Hartlepool, which is my home town, happens to be the place I first became aware of folk music at the tender age of 17. One rainy Sunday night a friend persuaded me that we should take shelter at the folk club which was at that time held at the Nursery Inn. Sceptically I gave it a try and my life was changed forever. Now, 41 years later, I was delighted to be finally attending a folk festival based around the former docks area which has been reinvented as a marina, museum complex, commercial zone and residential area. By coincidence, the guest artist whom I had seen that rainy Sunday night many years ago, Johnny Handle, was also appearing at the festival.
I arrived early enough on the Friday night to meet up with friends in the Jackson's Wharf pub which was adjacent to the main festival site, the Hartlepool branch of the National Museum of the Royal Navy. The site was previously known to me as the Historic Quay although I had never got round to visiting on my many trips back 'home'. It consists of a number of period rooms, shops, 'visitor experiences' etc. surrounding a quayside at which is berthed HMS Trincomalee - apparently the oldest warship afloat anywhere in Europe.
After an hour of catching up we headed across to the College of Further Education - which had changed beyond recognition since I studied there so many years ago - to see the first guests at that venue's opening concert - Gavin Davenport & Tom Kitching - both of whom I had seen many times in different bands / duos but not together. Although the room, a lecture theatre, was both comfortable and commodious the purple lighting and lack of any spotlights made for a strange, almost disembodied, atmosphere. The performance was as good as I expected, particularly a spirited version of 'Spanish Ladies', but the overall ambience resulted in us abandoning the remainder of the concert. We headed back to the main base where we found an excellent Scottish band, Tannara, coming to the end of their set in the packed, and much more atmospheric, Baltic Room. Stand outs from their set were 'The Next Station Is', a song referencing the limited geography of the Glasgow Underground system and a final tune set which generated an enthusiastic audience response and a subsequent well deserved encore. Once again lighting was an issue with the band almost in silhouette rather than being lit from the front.
We didn't take to the quirkiness of Biscuithead & the Biscuit Badgers, despite the cleverness of their songs, so headed to the Jackson's Wharf again to secure a good seat for the Welcome Singaround. This was a little slow to get going but, as one would expect, the pace and volume picked up when the Wilsons arrived following their concert during which they had been presented with their well deserved EFDSS Gold Badge for their outstanding contribution to folk music.
Commoners Choir were the first ensemble I managed to catch on Saturday. Led by Boff Whalley, they injected fun into political protest, particularly with the 'Jeremy Hunt Rhyming Song', eschewing the obvious until a clever pun at the very end of the song. Grace Petrie followed with a superb set of thoughtful, angry and humourous songs - most of which I knew from hearing them on the weekly Joe Solo Show on Coast & County Radio (highly recommended by the way). It was, however, the first time I had seen Grace perform and I was very impressed indeed with the way she connected with the audience.
The major quandary of the weekend was next - whether to stay on site and watch Doc Rowe's film 'Departed Friends' or head to the Town Hall to see one of my favourite artists, Jim Moray, play a solo set. Jim won but my friends decided to stay for the film and one of them provided me with this synopsis:
'North East favourite Bert Draycott should have been at the festival but, sadly, the event's first day coincided with his funeral. The audience was, however, not denied his warm humour as a scene was added to the screening of Doc Rowe's film 'Departed Friends'. This plundered the treasures of his valuable film archive to remind us of performers, some long-gone, others more recently lost. What could have been poignant but maudlin was instead a joyous celebration, giving the audience a unique opportunity to share a song and a joke with the people who created much of the music we love. Whether it had them singing along with Bob Copper or Louis Killen, sitting spellbound at Fred Jordan, or chuckling at Packie Byrne or Vin Garbutt's storytelling, the film was a remarkable confirmation of the artists' ability to engage with an audience, even from beyond the grave.' (John Bainbridge)
Meanwhile at the Town Hall, an attractive late Victorian edifice with a formal theatre contained within (though sadly no real ale!), Jim Moray opened with his brilliantly satirical 'It Couldn't Happen Here'. This has to be one of his very best songs (amongst strong competition including 'The Straight Line and the Curve' and 'Sounds of Earth' which also featured in the set). Jim wrote this song a while ago and stated that he regretted that it was still relevant today - a recognition of the continued and disturbing rise of the far right in British and international politics. The hour passed remarkably quickly and by the time that 'Lord Franklin' sailed away at the end of the set my conviction that Moray is one of the most important artists writing and performing in the folk genre today was reaffirmed. I should add that the performance was complemented by excellent sound quality which was a very welcome feature of the whole of the weekend at all the Festival venues.
