It's perhaps taken a few years but word is finally getting out; the Butlins Big Weekender packs a punch when it comes to out-of-season festivals. A few years ago, cool cats might have scoffed when you told them you were off to Skegness to spend a December weekend in a chalet. But now, the tickets are golden and the demand high. It's a sell-out crowd who are trying to forget that Christmas is but three weekends away whilst they take in the total delights of the Great British Folk Festival 2016.
I've been to other Big Weekends; the ones dedicated to Rock and Blues and the House Of Fun put on by Madness but, to date, I'd been a folk virgin. I'm not sure why as this is probably much more my genre. Folk is a broad church as evidenced by the variety of music on display this weekend yet it's (mostly) an easily accessible one.
The set-up, as with each of these Big Weekend's is relatively simple. The two cavernous entertainment spaces (Centre Stage and Red's) play host to an afternoon and evening session each day (apart from Friday when there's just an evening session). Curiosity gets the better of us and we ask a friendly security guard who's counting people in and out what the capacity of these monster halls is. The only surprise when we learn that it's 2,000 for the slightly larger Red's and 1,775 for Centre Stage is that the numbers are that low given the voluminous space. There's two acts that play each venue in the afternoon sessions and three each night. This gives performers the chance to play slightly longer sets than they might at a typical festival; it also means that, when you're splitting the crowd between the two venues, any programmer will need to ensure acts of equal billing (though different styles) are paired against each other. It leads to some unavoidable yet almighty clashes. It's testament to the organisers that I never see a 'venue full to capacity' sign over the weekend. They got this conundrum right.
There are other venues as well. The smaller bar, Jaks, plays host to a popular open mic session on the Saturday and Sunday afternoon. It's a grand place to wile away some hours whilst waiting for the better known acts in the larger venues. I curse myself for not bringing my guitar but then reconsider my curse when I note how talented some of the acts are that get up from the crowd. I guess that for many, folk is an immersive genre and the ability to remain as passive observers over the weekend is too challenging. Elsewhere on site is the Skyline Introducing Stage. Under the Butlins dome, a mix of up and coming artists play for our votes and the chance to be on a bigger stage next year. I casually observe this as I walk by but nothing catches my eye or ear enough for me to stop for longer than a song or two.
But, let's go back to the beginning and Friday night. A lengthy drive to the Lincolnshire Coast after work meetings means I manage to miss Cara Dillon, but I do arrive just in time to make my first challenging clash choice; Lindisfarne, or Oysterband. I've seen The Oysters many times over the years so plump for Lindisfarne. If I don't like them, I can always wander between venues I decide. But, there's no chance of not enjoying Lindisfarne. A friend who saw them 40 years ago tells me that their set is pretty much the same as it was then. It doesn't matter at all; for this is timeless and bouncy, swinging folk that can't fail to put a smile on your face. It's expertly played and by the time they get to 'Fog On The Tyne', we're happy to accept that 'no footballer will be joining them on stage for it'. A great way to begin the weekend.
I must throw in something about the folk crowd at this point. Mostly, good humoured and energetic over the weekend, there was an exceptional low point during Lindisfarne. There was standing space in front of the stage and some punters did what was right and stood there. At the end of Lindisfarne's first tune, a belligerent, angry chant could be heard from some of those seating in the venue. "Sit down, sit down, sit down, sit down", the angry mob demanded with such volume that it seemed to confuse Lindisfarne. "We're a band that still stands", said their main man and the demonstration died down. But what ridiculously misplaced arrogance from those that were vehemently shouting.
I'm not sure if it was an intended theme but, like Lindisfarne, a few of the acts we stumbled upon over the course of the weekend were from the North East. Indeed, the very last act we saw on the Sunday were Holy Moly & the Crackers from Newcastle. This was a smart way to end our weekend musical foray into folk. Made for the festival circuit, this young and energetic seven piece play an upbeat and seductive gypsy hotchpotch. They all work incredibly hard to get us moving. Ones to watch out for on next year's circuit I suggest.
Also from the North East, Martin Stephenson is a name I've seen playing acoustically a few times. But, the programme has undersold this particular gig. It's been thirty years since the classic album 'Boat To Bolivia' was released to critical acclaim and now we have a full-on Martin Stephenson and the Daintees show, replaying that wonderful record in full. I'm in a sort of heaven. Somewhere in my attic, I've still got the cassette that I bought in an 'Our Price' with paper round money years ago. I can pretty much sing every word from every track. From the faux-reggae of the title track through to some of the more alt-country numbers, this proves to be a show not to miss. Stephenson still teases the audience and other band members with edge-of-madness tomfoolery but he gets away with it because his singing and playing is still as exquisite as ever. Brilliant.
There's much brilliance around. Bob Geldof, might not be the typical name you'd expect to see headlining a folk festival and it's a point he acknowledges a couple of times when he plays on the Saturday night to a packed-out crowd. Some leave early moaning that 'it's a bit too loud' but they're probably more suited to other headliner, Kate Rusby and her Christmas tunes in the other venue. Geldof is on fire; you can't silence or subdue this man as he spits angrily about situations that have upset him. Still sweary and delightfully gobby, he holds court in a tight suit as he moans about the behaviour of priests, governments and institutions. It all builds to an emotional crescendo for a pointedly angular version of 'I Don't Like Mondays'. Nobody here is looking forward to the end of this festival.
