G'n'R and Alice Cooper at The Great British Folk Festival (see below)
Butlins, December, snow - probably not the most enticing three-word combination in the world, but, undeterred, the draw of what is now a permanent fixture on the Festival calendar, and the prospect of some exciting music was a more enticing prospect than staying at home and having to contemplate dealing with Christmas lights.
What follows is merely a personal reflection of the three days, based on notes and photos taken at the time by an ordinary punter with no special access or privileges. The nature of the festival, with simultaneous billing across different stages, meant that choices had to be made, and, of necessity, artists missed. My strategy was to stick with entire sets, rather than try to catch snippets, although slightly staggered timings between the two main stages, (Reds and Centre Stage), did allow for catching the last 15 minutes or so of a couple of acts. Others may prefer a more scattergun approach, but I reckon that attending 13 full main stage performances, (plus peripherals) was a fair return over the initial evening and subsequent two full days of the festival.
Setting off mid-morning from Kent, with wife Sara and long-standing Hastings-based friends Rick & Sheila, the initial part of the route, A21, M25, M11, A14, A1 to Peterborough was all too familiar, as, due misdemeanours committed in an earlier life I am serving a life-time punishment of having to attend Scunthorpe United football matches. The stretch from Peterborough through Spalding and Boston to Skeggy, was, however, less familiar, and by the time we pitched-up at Butlin's, in the dark, we had almost given up the will to live, so dire was the journey of some 6 plus hours, (home to Scunny normally taking 3½ to 4 hours). Thank you M25, A14 Cambridge road improvements and what felt like an A52 Lincs tractor rally.
My last experience of Butlin's was working at their Ayr resort in 1974, during the summer vacation. Without going into self-incriminating detail, whilst everything that was said of Butlin's at the time was certainly true in my experience, (older readers will know what I mean), things certainly appear to have changed for the better over the intervening 40 odd years. The welcome from the Butlin's staff was warm and friendly, even if their misdirection meant being sent to park as far away from our accommodation as it was possible to be. Nevertheless, having avoided small piles of snow which had been conviently removed from the paths, we located our self-catering accommodation. No complaints here at all. Clean, warm and well-appointed, with ample storage space for wine, beer and the other necessities of life. With the bonus, as we were to shortly discover, of being one of the closest to The Skyline, location of the main stages. Suitably refreshed, and with all thoughts of the torrid journey now forgotten, it wa time for some live music.
As both main stages have open-seating policies, queuing well before the door-opening time was the norm. Fine for those wanting the Centre Stage, because you're indoors, less pleasant for Red Stage because you're not. Especially tonight as a temperature barely above freezing was accompanied by rain. Time was well spent however chatting to those next to you in the queue, and before long we are ensconced in our seats awaiting the opening act of the festival in Reds.
I had not seen Martin Harley perform live before, but as I have enjoyed two of his previous releases, Drumrolls for Somersaults and Money Don't Matter¸ this seemed the ideal opportunity to remedy that. A talented singer-songwriter and fine exponent of acoustic roots and blues guitar, this opening set mixed some exceptional examples of the latter, in particular when playing his Weissenborn lap slide guitar, together with mellower self-composed songs. With good-humoured banter with the audience, this was a fine start to the festival. Martin has a few solo dates in December, before touring with Daniel Kimbro in the new year.
Eddi Reader, on the same stage, was my next pick, and judging by what looked very much like a full-house, was obviously the choice of many of those who were able to get to the east coast for the Friday night performances. We were not to be disappointed. Eddi's performance exuded class as she worked through a treasure trove of material old and new. Her wonderful vocal technique, together with an unerring ability to convey both humour and pathos, whilst connecting with the audience was plainly evident, with the musical offerings liberally interspersed with astute observations and comments. More than ably supported by quality musicians, including husband John Douglas, the presence of Boo Hewardine on vocals and guitar only added to the magic, with the evening's rendition of his Patience of Angels being one of my highlightts of the weekend. Well-before the end of what was a thrilling performance, dancing in the aisles and front-of-stage was de rigeur, and a marker put down for those who followed.