Leveret, next up at the same venue, were technically excellent as one would expect from Andy Cutting, Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron. I must admit though that I left midway through their set as I was keen to get back down to the main site to find out what the 'Afternoon in the North East' concert would deliver. I wasn't disappointed as lined up across the top of the Baltic Room were the Wilsons, the aforementioned Johnny Handle, Chris Hendry, Alistair Anderson and JIB (Jim Mageean, Ingrid & Barry Temple). This nostalgic interlude, featuring much loved songs from the coalfields and iron industry, peppered with less familiar material, was followed by another highlight of the weekend upstairs in the rather ambitiously titled Sir William Grey Suite - a long rectangular function room with a bar at the far end from the stage. I've long been an admirer of Will Pound's harmonica playing and his duo with Eddy Jay on accordion was nothing short of incendiary. As I walked in they were playing a Balkan tune set and their world tour continued with an exhilarating bluegrass setting, an inspired interpretation of a Piazzolla tango, Purcell as never heard before, La Bottine Souriante's 'Crooked Reel' and finally Will's own 'Trans Europe Express'.
Unfortunately I didn't manage to get in to see either Hannah James & Grace Petrie or Granny's Attic as both venues on HMS Trincomalee were full by the time I arrived. I took the opportunity to have some down time by grabbing a sandwich from the quayside cafe before venturing to Hartlepool's micro pub a short walk away adjacent to the railway station. Suitably refreshed by the best pint of the weekend I headed back up the road to the Town Hall for the evening concert which was to prove something of a curates egg.
Nell Ní Chróinín, a sean-nós singer from County Cork, opened the evening with an entrancing selection of Gaelic songs, to which she helpfully provided translations as well as charming introductions which contributed to the warm response she elicited from the well filled hall. In the enjoyable set with Tim Erikson which followed, Eliza Carthy once again demonstrated her interest in, and ability to work effectively across, a range of genres - in this case shape note singing and old American ballads - whilst working with her collaborators to create innovative interpretations of English folk songs.
The next artists were to prove the most disappointing of the weekend - and, judging by the response of a number of friends after the gig, not just for me. I had quite forgotten I had seen the Be Good Tanyas a number of years ago at Shrewsbury Folk Festival and had not been particularly impressed so was not expecting the hour of truly cringe-worthy attempts at connecting with the audience that band members Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton inflicted upon us. Lyrics were often difficult to discern, musical accompaniment at times seemed random and the overall feel was of a band going through the motions. I don't think I was alone breathing a sigh of relief when we were finally released from our ordeal.
Fortunately the evening ended on a more positive note with the ever charismatic Eliza returning to the stage, this time with Martin Carthy (who had provided a cameo appearance in her earlier set). A personal highlight was a superb version of 'Awake, Arise' but there was much more to enjoy before the concert came to a close.
A sunny Sunday morning provided a good opportunity for hanging out on the quayside to watch some of the dance teams attending the festival before heading indoors for an entertaining hour of 'Never Mind the Bandogs' - a humourous quiz hosted by Jim Moray and featuring festival guests on the teams.
