The last time I visited Whitby I was on a romantic weekend away with a woman I could have easily fallen in love with. But, over the course of the weekend, I realised she had a habit for sniffing uncouthly, despite not having a cold. Call me a snob but when she asked me what the cafetiere was in my bag, having never seen one before, I realised that this affair was going to be short-lived. I remember kippers, a breezy walk up the steps to the abbey, gothic inspiration, fish and chips and holding hands as we walked along the beach. I also remembered seeing a half -ripped Musicport poster clinging desperately to a lamp-post and realising that I had missed the festival by one weekend. This journey through the world of music looked fun and I resolved to head back to Whitby when time allowed.
After a long Friday night drive, I quickly drop my bags off in my B&B for the weekend (there's no way I would camp in October even if this was on offer) and then traverse town to the Whitby Pavilion. It's dark when I arrive but I can hear the waves lapping below and realise that this'll be quite an atmospheric setting by day, perched on the edge of North Sea cliffs. I'm met by smiling stewards, in red T-shirted uniforms. They simply couldn't be more helpful as I locate the ticket office. Indeed, throughout the weekend, there is nothing that is too much hassle for this merry band of volunteers and their contagious, friendly spark rubs off on all around.
Musicport is based around three stages within the Pavilion. The Pavilion itself is a mix of old and new. A warren of corridors links an older part of the building with a newer exhibition space. It's the main stage in this newer area in which I spend most of my Friday night. It's a big rectangular shaped room with a low and flat perspex-like ceiling. Bunting is fastened across points in the ceiling to attempt to give an illusion of festival. A range of clothing, art,massage and music stalls are dotted around the edge trying their best to authenticate the experience. Seats are laid out in tidy rows and for the best part of the weekend, it's from these seats that the world music aficionado's get their fix of ska, folk, traditional infusions, Desert and Balkan blues. A small dancefloor in front of the slightly elevated stage provides space for those who want to wobble.
The North Sea stage is also housed within the more modern part of the Pavilion. It's downstairs from the main hall in a clinical space perhaps more accustomed to Zumba and choir classes. An effort to make this space more festival-like is made by installing a large marquee within the room. Plastic seats are laid out in a theatre style school assembly format suggesting that this is not a space in which to dance but to listen and appreciate the acts that perform. Over the weekend here I see folk, electro-klezmer, vintage jazz and Peruvian marineras.
The theatre is the third venue of the Pavilion. This is a wonderful Victorian space. From comfy seats within the stalls or box like seats within the circle, there's an array of entertainment on offer in here. I disappoint myself by missing the Siberian throat singing on Friday but catch stunning folk, intelligent cinema and surreal opera at other stages of the weekend.
DJ Derek is something of a legend in many circles. I recall his presence many years ago when a student in Bristol. He seemed old then mixing up his serving of dancehall, rocksteady, ska and soul interspersed with knowing patois. Like Rodigan's awkward elder brother, Derek sups from a pint of real ale as he conveys his love of music, history and DJing to the late night Musicport crowd in the main hall. It's a set you might expect but none the less captivating for it. The festival programme tells us that this is Derek's last ever festival set before he retires. We leave the Pavilion, tired at two AM, enthused and enthralled by what we've just witnessed.
Before Derek took to the main stage to close proceedings on the Friday night, The Neville Staple Band had entertained. Such is the familiarity of the tunes in this set that some of the more dedicated world music fans leave, seemingly disappointed that it's 'karaoke for the masses'. In truth, this set does take a little while to get going but when it does I have no qualms in singing along loudly. Hits of The Specials and Ska classics are exactly what I need after a long drive. I top up my pints at the bar and relax into the weekend.
The Whitby Pavilion is a fully functional conference space and so because of this it's got the infrastructure within to feed, water and ablute the congregation. Within a glass atrium just off the main hall, there’s a cafe serving all manner of solid grub throughout the weekend. A generous serving of chilli con carne dashed over a mountain of chips only set me back £5. Similar special offers entice the vegetarians as well. There’s a constant stream of DJ’s playing in this atrium though their beef isn’t loud and invasive. This is a world music diner over which punters can chatter and catch up with friends they’ve made over the Musicport years. If the cafe food isn’t to your tastes then a select range of catering vans in the car park (Johnny Baghdad’s and the Tibetan Kitchen) provide more exotic fare. This doesn’t appear to be a boozy affair but a bar that serves both the main hall and the atrium is amply stocked to keep us going throughout the weekend. A little more choice of real ale wouldn’t go amiss but I guess the festival is constrained by the Pavilion’s suppliers. There are no portaloos at this festival and very few queues either as long as you don’t time your ablution at the end of a set.
