As Friday afternoon turns into Friday evening, I turn on the radio in the car. We're just outside York and hardly moving so decide that it'd be good to catch up with what's going on in the world. Gary Lineker has followed Lily Allen in daring to speak out about the situation of refugees in Calais and an almighty row seems to have erupted. Murdoch's media and pompous Tory bigots are calling for the presenter of Match Of The Day to be sacked for daring to have an opinion on something other than football. We sigh in desperation and thank our lucky stars that we're on our way to Musicport in Whitby. Here, at a festival with bucket-loads of tolerant credentials, we can smile, sing, dance and give ourselves space to think more about these strange times we're living in.
Musicport has never been a festival to shy away from politics. This year, the focus, whilst never in your face, feels more overt. Artistic Director, Jim McLaughlin reveals in the programme introduction that 'with the unacceptable levels of intolerance being shown towards refugees and migrants, our chosen charity for this year is Refugee Action. We have invited a group of refugees from York to attend the festival as our guests for one day over the weekend.'
At a guess, a straw poll of attendees would tell us that most are Guardian reading, Radio 4 listeners with a penchant for hemp-based clothing and left of centre political views. So, this increased attention to the plight of the refugee is largely likely to find general approval. Some might even say it's preaching to the converted.
And this isn't the only flirtation with political issues. On Saturday afternoon, we spend a fascinating couple of hours watching films in the theatre space, the subtext of which seemed to be a compare and contrast exercise with today. Up first was Westway To The World, the film about The Clash directed by Don Letts. I'd not seen it before but it served as a vital reminder of how important a band they were. After the film, Don was interviewed by Daniel Rachel, author of the recently published book, Walls Come Tumbling Down. This was a fine half hour or so in which Don revealed how tough it was to watch the film without feeling an incredible loss over Joe Strummer, the man who really gave The Clash their political intent. Letts also had interesting tales to tell about his 'friendship' with Bob Marley - it's not content that can be printed here.
The Clash film was followed by a grainy VHS copy of a 'Red Wedge' Days Like These promo video. Hardly seen since 1986 or so, it was a fascinating historical document about the time when Weller, Bragg, Somerville, Suggs and Junior took to the tour bus to both put on a cracking ensemble show and entice the younger generation with a sense of left wing politics. Charming, dated and a little naive, there was no doubting the intentions of these motivated stars as they tried to take the Tory party head on. We're left pondering if such an initiative could work today as a groundswell of Corbyn-based support develops. Ultimately, we wonder who the pop stars of today might be to take such an agenda forward? And conclude that it's not One Direction or Olly Murs.
Pete Lawrence, the man behind Cooking Vinyl Records and The Big Chill Festival is here to both play a DJ set and to talk about his new initiative, Campfire Convention. The purpose seems principled and worthy. It's a social media platform with a social cause. It's both a virtual campfire conversation online and a real one where like-minded people are given the opportunity to come together and share ideas and skills. It's an awkward hour and a half. Hijacked by festival goers who want to make it all about them, the vision gets a bit lost amidst the earnestness. Still in beta-testing mode, I've no doubt that the ideas of Lawrence and his team will bear fruit and collective social action is a positive thing to aspire towards. But, here the concept is muffled.
Musicport is not all about political action though. For the bulk of festival goers (who somewhat ironically mark out their space in the main hall by reserving their chairs early with bag and coats, refusing to relinquish their privilege), it's much more about the stunning array of music that's on offer. Photographer Sarah and I both agree that this year is one in which the organisers have truly excelled. There are three main stages. We see great things on each.
On the main stage, the undoubted highlight for me are Mahotella Queens. I knew they had pedigree but had no sense of how much. Formed in the 1960's, this band of three from a South African township moved around the stage with such vibrant bounce that it was hard to believe that two members were in their 70's. A third member, a more recent recruit, kept things moving. Backed by a band of tight-as-a-nut musicians, the Queens made such a joyous, gospel howl that it became an impossibility not to beam from ear to ear. Truly soulful.
We'd been set up for such exquisiteness by the previous set. Dripping with cold, Sarah Jane Morris powered on like the trooper she is. Reminded of her own presence on the Red Wedge tour, Morris and her talented band, The Bloody Rain, gave us a jazz-fuelled belter of a set, frazzling with a social conscience. The previous night, The Blockheads headlined the main stage and did exactly what they're renowned for by getting us all up and merrily dancing. By the time that the inevitable occurs and we're hit with the rhythm stick, we're once again marvelling at just how great a bass player Norman Watt-Roy actually is.
