Thursday 28th July: The Ham Marquee (Afternoon) Pam Ayres.
A Pre-Festival Concert has become a regular feature of The Programme. It is staged primarily to encourage residents of the locality to come along to an event, which might not necessarily be folk orientated in the accepted sense of the genre, and the choice of guest will be someone well known in the field of general entertainment. Thus in previous years, both Humphrey Lyttleton and Acker Bilk, with their bands, have been popular choices.
This year Pam Ayres was the chosen one to regale a full house with her choice of new poems and old favourites e.g. "I wish I'd looked after me teeth".
Pam's folksy style and carefully crafted image, of the small town girl who somehow found fame, belies her experience of many years of entertaining, in village halls and on National television. Instantly popular with her audience, largely of a similar vintage, she led them with humour through her experience of growing up in a modest household, with basic facilities but good family values. Her rhyming is of course quite simple and funny, but some of her works address serious subjects worthy of closer attention.
She has developed a great sense of timing, rather like some of the well-known comedians of the past, and it is difficult to imagine anyone but herself reciting her poems, as her delivery and accent are key elements in their success. It was clear that that the audience greatly enjoyed the evening, and at the end applauded her with vigour and warmth.
The Ham Marquee (Evening) Steeleye Span and The Drystones.
The young Somerset based duo opened the concert, and quite frankly are potential headliners of the future, providing they can sustain their progress up the shaky ladder towards wider recognition in the folk genre. Their instrumental skills on guitar, violin and whistle are impressive, as was their presence on this stage. They opened with a lively set of jigs, and followed it with a well- balanced programme of largely well-known and traditional material, with passing references to their influences. Look out for them.
Maddy Prior is, of course, deservedly an iconic figure within the folk world, and I have watched her progress since her first tentative steps in the late 60's as a floor singer at my then local club. A full house in the marquee was a tribute to both her and the band's continuing popularity. They chose to open with the traditional ballad of "John the Graham", and followed with a selection from their well- known repertoire.
Maddy's voice on this occasion was in good form, and she hit the top notes with confidence. On this warm summers evening she was wearing a jacket twinned with a very large chiffon scarf. Whether or not this necessitated the continuous use of a fan I am not sure, but I found that a little distracting when trying to concentrate on instrumental leads. It turned out that the scarf would serve as a rhythmical prop in a kind of "dance of the single veil", at a later stage of the programme.
To my ear, the Band were not quite as together as the original line-up, and the percussion seemed over loud, but the audience were as appreciative as ever.
Friday 29th: The Ham. Jim Causley and Fisherman's Friends.
There are many good voices on the West Country Folk scene, but none better than local boy Jim's rich baritone. I suspect it has to some extent been influenced by hours of listening, over the years, to another very fine voice, that of the Claque's Barry Lister, who has also contributed to tracks on Jim's newest C.D. In addition Jim plays sensitively on the accordion, which he uses expressively to convey the mood of songs like "The Poacher", his opening number.
He has an engaging personality and sense of humour, which are used to fine effect when introducing his selection of songs. He finished with his new song "The Cry of The Tin", which has been written for a celebration of the history of mining in Devon and Cornwall, specifically in this case about mining in the less well known Dartmoor seam. I suspect that it will become a "Classic Traditional" number in the years to come.
Port Isaac's The Fisherman's Friends.
This is now a well- known and popular group, following success on local radio and National television, plus appearances at many Festivals home and abroad. They began as a group of friends, some of whom were engaged in trawling the seas off North Cornwall, who got together to entertain locals and visitors on the Port Isaac quayside. Their enthusiastic renditions of shanties from around the World, with the occasional contemporary number, are mixed with humour and a genuine knowledge of the conditions which first resulted in the creation of marine work songs. Eight "Shanty Men" in full voice make for a cheering evening, with the audience loudly joining in on the well-known songs like "Blow The Man Down", "Leaving of Liverpool", and "Bold Riley O". To add a bit of variety, there were fine solo contributions from some of the members, along with some instrumental accompaniment.
