Bromyard 2011 offers a stylish season's end

Bromyard Folk Festival 2011 review

By James Creaser | Published: Mon 19th Sep 2011

around the festival site (at night)

Friday 9th to Sunday 11th September 2011
around the town of Bromyard, Herefordshire, HR7 4NT , England MAP
£66 weekend, £78 with camping
Last updated: Tue 23rd Aug 2011

You can see why they come to Bromyard. The road here takes you across hills, rivers, woodland, and through some of the very best countryside that England has to offer. Then you arrive in town. The main street, lined with bunting and hanging baskets, contains proper shops, owned by proper shopkeepers. There's not a high street name in sight. The butcher does special festival sausages and the greengrocers have their wares laid out in baskets all along the pavement. The pubs are mostly black and white, as old as these here hills. It comes as no surprise that at the end of the summer, singers, dancers and musicians of sundry kinds gather here for one last party before the festival season ends for another year.

around the festival site (Morris)
The short walk from the festival site to the town takes place to the rhythm of bells. There are 18 dance sides on the programme, ranging from the various Morris traditions, through Appalachian clog to belly dancing. The feeling is of a town colonised by a benign force, uniformed but armed only with bells, fiddles and melodeons. During the festival, the pubs ring with the sound of sessions and their car parks play host to the variety of dance sides. It's an atmosphere of total immersion. No wonder they come in such numbers.

The locals accept it with good cheer too. On Saturday night, I'm using the cashpoint and three likely looking lads walk by; all shell suits, tattoos and piercings. For a second I fear for my life savings, but then someone shouts at them from across the road, "Where you going tonight?"
"To see the Morris Dancing." It's that sort of place, that sort of festival.

I get the feeling that the typical festival goer at Bromyard is a bit more of a doer, and a bit less of a spectator than is common. This is nowhere more obvious than at the campsite, which is such a mosaic of sound that you can find your tent by what you hear. I'm in the second field and my route is sonically signposted, or should that be sound-posted thus: you turn right by a guitarist playing Tarrega, go past a duo playing guitar and bouzouki, and stop when you get to the clawhammer banjo. If you're a squeezebox person, try the top field, where the Morris sides are. Let their melodeons sing you to your sleep.

Further evidence of the joining-in nature of Bromyard is in the location of the Ceilidh tent. It's slap bang in the middle of the festival site, and it's always packed with people dancing the afternoon or night away to the likes of Steamchicken, or Tickled Pink. It's here that I meet Jane, a ceilidh goer that had given me good dance-related advice at Towersey. There's no small measure of illicit excitement when she collars me and says something along the lines of "Psst, if you want the hard stuff you have to go here." The here she refers to is the Falcon Ballroom in town. All cornice-work, chandeliers and polished floorboards, it's the perfect venue for some serious dancing. Folkus Pocus with Andrew Swain provide the entertainment, and the dancing is a bit American contra and a bit Playford. It's certainly more technical than your average ceilidh and is unusual in that there are more men than women. Several male wallflowers have to sit out each dance, but despite this, they kindly and patiently let me have a go. When I finally step out into the street, much later, I feel a lot like Mr. Darcy; but without the money. Or the looks.

Lucy Ward
The Bromyard crowd are a discerning lot; fine dancers, hearty singers and accomplished musicians. If they're going to sit still and watch, then it had better be good. Luckily for them, the performers that appear are more than up to the task. A busy Wye Valley Brewery Tent sees Keith Donnelly introduce the first act on Friday night. Opening a festival is like kissing the queen, he tells us; it's a great honour but you wouldn't really want to do it. Lucy Ward, gets to kiss the queen here, and a fine job she does. Her blue hair shines in the pink light and her voice gives life to the stormy murder ballad, two sisters one minute and to the tender, tragic 'F for Love' the next. The crowd love her and are right there for the singalong finale. It's the part traditional and part self-penned 'Canny Lad'. It's not the end of Lucy though. She pops up many times throughout the festival and is always a treat. On Saturday we get her soulful version of Pulp's 'Common People' and there's a moment of controversy before 'Maids when You're Young' when an elderly gentleman protests at the sentiment of the song. "Maybe its opportunity, not filoorum you are lacking', Lucy quips back, and that's him told.

