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Gate To Southwell

Venue: Various
Town: Southwell
Date: 09-12/06/16
Website: http://southwellfolkfestival.org.uk/

FRIDAY

The weather gods did not look down too kindly on Gate to Southwell's tenth roots and acoustic music festival.

By the time I arrived early on the Friday evening, they had already been sorely tested when one of their tented venues - The New Stage - partially collapsed due to the heavy rain, damaging stage lighting and gear and ruining their careful preparations.

But in the grand tradition of these things, the show must go on and so it did and, despite some horrendous weather, the festival sailed through with flying colours. The New Stage was patched up and did a great job over the festival weekend.

Situated on a fairly new site at Southwell Racecourse, the festival was well co-ordinated, with plenty of helpful stewards around to make things move along nicely. The huge camping ground was already heaving when I arrived with many taking advantage of the Thursday night's offerings which included Keith Donnelly, False Lights and Kila on the main stage and several other acts on two other stages.

The sprawling out-of-town site meant the majority of the focus was away from the delightful town of Southwell, two miles away.

The main stage was set up in a large Big Top, which could accommodate several hundred people. There was a separate Folk Stage and the previously mentioned New Stage, which had fewer seats and a dancefloor. There was another stage - the Barleycorn - adjacent to the large bar area and two workshop tents near the food area.

The journey down to Southwell from North Yorkshire was not without incident as the heavens opened but I arrived just in time to catch one of the weekend's hits closing her first set in the Big Top. Meaghan Blanchard is a country singer-songwriter from Prince Edward Island off the east coast of Canada and she was appearing in the UK for the first time after being spotted by festival organisers during a trip to Canada in 2015. She is not too difficult to miss with her mass of flaming red hair, and from the reaction of a packed audience she is one to watch out for in the future. Her crystal clear voice resonated through the night air.

Scampering over to the New Stage I managed to catch a storming set from Manieire Des Bohemiens, a lively and talented gypsy jazz group from Nottingham. I have seen these boys before and loved their musicality and rhythm. It's not easy to play a set comprising purely of tunes, but when the tunes includes classics such as Gershwin's I've Got Rhythm and they mix it up with bosa nova's they had the audience dancing in their wellies.

Their set up of twin guitars, violin, sax and double bass threatened to lift the roof off - it was probably best for all concerned they didn't!

Now I should say I am not a big fan of ukulele orchestras and their like but I did warm to the Ooks of Hazzard, who'd come over from California. They wrapped up their entertaining set of rock covers with Radiohead's Creep - and all this on ukuleles, one of which was played with a slide!

The Friday night line-up did appear to have a very American feel to it, next up on the main stage were the pioneers of rockgrass, Hayseed Dixie, kicking off their latest European tour.

Now this is a band who have stormed their way to headliner status, releasing 15 albums since 2001.

Their penchant for taking rock songs and giving them the bluegrass treatment has hit the right note and they are going from strength to strength.

Their line-up included acoustic bass, mandolin, guitar and banjo and they romped through classics such as AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long, Sabbath's War Pigs and Survivor's Eye of the Tiger.

Their arrangements were clever, their stage patter spot on but why does the mandolin player insist of sticking his tongue out when he's playing so brilliantly? Bizarre.

A late night tour of the other stages saw Mr Tea & the Minions ripping it up in the New Stage, which was still standing thankfully and Glaswegian James Edwyn & the Borrowed Band going through their paces on the Barleycorn stage, with their likeable alt-country/Americana songs.

SATURDAY

The only trouble with festivals is that you often spoilt for choice and have to make decisions on who you want to see and then go from there.

I was keen to sample the delights of Southwell and make use of the festival bus service into town. However on the Saturday morning this proved tricky as the bus timetable ran astray and people with tickets were getting irate with the bus driver as there was a 45-minute wait for the next bus. I applaud the decision to run a bus service into town but perhaps a smaller, more regular mini-bus service, especially at peak times, would have been better.

So in the end I hopped in the car and headed into town, picking up one festival-goer who had decided to walk.

Having never been to Southwell, before - yes I have lived a sheltered life - I was enchanted by this lovely town. Especially as the main street was filled with a wide variety of traditional dancers who brought the place to life through their dances and costumes. There had been steady downpour earlier in the morning but by lunchtime it had faired up and the dancers were having a ball.

Back on the main festival site the weather had perked up and I settled down to see The Henry Girls, three delightful sisters from Ireland who played a lovely set of mainly original songs with their outstanding lush harmonies. They played a wide variety of instruments - harp, piano, ukulele, accordion and violin and delighted their audience.

Having heard so many good things about Jackie Oates I was eager to catch her and dashed over to the folk stage where her easy stage presence made her one of the stand-out performers of the weekend. She said it had been a while since she'd been on stage, taking time out to have a baby, but her stellar voice, accompanied by some fine guitar and double bass, was at times magical, particularly on the title track of her last album, The Spyglass & The Herringbone. Spell-blindingly good. It has been a long time since I have seen someone so relaxed on stage. Perhaps it's motherhood. Wonderful.

I hotfooted it over to the New Stage - to see Visten play their final set of the festival and their three-week UK tour. This trio of twin sisters and a husband hail from Prince Edward Island in Canada and were spotted by the festival organisers on their tour. They play a mixture of instruments - violin (Pascal Miousse, who hails from the neighbouring Magdalen Islands), accordion, piano and the French Canadian phenomenon of foot percussion. Singing mainly in French, they were stonkingly good. Pascal's wry stage humour made for an entertaining set, especially when he got the sizeable crowd to sing along in French! The foot percussion was superb as they played songs which sometimes had Celtic flavours and other times Cajun flavours. I loved it.