After yesterday's disappointment I turned up early for the Granny's Attic concert in the Captain's Cabin on HMS Trincomalee to ensure I secured a seat in this most atmospheric of venues with it's low ceiling and vessel - wide window at the stern of the boat. The limited headroom meant that the musicians who make up this extremely talented young trio, whom I had seen a couple of times before, had to strategically position themselves between the beams and remember not to get overly animated in their performance. Despite the constraints they still provided the audience with an enjoyably lively hour of songs, tunes (on concertina, melodeon, guitar and fiddle) and humour. What particularly impressed me, apart from their skilful playing and relaxed banter, was the attention they gave to describing the source of their material which, much to my delight, included one of my favourite songs of the Durham coalfield - 'The Coal Owner and the Pitman's Wife'.
A very brisk walk up to the Town Hall meant that I managed to only miss a few minutes of Jon Boden's set. Like Jim Moray, I consider Boden to be one of the most important figures in the current folk scene - in fact, unless there is some masterpiece I have yet to hear, I believe his 'Songs from the Floodplain' CD to be the best collection of songs produced in the 21st century so far. Although I had already seen Jon this year at Shrewsbury Folk Festival I was keen to see his performance from closer quarters than that possible in the huge main marquee at that festival. I was not to be disappointed - fortunately the sounds generated by his stomp box were attenuated to suit the smaller venue and his well received set included a number of songs from his latest album 'Afterglow' - the subject of which, like 'Songs from the Floodplain', is a post apocalyptic future - as well as crowd pleasers such as 'Roll Alabama Roll' and a visceral version of 'Roll the Woodpile Down'.
Next it was back to the Captain's Cabin again to see Molly Evans and Jack Rutter whom I felt had a huge amount of potential with superb guitar / mandola playing from Jack and personable presentation from Molly - definitely a duo to keep an eye on as they develop. There was just time to catch the end of Jackie Oates & Megan Henwood's set in the Sir William Grey Suite and from what I heard I wished I had arrived a little earlier. Rosie Hood who followed had a clear and confident voice and I would have stayed until the end of the set but it was time for a final catch up with friends before the final evening concert in the Town Hall.
Due to the date clashing with the unmissable Musicport Festival I had, regrettably, not been able to get to the previous two Hartlepool Folk Festivals. In 2015 there had been a collaboration with the Durham Miners Association Brass Band and in 2016 'Ironopolis' based on the songs of Graham Miles had been staged - both of which I would have dearly liked to see. This year's special feature, taking up the whole of the Sunday night concert, was a presentation of the Rudyard Kipling's 'The Barrack-Room Ballads' to mark the 125th anniversary of the publication of the poems and also the 40th anniversary of the LP in which Peter Bellamy set those poems to music. Not being a Kipling enthusiast, I have to admit I wasn't as enthusiastic about this project but, although I retained my reservations about the core material, the great majority of the audience certainly appreciated the quality of the arrangement, by Johnny Mohun, and performance by a range of festival guests (including Jon Boden, Eliza Carthy, Martin Carthy, the Wilsons and Gina Le Faux), Damien Barber, a chamber orchestra and Hardeep Singh Kohli (narrator). A standing ovation at the end of the piece was a fitting reward to what had clearly been a labour of love.
In conclusion then - an enjoyable music filled weekend with extremely friendly stewards and museum staff in an interesting and attractive setting. It is still early days for the festival and the organisers deserve credit for their interesting and, in some parts, innovative approach. I was also particularly impressed with the way the folk traditions of the local area were integrated into the Festival - something that can be neglected at larger events.
To enhance the festival further I believe a few areas would benefit from attention as hinted at in the earlier comments. Some thought needs to be given to stage lighting in the museum venues and there were times when the options of events to attend were very limited (or capacity constrained) - particularly Saturday evening. A wider food and drink offer (particularly in terms of real ales available) would be welcome too, though again it would be unreasonable to expect catering on a huge scale given the more intimate size of the festival.
With a few tweaks I see no reason at all why the Hartlepool Folk Festival should not have a very successful future ahead of it and I congratulate all those involved in the delivery of this important addition to the cultural life of the north east of England.
Words & photos: Joe Grint
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