Big Session 2012 is a friendly, family affair, packed full of musical surprises

The Big Session 2012 review

By James Creaser | Published: Thu 21st Jun 2012

The Big Session 2012 - around the festival site
Photo credit: Ian Wright

The Big Session 2012

Friday 15th to Sunday 17th June 2012
Catton Hall, Walton-on-Trent, South Derbyshire, DE12 8LN, England MAP
£102 with camping for the whole weekend, child 5-15 £30
Daily capacity: 4,000

The road to the Big Session offers a civilised sense of escape. There are hills, woodland and a posh manor house, around which people are riding horses. You turn onto a country lane and follow a river for a mile or so. Its proper scenic and you arrive on site in the perfect frame of mind to enjoy a festival that is inclusive, friendly, and full of surprises.

On arriving, I meet a steward. He is the only person to check my wristband during the whole weekend. He tells me to pitch where I fancy, and not to worry if the car gets stuck. It's a pitch and park affair, but given the sodden nature of the ground he tells me it's OK to stay where I am until the ground dries. I wonder if this guy is a one-off but no, they're all like this. It's spot-on friendly stewarding, putting folks at ease and letting them enjoy the festival.

I pitch up and head towards the applause I hear in the far distance. In the main venue, my senses are assaulted by a Captain Pugwash sea-storm of swaying heads and some Dadaist sound poetry courtesy of George Melly, aka Phil Moody of Chumbawamba. The place is boiling over with atmosphere. It's a nuanced set full of thoughtful touches. My favourite is when they get the rattles out for 'Wagner at the Opera', including the soundman. Oysterband are next, and they'll have to go some to top this.

The Big Session has an ethos of recreating the intimate atmosphere of post-gig music sessions, breaking down the barriers between performer and audience and creating space for festival goers to join in. That's what it says on the festival website anyway, but putting it into practice might be more tricky. Oysterband point the way when they headline on Friday night. Their set is chosen by audience vote, and at one point they come down and perform among the crowd. The audience aren't as loud or as mobile as they were for Chumbawamba but there's still plenty of noise and a sea of swaying arms all around.

I begin Saturday with a mooch around the festival site. It's a spacious affair, and some are heard to mumble that it lacks the cheek by jowl intimacy of some festivals. Were the weather to be glorious and sunny, they might have a point. As it is, it's fairly wet and the spread-out nature of the site ensures it never becomes the muddy quagmire characteristic of more 'intimate' events.

around the festival site
Also, the organisers have provided a decent programme of workshops and street theatre which suck in the crowds here and there, creating beautiful festival moments of inclusion and togetherness. The festival day kicks off with yoga in the form of 'The Big Stretch.' There's circus skills, and singing in the form of 'The Big Sing.' Wondering around the festival site with a gaggle of amused followers of all ages is The Hippochondriac, who only wants to fly and needs our help to do so. Then there are the late night fiery antics of the Trickswap Fire Show, which delight and mesmerise in equal measure.

The space also allows a decent selection of stalls to be in and amongst the main site rather than confined to the 'craft tent'. Instruments, clothes and gifts for absent other halves can all be found here. Food wise, there's pizza, crepes, veggie and festival faggots to name but a few. If you want the overpriced, mechanically recovered, greasy stuff, you'll have to bring your own, and that's no bad thing.

around the festival site
The nucleus of the festival is the beer tent which, in addition to being home to my festival friend Old Rosie, hosts the big session itself. Cuddly 'Simon Care Bear', as one enamoured admirer calls him, is the host, and a masterful job he does. Simon's talented friends form the core of the session, often aided by the festival performers. Beyond that, festival-goers are free to join in as they please. Participation ebbs and flows. Sometimes it's just Simon and co. At other times, the session swells like a giant amoeba with the munchies, engulfing much of the tent in participation.

Megan Henwood
When the session isn't happening, Simon hosts the 'Bar Stage.' Staging performances in beer tents is a risky business, especially when it's raining outside, and those that want to listen and those that want to talk are forced into an uneasy co-existence. The key is the programming and here it has been thoughtfully done. Megan Henwood performs a couple of times and achieves the near impossible task of silencing the beer tent. She's accompanied by Phil Thomas, who knows his way around his Fender Precision like a London Cabbie on his own manor. Megan is picking on a guitar that looks like it's made of old whisky barrels and it's apt, for her delivery has a bourbon-in-the-belly fire to it that demands attention. It's a packed festival beer tent and there isn't a soul in the place who isn't listening attentively. The only sounds from the crowd come when they are singing along.

