Johnny continues his review of Towersey Festival (read part 1 here).
After announcing an, at least temporary, end to the reincarnated Albion Band back in January, Blair Dunlop has done as promised and focused on his solo work, releasing a fine second album, House of Jacks, back in May. This was much more a band album than his first, Blight and Blossom. As Blair was solo at Towersey with his acoustic guitar, his choice of material leaned more towards that first album and so presented an opportunity to appreciate again the qualities that took him to the Folk Awards in 2013 as Horizon Award winner. Lyrics that combine sharp observation with memorable phrasing were there aplenty and the songs he did include from his more recent work showed that this side of his song writing is maturing nicely. When I commented on this after his set he just emphasised how important the strength of his lyrics was to him and how appreciative he was when people recognised it.
The second quality to garner praise has been his acoustic guitar finger picking. Could he identify particular influences that he’d drawn on and brought together into his style? He named a host of UK based guitarists, Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, but, most particularly, Nic Jones who he greatly admires and acknowledges for the drone effect that he uses. I commented on the strong percussive elements of his style and for those he’s thankful to two American guitarists who have had a major influence on him, Preston Reed and Andy McKee.
As for the Albion Band, Blair felt that he was still in the process of finding his own voice and was working at being accepted for that. So, whilst he’d never say never, revisiting the Albion Band clearly isn’t a priority.
Nancy Kerr and James Fagan appeared in a number of different guises during the weekend, as the well-established eponymous duo, as half of The Melrose Quartet and in the first outing for Nancy’s new venture, Nancy Kerr & The Sweet Visitor Band. Oh, and James probably sneaked in a couple of appearances heavily disguised as part of The Glorystrokes.
I caught their Sweet Visitor set (image above), at which they launched the album of that name, and played the majority of tracks from it. For the Sweet Visitor band Nancy on vocals and fiddle and James on guitar and bouzouki were joined by Tom Wright on electric guitar and drums, Tim Yates on bass and melodeon and Rowan Rheingans joining Nancy on vocals. The power and artistry of Nancy’s song writing has been swelling the ranks of her admirers for several years now and so it’s no surprise that all the tracks on the album are her own compositions. In her live sets, though, she’s quick to acknowledge the debts she owes to those whose work has influenced her, mentioning in particular Peter Bellamy, Alistair Hulett and Leon Rosselson.
Those latter two names in particular are a pointer to the politically radical topics addressed by many of her songs. Nancy readily accepts she is heir to a tradition of protest in folk song; she describes her rôle as “consciousness raising, getting people to think”. This last couple of years she has been a part of the Full English project and that has helped clarify the connection she’s always felt between her song writing and the wider folk tradition. Recognising that connection doesn’t mean that she has ever wanted to copy, rather she sees traditional song as a template, a form that allows for more rapid composition.
Having famously lived on a canal boat for 12 years, Nancy and James now live in Sheffield, currently such a vibrant hub of all things ‘folkie’. This shows in the make-up of the Sweet Visitor band, they all live within a short distance of each other. Did she have an explanation for why Sheffield has become such a magnet for folk musicians? Cheap houses was her first thought, followed by musing on the healthy non-professional scene, pub-based singarounds and sessions and the way those and the professional activities feed off each other. Oh yes, and the Universities help.
Taking to the Big Club stage immediately after The Sweet Visitor Band were the Urban Folk Quartet, once more gigging intensively after the twin upheavals of a line-up change and the birth of Joe and Paloma’s daughter Sabella. This was my first chance to get together with them since and the first question (Ok, admittedly after some baby talk) had to be, how was the new boy (Dan Walsh) settling in? The broad smiles all round gave the answer, they reckoned it was the smoothest personnel change imaginable, just the previous night they’d all met up with former member Frank Moon and his family and it had been one big party. So did that mean nothing had changed? Hardly! Replacing an instrument as unique as Frank’s oud with a banjo doesn’t exactly imply continuity but Dan is equally at home on guitar and so pieces where Frank had played guitar were rapidly incorporated. Balancing the removal of the oud, Dan has brought banjo, a strong vocal presence, a love of Americana and maybe, in future, Indian songs and music. And, as soon as you see them on stage, you realise he’s also brought that vital spark of sheer enjoyment that is at the heart of any UFQ performance. As Joe puts it, “the band is a family…we hang out together so chemistry is vital… we genuinely have to have fun together, we can’t work any other way”
Their Towersey performance had all the energy, humour, frenetic percussion from Tom and all round musical expertise that one has come to expect. And the promise of more to come, as Dan’s influence on the repertoire matures. As for the future, they’ve a full tour schedule that will take them to next summer and beyond and are laying plans for a new album. The tally so far is 2 studio and 2 live albums. They intend the next album to be what they term a “proper” studio album. So far they’ve just turned up and played, next time they’re prepared for overdubs and the other recording tricks that will enable them to add things they can’t do in a live set.
