baroque splendour houses a folktastic weekend at Cheltenham Folk Festival

Cheltenham Folk Festival 2010 review

published: Tue 2nd Mar 2010

around the festival site

Friday 12th to Sunday 14th February 2010
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1QA, England MAP
adult weekend ticket £66, 11-16 year olds £35, under 11 free
last updated: Fri 29th Jan 2010

Cheltenham Town Hall's baroque splendour provided a wonderfully incongruous setting for a folktastic weekend of miserable songs about poverty, religion, sex and tragedy that was the 14th Cheltenham Folk Festival. The first folk festival of the 2010 was a well-organised indoor event featuring a thought out selection of artistes and performers who delighted their enthralled audiences. The mature crowd were keen to soak up the sounds as they supped their ale and tapped their feet. The Town Hall had the atmosphere of a village hall folk club but with the sound of the Albert Hall.

around the festival site
The Town Hall is a grand building in the centre of this famous Spa town. The Main Hall is an impressive two-storey auditorium with ground floor seating for over a thousand people. Upstairs there are a series of balconies overlooking the hall with further terraced seating to the rear. There is no dance floor but there is not a particular need for one, Ceilidhs are held in another building. The Hall's décor is splendid with an incredible vaulted ceiling supported by beautiful columns topped with golden capitals. Either side of the statues of King George V and Edward VII gaze out at the audience dwarfing the performers who struggle to fill a stage more suited to orchestral concerts.

Access into the Hall is firmly controlled by the stewards who are under orders only to allow entry during the rounds of applause between numbers allowing those in the hall to focus solely on the performance. For such a cavernous space the sound is of a remarkably high clarity and quality from the front of stage to up in the eaves. Without the bustle to distract them, audiences pay full attention to the music making for some truly engrossing concerts.

A much smaller and simpler space within the Town Hall the Club Room puts on more personal shows from Main Hall acts and holds showcases for developing talents. There is seating for over one hundred people to enjoy fine sound and diverse line-ups.

around the festival site
On site catering in the Town Hall is available in the Pillar Room Café. The menu is rather dull, but reasonably priced, with such favourites as baked potato or beef stew. The Pillar Room acts as a venue for the impromptu singarounds and jams which pepper the weekend. The Café has a bar but Beer drinkers are better to choose the Real Ale bar in the Main Hall. With barrels of award winning beers such as Goff's Jouster and the Stroud Brewery’s Tom Long to choose from it beats with the standard selection of beers, wines and spirits. As the Town Hall is in the centre of Cheltenham there are plenty of offsite food and drink options close by.

Market Stalls set up along the corridors and sell guitars, violins, drums accordions and the like. The hefty price tags and level of interest from buyers demonstrate that the traditional instrument market is thriving. The Whole Wide World CD stall is based around a magnificent marble Spa Well. Like the instrument stalls it does a brisk trade all weekend. The few other stalls set up in the corridors sell the familiar range of books, jewellery, remedies and brightly coloured clothes but do not appear to be as popular.

Events are not limited to the Town Hall venues, there are daytime Morris dancing shows taking place in the town centre on Saturday and Sunday, much to the amusement of the shoppers. The nearby YMCA hosts singarounds and workshops in skills from melodeon playing to clog dancing. Away from the Town Hall the Pittville Pump Room provides an outlet for those who have come to dance with Ceilidhs lead by local band Gordon the Hedgehog on Friday night and the ever-popular Housewives' Choice on Saturday night.

Only the hardiest festivalgoer would attempt to camp out over a chilly February weekend so indoor camping is laid on at St Luke's Church Hall where weary heads can bed down in relative warmth comfort with good facilities on hand. The Big Sleep hotel is another popular choice for those without a bed of their own.

Cheltenham Folk Festival seems a smoothly run event with enough to attract anyone with an interest in the genre. The facilities are excellent and being indoors they are also solid, dry and warm. The stewards and organisers are very friendly and helpful both on the doors and at the information desk. The programme is clear and concise but contains a wealth of information. The choice of arrangement is first rate showing the artists in different lights at different times but always making sense.

Niamh Parsons And Graham Dunne
Cheltenham's opening concert began 8pm on Friday night in the Main Hall and gave a great foretaste of things to come from the Festival. Starting at a mellow pace with Trio Threlfall, two sisters who sing English traditional songs with great sincerity. Their strong voices are accompanied by Roger Edwards on the concertina. Following a quick turnaround Niamh Parsons & Graham Dunne take to the stage. Niamh wryly comments that her fellow Irish don't enjoy Irish music, but it seems the English do. Niamh's voice accompanied by Graham’s unobtrusive guitar playing seems to cast a spell over the crowd as they listened rapt by the sound. The songs vary from Australian laments on asbestos poisoning to a ballad of a French prostitute in World War I. The gritty desolation is punctuated by a quite superb set of jigs from Graham, which even feature a light show.

In the Club Room Pete Grassby and Life & Times have been on stage and are followed by a young sensation Maz O'Connor singing with fellow award winner Matthew Jones accompanying on guitar. Maz's show has more upbeat feel than Niamh's with a fun singalong of 'Chickens in the Garden' and a demonstration of the Shrooty, a particularly unusual droning instrument which hits the notes between the notes. Naturally the songs soon turn to press ganging, drowning and abduction by creatures of the otherworld but this is the kind of Friday night entertainment the audience expect.

Back in the Main Hall the night steps up a gear as three-piece Lau are heralded on to the smoke shrouded stage by another lightshow. They take their seats, the smoke clears and the first tune is struck up. Each of the band are celebrated musicians in their own right when Kris Drever, Martin Green and Aidan O'Rourke play together it is evident why they won Best Group for the third time at the recent 2010 Folk Awards. The two Scots and an Englishman combine to produce a hypnotic, mystic sound epitomised in instrumentals such as 'Horizontico' and 'The Burrian'. Both tunes are based on the experience of place - East Anglia's Fenlands and the Orkney Isles - and have a vast ethereal feeling. Lau's enjoyable between-tune banter is also about place; land being an unnecessary luxury to a Fensman or the topographical pretentiousness of the West Coast of Scotland.

Their set is mostly these epic instrumental laments which are well suited to the incredible sound quality in the venue and utterly captivate the audience. The band comment that their tunes are winter tunes which they are glad to play indoors, rather than outside in the height of the summer as at other Festivals. As the show goes on Martin's accordion takes quite a battering and needs running repairs with gaffer tape, much to everyone's amusement.

After Lau's set the amusement continues in the Club Room with a performance from Heretique. This must-see act was a massive hit at last year's event and entertain their fans again this year with absurdly hilarious tunes sung in French. They are a young band featuring Murray Grainger on accordion and banter, ex-opera singer Jon Loomes on hurdy gurdy and skilful bagpiper Michael Beeke. The band take us up to midnight with treats like an 80’s versus folk mashup and their mirthful but incomprehensible lyrics. A superb ending to a really enjoyable night.
review by: Ian Wright

photos by: Claire Quilley

Friday 12th to Sunday 14th February 2010
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1QA, England MAP
adult weekend ticket £66, 11-16 year olds £35, under 11 free
last updated: Fri 29th Jan 2010

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