In conversation last year Wickham Festival organiser, Peter Chegwyn, had hinted 2016 would see significant numbers of Scottish artists heading back to the South Coast. Previous Wickham Festivals had tempted many first rate Scottish musicians to make the long journey south but the 2015 event had been an exception. When the 2016 line-up was announced it was clear he’d been true to his word with Skerryvore, Red Hot Chilli Pipers, Eddi Reader and Manran leading a nine-strong pack.
Blazin’ Fiddles (image above) was the first band to check if the Wickham audience was as enthusiastic as ever for Scottish music. Their formula of four fiddlers playing in configurations from solo to quartet, backed by Anna Massie’s forcefully rhythmic guitar and Angus Lyon’s inventive piano was the perfect start, showing the 2016 audience to be as hungry for top quality Scottish instrumental music as any of their predecessors. A festival set from Blazin’ Fiddles showcases the considerable fiddling talents of founding member Bruce MacGregor, more recent, but established, members Jenna Reid and Rua Macmillan and relative newcomer, Kristan Harvey. Their differing home turfs, Bruce and Rua from the Eastern Highlands, Jenna from Shetland and Kristan from Orkney allow Blazin’ Fiddles to continue one of the band’s original aims, exploring different fiddle styles within the Scottish tradition. I’d hazard this wasn’t the band’s primary attraction for the Wickham audience, rather the succession of highly danceable tune sets interspersed with a little theatre, often courtesy of Bruce and Anna, created irresistible entertainment. Talking later with Rua, the chat ranged across the various extramural activities of band members, from Kristin’s quartet of Orkney musicians, Fara, to Bruce’s event venue, Bogbain Farm. But, the activity Rua most wanted to stress was the annual fiddle school organised by the band, Blazin’ in Beauly. In his words, “for Blazin’ Fiddles, education is as important as performance”.
Later that evening it was Skerryvore’s turn (image above) to get the tent jumping, five years since their last visit, five years during which they’ve matured into one of the best Celtic folk-rock bands around. With Alec Dalglish’s vocals often encouraging audience participation and tune sets that just have to be danced to, a Skerryvore festival set can be an exhausting experience. Their not so secret weapons, Martin Gillespie’s highland pipes, are always guaranteed to raise the excitement level a couple of notches and the band knows how to deploy them sparingly for maximum effect. That’s not a strategy available to The Red Hot Chilli Pipers, with a front line of three sets of highland pipes, there’s no doubting what you’ll get. Either approach went down equally well and Wickham lapped it up.
On Saturday afternoon, Orcadians Douglas Montgomery on fiddle and Brian Cromarty on vocals, guitar and mandola, better known as Saltfishforty (image above), showed that with the right material and attitude, numbers aren’t important, two musicians can whip up as big a storm as seven. They’re both passionate about Orkney’s traditional music but cast the net much wider when collecting their material. So, a set of N E Scotland fiddle tunes that left the crowd breathless was followed by Old Man Luedecke’s Tender is the Night and their finale started with swing fiddle tunes that morphed into Robert Johnson’s Crossroads and back again. The audience was reluctant to let them leave the stage but they did eventually get away with just enough time to towel down and grab a bite before they were back as part of eight-piece band, The Chair (image below). With Brian switched to banjo but still handling vocal and Douglas’s fiddle backed up by Kenny Ritch on a second fiddle and Bob Gibbon on accordion, The Chair delivered one of those unforgettable festival experiences. Music that radiated energy from beginning to end intertwined with classic banter, involving the audience every step of the way. If all sessions on Orkney are this good, surely the ferries back to Aberdeen should be empty?
The weekend saw one other Scottish band that fitted into the same high energy mode. Since we last took a look at Mànran, guitarist/vocalist Norrie MacIver has moved on. His guitar duties have been taken over by Craig Irving from last year’s Young Folk Award winners, Talisk while Ewen Henderson looks after vocals alongside his fiddle playing. The revised line up has brought with it some new songs and tune sets. With Ryan Murphy on Uillean pipes and Ewen’s mainly Gaelic vocals, Mànran created a vibe distinctly different from the other bands, but the atmosphere they generated was just as effective in firing up the crowd.
The remaining Scottish contributions definitely fitted different moulds. The Mischa Macpherson Trio was the Young Folk Award winner in 2014, three young musicians at the very beginning of promising careers. In the intervening two years, the original members of the trio have lived up to that promise, but that’s inevitably sent them along different tracks. Guitarist Innes White has been touring this year with John McCusker’s band and last year played on Karen Matheson’s Urram album whilst whistles and pipes man, Conal McDonagh, is currently in Japan. So it was a very different Mischa Macpherson Trio that took to the stage at Wickham with Anna Massie on guitar and Findlay MacDonald on whistles and small pipes. Two very experienced musicians, but it was Mischa who commanded the stage and, in doing so, showed just how much her singing has matured. After listening to a set of songs that fitted perfectly into a warm, sunny afternoon I looked forward to talking again with Mischa. The previous week she had sung at Womad with Greg Lawson’s orchestra assembled to perform his orchestral setting of Martyn Bennett’s Grit. The first performance of the piece at last year’s Celtic Connections hadn’t involved Mischa and she was clearly delighted to have been asked to take part at Womad. She was even more excited at the prospect of the next performance at Edinburgh Playhouse as part of the Festival. The invitation’s a clear sign of the high reputation she’s now built up for her singing.
