Part 2 – Closer to Home
Thursday night at Gate to Southwell is separately ticketed and so kind of an optional extra, but on both occasions I’ve been there, it was an option you’d really not want to miss. This year there was a full music programme on three stages, including the Big Top with Keith Donnelly, False Lights and Kíla, giving 4 hours of superb entertainment. The great majority of the artists playing the two smaller stages would also play sets later in the weekend, so opting to stay put in the Big Top was many people’s choice.
Keith Donnelly is a popular man with festival organisers all over the country, a quick scan of his web pages counted 19 festivals for this year. It’s easy to see why, Southwell shows as just one of the 19 yet over the weekend he made 6 appearances, variously as singer/guitarist, comedian, children’s entertainer and, on top of that, MC’d the Big Top, seemingly, whenever he was free. Keith certainly isn’t afraid of hard work but, more importantly, he immediately connects with audiences of all ages, whether it’s several hundred people in the Big Top or a handful in the Children’s Tent.
So, his opening set of songs and often hilarious chat guaranteed the evening got off to a great start and he could pass over a lively, appreciative audience to False Lights. Currently, out and out English folk rock isn’t exactly an overpopulated niche in the folk world but there have been several new and revived line ups appearing over the last couple of years. False Lights, the band, emerged in 2014 from False Lights, the hunch, shared by Jim Moray and Sam Carter that the time was ripe to meld traditional folk songs with the rock idioms of their late 20th century youth. It had worked in the 70s for Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span et al, so why not take songs from the traditional English canon and view them through the lens of contemporary rock technology? The music that Jim and Sam make as solo artists often has a sombre quality but that’s the last description you would give to False Lights. They are joined in the band by as fine a pair of young traditional musicians as you’d want, Nick Cooke on melodeon and Tom Moore on fiddle with the rock solid Jon Thorne on bass and Sam Nadel on drums. It’s the Moray/Carter guitar combination, though, that gives the band its identity as 21st century folk rock.
The headlining band, Kíla, was something unusual for me, a band that has been around for almost 30 years and, not only had I not seen them before, I’d listened to hardly any of their recorded output, in spite of Suas Sías, their most recent album, being one of Folk Radio’s albums of 2015. So fresh eyes and ears greeted them at Southwell, and came away happy. With 8 members, their array of instruments, whilst vast, doesn’t raise any eyebrows for an Irish band, uillean pipes, bodhrán, fiddle, flute, whistles, bouzouki guitar, guitars, bass and drums, but what they do with them certainly sets Kíla apart. Sure, they give rousing, foot stomping performances of fast paced jigs, whistles and fiddle interweaving in classic Celtic fashion but then other rhythms get introduced. The fiddler takes a break from fiddling and starts a beat on the tom-toms from the drum kit and pretty soon you’re listening to a World music band with electric guitar, bass and drums providing a super tight rhythm section. A Middle Eastern sounding interplay between two flutes, insistent North African rhythms, they’re all in there, not replacing but expanding Kíla’s palette of Celtic music. Rónán Ó Snodaigh, one of three Ó Snodaigh brothers in the band, provides much of the chat between tunes and is an unmissable presence on stage, frequently changing instruments, taking many lead vocals and, as the pace builds towards the climax of the set, dashing around the stage with his bodhrán. Sometimes playing the drum with two tippers at once, one for the skin and one for the rim, was a guaranteed attention grabber for me. It was no surprise, with this amount of variety and energy on stage, by the end of Kíla’s set, the Big Top audience was on its feet and jigging along with the band.
Two other bands made the trip across the Irish Sea and made multiple appearances on Saturday and Sunday. Previously best known for its coastal weather station featured daily on the Shipping Forecast, Malin in Co. Donegal is home to The Henry Girls, three sisters whose music has, for the last 10 years, been giving the village a far more rewarding claim to fame. It’s debateable whether they should have been included in part 1 of the Southwell review, certainly their close harmony singing harks back to American music of the 1940s and earlier. However, for me, the lilt in their voices and the instruments used, particularly when harp, accordion and fiddle come together, make their music unquestionably Irish. Without doubt, it’s their beautifully matched voices that make the first and lasting impression but looking beyond that, their song writing is outstanding. And then, the arrangements, both of their own compositions and their other material complete the package. My only regret is that I didn’t come away from the weekend with a copy of the EP, Sketches, that they released a couple of months ago. They promise it’s a taster for a full album to be released later this year.
I was eagerly waiting to hear Dublin based band The Jeremiahs having reviewed their debut album last year. They’ve had a personnel change since recording the album. Calum Stewart, one of Manrán’s original members, has replaced Brian Corry on whistles, also bringing his superb expertise on uillean pipes and flute to the band. This alone would have been a fascinating expansion of the band’s talents but, in the last year, all the members seem to have blossomed. Their music has matured and they’ve also focussed on writing songs to go alongside their already excellent instrumental sets. Joe Gibney’s voice remains an outstanding feature, used to great effect in their Southwell sets while the stage patter showed off his classic, dry Dublin wit. They’re working towards a second album for release next year, it promises to be well worth waiting for.
Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys certainly have Irish connections, both Sam and fiddler Ciaran Algar have an Irish side to their families but Sam’s intention when putting together The Lost Boys band and album was to draw on a far wider range of influences. And so it was with their Southwell set, an amalgam of Sam’s original songs, tune sets written by the band, the traditional Jolly Waggoners in a version from Norfolk, the American bad boy ballad Little Sadie given a very upbeat treatment and the distinctly not traditional Sultans of Swing with Mark Knopfler’s guitar riffs taken by Jamie Francis on banjo. A set infused throughout with the confidence of youth, a confidence that says “sure, we can do that” and brooks no argument. Well, when you put together a band with the levels of expertise shown by Sam, Ciaran and Jamie plus Toby Shaer and Evan Carson, such confidence is thoroughly justified and the result is superbly entertaining.
The Moulettes have been on the national folk radar for the last 6 or 7 years making music with a similar confidence. Confidence that first encouraged them to bring together cello and bassoon with guitar, drums and bass without questioning whether it was “allowed” and then, with each album, take their music in substantially different directions. With their just released Preternatural, the direction has taken them to a concept album, each track telling the tale of a wondrous creature, spider, jellyfish, octopus, 11 in all. The direction has also been to a much heavier sound, taking them from prog folk nearer to prog rock. Their Big Top set consisted entirely of tracks from this newly released album. A risky choice for any band as most of the audience is unlikely to have heard the music before and doubly so when the material is significantly different from what the band has previously produced. But The Moulettes have never shied away from taking chances and in the process they’ve acquired an army of fans who have revelled in the journey so far.
The Teacups, fairly recent graduates from the Newcastle Folk and Traditional Music Degree, produce music from a branch of the vast folk music tree far removed from the one occupied by The Moulettes. But, whilst youth is also very much on their side, their four part a cappella singing builds on traditional forms that can be traced back centuries. So they were ideally suited to give the Friday lunchtime concert in Southwell’s magnificent twelfth century minster. Four beautifully pitched voices combining in the acoustics of the minster’s knave are guaranteed to send pleasurable shivers down the spine. Add to that The Teacups’ between song storytelling and the result is entertainment of the highest calibre. The Teacups inevitably invite comparison with The Young ‘Uns, not least because they gave the equivalent concert last year. But having 2 male and 2 female voices gives The Teacups sound a completely different texture whilst having that gender mix generates a group dynamic that can replace The Young ‘Uns robust bonhomie with some gentle skirmishes in the perennial battle of the sexes.
It seems barely credible that Mawkin have been around for 14 years, they still come across as young lads who can’t believe their luck, getting paid to play the music they love. Kicking off Saturday night in the Big Top their brand of folk rock immediately found a receptive audience, the energy on stage matched by enough of the audience to generate a mosh pit. Much of the set was tracks from last year’s album The Ties That Bind, delivered in a manner that thoroughly justified guitarist David Delarre’s view, “Essentially, this album’s only preconceived purpose was to simply let you have fun while trying your damnedest to find some deeper meaning. We’re not making a statement apart from don’t hurt yourself while you’re dancing in the kitchen.” It worked, the mosh pitters emerged unscathed.
Unsurprisingly, the set from the Jackie Oates Trio that followed was a delightful contrast in style and content. Jackie’s voice has long garnered praise from all quarters and when supported by her fiddle playing, Chris Sargeant’s inventive but perfectly matched guitar and the variety of bass lines that only John Parker could provide, magical sounds result. We were treated to a set that combined traditional songs, Irish as well as English, recent compositions such as the Halsway Schottische and even a version of the 1989 debut single from The Sundays, Can’t Be Sure. This was Jackie’s first full gig after the birth of daughter Rosie and I caught up with her the following day to find out what we could expect over the next few months. There are a few gigs planned in support of last year’s album release, The Spyglass and the Herringbone and an EP she has recorded with Megan Henwood will be released shortly. Also hoping to see the light of day before too much longer is an album of fiddle tunes. Recorded around 8 years ago, it’s been unearthed but needs the finishing touches applying. As for new material, she’s expecting to be recording again early in 2017. All plans, of course, are subject to Rosie’s continued co-operation.
After Mawkin and Jackie, Saturday night in the Big Top was rounded off by a typically polished set from Show of Hands. Drawing material from last year’s Long Way Home album but also dipping into their vast back catalogue they delivered a masterclass in festival performance.
As ever, multiple stages showed themselves to be the bane of the festival reviewer’s life. Sunday evening, and while Sam Kelly is playing in the Big Top, Ange Hardy is on stage in the Folk Tent. I’ve been much intrigued by her music and been looking out for the chance to see her live. So, Sam had to be put on hold while I listened to the first part of Ange’s set. She opened by introducing a song she described as the first traditional song she ever learned and proceeded to produce a haunting, unaccompanied version of She Moves Through The Fair. At that point she had me well and truly hooked, that was the first song I ever sang in public, over 50 years ago. The following song was much more typical of her own compositions, making extensive and very effective use of looping on her voice, not simply to add harmonies but also to overlay and combine different melodies. I hope our paths will cross again soon and maybe next time there’ll be a bonus and she’ll be with her duo partner, Lukas Drinkwater.
Back at the Big Top, Sunday evening concluded with Eddi Reader. She has such an enormous range of songs it’s never easy to predict what’s coming next, Burns, Piaf, one of the many songs written with Boo Hewardine, or her own material. But you can be sure that Perfect will figure somewhere. Eddi wrapped up the Big Top but that wasn’t the end of the festival. Back in the Folk Tent, two of my personal favourites from the weekend, The Jeremiahs and The Henry Girls played out the last set of the festival, both separately and, eventually, taking the stage together. A memorable end to three and a half days packed with great performances.