a weekend lamenting misery is enjoyed by all

Cheltenham Folk Festival 2011 review

published: Fri 18th Feb 2011

Jon Boden & The Remnant Kings (Song Session)

Friday 11th to Sunday 13th February 2011
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1QA, England MAP
early bird £65, 5-16 year olds £35, under 5 free
last updated: Thu 2nd Feb 2012

Most people's idea of an enjoyable break in a spa town won't involve listening to hour upon hour of bleak folksongs. Yet thousands of people gathered at Cheltenham's Town Hall over the weekend to do just that. They experienced unique performances by award winning artists from current folk scene, its past masters and the next generation.

Pete Coe
Many, many sad songs were sung, their subject matter often as desolate as midwinter. Death was the ever-present theme and there are so many ways to die in folksongs. This weekend execution by hanging is number one. Death by drowning either in the mill-pond, stream or the salty, salty sea is a close second. Also-rans include entombment and poisoning. Elder sisters kill younger sisters, parents kill children and zombie children kill their parents. Bosses kill their workers, either by malice or negligence. In some songs people don’t get killed. Instead they come back from the clay to indulge in ghostly heavy petting or cold revenge. In other songs the torments and longings of love provide the source of misery.

Giving their only festival performance of the year Jon Boden & The Remnant Kings took us on a trip into this realm of macabre music. Jon Boden and multi instrumentalist associates Paul Sartin and Sam Sweeney won BBC Folk Awards 'Best Live Act' and 'Best Group' earlier in the week for their Bellowhead project. Their Remnant Kings show is a less exuberant live experience, more parlour than party, but it is perfectly suited to the Town Halls genteel surroundings and luxurious sound quality.

Jon Boden And The Remnant Kings
The four-hour set is based around the 'Songs from the Floodplain' concept album, an imagining of a regressed future without oil or electricity. In this ravaged lyrical landscape roads are abandoned except for government vehicles and occasional gypsies, travelling by night. Floods inundate the land, buildings are ruined and the land is overgrown. To survive in this lo-tech world people rediscover their folk memory, live shared lives and 'Sing under their Breath'.

Woven into the aural tapestry is a weft of Traditional material like the Copper Family's 'Hard Times of Old England' and the centuries-old 'Doleful Dance of Death'. Keeping the bodycount respectably high are Rudyard Kipling poems 'Hanging Johnny' and 'Danny Deever' performed as arranged by 1970s folk hero Peter Bellamy. The despair of love is well covered, notably by Kate Bush's 'Hounds of Love' and Coagy Carmichael's 'Stardust'.

Jon Boden And The Remnant Kings
Closing the on-stage performance an original wax cylinder recording of the latter song crackles out of an antique Edison phonograph. As strains of lost voices singing a mournful 'Memory of Love's Refrain' fade singing begins in the bar with gutsy hollers of 'Go Down Ye Blood Red Roses'. The session led by Jon Boden and Paul Sartin continues into the small hours as singers and players vie in a folkie songclash which is recorded for Boden's 'A Folk Song a Day' project. Next morning the night's best and most comic song 'Butter and Cheese and All' is available online.

Nancy Kerr And James Fagan
Winners of BBC Folk Award 'Best Duo' Nancy Kerr & James Fagan headline Saturday night. This lovely couple delight in each other’s playing and presence. The set is at times joyful, good feelings transmitting to an appreciative audience eager to join in where they know the words. Tuneful songs like the beautiful 'Queen of Waters', their own composition, and the traditional Northumbrian 'Dance to your Daddy' raise whimsical smiles. But this is folk music so we know it can't all be fishes for tea. Aboriginal blood stains the soil of Australia in 'The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away'. 'Blue Murder' deals with the terrible fate of those forced to labour in the deadly dust of an Asbestos mine. Young men pine to death for the love of 'Barbara Allen' in an exquisite version of this centuries-old ballad.

The Yetties
Even The Yetminster & Ryme Junior Folk Dance Display Team, popularly known as The Yetties, can't avoid a tinge of sadness. Sunday afternoon's showcase is their last Festival performance. Pete, Mac and Bonny will retire in April after fifty-plus years engaging audiences across the world with West Country mirth, a banjo and a squeezebox. Among songs concerning the pleasant aspects of country life, like reverse parking in 'Back en Back', are others are with false deluding lovers, grumpy old men and weevily bread. By this weekend's standards that is light entertainment.

Veteran ambassador for folk music Pete Coe succinctly sums it up – a lot of folksongs are just unremittingly miserable, even when accompanied by the banjo. His set comes from a background where Karl Marx is thought a bit right wing, songs like Every working man needs to laugh, though, and as 'The Sound of Hohner' demonstrates squeezebox humour is not limited to the Yetties.