Back on the Catton Stage on Saturday afternoon, it's high energy banjo pickin' and sultry harmonica with Walsh and Pound. It's packed, but many of the crowd have brought deckchairs, which take up most of the prime space in front of the stage and lend a 'sitting and listening' atmosphere to the event. Claw hammer Dan's voice is plumbing hitherto unexplored depths of down-and-dirty; must be all that 'shine. Similarly, the Pound dog manages to coax yet more new sounds from that hard working harmonica of his. Needless to say their vibe is infectious and what begins as a bit of deckchair Max Wall head nodding soon erupts into full-on dancin' clappin' and whoopin'. The festival magic is starting to simmer.

The Magic Tombolinos
What starts as a Walsh and Pound simmer is soon brewed into a boiling broth by The The Magic Tombolinos who perform later on Saturday. By now, the deckchairs have been cleared to the sides, making way for the fusion of frenzied humanity doing its funky thing in the centre of the venue. The Tombolinos are a proper party act; a bit Jewish wedding, on speed; a bit Rio Carnival, a bit Jazz and all to a frenzied drum groove that is almost thrash metal in intensity. They prove to be a real festival find, and are a fine example of the innovative programming on show here. You can stick the programme in your back pocket, go for a wander and before long you'll discover something new, surprising and fun.

It's time for a good sit down next as the Kris Drever Trio take the stage. He's really got the hang of that guitar, has Kris. There are notes and chord voicings you don't normally hear. Likewise, Doctor Eamon on Banjo and agro-chemicals and Megan Henderson on fiddle and drony-box do not disappoint. It's a set of many textures, layers and moods, and a packed crowd is enticed in for a listen. By the time Martin Simpson and his sublimely talented band take to the stage, the venue is bursting at the seams.

Martin Simpson
It's a proper steamy atmosphere for 'Lakes of Ponchatrain', and all that 'In the Pines' is missing is the chirping of Cajun crickets. He likes to layer his brushstrokes, does Martin, building the mood by adding musicians as the set progresses. He brings on BJ Cole for some swampy pedal steel and by the time Will Pound enters to blow that harp of his, jaws are fully slackened in admiration. Martin leaves us with the biggest festival singalong so far, 'Little Liza Jane', a proper Big Session joining in experience.

A very sparkly Eddi Reader keeps it bubbling for the next hour. Then, outside, the Trickswap Fire Show provide another fine festival treat. They twirl their fiery poi, whirl their fiery sticks, throw them in the air, catch them, all to a soundtrack of trippy, tribal drumming. It leaves you feeling a little bit elated, a little bit exited and a little bit out of body. Typical of the joining in ethos, they are doing a workshop in the morning and you and the kids can have a go if you want. Hopefully the sticks and poi are a little bit less fiery. Otherwise, asbestos hair is advised.

around the festival site
Next, it's the Treacherous Orchestra in the main tent. There's a lot of them and they play Scottish dance music. It's a packed crowd and they stand and sway. For me though, there is only one way to continue the magic, rhythm, colour and light of the fire show: I head to the River Stage for Dizraeli and the Small Gods. There's slam poetry and song, a dub DJ and a floaty flute. It's beautiful late night mood music, charged with attitude. They have more acoustic instruments than the Oysterband, and the stories they tell have a truth about them as real as anything in English tradition. My favourite is the one about Chris Moyles being a twat. A wonderful blurring of the boundaries occurs when the crowd is beckoned forward. The young folks dance in front of the stage and the old folks stand right on the edge of the action, recording it on their phones for later consumption. No deckchairs here.

Heading back to the River Stage on Sunday, it seems that word has got around about Fay Hield, for the venue appears to be packed as I approach. Inside though, it's disappointing to see that the chairs are back occupying the prime real estate in front of the stage. It's not for the first time at this festival that I see people who are blatantly disinterested in the performance sitting down reading books, newspapers or sleeping during the show. Others have buggered off altogether leaving their chairs empty, which strikes me as just a little bit inconsiderate. It has the effect of forcing the people who are 'into it' to the edges and diluting the atmosphere somewhat.

