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The Great British Folk Festival

Venue: Butlins
Town: Skegness
Date: 2-4/12/16
Website: http://www.bigweekends.com/the-weekends/specialist-music-weekends/great-british-folk-festival.aspx
Additional Photography:Gallery

"Another Butlins success where the folk tradition was celebrated - a bit like a brief visit from the ghosts of Christmas past with a glimpse of Christmases to come. And to once again reinforce the fact that folk music is in good shape, there was the opportunity, flush with the adrenaline of this year, to book in for 2016; Donovan and Kate Rusby will be there. And The Levellers - in Skegness? In December? You bet!"

FATEA - Great British Folk Festival 2015

And with Cara Dillon and Kate Rusby lined up for performing Christmas themed sets plus Jona ('Stop The Cavalry') Lewie, last year's FATEA sign off seems quite apt. Cara has a new Christmas album out and Kate now has a trio of her South Yorkshire seasonal song albums under her belt. Saturday also marked the start of Kate's usual Christmas jaunt and the GBBF was just another stop on Cara's Christmas album tour quite a festive feel. The usual mix of big names, acts who tend towards the nostalgic side and lesser known acts doing the rounds or hoping to make a breakthrough, plus a range of those who tend towards a strong traditional folk direction and some whose folk credentials might feel less secure, nonetheless provides a variety and ultimately a guarantee of a pleasant surprise or two.

With the weather seasonally refreshing, it's always a warm feeling (literally) to stroll into Butlin's instantly recognisable Skylight Pavillion and get the first whiff of the weekend's music on the 'Introducing' Stage. Even better if you're one of the first acts on with everyone's adrenaline flowing so perfect timing for justifiably highly rated Kelly Oliver to be opening the festival with songs from her 'This Land' and her current (and excellent) 'Bedlam'. The duo of Winter Wilson went down well, making a mark with some 'Ashes And Dust' material and the first appearance of a plethora of banjos (and banjo jokes) for the weekend. Their lively banter an essential tool in bridging the unfriendly gap between stage and audience on the Introducing stage.

For the dozen acts who take that stage across the weekend it can feel a little like they're in competition X Factor style, which they essentially are, in the desire to grab votes and a place on one of the festival main stages next year. However, win or not, word of mouth is the best marketing tool and they'll hope more than anything that if people liked what they saw and heard, they'll tell someone about it regardless of how many votes they get. Louis Jordan, The Life and Times of Brother Hogg and Sarah Dean proved what a diverse selection the Introducing Stage gather. A simple acoustic guitar and voice verging on classical is the signature of Louise Jordan, while The Hogg's easy going vibe of country cool preceded an interesting collection of harp, shruti box and twinkling decoration with Sarah Dean going so far as to cover a Dylan song ('Man In The Long Black Coat' ) - and fair enough, a folk festival without some element of his Bobness would seem disrespectful.

The contrast between the weekend's acts was no more diverse that provided by Crumbling Ghost; their concern that their brand of dark and ominous Sabbath influenced doomy folk might not sit comfortably on the bill was smashed by the rush of (possibly Levellers) fans posting their voting tokens through the Crumbling Ghost slot. Being followed by a smartly dressed Roger Davis on acoustic guitar and singing songs about Huddersfield Town really brought home the variety.

FRIDAY

And so to the main stages where Friday included one of last year's 'Introducing' stars stepping up to the main stage plate. Said The Maiden's three part delicacies going side by side with a similarly gentle and sensitive set from Cara Dillon and her Christmas material. Including '2000 Miles' added to the festive feel of the weekend and a band which includes a high class set of musicians in Sam Lakeman, Luke Daniels, Niall Murphy and new-ish recruit John Smith, there was a quality which shone through. With the extra guitar of John Smith, it freed up Sam Lakeman to play more piano and the duets between the Smith/Dillon pairing were perhaps the highlight of the set.

The calls for people to "sit down" for Lindisfarne was perhaps an indication of the clash of cultures between the traditional and those, like the band themselves, who like to have a stand up gig. There may be a few unfamiliar faces in the lineups of some of the bands who are now well into their fourth or fifth decades yet like orchestras playing the works of Mozart, they are keeping the flag flying and fans will still turn out in numbers to hear a set of well played Lindisfarne classics. Not so an issue for Oysterband, with ex-Bellowhead (oh how it must grate for some people to read that) drummer and percussionist Pete Flood joining Jones, Telfer, Scott and Prosser to provide a still sharp and acerbic quintet, John Jones breaking the barriers and getting down into the audience too. Ian Tefler remains as dry as the sands of the Sahara - commenting on their knack of pre-empting world events, "a song we wrote unconsciously 25 years ago for Hilary Clinton" in introducing 'All That Way For This'. Watch out for their Oysters 3 tour in 2017 too.

The addition of Mad Dog Mcrea and the Tex Mex treat of Los Pacaminos featuring Paul (yes the 'Wherever I Lay My Hat' and who once supported Genesis one) Young at an 11.30 start often seems like an afterthought, yet there's many an opportunity to catch some extra quality for anyone who doesn't want to get back for their cocoa and slippers in any hurry.

