasn’t always been the case. There was room for humour and droll asides about the other awards taking place on the same night (bad planning or what?), with Mark thanking the BAFTAS for providing the warm up act. Still although we were told there was no excuse for watching the Brits, as this was the ‘big one,’ a quick cast around this morning headlines rather puncture that.
But lets stay positive. The TV’s Red Button afforded the opportunity that a slightly less reliable stream jeopardised of watching the whole show live. The new slick model for presentation thankfully even made it through to the various guest presenters, who kept things moving along nicely and managed to convey real respectful enthusiasm for the music that fell the right side of any personal grandstanding or opportunist polemic.
There were several musicians amongst them, notably Jon Boden and Suzanne Vega, who doubled up with performances, but also Cara Dillon, Beth Neilsen Chapman and Show Of Hands. Perhaps the latter presenting Best Duo Award to Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin was the most interesting as there was a clear bond between the acts, made explicit in the acceptance speech, which gave thanks to the whole Show Of Hands team for their support and patronage. It may be fanciful, but there was a sense of continuity there, which goes to the heart of the folk scene.
The presence of Beth and Suzanne Vega, helped cement the Transatlantic aspects of the evening. Not only did Willie of Winsbury by Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer deservedly win the Best Traditional Track, but a sketch performed to welcome Cecil Sharp as the first inductee into the newly established Hall Of Fame made pointed reference to his collecting in the Appalachians as well as the UK. The sketch feature Ashley Hutchings as Cecil, but gave a space for father and son John and Benji Kirkpatick to perform together and also a stage for Morris Offspring. The winning song itself of course comes from The Child Collection and Francis James Child was an American scholar, even if his collection was based on the songs of the émigrés from Scotland and Ireland.
There was a also a performance from Richard Hawley and Martin Simpson, whose friendship started at the Folk Awards, when the former was asked to present an award to the latter. The pair discovered they were near neighbours, although operating in completely different orbits, but came together over the kitchen table and a couple of guitars. Martin’s Vagrant Stanzas was a direct result and as usual mixed American and British roots music, reflecting his many years of living in the USA. The duo chose Heartbreak Hotel, as their song, an interesting choice.
Martin Simpson and Richard Hawley – Heartbreak Hotel
It was appropriate that Cecil Sharp also played his hand in the big winner’s success on the night. The Full English won Best Group and also the public vote for Best Album. The EFDSS sponsored project has seen Fay Hield research and create the biggest on-line library of folk song available in the world. The Full English band, which includes Fay, Martin Simpson, Seth Lakeman and Nancy Kerr is the most immediately visible result and the album a worthy winner.
A couple of minor surprises came in the Horizon Award going to Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar and best musician going to Aidan O’Rourke. The awards were presented by two amateur musicians, the BBC presenter Katie Derham, who fronts the BBC’s coverage of The Proms and MP Kevin Brennan, who plays in a parliamentary band. Although there is no question that both awards are deserved, I’m sure the winners would admit to not being the highest profile of the nominees. But that said, Aidan’s dramatic and musically adventurous Hotline is a personal favourite and most deserving in my book.
On that note Lisa Knapp winning the Best Original Song with her Two Ravens from the brilliant and wildly inventive Hidden Seam was also most welcome. The same can be said for Bella Hardy winning the Folk Singer Of The Year. Upon reviewing Battleplan, I suggested that she had never sounded in better voice, something she attributed to a number of factors, which combined to reduce the stress on her voice prior to the album’s recording sessions. Bella also benefited from working with producer Mattie Foulds again but also being able to assemble a highly talented band, the Midnight Watch, who she was quick to credit.
It was good to see the Young Folk Award being brought into the main event. It had been kept separate in previous years, but with the eventual winners of last night, The Misha McPherson Trio, able to collect their gong at the main event and with plenty of coverage given to the contest within the contest, both prior and on TV during the interval, the sense of continuity was established. Jon Boden emphasised the point in his presentation with a roll call of the previous winners, highlighting some, like Tim Tim van Eyken and James Finlayson, with whom he has worked recently.
There was a lot of love in the room for the Lifetime Achievement Award recipients Martin Carthy and Clannad. Martin Performed with daughter Eliza and what is surprisingly their first album of duets is imminent. Clannad may not be one for the purists, but Cara Dillon did much to emphasise their genuine merits, while musically the Irish outfit have taken folk into the homes of many who would deny any interest in the genre. That may be a factor, just as important as any other, in the current surge of interest, a gradually creep of acceptance rather than any dramatic resurgence.
Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy – Died For Love
Finally even more love was shown for Fisherman’s Friends and Peggy Seeger’s tribute to her recently departed Pete Seeger. In both there was evidence of the common touch and the joy of singing folk songs, with Peggy demonstrating the way in which Pete would encourage his audience to join him. Perhaps both realise more than most the joys of communal singing, something which goes directly to the root of the motivations of the folk song collectors who we must thank for this wonderful musical legacy we call folk music.
Peggy Seeger and Guests – Quite Early Morning
The Fisherman’s Friends – Shanty Medley
The maxim of one of the first of the Copper Family, Bob ‘Brasser’ Copper, to get involved in song collecting was, “For every song a drink and let no man go without.” Rather than being an entreaty to get pissed (although a few tried that on for size last night), it was a levelling and a recognition of everyman (and everywoman). We all of us have our song, so sing it without fear and sing it for the common good of all.
Lifetime Achievement Award Winners
- Martin Carthy
Good Tradition Award
- Cambridge Folk Festival
Folk Singer of the Year
- Bella Hardy
- Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin
- The Full English
Best Album (public vote)
- The Full English – The Full English
- Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar
Musician of the Year
- Aidan O’Rourke
Best Original Song
- Two Ravens – Lisa Knapp
Best Traditional Track
- Willie of Winsbury – Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer
BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award
- The Mischa Macpherson Trio
Hall of Fame
- Cecil Sharp