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Beverley Folk Festival 2014

Shorts, sandals, banjos poking out everywhere and tons of folk music; it could only be Beverley Folk Festival! Being a keen new-wave 'folkie', I was thrilled to spend a glorious weekend reviewing the famed event.

Friday

I took a seat near the front of the Main Stage, under a church-like marquee. The humid air was full of chatter and the sound of bird song, the scene lit by the mellow light of evening, making the blue lights of the stage seem all the brighter.

The honour of the opening set went to Neil McSweeney. He chose to start with the song 'Bulldozer' from his latest album 'Cargo'. He told us of how the second song, 'Be Your Own Dog', was inspired by a trip with his parents to the Culloden battlefield in Scotland, a cheerful sounding tune about overcoming defeat. He apologised after the song for repeating a verse as he had got distracted by the swallows flying around inside the tent; the birds added to the folk atmosphere. My favourite song of his set was "Happiness" a soulful sing-along melody which the likes of David Gray would envy. I'll certainly be trying to figure out the chords to this song.

Overall I thought he had a very crisp sound, his singing and playing were soulful and precise. The guitar was sometimes finger picked, sometimes flat picked, with classic American run downs. I would almost describe it as an English take on Country music; but of the Lyle Lovett sort rather than Dolly Parton.

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Next we had the Driffield-based Nick Rooke Band. Completing the four piece were Kim on bass guitar, Ed on a Linklater guitar and Paul on both violin and whistle. Nick played tenor banjo, mandolin and guitar. Their opening song was 'Jericho Wales', a great driving sea shanty with brilliant hammering tenor banjo in a duet with the Irish style fiddle, the rhythm sure and steady thanks to the guitar and bass guitar. The band seemed confident and sure of every note, the audience responded with Celtic wops and cheers.

Next they performed the playfully titled 'Fanny Was a Fat Fruitarian' a short care free tune with the lyrics, "there's no guarantee, you won't bite the dust at 53." Nick apologized to anyone who was celebrating their 53rd birthday.

The audience sang along to the chorus of I Am Walking Along My Track', which sounds like some old Yorkshire folk song, but is in fact an original. It was great to hear the whole tent reverberating to the chorus. Nick's voice is strong and not overly 'folk', he easily sings along to the whole band accompaniment, the accenting gentle, adding colour to the words. The arrangement gives a full sound, the bass guitar adding a modern twist to the classical Irish arrangement of tenor banjo and fiddle. The instrument swapping, sometimes inside the space of one song, gives such a nice variation in texture. They finished with 'Halibut Brown'; another great sea shanty of a song with witty lyrics and driving beat. They left the audience to an impressed applause.

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Billy Bragg walked into view with his silver T-type electric guitar, crowd obviously excited, many of them admirers. He started with the song, 'The World Turned Upside Down', which is about a diggers' commune destroyed in 1649, write by Leon Rosselson, before going straight into 'To Have and To Have Not.' Both songs provoke political protest, and as you would hope went down very well with the audience.

Bragg commented on his clothes (a cowboy style shirt): "As you can tell from my attire, I'm now an Americana artist..."; going on to say, "Americana is country music for people who like the Smiths; pointy shoes, poetry and lots of misery."  Indeed the next song, played on acoustic guitar, 'No One Knows Nothing Anymore, taken from his latest album, had a defiant country taste. He softened his southern accent a little and even took on a slight American twang; indeed this is true of other new songs like 'Handy Man Blues' and later he would play the Woody Guthrie covers 'Ingrid Bergman' and 'I Ain't Got No Home.'

Bragg is clearly a seasoned professional, easily playing at banter with the audience with the timing and wit of a comedian. He jokes, "I like folk audiences, they encourage you to grow old... to put on weight... and you can make jokes about Morrissey."  Bragg's style barely needs describing; songs like 'Which Side Are You On?' and 'New England' are so famous that I imagine most people will have heard them. I was impressed by the depth of sound that he was achieving as solo artist without any backing band. His fusion of punk and folk has become a self-contained genre of its own, much like the brand of socialism he preaches, and it was interesting to see both live.

