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Hebden Bridge Folk Roots Festival

Venue: Various
Town: Hebden Bridge
Date: 05/06/16

On Boxing Day 2015 the little town of Hebden Bridge, which nestles in the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire, was inundated by huge flood waters that swept down from the surrounding hillsides.

Bridges were swept away, local pubs and businesses found themselves under several feet of water, as the town took a severe battering from Mother Nature.

Five months on saw the three-day Folk Roots Festival take place. Some businesses and pubs remained closed but it was obvious the town has taken huge strides to get back on its feet again.

The Festival is based in and around Hebden Bridge, with concerts taking place in a variety of venues from the wonderful Birchcliffe Hall, a converted Baptist Church with banks of wooden seating to mills, club and several pubs who held gigs, sessions or just opened their doors to musicians.

One such venue was Drink?, a small ale tasting shop with a wide array of beers, which only reopened at Easter after being hit by the floods. With guitar in hand, I was only too happy play in this great acoustic space on Saturday afternoon and help to bring some life back into what is a great venue.

In fact the Festival provided opportunities to perform throughout the weekend and as it was blessed with fine weather there was plenty of busking and street entertainment which only reinforced the friendly festival feel.

As far as performers go, there was an eclectic line-up that befits a folk roots festival.

The Friday evening kicked off with an all female line-up at Birchcliffe Hall featuring The Hayes Sisters, Michelle Stoddart, and Kathyrn Williams.

There was also a ceilidh taking place in the Town Hall and as wide range of choirs performing in local church..

Birchcliffe Hall sits at the top of an extremely long and tall hill, so full marks for anyone who walked all the up to see the Hayes Sisters kick off the music.

They were richly rewarded as the three sisters from Stockport enchanted the audience with their easy-going folk/country songs, the three voices and guitars blending to create some exquisite harmonies.

And they weren't afraid to mix it up - a great version of Kylie's Can't Get You Out of My Head was followed by a rendering of traditional song The Weaver.

Next on stage was Michelle Stoddart, bassist with the Mercury Prize nominated and double platinum sellers The Magic Numbers.

Her opening song, Something About You, from her forthcoming album to be released this July, was enthusiastically received. Her rich powerful voice combining well with acoustic guitar.

She was joined on stage by singer Kathryn Williams, another guitarist and a pianist.

This is where things went awry. A loose guitar connection meant a switch of guitars. The ensemble approach failed to ignite, although some of the keyboard-playing was just fine.

The stage setup was sloppy, with a small table in the centre and a bottle of red wine was handed around band members. The songs suffered from a lack of pace and variation.

Next up was singer Kathryn Williams who confessed she used to nervous about appearing live but the opening song was fine if a little quiet. She too took the ensemble approach with Michelle Stoddart and the others joining her, with little impact.

Saturday saw Birchcliffe Hall hold a songwriting-themed day with a strong line-up.

Those who climbed the hill came prepared for the long haul and settled down for a afternoon a quality music.

Roger Davies is a singer-songwriter from West Yorkshire who writes quirky songs about his surrounding area. His entertaining set was perfectly paced as the opening spot. His songs covered a wide range of topics - Huddersfield, Brighouse, Percy Shaw (the inventor of cats' eyes), and landscape painter Peter Brooks.

The husband and wife team of Michelle Plum and Nick Hall make up Plumhall who captivated the growing crowd as they ran thorough a mix of old and new songs and even managed to cover Killing The Blues to great acclaim.

Their set was beautifully paced from the rhythmic high-tempo South to Glory to No Fear, the delicate solo piece by Michelle.

New songs included The Outside Track, a funky outing on the baritone guitar . Plumhall finished on a high with Uniondale and Don't Forget My Name from their Thundercloud album. Great stuff.

Next up was Jess Norman, a solo singer-songwriter who played songs written during her tour of America and particularly New York.

A new song, In Brooklyn, told the story of friends who had to move house when their landlord raised their rent.

Her songs such as Freckles In the Sun and Modern World, were largely narrative-based and well-written if slightly same paced. The growing audience relaxed as the sun shone through the windows and were totally captivated.

There was a visible boost in the the numbers in the audience as we waited for Jez Lowe and Steve Tilston to appear.

Two mighty fine solo artists in their own right have teamed up and I was intrigued to see how they would go down.

I need not have worried, the combination of Jez's worldy-wise stagecraft and Steve sublime guitar, proved one of the highlights of the Festival weekend.

Between them they have an impressive back catalogue and the set switched between Jez's songs and Steve's.

They started off with Oil and Water, following with Tether's End, which featured some beautiful interplay of the guitar from Steve.

Tom Payne and The Pitman Poets and The River Man Has Gone followed. Jez introduced The Wrong Bus, saying it was part of the Radio Ballads series and he was asked to write a funny World War One song.

The thing that was most striking was how all these songs benefited from the dual approach. No more so on Jez's song, The Long Iron, where Steve's guitar-playing had the guitar players in the audience - myself included - spellbound.

Jez switched between guitar, mandola, mandolin and harmonica to great effect.

The musicianship was of the highest quality and the audience lapped it up. Jez finished with You Won't Make Old Bones, a veritable classic. Steve closed the set with his stinging riposte Pretty Penny.

The audience gave them a great ovation and demanded more. The duo appeared to not be quite sure what to encore with but Jez deferred to Steve and we were treated to a wonderful Slips, Jigs and Reels. Absolutely superb.

There comes point at any festival when you can't be in two places at once and so on Saturday evening we made our way down the hill to the Hebden Bridge Trades Club.

In doing so we missed Amy Wadge and Pete Riley's set, which by all accounts was great but we had made our choice and settled down to see The Jon Palmer Acoustic Band.

The Trades Club is a smashing venue, and judging from the posters on the walls, is a regular music haunt.

The Jon Palmer Band hail from Otley and I have seen them perform many times. This time they delivered in spades, playing songs from their most recent album, From the Mountains to The Sea.

For the most part is hi-octane stuff with the six-piece band producing - to quote of their songs - "a joyful noise".

The audience were soon up on the dance floor and lapping it up. Hats off to the bassist Martin Ward who stepped in to help the band out and did a great job.

There was little time for any respite before Rory McLeod and the Familiar Strangers took the stage. Or rather they didn't, as Rory mingled with the audience and gave a very entertaining masterclass in how to play the harmonica.

It set the tone for a splendid end to the evening.

Rory was joined on stage by his band, featuring Bob Morgan - Clarinet, Saxophone; Diego Laverde Rojas - Columbian Harp; and Richard Sadler - Double Bass.

I have to say the boys made a fantastic noise and the audience loved their seductive rhythms as they delivered a stunning set that spanned the folk genre.

The sparkling fingers of Diego on the Columbian harp were amazing.

Rory is admitted he likes the blether on between songs and he certainly did that on more than one occasion, nailing his colours to a particular mast.

His narrative songs tackled subjects such as controlling nature, which managed to get harrier hens and sphagnum moss worked into the lyrics and more personal subjects such as adoption, from two different points of view.

The musicianship was superb - at one point Rory picked up a trombone - and as an overall performance, this was up there with the best. Rory is just embarking on UK tour so if get the chance to see him I'd take it.

There was still time for a late session in the Fox and Goose pub to wrap up a memorable day.

Sunday was turned over to Bluegrass and a final shindig at Macpelah Mill, but by then it was time to head for home and reflect on what a great little festival they have in Hebden Bridge. Highly recommended.

John Knighton

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