Oxford, the sweet city of dreaming spires is a motif the world over for that brand of Potteresque Englishness beloved by so many, not the least fans of traditionally arranged music. The Folk weekend showcased the city's vibrant grassroots movement, in suitably impressive situations. I came away having had a charming time seeing the sights and enjoying the songs.
Part of the charm was simplywandering beneath thosedreaming spires on an unguided tour of Oxford's landmarks and passageways, discovering Folk Weekendvenues incidentally. From the festival's hub in the Old Fire Station, a converted community arts centre for the Jackie Oates concert across Gloucester Green to the chandeliered ballroom of Randolph Hotel for Belinda O'Hooley & Heidi Tidow festival closing set crashing crescendos and cool covers. Over at the Pitt-Rivers museum there was storytelling, craft and family concerts in among display cases stacked with mundane and magical objects. Along cobbled side streets a Wesleyan Hall echoed to the lilting laughter of kids, their imagination captured by the Cry Havoc workshop. The glorious acoustics of a Megan Henwood concert in St Michael's church at Northgate contrasted with the carousing of a Morris side on Broad Street,their antics watched over by the famous bearded Emporers outside the Sheldonian theatre. From mob-handed emotionality of Man Choir's 'Dance me to the End of Love' at the Castle Mound to Sam & Dylan putting a spring in the step of visitors to the Ashmolean, the venues just oozed Oxford.
The music did too. The Troubadour and Troubairitz show at St Columba's curated by mover and shaker James Bell featured emerging acts form the local scene. I particularly enjoyed songstress Jessica Law's wonderfully wyrd material accompanied polished resonator ukulele. Telling the Bees went with the taste of magical realism for their Saturday headline slot at the Fire Station- astrolabes, obscure greek philosophy, seasonal medieval part song and courting gypsy girls at Glastonbury Festival all featured – subjects which struck a chord with the crowd just as much as their rabble rousing 'Otmoor Forever'.
The psych ballad theme ran strongly through the weekend, not least in Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker's festival opening set in the Old Fire Station's theatre. Ben's guitar and Josienne's voice blended into pure listening pleasure on the crystal clear PA, her distinctivestyle demonstrated to stunning effect in a version of an Argentinian Ballad 'La Cancion de las Simples Cosas' and by a suite of Sandy Denny covers. Josienne's anguished 'aaahs' contrasted with the 'oohs' of Elly Lucas's bright, breezy follow on set with Dave Gibb, which turned even the traditional trope of pressgangs and the horrors of war in to an uplifting experience, with hand movements for the kids.
The Jenkinson's Folly, and Megan Henwood session at St Michael's church on the Saturday night was perhaps the most magical of the weekend. The church's acoustics brought out the richness in both act's sound. Cello, guitar and a heavenly voice combined for a jaw dropping version of 'Black is the Colour' from Jenkinson's. Double bass from long-time collaborator Pete Thomas gave Megan's set even more depth. Bob the Vicar introduced her as "folk with fun" but the lyrics told a rather different story, a brooding and mysterious story, the "songbird nesting in her lungs" has some pretty dark thoughts. Like all good art, it was not entirely comfortable, and demanded a shift of perspective which left me feeling somehow changed by the experience. It was certainly cerebral, and I was glad to give the noggin some recovery time and let the feet take over for the Ceilidh.
All weekend it was apparent that there were two parts to this festival's crowd; the standard 'folkie fogie' and a younger, and much more enthusiastic element. In the concerts the two parts balancedalthough at times performers were left stranded by a deadpan reaction from an overly 'fogie' audience. However the young crowd dominated in the Ceilidh. St Columba's was packed to capacity for Gloworms on Saturday night, the crowd's sweaty sociability and bands upbeat tunes creating a real energetic atmosphere which continued'til the wee hours with Blackbeard's Tea Party back at the Fire Station.
After, in the sessions at the Grapes or Half Moon pubs there was more evidence that Oxford's traditional music scene is thriving, and able to put on an event of the Folk Weekend's quality, because its grassroots are young and fresh. The University must be a significant factor in this - a good number of people I spoke with were current of former students, as heavily into the DiY ethos as they were the magical realist musical style. Carrying on the tradition from Matthew Arnold's time and updating it for Jessica Law's, these gipsy scholars at the school for lost souls have a good lesson for the world of Folk.
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