The Travelling Band have the enviable task of following Geldof onto the stage. The Manchester collective play to a dispersed crowd but it's another of the choice sets of the weekend. Some of the songs previewed from their new album sound charmingly melancholic and strangely beautiful. I resolve to head home and listen more to some of their earlier stuff that I'd perhaps too hastily dismissed. They know how to write a fine song and such is their impact, Photographer Phil parts with some hard-earned cash and buys a CD.
The Levellersheadline on the Sunday night (up against Donovan on the other stage). Having seen the mellow-yellow man earlier in the summer and been bitterly disappointed, I choose the ever-dependable Levellers. It's a weekend of classic albums and Mark Chadwick and co play their record from 25 years ago, Levelling The Land. It might be a quarter of a century old but somehow they manage to keep it sounding as fresh and vibrant as it ever was. They've drawn a lot of fans and a bunch of casual observers but batter all into singalong submission from the off and the opening bars of 'one way'. Other bands might mimic the sound (Mad Dog Mcrea are on the bill this weekend) but none of them can topple the Levellers when they're this supreme.
Many women of a certain age (and some men) gather near the front when Paul Young's band, Los Pacaminos, take to the stage. This is stomping good time Tex-Mex music, played with such craft that we're all linking arms and exuberantly swinging with strangers (in a dancing sense). "They're playing my song", observes Photographer Phil when Los Pacaminos launch into the classic, Wooly Bully, and we smile. "Have you noticed how Paul Young hardly sings in this band?", somebody says. We concede that it is true that he does rest his voice and allow the others to sing but it's no bad thing when all make the vocal noise they do. And Paul Young does look very good for a man who has just turned 60.
Similarly, Jona Lewie doesn't look his age. We wonder if the internet has got it wrong for the arty looking man on stage wearing a headset and standing behind a keyboard does not look 69. His is perhaps the most audience-splitting, talked-about set of the weekend. I'm still not sure if Jona was giving us amateur and under-rehearsed nonsense or an insight into a shambolic genius. Let's be charitable and say it's the latter. For most of the set, he plods away at the keyboard, giving a dose of honky-tonk here and there before looping in a synth pop beat or two. He moves away from keyboard to put on an accordion whilst telling us about how he damaged his back when loading this instrument into his car the day before. 'You'll always find me in the kitchen at parties' is an understated earworm and by the time, Jona closes his set with a particularly laidback version of 'Stop The Cavalry', the audience that are left are singing along much louder than the unlikely soldier on stage.
When Jona leaves the stage, the excellent DJ compere, Sue Marchant, plays that Christmas hit again to ramp up the festivities. Sue works hard between acts over the weekend. There's something refreshing about hearing a DJ introduce each track they're spinning as if the show is being broadcast on radio. The comments she makes are inclusive and informative. Shouts out to the Chesterfield massive mix in with the Afro-Celt and Ferocious Dog tracks she's urging the crowd to adore.
Despite a prog-folk pedigree that led to tours with Yes in the 1970's, I'd never before heard of Gryphon. I'm glad I took a chance on their renaissance, medieval folk. On paper, it all sounded like the theme tune to 'Black Adder' yet live this was a much wilder proposition. Like court jesters, they weaved epic instrumentals, laced with occasional verse on Krumhorns, bassoons and guitars. Shut your eyes and allow this to wash over you and it really had the power to take you on a Saturday afternoon time-machine trip. In the set before Gryphon, Sally Barker captivated all with a dreamy set of definitive folk, demonstrating to all why illustrious celebrities could not get enough of her warm and lilting voice on the TV programme of that name.
I'd only previously paid fleeting attention to the songs of Jake Thackray. But I took a punt on John Watterson (Fake Thackray) and was glad I did. It's the lyrical prowess, the smart storytelling, the humorous observation and the tender poignancy that makes these songs what they are. They don't look like easy beasts to play on the guitar either but Watterson has clearly devoted much of his life in offering this tribute and so he picks and plucks with ease. How can you not enjoy simple songs that mistake tortoises with crusty pies? Or tales about the hair of the widow of Bridlington? In a very different way, I add Jake Thackray to my 'must find out more about list' (alongside Gryphon and Travelling Band).
It's been said before and it'll be said again that, whilst the music is often great at these Butlins' weekends, it's the add-ons you're also entitled to that makes these festivals brilliant. Photographer Phil and myself share a six-berth chalet that's perfectly equipped. We're even left some welcome snacks and beer on arrival. You can pile on the pounds whilst here. The food offering is exceptional with enough choice (and more) for the fussiest of eaters. The chalets have self-catering options but we don't need to try the oven. Beer is reasonably priced and there's a decent variety. And everywhere is so clean and tidy. With Christmas being around the corner, the alleys and paths that make up the park are lit with beautiful, shimmering red and silver lights when night falls. We challenge each other to a game of snooker and a table tennis tournament but miss out on a swim as there's not enough time to cram it all in. And across this Butlins' site, the staff that are employed have a smiley, customer service ethic that seems to get better year on year.
It adds up to a folking incredible experience - and one that I'd love to repeat in 2017 for Fairport Convention have been announced as the first headliner.
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