The trouble with Lucy is that she does set the bar very high for subsequent acts. Brian Peters follows and begins by telling us what an unreconstructed folky he is. We warm to him straightaway. He underlines his point by playing 'All Around My Hat', with the original lyrics restored. Then there are songs of evil bosses, Child ballads and some romanticising about Dick Turpin who was in actual fact, "a bit of a bastard". Brian's skill is in turning a big old concert tent into a small, intimate folk club, with lots of joining in and ready responses to his between song banter.

If Brian is a folk club kind of guy, then Seize The Day are more protest camp in nature. They've attended quite a few, so they tell us. I bet they go down really well too; funky, worldy and very right-on. Later, I wonder they're possibly a bit too right-on for a modern crowd, when I meet a physicist and a couple of geneticists. They tell me that they found the band's "nuclear power, no thanks" flavour of ranting naïve and anti-scientific, in light of the issues we currently face. I can only hope that they met in the bar later and engaged in healthy discourse.

Martin Simpson
Trashing our musical carbon footprint in a way that Seize The Day would really hate, The Martin Simpson Band take us away from the protest camp with songs and tunes that mostly hail from the steamy southern states of the US. They draw us in gently with a breezy, 'Lakes of Champlain' before getting dark and sultry with 'In the Pines', and we really do shiver with that cold wind. It's a set that juxtaposes many places, tales and moods. From the autobiographical, 'An Englishman Abroad', to the Scottish ballad, 'Sir Patrick Spens', the songs sit easily together. Martin plays a lot of banjo tonight and nothing goes with a banjo better than a bit of soulful harmonica. This is delivered courtesy of Will Pound, who gets a roar when he comes on and is cheered to max whenever he blows his harp in that down and dirty way of his. There's dancing at the front when they finish with the boogie- woogie, 'Little Liza Jane', and after a bit of stand-up clapping they send us into the Herefordshire night. It ain't Louisiana, but it's a damn fine place to be nevertheless.

Festivals as established as Bromyard know a thing or two about providing treats for their more discerning customers. They often feature a little secret sweet spot. You know the sort of place; you leave the festival site, go round a corner here, down a back alley there, and eventually you find it. It's generally small, generally unamplified and although it's in the programme, only a particular type of festival illuminatus ever actually goes there. The audience know what they are about and so do the performers. Unamplified, they have to captivate the crowd completely, or talking and fidgeting will certainly spoil the mood.

At Bromyard such a place is the Falcon Mews, and rest assured, the audience here are an elite bunch. When Lucy Ward sings 'Angel Boy' unaccompanied, they are as still as statues, and when Mick Holditch opens on Sunday afternoon, they're joining in right off the bat. He plays a fine fingerpicked version of 'Over the Hills and far Away' and there's that brief nanosecond of a pause during the first chorus whilst they wait to hear whether it's going to be King George or Queen Anne. Of course it's Queen Anne, but it's the pause that highlights a truly top notch crowd.

Hannah James and Sam Sweeney
It's here that some fine future talent is showcased too. Infinite Cherries make a bunch of new friends when they weave their tuneful magic on Sunday afternoon. The charming melodeon playing of Cohen Kilcoyne of the Dead Money Duohas a similar effect on the Saturday crowd, whom they warm up in fine style for Hannah James & Sam Sweeney. They'll all be appearing somewhere bigger soon, no doubt, and are well worth catching.

The Falcon Mews has the feel of a medieval mead hall, all bare stonework, tapestries and low lighting. When Hannah James & Sam Sweeney perform here, their music seems very at home. It's a passionate place, built for feasting on all good things. The audience are packed in and toe tapping spreads rapidly during the tunes, as does singing during the songs. Witnessing Hannah James clog dancing when you're near enough to see the flurry of her feet is a rare treat. Sam Sweeney accompanies on fiddle, and although his talents are undoubted, I do wonder if he's written to Jim'll Fix it to get this job. He's a lucky man. Saturday evening in the Wye Valley tent provides an additional Hannah n Sam fix; first the 'Jail Song', then a vegetarian song about hare hunting followed by tunes from playford to polka. The best bit for me is their version of my favourite folk song, 'Dolly'. All darkness and drama; Hannah's subtle clogging is the perfect finishing touch. If I wasn't so insensitive, I'd have cried.