I preferred the softer style of his new material though the acoustic and electric guitars were well contrasted, the latter used more for protest songs. His political quips became more numerous as the night progressed; the topics included the Miner's Strike, Scottish Independence, UKIP, Old People and Fracking. He gave the impression of being professionally angry about most things, with the audience seeming to agree with all that he said. He finished with 'New England' to great applause from the appreciative attendees, who were enthused and yet great listeners all night.

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Meanwhile, in the Concert and Dance Marquee, I caught the last few songs of Le Vent Du Nord; their tunes were extraordinary. Imagine traditional Irish, Scottish and French music, all meeting in a Canadian glen (the band hailing all the way from Quebec). The four-piece are all professional multiple instrumentalists and good singers, but their songs generally involve a guitar, accordion, violin and - critical to their unique sound - a hurdy-gurdy. It is partly this that gave a harsh, old-fashioned edge to their sound. What was very clear was that the concert tent was full and most of the crowd were dancing! This band became the talk of the festival and was the favourite with many.

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After this I felt some drinking should be done on my part and thus took advantage of the late night Moonbeams sessions in the Wold Top tent. I'd be doing something wrong if there were not some 'after-hours' blur on my memory, but I do particularly remember Sail Pattern, and their songs which spoke of sea shanties and old medieval Britain with powerful vocals and hair-raising shouted choruses. This was in contrast to the modern look of the band and the instruments; a cajon, two guitars and bass. 'Haul Away Joe' seemed like the one that brought the most dancers out. They finished off a great set with one of my favourite songs of the festival, 'Sanntianno.'

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Saturday

I woke to the singing of a sky lark and the smell of bacon. I thought I would start the day with the Poetry Workshop led by Johanna Boal. She was very welcoming, putting everyone at ease, letting us participate as much or as little as anyone wanted. I hadn't been to a workshop before and had imagined something far more stressful and difficult. It was clear she had done a good deal of preparation, giving us material from the best modern poets to look at and consider. We were given two exercises, which worked well. It was a shame more people didn't find the workshop, but the group was friendly and kind, reflecting the people at the festival in general.

Outside I caught Elliot Morris playing his last song of an outdoor set, 'Something's Got to Give'. His outstanding style of percussive guitar playing was deeply creative; his singing accompanied it nicely. It is a big regret of mine that I did not manage to catch a full set of his during the festival.

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In the Wold Top Marquee, North Yorkshire-based Rebekah Findlay and Lee Huck were playing traditional folk at its best. Her singing was quite beautiful, husky in tone and brooding in nature, charmingly sincere. They interspersed the songs with tunes for which she would take up a violin and Lee would play some flat-picked Celtic guitar. Rebekah's guitar style and influences were reminiscent of Emily Barker, but with her own unique slant. The last song, 'Lady of the Lake', moved the whole tent to silence; for me, another favourite tune from the weekend.

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I popped into the Duncan McFarlane 'informal session' and enjoyed a few numbers. He has very traditional folk-style vocals, playing nice three-finger style guitar with a thumb pick. The violinist Anne Birvonese gave a lovely accompaniment. There was a very strong English folk sound to all of the songs, the originals like 'Turn the Bones Around' and others like 'A-begging I Will Go', a traditional tune, dated circa 17th century.

Many performers played a set outside on the small seating stand centrally located amidst the marquees. One of my favourites was the young duo, Danny Pedlar and Rosie Butler-Hall, playing a hurdy-gurdy and violin respectively. They had a less traditional sound than the other hurdy-gurdy bands of the fest, but were certainly no less talented.

Next for me was the "Best of English Tradition" show, starting with Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar. Their first appearance at Beverley Festival began with a fast heady tune, the fiddle played by Ciaran being trebly in tone, the playing refreshingly different and countered by the bassy sound of the guitar. There is something Irish in the style and it's clear he's very well practiced for someone who has just finished his A-levels.