This marker was a challenge that was nobly accepted by my final choice of the evening, the splendidly-monikered (look it up, but beware, NSFW) Sheelanagig. For those who do not know them, the group, now seemingly a staple of the festival circuit, play what is variously described as 'Original Jumping European Folk Music' , 'Balkan Folk Mayhem' or in the word's of FATEA's David Chamberlain, 'High octane Gypsy Jazz' ; think of a West Country Gogol Bordello. High energy, non-stop action had those who remained for this 10.45 p.m.start quickly exhausted. Don't be fooled however by songs titles such as Lost In Transitvania, these are a seriously accomplished group of musicians, fully deserving of the plaudits received from tonight's enthusiastic audience.
Given the split timings, it was possible to nip into the Centre stage to catch the last knockings of Matthew's Southern Comfort, who were performing an extended, re-arranged, version of Woodstock when we entered. Having really enjoyed seeing Ian perform in Whitstable with Plainsong in the not too distant past, and at Birmingham Town Hall in the very distant past, 1971, supporting Steeleye Span, I was somewhat disappointed tonight, and I left before the end of their set. I realise that I only captured a very short snapshot, but I found it too meandering and uninspiring; perhaps I had had too much excitement a few minutes before and the transition was too difficult to make, and yes I know Ian was born in Scunthorpe, and I don't hold a grudge just because he played for Bradford Park Avenue.
So, the end of the first evening's offerings, and a 3 out of 3 for me in terms 3 performances that I really enjoyed out of the 3 fully attended. Time to return to the appartment for wine and Pacharan.
An early breakfast of croissants, pains au chocolat, toast with muscavado marmalade, (we know how to live), ensured that we were ready to set off for the 10.00 a.m. French Dance session in the Beachcomber Bar, led by Tourdion. Not everybody's cup of tea, but a nice touch to be able to try something different. A variety of dances, including an dro, bouree and branle, from a variety of regions, Brittany, Poitou and Alsace, were taught by the very patient caller. Great fun, and thoroughly enjoyed by all who attended, and a special mention to those who assisted the wheelchair participant and his carer in making it so inclusive. In fact, and this is by no means meant to be a negsative comment at all, it was worth attending just for the music, with several additional musicians augmenting the band in what became almost a 'session'.
Following lunch, which may have involved red wine, we set off for the afternoon session, again in Reds, for two of my favourites. Reg Meuross, to my mind, is one of our very best singer-songwriters, and is also a FATEA favourite (read David Kidman's review of his latest release Faraway People here http://www.fatea-records.co.uk/magazine/reviews/RegMeuross3/).
As the late great Townes Van Zandt said of him 'There is something special about the way he writes and delivers a song', something he has been doing now for around 30 years. Unsurprisingly, the set included songs of protest and social injustice, with Reg highlighting subjects that too many seem to want kept in the dark, together with lighter, closely detailed observations of life delivered with narratives which rarely, if ever, seem to waste words. The aforementioned latest release was well-represented, with highlights for me being the poignant Faraway People, which manages to evoke, at least in me, both anger and tears, such is the power of the lyrics, and Angel In A Blue Dress, with its indictment of the current state of the NHS. It was from from a maudlin' set, however, trademark banter and humour, (wrong capo anyone?), were also present.
The warmth of his relationship with the audience was palpable, as was Reg's ability to create intimacy in such a vast venue, and I would judge that the merch queue following his set was possibly one of, if not the, longest of the three days. Also, in my book, he was winner of the Sartorial Elegance prize for the weekend. What a great start to the afternoon from a great performer.
Second up, from the North-East, The Mighty Doonan's, with their unique take on the genre. Today comprising 8 not 9 members (Ben having transport issues), this still left us with, drums, guitars, bass, brass (various), flute, whistle, pipes and vocals. Despite Newcastle United losing earlier in the day, we were still treated to an energetic perfomance, not least from Fran and her accomplished step dancing on Step It Out Mary . Not surprisingly, given the group's background (The Doonan Family Band, Jack The Lad, Hedgehog Pie), at its core, the set was based around both Geordie and Irish (or Irish influenced) music, with the interweaving of the brass arrangements always seeming sensitive to the music's origins. Audience participation on both Ee Aye Aa Cud Hew and Chicken On A Raft was enthusiastic, and the witty, often self-deprecating, repartee between numbers only added to the entertainment. Folk-rock, Jazz-Folk-Rock? It didn't really matter this afternoon, just a really bostin' good performance , (yes other regions have dialects too),
Following a recommendation from the person from Thetford that I sat next to watching Reg Meuross there was just time to catch Norfolk based Alden, Patterson & Dashwood on the Introducing Stage before an evening meal, and I have to say that I'm glad I did. Their Americana sounds, complete with rich harmonies and accomplished instrumentation seemed to take influences from both Britain and America and would not have been out of place on The Atlantic Sessions. Very enjoyable and a group that deserve to be upwardly mobile.
