Back in 1965 a little village in Oxfordshire was looking for ways to fund a much needed renovation of its village hall. It already hosted a folk club and the organisers wondered if the village could support a festival. They put that question to a folk musician they knew from his appearances at the club, Roy Bailey. Fast forward to August 2014 and I’m sat with Roy in the Artists’ Reception Tent at the 50th Towersey Festival, so I’m guessing his answer was yes. Had he been surprised by the question all those years ago? Well, yes, he thought he’d just been going to the village pub for a pint with folk club organiser and founder of the village Morris side, Denis Manners. But he’d been enthusiastic enough about the idea to pass the word around other singers and musicians and over the next few months a small festival, based in the village hall, The Three Horseshoes pub and on the village green took shape.
This year that little festival celebrated its golden anniversary in style, no longer so little, with around 8000 people on site at any one time, and attracting performances from some of the biggest names in folk music and dance in two concert tents, Venue 65 and The Big Club, a ceilidh tent and numerous smaller performance spaces both in the village and in two adjoining fields. As if that wasn’t enough, this year, the festival hooked up with another venerable folk institution, Topic Records, as they celebrate 75 years as a fully independent record label. The Saturday afternoon concert was given over to Topic, who engaged Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson to programme a celebration worthy of such a milestone; watch out for a second article focusing on this folk lovers’ dream party.
For the most part, folk festivals go out of their way to promote a friendly, sociable, family oriented atmosphere and Towersey is no exception, their strap line is “…another lovelier world”. First impression when arriving on the camping field was a little odd, though. I’m not used to seeing large spaces taped off with maybe just one tent inside them but these soon filled as friends and family arrived. Unlike many festivals, Towersey is quite happy for first arrivals to reserve space like this and the effect is noticeable throughout the weekend as encampments stage their own events from barbeques through music jams to the nearest one could imagine to a cocktail party in a field. It’s a far from random operation as I realised on overhearing a bar discussion on the intricacies of the spreadsheet one group used to calculate the space needed.
Music concerts kick off on Thursday evening, often with an artist or two that don’t quite fit into the folk music mould. And so we had an hour and a half of The Bootleg Beatles playing to a packed Venue 65, an audience that pretty much knew all the words to all the songs and were determined to sing along. Venue 65, the larger of Towersey’s two Big Tops, is primarily a standing/dancing venue but there was little room for any dancing that night.
The same was true the following night when Richard Thompson, one of this year’s star attractions, played a solo acoustic set. I’d asked Joe Heap, Festival Co-Director, about who they’d particularly wanted to book this year, to make the 50th Festival really special. Richard Thompson, having not played the festival before, had been top of their list and Richard certainly didn’t disappoint. Earlier this summer he released the album Acoustic Classics and, not surprisingly, almost all of the tracks featured in his set. This was just what the audience wanted to hear and went down a storm, but Richard made sure that he included some new or less familiar songs. An instant hit was Fergus Lang, the tale of a boorish property developer, who, whilst clearly entirely fictional, bears a remarkable similarity to… just a minute there’s a lawyer at the door.
I asked Richard about the origins of Acoustic Classics. He’d envisaged the album as one to have on the merch desk at gigs, a quick introduction to his back catalogue for people new to his music. It had been the record company’s idea to give it a formal release and promote it more widely. Even though he re-recorded all the tracks with arrangements that reflect how he currently performs them, he seemed genuinely surprised that long-time fans had shown such enthusiasm for it. So we moved on to talking about what lies ahead. There’s a 5 track EP ready for release, Boulevard Variations, electric treatments of other people’s songs, but it will be next year before a new band album is ready; no date has yet been set. He didn’t mention the Thompson family album that has been promised, so I just had to ask about it. “Ah, that’s Teddy’s project”, he replied, but went on to explain that he’d contributed 2 songs, as had Teddy, Linda, and Kami and husband James Walbourne (The Rails). Richard’s son, Jack, and grandson Zak are also involved. As one might expect, production was largely a matter of sending recorded parts around the world, electronically. The prospect of the entire Thompson family sitting around and playing together is still on hold. We didn’t get the chance to talk after the gig but I imagine even someone as used to rapturous receptions as he must be, would have left Towersey wearing a big smile. That’s exactly what the audience did.
Sunday night and Venue 65 was just as packed, this time for a mix of music, theatre, comedy and circus. Long time Towersey favourites, The Chipolatas, led the way and thrash metal ceilidh band (no, surely that can’t be right?), The Glorystrokes, brought up the rear. In between was all manner of mayhem including the showcasing of Simon Care’s gloriously pink melodeon, it may even glow in the dark. But it was also a night tinged with sadness as the Towersey family collectively said goodbye to former stalwarts who are no longer with us. Simon Care’s Towersey connection goes back to his early teenage years and now he’s a fixture, organising the extensive dance programme that runs throughout the weekend, both exhibition dances and ceilidhs. His vast array of contacts in the English folk dance world makes him ideally placed for the job and, when asked how he went about the task, “it’s all about quality, how good a show a team puts on”.
That would seem a fair guide to all aspects of Towersey, from the artists that provide almost continuous entertainment on the smaller stages, the Children’s Festival with its seemingly endless stream of activities and entertainments, the bars and huge variety of food stalls, to the top class acts booked for the main stages. It all shows a commitment to providing the best festival experience for everyone.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Part 2 of this review will focus on some of those quality main stage acts, and I apologise now to the many others that, as I couldn’t be in two places at once, I didn’t have the chance to see.