For 'New Railroad', Greg puts a really soulful vibrato into the notes, his style has been honed in good quality folk clubs and the tone is most agreeable. A few songs later the pair lost the slight caution that nervousness causes, and were bantering with the audience as ably as any of the famous acts. Greg got out an English concertina, saying, "My flat mates were really impressed when I brought this home!" When one of the photographers stepped forward to take a picture, Greg quipped, "Don't take a picture of me playing this, I'll have no bloody friends left!" The pair proceeded to play the modern folk song, 'The Call and the Answer', the audience joining in for the chorus, violin mixing seamlessly with the concertina.

An original was in order next, indeed the title track to their debut album no less: 'The Queen's Lover' had a sentimental sound to me, the chord progression stirring some fond memory of a Dubliners song. Their music has a youthful, good-humoured vibe, much like their onstage characters; they certainly charmed and impressed the audience.

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Martin and Eliza Carthy took to the stage, commencing with 'Her Servant Man.' The first thing I was struck by was the style of Martin's guitar playing, sparse arpeggio plucking and picking, giving a beautiful medieval air to the tone and an original edge to the whole set. It was amusing to see Eliza sing about a cruel father locking his daughter in a dungeon while her dad played guitar next to her.  'Happiness' was my favourite of their set, for it showed off Eliza's voice, its rich tone, exquisite control and heartfelt emotion. It also displayed a variation of influence, this famous folk artist happily singing a jazz number.

The sound of the duo is skilfully arranged, the rougher harmonies of the father contrasting the clear tones of the daughter, the guitar's deep notes keeping rhythm, the violin dancing round it.  Their penultimate song, 'Monkey Hair', moved the audience to silence. Like much of their set it was from their new album, released earlier this month, 'The Moral of the Elephant'. I can heartily recommend it based on what I heard that afternoon.

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Later I spent some time at The Whiskey Dogs' informal session, which was rather popular, probably the busiest I saw Bar 1690 get. Though coy at first, other musicians soon joined in, making for a great Americana/folk session. As evening crept in, I took my place in the longest queue of the festival; I was sure this was more than partly because Lau was in the line-up.

CaldahNua quietly walked on stage and Lisa Butler (lead vocals) humbly announced, 'We're going to play you some tunes.' She played the violin, bowed with her left hand, while Paddy played right, the two instruments always complementing each other. The Tenor banjo gave a forceful drive to the beat while the guitar kept rhythm. Derek swapped between bodhran and accordion. The whole sound was traditional Irish at its best. Their tunes were numerous and infectious; only a few songs in and people were dancing, clapping or tapping along.

Buried in their set was a very quiet, slow song, started solo by Lisa. Guitar gently swayed an arpeggio over the melody and, a few verses in, the violin added some quiet landscapes. The audience couldn't have been more enchanted, every soul intently listening; some mix of tone appeared in the singer's voice that I hadn't heard before, a certain richness-yet-frilliness that's difficult to describe. Suffice it to say I found 'The Banks of the Lee' the most moving song of the weekend.

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Another act and another great Celtic band, this time Manran from Scotland. The six-piece have a range of instruments, guitar, flute, accordion, bass, violin, drums, bagpipes and uilleann pipes. Lead vocalist and guitarist Norrie has a nice voice, strong enough to be heard over the band but still gentle and flowing, even with trickier fast songs. I'm pleased to say their songs were more Gaelic than English and somehow 'of' the glens and island. One of the highlights of their set was the use of both the uilleann pipes and bagpipes on the same song, well mixed with the other instruments to give a highly original tone.

During their set a gentleman leant over to me, simply saying, "Folk is alive and kicking". I think many of the acts, especially that Saturday, were exemplary of how music can be both traditional, nodding to the ancient past and yet creative, still growing, evolving.

