Wickham Festival headlined its opening night this year with one of pop’s big names, James Blunt, and it’s a measure of how well organiser Peter Chegwyn knows his potential audience that he programmed Afro Celt Sound System onto the second stage, confident that both venues would be packed out. Indeed they were and I was grateful the heavy rain that greeted our arrival in the afternoon had cleared as I anticipated I’d be standing outside of both marquees during the evening. Able to give James twenty minutes or so before the Afro Celts started, I’m pleased to say his combination of well-crafted songs and polished presentation was delighting the capacity Big Top crowd as I made my way across to the Little Top, just in time for the Afro Celts (main image). There followed a little over an hour of the most rhythmically infectious live music I’ve heard in a long time. A mix of the new, tracks that hopefully will be on the album they’re currently recording, and the familiar, several from the Further in Time album, still my favourite I think.
Earlier the festival had kicked off in fine style with a set from John Jones & The Reluctant Ramblers who ended their pre-festival ramble over the Downs by walking into the festival site somewhat wet and muddy in the afternoon rain. But that certainly didn’t get in the way of their music nor did it dampen John’s enthusiasm to talk afterwards about both his music and his walking, so watch out for a feature article in the near future.
It’s a fair bet that those getting weekend tickets for Wickham this year would divide into people who’d name James Blunt as the headline act and those who’d unhesitatingly plump for Saturday night’s closers, Steve Earle and the Dukes. Opportunities to see Steve perform with his full band don’t come up all that frequently in the UK and so his welcome to the Wickham stage was warm and enthusiastic. A couple of sound issues clearly unsettled him for the first few minutes but, with those sorted, he relaxed into a set which mixed material from all stages of his career. He made sure to pepper it with the songs that everyone would want to hear, songs such as Copperhead Road and Galway Girl. The Dukes were given plenty to do, particularly husband and wife team Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle and Chris Masterson on guitar. Together they record as The Mastersons and, for a short section of the set, showcased their own material. They are impressive musicians and song writers. Steve’s songs tell intriguing stories and his chat can be equally engaging, so, an hour and a half slipped by all too quickly and we were at encore time. The Band’s Rag Mama Rag was Steve’s choice and he dedicated it to the much missed Levon Helm.
Wickham has a strong tradition of bringing Scottish music to the South Coast and there was plenty in evidence this year, starting with the excellent guitar work of Tony McManus followed by Dick Gaughan. Dick’s set focused on the more rousing elements of his back catalogue, no place, I’m afraid, for Burns’ songs. But Dick judged his audience well and showed how good he is at entertaining whilst delivering harsh but fair messages to those prepared to listen. I asked in particular about one song, Whatever happened?, a not so gentle reminder to those of his 60s generation that they used to have ideals, they used to care. He summed it up as raising two fingers to those who said he would change as he grew older. He very clearly still cares about inequality, poverty, exploitation of workers… there’s a long list. But does he care about what effect his songs about such topics can have? Surprisingly, he says not, if he can make a difference that’s fine, if not, that’s fine too, he’ll go on singing the songs and supporting the causes he believes in. A man at peace with himself, at least in part, because he still has the energy and the fire to rail against an unjust world.
The Scottish contingent was much in evidence on Friday afternoon. A 4+ hour block kicked off with a chance to hear the mix of traditional and contemporary, sometimes folky, sometimes country songs of Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes, re-united after 40 years. Next up, the instrumental compositions of master fiddle player Duncan Chisholm set out to evoke and wordlessly describe places that have strong personal associations for him. Performing as a trio with Jarlath Henderson on uilleann pipes and whistles and Matheu Watson on guitar, many of his chosen pieces were from the recently completed Strathglass Trilogy of albums, all relating to the ancient Chisholm Clan lands, mountainous country to the west of Loch Ness. The changing moods of such places was perfectly captured, just close your eyes to be transported from a Hampshire downland field to the rugged beauty of a highland glen. Duncan is in the early stages of preparing his next album, composing melodies but not yet clear as to the hook that will bring it all together. The trio will be out on tour again early next year whilst Duncan’s “other” band, Wolfstone, will tour Denmark and play some summer festivals next year but are currently taking a breather.