SATURDAY

"I wouldn't have though Bob Geldof was folk" (Reds security guard)

And so to the heavyweight knockout, the main event(s) of the evening. Not that it was quite in terms an X Factor styled competition, but Bob Geldof v Kate Rusby was a pair of headliners which added to a festival which prides itself on contrasts. Going from the packed Reds stage where Bob and his band were literally tearing up a storm and walking into a similarly packed Centre Stage and hearing a glittery Xmas Kate singing about the girls and boys and all their toys with a hearty ho-ho-ho-ing couldn't have been more of a contrast.

Bob and his band were eminently lively and entertaining and not without a few well meaning, as opposed to offensive, profanities, ("Have you all got your hair tied back in ponytails with an elastic band? Are you all drinking real ale? In pewter tankards?" - insert your own swearing as appropriate) and of course the fact that The Boomtown Rats were folk music from the seventies. Who would have thought that Sir Bob would have been the surprise package of the weekend? He lived up more to his reputation heckling Chris Jagger from the audience next day and as far as reputations go, Kate lived up to hers too. Now with more albums to her name than Madonna, there was no chance of any effing and jeffing, but a set of Christmas songs plus an encore of her new superhero 'Big Brave Bill' marking the start of her traditional seasonal tour - more glee and goodwill to all mankind than the dirty rock and roll from the noisy neighbours.

Solo singer songwriters Liam Blake and Sally Barker together with The Blues Band's Gary Fletcher fronting his own band, had ensured a pretty relaxed Saturday build up pre-Bob. David Knopfler and Harry Bogdaovs set might have lacked a little on the volume - the helpful "we can't hear you!" hecklers getting immediately shot down with a "that's good!" comment and reference to the no compromise intimate nature of their performance that Sir Bob himself would have been proud of. For David and the duo's chugging twin guitar r'n'b sound think brother Mark meets the other Bob (Dylan) and you'd not be far off the mark.

Yet for something a tad more adventurous, you could have taken a trip waaay back in time with Gryphon - one band from the mists of time (and support act to another prog rock giant, Yes) who can still boast a healthy core of members in vocalist/percussionist Dave Oberle, guitarist Graeme Taylor and the distinctive Brian Gullard and his bassoon and crumhorn combos. Their stately medieval arrangements an interesting variation on the folk core and then there was the Pitmen Poets. Any band with Jez Lowe and Bob Fox is going to score highly on entertainment value. "Like Songs Of Praise with a bar" is how Jez referred to the respectful ambience in Centre Stage, encouraging seated rowing and songs of quiz teams, they're a quartet epitomising what folk music, folk traditions and the folk arts are about - perfect for the pub and a band who would have been a perfect addition to the final day bill.

Anyone hanging out late would have caught a preview of new songs from The Travelling Band's fourth album; celebrating a ten year landmark the band's Jo Dudderidge sporting a few cuts and bruises and a heavily strapped guitar and with the addition of a fiddle to their sound, the new material sounds like it will be one of those you'd class as having a different picture in the same frame.

SUNDAY

A chilled Sunday afternoon, not short in any way on irreverent and witty banter - again with Centre Stage providing an afternoon which was as much about stand up as it was music. John Watterson performing the songs of Jake Thackray as Fake Thackray was amusing and informative as well as being uncannily true to the man. The discovery of a raft of unreleased (until now…) Thackray recordings adding an edge plus a marvellous story in Watterson's Thackray biography research featuring Robert Plant. Similarly lively and full of beans, Martin Stephenson could hardly be accused of planning a broken string in this first song to add a bit of comic edge and instrument swapping to his performance. Costume (well…hat) changes that wouldn't quite rank up with the costume extravaganzas of Kylie and Beyonce, he was no less entertaining.

A blues and roots combo made up the afternoon with Slim Chance honouring the work of Ronnie Lane in a rich selection of a lot of lane's material and Chris Jagger fronting a trio in his Acoustic Roots guise while the pre-headline slots saw sets from Jona Lewie and Kasim Sulton. Sulton, full of apologies for the US election dramas and Batle-y acoustic songs, while Lewie in a cross between Mr Bean and Bradley Wiggins out together an endearing lo-fi set accompanied by some enthusiastic fan worship.

Rolling back the years as he's been doing for decades now, Donovan dashed out hit after hit while bathed in dark and deep blue and red light - a hippies delight; the photographer's nightmare. All the hits yes, which might be (a) timeless classics or (b) the cash cow that has transcended time and space much like Donovan himself. In contrast (naturally) to the vibrancy of The Levellers who made an album a mere 25 years old sound fresh and urgent and without wanting to labour a point, politically relevant. 'Levelling The Land' has been good to them; as well as providing the focus for a show that celebrates its 25th anniversary (as it did with the 20th anniversary in 2011) it's provided the bulk of their set for years. Being picky the first half probably shades it along with the cameo of Steve Boakes moonlighting from the merch stand with his didgeridoo, but as with Donovan, you know what you're going to get. The expected heat and fervour is all there and the sated audience can leave the enlarged standing area for the late night treat of Holy Moly & The Crackers to see to the unenviable job of following The Levs - a shame when in the right place and at the right time they are a cracking band and another example of a late night band who are perfect for their slot on the bill of not a little on the late side for a large percentage of the audience.

As usual, the tempting signs were in place by the end of the festival - Fairport and St Agnes Fountain already set for next year (plus the best of this year's Introducing Stage - hopefully Crumbling Ghost / Kelly Oliver / The Life & Times Of The Brothers Hogg) and early booking available at the top of the range for just under £200? You bet.

Mike Ainscoe - Words & Pictures

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