It's early Saturday evening and queues are building to head into the theatre. Technical limitations are delaying our entry but people in the know seem genuinely excited to be about to see a new operina about the history of yodelling by Ergo Phizmiz. Described in the excellent programme as the sort of thing to file between Frank Zappa and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, I decide to take a punt. I wait for half an hour for the technical problems to resolve. What follows on the theatre stage is bemusing, confusing and ever so slightly disturbing. It might have been a work of genius but it also might have been shit. A family school of foxes take to the stage. Daddy Fox and Mummy Fox take turns to educate their baby foxes about the history of yodelling by yodelling. We are treated to tales of yodelling heroism as a Barbie doll attached to a stick gets drowned from behind a canvas screen. Some audience members can't help but laugh at the preposterous, shambolic surrealism they see before them. Others cringe in awkward embarrassment. Some try to understand what is being said whilst others (who are perhaps less sober) let the ridiculousness of it all float over them. Did I like it? I don't think so. Would I watch a show by Ergo Phizmiz again? Absolutely.
At other festivals I’ve been to this year, Phizmiz might have been subjected to a shower of bottles but there’s no such danger of such treatment from the Musicport crowd. This is a tolerant, ageing and incredibly friendly bunch. I don’t meet many Musicport first-timers but I’m also not met with any cliqueness that familiarity with the festival might bring. This is a festival for the Womad punter averse to tents. I lose count of the number of men I see with pony-tails attempting to disguise an otherwise bald pate. (Actually, I suspect that people here are also seen at Womad).
My guess is that most people are here because of the music and there is a staggering array of quality 'world' music on offer. Tamikrest are our Saturday night headliner. Like Tinariwen, this Saharan based outfit specialise in the kind of hypnotic, ploddy Desert-blues that captivates the crowd to sway in unison. Prior to this on the main stage, Skip 'Little Axe' Mcdonald shows off a more traditional Blues-rock thing as his guitar electrifies with some virtuoso noodlings. Over Sunday lunchtime, the Whiskey Dogs gather around one radio mic and take us back to some good time Americana classics on banjos, a double bass and other assorted instruments. The Wonderful Sound of the Cinema Organ bring the sound of vintage jazz up to date, attempting to inject some dance rhythm into the proceeedings. Himmerland draw upon Danish and African influences to give us a very worldly folk. Moulettes charm with their close harmonies, laughter and accessible tunes. These are just a few of the quality musical acts that impress me over the weekend.
Saturday afternoon and I take a chance in the theatre with The Young 'Uns from Teeside. The programme simply tells me that these are 'one of the most sought after folk acts today' and that they bring 'abiding enthusiasm for traditional song'. Those familiar with the 'translate the programme' game we often play at festivals would suspect slim pickings from this description. This could well translate as 'Once played Cockles and Mussels to rapturous applause at a folk club in Durham'. But, this set is a lesson in sometimes going with the flow. Sometimes acapella, sometimes with accompaniment from accordion and guitar, this trio of twenty-something men banter so effortlessly on stage that the captive audience are dragged into their jolly world. Songs about political struggles of yesteryear mix in with emotive tales of love to ensure that, by the end of their set, the audience are stood from their seats demanding more. Folking great.
Sunday lunchtime and I'm intrigued to see what sort of set Boff Whalley, formerly lead singer with Chumbawumba, will deliver. He's here to 'promote' his book 'Run Wild' which appears to be about his love of running. Boff clutches a copy of his book close and in a delightful hour of storytelling, interspersed with songs on his acoustic guitar, threatens to read passages from it. In the end, he only reads one passage from the book as he flits between memories of life on the road and amusing tales. Others who are less engaging would perhaps lose their audience as they move into discussions about Pantheism but Boff knows when to inject humour into the proceedings. I'd have been happy if this set had lasted longer.
Although, this is a festival in which I immerse myself in musical treats, it'd be remiss of me to not mention some of the other entertainment on offer. Sunday is cinema day in the Theatre. Sitting in the dark, nursing hangovers whilst watching cerebral documentaries from across the world is no bad thing. I snooze in and out of awareness whilst watching recollections of Chicago's Maxwell Street from Blues enthusiasts, but awake with a jolt when the Producer of this film, Paul Baldwin, answers questions from the floor. Later in the day, I could have watched documentaries about Neil Innes (who headlines the Sunday after I've left to travel home), Greek Rebetiko and the war in Bosnia. There's a whole programme of workshops as well. Mostly taking place away from the Pavilion in the ballroom of the Royal Hotel, I opt not to embarrass my family name by attempting Egyptian hand percussion, Indian vocal percussion, drum circles, scratch choirs or intermediate ukulele with yoga.
With it's international zeal and the desire to inspire, Musicport could run the risk of crossing into earnest territories lacking in smiles. But, it pulls itself back from that brink simply because it knows when not to take itself too seriously. Whitby is a fine town in which to house such a friendly, informed festival of all-round quality. My relationship with this place is far from over.
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