I’ll confess this is the first time I’ve been to Butlins and also the first time I’ve ever been to Skegness. It’s the start of December and the reason for me breaking my duck on both counts is the prospect of The Great British Folk Festival and despite the chill in the air, the prospect of some exciting music has given me a Ready-Brek style glow that even survives the icy wind at Grantham and the rattler to the end of the line in the Lincolnshire seaside resort.
A quick taxi ride from Skegness station gets me to the end of the queue of cars all vying to deposit their occupants within the holiday camp that as it transpires, is about two and a half miles out of town. Not having a great deal of luggage, I decide to get out and approach the check in on foot. It’s simply done and within just a few minutes I have my key card and am through the door of my very nice accommodation, lounge, bedroom and kitchenette. This is my idea of festival accommodation, a shower at hand and a proper bed, even a settee, a fridge and although I hardly use it, a TV.
Butlins runs quite a series of similar events, catering mostly for a nostalgic market. It makes perfect sense and doubtless regularly fills otherwise dormant accommodation. There’s an obvious appetite for heritage acts, or even just a good old school disco dance to hits of the 70s, 80s and 90s. But amidst this The Great British Folk Festival stands out. Although there are some older names on the bill, there are some obvious crowd pleasers too, Bellowhead at the end of their annual November tour in particular, the bill has a real mix and with The Full English, Altan, Melrose Quartet, The Young’uns, Ross Ainslee and Jarlath Henderson and Bella Hardy adding real folk quality to the diversity.
The concerts run from the early evening on Friday and early afternoon on Saturday and Sunday, but with a break from roughly 4.00pm – 6.00pm. The finish in all cases is late, surprisingly so in some ways, but the distance to the accommodation ensures anyone who does flag won’t be disturbed. I suspect that the camp’s licence ultimately sets the curfew, but there are no complaints from me.
The one thing that you can’t get over, however, is that there are two main stages running concurrently. In that it’s no different to most festivals, but does give me a little dilemma, I am after all here to cover the event and am determined to see everything I can. In the end there are some compromises and also some moments where the enjoyment simply takes over and I stay put.
That said on Friday night I do flit between Steve Cradock one of two Ocean Colour Scene spin offs and Wolfscote, featuring Cathy Lesurf from Fiddlers Dram, which is where I settle with the prospect of Bellowhead to follow. This is my fourth Bellowheading this year and by jiminy it’s the best. Brendan nails it when he tells us, “Tonight you’re getting the best of us. We’ve just done the big tour, so we’ve learnt to play the songs, but we’ve also had a few days off to relax.” He’s not wrong and what’s more, the sound is excellent.
The only minor downer is the insistence on clearing out the obvious party-hearty crowd that gathers in front of the stage. They are moved a few yards to the side, where they continue to do exactly what they were going to do anyway. Thankfully the policy seems to take a back seat as the weekend progresses. Anyway it doesn’t ruin a really cracking and brilliantly paced set.
There’s time to switch venues and catch a little of the other Ocean Colour Scene spin off, Simon Fowler and Dan Sealey’s Merrymouth, who I really like anyway, and their clear harmonies and gentle acoustic delivery don’t disappoint. The album, Wenlock Hill, featured here and is a charming collection of well written songs, well worth seeking out. Ultimately though the draw of Ross and Jarlath means I’m away as soon as they finish for some firebrand piping that adds a rip-roaring finish to the night.
Saturday afternoon, after a decent constitutional down the sea front to Skeggy finds me flitting between The Hut People and Matt & Sueleen. The sweet harmonies of the latter have my ear and I’ve subsequently discovered they featured in The Voice, not that that means anything at all, but I do make a note to find out more. The Melrose Quartet, however trump them all, providing one of the most rounded and inspiring sets of the weekend, based simply on their collective, understated excellence. In the evening, it’s the lure of Salthouse that has me once again feeling the full privilege of being here. They are fabulous, all of those adjectives, wistful, elegant, misty breathtaking and simply beautiful float by.
It also means that as I stay put at the end of their set, I end up in the right room from my highlight of the weekend. I’m thinking a couple of songs from Ray Jackson’s Lindisfarne and I’ll move on to Eddi Reader, but as I’ve just sung every word to the first two, have a grin purloined from a Cheshire Cat fixed on my face, I find myself down at the front with a bunch of similarly minded people, bellowing along with every song for all we are worth.
If there is one band that set me on the path of listening to folk music, or at least its 70s equivalent, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitars and all, while the holy trinity of Zeppelin, Sabbath and Purple were about to supplanted by Yes, genesis and Camel, Lindisfarne are it. Meet Me On The Corner and the re-released Lady Eleanor, led to unlikely TOTP appearances as 13 became 14 for me and my musical axis shifted. Ray may be the only survivor of that line up, but the rest of the band have some pedigree, from the MKII, III and so incarnations and Dave Hull-Denholme doesn’t half sound like his step dad.
Thankfully, there’s still time to catch some of Eddi Reader’s set. She’s in story telling mode and an absolute hoot with it, yet still delivers some of the biggest tingles of the weekend. She has the voice and the repertoire, while the band, even in stripped down format is superb, although at times seem just as rapt as the rest of us. There’s still time for some proper brassed up folk rock from Home Service too, before the walk back to my lodgings.
Sunday afternoon, it’s Treacherous Orchestra and here the benefit of being inside with lights plays to their advantage. Much as my recent encounter at The Borderline suggested, theses boys rock and they must surely be higher up the bill next time round, the energy is off the scale, punctuated with moments of sheer bliss. Once more I could almost burst with the sheer pleasure of it.
Strangely the evening is a slight anticlimax, although I only have myself to blame. The problem is I’m desperate to see both Bella Hardy and the Full English and after a stirring set from The Young’uns I decide to start with the Full English. Thankfully my press pass gets me beyond the queue, which gives you an idea of the draw of this uniquely talented combo. They are superb too, with Seth in particular looking far more energised than I’ve seen in ages. The Folk Awards credentials are obvious and the playing and singing is sublime, it’s just that a big part of my heart belongs to Bella’s last three albums and the pull is magnetic. So switching venues, Bella in trio mode is also on fine form. A mix of lively banter, some story telling and some great songs settle me in, although I was also figuratively looking over my shoulder at what I was missing.
Thankfully Capercaillie provided the nightcap and having seen them at Lau-Land too, I am pleased to have them back on my radar after what seems like far too long. I toddled off to bed to dream in Gaelic.
Although this is my first, it’s been running for a few years and I suspect that many of the assembled are making their annual pilgrimage. There was evidence of some keen as mustard types snapping up early bird tickets for next year, although the line up hasn’t been announced at all, but given the experience of this weekend there will doubtless be some treats of one sort or another and quite possibly a surprise or two. It works incredibly well and as a self contained event with a degree of comfort that is hard to beat, if like me you’re not a fan of camping, it’s an essential date for the forthcoming year and even if you’re made of hardier stuff, give yourself a break and take a proper bed to sink into after some fine music. Luxury.
Review by: Simon Holland
Also, congratulations to Pauline who won our competition. She won a weekend break for 4 people at The Great British Folk Festival.
Book for 2015 here: www.bigweekends.com
video by Pete Simmonds