a selected review of Sidmouth Folk Week

Sidmouth Folk Week 2014 review

published: Thu 21st Aug 2014

Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham

Friday 1st to Friday 8th August 2014
various venues, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
£280 for all-in-one adult ticket
daily capacity: 25000
last updated: Tue 29th Jul 2014

Thursday 31st July

Ham Marquee. Pre-Festival Concert.

Lori Campbell, a young singer songwriter formerly from Sidmouth now resident in Bristol, was given a doubly daunting task of opening this concert faced with the biggest audience of her career and performing as a support for one on the UK’s biggest stars. She handled this with aplomb and humour deftly brushing over a couple of minor problems which the audience loved her for. Her self penned songs reflected on life growing up and later on more serious issues. She has just released a CD of her own material and on this showing she will go far.

Ralph McTell, was on top form. I had heard him fairly recently in London and had expected a similar programme but he performed a long and varied set without a break, which contained new and established material from his seemingly endless repertoire. Of course the “hit” had to be sung but the audience would not have left without it. Approaching his 70th birthday, it looks like he is set for at least another decade of music making. His guitar technique and hold over an audience, remain rock solid.

Friday 1st August

Ham Marquee. Welcome to Devon Concert

The M. C. for this concert was one of Devon’s local folk stars Jim Causley who also performed. Jim is a naturally warm engaging character and was an ideal choice for this welcoming concert with his sense of humour and ability to connect with his audience. His set included naturally, a Wassailing song local to the Devon orchards and also Cyril Tawney’s song of a redundant railway worker, “In the Sidings” which is ideally suited to his rich baritone voice. He is always a pleasure to listen to.

The Concert was opened by a duo new to me,  Maggie Duffy & Mike Weed who are obviously popular in their home town of Brixham and no doubt further afield in the Folk scene. Maggie has a sweet true voice which is able to convey a range of sentiments, ranging from words based on the hymn tune “Lord of all Hopefulness” to a comic cautionary tale about “goings on” in a very narrow alleyway in her home town. Her guitar accompaniment was well matched by Mike on bass guitar and whistle, with occasional vocal harmony.

 Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll. This duo provided a high energy set of songs and tunes accompanied on fiddle and viola . Obvious enthusiasts for the English Tradition and active in promoting this through teaching and performances they are a significant and important presence on the local and English scene.

Jackie Oates needs no introduction. Her success at National level in both performances and in broadcasting is well deserved. She was accompanied by one of her regular partners Mike Cosgrave, who provided as usual, tasteful backing and complimentary harmonies. Despite a chest cold which did not really affect her performance they sailed through their set to the obvious delight of the audience. A cuddlesome and sweet lass whom we all wish well in her forthcoming marriage.

Friday 1st August

Ham Marquee. Spotlight Scotland Concert

Bob Walton, long associated with the Folk Scene and Sidmouth was M.C. for this event with artists who had been sponsored by a number of Scottish grant sources.

The South Mainland Young Fiddlers are a group of Shetland youngsters led by tutor Eunice Henderson on keyboards and who displayed a range of talents which would have been the envy of many an adult musician. This appearance at a major festival must have been a great adventure for many of them given that Norway is only 200 miles from home and Sidmouth 600 ! They completed their short programme faultlessly with amusing commentary from Eunice.The future of music on Shetland is assured.

Fiona Hunter, formerly of the band Malinky, where she was a successor to Karine Polwart, has become one of Scotland’s most popular traditional singers. Following along in the footsteps of performers and teachers like Alison McMorland,she has embraced the culture of the ballads and legacy left by source singers like the Robertsons and Stewarts. She has recently released her debut album of songs from Glasgow. A modest and attractive lass with a clear and distinctive voice, she will continue as an individual, to live up to her hometown’s motto of “let Glasgow Flourish”

Aly Bain & Phil Cunningham. What is left to say about this iconic duo ? They were in top form on this evening and the audience of more than 1000, lapped up the performance and the atmosphere created by high speed musical dexterity and stagecraft. The tunes were interspersed with humourous anecdotes which further delighted the audience. This duo through long time association , appear at times like a single entity. They were due to head off to The Cambridge Festival, but before the end of their performance they brought on the Shetland Young Fiddlers to play another set which was a special moment for all concerned.

Saturday 2nd August

Ham Marquee

The Pigeon Swing, opened this concert in style. A newly formed, Quebecois inspired band, which included the seemingly ever present, concertina player Dan Quinn, who appeared in at least three other guises during the week. No harm in that however. They look and sound if they are set for many future Festival performances at this and other Festivals.

Chris Wood & Andy Cutting were reprising their onetime duo partnership. No surprises and quintessentially English music to please fans of this genre who had flocked to The Ham.

