With so many festivals on the summer calendar, how does the music fan - or even the casual festival-goer - choose where to go? Big names and famous venues are often tempting; but most people depend on word of mouth. That is where the New Forest Folk Festival (NFF) scores - it may be the friendliest, best organised and most relaxed event in the folk circuit. And word gets around! What is more, it punches above its weight; hence its billing this year as the Little Festival with the Big Names.
July 2017 saw the 6th edition of NFF and included big names such as Show of Hands, Pentangle, Acoustic Strawbs, Bonnie Dobson, Richard Digance, Ric Sanders and Gary Fletcher. Extending now over 5 days, and set in idyllic farmland on the northern edge of the New Forest National Park, this year's extravaganza also benefitted from perfect weather - almost constant sunshine and not a single drop of rain. Being small, all the action takes place in one field, surrounded by mature oak hedgerows. The gentle slope down to the rustic stage means that everyone has a good view of the acts. Having said that, the age profile of the crowd (mostly older folkies) and the relaxed atmosphere of NFF, mean that most people sit down in camping chairs to watch.
The Promoter. Nick Curtis owns the farm with his brother Keith: "It all started when Richard Digance came to dinner and we were talking about the difficulties of owning a small, economically marginal farm." (The fields are rented out for most of the year, and Nick works as a video producer, his brother Keith is a photographer). "Why not hold a folk festival here," said Richard. "I can help get it started". So Richard organised the programme for the first 3 years - "I'm really more of a Pink Floyd fan" says Nick "but Richard isn't a diehard folkie, and he created a really enjoyable atmosphere, which we have been able to build on."
One of the joys of the festival is that it is small. The campsite and campervan fields are only a short walk from the arena. Everyone moves about the site at a leisurely pace (especially in the sweltering heat), so there is plenty of opportunity to chat and make new friends. The site is flat or gently sloping, and the ground is firm - so the festival is highly accessible to wheelchair users and others with limited mobility. Dogs are also welcomed on leads. There are no showers, but we all get free antiseptic wipes (nice touch!).
The Volunteers. Thursday night - two retired stewards are spending the summer going around the festivals: "so far this summer, this is our fourth festival stewarding - there's another four to go. It's better than a cruise. And the people here are so friendly" Stephanie is a volunteer in the Cafe, a Biology student from Bristol University. "It's great because it's small - and chilled!" Another young volunteer is collecting rubbish at regular intervals. When told what a good job he was doing, he replied that "I don't get paid ….. we get paid with love".
While dependent on volunteers, the festival is run by the Curtis family and utilises the skills and enthusiasm of their many friends from Plaitford and the surrounding area:
The site is also meticulously clean - volunteers go around picking up rubbish and bins are emptied regularly. The loos are amongst the cleanest we've seen at a festival (though the hot weather takes its toll by Sunday!).
Sunday. Andrew from Ace Loos is emptying the festival toilets. I compliment him on doing a great job - many people have praised the cleanliness of the loos. "We've got a good team and we all crack in", he replied "After all, rubbish loos make for a rubbish festival."
The preparation for the festival by Nick, Keith and the team is excellent. This year they have added guided walks around the farm to the itinery. The Programme not only gives full details of the acts, but includes maps, Keith photo-gallery of last year's festival, and name checks to all the crew and volunteers.
The Café is only second to the bar as a hub of the festival. The staff remain cool, despite the heat - local volunteer Aly quips "I've lost 4 stone in 4 days. But the festival crowd are great - everyone is so friendly and if we run out of something on the menu that's no problem with them. It's getting to be like a family". Aly's here because Helen Curtis (Nick's wife), who runs the kitchen, is her best friend. She works with Jenny, Susan, Bruce and John the Chefs, and many more to feed the masses; healthy farmers' portions of home-cooked food.
