There's a cold snap in the sea air and it's starting to feel a bit like Christmas may be on the way when we arrive at Butlins Skegness for the 5th annual Great British Folk Weekend. I have to confess despite the rising popularity of 'winter' festivals at holiday camps this is my first weekend at such an event.
The twinkling Christmas lights, clear cold blustery days, and early on-set of night help to reinforce the notion that winter is coming. Our arrival at peak time with everyone else proves easy. There's a long queue of cars outside but it only takes a couple of minutes to get to the gate and a welcoming hello, as we are directed to check-in, wristbanded, and given our 'chalet' keys for the weekend. We are given a map to find our accommodation and park up close to our apartment. I noticed in the run up to this event that weekend tickets were going for £45 per person - that's a heck of a bargain.
The accommodation is clean, well lit, warm, and serviced daily, and a big improvement on a tent. There's lots of food options from Spar, to BurgerKing, Italian pizzas, pub food in the Jellyfish Lounge, and the like, plus to two proper restaurants. There's an expensive coffee shop (it's cheaper from the Costa machine in Spar), sweet shops (the place is usually packed with kids - but this event is over 18s only) and bars in each venue, plus a Cider and real ale bar - with a limited but tasty choice of either at the £3.70 mark. A Cornish pasty place selling pastries at around £3.50 means beer and a snack for a reasonable £7ish. Spar also provides a wealth of cans, and bottles from the £1 a can mark, meaning should you wish you can happily get merry cheaply. We have the premium dining option with breakfast and three-course dinner and both buffet restaurants are busy with others who have chosen the same, it's all you can eat with juices and hot drinks thrown in and we find two huge feasts a day suffice.
There are a few attractions open like adventure golf, go carting, and the relaxing splashworld where you can swim with some of the acts each day (if you can recognise them with their kit off) or try giving yourself whiplash in the dizzying flumes. There's some opportunities for retail therapy with a few festival style stalls, the sparse beach next door, and the seaside town to traverse. A chance to gaze out to sea at the windfarm.
The lack of real distractions once the music starts at around 1pm each day (4pm on Friday) make this a fairly sedate affair, there's little to take the focus from the music, which is delivered over a quality P.A, with a decent light rig to a reverential audience. It's weird to be at a festival with no kids in attendance, but the primarily older crowd make for a quieter affair and a chance to enjoy the sounds of the quieter acts and some loud ones too.
The festival grows year on year I'm told, a recent alteration sees the tables in the main Reds area replaced with banks of chairs. There is still the table set up in the Central stage arena, for which bizarrely nearly a thousand people queue for a couple of hours before it opens each day, many of them needing chairs to sit on whilst they queue. There's some with fold up chairs which prove handy, and they can also provide additional seating in the venues.
There are three main live music stages. Reds which has a capacity of a couple of thousand, the slightly smaller capacity Centre Stage, and The Skyline, plus there is Jaks with open mic sessions and The Sun and Moon which had Tourdion French music & dance.
I'm surprised the central Skyline area isn't better used, though it does provide one of the best showcases of 'Introducing' talent. And it's this area and its audience vote system (the audience choose a daily winner by voting for their favourite act with tokens) that is my favourite of the festival stages. And it's to the organisers' credit that for most of the time this stage runs there's not much else on giving the acts decent exposure.
Two songs get a regular airing from the acts appearing here 'Jolene' and 'House Of The Rising Sun' and I discover some great new talent I've not seen before Said The Maiden, and Kings Of The South Seas proving my favourites on the first day. The more upbeat (and less original) former winning themselves a return next year. Jazz influenced Itchy Fingers win day two, though I preferred Geordies Gilded Thieves by a nose. I don't know who won on Sunday but all the acts were great from opener Dan Webster, through Big Tent, Chris Cleverley, and Polly & The Billets Doux, all the way to closing duo The Black Feathers - all of these were quality acts I'd happily see again. I've no idea who the audience thought were the best.
Last year's winners Merlin's Keep were the first act we watched and proved a lively opener, and we split our time with Jim Moray and Sam Carter's False Lights clashing with them on the other stage. Billy Bragg was on form delighting a packed crowd to a folk audience that keeps the protest song current. Bragg is appreciative of the genre's audience saying he's thankful it let's it's performers get old. Of course he comments on the events in Paris and is selling his merchandise to contribute to Eagles of Death Metal merch manager Nick Alexander's memorial fund.
Bragg's right folk music does love to let it's stars get old and it's nice to see sets from Steeleye Span, Fotheringay, Trad Arrr, and Jacqui McShee's Pentangle, who are all good examples of this. As is Tom Robinson who proves to be one of my highlights of the weekend, with a terrifically upbeat and entertaining set. He had more hits than I remembered.
There is also a wealth of both young talent and acts new to the Butlins folk festival here this weekend, and I enjoy sets from CoCo and the Butterfields, Moulettes, The Band From County Hell (another Introducing winner), Clutching at Straws, The Demon Barbers, and The Unthanks who along with Tom are a highlight of the weekend. The carpet is rather sticky in some of the venues reminding me of old school nightclubs, and it's easy to stand at the front of the stage, or in the space in front of the many bars, but finding a seat if you arrive late proves to be problematic. Access around the arenas and to the toilets is good and there's never a queue at the bar, though I'm conditioned to go whilst acts perform at live events.
I have a surprisingly good time, the staff are helpful, the atmosphere good, and the company lovely, I can see why the winter calendar is getting filled with these events. For many of the acts it's their first time too, and they appear to enjoy the extended festival season, and the festival itself. Holiday parks are well suited to housing this type of off summer season event and Butlins have mastered it well.
Next year's first acts have been announced, and include the Levellers, it seems many of the (older) regulars I spoke to have no idea who they are. They're in for a surprise next year I think. There's a chance to buy early bird tickets before we leave and they seem to be selling well, it seems that this event already has established a regular fan base happy to return each year, perhaps it's the returning introducing acts that provide that draw. More likely it's the chance to enjoy a live music weekend, in comfort, I can certainly see the attraction of these types of winter break. Whilst Butlins at the summer may not appeal, Butlins off season is a great attraction.
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