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Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival

Venue: Burton Agnes Hall
Town: Burton Agnes Hall, Driffield, East Yorkshire
Date: 12-14/07/19

Back in 2007, Simon Cunliffe-Lister, the current resident of Burton Agnes Hall - a magnificent Elizabethan Grade I listed building, built by Sir Henry Griffith in 1598 - decided to hold a jazz and blues festival in the grounds.

A passionate saxophonist himself, the festival has now become an annual fixture of the stately home's calendar.

Surrounded by 3000 acres, the Hall played host to the 2019 festival by sticking to its tried and tested formula.

There was a single main stage on the front lawn surrounded by formal topiary and ponds. Other acoustic performances were held in the Great Hall, a superb intimate venue, seating around 50 people, and there were also daytime performances in the courtyard and late-night shows in the beer tent.

I was last at Burton Agnes in 2015 and I have to say it is one of the most chilled festivals I have attended. This year the attention to detail was superb. The campsite, with hot showers, was well organised. There were excellent food offerings and the brilliant open-sided beer and tea tents were stocked with local ales and home-made cakes. There was even a vintage 1963 ice cream van doing a roaring trade as the sun shone.

The organisation appeared seamless but I know a lot of hard work goes into making such an event successful and it is to the organisers credit that the festival ran so smoothly.

The music ran from Friday night until Sunday afternoon and featured an eclectic mix of jazz, funk and blues artists.

Opening act on the main stage were musicians from the Manchester Jazz Collective who played with fire in their bellies, with great piano, trombone and trumpet. In truth, a great-sounding contemporary jazz outfit.

Friday night also saw Ponyland - a band from the North-East - bring their mix of Afro-Jazz to the main stage. Dressed in gorilla and monkey outfits it was immediate from the off that these were no ordinary band. And so it proved, their lively 90-minute set of rhythmic riff-based music featuring middle-eastern influences had many people up and dancing to get the event off to a flier. The seven-piece band features two drummers and while I'm not too sure what the laid-back jazz crowd made of them, they earned an encore after their final number, Moss Will Cover Everything.

Later in the beer tent there were performances by Pete and Polly Bolton and local R and B band the Juke Joint Kings.

Father and daughter duo, Pete and Polly Bolton's set featured guitar, banjo and mandolin to great effect. Songs included The River by John Hiatt, Bob Dylan's Blind Willie McTell and Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927, with Polly's mandolin superbly weaving melodic lines throughout. A real treat.

The Juke Joint Kings rounded off the Friday night with their set of blues covers, including Spoonful, I'm Ready by Muddy Waters and Big Boss Man and a host of Jimmy Reed and Jimmy Rogers numbers that had the late-night crowd dancing.

What I most enjoy about festivals is the chance to see and hear as many artists as possible and Saturday's line-up at Burton Agnes provided just that.

Although the great British weather decided to play its hand just when one of the main acts were taking the stage, it was a fascinating day of music.

In the Great Hall, there were sessions by the young pupils of Yorkshire Wolds Suzuki Music, and saxman Ben Beattie, as well as piano from David Cooper and another set from Pete and Polly Bolton.

Over on the main stage the Mark Williams Trio kicked off proceedings with their cool modern jazz as warm sunshine shone down. The crowds who had gathered on the lawn with their deckchairs, picnics and assorted booze, relaxed and enjoyed the music.

The guitar-based trio, part of the Northern Jazz set-up, played original songs in their 90-minute set including a Weird Waltz that Mark apologised for "being too weird".

Across in the Courtyard, a local Wolds-based group, the Ad Hoc Singers were going through their paces, featuring classic songs from Mozart to Queen. Later The Assembly Line, a ukulele band formed to raise money for local charities, was well received.

With her self-styled brand of sophisticated folk and feel-good jazz, Alex Spencer, now based in Berlin, proved to be a big hit for the tricky afternoon slot. Supported by double bass and sax, her 90-minute set of original songs was at times courageous and always thoughtful. She has a strong powerful voice which brings her songs such as Preventative Medicine, Entropy, and Toxic Mountain to life.

I particularly liked her song Gemstones, about the struggle the Williams sisters had to go through to rise to the top of the tennis world. Also We Bear Witness a slow and thoughtful ballad. Her set of gentle songs were well received but I did wonder why we had a 90 minute set when 60 minutes would have been better and perhaps allowed for another artist to perform.

Mind you, I could have listened to Ben Beattie's After Midnight Band for much longer after a superb set that featured Ben on saxophone and keyboard. A great medley of Stevie Wonder songs had the audience up and dancing on the lawn and an excellent African medley wrapped around Paul Simon's Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes even featured a sax-blowing conga. There was great musicianship and funky sax beat throughout the set

A thoroughly deserved encore was demanded and a wonderful Jesus On The Mainline certainly delivered. One of the highlights of the weekend.

For those of a certain age, the Nat King Cole songbook featuring acclaimed vocalist Atila, was not to be missed. And so it proved, the smooth classic numbers were delivered impeccably. This was a superb tribute to the great man and earned a standing ovation.

The storm clouds were gathering as Mo Pleasure and his Band took to the stage to wrap up proceedings on the main stage. And indeed the heavens opened as the multi-instrumentalist, who had flown in from America, started rocking.

Mo Pleasure has recorded and performed with artists such as Ray Charles, George Duke, Earth, Wind & Fire, Natalie Cole, Roberta Flack, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Peter Cetera, and Bette Midler.

His band were on fire despite the rain and they played a faultless set that kept some die-hard fans sheltering under umbrellas in front of the stage. This was high-quality funk and it was a great shame the weather decided to spoil the party.

As more and more people sheltered in the beer tent, the band ran through a sublime tribute to the great bass-player Jaco Pastorious.

A hardy few troupers stayed and swayed in the rain and were rewarded with the apt Going Home as an encore to a high-class set.

Local up-and-coming band Geoff Green & The Carousels were the first act up in the beer tent. They have just released their debut EP and played an excellent hour-long set of mostly original songs such as Relax Rewind, Home and Life On the Edge. The band's frontman, Geoff Green, has a strong stage presence and confident vocals. The songs were mainly foot-tapping and upbeat. He switched between guitar, uke and nylon guitar as the crowd warmed up inspite of the rain. On this evidence, this band will win a lot of friends.

To bring the Saturday night to a rousing end, Festival favourites, The Alligators took to the stage.

Their brand of hard-rocking blues was just the ticket and this high-powered trio did not disappoint. With Tony Underwood on guitar and vocals, Mark Sedgwick on drums and Pete Robinson on fretless bass, they blasted their way through classic numbers by Wilson Pickett and The Coasters and had the joint jumping. Tony rocking the night away, playing behind the back of his head, and keeping the temperature rising throughout..

Other songs in their set included Treat Her Right, Shop Around, the Little Feat song On Your Way Down and the Sam & Dave song I Take What I want.

The band were joined on stage by sax players Ben Beattie and festival organiser Simon Cunliffe-Lister as they romped through T-Bone Shuffle, See You Later Alligator and Neil Young's Rocking In the Free World and as I walked off into the night I'm sure I heard Dylan's Rainy Day Women wailing away.

After the sensational end to Saturday, Sunday was a hard act to follow but featured performances by jazz guitar duo The Lemon Monkeys, Emma Johnson's Gravy Boat, county blues duo Max and Veronica and the final main stage blast from Ben Beattie's After Midnight Band plus Simon Cunliffe-Lister joining on sax,

On this showing Burton Agnes Jazz and Blues Festival is going from strength to strength - who cares about the weather when the music is this good! Play on!

Words and pictures John Knighton

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