The Woodlands Hotel. Saturday 5pm

This was the first of the Ballad Sessions run by  Sheila Miller, and Moira Craig,  which gives the opportunity for anyone wishing to stand up and perform and there is never a shortage of good singers at these sessions. The special guest at this session was English based American Alice Wylde with support from her husband. I first heard Alice singing some years ago at the sessions held at The White Lion in Wherwell Hampshire. Initially she was a reluctant performer but soon grew into one of maturity and confidence singing songs and ballads mainly passed down from her mother. She sings with an authentic, West Virginian style which is very attractive and genuine. Her recent C.D. recorded by Wildgoose, has been favourably reviewed resulting in a number of invitations and exposure to a much wider audience.

Woodlands Hotel. Saturday. 8pm Tradition Gathers

John Howson hosted this session which displayed the talents of many experienced performers including Fiona Hunter, Jerry O'Reilly, Thomas McCarthy, Marianne McAleer, Mary Mac Namara, Eileen O'Brien, Racker Donnelly, Stuart Carolan, and Hector Christie. Space does not permit individual reviews here but suffice to say it was an excellent evening and good to see and hear the younger performers Fiona and Stuart as future bearers of the Tradition. A nice surprise for me, was to meet up with friend Eileen O’Brien, one of Ireland’s most accomplished fiddle players. There is no better exponent of the slow air.

Sunday 3rd and Tuesday 5th August

Woodlands Hotel and the Arts Centre

This was the fifth year of Debs Newbold’s presence at Sidmouth and playing again to packed venues, an obvious tribute to her popularity. Sidmouth hosts a number of talented story tellers who likewise have considerable fan bases, but Debs is unmissable. A trained actor, she can hold an audience in the palm of her hand as she relates her tales ranging from a one hour solo performance of Macbeth, to some bawdy tales of the Gods and also Italian Convent gardener ! Quicksilver movements, self penned scripts and sense of humour make her compulsive viewing and listening. Long may she guest here, but she deserves a much bigger stage.

Sunday 3rd August

Ham Marquee

Post-It stickers applied to the backs of chairs in the marquee, proclaimed the presence of theIndia Electric Co. and there is no doubt they were a fully charged Folk/Rock ensemble. Look out Glastonbury! But they are more than that, with the ability to play some serious cerebral stuff as well, using a wide range of instruments. Their performance of “I’m on Fire” lifted the audience before they turned to an arrangement of a Ted Hughes poem. I know how difficult that is having being offered the opportunity many years ago to try to set some of his works to music. I failed, but not this group. Look out for them. They are a force.

Steve Knightley, solo, duo or in any combination, is a master performer and in the company of well known friends he once again delighted his fans and hopefully won a few more in the process. He opened with his song about the shipwreck of “The Napoli” which occurred in recent times just along from Sidmouth and which was an unexpected boost to the tourist trade for a while. His set included a number of his well known songs eg Wake up the Union but they all sounded fresh with enthusiastic backing from a superb collection of friends and musicians.

Monday 4th August

The Woodlands

Alan Bell, has long been a force on the Revival scene. Singer/Songwriter promoter, organiser, he has done it all and it was a real pleasure to hear him recount his tales gleaned from 60 years of his musical life. He may not be as spry as he once was, but his voice is still strong enough to keep the listener occupied and interested. Naturally some of his best known songs have found their way into the Tradition and there are singers who are unaware of their authorship such is their convincing stamp of authenticity. John Connolly also suffers this fate. Alan sang a number of his favourites , and kept the audience chuckling with anecdotes of his experiences at local venues throughout Cumberland and Westmorland. He finished his hour or so with his much loved song “Bread and Fishes” He has now retired from his long term commitment as Director of The Fylde Folk Festival.

Methodist Hall. American Contra Dance

I popped into this venue to observe and learn a little about Contra Dancing. This version of country dance, originated in the rural communities of America. To the uneducated like this writer it appears complex, but the Caller is key to keeping everything in order as in other forms. The dancers are arranged in two facing lines in as many rows as will fill the hall. Then progress through the dance changing partners a positive advantage to those who might have arrived on their own. The Hall was filled to capacity and I noticed no one sitting out. The smiles on the faces of the dancers are testament to its appeal and popularity. Maybe next time I will give it a go .

