So how was it for you? On his visit to rock the city just over a year ago, Bruce Springsteen greeted a soggy audience at the Etihad Stadium with the words: "Rainy Manchester…again. We wouldn't have it any other way." Suffice to say it hadn't turned out nice again. Not to be outdone by The Boss, English Folk Expo's Tom Besford similarly had to concede that everyone in Manchester has a big brolly… Possible euphemisms aside, the move of Homegrown from Bury and the homely and compact hub of The Met to HOME, the £25m arts centre that housed the newly created Manchester Folk Festival (whilst welcoming even greater numbers of delegates from around the globe to the industry event that promotes English folk music) has certainly upped the game.
As usual, FATEA was on the spot to check out the latest developments.
As with the previous five years' worth of Homegrown events, Manchester Folk Festival featured a similarly impressive line-up, produced by So It Is and programmed by The Met's David Agnew. The quest to widen the public appeal expanded events beyond HOME into venues such as Gorilla and The Ritz. Once again, an international partnership saw three acts from Prince Edward Island (thankfully abbreviated to PEI) offering what was arguably the strongest set of bands in the arrangement thus far.
For all the international partnerships, you can't get more English than John Smith who topped the bill of solo performers at Gorilla, a venue which has had its share of folk and acoustic/roots music on its stage although perhaps not staged amidst such a murky lighting set up. Smith, possibly the best attended of the festival gigs at Gorilla, and the Thursday line up of Nina Harries and Georgia Lewis and her band playing in what might be best described as 'atmospheric' surroundings.
The pair of Ninebarrow (delightful set and sheer excitement at playing a venue with an upper circle) and Alistair Anderson & Northlands did a classy job of gracing the splendid Theatre 1 at Home before Jon Boden reunited his Remnant Kings big band together again for another showcase of his 'Afterglow' album for only the second time since their Cambridge Folk Festival debut.
Boden has become a key figure in the folk music field (verified by Martin Carthy no less) and his high profile presence means there's no show without Punch. While the Cambridge debut might have been a bit hesitant, first time out and all that, the HOME gig was anything but with the whole ensemble appearing much more at home in the snugger confines of an indoor venue and also with the music. The album now released, they're also playing familiar songs to an audience who might find it testing to come to terms with what looks the same yet heads in a new direction.
While Jon Boden looks to re-establish his solo self with his new approach, the headliners of Friday night, The Young'uns are riding a tidal wave of success with their 'Strangers' album seeing them up their game by some margin. Kicking off a set all gathered round one mic - something a bit different but one which worked well enough for it to become more of a feature than an experiment - they ran their usual spectrum of one moment poignant, insightful and sensitive, the next inducing belly busting hilarity. Blame the incorrigible David Eagle for the latter, his flair recently applied to author in the Young'uns 'Bound Together' volume. The one thing they surely need for world domination are some skinny jeans - clearly a bit of leg envy following The East Pointers, who'd already impressed the industry delegates and did a similar job with the public.
And talking of making impressions, anyone who'd opted for unreserved seating in Theatre 2 can't have failed to have been buoyed by the whirlwind dynamo that is Grace Petrie. Much is made of her 'feminist protest' singer labelling - she's shortly out on tour as part of 'Lefty Scum' and had her own 'Lefty Xmas' mini tour in December (Manchester Night & Day btw) but she does have love songs too. Her aptitude for razor sharp observation was, is and will continue to be delivered with a rare gusto and passion that's totally refreshing.
Anyone braving Friday night in Manchester and venturing back under the railway arches to Gorilla would have caught a healthy early evening turn out for Jack Rutter. His venture into the precarious waters of solo-dom seems to have been relatively smooth, the reaction to his solo debut 'Hills' positive and his easy self-assured manner (what else would you expect from a Yorkshireman?) is an engaging template. It set the scene for Keston Cobblers' Club, last in town rattling round the spacious RNCM concert hall, much more at home in a compact room although possibly not quite as vibrant as their appearance at Homegrown in 2015. The dance crowd may have been tempted to cross Whitworth Street and take in the Afro Celt Sound System out to test the famous sprung dance floor at The Ritz. The shift to larger venues to draw in public hadn't extended into the balcony area, nothing like the packed Bury Fusiliers Drill Hall when the Ukulele Orchestra 's appearance left barely an unsold seat.
The last lap of the festival on Saturday saw some stunning performances. Just what you need after two days of for the hardcore. Hannah James' Jigdoll set is an experience that needs to be seen, the recording a pale imitation next to the intensity and originality of the performance. Part theatre, part musical performance and absolutely riveting; packed out with loops of vocals and foot tapped rhythms and plenty of tac-a-tac vocalisms that are part and parcel of the Lady Maisery trademark. Joined for the first time by the Jigdoll ensemble that contained Kate Young and included what could only be described as a face off between percussion and clog with Cormac Byrne, Jigdoll was arguably the outstanding set of the weekend although False Lights had one trump card to play later in the evening.
