Indoor music festivals beg a question. Is there some tipping point when a series of gigs becomes a festival? Where does that intangible festival ‘vibe’ come from? You know it when you feel it, and you recognise when others feel it, but does this vibe simply come from the enjoyment of music, or is it those other shared, lived experiences – the camping, the food, the loos, the weather – that cause the festival vibe to grow readily out of doors, but more reluctantly indoors. I can’t say going to Derby Folk festival brought me much closer to the answer but there was plenty of thought compost.
An indoor festival should be set up well for PA and lighting. A venue like Derby’s Assembly Rooms has professional performers on week in and week out, so you’d expect a crystal clear well balanced sound and some neat lighting, and the Great Hall venue delivered just that. What’s more the sound guys coped admirably with the particular demands of folkies and their rather sensitive instruments. Sound filled the floor space and tiered seating of the auditorium and was pretty good up on the second storey galleries. You could make out the acoustic delicacies in Sam Sweeney and Hannah James performance, but equally the brilliant, bewildering bassline rumbles and harmonic soundclashes of Lau’s performance were kept on the listenable side of cacophony.
A fixed stage can be a more mixed blessing, this one was on the large side, which was exacerbated by adding an additional lower level stage to the front. East Midlands supergroup The Derbyshire Volunteers led by the charismaticfestival patron John Tams with help from likes of Lucy Ward and Cupola managed to fill it. The Mighty Doonans gave it a good go too, with Frances Doonan able to make use of the lower stage for impressive show of, fleet footed, step dancing. The six members of Dervish looked comfortable being spread out wide across the stage, but what their singer Cathy Jordan described as the “Pregnant space” between stage and the floor audience, seated at large round tables, was more troublesome. Her infectious humour and cajoling together with the lively jigs, reels and songs did eventually prompt audience participation. “The chorus follows the verse and you’ve six chances to get it right” resulted in a good sing-song to the traditional ‘Welcome Poor Paddy Home’. In the end a few brave souls could resist no longer and got up to dance for the final two Dervish tunes, taking their lead from the Canadian stepdancer April Verch who tookover the lower stage. It was a case of bring your own dancers to Derby; Dervish, The Doonans, Hannah James all did their own spots. Morris and Rapper dance sides made rare indoor appearances during the intervals, their demonstrations filled the space and the changeover time, but after they stomped away, the gap just looked bigger, and if anything felt emptier - the ‘vibe’ unable build to critical mass and connect cross the void.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t possible to enjoy many of the performances on their own merits. Lau’s cerebral musicality almost requires sitting down for, Cupola:Ward’s Sunday show was wonderfully good natured as was the The Melrose Quartet’s support slot before Dervish. Rhiannon Giddens & Leyla McCalla’s Sunday afternoon creole and Cajun session was charming, although these two looked so small on the wide stage, which might have been more suitable for their band the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
The atmosphere was a little thicker in the venues back room the Darwin. Here a packed audience sat just feet from the performers. Andy Irvine gave a great show, taking us back to the days of wine and roses in 1960’s Dublin. This was a real treat, proper serious material and honed musicianship balanced by laughter ringing around the darkened room, which created an extraordinary feeling. No doubt the Irish have a word for, but as yet I don’t. Tim Edey’s performance was also pretty intense. His nerves at performing solo, and at point blank range, came out as adrenalin fuelled excursions well beyond the 7th fret on his guitar. His version of ‘Music For A Found Harmonium’ completely blew us away, his fingers were a blur but somehow he kept the tune, and the two year Baltic cruise Riverdance tribute story was pure mirth. Both halves of the Melrose Quartet, Richard & Jess Arrowsmith and Nancy Kerr & James Fagan, together with another couple Winter:Wilson took part in the trio of duos spot on Saturday lunchtime which worked rather well in the room - folk club style. There’s something in the pairing of proximity to performer and density of audience that allows this ‘vibe’ thing to grow, it happened just as readily in this backroom as in a marquee.
Out in the streets of Derby city centre the vibe was never going to thrive, Morris dancing about the town attracted more puzzlement than appreciation, the townsfolk seemed to quite resent the obstruction sides caused in the pedestrianized precincts and they weren’t too quick to support the market square Morris flashmob. In fact a local bird rescue centre’s display got more attention, although to be fair he did have a Harris hawk, a rather eye-catching European Eagle Owl and a pair of thick gloves. Even a bright red gazebo outside the Assembly Rooms with acts like Karl and the Marx Brothers wasn’t enough to interest the locals. Outside of the dreadful 1970s precincts I found Derby quite interesting though, the Silk Mill sited behind the venue has a striking mural commemorating the 1834 Lockout, a vital moment in the trade union movement. Also I can recommend the rice & peas served at Sista Spice and the cobs they make at Jack Rabbit’s, which come wrapped in a ribbon for some reason.
Being held in a city centre venue most people were locals or staying in a hotel, so were keen to get away once the acts finished. There might have been a session back at the festival’s nominated hotel the Jurys Inn, but nothing much went on in the foyer or bars in the actual venue and I didn’t pick up word of anything going on in the town pubs, most of which didn’t look overly folk-music friendly, plus I’m not sure a fiddle case would get by the licensed doormen. It was a case that when the music was over, time to turn out the lights.
Derby Folk Festival had some really good shows, shows with variety. I loved the Celtic side of things from Andy Irvine, Tim Edey and Dervish. Lau were monster. International representation from Rhiannon and Layla as well as April Vetch spiced things up. Closer to home the local acts, most of who were in Derbyshire Volunteers, were popular. I found Brian Peters & Jeff Davis’s lecture on ‘Sharp’s Appalachian Harvest’ totally engrossing, great to learn more about Cecil Sharp’s roll as lyricist to the Civil Rights movement. However at times the festival did feel like one concert after another, it needed something to let the vibe grow, rearranging the furniture might be a start.
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