As far as folk big bands go, they don’t come much bigger that The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble, which this year numbers a relatively manageable 65 members.
“Eighty-three was the biggest line-up … I think that was the year that I lost all my hair,” says Joe Broughton, an ex-member of The Albion Band who’s worked with Fairport Convention, Joss Stone and While and Matthews, and is presently one quarter of The Urban Folk Quartet.
Hailing from Birmingham’s prestigious Conservatoire (Julian Lloyd Webber is the Principal, Sir Simon Rattle CBE is President), Broughton formed the sizeable ensemble in 1997, pre-dating some other genre busting ‘folk big bands’ we could name by a good few years.
They’ve since gone on to play the Royal Albert Hall (three times last year) and such festivals as Shambala, Cropredy and Towersey – where they officially close the festival on August Bank Holiday Monday for the third consecutive year. Something of a breeding ground for future talent, the ensemble has previously included BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winner Jim Moray (False Lights), Erica Nockalls (The Wonder Stuff, The Proclaimers), Charlie Heys (of McNeill & Hayes and The Old Dance School).
With so many members, the ensemble’s shows are, as Joe stresses, “…ridiculously energetic.”
Do all the Ensemble members come from the same course?
No, they all study different things. We have everything from technology students to opera singers, composers and harpists, some on classical courses, some on the jazz degree, they come from everywhere, it’s one of the reasons it works so well. Birmingham Conservatoire attracts an inventive and original type of musician who often have an interest in all kinds of music making. Without that bedrock of talent, keeping such a large line-up together for so many years just wouldn’t be possible.
What’s the process of bringing a tune or song to the group? How’s it worked up/ arranged?
I would normally bring in a melody and a riff and teach it to everyone by ear then ask for suggestions on the arrangement. All 50 people get their say, we pretend it’s a democracy for a bit then we settle on how it’s going to go. It’s normally very organic and some pieces stay in the set for many years and develop new sections as the members come up with different ideas for it. This year we have a couple of pieces written by other members of the group as well which is brilliant because I’ve been writing riffs for the folk ensemble for 19 years… that’s a lot of riffs.
The Tour Rehearsal promo is pretty full-on – are all the tracks like that?
Well, the honest answer is yes, a lot of it is like that but when we do rarely throw in a slow number or something that has a bit of sensitivity to it, it’s all the more effective. We do a version of the Arthur McBride melody that gets some people crying in the audience, it’s our most requested number and it’s pretty miserable – so there you go, that’s folkies for you, they love a bit of misery! Of course we also have small group pieces interwoven with the big band stuff, and they can be anything from a quite solo song to a Bulgarian harpist, to a vocal quartet.
Have you ever turned up for a gig and realised there’s not enough space on the stage for everyone?
Have we ever NOT turned up for a gig and realised there’s not enough space for everyone?! We always make it work somehow… it’s all part of the fun!
What’s the spread of instrumentation like?
There are quite a lot of fiddle players, several soprano sax players, a handful of percussionists, loads of saxophones, some flutes, a few oboes, then there’s clarinets, two trumpets, two trombones, bass clarinet, harp, three electric guitar players, octave-mandola, some singers, electric bass, double bass and some things that I’ve probably forgotten… I have a register somewhere.
Is there a completely new line-up, and presumably new set-list, every year?
It’s never the same two years in a row but we keep favourite tracks and most people in the ensemble stay for three or four years, some people you can never get rid of! It means that we always have a core of people who know what they’re doing and plenty of people with a mountain of energy and enthusiasm; it’s a great way to keep things fresh and ensure quality, that’s what I’m always aiming for anyway.
Are there any particular shows you’re looking forward to this year?
That is an impossible question! How can you compare the vibe of a double bill with The Destroyers in our home town to a massive festival like Towersey? How can you compare our oldest haunt in Leek (where it’s really up close and personal) and visiting my home town of Chester? Each gig is a blast as you can probably imagine… 50 music students who love their music and love to entertain people on the road together is like a massive travelling party, so every gig is different but also the same…
Is there anyone in the current line-up who you’d tip for the future?
I would keep your eyes firmly on Threaded, they are great and Seth Bye is developing into a great fiddle player, he has a duo (Seth Bye and Katie Griffin). Punch The Sky are another new band that has just come out of the ensemble who are doing some really interesting stuff, the list goes on.
2017 will be the Ensemble’s 20th anniversary – any plans yet to mark the occasion?
Yes, I think the fact that 2017 is 20 years is worth celebrating so we have plans to make it the biggest Folk Ensemble year yet with special gigs, potentially a new studio album and if I can get it together – a reunion gig for past members … how big would that band be?
Conservatoire Folk Ensemble Summer 2016 Tour
Thursday 26 May – Foxlowe Arts Centre, Market Place, Leek, Staffordshire
Part of Leek Arts Festival 2016 leekartsfestival.co.uk
Friday 27 May – West End Centre, Queens Road, Aldershot, Hampshire
Saturday 28 May – Sutton Village Hall, Sutton, Bedfordshire
Saturday 4 June – Huntingdon Hall, CrownGate, Worcester
Sunday 5 June – Power Folk 3, The Spotted Dog, 104 Warwick Street, Digbeth, Birmingham
Doors 3pm, music from 4pm ‘til late * The ensemble’s annual raucous afternoon gig/ all-dayer, featuring The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble (6pm) and special invited guests. www.folkensemble.co.uk
Wednesday 8 June – Alexander’s Live, Rufus Court, Chester, Cheshire CH1 2JW
Sunday 12 June – Gate To Southwell Festival, Southwell, Nottinghamshire southwellfolkfestival.org.uk
Saturday 18 June – Beverley Folk Festival, Beverley Racecourse, East Yorkshire, HU17 8QZ beverleyfestival.com
Sunday 19 June – Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire, Paradise Place, Birmingham * City of Sounds festival Destruction Party with The Destroyers. www.bcu.ac.uk
Friday 29 July – Kendal Calling, Lowther Deer Park, Cumbria kendalcalling.co.uk
Monday 29 August – Towersey Festival, Thame Showground, Thame, Oxfordshire towerseyfestival.com
Photo Credit: Alick Cotterill