When I arrive at the site on Sunday morning, the Archers is blaring out of the festival tannoy. Amusing though this is, it also sums up the festival perfectly. The longest running soap at the longest running festival, the whiff of middle-class urbanity coupled with a twist of subversive quirkiness –‘I know, we’ve got a captive audience of thousands, hundreds of them already here and setting out their stall for the day’s entertainment, but I just have to know whether Roy will do the dirty on Hayley and up sticks for Elisabeth’ – the V Festival this isn’t.
The Young’uns (Teessider’s Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes) are no strangers to Folk Radio UK. Eagle announces their opening slot by declaring themselves ‘..either the official headliners of The Archers, or loosely supporting Van Morrison’. David admits to some early nerves on stage 1 but you wouldn’t have known. His razor wit races over the heads of the early morning audience and out into the bright sunshine, as does their magnificent rendering of Jack Ironside. Theirs is a set that combines fiery lyrics asserting strong working class views that Billy Bragg would be proud of, with stand-up Billy Connolly could learn a thing or two from. Combining the two-Billy approach and being able to focus on some tremendously moving three-part harmonies is no mean feat for midday on a Sunday lunchtime. I mention this to them when we meet backstage later and Michael nods in agreement, ‘we always try to vary the set. You’re expected to do the patter in folk clubs; any sniff of a heckle and we’re all over it.’
They first played Cambridge in 2012, in the Club Tent and they’d already played Stage 2 on Saturday this year; ‘it was a very different set. We focused on lively numbers, some sea shanties. The shed was full, there was a party atmosphere.’ I was struck by how many people in the crowd were clearly affected by their music and told them so. Michael pushes his glasses back up his nose and looks to the floor somewhat self-consciously, ‘we get told loads of people cry, then cry with laughter’ he says.
It’s a magical combination and their peers are obviously aware of the ‘Young’uns effect’. Seth Lakeman told me you were mad – ‘We’ll take that as a compliment’. Stu from Megson said much the same thing. Michael grins, ‘we know Megson well. Stu produced our album, says it was the worst three weeks of his life!’ David laughs and spins another tale, ‘Stu’s crazy. He’d stop us halfway through a song and tell us to do it again, but imagine we were being chased through a wood by a wolf.’ Sean concludes ‘we said ‘Stu, 400 people have just died in this song and you want us to pretend to be chased by a wolf’, but he wanted us to find the right voice for the lyric.’ All three laugh, very much at ease with each other and happy to finish sentences started elsewhere.
I ask them about the importance of Teesside and regional history. Sean is happy to agree – ‘Definitely, yes. Very important. We didn’t realise there were local songs and stories about where you come from.’ So how did they find out? ‘We went to a local [folk] club. We’d never heard songs like it ‘cos pop music didn’t sing about these subjects. I remember telling Michael and he went to HMV to find them; ‘course, they weren’t there.’ Michael; ‘we feel lucky to have discovered them.’ The three have hit their straps now, off-stage for only an hour and just finished a marathon signing session but winding each other up about their origins. Sean again, ‘I was living in Hartlepool and we’d opened a club there. We’d travel around town and listen to sailors and fishermen tell stories in the pubs, then go home and write about them.’
Back on stage, three of the songs from the set are exemplary evidence for these traditional methods. John Hill is a distant relation of Sean’s who fell in 1914, John Ball the priest at the centre of the 14th century Peasants Revolt and The Battle of Stockton tells the tale of how Oswald Mosley’s jack-booted thugs were marched out of a northern town ‘..when our grandfathers said no.’ They sang Sydney Carter’s John Ball on the Left Field stage at Glastonbury with Billy Bragg, a moment they obviously cherish, ‘to be able to sing with Billy and dedicate that song to Tony Benn – whoo!’
Their resident wisecracker Eagle has a random flight of fantasy about saying the wrong thing as Radio 2 broadcast from the festival, and even heckles himself at one point, stopping A Lovely Cup Of Tea to mock his own idealistic lyric. When you’re not falling about laughing you’re sitting or standing in awe at their ability to trigger the sadder side of the emotional spectrum, the latter respectfully introduced by their main songwriter Sean Cooney. Portraits of young sailors who didn’t come home from war, the tribute to John Ball, and perhaps most appropriately a day before the 100th anniversary of World War One, the stunning John Hill. It’s a superb beginning to proceedings, and I can’t help think that on their current trajectory they won’t be opening on stage 1 for very long, though as Michael told me later, ‘we’re just living the dream, singing for a living’. They’re off to America with the EFDSS for the Folk Alliance and then onto Australia later this year. A UK tour is scheduled for next May; if you think your heart, and ribs, can stand it, book a ticket the minute they go on sale.