The festival starts on Wednesday evening with a barbeque, morris dancing and a singaround in the bar - momentarily a bat flies in, following the trail of midges. On Thursday, the bar is also the venue for a string of local acts - mainly amateur, before the Main Stage kicks in on Friday. Throughout the weekend, the atmosphere is gentle and genial. There are few queues - though on Saturday the Bar witnesses long, patient queues in the heatwave. It is another measure of the polite, friendly atmosphere that people do queue! It is so hot, people are drinking shandies (in addition to the local ales and ciders) - this may be the first festival to have run out of lemonade by Thursday night! Two women solved the heat problem, though - New Forest Ice Cream's lemon lollies dissolved in their drinks!
The Performer. Interviewed after her set on Saturday, Janet Dowd proved to be as warm and thoughtful as her songs. She paid warm tribute to Richard Digance, who kick-started her career by making her version of 300 John Condon, his 'song of the year' on Radio Devon. She was then booked for the first New Forest Festival, and has been back most years since. We asked her what made her keep coming back: "It's the perfect setting, and this year there's perfect weather (not like Armagh!)", she said. It is the friendliness and collective spirit she likes, and which makes NFF so special. That first year she helped make the stage, helped out in the bar and kitchen. "You'd miss it if you didn't come. It's the beers and ciders, the friendliness of the stall holders. People come back year after year." Nick even offered to let her stay in his house. "It is the kind of festival where you get to hear other performers and to mingle, soaking in the atmosphere."
Most of the crowd sit down most of the time! - it is hot, but relaxed (like a village cricket match, but with hammer dulcimers). A vole scampers across the field. Swallows flit across the arena catching insects. A Border Collie is excited by the smell of a cauliflower pakora - lust at first sniff? The main arena is filled with parasols, a display of hats to rival Ascot, and stags and penguins made of chicken wire. There's a Morecombe and Wise joke about 2 old men in decks chairs - there's hundreds of men and women of mature age here! All singing and dancing in their seats. Or in Jo's case her inflatable sofa!
In the break before the evening's acts, the field is full of empty camping chairs and sunshades, as people saunter away to food stalls or back to their tents. It is a measure of the relaxed atmosphere that we feel secure abandoning our belongings, safe in the knowledge that they will still be there when we return.
Occupying the sides and back of the arena field, it is possible to amble around the stalls listening to the music - or shopping between the acts.
The Traders. Mystic Mackerel from Keynsham (spelt K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M) sell T-shirts and tie-dyes at their stall. They have come every year since 2013: "It's one of the few festivals we go to where we feel part of it". Plus, the added bonus this year - they are huge fans of Show of Hands! I just had to have "The Grandfather" T-shirt (think Sicilian), as seen on TV at Glastonbury, but much more at home at NFF.
Friday: One of the joys of festivals, especially for those who arrive early, is to watch fellow campers trying to erect their tents. No pop-ups for the more mature NFF campers, so sorting out the complex design of a modern tent can be rather like being forced to solve a rubic cube in the dark, before a paying audience! The males tend to attack the task with some impatience; curses and minor disagreements with partners can easily escalate into major domestic rows, which stop perilously close to full marital breakdown! In fact, there is a market opportunity here for festival organisers/stallholders - incense and prayer mats may help, but some people require full-scale relationship counselling after the efforts of pitching their tent! Others just repair to the beer tent to recover!
Meanwhile, a young buzzard shrieks for food, its nest is in the hedgerow right next to our tent and along the route of the woodland walk.
The amateurs. On Saturday morning the women from the Ukelele Orchestra are taking photos outside of their tents prior to their performance… "You don't need any talent" "I can't play an instrument … but it's great fun … I've been going for 9 years." "You can't not have a smile on your face!".
Special mention must be made of the catering: Pakora Pod, and the Rural Pizza Company combined with Helen's café - to me this was one of the best festivals we've been to for food. Here's to the goat's cheese pizza (with balsamic dressing), cauliflower pakora, and the goat's cheese and beetroot burger. Even carnivores can't help going veggie!
The festival-goers On Wednesday night Graham paid for £6 of drinks with a £20 note plus a £1 coin. After 20 minutes, the barman came out and found him - with his £15 change! This tells you a lot about the festival ethos.
