Over the few years of its existence, Gate to Southwell Festival has developed quite a reputation for breaking new talent, both home grown and imported. They’re proud of having given The Young’uns their first big festival gig six years ago and for 2015 the Teeside trio returned the favour with multiple appearances over two days. Since those early days the festival has also made a conscious effort to spread the geographic and genre scope of its music and this year played host to two acts making their first trips outside of their home countries, BOC, an 8 piece force of nature from Mallorca and Brooklyn’s Mary Byrne and Mark Rogers. Put these new names into a mix with literally dozens of other familiar and not so familiar artists and clearly it was a good year for Folk Radio to make our first visit.
At Southwell the music starts on Thursday evening going through to late Sunday night. As with many festivals of this length, Thursday evening tickets can be purchased separately for a programme designed to appeal to a wider audience than the ‘folk’ label might attract. The headline attraction this year was Billy Bragg and his reputation clearly produced the intended effect. The main stage marquee was packed, even though the camping fields didn’t fill up until later on Friday.
With a fair proportion of the audience there primarily to see Billy, the two supporting acts may have felt a little nervous, but they needn’t. Ranagri (pronounced Ran-ag-rye and pictured above) and The Hot Seats (recently featured in our Orkney Folk Festival review) produce very different styles of music but both clearly appealed to the crowd and earned them great receptions. Ranagri are four London based musicians playing instruments you’d expect to lead to a traditional Irish repertoire. Songwriter Donal Rogers handles vocals and guitar, Eliza Marshall plays a variety of flutes and ethnic whistles (I’d never even seen a bass flute before), Jean Kelly contributes electro harp and Tad Sargent switches between bodhrán and bouzouki. Tad does have a background in the Irish tradition but Eliza and Jean are both classically trained and have parallel careers in that world. Donal certainly has Irish roots but his musical background is more blues. Their set did include some traditional songs, though these were as likely to be American as Irish. However, the remainder showed the direction the band is heading, self-compositions in which you can detect all those influences but which defy you to pigeonhole in any of them. An album of these compositions, Fort of the Hare, has been recorded but isn’t expected to be released until later in the year, watch out for it.
The Hot Seats (pictured above) are a little easier to describe. Based in Richmond, Virginia they’ve brought their bluegrass and Appalachian old time sounds to the UK on seven tours so far. With banjo, mandolin, bass and guitar their set combined instantly recognisable Americana classics with their own compositions. Their main stage set piqued the interest and guaranteed their late night set on the bar tent stage was packed out. The band really came into their own in this more rowdy environment, great audience interaction and plenty of dancing.
Between the two appearances of The Hot Seats, Billy Bragg showed his class with an hour and a quarter main stage solo set that held both long established fans and newcomers transfixed. The majority of the songs were familiar, both his own and the Woody Guthrie material from the Mermaid Avenue project with Wilco. One less expected item was L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore, his tribute to Appalachian traditional singer Jean Richie who had died just a couple of days earlier (read the Folk Radio tribute here). A Billy Bragg gig is as much about the stories between the songs, sometimes more like lectures, and there was plenty of new material there in the aftermath of the UK General Election result. Changes to the UK’s political landscape also providing renewed bite to some of the songs. Statistically, there were bound to be some in the audience who’d voted Tory less than a month before but if so they were keeping a very low profile. Billy has a sure touch in the way he handles an audience and this, combined with plenty of people who already knew all the words to all his songs, ensured his set rapidly turned into a sing-along more in keeping with a house concert than a 1500 seat marquee.
A Billy Bragg gig is a powerful illustration of the impact that political songs can have, his compositions carrying the baton of protest that has run through folk song for centuries and, most directly for him, from Woody Guthrie. Having opened with such a ‘political’ headliner my sensitivity to this side of the folk world seemed to be on high alert for the remainder of the weekend, and there was plenty for it to focus on. Not all songs with a strong message are rallying calls in the Billy Bragg style and nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in Chris Wood’s Sunday afternoon solo set. Chris’s songwriting takes its strength from casual but acute observation, the songs can be about issues that matter personally to him, More Fool Me is a sharp critique of the Spotify music for free generation, or, like My Darling’s Downsized, they may be from his library of “love songs for grownups”. But when he turns his attention to national scandals, such as MPs expenses, that same soft voice and beautifully structured guitar accompaniment can be as devastatingly effective as any. You’re left in no doubt that Chris’s songs can carry a heavyweight political message. His set showed him at his best, his song selection balancing passion with whimsy, chattily exploring with the audience some of his non-musical passions, the asparagus from his allotment, his favourite non-league football team and relaxed enough to make time to introduce us to the spider busily spinning its web on stage while Chris sang.
Elsewhere during the weekend, others pitched in with their contributions to perpetuating the political song tradition. The Young‘uns, drawing much of their material from their native north east, inevitably have plenty to say about the effects on people and society of industrial decline. The lad’s own composition You Won’t Find Me on Benefits Street is celebrating those Stockton residents who steadfastly, and sometimes quite physically, rejected the TV crew trying to film them for that morally very questionable programme. With Graeme Miles’ Jack Ironside, incorporating a final verse they penned to bring it up to date, they are recounting the rise and fall of Teeside as an industrial powerhouse. They also paid due acknowledgement to Billy Bragg with his song Between the Wars. In last year’s Folk Radio interview David Eagle preferred to say they sang about social justice rather than being overtly political, a distinction that seemed hard to hold on to in the context of this festival weekend.
Someone who may have a more informed opinion on this is Greg Russell, appearing at Southwell as a member of The Tweed Project. He’d just submitted a final year dissertation for his Politics degree on the subject of the protest song in folk music. The Tweed Project’s set included Lionel McClelland’s song The Silent Majority, highlighting the evils that have happened when a silent majority stayed silent for too long. Discovered during the course of his research, including it in their main stage performance on Sunday evening provided a suitable end point to a theme that had been present throughout the weekend.
In the next part of this Southwell Festival review I’ll be looking at some of the more light-hearted, uplifting or downright funky acts that made the weekend such a blast.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Photo Credits: All images Phil Richards except Chris Wood taken by Tony Birch