- Jack Ironside
- The Three Sailors
- The Battle of Stockton
- Sea-Shanties (Blood Red Roses; Shallow Brown)
- John Hill
- A Lovely Cup Of Tea
- John Ball
As the main stage crowd takes a collective breath, Sarah Jarosz is welcomed to the same stage. Sarah and her colleagues, Cellist Nathaniel Smith and Alex Hargreaves on Fiddle set themselves up in an intimate semi-circle and are dwarfed by the cavernous stage, but there’s no sign that the august surroundings bother them. Playing songs from all three of her albums as well as carefully chosen covers (Bela Fleck, Dylan) Jarosz gets better and better and the crowd more appreciative as she goes on. One or two songs elicit whoops from the crowd. Old Smitty is fiery, Over The Edge is funky and the title track of her latest record, Build Me Up From Bones is sublime. For someone so young, Jarosz has made sure every moment of her career to date has counted; her debut on the main stage is no exception.
I spoke to Sarah after her set. In possibly a first for both of us, the interview is interrupted towards the end by an inquisitive Moorhen; only at Cambridge! She’s just finished performing a solo ‘Build Me Up From Bones’ for the festival TV crew and like The Young’uns, Sarah had played stage 2 the day before. She’s clearly comfortable at all levels of performance and I wondered what the difference was. ‘Stage 2’s a little more intimate – I was worried stage 1 wouldn’t be as personable, but the crowd felt like they were right there, it felt like we got a good reception.’ The cover versions were nicely chosen; ‘Yeah, the Bela Fleck was Alex. It’s squashed between two other songs on his ‘The Bluegrass Sessions’ but Alex plucked it out.’
Cambridge isn’t the first time Sarah’s been in the UK. In fact, the last 12-18 months have seen her visit regularly for promotional work and gigs. ‘I came over about four years ago to do the Transatlantic Sessions TV programme, which I followed up earlier this year by touring with them.’ And how was that? ‘Great! It was a dream come true. To do a couple of weeks with those guys, all of them, but especially Shawn Colvin, she’s a hero of mine, it was neat getting to know her.’ Cambridge marks the end of touring, at least for a while, ‘I’m getting a week of vacation now which is great. Most of the time it’s two or three days in-between gigs and all I have time to do is my laundry and get ready to go again!’ The manic schedule is paying off; Build Me Up From Bones has been a huge success. ‘Thanks. It makes the hard work and travel feel absolutely worth it.’
With everything going on, it’s perhaps surprising that Sarah would choose to spend some of her free time watching other artists, but the night before, I stood not five feet from her as she took in Rosanne Cash’s set on the main stage. ‘I’ve not played with her, though John Leventhal (Rosanne’s husband) did play on Runaway on my album. They sounded incredible last night, such a great band. They were on with Bob Harris in February when I was over and I was there that night too.’ Ah, Mr. Harris, seemingly as much of a legend in the US as he in the UK – she laughs, ‘Oh yeah, he’s great.’
The festival circuit has been good to Ms. Jarosz. As well as the chance to see other artists, it was at a festival that she was introduced to Darrell Scott, which led to an opportunity to write with the noted Country songwriter, ‘We talked for several years about getting together. Finally I was in Nashville and went over to his house one day. He made me lavender lemonade and we talked all day then wrote another song that I didn’t play today. I went back into the studio to finish ‘Build Me Up..’ and our recording time was down to the wire. I had to finish 1000 Things but just couldn’t, so I sent it to Darrell and the next day it came back complete.’ Seems Sarah got moved to the top of his list, ‘Yeah, he’s a hero, for sure.’
It’s nearly time for Sarah to start that holiday, but though she won’t be back in the UK anytime soon, there’s plenty on her to-do list. ‘I’m touring my own stuff in September, then going out on a joint collaboration with the Milk Carton Kids – we keep bumping into each other and wanted to do something properly.’ And an album? ‘I’ll start thinking about it early 2015, but there’s nothing official in the works. I’m always trying to collect ideas, I use my phone a lot to gather lyrical phrases and melodies, but I need to set time aside to concentrate on writing. I’ve written one or two songs on the road but it’s incredibly rare for me.’ You need some structure – didn’t studying at the Conservatory give you that? ‘I didn’t study classical – I was on a course called ‘The Contemporary Improvisation’. We did theory, some 16th century counterpoint..’ I suggest she puts some of that on her fourth album; she laughs, ‘..we’ll see!’
- Come Around
- Build Me Up From Bones
- Old Smitty
- Ring Them Bells (Dylan)
- Over The Edge
- The Puddlejumper (Bela Fleck)
- 1000 Things
- Fuel The Fire
- Come On Up To The House (Tom Waits)
Review and Interviews by: Paul Woodgate
Paul will be back with part 4 shortly covering Jason Isbell, The Rails, Lucy Ward and Van Morrison