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The set up for Lau was complex, three guitars including a Godin, a keyboard, accordion, fiddle, three mics and a very strange fork spoon board. There was much anticipation, with a 'one in - one out' rule was operating on the door.  They run straight into an early instrumental song whose power, whose complete precision, is unforgettable. The strange circular bowing of the violin, the layered breaths of the accordion, the driving - sometimes slow, sometimes hectic – guitar; it is sublime. By song two, 'Saint Monday', the audience is already enthralled. They are as good live as the rumours suggest, the tunes change and develop like western art music pieces; folk, meets modern synth, meets classical.

As they come to the song 'Torsa' it's clear from the sideways grins that Lau are genuinely enjoying themselves; it's rare to see musicians so 'in' to the songs they play. They dedicate 'Save the Bees' to all those bees out there... "except the one that stung Martin". "I haven't got a problem with the species," he says, " just that particular one."
They finished up with 'Far From Portland' to an ecstatic audience. I simply couldn't recommend more that you see this band live.

Back in the Wold Top Marquee I caught a set by the brilliantly witty Truckstop Honeymoon, a husband and wife duo, she on harmonies and double bass, he on guitar or five string banjo while singing. This made for a really full sound of great original songs. The "Psychobilly" vibe emanated for both artistic effect and their genuinely endearing nature.

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Final act of the night was Green Diesel. Their 70's style electric folk, influenced by the likes of Fairport Convention, summoned everyone to the dance floor. I still vividly remember dancing to their original song 'Fire and Wine'; a more appropriately modern pagan song we could not have wished for on midsummer night.

 

Sunday

As the last day of the festival dawned, many were feeling a little worse for wear and camp took a little while to get going. Another workshop to start my day, this time a Creative Writing Course with Sue Wilsea; she was very kind and the circle really rather welcoming. She started with some exercises encouraging us to write a rant and rave (needless to say I raved about Lau). She skilfully led the workshop giving us more than enough activities. Everyone seemed to enjoy this creative, entry level workshop.

Meandering to the Wold Top Marquee I found Fake Thackray was playing, standing on a chair in front of the stage, just him and his guitar. I was surprised to hear the songs 'Isabel Makes Love on National Monuments' and 'The Castleford Ladies Magic Circle' quite so early in the morning but, hey, it's Beverley Folk Festival! He finished with the brilliant 'On Again! On Again!', somehow getting away with this dreadfully un-P.C., sexist song, with good humour and a bizarre innocence. I think one possibly has to be familiar with Jake Thackray's work to really appreciate Fake Thackray's act, but I found the songs very amusing and a refreshing change.

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Everyone was raving about Michael Morpurgo's War Horse show on Saturday. Unfortunately, I missed it, but a local tribute show to World War One, which was inspired by War Horse, was the big morning show. Simply entitled WW1, it hushed the Main Stage tent, giving it a church-like air. The show included a couple of war time sing-alongs and a brilliant little scene acted by four young local actresses. A German youth orchestra played some Mozart; we also heard some songs written by inmates of Hull Prisons and played by the brilliant Henry Priestman and his Men of a Certain Age.

For me, the most moving part was the reading out of letters between a father and daughter, dated 1915; it made the tragedy of that unimaginable war possible to comprehend, the acting by both those reading out the letters, flawless.

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The afternoon show in the Main Stage tent included another great line up starting with Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker. First they played a Sandy Denny cover – 'Old Fashioned Waltz' - a great choice to let the weary campers heads settle down and focus on the set. They followed with the Burns song, 'My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose', Ben playing beautiful three finger and classical style guitar while Josienne's voice flowed gently.  She confessed the next song was a 'psychoballad original' on account of the fact that it made her sound like a psychopath; a great brooding song about heartbreak and the desperate thoughts of a wounded lover. They are both very humble on stage; there is nothing mournful about their music, instead a brooding and traditional vibe comes across. Another duo I shall be listening to in the future.

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From the sublime to the brilliant; Coco and the Butterfields were next, playing some of their extraordinary Folk-Pop-Hip-hop fusion or "Fip-fok."

