Wickham has developed a reputation over the years for bringing the best of Celtic music to the South Coast of England. I still shiver with delight when I recall the year that a mighty triumvirate of Peatbog Faeries, Skerryvore and The Treacherous Orchestra were on the bill. However, this year, it was the turn of a superb array of English artists to leave a lasting impression.
When musicians of the calibre of Megson (Friday) and Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston (Saturday) are tasked with leading off the day you can be sure the remainder of the programme will be packed with music of the highest quality. Megson illustrated just why they are so frequently nominated in the Radio 2 Folk Awards. With songs woven from the fabric of life in their native North East, the lyrics reflect that combination of irrepressible humour and intense pride in the face of adversity for which the region has long been famous. Stu and Debbie’s voices, either separately or combined in harmony, give Megson an unmistakeable vocal style, underpinned by inventive and varied instrumental work. Always a pleasure to listen to, their Wickham set confirmed their reputation as a quality act. Talking with them afterwards, it was clear that with their child starting school this autumn, we can expect musical activities to step up another gear. With a full programme of gigs for this autumn they’re also starting work on their next album and planning a tour to promote it next year. If that’s not enough, they mused on the possibility of finally producing a much requested songbook.
Although still only 27, Lisbee Stainton has been writing and singing her songs for 18 years. That’s a precocious talent by anyone’s reckoning and to it you can add a debut album released when she was 18 and concerts at London’s O2 Arena a year later. As a songwriter playing acoustic guitar she inevitably attracted a ‘folk’ label but nevertheless grabbed the attention of mainstream Radio 2 where she is regularly included in their playlists. Since starting to collaborate with Seth Lakeman in 2012 she has become much more familiar to folk audiences and was at Wickham both with her own band and as part of Seth’s. With drums, bass, electric guitar and her trademark 8 string acoustic guitar supporting her rich, strong vocals, Lisbee presented a mix of tracks from her current album, Word Games, and her three previous ones. And gained many more fans in the process judging by the reception she received.
Providing a nicely complementary take on song writing from a male perspective was Gren Bartley and his band (image below). When I last saw Gren he was performing solo, his voice carrying the message of his often achingly poetic lyrics underpinned by his acoustic guitar. On his present tour, though, he’s accompanied by Julia Disney vocals, piano and violin, Sarah Smout vocals and cello and Lydia Glanville percussion. Gren’s voice and guitar are still paramount but now filled out with startlingly good violin/cello and piano/cello arrangements, driven along by Lydia’s percussion; the icing on the cake provided by the three voices adding harmonies to the mix. It’s hard to say if Gren’s songwriting has blossomed with the advent of the band or if his songs were just waiting for the opportunity but whichever way round the present package is a delight (read the FRUK review of his latest album Magnificent Creatures).
Returning to Wickham with a somewhat changed line up compared with their last visit 2 years ago, Moulettes showed just how much their music has evolved with a sound that is now heavier, generally less chamber folk, more stadium folk. The three remaining original members, Hannah Miller, cello and vocals, Ruth Skipper, bassoon, autoharp and vocals and Ollie Austin, drums, guitar and vocals form the core of the band but having worked their way through (they estimated) six fiddlers over the years they’ve now replaced violin with electric guitar, Raevennan Husbandes (image below) joining them last February. The Wickham line up was completed by regular bass man Jim Mortimore and Anja McCloskey on keyboards. Raevennan’s electric guitar is clearly a major component of the heavier sound but it’s matched by Ollie’s noticeably more forceful drums, Ruth’s bassoon seems to be benefitting from a little more electronic trickery and Hannah is even more vigorous (if that’s possible) with her cello bowing. Raevennan also makes her presence felt by adding her voice to Hannah and Ruth’s, the three making an excellent blend. Their set contained several tracks from last year’s album, Constellations. They’re still touring this material, the final gig is in Union Chapel at the end of November (27th Nov). By that time they also intend to be in the thick of recording the next album for release in Spring 2016. They gave a taster of the new material with the song Behemoth, giving full rein to their new heavier sound. Hannah was prompted to write this after hearing that whale song can travel 3000km across the oceans. In fact, they intend the entire album to take its inspiration from what Hannah termed “true facts about magnificent creatures”.