Jarlath Henderson was back on stage straight after with Ross Ainslie, a partnership nominated for this year’s Best Duo at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. At Wickham, though, they were joined by regular collaborators Duncan Lyall on bass, Ali Hutton on guitar and Innes Watson on fiddle, in fact most of the team that recorded last year’s album Airfix. Along with Eamonn Nugent on bodhran they raised the tempo and brewed up a storm with the two pipe combination of Jarlath on uilleann and Ross on border pipes interspersed with some slightly less frenetic whistle tunes and even an occasional Jarlath vocal.
The Scottish afternoon closed with the exquisite voice of Julie Fowlis accompanied by husband, Eamon Doorley, Duncan Chisholm, and Tony Byrne. Julie yet again demonstrated that singing almost exclusively in Gaelic is no barrier to communication when you have a voice that grabs the attention of an audience and the stage presence to entertainingly set the context for each song.
With the music starting at midday, it’s always a challenge for festival programmers to find an act that can kick off the day in style and then for the chosen artists to rise to the occasion. Wickham provided two excellent examples of how this can be achieved with full on high energy performances. 3 Daft Monkeys, with their mix of world music rhythms, gypsy flavoured fiddle and intriguing lyrics, have been getting festival audiences on their feet for many years and now that there are four of them, the exuberance of their performances has been raised to another level. As a trio, they either had bass or percussion but now they can have both. Original member Richie Mulryne re-joined in 2010, bringing back his hand percussion kit. It may look a bit like a conventional drum kit but there’s not a stick in sight. Alongside the bass of Lukas Drinkwater it provides a firm rhythmic backbone to Tim Ashton and Athene Roberts’s flights of vocal and instrumental fantasy. A ‘must see’ festival band who readily coaxed the early afternoon crowd into leaping around the tent.
New Yorker Matt Gordon and Manitoba native Leonard Podolak’s music is a far cry from the Daft Monkeys but can have a remarkably similar effect on the audience. Old time Appalachian banjo and fiddle leads on to clog dancing and then there’s the introduction of hamboning. Your hambone lies between hip and knee and slapping there can make for interesting percussion, easily expanded by incorporating some chest hits and on to other body parts. All this cries out for audience participation and before long most of the tent are on their feet beating out a rhythm that somehow transmutes into We Will Rock You. That’s a surefire way to liven up anyone’s Sunday afternoon. Having made a major impact playing support for Show of Hands’ autumn tour in 2012, they’re now continuing the connection as part of Steve Knightley’s Wake the Union Band. Unfortunately, Matt and Len had another gig to travel on to; otherwise we’d have been treated to more of their talents as they would have joined in with the Wake the Union Band later that day. However, they say the UK can look forward to regular visits from them, just as often as their many other projects allow. The Wake The Union Band that evening was the lineup we reviewed at Abbotsbury in July.
While I’m thinking of bands that raised the tent temperature, three others deserve a mention. Saturday afternoon introduced us to Connecticut four-piece, Caravan of Thieves on their first UK visit. They loosely describe themselves as being driven by gypsy jazz rhythms on acoustic guitars and fiddle but it stays in the memory that these are reinforced by a mix of percussion that includes empty water cooler sized plastic bottles and a variety of tin cans, pretty much anything you can hit. Their choice of songs is eclectic, ranging from By The Light Of The Silvery Moon to Talking Head’s Psycho Killer by way of a variety of their own compositions.
Sarah Savoy’s Hell Raising Hayride play raw, no frills Cajun music and they do it with style and passion. Sarah comes from a family of Cajun musicians that can trace its roots back to settlers who left France in 1604 and to Acadians that headed south when pushed out of Canada and New England by the British in the mid-1700s. Sarah nowadays spends much of her time in France and her current band is a mix of North American and French musicians, her husband Manalo Gonzales on acoustic and electric guitars, Marty Vickers on drums, Thomas Bailey on fiddle and Michel Lemare on bass and piano accordion, Sarah belts out the vocals and plays accordion. Not content with taking Cajun music around the globe, she’ll also cook up a wealth of traditional dishes for you. She had to leave Wickham straight after her set to return to Shropshire for the Cajun and Zydeco Big Weekend where she was aiming to feed the crowd as well as entertain them.
