In a nice little coincidence of landmark anniversaries, this is the 15th annual BBC Radio Two Folk Awards and also the 10th compilation CD set, featuring the runners and riders. For one reason and another it hasn’t always been easy to feature all of the nominees, but there have been a bare handful of exclusions down the years and this year’s compilation has bagged a full set.
If memory serves it was Mike Harding, the erstwhile host, who instigated the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards following a trip to America and witnessing the AMAs, or some similar celebration of US home-grown musical culture. In the process he created something that pushed well beyond the BBC’s usual commitment to specialist music and has earned its place as somewhat of a rallying point in the calendar of the wider community of musicians that fall under the folk banner. It’s at very least a valuable focus point for the media and generates more column inches of coverage and minutes of radio and TV air time than anything else that might call itself a folk event.
Inevitably the awards have attracted their share of controversy along the way. Any awards will. For starters there are nominees and winners, but the shortlist and the final selection naturally exclude more than they can embrace. While not making the cut is an obvious source of discontented mutterings from within, the awards also stand as a beacon for folk bashers and BBC bashers alike. Mutterings of Machiavellian scheming, cronyism and closed shop pop up each year. You can say what you like about the short lists, especially if you actually spend any serious time listening to the full variety of folk music, attending folk festival, clubs, etc, but to suggest that anyone has a vested interest in some sort of fix is laughable. What could possibly be gained?
Arguably the BBC haven’t helped themselves, perhaps playing their cards a little close to their chest in terms of the judging panel and not always knowing what to do with the event itself. But accusations of elitism and the attendant calls for Mumfordism are the most tiresome arguments of the lot. Folk music isn’t something that happens when you pick up an acoustic guitar or banjo, but nor is it confined to worthies mining manuscripts in the dusty bowels of C# House.
Anybody who reads my reviews will know that I favour the broadest brush and am all for inclusions rather than exclusion. But I draw the line at opening this up into something that pits platinum selling, stadium filling pop stars against the denizens of the folk and arts club circuit. It’s not a contest that has much merit for me. Still, I’ll happily chip my tuppence worth into any debate, although mostly just to play devil’s advocate, as there is no single definition of folk music worth striving for and no perfect way set up a meritocracy of its performers.
So here we go round again and despite it all, there’s still a cause for real celebration. The CD is as always a benchmark for folk’s artistic standing and for both cognoscenti and dilettante a most worthwhile purchase. If you forget any agenda and simply listen to the music then it’s simply excellent. There is such variety of styling and delivery, instrumentation and vocal technique on display and yet somehow, the discs have a very natural flow, which is perhaps the compilers alchemy. Knowing a little of the personalities involved it’s fair to say that no favouritism is given, but a patient ear and detailed knowledge of the comings and goings of the folk scene built up over many years are key.
It amounts to 23 tracks from the main nominees as some of them appear in more than one category, plus there is the bonus of the final four to make the Young Folk Award cut, split over two CDs. It makes for an eclectic run through and whilst there are some familiar names to even casual folk watchers and more for the likes of you dear reader, when you see the track listing it knocks any suggestion of vested interest into a cocked hat.
Amongst the more familiar names and probably regulars on previous CD sets are Martin Simpson, Bella Hardy, Chris Wood, Lau and perhaps Fay Hield over recent years. But then for Fay this marks the year of The Full English, as all of this actually happened last year despite its 2014 billing. The Full English is both a groundbreaking achievement in pulling together the biggest on-line resource of folk song imaginable and also a great record, worthy of Best Album and Best Group nomination in any year with Man In The Moon featured here. Fay is also a performer who has established herself on the live circuit in her own right and few would knock her own nomination for Best Singer, even if the track Weaver’s Daughter comes form her 2012 Orfeo CD.
Bella with Whiskey Is The Devil from Battleplan, Chris with the tile track from None The Wiser and Martin with the Vagrant Stanzas cut Delta Dreams, all made great records last year too and are all on runs of consecutive top quality albums that few can match. Lau meanwhile are regular Best Live Act nominees and surely only those who have never seen them can question the merit in that, but again it’s Throwing Pennies from their 2012 release that represents them here, as I guess the version on Remixed from last year is perhaps a little too radical.
Linda Thompson may be a famous name but she is anything but a regular nominee as her solo albums are rare events. Literally struck dumb by a rare psychosomatic condition, she has been unable to do much in the way of singing in recent years, although three in 11 years constitutes something of a roll. If you are tempted to suggest the sympathy vote for Won’t Be Long Now in the Best Album category that brooks no argument with me and Love’s For Babies And For Fools, written for Rufus Wainwright, show why. It’s an album of great quality, superb songs and very well sung, even in her voice lacks the passionate verve of …Bright Lights… and Hokey Pokey, etc.
All of the above have featured prominently on Folk Radio UK over the last year, but that has only covered a scant half dozen of the 23 tracks and four bonus cuts and that’s where the fun begins. Amongst the others Lisa Knapp with Two Ravens plucked from Hidden Seam, Lucy Ward whose Marching Through The Green Grass from her Single Flame are included. Two excellent duos, Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin and Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, are represented by The Nail Makers Strike Part II from Mynd and Anyone But Me from Fire And Fortune respectively. Aidan O’Rourke meanwhile has the title track from the brilliant Hotline on disc two. Each has a distinct appeal and their contrasting styles are what make this such a fascinating listen from start to finish.
To emphasise the point try flitting between Annais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer who open disc on with Willie Of Winsbury, Will Pound’s A Cut Above / The Hesleyside Reel and Catrin Finch & Sekou Keita’s Les Bras De Mer. On disc two there’s Georgia Ruth with Codi Angor, Olivia Chaney’s Swimming In The Longest River and Ross Ainslie & Jarlath Henderson performing Full Moon, to give you a completely different, but no less thrilling pick and mix.
It’s worth noting that even the Young Folk Award finalists, Gentlemen Of Few, the Mischa Macpherson Trio, Granny’s Attic range from rambunctious Americana through wistful, beautiful Gaelic airs to a sea shanty, finishing the set with Hattie Briggs in classic singer songwriter mode. These tracks are all recorded live at the final event, but the performances are quite stunning and these four acts should be filed in the memory banks with the hope of burgeoning careers to come.
So having played with fire with the first half of this piece, I can’t resist… This year will see the launch of The Radio Two Folk Awards Hall Of Fame and I can think of no better inductee than Mike Harding. Having set this whole show in motion, I think even he will be surprised by what it has come to mean. Add 15 years at the helm of the evening Folk slot and the genre has gone form strength to strength on his watch, which is more than just coincidence. It’s time the BBC gave him the credit he is due.
Review by: Simon Holland
Pre-Order Now from Proper Music
Released February 17, 2014