I am standing on the edge of a makeshift dance floor underneath a marquee that serves little purpose but to add decoration to this hall. Hours earlier, chairs had been placed in line as if at a school assembly whilst we watched energetic folk play worldly folk within this North Sea venue. But now, those chairs have been stacked and a band, The Dub Barn Collective, are playing worldly reggae-jazz to those of us gathered. In the middle of the dance floor is a thick white pole. People, male and female, young and old, approach the pole and make shapes with their hands. They cusp, grope and cast spells around this bollard. It takes me a while to realise what is happening. This isn't some strange Northern folk indoctrination but rather it's a ritual that we can all join in with.
The white pole is an electronic theremin. Our movement is making sound. We are guiding the band on stage to follow the noise we make. This is a late night in Whitby. The Musicport festival is in free flow. We are interacting with the Theremin Bollards. It's a magical experience.
In truth, things have been building to this crescendo for a few hours now on this Saturday night. A run of superb, out-of-this-world acts, have kept us enthralled and entertained as we've flitted between the stages that make up Musicport. The wonderful Victorian theatre is a truly perfect space to sit down and watch acts do their thing. Whether up in the circle or down in the stalls, the comfort is plenty and the view unblighted. We watch Mitch Benn from the circle. He pitches his set of laughs just right for a crowd on the edge of drunken darkness though some parents feel the need to leave with their children when the songs allude to swearing. His best tunes don't even allude to swearing but go at it with hammer and tongs. He derides the participants of the Eurovision Song Contest in a song that in less capable hands might descend into casual racism. He leaves us in no doubt about his real intent when he tirades against UKIP. Unsurprisingly, many of the audience raise a big cheer at this point. Surprisingly, there are a few who seem agitated. A sign of the times perhaps, that people who intend to vote for a party who actively want to limit their interaction with the world feel entirely comfortable attending a world music festival?
Later in this theatre space, we enjoy Robyn Hitchcock. Here's a man that I've seen live on numerous occasions. We arrive a little late and pass people who are leaving. "He's rubbish, he can't sing," states one vocal gent. I needn't worry though. The truth is that Hitchcock's singing voice is probably an acquired taste. It's unique and different, gentle yet fierce. He treats us to a set from his extensive back catalogue, mixing older songs with newer releases. His songwriting oozes humanity. He tells us that his songs are all true stories and then deconstructs the nonsense within such a phrase. It's folk with a measure of mod, psychedelia within a Britpop brew. When he launches into the classic, 'My Dead Wife', we fight with tears and gasp at the talent on stage.
Sandwiched between Mitch Benn and Robyn Hitchcock is Lucy Ward and her band. Whilst Benn and Hitchcock tread the theatre boards, Lucy Ward fills the main stage space at this Whitby Pavilion. When I've seen this Derby lass before, she's been a solo artist; just Lucy and her wraparound voice that seems to fill the air and get inside your head. Tonight, with full band, that experience is amplified further. She's an entertaining, honest performer. Her set moves from melancholic songs about sadness and death to uplifting disco-folk covers. You can see why she's won and will continue to win awards.
This main hall is perhaps better designed for daytime conferences rather than festival gigs. A room, wider than it is deep, you have to pick your space carefully in this hall to ensure that you can see proceedings on the stage. There are many seats laid out in a crescent shape and a moon-shaped, standing space holds others in front of those chairs. You have to be quick to get one of these seats for the more popular acts across the weekend. Punters mark out their territory, like aggressive countries occupying space, by placing coats and bags over the chairs when they are elsewhere. Dotted around the outside of this auditorium are various festival stalls selling clothes, cards, decorative jewellery and things that smell when you burn them.
I'm typically not one to buy lots from such stalls. But the well stocked bar is selling a fine Musicport Festival ale and later on the Saturday evening, I'm feeling generous. Glorious smells from the aromatherapy stall convince me that I can't live without a ceramic oil burner (with fragrant oil). I buy one boxed up. It's only on my return from the festival that I realise I have been conned. I trust this must be a retailer mistake rather than a genuine fraud but my box has an amateur looking piece of pot in it and no oil. Fortunately, I fared better with my other ale-induced purchase. There's an excellent bookstall promoting a local publisher called Route. Here, after a friendly chat, I buy a copy of Steve Hanley, the bass player from The Fall's biography. Steve gives a talk at Musicport and signs my book. He seems remarkably well-adjusted for somebody who has lived in the shadow of Mark E Smith for so long.
