August Bank Holiday weekend has always been a crowded time for Festivals. Two long-established biggies, Towersey and Shrewsbury, are the most obvious but cast around and you find many smaller, local events. Down on the South Coast we’re fortunate that Purbeck Valley Folk Festival has been able to carve out a niche for itself and regularly attracts big name artists, some of whom commute between Purbeck and one or other of the big two over the course of the weekend. Festival organisers, father and daughter pairing Paul and Catherine Burke, had to change site for last year’s event, but year two at Purbeck Valley Farm saw the Festival nicely settled in. It’s clear the farmers, the Barnes family, have made the Festival very welcome. Far more than simply agreeing to the use of a few fields, they clear out the heart of the farm so the Festival can be centred on the farm yard with the two main stages and bar housed in barns clustered around the yard. With camping fields to one side and a field housing the open-air Fire Stage, traders and various other performance spaces on the other, this is a festival site with attractions like no other. It helps, of course, to be in the beautiful scenery of the Purbeck Hills with steam trains of the Swanage Railway passing by and stunning views over to the ruins of the 11th Century Corfe Castle. All of this would count for little without a three-day programme of top quality music and, this year, among the ‘big names’ were Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, The Proclaimers, Nizlopi, Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, Villagers, and Boo Hewerdine.
I’d seen Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band perform an impressive set at Wickham Festival last summer, so I had high expectations of their Sunday night appearance at Purbeck. Those expectations were exceeded by some way! There were some personnel changes, most notably Saul Rose was back in his regular position on melodeon, John Spiers having deputised for him last year. But the basic structure of the 12-piece band is the same, rhythm, brass and string sections behind Andrew Waite on accordion, David Delarre on guitar, Saul’s melodeon and Eliza’s voice and fiddle. Eliza is a commanding presence centre stage, unmissable in one of her trademark dress and corset combinations, pure white this time. She’s in constant motion, weaving patterns around Saul, David and Andrew, crouching down, bouncing up, bending over backwards. But she is not alone in filling the stage with movement, when Eliza bounces, you can be sure David and Sam Sweeney will be making very convincing Tigger impressions as they leap around. The material this year is more focused, a mix of English traditional and new compositions reflecting the work they’ve done on Big Machine, the album to be released shortly. And excellent material it is too, arrangements that both intrigue and excite, lyrics, many their own, that communicate in the best folk song tradition, vocals that range from Eliza’s solo voice to passages with six or more voices. If you’re after a band that is demonstrably bigger than the sum of its considerable parts, look no further than The Wayward Band. The Big Machine tour starts at the beginning of November, and there’s no way I’m missing it, see you in Salisbury guys.
With 12 of them, it’s quite likely The Wayward Band take the crown for most energy expended during a set, but there were several other contenders including world music six-piece combo Baraka who followed them on stage on Sunday night. Having been fired up by The Wayward Band, the audience were in just the mood for the mixture of African, Caribbean and European sounds that Baraka deliver. Rhythms that make it impossible to keep your feet still, plenty of audience involvement keeping those rhythms going with hand claps and instrumental breaks with Modou Cissoko on kora and Brendan Whitmore on sax competing for the crowd’s attention. Good time music.
Showing that, when it comes to getting an audience jumping, numbers aren’t everything, Nizlopi, John Parker and Luke Concannon, gave a masterclass. On the face of it, their music is simple, Luke’s acoustic guitar and voice and John’s double bass. But they have a couple of not so secret weapons, John’s bass style ranges from bowed to strongly percussive and, when combined with his beat-boxing, turns him into a one-man backline while Luke’s infectious enthusiasm can raise the spirits of any audience. Their Saturday evening set in the Big Barn left the crowd shouting and stomping for more and follow-on-band, The Proclaimers, with a lot to live up to.
The Long Barn is the smaller of the two barn stages and it’s well-established that music there continues after the top billing acts finish in the Big Barn. To make this work, the final Long Barn bands need to quickly whip up a party atmosphere and those filling this slot this year were all great choices. On Friday, Bristol based Sheelanagig showed the way with their frenetic, Balkan-influenced, jazzy sound and stage antics. The floor in the Long Barn is gravel rather than concrete, not the ideal surface for dancing, but dancing there was, with Sheelanagig in full swing it’s near impossible to resist. On Saturday, local favourites Quinns Quinney, fitted the bill perfectly. You can describe their music as skiffle but that hardly covers it, in their own words they “like to hit things that ought not to be hit… blow on things that ought not to be blown”. So that goes some way to explaining a stage littered with suitcases and watering cans. And yes, more dancing followed. Taking their turn on Sunday Holy Moly and the Crackers brought back some gypsy music and mixed it with blues, trad folk and a host of other influences to great effect. Gigging extensively up and down the country they’re building a great reputation, just the sort of band you need to keep a festival on its feet right to the end.
