Like many towns of a similar size, Doncaster has a long, and occasionally chequered, history of organising folk clubs, gigs and festivals. There was a thriving club scene in the folk revival's sixties and seventies heyday and you still occasionally bump into old-timers who saw Paul Simon at the Bay Horse in Bentley or John Martyn at the Three Horse Shoes on the North Bridge. Some of my own earliest experiences with this music were as a teenager in the late-eighties when I helped run a moderately successful folk club and attended various gigs, sessions, proto-festival 'days of folk' and what I guess we would now be obliged to call 'pop-up' one-off events. There have been some dry periods since then but having decamped to the 'wrong' side of the Pennines some 20 years ago it's good to return to this South Yorkshire town that has long aspired to city status for what is now the eight eighth annual Doncaster Folk Festival.
The festival programme is centred primarily around two evening concerts at the Ukrainian Centre, a self-contained social club on the edge of the town centre, and this is where Tilston and Lowe kick off the weekend. Steve Tilston and Jez Lowe are two veterans of the UK folk circuit and they start the evening with a handful of songs played together: Tilston's "Oil and Water", "Here's To Tom Paine" (his ode to the author of "The Age of Reason" and "Rights of Man"), Lowe's "Tether's End" and "The Pitmen Poets" amongst them. The toss of a coin determines that Tilston is the first to present a short-ish solo set and he demonstrates his easy-going manner and exceptional guitar playing (on both six- and ten-string models). His instrumental dexterity is perhaps best demonstrated on his reworking of an old Blind Boy Fuller blues learned from the great Wizz Jones, "Weeping Willow Replanted". Elsewhere he dips into the tradition with a song learned, then heavily modified, from Holroyd's Collection of Yorkshire Ballads, "The Fisher Lad of Whitby", but his set largely consists of relatively recent self-written pieces. "The Riverman Has Gone" references the recent floods in his hometown of Hebden Bridge and includes a nod to Nick Drake; "Green Days" is full of memories from the time he first turned professional and moved to London in 1970 and mentions some of the characters he bumped into and who helped him along the way.
Jez Lowe's solo set is similarly accomplished. He accompanies himself at various times on guitar, cittern, mandolin and harmonica and has a likable personality that fosters the impression that this is all very easy, when is quite clearly isn't. His set includes several absorbing self-written songs of North-Eastern-social-realism with an occasional dose of humour: "Will of the People" is a call to collective action that is more than just clever word play; "The Wrong Bus", written for "The Ballad of the Great War" (a recent BBC Radio Ballad) balances pathos with humour largely thanks to Lowe's array of exaggerated accents; new song "What the Mountain Said" is a response to an online comment to the effect that the folk scene is dominated, to its detriment, by songs of the working classes.
Tilston and Lowe finish off the evening together with a set that takes in several songs from similar sources. The format of their duo sets is that one sings his own song and is accompanied by the other, then vice versa. There's plenty of chat and humour between songs and whilst it might have been interesting to have heard more active collaborations, the format of one effectively backing the other works well and they end with a couple of old favourites: Lowe's "Old Bones" and Tilston's "Slip Jigs and Reels". It's an effective and successful way to round off the first night of the festival.
Whilst I'd opted for the Ukrainian Centre on the Friday evening, the more nimble-footed had capered towards the Deaf Trust across town for the now-traditional ceilidh featuring festival regulars Alterego. Those who'd joined me had an opportunity to get their dance fix at the main fringe event of the festival. Saturday afternoon's Day of Dance brought together eighth Morris sides dancing a variety of styles across three locations in the town centre throughout the afternoon. The main event in the marketplace, in the shadow of the historic Corn Exchange building, coincided with a festival of food and drink so was accompanied by the pleasant aromas of various world cuisines. Local dance sides were well represented: Donny's own Green Oak, Sheffield's Yorkshire Chandelier and Rotherham's Maltby Sword amongst them. Providing the finale, with their impressive Border dances and equally impressive costumes and makeup, were Sheffield's unfeasibly-named Boggart's Breakfast.
For the festival finale we returned to the Ukrainian Centre for a Saturday evening concert that was packed to the rafters despite the torrential rain that might have discouraged many from travelling. Flossie Malavialle is an engaging French singer, now based in Bishop Aukland in County Durham, who had played a festival fundraiser earlier in the year and who the organisers had the foresight to invite onto the main festival bill. A thoroughly British sense of humour, as well and a distinctive North East accent, have clearly rubbed off and she peppers her set with self-depreciating humour and semantic tongue-twisters. She opens with a recent Paul McCartney composition, "Early Days", that suits her sweet, clear voice, then runs through a selection of songs by everyone from The Judds and Willie Nelson to Abba and Suzanne Vega, with some Tom Waits thrown in for good measure. Her sources are diverse but it works because she has both the proficiency and the charm to captivate the full-house audience.
Les Barker is next and he runs through what can only be described as a greatest hits set of his 'chorus poems'. He gives us "Reg was a lonely glowworm", "Guide cats for the blind", "Deja Vu", "My bag for life has just died" and "Have you got any news of the iceberg?", amongst other example of his hilarious absurdity and deadpan delivery. Audience participation is a key element of Barker's craft and his feigned perplexity each time a climactic rhyme is anticipated or a concluding couplet second-guessed - each of which have been clearly signposted - is perhaps overused but is nevertheless still charming and joyous to see.
Holy Moly and the Crackers round off the festival and, as finales go, this is a raucous and energetic one. The seven-piece band's brand of proto-punk-ska-folk-rock-gypsy-r'n'b is both uproarious and infectious. The main vocals are shared between Ruth Lyon and Conrad Bird. Ruth's voice is husky and soulful and works best on their blues-tinged numbers, of which they have quite a few. Conrad is a young guy but his voice feels uncharacteristically careworn and he has an easygoing character that is best showcased on the more upbeat material. Brass plays a large part in the band's sound, which is fleshed out with accordion, fiddle and Peter Hogan's criminally-underexploited r'n'b-flavoured guitar. Everything is held together by a killer rhythm section and offset by liberal doses of between-song humour and good-natured banter.
By the end of the evening there are several folks dancing in the aisles and as I walk from the venue, the festival sounds still ringing in my ears, the rain has abated and the spring Yorkshire air is pleasant and mild. I've already chosen to forgo the Sunday afternoon 'survivor's session' - one of several fringe sessions in venues across town over the weekend - so, for me, this is the culmination of a fine, professional yet relaxed and family-friendly festival. It's one I hope to visit again soon.=
Kev Boyd, words and pictures
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