Ham Marquee. Spotlight Scotland

Creative Scotland, supported this evening concert which introduced a new band on the scene Salthouse. Comprising established young musicians Siobhan Miller (a solo guest last year) Lauren MacColl, Ewan MacPherson and Euan Burton. They are obviously a very competent and interesting group. Celtic infused, but also tackling music from other cultures in their set. The second half of the concert was taken over by the popular band Breabach. Who stormed the stage with their opening number. Contrasting this in their programme, was an emigration song from Lewis and a Canadian train song but fast paced numbers with both sets of bagpipes involved, make this bands International sound unique. From time to time, I find that the sound in the Ham marquee is too heavy on base and volume. This may be down to some individual engineers who are not necessarily familiar with folk music and who tend to ignore the importance of the lyrics.

Breabach were joined on stage by Salt House resulting in a “Bellowhead” moment .

Tuesday 5th August

The Woodlands. Handing it Down

MC’d by Hector Christie, this was an opportunity to hear icons of Scottish folk music Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre together with the younger generation of Alison’s daughter Kirsty Potts, and Fiona Hunter performing . By definition, the individual choice of song material was predictable but nonetheless enjoyable. Geordie injected the humour although Fiona matched that with “There’s Bound to be a Row” Kirsty and her mother sang an Orcadian song and both Kirsty and Fiona demonstrated that the folk music of Scotland is in good hands and that the “pupils” have learned well.

The Arts Centre. Thomas McCarthy

Thomas McCarthy was born into a family of “settled” travellers. Initially finding a temporary home under one of London’s fly-overs, before the family eventually moved into a flat in North Kensington making a living in trading whatever might turn a few pounds and pence. Thomas was particularly close to his mother from whom he learned the songs which had in turn been handed down through the close Irish community. There is no doubt that his childhood was a hard one, but frequent and lengthy visits to his relatives in Ireland strengthened his ties and sparked his interest in his Clan’s history. His uncle who was himself an entertainer encouraged him in this venture, as did his mother who was a renowned singer.

Thomas related tales of the family and the long heritage of ballads which had been preserved by the Travellers as they carried news and messages around the Countryside. Unlike the activities of the School of Scottish Studies and the visits of collectors to the North East of Scotland, the travelling community in Ireland was mainly ignored by the official Ceoltas organisation and as a result it has received little recognition even today, of the important contribution which they have made to the preservation of traditional music. He interspersed his talk with songs in his traditional style a number of which are recorded on his new CD “Herself and Myself” A warm and engaging character he is a fine though modest ambassador, for his Community and Country.

The Manor Pavillion. Steve Taberner

Steve Taberner is the well-known, Australian “Spookymeister”, whose choir has enlivened this and many other Festivals in past years. On this occasion his task was to prepare a four part choir of Festival goers for a performance at the end of the week. It was clear that this was going to be a success as he demonstrated his ability to communicate to a full Manor choir just how his specially written song “And So We Rise Again” should be performed. When Steve is on duty there is no hiding place and the full house (choir) audience a tribute to his popularity, loved it.

The Ham. The Young Coppers and Oysterband

The Young Coppers ( Normally Bob’s Grandchildren plus) opened, but unfortunately they were in depleted numbers and appeared as a trio. Apologies all round, but they promised that additional family members would arrive for their next appearance (which they did). In consequence they performed well known Copper numbers which the audience joined in with enthusiasm These included “Banks of the Sweet Primroses” Babes in The Wood” “Rose of Allandale” and of course “Thousands or More” making their short spot More or less a club singaround.

Opening the second half, the Oysterband, led as always by Mr Jones the man in Black, raised the roof with the big driving number ”Can’t Get Down” which set the tone for the rest to come although they did include a couple of less frenzied numbers. As ever a big crowd pleaser of a set however, a little less bass and volume would have been kinder to my ageing ears.

Thursday 7th August

The Ham Marquee. The Old Swan Band

The Old Swan Band were incredibly celebrating their forty years making happy dance music with a launch of their latest Wildgoose CD “Fortysimo” Undoubtedly Dave Hunt has replaced his shorts many times in that period but the band still exhibit great enthusiasm for their art. Their set was naturally English Country Dance, but perhaps as a nod to the pending vote in Scotland they included a couple of the late Jimmy Shand’s well known compositions. I had intended to move on to another venue after half an hour but in the end, stayed for the whole performance. Mention should be made of the sound balance on this occasion, not an easy task with a band of this type, but Doug Bailey of Wildgoose who was present, gave a helping hand to the stand- in engineer on the desk and it was perfect.

It should be noted that The Festival depends on an army of volunteers whose rewards are season tickets and some accommodation. This also applies to Bailey and his team in the Bedford and Manor venues. It’s another factor which makes Sidmouth an enthusiasts festival. Long may it continue.


review by: Hector Gilchrist

photos by: Eve Mathews

Friday 1st to Friday 8th August 2014
various venues, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
£280 for all-in-one adult ticket
daily capacity: 25000
last updated: Tue 29th Jul 2014


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