There is something special about the first day of a festival, even a festival you know well and that has sold out. It's Wednesday evening and I'm just starting to sort everything out for the drive up to Southport on the Thursday for Love Folk. Fatea is the media sponsor for the festival as well as responsible for putting on Busk Love Folk, a free element, that this year will be running in the bar, when the phone goes.
Sheelanagig, the headline act, whilst not just the headline act, for the Friday have had to pull out due to ill health(get well soon) and could I help, concerns have moved from have I forgotten anything to whose actually available, especially as I'd rather go for something similar and that means bands.
Unlike solo artists, bands need to be gig ready, that means trying to balance a number of factors, who has just come off tour, who is about to go on tour, there's no point in checking the bands on tour, having Friday and Saturday nights free whilst on tour rarely happens and there's not a lot of time to check the listings. Soon a couple of other problems come to light, of the bands that are gig ready, some have days jobs, which means that physics becomes an issue i.e. can they actually get to the venue in time after they finish work? I've got calls out to agents trying to reduce the number of calls I have to make, when the second issue comes to light, not only is it a Friday, but it's Valentines Day so a lot of people have arrangements that it would be very dangerous to break.It's a bit of a shotgun approach, can't risk only asking the select few, just in case I can't get the names, but there are lots of fantastic musicians out there. Calls and messages are doing the rounds and a number of agents out there are doing a sterling job, I'm getting names and suggestions, bouncing things around in my head, to see what works best, it's a great choice, Lizzy Hardingham steps up from Busk Love Folk to give me my first name, that's opener sorted. Multi-award winning trio, Trials Of Cato are available, hoorah headliner confirmed, Goat Roper Rodeo Band have a Thursday night gig in Chester and the Friday free, we have a line up and an award winning one at that. The excellent team at the Atkinson take it from there, Love Folk has completely reprogrammed the Friday night in a few short hours. All I need to worry about as I drive up to Southport with the signage is "Have I forgotten anything?"
Lizzy Hardingham has made the trip up from Hertfordshire and brings with her a growing reputation, her live performances include Cambridge Folk Festival and an award winning appearance at Royston Folk Club a couple of years back brought her a small bursary, an award previously won by Trials Of Cato, it can be a small world at times. It's not just her live performance that has been enhancing a reputation, both debut ep and album being exceptionally well received.
Her debut album, "Dust" forms the focus of her set and goes a long way towards explaining her growing success. Lizzy is blessed with a powerful voice, but it is also one that has a natural warmth to it, one that is not only able to get across the narrative of the combination of self-penned songs and songs drawn from the tradition, but also the emotive quality. Her set is delivered with panache, including the almost obligatory singalongs, I suspect it's going to be packed when she kicks Saturday off in the bar tomorrow.
Following Lizzy Hardingham are Goat Roper, aka The Goat Roper Band, aka The Goat Roper Rodeo Band. Two old fashion guitars, a stand-up bass and a whole lotta attitude targeted towards having a fun time. Soundwise they've got more of an Americana sound and there is a drawl to their harmony vocal that it takes some of the audience to get, but when they do, oh boy.
I'm not sure what the Welsh equivalent of the Blarney Stone is, but whatever it is these boys have kissed it, it's not just the self-depreciating patter between sets, this was Valentines after all and they were available after all, but it's also the richness of the lyrics in their songs. They went down a storm at Americana Fest and repeat the process here, more good news, there's a new album later in year.
Things have really been happening for the Trials Of Cato since they made their way back to the UK from the Levant. As mentioned previously they won a bursary from Royston Folk Club for their live performance, their debut album, "Hide & Hair" has seen them collect a plethora of awards, including the highly prized Radio Two Folk album of the year.
They are a band that makes an immediate impact, traditional songs mixed liberally in with their own have a very contemporary edge, they deliver "Tom Paine's Bones", like we need him right now, we do and have the audience singing along from both the tabled section, up close and personal to the stage and the stalls alike.
There is both an energy and distinction to the Trial Of Cato and both my be a product of those early days in the Levant, rehearsing in a tight space, whilst absorbing different sounds and influences to a lot of their contemporaries, it gives their songs a distinctive sound, something that is distinctly Trials Of Cato and the audience lap it up.
The set just seems to fly by and I have to check my watch when they leave the stage for the first time, naturally there's an encore, I think there would by a lynching if there wasn't and it looks like day one of Love Folk has gone down like a house on fire and there's still day two to come, for which I'm going to hand you over to Tony Birch as I've got compere duties.
The busk stage moved from the foyer to the theatre bar this year and it worked well. People coming from the main stage to refresh their glasses stopped to listen to some great performances from artists they'd probably not seen before, which is the whole idea.
Opening the stage Lizzy Hardingham certainly impressed everybody with a strong performance. Lizzy is local to me, so I've seen her a few times and you can see why her reputation is growing so fast. She knows how to sell a song and her own writing is very good. As with many younger performers these days her work is certainly "in the tradition" but with her own stamp very clearly displayed. We got several songs from her upcoming EP, seven sea songs to represent the seven seas, a good choice for a seaside town and I'm looking forward to hearing the completed work.
