Cheltenham 2013 is a feast of luxurious listening

Cheltenham Folk Festival 2013 review

published: Fri 15th Feb 2013

Friday 8th to Sunday 10th February 2013
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1QA, England MAP
early bird £72 for the weekend
last updated: Thu 3rd Jan 2013

A well- deserved standing ovation greets an emotional performance from the Nic Jones Trio to close Cheltenham Folk Festival 2013 in triumphant style. It's the perfect way to cap off an event that's been packed with top drawer treats from beginning to end. Whether your passion is listening, singing, playing, dancing, eating or shopping, there's been plenty to enjoy at Cheltenham Folk 2013.

This festival always has something of an epicurean feel to it: first rate acts attracting discerning music fans, aged from preschool to pensioner, from all corners of the globe. The Kid's Place looks after the little uns, whilst the youthfully energetic frequent the fringe venues, the raucous 'Dancing in the Street' Morris displays and of course, the ceilidh.

This year The Watch are on ceilidh duty. It's a beginner friendly affair and, whilst that might entail a risk of frustrating social dance regulars, the calling here seems to be pitched at about the right level, because a fair few beginners are present. Cheltenham is a festival that goes to great lengths to attract new audiences: festival acts perform for free in various venues around the town, engaging audiences who wouldn't normally walk through the door of the festival, but perhaps might next year, now they know what's on offer.

There's plenty about for those who like to join in, too. Derek and Mary from Banbury are running the sing-around in the Bell Inn and there are workshops catering to all levels, and to a wide range of musical interests. For beginners, Cheltenham regular, Gerhard Cress is back with his brilliant bodhran session, and Sandy Watt's Harping On achieves similarly miraculous results in getting complete beginners to make discernible and decent progress over the course of a single morning. For the more able, there are French tunes for any instrument with Hérétique; there's French Canadian squeezebox tunes with Matt Quinn; Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer will teach you some Swedish tunes and to top it all off, there's a fiddle workshop with the great Tom McConville.

The luxurious feel of the festival is never more evident than in the main hall, with its granite pillars, marble statues, balcony and top notch real ale bar. The atmosphere here is is refined and reverential, with the discernible air of the conservatoire and the recital. It's a place for listening and appreciating. When the crowd does join in, it is polite rather than raucous. You get the feeling that they'd rather just sit and listen, if that's okay, and it's all the better for your ears to revel in the finery on offer.

The contrast between the refined air of the Hall and the gloriously exuberant nature of grass roots folk is never more evident than when Haddo play their Saturday lunchtime concert. Haddo are husband and wife duo, Will and Nicky Pound. Will is known to many for his prowess on harmonica and melodeon and Nicky has an MA in Baroque Viola. It's cultured folk music for cultured folk. A highlight of their set is the Upton on Severn Stick Dance; it has never sounded so classy. By a million to one co-incidence though, if you go to the pub at Cambray Place after their set, you will see the very same dance performed in bawdy, stick smashing style. It's a a fine sight, a fine sound and surely a perfect example of the richness of the current scene.

The Gavin Davenport Band open the festival, to a packed town hall. Gavin seems to be in his uninhibited element singing traditional material and, buoyed by a talented ensemble which includes the animated presence of Tom Kitching on fiddle, it's a fine opening performance, heralding a musical line up of the highest order throughout the festival weekend. Belshazzars Feast are next, providing a magic moment when the crowd pipes up with 'I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside', Darby and Joan style, during their opening number. Then Fay Hield & The Hurricane Party ladle luxury into our lugholes to keep the evening bubbling along in fine style. KAN are headlining tonight, creating the first timetabling dilemma, for they clash with Heretique , over in the playhouse. I choose Hérétique, and do not regret it: they are just too inspired, too French and too unhinged to miss. I fish around in the bar later for KAN quotes. My favourite comes from Cuckoo's Nest's Ali, "Once I'd [got over] the jazz flute, they were brilliant." So there you go.

The playhouse was added as a second venue last year, and it's good to see it here again, for it creates more room for good stuff in the main hall. The Pittville Room, which it replaces, is now a dedicated session space. There's always enough room to drop by and join in, and it has its own real ale bar; if sessions are your thing, there's little need to move for the whole weekend.

The Playhouse echoes the sit-and-soak-it-up culture of the main hall. It's an intimate space, with cosy velour seats that suck you in and snuggle you up. Everyone has a perfect view of the stage and we're close enough to the artists to hear their squeeze boxes breathing. Heretique make a shed load of new friends here and, by the end of their headlining performance on Sunday evening, they have become the firm festival favourites of many.

But other treats are on offer at the Playhouse throughout the festival. Vicki Swan & Jonny Dyer never fail to impress, and I'm thinking their version of 'Lord Randall' might be my favourite; fine voices, and Vicki's nickleharpa adding a dark medieval edge. Then we have Tyde, who treat us to some lovely tunes from their new album 'The Hidden Spoon', and Cupola, who are a hit with one and all. They've a hurdy gurdy, some top drawer fiddling, and at one point, two melodeons on stage at once. If that isn't spoiling us, they also produce Lucy Ward for a couple of songs on Saturday. Their four part, unaccompanied 'King of Rome' has tears being wiped from faces throughout the venue.

Saturday night in the main hall begins with a treat for our tympanic membranes in the form of Andy Cutting, whose nuanced playing charms the capacity crowd. It takes an artist of Tom McConville's calibre to follow such a performer and Tom succeeds in raising the mood another notch, ensuring a warm reception for Spiers & Boden, who pull off no mean feat in getting folks out of their seats and joining in. There's clapping, there's stomping, there's a bit of screaming from the back and, to round off the evening, there's even a bit of dancing.

Many festivals, having staged such acts for a Saturday concert, might be tempted to downplay their Sunday evening offering, booking a value for money act for a graveyard shift, whilst the crowd slowly drifts off home. At Cheltenham 2013 the final concert's acts are of a quality that is a testament both to the ambition of the organisers and to their commitment to their customers.

Jim Moray opens the concert. Tonight, it's just Jim, a guitar, a keyboard and an occasional bit of technology. And that's all he needs to triumph, it seems, because, as luck would have it, I'm sitting near my old friend Ali, who says that Jim is the 'best interpreter of traditional song on the scene,' On the basis of his set tonight, it's hard to disagree. I might ask her again later though...

Faustus are next, staging a welcome return to Cheltenham after a long lay-off and treating us to some new material from their soon to be released album, 'Broken Down Gentlemen'. There are trad songs, tragic songs, and tragi-comic songs. 'The Threshing Machine' is the highlight: sniggers all round.

The Nic Jones Trio enters to rapturous applause and what follows in the next hour builds the mood, song by song, until finally the crowd is on it's feet. There are the old favourites, Barrack Street, and Master Kilby, and elsewhere there is new material from an inspired range of sources. Nic's set includes Louden Wainwright's 'The Swimming Song'. Then there's 'Fake Plastic Trees', "learned from the singing of Thom Yorke," and the self penned 'Ruins By The Shore'. In terms of emotion, 'Oh Dear Rue the Day' is a poignant father son duet: "I've never seen so much love on stage," says Ali. She's right, and there's unlikely to have ever been so much love between artist and audience as is palpable during the sing-along finale, 'Little Pot Stove'. This year's Cheltenham will take some topping.
review by: James Creaser

photos by: Ian Wright

Friday 8th to Sunday 10th February 2013
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1QA, England MAP
early bird £72 for the weekend
last updated: Thu 3rd Jan 2013

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