After a meal of fried chicken and chips with Mouton Cadet, the healthy option apparently, it was time to join the Reds queue for the evening session. First up, at 7.30 was Martyn Joseph, one of the "must see" artists on my list. Having had the privilege to have seen him with Tom Robinson and Steve Knightley as part of Faith Folk and Anarchy, at a pre-Exeter and pre-Shrewsbury house gig, at Miranda Sykes' cottage in Totnes no less, the chance to catch him solo again was a must.
Never afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, this was as powerful a set of passion and raw emotion that you could ever wish to witness. Epithets such as The Welsh Springsteen might be thrown around, and are certainly reinforced by the snatches of Springsteen-penned songs that are segued, but more than Bruce, Martyn oozes empathy and positivity. Seemlessly moving from the intensely political to the intensely personal, and back; one minute venomously spitting lyrics, the next almost choking with emotion at the audience's reaction as he relates the story of his aged mother finding his increasingly fragile father's lost ring in his glove. In fact, audience participation tonight was full-on, it's dfficult to dislike someone who epitomises all that is decent in humanity, and rails against injustice, whilst at the same time engendering a sense of hope. Martyn has been quoted as saying that he is not sure whether he is primarily a musician or an activist, I for one don't care. Those present tonight were privileged; a more compelling performance it would be difficult to imagine. I genuinely feel sorry for those who have not been blessed to have heard this man and his music.
All of which makes my billed main act of the evening, Hothouse Flowers, such a disappointment. I won't harp on, other than to say I did not enjoy them at all. Unlike others around me, I didn't walk out, and to give a fair and balanced view, they did have many, many adherents, who were dancing from very early on in the set, filling the area immediately in front of the stage.
For the only time during the weekend, following the end of the Hothouse Flowers' set I changed venues mid-session and made my way, after having given those attending Fairport the chance to vacate, to the Centre Stage for the late-night slot and another on my "must see" list Merry Hell. It didn't take long for the mid-evening disappointment to be banished into the ether as the exuberant North-Western barnstorming folk-rockers proceeded to regale a very sizeable crowd with their firebrand take on folk. Drawing from across their recorded repertoire, the more highly-charged offerings were balanced with more sensitive songs and the sense of the theatrical was enhanced both by apparel and gesture, at times almost pantomime in nature (a plus, not criticism, BTW Kettle Clan). Come On England and Sweet Oblivion were highlights for me in what was a memorable set which was very well received by the lively audience.
It only remained to return to the appartment to re-test the Pacharin, just to ensure that it hadn't gone off, and reflect on the evening before realising that it was only a matter of a couple of hours before breakfast.
Day two running total 8 enjoyed out of 9 seen.
Another early, healthy breakfast meant that the others in my group could set off for a second session of French Dance, with the added bonus of singing too, and an even greater complement of session musicans than previously, apparently. For me, however, a coastal walk was more enticing, firstly going south towards North Shore before returning to go north in the direction of Chapel St Leonards. Some 5 and a bit miles later, and I was back in the warmth of the room. My notes suggest 'Bracing it certainly was.' 'Bleak might be the most positive adjective I could use'. But I did see a gloriously large wedge of geese. Lunch in the appartment was enjoyed before setting off for the final afternoon session, with the Centre Stage being the preferred choice.
First on stage were Gilmore and Roberts, three times nominees in the BBC Folk Awards, admittedly one of my favourite acts, but I will try to be objective. They were brilliant. End of. A polished and professional performance from two of the friendliest folk on the scene was extremely well-received by what looked, once more, like a pretty full house. Playing songs taken from both their latest studio release, Conflict Tourism and the earlier The Innocent Left the high quality of their compositional skills was much in evidence. Instrumentally they were adventurous too, with Katriona's violin and Gwendolyn the new mandolin, together with Jamie's guitar and effects pedals, not forgetting his unique lap-top style percussive playing. On today's performance alone they certainly proved that they are at the forefront of contempoary folk music. They even got their names up in lights. As to my favourite? It has to be a track off their single release. Introduced as one of the few traditional songs in their repertoire, they gave a cracking version of Poison, collected by a Mrs Alice Cooper.