Lau’s album, Race the Loser, was hailed for pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved when you start with a trio of folk instruments, guitar, fiddle and accordion but then add the imagination and audacity of three outstanding and adventurous musicians. As they’ve gained confidence in themselves, and one suspects, in their audiences, they’ve become more comfortable with incorporating aspects of their recorded sound in live performance. It sounded strange to hear three such respected musicians saying they felt they’d first had to demonstrate their musical proficiency. To them, the bits of technology they now employ are themselves instruments and they have had to learn how to play them, indeed I recall Kris Drever telling me last year he felt Lau was itself an instrument they could collectively play. This idea cropped up again in conversation at Towersey, they all describe the band as operating as a unit, complex processes have now been worked through so often, they have a short hand vocabulary so they can rapidly implement intricate passages in new compositions. On stage it’s Martin Green who is most visibly in charge of the knob twiddling but keep an eye on Kris and Aidan’s feet, there’s a labyrinth of pedals down there. Martin also has a new instrument alongside his accordion and keyboards, a fork and spoon board with lots of wires and a few knobs (see below). I didn’t dare ask.
After all this chat about technology it was refreshing to settle down and just let Lau’s constantly changing soundscape of music wash over me. And realise again just how exhilarating and satisfying a live band they are. They are currently writing material for the next album. They already have more than they could use but that won’t stop them from continuing to compose up until December when they have the studio booked with Joan Wasser (Joan as Police Woman) lined up to produce.
Having been associated with the Festival for so long, it’s become something of a tradition that Roy Bailey plays a set on the Monday afternoon. Indeed, as Roy pointed out, for many people it has become the de facto end of the festival, even though the music continues on throughout Monday evening. This year, to mark the special anniversary and the huge part that Roy has contributed over the 50 years, rather than just play, Roy was asked to compère the Monday afternoon concert, introducing and collaborating with artists that he’s long been associated with and counts as his friends.
First up was Jim Woodland, singer, song writer, playwright and someone whose politics closely align with Roy’s. The Wilson Family (image below), who followed on, may be less overtly political, but many of their songs relate the struggles of the common man over the centuries and their between song chat leaves little doubt as to where their sympathies lie. Their five voices harmonise in ways that only the closeness of a family group readily achieves. Along with The Watersons and The Copper Family, they’ve kept the faith with this traditional form and helped secure its place in today’s vibrant folk music world.
Roy described his next guest, John Kirkpatrick, as the complete folk musician and John lived up to his billing, not just delivering a fine solo set but then teaming up with Roy, occasionally with songs that he’d never heard Roy sing before. As Roy says, he does make a habit of dropping people into these situations but only because he’s confident that their talent will make the result worth it. For the remainder of the concert Roy performed solo, or with Marc Block on bodhran, with John, with The Wilsons and finally he introduced Andy Cutting into the mix. Roy’s chat between songs can be somewhat disjointed, as he keeps reminding you, at his age you can be expected to forget things. And sometimes that’s the end of the sentence you just started. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Roy had the Big Club audience eating out of his hand, there was an atmosphere of affection and appreciation in that tent that would have forgiven him for just about anything.
Talking with Mike Wilson, the current watchword for The Wilson Family seems to be collaboration. In great demand they are finding themselves thrust into some very unfamiliar surroundings, from contributing to a prom at the Albert Hall to performing with Sting at the New York launch of his The Last Ship production. Whilst in New York they met with Paul Simon who’s since acquired copies of all their albums, so maybe another door is opening.
My final chat of the weekend was with festival co-director, Joe Heap. Our essential topic was next year’s festival. Big changes are happening as the farmer who’s so generously allowed his fields to be used for many years needs to turn them over to crops rather than pasture. So, Towersey Festival is wrenching itself away from Towersey village to a readymade showground site on the outskirts of the nearby town of Thame. Joe made it very clear that the aim is for as little change as possible to the structure and atmosphere of the festival, though the opportunity will be taken to iron out some of the organisational wrinkles that have developed as the festival has grown and indeed outgrown its present site. There’s even a plan to use the festival bus that currently takes people into Thame to operate in reverse and, by taking people from Thame into Towersey, allow the Festival to continue using locations such as the Three Horsehoes pub and the Village Hall. 2015 will open another fascinating chapter in the Towersey Festival story and Joe is enthusiastic for Folk Radio to be a part of it.
Joe Heap Talking about Towersey 2015
In our final part of the Towersey Review Johnny reviews Topic Record’s 75th Anniversary Concert.
Review by: Johnny Whalley