With all this high energy music around, it was just as well there were plenty of opportunities for more relaxed listening, none more so than when Boo Hewerdine played the Fire Stage on a beautiful, sunny evening. The Fire Stage audience gets to recline, pints in hand, on a lush grassy slope and with the sun setting behind the surrounding hills and Boo giving one of his characteristically laid-back performances, the picture of contentment was complete. With Boo, though, it’s as well to keep your wits about you or you may miss some of the best between songs patter you’ll find. Words such as ‘laconic’ and ‘self-deprecating’ come to mind but above all it’s entertaining and a perfect foil to his songs. Those songs have been recorded by dozens of artists, ample testament to their quality, but it’s a special bonus to hear his own take on them. For some, notably Harvest Gypsies, he invited Rory McLeod to add harmonica, making the whole set even more memorable.
The previous day, Rory had played a set with his band, Rory McLeod and the Familiar Strangers. An intriguing mix of instruments and musicians from the exotic, Colombian Llanera harp (Diego Laverde Rojas) to the mundane, when Rory forsakes guitar and harmonica to pick up the spoons. Somewhere in the middle sit Bob Morgan (clarinet and sax) and Richard Sadler on double bass. Not surprisingly there’s no easy way to categorise the music made by this eclectic bunch but I’d urge you to go out of your way to see them, they certainly brightened up my afternoon and piqued my interest to learn more.
The Festival was a busy weekend for Catherine Burke, as well as organiser, she played a set with her own band and popped up as a guest with other local bands. Membership of The Catherine Burke Band is a fairly flexible matter but you can be sure of hearing some of Catherine’s excellent songs delivered with style and good humour. Her songs can be very personal but show she doesn’t take herself too seriously; I’d say her style is perfectly summed up when she happily tells us of being on the receiving end of the chat-up line, “let’s face it, none of us are getting any younger.” The songs are heavily influenced by her love of bluegrass and they and the Big Barn were a perfect fit. The bluegrass influence shows too in much of her programming for the festival. This year that included two bands touring over from the States. Front Country from San Francisco, have their origins as a band in bluegrass but now encompass a range of styles both instrumentally and with bluesy vocals from singer-songwriter Melody Walker. In contrast, The Hot Seats from Virginia have stayed closer to their bluegrass and stringband roots, five guys around a single mic with acoustic instruments, guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle with the fifth member switching between double bass and a stripped down drum kit, one drum, two cymbals. So whilst they’re consciously adopting a traditional approach they happily range across genres even straying as far as 50s rock and roll.
Over the weekend a number of UK bands added to the Americana experience, reinforcing my impression from several festivals over this summer of an upsurge in its popularity. Personal favourites The Goat Roper Rodeo Band gave one of their frenetic country blues sessions. Most of their songs are fast-paced, packed with guitar and double bass action, but they also have two and three part vocal harmonies that, when they slow the pace, bring out the goose bumps time after time. The Carrivick Sisters, with their predominantly banjo and fiddle arrangements and tight vocal harmonies, produce a classic bluegrass sound but their songwriting tends to be rooted no further west than their native Devon. Put together it’s a winning combination and earned them an encore, a rarity amongst such a tight festival schedule. Another band to leave a lasting impression, The Jaywalkers, a two female, one male trio, are making music that blends elements of bluegrass in its instrumentation, fiddle, guitar and double bass, with songs that have English roots, Lancashire in this case.
From the other side of the Pennines, Yorkshire based duo Plumhall were new to me. Consisting of Michelle Plum and Nick B Hall, two acoustic guitars and two voices blending perfectly, presented song after song that really hit home. Michelle and Nick both have abundant experience from playing in other bands but having come together as a duo they’re making a real impact. Making a memorable impression isn’t easily achieved late on the Sunday afternoon of a three-day festival, but they succeeded, and I ‘m looking forward to hearing a lot more from them.
I hadn’t seen Benjamin Folke Thomas since talking with him at Cropredy a couple of years back. His Long Barn set earlier on Sunday afternoon showed him to be in great form. Often using his easy going chat to lighten the mood after a strongly emotive song, he rapidly developed a rapport with the audience. I think you can say you’ve won when you get them singing a chorus, “I’m a sex addict, a drug addict, irrational and gay”. Thanks Ben, some good memories from your set but I’m afraid I’ve already forgotten the penguin joke. Kadia and Ranagri, bands I’ve written about fairly recently, deserve at least a name check having generated great audience reactions to their sets. Both bands have busy years ahead and we can expect to see and hear good things from them.
Vegetarians need not read on…
It’s fitting to give the last words from Purbeck Valley Folk Festival to the farm that gives the festival its name. Tucked away at the back of the Big Barn, well away from the main food area, a stall was selling the tastiest, most succulent venison burgers I’ve come across. The man behind the counter was Ashley Barnes, son of the farming family. It turns out the venison comes from wild deer culled and turned into burgers on the farm. Supply is strictly limited and when the last one is sold, sometime on Sunday, that’s it. So, next year when, as you must, you visit Purbeck Valley Folk Festival get in early or risk missing the non-musical treat of the weekend.