Musicport is a festival that's not content to rest on its laurels. It doesn't need to make wholesale changes because things aren't broken but it does make subtle amendments. It's offering indoor camping for the first time this year. I shy away from such communal pursuits and simply amuse myself by imagining what this camping might consist of. Could it be lots of people in lines of sleeping bags, in a historical re-enactment of scenes from the underground in the Blitz? Instead, I plump for one of Whitby's many fabulous Bed and Breakfasts.
One of the new changes that I do embrace is the new Cookery Galley stage. Over the course of the weekend, acts that are playing are given the opportunity to provide cookery demonstrations and tasting sessions whilst an audience observe. On Friday night, the charming Guo Yue makes an incredible noodle dish. He trades secrets on oils to use and insists on only using raw peppercorns which snap and crackle when added to the mix. Vegetarians pounce like hungry seagulls to devour Guo's dish. His pork based noodle dish lasts a bit longer and it really does make for a sublime snack. On Saturday, we watch two members of Lo'Jo make a biscuit based, sweet meringue thing that is liberally drowned in a five year old home made mango rum. Lo'Jo's drummer displays a great aptitude for seperating egg whites from yolks but aside from this, this is a kitchen of crazy capers. It's exquisite fun to watch though and is charmingly hosted throughout by Mim Suleiman.
Both Guo Yue and Lo'Jo put in fabulous sets when they play their music. Guo Yue is a bamboo flute player. His Saturday afternoon set in the main hall provides a chance to close your eyes and let the meditative blowing wash over you. He tells stories with such charm about rituals of nature and peace. Full of smiles and at one with himself, you sense that ladies of a certain age are quivering around him. Lo'Jo' headline on the Saturday night in something of a coup for Musicport. Difficult to define and hard to pin down, they throw influences into a great, big cooking pot, stir it around, add some spicy flavour and come up with a sound that I want to define as Serge Gainsbourg does Creole - but that's hardly licking their bowl.
Food, glorious food. If you're unable to get enough calories from the cookery demonstrations, then Musicport is quite well served by food provision. There's a cafe within the main pavilion that does a roaring trade in takeaway type meals for little more than a fiver. Tasty Chilli Con Carne's and vegetable curries are the order of the day. Outside, in the courtyard by the main entrance, the cheerful men on the Johnny Baghdad stall provide falafel based treats for those not wanting to use the cafe. It's also just a short walk to the town of Whitby where fish and chips are a mushy must.
Not all of the music on offer entirely sings for my supper. Friday night's audience are wrapped in the Scottish lilt of an acoustic Idlewild. There's no doubting that Roddy Woomble has a fine voice and that he's surrounded by musicians that can play but they're a bit too earnest for me, grumpy enough after a long drive from the Midlands. I want Andy Kershaw to really get the cafe cohort dancing when he DJs later that evening but his choice of music is perhaps better listened to on a radio show. The Bevvy Sisters won accolades in Edinburgh apparently (they all have undeniably fine voices) but there's an obtuse, cold condescension about their approach when they play in the theatre that leaves me searching elsewhere.
For every act that doesn't quite do it for me, there are plenty that do though. Ric Birtill is a new name to me but anybody who sings about Katie Hopkins (derogatorily), the perils of car parking and other assorted minutiae is fine with me. It's a slightly shambolic entertainment but one in which the audience are encouraged to take part, to laugh and smile. Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita have been impressing all on the festival circuit this year with their harp and kora combinations. There is surely no better way to spend a Sunday afternoon than to let their melodies get inside your head. They're held in such high regard here that all of the seats are taken at least twenty minutes before they take to the stage. Kathryn Williams has been on this circuit for a good many years but she has lost little of her charm that first propelled her into Mercury music prize nominations. More music to wash over your Sunday hangover. I have to leave on the Sunday evening before The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown can take to the stage but there is no doubt in my head that this would have been a triumphant homecoming gig for one of Whitby's most famous sons.
Last year at Musicport, I threatened yet failed to get to the Royal Hotel for one of the workshops. I very nearly made it to a Ukelele workshop this year but for a programme change. My Tai Chi and Bulgarian singing skills remain unstirred for another year. For a fleeting moment, I was tempted to indulge in the Sunday morning sea swim until I realised that I'd forgotten to pack my trunks! For a small, contained festival, there really is much to explore here.
Musicport is a delightful, friendly festival. It knows what it does well and doesn't stray far from doing that but does give itself space to try out new things and to move forward. The team of volunteers that work hard throughout the year (and even harder when the festival runs) deserve considerable credit for helping to make this a fine Autumn break. Top notch music and fine festival surrounds make this one to savour sweetly. I'm looking forward to 2015 already.
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first acts announced for October's indoor world music festival
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