Kathryn Roberts And Sean Lakeman
Hannah and Sam are followed by Will Pound & Dan Walsh Described by no less than their own twitter page as 'Probably the best Harmonica/Banjo duo in the world' they do not disappoint. Like Will's previous appearance with Martin Simpson, it's a set that stitches together a range of influences. From the manic bluegrass picking of 'Hammer and Nail' to the sultry eastern promise of 'Turkish Delight' with its edgy call and return build up, nothing seems out of place. They seem to have coalesced as a duo since I last saw them a year or so ago. Will comes to the fore more, and there's always a frenzy of cheering and stomping whenever he takes them home blowing that harp of his. You need to be good to follow Hannah and Sam. Pound & Walsh are up to the job, and on Saturday night, a polka dotted Kathryn Roberts And Sean Lakeman do not let us down either. 'Never Stray Far From Home' seems to be about how to enjoy the outdoors without getting your eyes plucked out and your tongue removed. Elsewhere there are lusty smiths and buxom lasses galore. There's an unexpected treat in the form of a Tom Waits interlude, 'The Ballad of Georgia Lee'. Everyone loves a bit of Sean and Kathryn, particularly in these parts, so it seems.

My discovery of the festival has to be Cupola, when they play the Falcon Mews on Sunday afternoon. Their musical palette contains more shades than most: they are great singers and fine musicians. They've a unique sense of interpretation, which they apply to material ranging from the traditional 'Sing Ivy', to a quirky 'John Barleycorn' set to the tune of 'Cuckoo's Nest'. They readily switch instruments, and play some that you don't often hear: a Hurdy Gurdy, a Cajon and a sweetly blown clarinet. It's a refreshing new perspective, capped off at the end with the addition of Lucy Ward, who lets that voice of hers roam all over 'When God Dips His Pen Of Love In My Heart'. The rest of the band chip in on the harmonies, and give us all a festival highlight.

The mighty Dervish headline the final concert on Sunday evening, and it's a curate's egg kind of affair. Delayed sound checks mean that the crowd have been queueing for some time before they are finally let in, and there are echoes of Le Mans when some sprint for the best seats. Keith Donnelly does a fine job of kicking things off. He's followed by Inlay, whose set that is largely talked over by the crowd and I don't really know why. They don't seem to be doing a lot wrong. Then come Uiscedwr. We're sad to hear they are breaking up in December as a lot of their tunes are damn fine, but when we get a percussion solo, many of us change our minds. I head to the bar and plan to stay a while. It isn't long though, before I'm lured back in by the magical sound of Calan. They play welsh folk music, and they're pretty brilliant at it. They're an engaging act too, adding comedy at the expense of Graham the soundman, poor Graham. The highlight of the evening for me is some spectacular welsh clog dancing in the form of a father / daughter clog-off. The daughter wins, but only just.

Bromyard is for most, the last festival of its kind this year. There's been so much on offer here that it's with a spirit of looking forward that I finally leave. There's been something for everyone, but it's an event aimed at the littler people which encapsulates my mood as I go. There's always a lot for the kids to do at here: Jan is here with her van, and so is Bromyard regular, Doctor Sunshine with his artistic workshops. A favourite with the crowd, both old and young, is the Hand to Mouth Theatre. They offer two shows. The Mad Hat Band involves some songs, some banjos and a range of animated hats; but it's the unforgettable Piggery Jokery that captures the imagination perfectly. It is a changing of the seasons tale, narrated by the green man, and featuring a man and his pig. The world turns, the seasons change and the pig grows; all to the tune of a haunting hurdy-gurdy. The dialogue is catchy too.

If, in the dark months to come, you find yourself pining for the good times of Bromyard, close your eyes, think of the green man, imagine the Hurdy Gurdy, and shout, "Piggy Wiggy!" in the silliest voice you can summon. You'll be right back there.

around the festival site (at night)
review by: James Creaser

photos by: Ian Wright / James Creaser

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