Lancashire based Daniel Hester was a new name to me but I'm so glad I caught his set as he really impressed me. When you see somebody for the first time you inevitably make comparisons but he has a style all of his own although The Pogues look to be an influence. With a big, powerful voice backed by an Appalachian ukulele he presented his songs well and also showed his skill as a guitarist with some lovely tune sets. He has some videos up on YouTube that are well worth looking at.
Amy Goddard Music charms everyone and then leaves you stunned with songs that put your emotions through the wringer. Amy is somebody else I will see whenever I get the chance and her set was wonderful. The audience were entranced, pin silent through Aberfan and then laughing along with The Hedgehog Song! Amy gives so much of herself in her music and people appreciate that.
All three performers did themselves huge credit and showcased their talents so well.
As a final treat John Reed, who done sterling work all day running the stage and sorting the sound stepped up to give us a few songs of his own. Another big, powerful performer, with eh loudest guitar I've ever heard, made a very suitable ending to a great element of the festival and one I hope will be back again and again.
The music kicked off in great style with Lucy Farrell & Andrew Waite a duo I was particularly looking forward to as I couldn't get to their show in London earlier in the week. Currently touring with their new album "Calm The Lions" they are both well known from numerous bands and collaborations but make a great duo. Lucy has a fine voice, as does Andrew, and with a combination of guitar and accordion they can mix up a set with their own songs as well as traditional ones and tunes. They've got a very relaxed manner on stage and their gentle, humorous stories of life on the road got the festival off to a flying start.
The need to check in to my hotel, and then find the one I'd been moved to because of a plumbing problem (the room, not me) meant I only got the briefest chance to see Granny's Attic, which is a great shame because they're an excellent trio who have got the tradition firmly in their grasp but still bring all the dash of youth to it. Considering how long they've been around, and how established and highly regarded they are, it's surprising how young they are but a delight to think they will be entertaining audiences for many years to come. Stepping in here, it has to be said that Granny's Attic are really progressing every time I see them. From music delivered with a bit of a wink, to the far more serious side, instrumental or vocal harmonies, this trio is putting it right on the money.
Somebody else whose age belies their experience and standing is Blair Dunlop, who you know will considered one of the all time greats and you find yourself comparing him to Richard Thompson. Making a welcome return and with just two guitars he totally dominated the stage. There is something to be said about the X factor and it courses through Blair Dunlop's blood
It's a set rich on social history and one that reflects the extraordinary that sits in amongst the everyday. At the end of the day, life is about people, Blair maybe a star, he certainly knows how to command a stage, but it's about us, not him and he left us all wanting more.
It was an excellent start to the main stage, with plenty more to come.
So to the final session of what had already been a tremendous Love Folk Festival 2020 and it just got better and better.
Merry Hell, what can you say? The general consensus in the audience around me was that you won't find a better band on the circuit at the moment and you can see why. Merry Hell are the whole package; a party band for sure but if you listen to the lyrics they've got a lot to say that's worth listening to. Bob Kettle is a superb writer and "Come on England" is not only anthemic but with an ideal that isn't beyond reach. "Bury Me Naked" is great fun and we love swaying along to it whilst thinking it has a message we can all take on board. "Finest Hour" brings wry smiles and memories - have we turned into our mothers?
Beyond the music the characters presented by Virginia Kettle's Hyacinth Bucket to Andrew Kettle's Onslow bring the belly laughs. A typical exchange may go:
Virginia: He's do dense light bends as it goes past him.
Andrew: I don't understand that.
Add John Kettle's driving folk rock guitar to Nick Davies (bass), Andy Jones (drums), Lee Goulding (keys) and Neil McCartney (violin) and you have a full complement yet Virginia is more than capable of holding the stage on her own as a solo performer. It's that mix that makes the set so dynamic and always a joy to watch.
We'd hardly caught our breath from the when headliner Martyn Joseph took to the stage. When we talk about the greats Martyn is a name that will appear high on many lists. A powerful performer with real charisma he holds an audience in the palm of his hands from the first note to the last. Again it isn't just the music but the man behind it. Martyn gives, in a very real sense, and uses his music to try to make the world a better through real action and not just words. His Let Yourself Trust organisation has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to help small scale organisations around the world to try to make it a better place. It may be a theatre group in Palestine to an orphanage in Nepal or camping holidays for families with children who have complex needs or disabilities in the UK. The work covers the vagaries of life, as do his songs.
He writes about life, with all that entails. There are tears of laughter and sadness, the good times and the not so good. He has a beautiful song about driving his daughter back to University and swapping songs from their different generations with both of them taking something from it. Just like Merry Hell he sees the good in the World and wants to spread that out by showing that we gain from it rather than losing. There's always a human scale to his performance and he's secure enough to tell stories about himself that show his humility and humour. A terrific performer and genuinely good person he brought the festival to a stunning finale.
The whole day was full of this spirit of joy and community. From lighting and stage crew to sound, which was excellent, to the staff and volunteers at The Atkinson who worked so hard this is a festival it's a pleasure to be at. You should go along next year.
Tony Birch and Neil King words, Neil King pics
A full gallery featuring all of the artists that played Love Folk & Busk love folf can be found here
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