So, on a weekend when folk music lovers are spoilt for choice, with big-label events such as Cambridge, Wickham, and the opening knockings of Sidmouth all vying for attention and custom, there is a danger that smaller, but none-the-less important and enjoyable gatherings, such as The Lake District and Melton Folk Festivals, might get overlooked. It is one-such, together with the artists involved, that will get a small spotlight shone on it here.
The Riverside Festival is Nottingham's biggest free festival weekend, offering all kinds of family entertainment. Along a stretch of approximately one mile beside the banks of the River Trent, adjacent to Trent Bridge, there are a plethora of events covering a wide spectrum of activities, ranging from Dragon Boat races, a firework display, duck races, Street Performers together with a variety of live music performances, including jazz, folk and blues, rock, soul, pop and world, across two main venues.
Thus, on the Sunday afternoon I pitched up for five hour's worth of music in the smaller Big Top Stage. It is debatable whether it was cooler inside the tent, or outside where it was nigh on 30 degrees, but more on that later. Of the artists who were scheduled to appear, three will be well known to 'folkies', and their appearance on the bill gives an idea of the quality of live music that was available over the weekend away from the aforementioned 'biggies'.
First up, were Stick In The Wheel, advertised by the promoters as 'Britain's most exciting new folk band'. Having seen them several times before as a five-piece, it was interesting to see how they would shape up as a three-piece, given the fact that Simon and Fran Foote were on leave following the very recent birth of a child (congratulations on that). It would be churlish to say that they were not missed, but the remaining trio of Nicola Keary, Ian Carter and Ellie Wilson gave a thoroughly entertaining performance, with only minimal references to the heat.
With a set taken mostly from their Follow Them True and From Here album releases, the audience were treated to the range of music that makes up their repertoire. Thus opener Marrabones, their interpretation of Tipping It Up To Nancy/Marrow Bones/Old Woman From Wexford, and originally recorded by them on a charity CD. along with Bows Of London, (a version of Twa Sisters), Seven Gypsies, (Raggle Taggle Gipsies and variants), Bedlam, introduced as a 17th Century nutter song and Champion, all taken from From Here, along with Weaving Song, described as the Bagpuss song, Roving Blade, White Copper Alley and Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance, from 2018 release Follow Them True, and Four Loom Weaver, Cruel Ship's Captain, from the Bones and Cuts E.P.s respectively, were the traditional pieces, given, as always, the very special new lease of life by this very special group.
Complementing this were originals Over Again, the eerie Witch Bottle, along with the still contemporary sounding Me n Becky, relating to the 2011 London Riots. Always raw and honest, unashamedly admitting nods to a culture that is important to them, Stick In the Wheel continue to be a potent force in contemporary music, and consistently deliver superb live performances.
The second act appearing was the 'Lonnie Donegan Band featuring Peter Donegan - the skiffle legend's band fronted by Lonnie's son Peter'. Performing some of his father's classics, as well as one or two of Lonnie's lesser known gems, along with several original songs written by Peter, the band cooked from the very outset.
From the opening Worried Man's Blues, through Puttin' On The Style and a blistering version of I've Got Rocks In My Bed, featuring Tom Wright on guitar, to the 'deadly medley' of Cumberland Gap and Don't You Rock Me Daddy-o, via Peter originals such as I'm Yours, with its cryptic reference to Van Morrison, and Little Man, about his son, the sheer energy and verve of the group took the audience by storm, and that was before the, inevitable, Rock Island Line. A well-deserved standing ovation ensued. if you've not caught this band live yet, they can be highly recommended.
A complete contrast followed, as Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman - 'One of the most assured and entertaining duos on the folk scene' took to the swelteringly hot stage. And what a beautiful, assured set it was, highlighting the fact that the duo are capable of delivering the very best of inventive contemporary/traditional music through the symbiotic marrying of emotional voice and magnificently crafted music.
With a set list comprising half-a-dozen tracks from their most recent release, Personnae, three from Tomorrow Will Follow Today and two from the Hidden People CD, there was variety aplenty. Starting, geographically in St. Helena, we were swiftly transported to the pleasures, or otherwise, of being torn apart by horses in Child Owlet, before a change of tempo saw Kathryn deliver a gorgeous version of Sandy Denny's Solo.
The Dartmoor Protest Blues song that is Tomorrow Will Follow Today came next, followed by the Antwerp related Tribute Of Hands, before the wonderful 52 Hertz, concerning a whale singing in the wrong key and thus unable to attract a mate, possibly due to deafness, brought an element of pathos to proceedings.
This soon changed, however, with a song relating to temptation through the years, the jaunty ditty that is Poison Club, and the bawdy double-entendres of The Lusty Smith sandwiching the melancholic Seasons in an inspired piece of programming
The aching beauty of Kathryn's voice was given full rein with her solo a cappella rendition of Huldra, the Scandinavian tale of mystical, forest dwelling women who lure men to their downfall, before set closer Knight's Ghost, their 'zombified song', demonstrated the obvious dexterity of Sean on guitar.
This was a great set, managing to encompass murder, protest and smut, with much more besides, and a good reflection of both their creative inventiveness and ability to capture the hearts of an audience.
The final act on the bill, Merry Hell, never cease to amaze. If ever uplifting, joyous music was advised as a cure for an ailment then they would surely be one of the first names on the prescription, albeit on the understanding that one of the contra-indications of the remedy would be that they themselves are infectious.
With a set comprising songs off all four full-length releases, BLINK...and you miss it (2011), Head Full Of Magic, Shoes Full Of Rain (2013), The Ghost In Our House And Other Stories ... (2015) and Bloodlines (2016), the seven musicians delivered an exuberant, energetic and passionate show which totally defied the sweltering, stifling and oppressive elements. (set list below).
Picking highlights from the 17 songs performed is akin to asking which of your children is the favourite one, however, There's A Ghost In Our House and Stand Down were both performed with particular panache, whilst, despite the health warning, there was evidence of audience 'counter-swaying' during Bury Me Naked, although this did not seem to result in either major or minor injury, and no spades were injured during the performance.
Lest it be forgotten, though, it is not all high-energy, foot-stomping and hand-clapping with this group, there are significant shades and contrasts within their repertoire; Lean On Me, for example, is on a par with anything in a similar vein around today, and the adroit fiddle playing of Neil McCartney should not be ignored.
The only downside to this afternoon's performance was that passion and zeal on display only served to increase the temperature.
Post-event, the local Nottingham Times reported "'Best Riverside Festival in a decade' as 160,000 people have fun in the sun... The jewel in the crown of the festival was once again the fireworks display on Saturday night, which lit up the sky above the Trent.". Sorry folks, you stand to be corrected, the true jewel in the crown was this performance from Merry Hell.
If you've yet to see the band live, one simple request - do it. You will not be disappointed, just ask those ecstatic audience members present today. The group have several more dates lined up, including, of course, the FATEA 30th Birthday Bash, Shelley Theatre, Bournemouth where they will be headlining the Saturday night, on November 3rd.
Loving The Skin You're In
Let's Not Have A Morning After
We Need Each Other Now
Bury Me Naked
Lean On Me
Hope You Don't Mind
There's A Ghost In Our House
Come On, England!
Summer Is A-Comin'
Coming Home Soon
The Butcher And The Vegan
One More Day
encore Let The Music Speak For Itself
So, a rather splendid afternoon was had, and special thanks must be offered to Nottingham City Council and also to Mick Peat & PR Productions, (who also run the Derby Folk Festival), for their organisation of the event.
Oh, and did I say that this was all for free?
David Pratt - Words, pictures & videos
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