For some hardened festival goers, all this talk of high energy crowd stirring performances will ring a little hollow. Nothing gets them going but a set of highland pipes in full voice and we had to wait until Sunday afternoon before they made an appearance. Rura have made a major impression on the burgeoning Scottish trad scene since they came together in 2010. Winners of the Danny Kyle award at Celtic Connections and the MG Alba Scottish Trad Music award for ‘Up and coming artist of the year’ in 2011, they released their debut album Break It Up the following year to widespread praise. This year the band has added Adam Brown’s acoustic guitar to Adam Holmes’s acoustic guitar and vocals, Jack Smedley’s fiddle and Steven Blake on those pipes. For their Wickham appearance, Eamonn Nugent deputized for their regular bodhran player, David Foley. A mix of their own compositions, both vocal and instrumental, with traditional pieces, readily demonstrated why they’ve already garnered so much praise and gave pointers to what we can expect from their next album, release anticipated next spring.
Did I say just three more bands needed a mention for their ability to get the crowd dancing and cheering? Better make that four as the Sunday programme was closed by the familiar but nonetheless intoxicating mayhem that is Bellowhead. In addition to old favourites, their set naturally drew on material from the latest album, Revival. Greeted with a particularly rousing cheer was Gosport Nancy. With the town only 6 miles away, a song in praise of its ladies went down exceptionally well with the local audience.
The artists starting off the action on Saturday had a very different style. The high energy approach wouldn’t sit well with Ian Bruce and Ian Walker’s brand of music. Along with Ian W’s wife, Moe, they held the attention with a combination of well-crafted songs and entertaining links. And they have quite a story to tell, having first met, written and performed songs together over 25 years ago they subsequently pursued parallel careers writing songs that, in the case of Ian B, owe an influence to Paul Simon whilst Ian W developed a style combining traditional with American country influences. Circumstances recently brought them back together, initially as friends but they soon rediscovered shared musical interests that led them back to performing together.
Wherever The Poozies play just now, attention inevitably focuses on vocalist and guitarist Sally Barker after her nationwide exposure on TV’s The Voice. But a performance from The Poozies readily transcends that with the combination of fiddle (Eilidh Shaw), harp (Mary Macmaster), accordion, whistles and pipes (Mairearad Green) complementing vocals from all four. Chatting with them afterwards, whilst Sally’s collaborations with Tom Jones inevitably came up first, it was the range of other work pursued by all four that impressed. Mary works in duos with percussionist Donald Hay and with her long time harp playing collaborator Patsy Seddon, Mairearad is in a duo with fiddler Anna Massie and is in great demand as a composer as well as being director of the Summer Isles Festival. Eilidh Shaw has a solo career and plays with Harem Scarem (the Scottish folk version rather than the Canadian hard rockers!)
No Wickham Festival would be complete without an Irish contingent but this year it was relatively small. Luka Bloom was unable to make his appearance because of illness and so it was up to Altan to fly the musical flag for Ireland. This was quality stuff both instrumentally and vocally. Led by founding member Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh on vocals and fiddle and with 3 other members on guitar, bouzouki and accordion we were treated to a feast of traditional Irish tunes and songs many featuring the distinctive style of Mairéad’s native Donegal.
Also billed for a Sunday appearance were McGoldrick, McCusker and Drever. With John Doyle presently in the States, Kris Drever has been recruited to the trio, contributing the guitar part to this summer’s gigs but also providing the bonus of adding Drever vocals into the mix. In a further difference from what one might expect from a Michael McGoldrick trio, travel complications meant that Michael came equipped with a variety of flutes but not his trademark uilleann pipes. Nonetheless, the afternoon was set alight with tune after tune showing dazzling interplay between the flutes and John McCusker’s fiddle all underpinned by Kris’s guitar rhythms.
Inevitably, this review has been dominated by the artists appearing on the main stage but, like any good festival, there was plenty of musical choice available with two other stages running full programmes. As well as featuring established names, these stages provide great opportunities for large numbers of local musicians to play to audiences that might never otherwise get to hear their music. Add in the Morris and other dance sides, the children’s’ activities, the Groovy Movie Theatre, the real ale bars, an abundance of food and craft stalls and Wickham provides a complete family festival weekend that gets better each year.
Review by: Johnny Whalley