In the previous part of this review, I trailed Part 3 as “looking at some of the acts whose music lingers long in the memory”. Throughout the weekend there was much to fit this description, the sets I’ve previously mentioned from Billy Bragg, Chris Wood, BOC could just as easily figure here. But looking ahead to the names I still have to include, the list is already impressively long. Southwell, you did us proud this year with your programming.
Here on Folk Radio we’ve written extensively about ‘Murmurs’, the album from Martin Simpson, Andy Cutting and Nancy Kerr, so it was a special delight to hear several of the album tracks during their Main Stage set on Saturday afternoon. Material taken from the album covered a vast range, traditional songs such as Cruel Mother, contemporary songs from both Martin and Nancy, tune sets both traditional and new, and also ranging from traditionally English across to North American Old Time. This spread of material is one of the album’s strengths, stemming from the great store of songs and tunes that each individual brings to the party. In performance, the net is cast even wider, capturing items such as country blues from Memphis Jug Band and one of Jim Causley’s settings of a Charles Causley poem (Angel Hill). To set against this plethora of sources is the astoundingly tightly knit sound that the trio produces. Clearly there’s no hiding Martin’s banjo but when Martin is on guitar, the blend of the three instruments can be seamless. So much so, Martin has had complaints that Andy’s accordion needs to be louder in the mix. His reply is that Andy’s accordion and Nancy’s fiddle integrate so well, sometimes you can’t tell which instrument is playing which note, and that’s exactly how the trio wants it to sound. Having developed such a close understanding between the three of them, can we expect more? Well, yes, said Martin, as if the question even needed to be asked. “When it works so well, why wouldn’t we continue?” In fact the three of them have been playing together for some time with Kit Bailey, Martin’s wife, pushing the idea that they should record. ‘Murmurs’ was the result. So I asked Martin how the trio started. He explained that a while back, he and Andy had been paired on an Arts Council younger/older musician project and it was Kit, again, who thought that Nancy would make an ideal third. I think we should all be grateful to her.
Andy Cutting had a busy Saturday, appearing later that evening with Chris Wood. The Wood and Cutting duo is only occasionally assembled these days, FolkEast being their only other festival appearance this summer. So, their Southwell set was eagerly awaited by the Main Stage audience, many of whom wouldn’t have seen them before. As ever, Andy had a variety of accordions/melodeons to choose from and Chris came on stage with fiddle and guitar. The guitar, though, didn’t get remembered until the encore, Chris’ re-write of Hares on the Mountain. Their appearances together may not be frequent but it was clear from the outset, the rapport that made them such a force for good in English traditional music was as effective as ever. A few knowing glances, rarely any words, were all that was needed to keep the music flowing. This reticence with words didn’t apply when it came to addressing the audience; we were well informed as to the provenance of the tunes and the background to the songs. So, Chris ensured the introduction he gave to a song about enclosure of common land in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries highlighted its present day relevance. The old rhyme he quoted nicely bringing home the point.
They hang the man and flog the woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leave the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
Wood and Cutting gigs may be few and far between these days but they’re both being kept busy with other projects, I wondered, was there any likelihood of more regular appearances? A qualified ‘no’, they were happy enough to get together occasionally, but, they stopped regular gigging happy with what they’d achieved. They felt, and it’s hard to disagree, that by the time they stopped, they’d raised the bar for English traditional instrumental music. As the standard since then has generally become so much higher, they now felt a strong sense of ‘job done’. So, keep an eye open for any future outings, you’ll be guaranteed a performance of outstanding quality.
English music with a more vocal emphasis came most notably from The Young’uns who were kept busy for most of the weekend with appearances on Main Stage, Second Stage, Children’s Tent, late night in the bar and also a lunchtime set in Southwell’s Minster. This was a great opportunity to hear Sean, David and Michael in the very different acoustics of the towering knave of a twelfth century church. Things didn’t go exactly to plan, rather than three microphones the lads had to use one. This delivered the singing just fine but the between song banter that is so much part of their charm was lost to all but the front few rows. No such issues interfered with their Main Stage performance. We were given the full treatment, the songs, the story behind the songs, and the off the cuff cross-talk between themselves and with the audience. David in particular likes to live a little dangerously here; it’s as well not to stand too far out from the crowd unless you’re up for some heckling. Can an act heckle their audience? Moot point.
For Sean, David and Michael, the high spot of their weekend was the set on Second Stage which they shared with the newly re-formed Artisan. Alongside the more obvious influence of The Wilson’s, the three part a capella harmonies of Artisan had been an early inspiration for The Young’uns but they’d never expected to be able to perform with them. Several times they’d had to pinch themselves to be sure they were really on stage together. At the start of the joint performance the two groups alternated their songs and with The Young’uns sitting behind Artisan it was quite clear that David at least was mouthing lyrics he knew by heart. Whilst both acts rely on three voices singing a capella, their sound is quite different. In part this is inevitable given The Young’uns are three male voices and Artisan one male and two female. But the differences are also stylistic with Artisan more focused on using all three voices in harmony for most of a song whilst The Young’uns more commonly use a single voice alternating with passages for all three. If The Young’uns felt it was a privilege to be a part of this, it was doubly so for the audience. A rare chance to see two different generations performing English a capella folk, both traditional and their own compositions.