Sunday - the merchandise raffle is announced, as an old folkie saunters by in a T-shirt announcing "Another day in Paradise". Another good t-shirt - "Motorhome" in Motorhead font. Sort of sums up this festival! "God Only Knows" drifts out of the pa.
Two dog owners at the water tap are swapping doggie tales - guessing the age of the dogs. "I put her under the tap to cool off!" "You coming again" - "Yes" - "See you next year"!
Standout acts of the festival were headliners Joe Broughton's Conservatoire Folk Ensemble (Friday) and Show of Hands (Saturday).
The Folk Ensemble were probably the best act of the festival. This 47 piece orchestra, mainly composed of students from Birmingham Conservatoire, create the most joyous of sounds - folk and beyond - in perfect time. Just how they manage to blend 7 fiddles, 3 cellos, 3 electric guitars, bass, 4 percussionists, tuba, euphonium, trombones, trumpets, accordion, saxes, harp and glockenspiel into a seamless, rocking sound is beyond me. A mixture of precision-perfect playing and a great sound team go a long way towards explaining it - plus an abundance of youthful exhuberance! A great dancing Friday finale under a full moon.
Saturday headliners Show of Hands really woke the crowd up - some even got up from their chairs, dancing and clapping along! Immensely popular for all the right reasons - consummate professionalism, great musicianship, ability to relate to the crowd, songs with real strength in imagery and message - and with a following built up by hard gigging and a real interest in their audience base, Steve Knightly and Phil Beer eclipsed the preceding act, the Strawbs, with an energetic and varied set.
Reflecting the age profile of the festival, many of the name acts trace their origins back to the 1960's. Richard Digance is currently in the midst of his 50th Anniversary Tour, but was outdone by Jacqui McShee (Pentangle) with 51 years, Dave Cousins (Strawbs) and Bonnie Dobson. All of these were solid acts, but for me, Dobson was a stand-out,
"It's just like my uncle's farm in Ontario. This reminds me of festivals in the early 60's - the same relaxed style".
Her clear vocal style and perfect diction, long-held notes and gentle vibrato - a softened version of her contemporary, Joan Baez - make her one of the most enjoyable singers it's been my good fortune to listen to. Though she admits: "I never wanted to be Joan Baez - I wanted to be Aretha Franklin!" Having moved to England, she stopped singing in 1989 and only returned in 2007. Her repertoire ranged from "The Door is Open", to "I Got Stung" and a pre-Donegan version of "Rock Me Daddy'O". But the moment we had all waited for; the song she wrote and will be remembered for, "Morning Dew" set a poignant note for her finale.
Saturday afternoon summarised for me the eclectic charm of NFF. Punk/new wave favourites from the Southampton Ukelele Jam, and Irish ballads from Janet Dowd & Brendan Goff. Janet has to have one of the most plaintively emotional voices in folk - warm but ethereal and evocative. Her voice wafts across the sweltering campsite like a gentle breeze. Ric Sanders Trio showed their versatility and eclectic style, with rockabilly, country and blues. A romantic, Italianate "Mona Lisa" morphs into a Hot Club swing version of "Sweet Sue", "Don't You Rock Me Daddio" segues into "Sail Away Ladies, Sail Away". Muddy Waters "Worried Mind", is followed by a down and dirty version of the Beatles' "Come Together". Perfect festival fare.
Then there's Gary Fletcher Band. He not only enthralled the audience with his mix of blues-inflected tunes, he also managed a festival first: Tom Leary's ground-breaking violin solo was the first to use a wah-wah pedal!
Gary explained that his interest in the blues was sparked by hearing an early Fleetwood Mac album with American blues legend Eddie Boyd. He then discovered folk through a students' union gig at the LSE in 1968, featuring the original Jethro Tull line up and Fairport Convention, with Sandy Denny. It was the live version of "A Sailors Life" that did it for Gary. This resonated with me - I was at that gig too (I have the poster on my study wall), and also I saw the original Fleetwood Mac live with Eddie Boyd, and still have my copy of the album ("7936 South Rhodes").