In recent months Ewan McLennan has featured many times in videos on Folk Radio. So it was a real pleasure to listen to a live set from him. As a solo singer playing guitar and banjo, taking over the stage after Saltfishforty was a challenge but his mix of traditional, self-penned and songs borrowed from some great songwriters was a winning combination. His strong clear voice was a delight to listen to, though the messages in the songs aren’t always comfortable. Ewan is a worthy addition to the long line of politically active Scottish singers and songwriters; it’s no surprise he won the Alistair Hewlitt Memorial Prize a couple of years back. Add to the voice an easy going but at times deceptively intricate finger picking guitar style and, in Ewan, you have the complete package. He describes himself as a troubadour and balladeer, it’s no idle boast.
Wickham also provided a chance to catch live performance from another band that’s made an impact on Folk Radio this year. Lynched (image above) has attracted a lot of attention, even from the mainstream press who love it when easy labels can be attached to new talent. ‘Folk punk’, whatever that might mean, is frequently used whilst Lynched are happy to describe themselves as Dublin’s folk miscreants. They come on stage and, visually, there’s plenty to bolster that image, the patched jeans, the sleeveless T-shirts, the piercings. But then they start to play and the image becomes irrelevant, this is genuine, rootsy, Irish music. There’s plenty of tradition in there, both in the vocals and in the use of uillean pipes, concertina and fiddle. But they’re not afraid to mix in influences as diverse as music hall comedy and old-time Americana. There are passages of four part acapella, using their voices to great effect, but then those songs can switch into instrumental pieces and you can try second guessing which way they’ll go. Maybe it will be the uillean pipes taking it down a traditional route or maybe the fiddle will take over with old-time swing. Spend an hour listening to the music of Lynched and you’ll be intrigued, moved, excited, educated and, above all, entertained.
Mawkin’s album The Ties That Bind released last year was very well received (main article image). Wickham was the first opportunity I’d had to see the band since and I looked forward to hearing them again after a gap of nearly three years. What I saw was a band that has developed a collective confidence, they’re relaxed on stage, presenting a body of material they clearly enjoy playing. Their songs are largely sourced from the English tradition but for their tunes they tend to cast the net a bit wider, a tunes suitability for building up to a pacey crescendo being of more importance than nationality. Both songs and tunes get the full Mawkin treatment when it comes to arrangements, guitar, fiddle and melodeon weaving patterns around the melody with the drums and bass giving it all a solid, tight rhythm and, in a festival setting, they do like to play it loud. Conversation after the set with David Delarre (guitar and vocals) and Nick Cooke (melodeon), quickly confirmed the whole band felt a confidence in themselves and in what they were doing that had developed over the last few years. They put it down to a combination of simply getting older, they’re all in their early 30s now, and the experience and praise they’re accumulating from their individual projects. David is playing with Eliza Carthy in the Wayward Band, Nick with Kate Rusby’s band, James Delarre has joined Topette with Andy Cutting and collectively, as Mawkin, they benefited enormously from touring as support to Bellowhead on the farewell tour.
It’s already a year since they released the Ties album but when talk turned to future recordings it was clear they’re in no rush, the end of 2017 was mentioned as a possibility. That doesn’t mean they’re not developing new material, far from it. David, in particular, is an avid user of The Full English digital archive, regularly finding and suggesting songs for the band to work up. But in Mawkin’s world, it’s a long road from there to the point where a song becomes part of the live repertoire, and then they’d expect to have gigged new songs for well over a year before considering them ready for recording. It’s a free and easy way of working and left the impression that Mawkin is still a bunch of friends getting together to make music and thoroughly enjoying the process.
The smaller stages at Wickham, there were two this year, always host a broad range of local bands. This year one such band made the mega step up to a main-stage appearance. Winters Hill (image above), generally a trio, beefed themselves up to a five-piece for the occasion. Core members Max Hoar (guitar and vocals), Nimrod Taabu (cajon) and Jack Holmar (guitar, harmonica and vocals) added bass guitar and pedal steel guitar, a line-up that also features on the EP Burnt Hearts and Landmarks that they’ve just released. Their original material has often been described simply as Americana, but, in their own words, their songs are not aping country music but adding a UK twist. However you choose to describe it, their set earned a great reception, and they came off stage utterly elated, describing their appearance as “what we got into music to do” and “our biggest gig so far”.
Wickham Festival grew a little larger again this year with four stages of differing sizes operating throughout the weekend. Festival Organiser, Peter Chegwyn, took the bold step of treating the Big Top and the not so Big Top as being of similar importance and so headline names could be scheduled for either stage. An audience that in previous years may have expected to stay in one location and still be sure of seeing all the big names was encouraged to move around a little more. It certainly kept me on my feet longer. With last year’s festival having won the best small festival (under 15,000 capacity) award, Wickham already has a high reputation and no doubt Peter will have more new ideas to improve it even further in 2017.