For over four hours on the Saturday, Wickham was treated to consecutive sets from three of the most exciting bands in English folk, Kathryn Tickell and The Side, Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band and Seth Lakeman’s Band. Kathryn Tickell (image below) has long been a passionate advocate of the traditional music of her native Northumberland and of the pipes on which to play it. Through collaborations and her own compositions she’s combined this passion with an array of other musical genres, most notably classical pieces, teaming up with orchestras as well as smaller groupings. The Side, her current touring band, has emerged from this aspect of her music. Ruth Wall is a classically trained Scottish harpist with an equally eclectic musical background, Louisa Tuck is one of Britain’s leading principal cellists while Amy Thatcher, an accordionist and clog dancer is a long-time collaborator with Kathryn. Despite the classical pedigree, their festival set is loaded with fast-paced danceable reels, Kathryn switching between Northumbrian pipes and fiddle both within and between tunes, during the changeover, Louisa takes the lead with some impressively rapid cello work. The occasional slow passages, such as in Kathryn’s composition, Return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to Northumbria, allowed both Louisa and Ruth to show off their skills. The passion on stage was more than matched by the enthusiasm of the crowd, the band finding it hard to leave, even after an encore.
The crowd hardly had time to catch breath before they were hit by the phenomenon that is The Wayward Band, fronted by the irrepressible Eliza Carthy. From a 12 piece band including a brass section, the likes of Sam Sweeney on fiddle and John Spiers on melodeon, a strong rhythm section with drums, bass and percussion that includes a dohl drum, you can expect a rousing set. That’s exactly what we got. As you might predict, the staple fare of the Wayward Band is songs and tunes from the English tradition but with a sprinkling of Caribbean rhythms and sultry jazz café vocals to keep everyone on their toes. It’s a band that fills the stage with energy and abundant interaction between musicians who are clearly enjoying themselves. As the crowd finally let them leave the stage it was yet another proud dad moment for Martin Carthy, never a man to waste words, “quite a band” was his considered comment.
So, with two bands having generated such excitement, it was up to Seth Lakeman and his band to keep the party going. No problem, Seth has been a favourite at Wickham for several years and with the likes of Cormac Byrne, Benji Kirkpatrick, Lisbee Stainton and Ben Nicholls in the band, they delivered a set that mixed old favourites such as Solomon Browne and Riflemen of War with relatively new material from last year’s Word of Mouth album. They kept the Saturday night mood resolutely upbeat , handing over to Scotland’s The Proclaimers to close one of the most jubilant and enlivening festival days I’ve experienced in a long time.
Alongside the English artists playing demonstrably English music, a clear alternative could be discerned, English and England-based artists developing their repertoire from a vast array of world music influences. On the one hand, bands like The Dohl Foundation and Edward II pin their colours very firmly to one particular mast. Others, notably The Hut People, are inveterate collectors of influences (and percussion instruments) from anywhere and everywhere. And finally, Tankus the Henge fall into this group by virtue of the strong Balkan flavours of their music, but need quite a bit more explanation.
Take five dohl drums, those double ended barrel-shaped beasts from northern India, add a standard western drum kit, various hand drums, electric guitar, bass guitar, fiddle, sometimes a pre-recorded track and you have the Wickham incarnation of Johnny Kelsi’s Dohl Foundation. The London-based Foundation exists to educate the world about the unique rhythms of the dohl by melding them with music as varied as reggae, mainstream western pop, bangra, Michael McGoldrick flute pieces, Punjabi drinking songs… Or alternatively they just like to make a really loud noise. Whether you relate to them on an intellectual or purely visceral level, you are irresistibly drawn into their sound world; one of the best festival acts around.
Edward II reformed in 2009 for a one off reunion gig and then, more permanently, in 2012, re-establishing their unique amalgam of English trad with Caribbean rhythms. For the last year, though, they have been quietly working on a major block of new material. Forsaking, for now, their favourite rural songs and dance tunes, they’ve turned their attention to the treasure trove of broadsheet material in The Manchester Ballads collection. With an umbrella title of “Manchester’s Improving Daily” they’re re-working the ballads in their inimitable style, producing songs that give a fascinating insight into life in eighteenth and nineteenth century Manchester whilst drawing attention to often worrying parallels with today. The Edward II set on Stage 2 was pitched against Show of Hands on the main stage, setting up a difficult choice for many. Whilst there was no shortage of enthusiasm in the audience for Steve, Phil and Miranda as they delivered a classic SoH festival set it was heartening, when I took the walk across to Stage 2, to see that not only was the tent packed to capacity but at least as many again were gathered outside. They may not have had much of a view but that didn’t stop them dancing and cheering to a brilliant set that mixed some Edward II classics with the new material.