Saturday encapsulated the spirit of NFF. You can hear traditional folk, folk rock, Americana, blues and many of the areas of rock music which these styles have infiltrated, all delivered in the acoustic tradition, and with the best sound balance of any festival.
Sunday highlights included Fleetwood Cave (not a tribute act - but are a tribute to the talents of Marion Fleetwood and Gregg Cave, key components of folk supergroup TRADarr) who moved the festival on with some great folk-rock, backed by bass and drums.
Sally Barker was the reason we came to NFF in the first place - I had recently written a review for FATEA of her album "Ghost Girl" and discovered from her website that she was playing here. Barker, Wright, Williams Band (with NFF stalwart PJ Wright and American guitarist Brooks Williams) played a diverse range of songs - Sally's folk, Brooks blues/Americana, covers of old favourites such as Dylan, Joan Armatrading and the Bee Gees ("To Love Somebody") - that showed how well their voices combined. Overhead hand claps and barking dogs said it all.
Finally, the festival went out with a bang and a lurcher! Mad Dog McCrea finished proceedings off with an Irish folk-punk ceilidh. (Tellingly, they referenced pioneers "Boiled in Lead"). This had the crowd dancing, though many still in their seats - or was it the effect of the rhubarb cider? - especially with the rousing climax, that traditional Irish flagwaver "The Bare Necessities"!
Mention must also be made of Lines and Squares poets - although most of their promised readings from the stage were sacrificed to sound checks, this loose group of local poets held a lively and at times thought-provoking session on the fringe stage, by the bar on Saturday afternoon.
Rising Stars. Thursday's programme shone a light on local talent from Hants and Dorset, and the festival generally takes every opportunity to showcase young and emerging talent. My picks of "acts to watch" include playworker and singer songwriter Lily Meuross. She has a good voice and engaging stage presence, but would probably benefit from a sympathetic (alt. folk/Americana?) backing band.
Tenderlove are a young trio of ex-Southampton music students, who specialise in close harmony folk rock - think Crosby,Stills and Nash with a female vocalist in the mix. In fact, for a young group they show a surprisingly confident and eclectic taste in - they themselves cite Fleet Foxes as a major influence. I think their vocal harmonies are even tighter, though, and have a softer edge. For me they were one of the standout acts of the festival - this is their second time at New Forest, but they have yet to feature on the main stage. It can only be a matter of time!
On Friday, Hannah Robinson was another breath of youthful fresh air. A FATEA favourite, she sings her own songs with a strong, light voice and steady guitar rhythm. Her programme was the perfect mix of traditional songs and self-penned modern material. I particularly liked her jazzy version of the gospel standard "Wayfaring Stranger" and her soulful "Sixteen Tons". She has a touch of the Eva Cassidy's about her, which is no bad thing - we hope to hear and see a lot more of her.
Broadside Boys are currently Richard Digance's support act, and sing contemporary "radio ballads" rooted in their native Suffolk. They are modern day troubadours, telling tales of ordinary folk. And local Dorset heroes Ninebarrow showed that modern songwriting in the folk tradition is safe in young hands. With great instrumental prowess and tight harmonies, they confirmed they are one of the best young folk talents around.
Which brings me to a final observation. The New Forest Folk Festival succeeds because it is small, relaxed but organised with love and great concern to provide the best experience for the paying customer. If it is to prosper, it has to balance pressures to expand with its biggest strengths - it is peaceful and friendly. Also, it currently pitches at an aging customer base. Nick Curtis is well aware of the need to bring in younger festival-goers without changing the nature of the event. This will require some careful thought, and wise talent spotting.
Best wishes, and thanks for such a great festival to Nick, Keith, Helen and their family and friends - and to Richard for the original inspiration!
Martin Price, with additional text by Marylyn Cropley.
Photos Marylyn Cropley, additional photos Tavares Angadi
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