Needless to say encores were demanded.
Friday Evening: The Ham - Jez Lowe and John McCusker Band.
Jez has been an essential part of the UK Folk Scene for many years, and his popularity is ensured. His songs are sung wherever folk song enthusiasts gather across the World, and his recordings and song books are treasured by many. One of his strengths is his ability to write genuinely good lyrics and tunes, on a wide range of subject both serious and humorous. His presence on stage, whether in a marquee concert, or a small folk club, is immediate and engaging. He also has the ability to blend in seamlessly with his own band, or with other artists from time to time. Later in the week he appeared with Bob Fox, in a reprise of the works of the Pitmen Poets, and other songs associated with mining. On this occasion he was just Jez Lowe and the audience loved it.
The John McCusker Band
John has won many plaudits for his musicianship and innovative approach to arrangements of music in the folk genre. A "go to" man for many of the top folk musicians wishing to enhance their recordings, as well as being himself a top artist. The Band completed a great set, and had the added presence of Kris Drever, another of Scotland's finest, who also contributed some solos.
Saturday 30th: The Opening Welcome Concert. The Ham
This "free to all" concert is staged to showcase the Festival, and hopefully to encourage the local population and week-end trippers to consider further participation. It is naturally, a full-house event. The town of Sidmouth is hopefully appreciative of their resident band, which has become the traditional concert openers. They have recently been deservedly upgraded, and will this year represent the West Country in National Championships. On this showing, further upgrades are surely on the way. They produced a varied programme to a high standard, led by their enthusiastic Musical Director. It is pleasing to note that many of the Band members are young, and that recruitment has obviously been successful in the last twelve months.
Next up was the well-known partnership of Mick Ryan & Paul Downes. They have the ability to command a stage and set up a rapport with an audience. Mick's baritone voice is one of the best in the business, and he has a great repertoire of traditional and self-penned songs. Together with Paul's slick guitar playing and vocal harmony, they are an engaging and popular act and a great advert for the Festival.
M.C. Barry Goodman, then introduced the Halsway Manor Hothouse, a large group of youngsters from Halsway Manor in Crewkerne, who filled the stage and entertained with infectious enthusiasm. Halsway Manor National Centre for The Folk Arts has become an important training ground for musicians young and old, who are interested in preserving the heritage of English traditional music and song. Courses in this Charity supported organisation also include dance, storytelling, crafts and instrument making all delivered by selected expert tutors.
Closing the show was an American guest of the Festival, Sheila Kay Adams, from the Kentucky Mountains. Sheila appeared throughout the week, mainly in the Woodlands Hotel venue, where she built up a following of those who were lovers of Traditional music in all its forms. She is a well-known and respected musician with a dry sense of humour, a fine voice, and a fund of songs from her homeland. She plays banjo in claw-hammer style, and transports the listener back to the era of the copper kettle and front porch gatherings. She certainly made many friends on this trip, and no doubt will be invited back.
Saturday Afternoon: The Ham Marquee. John Kirkpatrick and Rough Music.
The so called "Rough Music" are of course nothing of the sort, but rather a combination of local orchestras from the Devon area, brought together by Wren Music, an organisation which mentors and tutors Community music groups. In this instance, they overflowed the Ham stage with members of three orchestras. They opened with a lively hornpipe, which was timely, considering that some members of the audience were in soporific state following a lunchtime of indulgence in the Sidmouth sunshine.
The programme included the Cornish tune "The Lark", and tunes from the Playford collection, ending up with a Cornish quickstep. All in all, a gently pleasing interlude.