Hence the title of this piece, G'n'R and Alice Cooper @ TGBFF (Well Jamie thought it was funny, and that's enough for me!)
The second act of the session was Peter Knight and John Spiers. Consumate musicians both, we were treated to a cornucopia of traditional, and not so traditional, tunes from across the centuries. There can be no doubting that both perfomers are amongst the most, if not the most, talented of their peers. The pairing of the instruments was, at times, mesmerizing, taking one through many of the 27 emotions that a recent study suggests exist. I certainly experienced feelings of joy, elation, sadness and calmness to name just four. I was probably not the only person to leave the venue in awe at having witnessed something very special. Promises of recordings and more live gigs in the New Year will come as music to the ears of many.
As expected, queues for the Centre Stage Evening Session were long, (although nowhere near as long as Saturday's for Fairport), but another feature of this Festival was the orderly way in which people took their places with good humour and patience. Given Scunny's 3-0 loss to Donny Rovers in the FA Cup in the afternoon I was hoping that the final session would lift the spirits.
Opening the session were TRADarr, who over the course of their set showed that Aristotle was correct, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The band, which includes such luminaries as session supremo Guy Fletcher, (Roxy Music, Dire Straits, Cockney Rebel), PJ Wright (Dylan Project, Little Johnny England), Marion Fleetwood (Gerry Colvin Band) , Mark Stevens (Little Johnny England) and guitarist Gregg Cave certainly add a new dimension and approach to the folk canon. Playing mostly traditional folk songs and tunes, whilst I thoroughly enjoy their recorded output, this live performance, taking from both releases, took things to a new level, such was the synergy and obvious enthusiasm of all those on stage.
As a complete contrast, musically speaking, Bella Hardy took the stage next to perform songs old and new. Since winning the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Singer of The Year in 2014 she has gone from strength to strength, touring extensively, notably with a six week artist in residence project in China. Obviously chuffed to bits with her new Hey Sammy release she has striven hard in the past to avoid genrification and during her performance tonight, I suggest that she has succeeded admirably. In embracing cultural diversity, most obviously drawing on Chinese influences, whilst not losing sight of her Derbyshire roots, we enjoyed an eclectic range of musical styles. The musical accompaniment from Simon Dumpleton, keyboard, and Sam Carter, vocals and guitar, was sublimely understated, augmenting Bella's voice to perfection.
And so to the final band of the Festival, Tankus The Henge. I have one CD and one E.P. and thought that I might enjoy them, rather than Clearwater Creedence Revival (acoustic) the alternative on Reds, but nothing, absloutely nothing, could have prepared me for the onslaught that was to be Tankus The Henge Live in Concert. Just to be clear, narrow-minded folk traditionalists, had they attended, would probably have required medical treatment for apoplexy. Visual, auditory and olefactory senses were bombarded from the outset, taste too, if you count the smoke inhalation from the stage effects.
Hailing from London, the band played music that showed influences ranging from Rock and Roll, Ragtime, Gypsy Jazz, New Orleans Jazz and Blues, with more than a nuclear warhead's dollop of theatre. With lead singer and pianist, Jaz Delorean, the closest comparison I can think of in terms of theatricality, is the late, great Gary Holton performing with The Heavy Metal Kids. With the energy he expounded during this performance, I would be seriously concerned for his well-being if the group had five or six consecutive days of gigs. They were no slouches musically, however, and Smiling Makes The Day Goes Quicker certainly deserves a greater airing. This performance was total enjoyment from start to finish and a great way to close the festival.
Overall total 13 performances out of 14 full performances seen were enjoyed, a pretty good return methinks.
Final positive reflections, based on my experiences over the weekend :- a very well-organised event, with friendly and helpful Butlin's staff, security personnel were particularly pleasant and polite, excellent sound and lighting within two main venues, good main venues in terms of views of stage, well-organised post-performance merchandise sales, good size accommodation, relaxed, friendly atmosphere, overall very good value for money
Possible room for improvement;- better signage around the site, more peripheral activities such as the French Dancing, floors of main venues rather tired and sticky
Post Script - Journey home only took 3 hours 50 minutes.
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