For a festival of Wickham’s size, 7000 site capacity, long term financial viability pretty much depends on frequent ‘sell-out’ years. Festival Organiser, Peter Chegwyn, regularly achieves this with an astute combination of artists that appeal to a broad audience and the folk artists that are his own passion, both long standing favourites and a healthy mix of newcomers. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in this year’s opening night programme. With established, popular names, Andy Fairweather-Low and Wilco Johnson waiting to close out the night on the main stage, the festival was kicked off by relative newcomer, Devon singer-songwriter, Roseanna Ball. Having released five albums since 2007 using the band name Roholio, an ever evolving combination of musicians, she is now touring under her own name. Always a tricky slot to fill for a solo artist, with much of the audience still arriving, Roseanna pulled it off with captivating lyrics and varied instrumentation.
Two, more instantly recognisable names followed, Sharon Shannon and Carlos Núñez, both appearing with their current bands. In addition to Sharon’s accordion her quartet consisted of long time collaborators Jim Murray on acoustic guitar and Sean Regan on fiddle along with Alan Connor on keyboards, electric guitar and percussion. When I interviewed Sharon back in late 2012 (read it here) she had recently begun touring with Alan as a duo and was excited by the possibilities opened up by his use of looping to combine all three of his instruments. The quartet’s set at Wickham was a masterful demonstration of how all four musicians have become comfortable with this decidedly non-traditional component to their sound. Alan’s skill in combining the components is evident with Sharon, Jim and Sean adding their contributions to a sound that remains firmly rooted in the Irish tradition whilst also venturing out into new territory, never more so than when Sean adds beat-boxing into the mix. Alan also contributes the occasional vocal and so we were treated to a Sharon Shannon arrangement of Steve Earle’s Galway Girl. The set had its quiet moments, most notably the opening section of the traditional Lament for Limerick, but it was the faster paced tunes that linger most in the memory, the set climaxing with a version of Music for a Found Harmonium that had the main stage crowd on their feet, and all that before 7 o’clock on the first evening.
Carlos Núñez then took over the main stage, injecting even more hectic pace into the evening. Carlos’s Galician pipes and whistles were backed up by his brother Xurxo on drums, and Pancho Alvarez on the12 string Portuguese guitar. Guesting on fiddle and step dancing was Canadian Jon Pilatzke. These four were quite enough to fill the tent with sound and energise the crowd but, just in case, they also drew on the highland pipes and drums of The Southern Jacobite Pipe Band from time to time. There were lots of people dancing from early in the set but in another case of just in case, Jon left the stage and recruited a few willing and maybe not so willing audience members to join them on stage in the final Breton dance. It’s hard to imagine a better opening 3 hours into a festival and, fortunately for those of us more engaged with the folk side of things, it didn’t stop there. Whilst Andy Fairweather-Low took over on the main stage, Stage 2 hosted indie folk rockers, Feldspar, followed by my find of the festival, De Temps Antan.
The festival programme described De Temps Antan as able “to whip up a storm of traditional Québec music”. As that rather more well-known Québecois band, Le Vent du Nord, has long been one of my festival favourites, there was no way I was going to miss hearing this final act of the evening. With a name that roughly translates as “Olde Time” it’s no surprise the songs and tunes are largely sourced from the rich Québecois tradition and that the primary instruments are accordion, fiddle and the complex foot-tapping, podorythmie, that’s a stalwart of the Québec sound. Comparisons with Le Vent du Nord are inevitable and, indeed, my first thought after the set was to describe them as “Le Vent du Nord on speed”. You could never accuse Le Vent du Nord of lacking energy on stage but the three members of De Temps Antan take it to another level and the Wickham audience responded with abundant energy of their own, closing the evening in a melée of dancing, clapping and cheering.
De Temps Antan is far from being a clone of Le Vent du Nord, though I had a few disturbing moments while watching them. The visual similarity between bouzouki player Éric Beaudry and Le Vent du Nord’s Simon Beaudry is striking. The clue is in the surname, they are indeed brothers. But, it transpires, so are fiddler André Brunet and Le Vent du Nord’s Réjean Brunet. Third member, accordionist Pierre-Luc Dupuis may lack the family connection but has long had a musical association through their shared time in the long running Québec band, La Bottine Souriante. When Pierre-Luc exchanges his accordion for harmonica, the music veers away from the Québecois tradition, elements of a wider North American sound creep in and create a hybrid, stretching that umbrella term, Americana, yet further. De Temps Antan have a short UK tour scheduled for later this year, keep a look out for details, they will not disappoint.