John Kirkpatrick needs no introduction. The acknowledged master of melodian and concertina delighted the audience with a varied selection of songs and tunes. He stirred them up with a rousing rendition of "The Flowers of Old England", followed by tributes to the likes of Shirley Collins, ("The Captain and his Whiskers, and Harry Cox ("Adieu to England"). He also featured a translation of an Icelandic hymn, and the popular "Lark in The Morning"
John is remarkable for his ability to sustain a high level of energy and enthusiasm in all his programmes and workshops throughout the week.
Saturday Evening: The Ham Marquee. Sharon Shannon, Len Graham with Jack Lynch, and The Drole.
The Drole are a mature Irish trio comprising of Peadar O' Riada, Eamonn MacGivney and John Kelly. They play with long experience the tunes of the Irish traditional heritage, interspersed with comments on the tune sources and personal tales. I was especially keen to have a word with Peadar, son of the famous Sean - who had done much to ensure the preservation of the Irish tradition - having myself been involved some years ago with The Dublin County Choir, in an archive performance of one of Sean O`Riada`s more esoteric compositions.
I suppose that the idea of pairing Len Graham & Jack Lynch was to convey the sense of a convivial evening in an Irish pub. Len is one of the most popular singers of traditional ballads, with a gentle but effective style of conveying the story.
Jack on the other hand is a breezy, comedic teller of stories about the adventures and scrapes of his mythical Cavan County acquaintance, P.J.
Quite a contrast then, but it made for a pleasing half hour. The duo was to appear on several evenings in The Woodland for "The Tradition Gathers" sessions.
Sharon Shannon and Band.
These International stars of the music scene produced an uplifting and high quality set. Much has been written about Sharon and her fellow musicians, all of whom are capable of solo performances. Whilst rooted in Folk music, they demonstrate that they are quite capable of moving into the field of popular music, and indeed their programme contained some of that.
I can only describe their set as one of astounding virtuosity and brilliance.
Sunday Afternoon The Woodlands. Carol Anderson and Racker Donnelly
This was billed as "An Hour or so With" - a theme which continued throughout the week. The tranquil surroundings of the Woodlands sun lounge provided an opportunity to learn of the background which had influenced the career of these two contrasting artists, during an interview conducted by Mike Norris.
Racker Donnelly has been around for quite a long time. Having been raised in an Irish household, he has spent long periods of his life in England. He and his wife are currently resident in the London area, to be nearer the grand children after a few years living South of Dublin. He is perhaps dismissive of his description as a poet, but he is certainly that, with the ability to perform his own works with energy and passion - something which some poets are unable to do. Yes, some of his subjects and tales can be amusing, but others, deadly serious, holding the listener with a unique sense of timing, performance and poetic form.
Carol Anderson, on the other hand is a young lass from Aberdeenshire, who has spent time working as crew on Tall ships cruising round the Caribbean, and who now has a day job on the Cutty Sark as a rigger. Just about the last occupation one would guess at. She is a regular on the London scene at Sharps, (the Cecil Sharp House Folk Club), and also Peta Webb and Ken Hall's "Traditions" Club. There is something special about top musicians who play fiddle, pipes and whistles. A sense of timing which brings a lift to everything they do. I have in the past compared it to the timing of a stroke by a first class batsman, or another sportsman kicking a ball - just a slight delay, which lifts it from the ordinary and average. Carol has this ability in spades and I would defy anyone with an ear for jigs and reels to keep their feet still. If she is within your compass, don't miss her.
Sunday Evening: The Bedford. Jack Harris.
Having been delayed elsewhere, I got to the Bedford in time to hear Jack Harris, who was in concert with Jez Lowe and the Dollymops. I first heard Jack many years ago, when he appeared at The Cabbage Patch Folk Club in Twickenham - he had been out in the States, where he had impressed audiences at Festivals. Jack, in my opinion, is a genuine minstrel and balladeer. The lyrics of his self-penned songs are thought provoking and often mystical. His delicate and unusual guitar accompaniment compliments them perfectly. His style of presentation is certainly different from that of contemporary folk musicians, and I can see that it might not always suit the conservative tastes of some Club organisers. However it is an integral and effective part of his performance. I would hope that more will take note of him and provide a larger stage for his unique talent.