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The first song that struck me from Thea Gilmore was 'Beautiful Day', a heart-warming number with nice classical strings and piano chords. For just four performers, the sound was full and encompassing. Thea's voice was rich and full of dynamics and the set, as well as being full of great originals, had some of the best cover songs of the festival, including 'All You Need Is Love' by The Beatles and David Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold the World.'  Her guitar player brought out the first (and only) ukulele of the weekend (blessing or curse?). The song was called 'Goodbye Old England', an endearing number dedicated to the extraordinary 95 year old World War Two veteran, Victor Gregg. Thea was the perfect act to finish the afternoon with.

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In the Moonbeams/Wold Top Marquee again, I witness a few songs by the local band, Barcode Zebra. A four piece, with great vocals and guitar from Jess, cool drums, driving bass and clear keyboard. They played the title track to their new EP 'Into the Night', which has a cool reggae beat. Their cover of 'Fast Car' gave a hint as to their influences.

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I didn't catch much of the Westwood Session, only finding its location when a friend went to play there - if there was signage, it wasn't easy to spot. Some brilliant artists played there, including the young Hornsea-based acts, singer songwriter Katie Spencer and the band Crooked Weather. I hope to get to some of their gigs soon.
Alex Golisti, one of the best acts of the fringe who had been playing hard all weekend in Beverley, finished up the Session with some of his brilliant rough blues numbers.

Present for most of Barbara Dickson's short set, first I heard '(Don't Say) Money Doesn't Matter' - a great folk country sing-along duet between Barbara and Rab Noakes; this new song showing the pair are still writing some great current tunes. They played a solid set of Scottish country-esque numbers, plus some covers like 'Tears of Rage'. Her voice was nicely textured, pairing well with Rab's vocals. The set went down well, though perhaps that audience wasn't as 'enthused' as it could have been.

The big act of the night, Chas and Dave, jumped on to the stage; Chas "the slightly bigger one" playing his famous boogie-woogie piano and Dave "the slightly thinner one" on bass, with a young gentleman on drums who also happens to be god-son to one of them.  The sound is impressive - a full pop-rock wall of honky-tonk piano, beat and cockney accents. They played both sides of their first single 'Gertcha'. It's easy to dismiss their stuff as 'comedy cockney knees ups'. In truth they are a skilled duo, knowing exactly when to swap vocal lines, how best to contrast their instruments, and Dave's complex bass guitar riffs were really rather something.

The audience was noticeably changed; the 'folk' types had mostly trickled out by the third song. However a big crowd applauded 'Down to Margate' and many fans had bought a day event ticket, just for the night. The cheers were a little lack lustre to begin with but as the evening came to an end, songs like 'Rabbit' whipped us into a frenzy.
Chas and Dave didn't have much banter with the audience but seem pleased to be there, inviting Barbara Dickson back on stage to sing 'Ain't No Pleasing You' as their final song. They looked at each other just before walking into the wings, clearly having enjoyed themselves as much the audience had enjoyed seeing them.

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There was a slightly sad vibe in the Wold Top Marquee as the last Moonbeams session got going, but the great music continued into the night. It was a tribute to the brilliant range of artists that even the last show was full of acts I hadn't yet seen. Ed Faulkner (organiser of Tribfest) made a guest appearance with some great Beautiful South and Housemartin tracks; the young folk band Spree (well worth keeping an eye on) regaled us with some brilliant dance tunes; Henry Priestman and The Nick Rooke Band also made a welcome return. The very special Sound Crew Band also took to the stage with various rock and roll numbers.

The sound (for the record) at all the stages was excellent, never being less than clear and full. Sometimes the balancing and tone of the bigger bands was really rather impressive.

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As is tradition, the last few songs were played by the lovely Edwina Hayes, who had only just driven back from touring with Fairport Convention. She wrapped up the festival with 'Feels Like Home'; we couldn't have wish for a sweeter or more fitting ending.

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Everyone I met enjoyed their festival; a lovely vibe filled the venues, and any difficulties that did occur were sorted quickly and professionally. The acts were of a very high standard and it was lovely to discover many new or perhaps lesser-known musicians, local and national. It is a folk festival for creative modern music and shows that the genre is, as was commented earlier, "alive and kicking".

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