With artists from Ireland, Galicia, and Québec, there was a clear, unifying Celtic feel to the opening night but for the rest of the weekend, variety was the watchword. English music, both traditional and contemporary, had a strong presence throughout, while contributions from Scottish, Welsh and Irish artists made their mark along with a sprinkle of what may best be described as world music; and then there was The Spooky Men’s Chorale from Australia. A long-time favourite of the Wickham crowd, the tent was packed for their Saturday afternoon spot but, before they could launch into the regular mix of humour and highly skilled choral singing, there was a small issue they just couldn’t ignore. A couple of hours earlier, England had trounced the Aussies for a second time and won back the ashes, so, ‘Ok’, says Spookmeister Stephen Taberner, ‘come on guys give us your best shot’. After the hooting and derision died down we could get on with a classic Spooky Men show, ranging from traditional, and not so traditional, Georgian songs to an ode in praise of power tools.
The Scottish presence this year was uncharacteristically small for Wickham, just 2 bands, but they had a big impact. On the one hand, the pop-folk of The Proclaimers ensured that Saturday night ended with a capacity crowd in the main stage tent whilst earlier, Garvin Marwick (image above) showcased music from his recent double album The Long Road and the Far Horizons with the nine-strong Journeyman band. Folk Radio UK enthusiastically reviewed the album back in January (read the review here) and so it was a particular pleasure to hear some of the pieces live. The mix of instruments reflects the myriad influences that Gavin has brought into his compositions over the years. Many of the tune sets have both Celtic and Balkan derived sections whilst the ubiquitous presence of Ruth Morris’s nyckelharpa adds both Scandinavian and less readily defined textures. Especially welcome was the contribution of Fraser Fifield’s sax, sparingly used but being all the more effective for that. Predominantly fast-paced, the set nevertheless featured beautiful, slow passages such as Between An Stac and Roisbhein, inspired by childhood holidays spent in that part of Moidart. The absence of percussion allowed flute, fiddle, nyckelharpa and piano free rein to weave a tapestry of sound as appropriate to a sunny afternoon in Wickham as to a West Highland glen. Members of the Journeymen have a strong link back to Old Blind Dogs with four current or ex members. That link gave us the closing song of the set, Jonny Hardie taking lead vocal on Twa Corbies. Gavin is hopeful that this album will be the first of a series as he finally gets to record more tunes from the vast collection he has composed over the years. On the basis of this set, my hope is that we’ll continue to have plenty of opportunity to hear them in performance as well.
The main stage hosted one bona fide Welshman and two adopted sons. Huw Williams and Maartin Allcock have been friends for 20 years and since late 2011 have been performing material composed almost as much of spoken word as song. Huw is a natural raconteur with abundant stories of life on the road presented with the dry wit and laid back demeanour typical of the South Wales valleys. That the stories relate to the songs is almost a bonus, it would still be delightful entertainment even if he didn’t get round to the singing, but then we’d miss hearing Maart’s masterful acoustic bass guitar backing. The sadness of this is that after this year’s festival season the duo are going their separate ways. Very full and busy ways they are, too, so maybe they won’t have too much time for regret. Not so those of us who’ve had the pleasure of their company.
Mancunian Maart has adopted southern Snowdonia as his home and another exile from Manchester to North Wales is Les Barker, poet and well in the running for most intelligent idiot on the planet award. He’s been entertaining folk audiences with poems packed with strained rhymes and excruciating puns for, it seems, as long as anyone can remember. Audiences nowadays are likely to be as familiar with the text as he is, but that just adds to the fun.
Still to come in part 2 of this write up of Wickham Festival is a look at the many facets of the current English folk scene that were on display, ranging from well-established favourites such as Seth Lakeman, Eliza and Martin Carthy to relative newcomers like The Hut People, from the traditional arrangements of The Askew Sisters to the uniquely contemporary Moulettes.
Review by: Johnny Whalley