With the Archers theme tune still ringing in my ears, to experience The Hut People on a sunny Sunday morning was an unexpected delight, all the more so as they were just as delighted to meet up with Folk Radio UK. Piano accordionist, Sam Pirt, grew up with English folk music but a trip to an Ethno Folk Camp in 1996 awakened a fascination with folk music from around the world. Percussionist Gary Hammond had a distinctly non-folk musical upbringing but as a session musician and touring with The Beautiful South, and many others, he’s travelled the world; and from wherever he’s been, percussion instruments have followed him home. Put the two of them together and you have a bewildering mixture of world rhythms and traditional melodies, try combining an Irish tune with a Senegal rhythm, then add lashings of humour and that’s The Hut People in a nutshell. Audience participation is a must and a standing ovation inevitable, even that early on a Sunday.
And so we come to Tankus the Henge (image below), six musicians who bring a touch of circus and a lot of carnival to the stage. Music using rhythms that evoke gypsy-ish jazz, a horn section that would fit well in a soul band, a gruff voiced singer who likes nothing better than to clamber all over his upright piano with smoke billowing from the lid. And this was Tankus the Henge having just driven overnight from Switzerland and arriving at the festival with ten minutes to spare, goodness only knows what mayhem they could create after a good night’s sleep.
Amidst all these English bands there were, of course, solo performers and amongst them, Roy Bailey, Billy Bragg and Martin Carthy (image below) attracted some of the biggest crowds of the weekend to the Main Stage tent. Roy’s set on Friday afternoon had all the features that have long made him a favourite with festival audiences. Besides the songs, the self-deprecating humour, the audience participation and, of course, the political message, railing against injustice in all its forms, were all there. He’s an old man, he insists on telling everyone he meets, but there is still a fire burning inside that comes through loud and clear. Roy was followed on stage by Martin Carthy with whom I had a long chat after his set.
Billy Bragg, who closed the main stage programme on Friday, was featured extensively in our coverage of Gate to Southwell Festival earlier this summer. We didn’t manage to talk with Billy at Southwell and so took the opportunity at Wickham. I’d been struck at Southwell by the instant rapport between him and the audience. Well, of course, was Billy’s reply, that was my folk audience. He often jokes in his on stage patter about whether or not he’s a folk singer and so, more seriously now, he established his folk credentials. Pre-punk, he explained, he’d listened to a lot of traditional folk music, The Watersons, Bert Lloyd, Shirley and Dolly Collins, “it’s what was in Barking Library”. During those years, while he was familiar with the tradition he never felt that he was part of it. But during the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike, when he found himself sharing stages with people like Jock Purdon, miner, poet and singer, he recognised his own topical songs as belonging to the same tradition of protest and strong political message. Nowadays, he says, that’s one way he can characterise his ‘folk audience’, the folk world has kept alive the tradition of the topical song, something that has completely disappeared from mainstream music. Billy is clearly used to thinking about his audiences. When we talked about his work on the Woodie Guthrie material with Wilco which led to the Mermaid Avenue albums, he made the point it had helped add two more groups to his audiences, younger people who now connected to him through Wilco and a much older group attracted by the Guthrie and Pete Seeger connections. So, if he can characterise his audiences, does he treat them differently? Fundamentally, no, the aim is to draw an audience in, sometimes physically in a festival setting where people may start off some distance from the stage but always emotionally.
The last conversation of the weekend, fittingly, was with Festival Organiser, Peter Chegwyn, just after a seriously impressive set from The Tom Robinson Band. He was understandably jubilant, the festival had surpassed all expectations for attendance, reaching site capacity on two out of the four nights and certainly benefitting from one of the best weekends of the summer for weather. So, could we expect any changes for next year? Well, Peter always has possible changes in mind but with the site layout working so well even he seemed to edge more towards the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ view. What could be different next year, though, is a return to a higher level of Scottish content in the programme, subject to contract as the saying goes.
A final comment must highlight the second and third stages. These carry a full programme throughout the weekend and, whilst a couple of the Stage 2 acts have made it into this review, it’s inevitable that the vast majority don’t. One thing well worth noting is that a quick scan of the programme shows that out of 84 acts appearing on the two minor stages, 45 are from the local area. The Festival deserves a big slap on the back for giving this opportunity to so many local acts, long may it continue.
Review by: Johnny Whalley