Monday: The Bedford. Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer.
Two of the most accomplished and popular musicians on the circuit, Vicki Swan & Jonny Dyer are now enjoying the much wider recognition they deserve.
For some time they have assisted Doug Bailey's Wildgoose Studios, when a competent backing band was required and also on stage and record with George Papavgeris, under the guise of "The Los Marbles". From personal experience of this charming couple, I know that their rising profile is long overdue.
Both are classically trained, but have adapted their instrumental and vocal techniques to suit the Folk genre. They were also appearing as dance musicians during the week, in collaboration with John Dipper, as Purcell's Polyphonic party.
Vicki and Jonny have just released a new C.D. "Paper of Pins", which has been widely praised in the Folk press, and their afternoon performance featured tracks from this. They began with a tune which they had written for a Swedish wedding, called simply "Processional March", featuring Jonny's accordion and Vicki's nyckelharpa, (a Scandinavian 16 stringed keyed fiddle). Vicki's mum is Swedish and this instrument and other models feature in many of their performances. The full range of their instrumental talents can also include flute, double bass, bagpipes of various ethnic types, guitar, mandolin, piano and keyboards, plus Jonny on cowhorn - which is used to great effect in a duet with the nyckelharpa. Their set list also included a version of the "Sheffield Apprentice" and a Swedish version of a folk tale similar to that of the legend of the Pied Piper, said to be about a hilltop in Sweden, around which the young folk of the village were made to dance to eternity by the Devil, disguised as a piper. They finished up with the well-known and rousing chorus "Beer Song", which reminded us all if needed, to visit the adjacent Bedford bar, whose owners are popular sponsors of the Festival.
Monday Evening: The Woodlands Traditional Night Out.
John Howson has, for a year or so, been charged with recommending a group of singers and musicians, steeped in The Tradition, to gather at this venue on a number of occasions during the week. This year, they included American visitors Anna & Elizabeth, Sheila Kay Adams, Len Graham & Jack Lynch, Peta Webb & Ken Hall, Carol Anderson, The Drole, Racker Donnelly, and Kevin & Ellen Mitchell.
Some of these artists are mentioned elsewhere in this Review, but for the first time I heard Anna and Elizabeth - two young musicians and singers from America, who are much in demand for Festivals and Clubs. They have been inspired by the likes of Sheila Kay Adams, and their own family performers, to sing the old songs from their American Homeland, many of which are of course, survivors and variations of the songs which travelled the oceans with the original settlers. Together, they sing in remarkably close and delightful harmony, accompanied on occasions by fiddle, banjo and guitar. They also use what might be described as a pre-electricity device to illustrate some of the ballads. A cloth scroll, with artfully stitched illustrations and scenes in applique, is moved across the screen by turning a handle to match the verses. They described these as "crankies", (however fortunately, nothing to do with the Scottish comedians).
Sheila Kay Adams had appeared on the main stage at the welcoming concert, but here she was in an easy and relaxed mood, offering songs from her repertoire, with banjo accompaniment and historical information. Towards the end she joined in chorus with Anna and Elizabeth and another popular American visitor, Mary Eagle.
Scots singer Eileen Mitchell and her Northern Ireland born husband Kevin, were also popular and welcome contributors to this and other evenings.
The Scottish contingent was a little thin on the ground this year, as it seems that the usual Scottish Grant assistance for "Traditional" Guests was not available as in previous years. However The Mitchells and the Priors, who are stalwarts of the Volunteer sessions and late night Bedford, did their best to restore the Caledonian balance.
Tuesday Morning: Kennaway House New Songs for Old.