Both acts played Cheltenham's Victory Folk Club back in the 1960s, although Pete never went on to tour for the British Council or record an Archers theme tune. The singer has remained local and is perennial favourite with this home crowd who readily join in with rousing choruses of 'Britannia Waives the Rules' the miner's song 'Byker Hill' and Bob Zentz's 'Let the Light from the Lighthouse Shine on Me'.

Jackie Oates
The younger generation aren't afraid to sail the sea of folk woe, the lilting Askew Sisters just dive right in - 'Never more Lamenting' whilst walking through 'Lonesome Woods'. They play an extended version of the 'Two Sisters' ballad, a story of love, jealousy, soricide, man hunts, royalty and eventually the inevitable hangings.

Jackie Oates's Saturday night show has the increasingly familiar themes; landscape painting through sound, nightvisiting, wishful waltzes, death and scheming millers.

Hannah James And Sam Sweeney
Winter tours with Show of Hands and now The Imagined Village have bolstered the confidence in her delivery. Accompanied by her band she handles the material well, sticking neatly to the melancholic side of despondency. Hancock award winning 'Musician of the Year' Sam Sweeney is back on stage in a show-opening slot on Saturday in duo with accordionist Hannah James. The set is sold as featuring only one happy song, 'Broken Token', but murder and intrigue have to take a back seat to fine tunes, polkas, hornpipes and Hannah's clogdances.

One way to avoid singing sad songs is not to sing at all, a tactic employed by Sunday night's headliners Lunasa. The Irish supergroup, recently dubbed 'Performers of the Decade', are on a week-long tour of England. Their lively tunes are drawn from the Irish, Breton and Basque traditions. Frontman Kevin Crawford has a manic energy which bubbles through energising the show. His exhilarating flute playing is complemented by Cillian Valleley on the Uillean pipes and Sean Smyth on fiddle. Their sound is anchored by the band’s founder Trevor Hutchinson on bass and Paul Meehan on guitar. Clapping, stomping and whooping along, the audience clearly relish a show which brings the Festival to an upbeat climax.


The sound and lighting crew receive well-deserved thanks from the all of the weekend's acts. Filling Cheltenham's cavernous Regency hall with clear sound is now mean feat, but from the front row to the bar and up in the balconies it is clear as a bell. The lighting is generally unobtrusive and often enhancing. It is particularly good for The Remnant Kings, adding to the moody atmospherics of their show.

The Town Hall is a well-sized venue for this event with good facilities. There is plenty of room for stalled seating in the Main Hall, and good views of the stage form the upper floor. A cosy side room hosts the Club performances and talks. The Real Ale Bar sells a tolerable range of beers from two local brewers Goffs and Battledown. Cider is in rather short supply though, by ten o'clock Friday evening the stock has been drunk. In the corridors and siderooms flanking the Main Hall trader's stalls are set up selling instruments, jewellery and keepsakes. Musicians looking for the best in guitars, drums, dulcimers, violins and melodeons are well served by specialists, although prices for their handcrafted products regularly reach thousands of pounds. Food choices in the Town Hall's cafeteria are pretty limited, as is the seating. If you can get a table then you will be able treated to some epic folk jamming sessions, which may or may not aid your digestion.

around festival the site 2 (Morris Dancers )
Other venues are dotted around the town centre, most in easy walking distance of the Town Hall. The local YMCA hosts workshops, including a genuine bodhran beginners drumming workshop. The library, a local church and pub all have singaround and jamming sessions for the more experienced folkies. In and around the High Street a dozen teams of Morris dancers accompanied by their bands, hobby horses and banners take turns to display their skills. Shoppers, tourists and festival goers mingle in the pedestrianised precincts as the sights and sounds of Merrie England replace the hustle and bustle of Saturday afternoon retail therapy.

For Folk fans this was a well enjoyed first Festival of the year. It is grim in winter, and the songs certainly reflect this. To appreciate them you probably do need either a streak of scheudenfreude, or the disposition to be happy when sad. However, the darkest hour is before dawn. As the crocuses raise their heads and sunshine lengthens shadows these songs and tunes also reflect the revitalising potential of spring. With the Brits Award ceremony focussing attention on folk music and many people declaring a new re-revival this could be a momentous year. After all it probably is time for a new recording of the Archers theme tune. For folk's sake cheer up!

around festival the site 2 (Morris Dancers )
review by: Ian Wright

photos by: James Creaser

Friday 11th to Sunday 13th February 2011
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1QA, England MAP
early bird £65, 5-16 year olds £35, under 5 free
last updated: Thu 2nd Feb 2012

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