Kathryn Tickell with Amy Thatcher and David Almond introduced a set of songs, tunes and tales that emphasised the strength of the folk representation from the North East as Londoners Stick In The Wheel made themselves right at home in a packed Anthony Burgess Institute. They like to see the whites of the eyes as they go cheek by jowel playing out their usual sketches - "here's a song about nicking" and "if you can't hear the accordion - tough." On the cusp of their second album and having curated the 'From Here' collection of folk from around the country, their belief and conviction courses even stronger if that's possible. Again, on tour in Spring 2018, like the Guardian approved edge of Lankum, they are the face of cutting edge modern folk music.
Edgelarks is admittedly much easier than saying/typing Philip Henry and Hannah Martin and they'll be busy explaining the reasons behind the thinking. Still, they're a duo whose multi-instrumental skills offer up a sonic palette
Irish Mythen, qualified as a contender for the most committed and passionate performer of the weekend amidst some stiff opposition (although remember that no-one's in competition - this isn't the X Factor). Having toured with The Young'uns in 2106, many may have been aware of her pride and commitment yet showcasing as part of the PEI contingent, her staunch fist pumping philosophy was just the sort of stirring warm up for the main theatre headliner.Having been introduced by justifying their presence at a folk festival, it was anniversary time for the Tom Robinson Band, old punks and new wavers alike who've sees forty Summers passed since The Pistols celebrated the Queen's jubilee with their heartfelt tribute. A run through of 'Power In The Darkness' top to toe was just the ticket. Nothing wrong with a bit of rose tinted nostalgia.
In the theatre next door at HOME, Ben Nicholl's three piece Kings Of The South Seas saw them playing new material from 'Franklin' amidst a set that would easily serve as a cramped and cluttered sea vessel with their trademark atmospheric sepia lighting that would have made Gorilla look dazzling. With Ben switching often to a reedy organ leading the way in some weird and wonderful sonic experimentation that came a week or so early for Halloween.Anyone whose spirit and flesh were wilting by the end of a busy festival had False Lights to look forward to for one final hurrah. Also showing off some new songs once 'Skrewball' had blown away any possibility of cobwebs or ear wax, the impending 'Harmonograph', due out in late January. Dotted amongst the premiers of the new material and a handful of the familiar was 'William Glenn', simply the single outstanding song of the weekend. Allegedly Sam Carter's introduction to the music of Nic Jones - just thank the good Lord for Nic Jones. As Jim Moray admitted later, they just "kept making it louder and louder". Pinning the audience back against their seats as the tale of a murderous sea captain with a shadowy past getting his comeuppance unfolds like the fine and prosperous gale of the song. Genre bending electric folk twisted irredeemably out of shape. Stirring and uplifting stuff and thankfully no-one had to attempt to follow.
Running alongside the festival and crossing paths at various points with the musical proceedings, the annual English Folk Expo delegation of industry showcases and events once again gave boundless opportunities to make links and network with the industry 'gate keepers' to the folk, roots and acoustic music industry in England.
Apart from a goodie bag of CDs, pens, magazines and gin, EFEx delegates all have an open invitation to all the folk festival musical events plus several showcases and late night bars with music coming from every angle. In opening the festivities for the EFEx delegates in the past, Maddy Prior, Jon Boden and Joe Boyd have all given keynote addresses. This year, arguably the biggest name of them all, the legendary Martin Carthy sat down for a Q&A with Colin Irwin. Described as "a singer, a guitarist and a talker" he lived up to the latter, taking the odd prompt to set off on engaging monologues reminiscing over a 60 year career; the ongoing relevance of traditional songs ("without having to change horses into motorbikes"), the impact of the "engaging and inventive" women on the folk scene who weren't satisfied to stay at home with children but take them out on tour and how the future is secure in the safe hands of Jon Boden, and what he called the astonishing instrumentalists such as Sam Sweeney.
An EDFSS reception with musical star Rosie Hood, the first of several trips to Manchester's magnificent Town Hall for a mayoral reception and an early morning trip for a tour round Old Trafford (music from Jack Rutter and Molly Evans and The Savage Prunes) before heading back again for the PEI reception in the Town Hall's Grand Hall that provided a glorious setting for Vishten, The East Pointers and Irish Mythen - it's a breathless experience. Like a mega sentence that has no full stops.
Showcases for Dharma Records (with Megan Henwood with her 'River' album imminent and Alexander Wolfe providing low key singer / songwriter showcases) and Fancourt Agency later taking over the Comedy Store, with agent Ant Miles doing a fair job not quite in the stand up league showing off three acts from the impressive Fancourt roster (that includes the headliners False Lights). Three classy acts - Harri Endersby, The Rheingans Sisters and Kim Lowings & The Greenwood and of course the souvenirs keep on coming…a highly desirable Fancourt fridge magnet and a Kim Lowings notebook amongst more complimentary drinks. Maybe next year, the English Folk Expo promotional brolly might not go amiss. You'd be excused for thinking that maybe the Expo might be an excuse for a drinking marathon, but joking aside, the opportunity for networking and the quantity and quality of music on offer is limitless.
And finally, with the announcement from Terry O'Brien that the 2018 English Folk Expo partnership will be closer to home, the message (bi-lingual of course) is that the Welsh are coming!
Words & photos: Mike Ainscoe
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