The Whitby Pavilion is a fine complex, built into the cliffs that look out to the North Sea. Winds swirl around but you feel sheltered within this building as you look out to the sandy beaches below. Tides come and go as daylight turns into darkness. Part of the fun of Musicport is sitting within the central area, perhaps eating some of the food from the in-house cafe (reasonably priced hot food with different choices on the menu each day) whilst supping on a pint of Musicport festival ale. In this hub area, a constant stream of DJs keep us entertained with their records of choice. As more beers are supped, we might even get up and dance to the Afropunk, the jazz and the world groove on offer.
The Theatre Stage is always a great place to come if you want to sit and let some fine music wash over you. On the Friday evening, we secure our favourite seats up in the circle of this old and beautiful space from which we can look down on proceedings and mimic Statler & Waldorf. But, there's not much heckling to be done when legendary jazz and finger-picking guitarist, Martin Taylor takes to the stage. He smoothly and expertly shows why he's held in such high regard by other virtuosos of this instrument. Taylor intersperses his visual conjuring with well-rehearsed tales of his life as a musician; the grief, the love and the tours he's experienced all presented with consummate style.
John Smith plays on the theatre stage 48 hours later than Martin Taylor. We take the same seats for another man who can turn heads when playing the guitar. Smith comes much more from the singer-songwriter folk tradition and has the beard to prove it. He apologises for having to cancel when booked two years before but the general view from the audience is that the wait is worth it. A bit more variation in his choice of tune wouldn't have gone amiss and maybe a smile or two might have taken this gig to another level but that's harsh criticism for a man who's also labouring under a cold and his show does ultimately tick Sunday evening boxes. We're surprised to see Smith at our remote hotel over breakfast the following morning. He orders salmon and eggs but hardly eats any as he goes about his lonely, insular business on a laptop.
The third stage is the North Sea Stage. Below the main hall, this is a space where you'll often head when there's a break in proceedings upstairs. Acts catching the eye down here include the Canadian accordion player and protest singer, Geoff Berner and the protest singer from closer to home, Joe Solo, who was presented with an award before he took to the stage for his live work around 'We Shall Overcome'. The Skandals on Saturday night got us up and dancing with their mix of ska covers and interesting originals. We worked up a sweat for that. And one of the best acts to grace the stage down here all weekend were Moscow Drug Club. Travelling all the way from Bristol for a late night Friday slot (it was actually Saturday morning when they took to the stage), their seedy, decadent and yet glamorous take on smoke-filled Parisienne streets and Berlin cabaret got me all of a quiver. Think Jacques Brel covers merged in with Tom Waits and you've got their style. I'd definitely see them again and I hope the long journey proved fruitful.
The fact that Musicport takes place in such a fine part of the Country can really not be under-estimated. This year, we make the most of the beautiful Autumnal days by flitting in and out of the festival Pavilion and taking in some of the wider offer. We break our new walking shoes in by exploring Goathland and Beck Hole on the North Yorkshire Moors. Once the festival has ended, we extend our stay and take the coastland path from Whitby to Robin Hood's Bay. Admittedly, none of this is strictly part of the festival but it's all an added bonus. The town of Whitby (and further afield) offers such relaxing opportunity that you can make this break both a proper holiday and a festival. But before I start sounding too much like an advert for the Tourist Information Board, I'll bring this back to point and mention a fine new innovation that Musicport has undertaken this year. Scheduling itself at the beginning of the half term break has enabled Musicport to go 'on tour'. So, when the festival comes to an end, some nearby village halls, churches and inns put on Monday and Tuesday shows from acts that played the festival. It's a neat idea to take the festival out to the locals and perhaps to help raise the tolerance of those who might not be the traditional Musicport audience.
There's so much more to Musicport and I sense (again) that I missed as much as I was able to see. Lemn Sissay, Jeremy Hardy, and Hardeep Singh Kohli all took to different stages and wowed their audiences, judging by the buzz I picked up when chatting to others after their sets. Once again, I failed to get over the road from the Pavilion to the Royal Hotel to take in one of the workshops in Tai Chi, African Dance or Relaxation. I could have joined the scratch choir led by Boff Whalley, spent more time looking at the stalls around the edge of the main hall or indulged myself with a massage from Rakesh. Once again, these things will have to wait until next year. Politically motivating and an opportunity to have a good dance, this'll surely go down as one of the best years of Musicport's 17 so far.
And next year, it gets to vote.
latest on this festival
lining up with Rafiki Jazz, Afro Celt Sound System, Benjamin Zephaniah & more
line-ups & rumours
first acts announced and discounted tickets on sale
Musicport 2016 review