The facilities of Kennaway House made a welcome return to the list of venues at The Festival. Pete Coe, who is one of the hardest working and versatile artists on the scene, hosted a session aimed at giving an airing to new songs. To this end he had invited young singer songwriters Niamh Boadle, and Rhona Dalling. Both these ladies are becoming a regular presence on the Club and Festival scene, and they demonstrated their talents, each with a session. Rhona had supplemented her usual duo with two additional musicians on this occasion. A daughter of Old and New Rope String Band musician Tim Dalling, Rhona shows that she has inherited the creative musicianship, if not the hilarious madcap antics, of her famous father.
Niamh Boadle is a young Honours graduate of Newcastle, who has, for some time now, been impressing audiences with her writing and skill on a range of instruments. She has been brought up to appreciate the Traditional and Contemporary forms of music, and her versatility was employed throughout the week in twelve separate appearances on stage and in workshops.
The session also proved an opportunity for members of the audience to perform a song which they had written in this and other sessions held during the week. Three, were selected to reprise their compositions in a Concert held the following day at The Manor Pavilion.
Tuesday Afternoon: The Manor Pavilion. "Crossing The Border."
(M.C. Bob Walton).
This Concert showcased a number of artists with Scottish roots, and was opened by Carol Anderson, previously praised in this review and accompanied by Aran Jones on guitar. A very capable player of this instrument and also of bouzouki, he somehow was able to compliment the high speed playing of Carol's with, presumably, not much time to practice beforehand and he also provided accompaniment for other artists on the programme.
Robyn Stapleton, who followed, was the winner of BBC Scotland's "Young Traditional Singer" award in 2014. She has recently released her debut C.D. "Fickle Fortune" to great acclaim, and it is clear from her performance that this praise is rightly deserved. She has a fine, clear, mature voice, with a good range ideally suited to her choice of songs. Hopefully she will be noticed by the organisers of many other festivals.
Following the interval, Ellen Mitchell took the stage to sing, in her own confident style, a selection which included fine versions of "Far o'er the Forth" and the "Border Widows Lament". Ellen and husband Kevin, are popular guests in clubs and festivals South of the Border, in Ireland and have also toured on the American Continent.
Closing the afternoon was one of Shetland's finest fiddlers Jenna Reid. She is a member of both "Blazin'Fiddles" and the chamber quartet Rant.
Quite simply, she is a brilliant musician, who after years of practice and performances worldwide, is a delight to listen to and admire. The introductions to her tunes are always clearly stated and audible – a skill many younger performers could well do to learn. Quite often their introductions during performances tend to be hurried and inaudible, perhaps partly due to the excitement of the moment.
Wednesday Morning: Kennaway House Anna and Elizabeth in Conversation with Ken Hall.
A skillful interviewer should be adept in making the subject feel relaxed, and should also be knowledgeable about the background of his or her, subject, and at previous Sidmouth Festivals, Lester Simpson has performed this task admirably. In Ken Hall, also an experienced performer, there is a worthy successor. He quickly put the girls at ease, initially asking them to perform a song, and then going on to ask various interesting questions about their background and influences. Clearly he had done his homework. It helped of course, that both girls are articulate and enthusiastic about preserving the heritage of the American Tradition. They are both in demand as performers, as mentioned in a previous review. Anna Roberts - Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, the former a multi-instrumentalist, and the latter raised in a family of performers, one of whom was her mother, who joined in during the performance, but the main interest in this interview was in listening to their views on several subjects, and their plans for the future.
Wednesday Evening: Kennaway House Concert with Trio Dhoore, Georgie and Phoebe, Dipper Malkin and The Barber Sisters.
The Barber Sisters from Derbyshire are three very competent young musicians, playing fiddles and viola. They played a lively set of English and Scottish tunes, with the connection and timing often experienced with sibling performers. Now well used to appearing on larger stages, they have impressed in the Semi-finals of the BBC Young Folk Awards, New Roots, 2015, and The Danny Kyle Open Stage at Celtic Connections.