As the grey skies increasingly darkened, I made my way to the Big Top for a special concert, Dylan@75, promised much - two hours of Bob Dylan songs sung by Festival performers.

Guitarist Jim Moray of False Lights deserves a special mention for bringing this concert to celebrate Bob Dylan's 75th birthday together.

Indeed he opened the concert with Tangled Up In Blue and was our MC as we listened to a fascinating collection of Dylan's classic songs.

Paul Downes played Girl From the North County on banjo, Pete Morton sang Make You Feel My Love, Jackie Oates sang Mr Tambourine Man, and the audience lapped it up, singing with great gusto.

Local folkie Mick Ryan delivered Boots Of Spanish Leather with Jackie Oates on violin and then sang a rumbustious Pawn In The Game unaccompanied.

The Henry Girls , who were spotted doing some last minute rehearsals in their car prior to the concert, won the hearts of the audience by bringing a young girl on stage to dance as they sand If Not For You and I'll Be Your Baby Tonight.

Jim Moray performed If You See Her Say Hello on solo guitar before the Ooks of Hazzard took the stage, all five of them, and played a blistering Highway61 complete with lip whistle. This was followed up with Rainy Day Women and one of the Festival highlights - a packed house singing "everybody must get stoned".

Meaghan Blanchard sang It Ain't Me before Steve Knightley and Phil Beer came on and sang a storming version of Senor and followed it up with an equally superb Positively 4th Street.

Meaghan Blanchard returned to sing a great version of Forever Young, accompanied by Phil Beer on violin and The Henry Girls on backing vocals.

There was an ensemble cast on stage to sing the final three songs. Pete Morton on lead vocals on Like A Rolling Stone; Steve Knightley took the honours on Don't Think Twice It's All Right before the concert came to a conclusion with Steve singing a stirring version of Blowing In The Wind to a richly deserved standing ovation.

It set the tone for the main concert of the evening but as I left wondering why no-one had sang Knocking On Heaven's Door, someone muttered: "Surprised they didn't play Hurricane." Yes, so many songs, so little time.

By the time the evening concert started in the Big Top the heaven's had well and truly opened. So it was just as well there was a great line-up. First on stage were Mawkin whose electrifying set blew away any worries about the weather.

Five years on from their triple nominations in the BBC2 Folk Awards this band played the most energetic set of the festival.

Their intoxicating blend of traditional songs with electric backing was simply mesmerising as they blasted their way through songs such as Jolly Well Drunk from their latest album The Ties That Bind. The interplay between Nick Cooke on melodeon and James Delarre on violin was a delight, and even a broken string on their final song, could not stop guitarist David Delarre from finishing a triumphant set. Top marks also to their stand-in drummer who did very well.

Despite already seen Jackie Oates earlier in the day I was staying put as the rain teemed down outside.

I was not disappointed. It easy to see why Jackie has been described as being at the forefront of the new English folk revival.

Her velvet vocals and dynamic playing with her fellow musicians on guitar and double bass was superb as she ran through a collection folk songs in her haunting manner that had the festival crowd transfixed. Songs like Yellow Bittern, The Halsway Carol and Banks of the Bann from her most recent album.

By the time Show of Hands came onto stage, the rain was coming down in buckets - not that any of the packed audience cared a jot.

This was an excellent show from Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes. Their songs covered many subjects - from World War One to Dartmoor but it was perhaps surprising that their "blues" song - Sweet Bella - really got the crowd going.

Their 90 minute set, complete with an excellent light show, included the delightful Derrydown Fair, the poignant sea ballad The Dive and the feisty AIG.

There was much applause as Phil paid tribute to "the man who got me started on the fiddle" - Dave Swarbrick who passed away recently.

There was time for The Galway Farmer, a rousing Santiago and Country Live before a deserved encore of Cousin Jack.

Their set was poised and powerful and showed these boys - and Miranda - are still at the top of the game.

The rain was still pouring as everyone tentatively made their way out of the Big Top.

SUNDAY

With one eye on the weather, I ventured out to catch some of Sunday's action before heading home.

Pete Morton was described in his introduction as a troubadour but his songs struggled to get the early crowd going, despite his best intentions. It is perhaps too early a slot.

Over on the Folk Stage I caught the opening few songs from Two Coats Colder, a four-piece folk band from Essex who describe themselves as "quirky and progressive". They certainly did their best to get a small but appreciative audience warmed up, and in Anna Bass, they have a fine singer.

Back across the mud, to the New Stage for my two final acts and what a treat was in store. First a delightful set from Ange Hardy, on harp and guitar, skilfully using a loop system to create multi-layered vocal harmonies.

It is no wonder Ange has piled up an impressive series of awards -not least from Fatea! She played several songs from her soon-to-be released album based on the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and they were warmly applauded by an appreciative crowd. Certainly one to listen out for in the future.

Next up were another Fatea award winner, the Moulettes, who were appearing on the main stage later in the day, performed what they called a "stripped back" afternoon set featuring songs from the latest nautical-themed album which has been inspired by watching David Attenborough on TV.

Their inventive songs enchanted a growing audience. With a line-up that included an electric cello, bassoon, and electric guitar, they made an interesting sound - at times almost psychedelic, but always dynamic and thought-provoking.

It was a great way to wrap up the festival - a young vibrant band made making interesting songs in a modern dynamic way. It may not be folk but it was cutting edge and simply wonderful.

So it was an eventful weekend in Southwell. The weather did it's best to deter but the organisers can be safe in the knowledge that their tenth festival did them proud. They have found a great formula - great eclectic music on a great site. Next year all they need is some decent weather!

John Knighton

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