Swanage Festival must have one of the most immediately appealing settings of any festival. The main concert marquee sits on Sandpit Field, a public green space overlooking the sandy beach of Swanage seafront, just high enough above the promenade to give uninterrupted views across the bay to Old Harry’s Rocks to the left and Durlston Head to the right. Ok, so I’m a geologist and the opportunity to combine twin passions of folk and rock immediately put me in a great mood. But I certainly wasn’t alone when walking around with a beaming smile on my face. The festival’s constitution requires afternoon concerts to be open to all and the healthy throughput of casual visitors this attracts in turn ensures an equally healthy number of food, craft and clothing stalls, a win-win and a great way of introducing folk music to a wider audience. The Festival, though, is much more than the music and events on Sandpit Field, there are performances and workshops in various church halls, and over 60 dance sides parading through the town and performing in numerous outdoor locations. Add to that the pubs putting on bands and the near continuous instrumental and vocal sessions operating inside and outside of The Red Lion until the wee small hours and you get a picture of a town embracing a friendly folk music invasion.
So, what of the music that both casual visitor and folk devotees could sample? Friday evening’s marquee concert set an excellent standard with four acts ranging from two long established favourites of the UK folk scene, Johnny Coppin and Mike Silver (image above) making one of their occasional appearances as a duo, to two of the young bands that have made major impacts on this summer’s festival scene, The Lucy Ward Band and Blackbeard’s Tea Party. In the middle of this wide range lay the night’s opening act, Winter Wilson. Husband and wife team, Kip Winter and Dave Wilson, have been making music together for almost 20 years but, I must confess, this was the first time I’d met them. I was bowled over by their combination of thoughtful and sometimes thought-provoking lyrics delivered by two voices that harmonise and blend so well. Two years ago, faced with redundancy from the day job, they made the decision to upgrade their camper van and go on the road with their music full time. With a full gig diary, their 2013 album, Cutting Free making the Telegraph’s 2014 top albums list and Dave’s song writing garnering considerable attention with songs recorded by Vin Garbutt amongst others, it’s a decision they’re not about to regret. Listen to their 2012 Folk Radio UK Session below.
When I spoke with Lucy Ward at last year’s Wickham Festival, she was clear that one of her ambitions for 2014 was to add touring with a band (image below) to her already impressive solo CV. Ever a lady of her word, that’s exactly what she’s done, and it’s no ordinary band that she’s put together. It speaks volumes for the respect Lucy has earned for her song writing that artists of the calibre of Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow are happy to play (relatively) supporting roles. The front line is completed by Joy Gravestock playing excellent fiddle and all three contribute harmonies alongside Lucy’s vocals. The band line up is completed with Sam Pegg on guitar and Steve MacLachlan on drums. Lucy’s never shied away from tackling serious issues in her songs, Consequences, triggered by the woefully misnamed concept of “honour killing” being a good example. But there’s plenty of variety and more light-hearted entertainment on offer, try Come on Eileen starting off super slow as a 4 part vocal harmony piece before picking up pace. The band is touring until early November, if they’re playing near you, treat yourself to a night out, you won’t be disappointed. I’d seen, and written about, the night’s final band, Blackbeard’s Tea Party, at Cropredy earlier in the summer and, true to form, they delivered another high energy, thoroughly entertaining set.
Saturday evening provided another eclectic mix, with Keith Donnelly acting as host and setting the mood with his inimitable and hilarious mix of storytelling, one liners and the occasional song. Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts have been spreading their wings this year with tours to Western Canada and various parts of Europe. They’re focussed on the UK over this winter, touring both as the duo and also with a five date tour in early November as part of the Songs for the Voiceless project. Songs based around lesser known World War I stories, highlighting, as the name says, people from that time whose voices are rarely if ever heard. Katriona and Jamie’s set at Swanage showcased material ranging from Travelling in Time from their first album, Shadows and Half Light in 2008, through to The Scarecrow from 2012’s The Innocent Left. Both those songs highlight the strength of their writing, raising the serious issue of aging in Time, but in a beautifully realised, gentle story whilst Scarecrow makes a fast paced dramatic tale out of the chance sighting of a crow sat on the shoulder of a scarecrow. During their tour this autumn they’ll be road testing some new material for an album planned for next year with Mark Tucker producing.
The Urban Folk Quartet (see Towersey review) once more set the venue alight with their breathless mix of world rhythms and instrumental fireworks and set up the crowd for the evening finale. The name of the final band, The Jurassics, wouldn’t have meant much to most people but a chance meeting at Wimborne Festival earlier this year had sown the seed for a one-off collaboration between The Jigantics and P J Wright and Guy Fletcher from Little Johnny England. The Jigantics were always going to be without bassist Lyndon Webb for the night and, because of a family bereavement, were also deprived, at short notice, of drummer Martin Fitzgibbon. Wisely declining my offer to dep for Martin on bodhran, PJ made his stage debut on bass and along with Rick Edward’s guitar provided the rhythm section. The choice of material drew on the repertoires of both bands with an emphasis on the more Americana side of The Jigantics but included the first outing for a new PJ song, Home. With 3 top notch singers, Mark Cole, Marion Fleetwood and PJ there was no shortage of vocal highlights ranging from Mark’s more bluesy numbers to Marion’s draw dropping performance of Jane Siberry’s The Valley. With one-off collaborations one hopes for special, maybe unrepeatable, moments and we weren’t disappointed. Marion and Guy sparking off each other on fiddle solos will live long in the memory.
Several artists from the evening concerts also provided sets for the afternoon, free sessions but a couple of bands that only appeared in afternoon sets caught the eye. The imaginatively named Goat Roper Rodeo Band (main post image)comprises three young musicians from Rhyl in North Wales. Quite how they became so engrossed in rockabilly country blues is something of a mystery, though a father’s record collection may bear some responsibility. Two acoustic guitars, upright bass and three voices, they write all their own material and fit so convincingly into their genre that they’ve been invited to play support next year on a tour that will take them from Vermont down to South Carolina. Closing the Sunday afternoon session, Paper Trains, also a strongly Americana influenced trio hail from just along the coast in Southampton. With guitar, banjo and upright bass they operate with a wider ranging mix of styles than the Goat Ropers but share with them an ability to get an audience stomping and clapping to infectious music that you just can’t sit still to. A debut album is promised very soon.
The final concert on Sunday evening took us away from Sandpit Field to St Mary’s Church where Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow returned to beguile with their sometimes quirky, sometimes poignant but always delightful songs. Their current album, The Hum, has been widely praised and listening to both the new and older material I was struck by how the interplay of their voices is developing in complexity and producing a rich and satisfying texture to their sound. A worthy finish to a festival that provided a weekend of good music and good dancing in a superb setting. It’s sad to report that John Butcher, who, with his vast array of contacts in the folk world, has been responsible for getting so many top acts to Swanage over the years, will, for health reasons, not be able to continue. Thanks John, your last one was a good one.
Review by: Johnny Whalley