John Dipper and Dave Malkin are a well-established duo. John Dipper is renowned for his artistic flair and co-operation in a number of line -ups. Hence he was to be heard throughout the Festival in different guises - not only in this duo, but also in Purcell's Polyphonic party withVicki and Jonny, and as the trio Alma, with Emily Askew, and Adrian Lever who launched their new C.D in the Kingswood and Devoran Hotel on Thursday. An outstandingly good master class in fiddle, viola and guitar. On this occasion the duo completed a refreshing set of tunes, with John playing his multi stringed Viola D'Amore, and Dave on guitar.
In contrast, Georgie and Phoebe are two lively Lassies from Lancashire, who sing and dance Appalachian style, bringing with them a sense of fun and abundant energy. Now I'm not an expert on the various styles of clog dancing, but I do admire the skill and stamina required. They had temporarily recruited a percussionist for the evening, who had been busking along the promenade, to add to the mix.
Paul Sartin, M.C. for the evening, introduced the final act - three young brothers from Flanders known as the Trio Dhoore. They play electro-acoustic hurdy gurdy, diatonic box, and guitar to great effect and with an engaging stage presence. The selection of music is eclectic, as they explained, pointing out that Traditional music in their home patch was not always easy to find. I am sure that they will be on the invitation list for future Festivals in this Country despite Brexit!
Thursday Evening: The Ham. Jon Boden, The Rheingans Sisters.
The Rheingans Sisters were winners of the BBC 2016 Folk Awards category for original writing. They both play the fiddle, but somehow appear to make them sound as two different instruments, with tunes and songs from a wide variety of sources and countries. They were a popular duo and a good choice for the first half of the programme.
Jon Boden, was naturally one of the Festival's headliners. Many in the full house audience had perhaps forgotten that he was no stranger to solo performances, having appeared as such, prior to hooking up as Spiers and Boden, and then Bellowhead. However he had moved on to produce an act with overtones of "son et lumiere", which was largely successful, despite some hitches with the sound, and at one point a temporary failure of the back stage spot light system, which had left the front rows wishing that they had brought their sunglasses.
Of course nobody sleeps when Jon is on stage, such is the energy and charisma he instills into everything he does. Perhaps on this evening, a little over frenetic at times, and to my ear, occasionally pushing his vocal limits a bit too high. He nevertheless proved that he is still at the top of his game. He has written some new songs, but I was particularly taken by a reprise of one of his earlier romantic numbers "Put your Blue Dress On", from a C.D. made ten years ago. The audience called for more.
Cargo. Story and Song. The Manor. Pavilion. (Reviewed by Peter Grogan, Dublin City F.M.)
With the Sidmouth sun shining outside the Manor Pavilion, a crowd was gathering to experience Human Cargo … Mathew Crampton's theatrical study of emigration, slavery and transportation in story and song..It was obvious from the beginning, that Mathew's heart and soul had lovingly jig- sawed this fine production together.
This presentation was so engaging. Story and Song brought us back in time to witness and relive horrific history. Slave journeys from Africa to the Americas...Europeans kidnapped to work as slaves in destinations unknown. We met evil traffickers opportunistic politicians, diligent rescuers and a tidal wave of human cargo.
Massive research went into Mathew's recently published original book, from which this presentation developed. It never failed to be poignant and thought provoking. We met eight years old Peter Williamson, sold into,servitude in South Carolina. Petty thief John Lauson transported to America for fourteen years. Olaudah Equiano, enslaved as a child in Africa to be transported in chains to work in Barbados sugar plantations. Robert Whyte, who experienced life on a coffin ships while escaping the Irish famine in 1847.
Mathew inter-weaved the human tragedy of these victims with the authentic traditional folk songs of the people sung by himself, plus partners Jan North, vocals and Chris Hayes, vocals and guitar.
This was an informative and moving presentation reminding us that the tragedy of human cargo is still with us today as highlighted by television, news and social media adding to the sense of grief, empathy and living history. It will live long in the memory.
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Sidmouth Folk Festival 2017 Review