My focus so far has been very much on English music but with The Tweed Project we’re looking at Anglo-Scottish collaboration. The winners of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award in 2013, Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, have teamed up with the 2014 winners, The Mischa Macpherson Trio, calling themselves The Tweed Project. It seems a project born out of mutual respect and a desire to explore music that takes each of them onto new ground. Greg and Ciaran have always had an instrumental side to their music, mainly fiddle and guitar or fiddle and bouzouki, so it’s not been too big a step to develop pieces that fit with the more varied instrumentation including pipes, whistles, harp, brought in by the trio. But, as might be expected, the sum is greater than the parts with arrangements that exude energy and ingenuity. Greg, in particular, was keen to acknowledge his respect for Innes’ approach to developing the guitar parts. Many of Mischa’s songs are in Gaelic and so a bigger challenge for the English lads has been learning good Gaelic pronunciation to be able to join in choruses. With such minor hurdles out of the way, the mutual respect is clear and should lead to lots more excellent music from them.
Also flying the flag for Scottish music was Mànran with a Main Stage set and the closing late night session on Stage 2 where they were joined by the two components of The Tweed Project. With fiddle, accordion, flutes and both Highland and uilleann pipes to call on, Mànran have a deserved reputation for being able whip up a storm of both traditional and contemporary music driven along by the tightest of drum and 4 string bass guitar backlines. But, even in a festival context, their sets also contain quieter moments, Gaelic songs from Norrie MacIver and passages where Ryan Murphy switches from uilleann pipes to flute. They delivered excellence on both levels and even found time to get the audience (well some of them) up to speed on a Gaelic chorus.
Irish Gaelic was well to the fore with Friday’s Main Stage headliners, Clannad. After an extended break following the release of their 1998 album, Landmarks, the band that is still built around the Brennan family from Donegal has been getting back up to full speed over the last few years and with another world tour planned for 2016 it’s safe to say they’re intent on extending their 40+ year history for a while longer. Their set included both new and old material with the ethereal vocals and swirling arrangements that are their trademark.
Making an Irish contribution of a very different flavour was We Banjo 3 who closed out the Main Stage on Saturday. Another family affair, this time involving two pairs of brothers, their combination of banjos, mandolin and fiddle can generate a thoroughly traditional Irish sound but they are equally at home with bluegrass and old time, a winning combination if ever there was.
Although they’d had five previous performances and workshops over the Saturday and Sunday, it wasn’t until Sunday night that I finally came across the treat that is Cloudstreet. A duo from Queensland that has grown to a trio for this year’s UK tour, they provided a great opening set for the Main Stage evening concert. Nicole Murray on flute and fiddle and John Thompson on guitar and a rather overgrown concertina were joined by Emma Nixon on fiddle. All three providing vocals and harmonies. Their core material is traditional Australian; they opened with the obligatory transportation ballad, the combination of voices making an immediate impression. It was their own compositions, however, that stayed in the mind long after their set was over. John has a natural storytelling talent; his description of the incident that inspired his ‘Homeless Beaver’ song was every bit as entertaining as the song itself. Try typing ‘Airdrop Beaver’ into Google and you’ll find the story, but I’m sorry to say it won’t be anything like as captivating as when John tells it.
My final words on Gate to Southwell 2015 follow on from an email conversation with Festival Director, Mike Kirrage. This year’s event moved further away from the town centre, onto Southwell Racecourse. How did he feel that had worked? He was in no doubt it had been a great improvement. They’d outgrown the old site which had also suffered drainage problems after some atrocious weather in previous years. This year the weather was almost completely dry but the move will ensure no issues in future. An immediate benefit, though, had been more space and it’s reassuring that they have room to grow. Lessons about the positioning of various facilities have been noted for next year, but overall they are very pleased with how it went.
Given the variety of music and activities available and their focus on new talent, I wondered how the programming process was managed. There’s a team of 3 or 4 who do the research, sifting through the applications for a spot, chasing up acts they’ve heard and would want to book. Mike tactfully says “We comment, we comment some more, we don’t always agree” and, ultimately, he takes responsibility for most of the artist negotiations and programming. He also handles a lot more beside, I first saw him on Thursday night setting up banners.
And finally, the big question. During the weekend I took a straw poll as to how the name of the town and festival should be pronounced. Is it as spelled or is it ‘Suthall’? I came back none the wiser, opinion around the town is fundamentally split. So, Mike, does the festival take a view on this contentious issue? “We couldn’t possibly comment”.
Review by: Johnny Whalley
Photo Credits: All images Phil Richards