Fay Hield and The Hurricane Party
Fay has recently been performing as part of a trio, but recently she's max powered her outfit into Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party, adding a few more musical colours to her already diverse palette with extra band members. 'Sir Orfeo' sounds proper medieval with Martin Keats on Hurdy Gurdy and 'Tarry Trousers' is rich and luxurious with three fiddles, a cello and a squeezebox. Fay's band, talented though they are, are happy to be quiet and leave space when it suits, and it's here that the real gems are found. There's a sweet harmony with Jon Boden on 'The Briar and the Rosemary', and 'Pretty Nancy of Yarmouth' is unaccompanied apart from a hearty performance from the crowd. For 'Old 'Arris Mill', it's just Fay and Rob Harbron on concertina. Rob, to my ear does a fine job of getting his concertina to evoke a northern oom-pah band, which has to be worth the ticket price alone.

I'd have been happy with one festival find in the Tombolino's. Disraeli had me wondering what herbs had been put in my whisky, but after Fay comes find number three. So many people clear off that I feel a bit sorry for the next guy and decide to stay. Even the words 'singer / songwriter' in the programme don't put me off. Gavin Osborn turns out to be further proof of the innovating spirit of this festival. In true Louden Wainwright spirit, he sings about serious things without taking himself too seriously. There's a splendidly sad tale of unrequited love in Sainsbury's and some proper protest music about Nick Griffin. My personal favourite though, is the working man prevails tale, 'The Burger King Burglar.' Genuinely brilliant.

Jon Boden and The Remnant Kings
Jon Boden & The Remnant Kings are a band based on a question, namely what happens to our society after fossil fuels have run out. Theirs are songs that paint pictures; of grass growing though pavement cracks, of abandoned cars slowly rusting on the motorway and of a world in which our traditions are once again prominent in our culture. It's a proper stomping start with 'Beating the Bounds', then there's an unaccompanied folk number about Cupids Garden. There are plucked strings for 'Rigs of the Times' and 'Going Down to the Wasteland' is haunted by a plaintive oboe, with further ghosts from the past supplied by Edith the Edison phonograph. Believe it or not, the picture they paint is a very pretty one.

It's a future in which Lucy Ward will probably become a national treasure. She's MCing the main stage and she performs here too. Lucy honed her entertainment skills singing 'Maids when You're Young' to roomfuls of people, many of whom were quite old. In doing so, she's developed a fine knack of singing tales of misery, abuse, abandonment and despair to bubbly, giggling crowds who lap it up eagerly. She'll do well in the Jon Boden future because she doesn't need electricity to warm the room. 'Fairy Boy' is delivered unaccompanied and the crowd provides the volume for 'Canny Lad'. Even the people in deckchairs with no filoorum join in on the "I'm the best in bed" line, such is Lucy's charm.

Oysterband and June Tabor
Following Jon and the Remnants, it's the second set of the festival from The Oysterband, this time accompanied by June Tabor. It's a fine dynamic affair, a cut above their Friday night offering. June's delivery, whether of the traditional 'Blackwaterside' or the modern 'Love Will Tear us Apart', can't be bettered. She's at her best when minimally accompanied, and 'Hills of Shiloh' is the highlight for many.

Although the festival belongs to The Oysterband, it seems right that Show of Hands headline. The relationship they have with their audience is finely interwoven one, with bags of affection on both sides. Steve, Phil and Miranda thrive on the crowd response and the raucous sing-alongs that accompany their gigs are always energetic and passionate. It's a very Big Session type of spirit. The crowd are involved straightaway with 'Stop Copying Me' and when they follow with 'Roots', you know it's going to be a top notch night. Proof of this comes from the pissed bloke behind me. I don't ask his name, I doubt he knows it. What he does know, and loudly shares, is that he loves the Oysterband and isn't a fan of Show of Hands. Nevertheless, by the time we get to 'Cousin Jack', he's singing along for all he's worth, like everyone else. It's just infectious.

As I leave the festival, I'm cheerily waved off by the stewards who have a heavy night ahead of them, pushing campervans off the site. The weather has occasionally been unkind this weekend, but the festival has triumphed. At times it's rained, but the covered venues have been packed so there's been plenty of human warmth. At times, it's been windy, but if you're enjoying yourself then you're just grateful for a breeze that clears the air when the deckchair people fart. Big Session is a festival that goes out of its way to welcome and include people. It's packed full of top notch acts with many new discoveries to be made. My final festival feelings are summed up by Megan Henwood, who earlier said, "I hope your heads aren't too sore and are full of happy musical memories." Correct on both counts.

Show of Hands
review by: James Creaser

photos by: Ian Wright

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