Sidmouth Folk Week blossoms in the rain

Sidmouth Folk Week 2008 review

published: Thu 14th Aug 2008

Eliza Carthy

Friday 1st to Friday 8th August 2008
Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
Adult season ticket £155, other prices vary depending on event
last updated: Tue 15th Jul 2008

Sidmouth Festival has often had a tempestuous relationship with the weather. The Thursday night storm washed out the Festival Opening Show in the Market Square, and had people running through the curtain of water from the roof of the Ham Marquee to gain access to the pre-festival concert featuring Eliza Carthy.

Grey skies and spells of rain continued through most of the next eight days, but in some way this simplified the decision of what to do during the day: sitting on the beach in warm sunshine was not an available option and people therefore hurried between the many venues in town, carrying, if not using, umbrellas, and searching out their choice of events from nearly 500 that were taking place from 1st – 8th August.

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As ever during the festival, Sidmouth blossoms with people, activities and music. The promenade acts as a ribbon of communication between the Ham with its main concert marquee and the various smaller venues along it, up to the Manor Pavilion and across to the Blackmore Gardens. There, the Dance and CraftMarket tents share territory with the Children's Activity areas. The pubs in town divide between those hosting folk fringe events such as singarounds, music sessions and ceilidhs in rooms and gardens, and those which rebel and host alternative entertainment for those who prefer rock or jazz to folk. A walk round town takes one through 'catchment areas' of sound, moving from the sound of drums to ballads, or bagpipes to clog dancing, rock band to morris bells, all accompanied by the frenzied cries of seagulls.

The organisation of the Festival seems to have worked smoothly this year with no sign of a last-minute rush to get final details finished. The main Ham marquee included for the first time raked seating at the back – a popular innovation – and a plain black stage area. The lighting was thus more effective, even in daylight. The sound was good although I found that when sitting at the front sometimes the bass was too heavy.

The wet weather did give rise to some difficulties on the campsite, and car access was restricted for a while, but fortunately nothing like the infamous year of '97 when parts of it were evacuated. Traders and buskers on the prom were probably most affected by the rain, and the Sunday dance displays there were not as enjoyable in the blustery conditions.

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Sidmouth festival has always provided many activities for children. In the past there was a morning dance/ceilidh session in the Blackmore Gardens, as well as various workshops. Now there are many craft activities, theatre and puppet shows and story telling. The Shooting Roots workshops for 15-18 year olds are long-established and many former participants are now appearing as guest artists round the country.

The pre-festival concert opened with Rubus, a young band who had to contend with the sound of torrential rain on the marquee roof. Later in the weekend the intriguingly named The Park Bench Social Club showcased the inspiring fiddle playing of Ross Cooper from Shetland. Isambarde, another young group, managed to find traditional songs to sing with a pronounced twinkle in the eye, and the oboe accompaniment gave a modern, almost jazzy feel. The Shee, a group of six girls from the Newcastle Folk Music Degree course, seemed to play every instrument possible to get on stage, with some clog-dancing as well. They also had some great art-work on their cd cover and publicity!

These bands, though, I felt were eclipsed by Wheeler Street, a young group of 7 from Maidstone. The enthusiasm they put into their set was contagious – a quick-fire rendition of the 'Raggle Taggle Gypsy' was enough to bring any number of new fans into their audience.

The headline acts for the main concerts thus had a lot to live up to. Show of Hands commands sell-out performances all over the country, and their festival opening night was no exception. They can be relied upon to give a polished performance, both with sound and lighting. Steve Knightly's songs are wide ranging in subject and often topical, and Phil Beer's musicianship is superb. The enthusiasm of the audience is demonstrated by their participation in the choruses. I feel that the contribution now played by Miranda Sykes both with her double bass accompaniment and her singing has greatly enhanced the band.

Eliza Carthy

It is some years since I saw Eliza Carthy and I was pleasantly surprised at the direction she is taking. This concert was promoting her newly-released cd, which has taken seven years to produce. Her background is of traditional music and song but this now seems to be leaning towards chanson-sounding narrative songs. 'Mr. Magnifico' and 'Oranges and Seasalt' I particularly enjoyed. Her ease of performance, confidence and maturity on stage were laudable.

In marked contrast to Eliza Carthy was a concert by Karen Tweed, accompanied by Timo Alokitila, a Finnish composer and pianist. The delicate nuances of Karen's accordion playing were aptly complemented by the piano threading through the tunes.

London Uyghur Ensemble

In a similarly quiet manner, the musicians from the London Uyghur Ensemble mesmerized me. The early evening concert in the Parish Church by the four musicians and a singer/dancer was quite unique in this year's festival – it took me back to when it was truly an 'international' one with visiting dance teams from all over the world. Although based in this country the musicians were redolent of their homeland – mystical sounds of unfamiliar eastern instruments and the ethereal voice of Rahima. She wore a flowing green sequined dress and moved in an understatement of dance.

There were other foreign dance teams performing in Sidmouth: the French dancers Folklorique d'Aramon and the Latvian group Vainags. It is interesting to see these dancers alongside the English Morris teams, to appreciate the differences and the similarities. The Demon Barber Roadshow in their Ham concert gave a powerful demonstration of some of these traditional dances. The Rapper Sword dance displayed impressive control and strength performing in such a confined space.

Quinteto Mambo Jambo
The main venue for dance events and workshops is the Bulverton Marquee, on the edge of town near the camp-site. I visited it for the Afro-Cuban Salsa-Samba Party with Quinteto Mambo Jambo. I was impressed to see that there were dancers waiting to start as soon as the band began, and that there was a wide age range. The atmosphere was good with coloured lighting enhancing the dance floor as well as the stage. A couple of nights later I went to see Blowzabella, at the start of their 5 hour long mega-dance. I stand to be corrected... Was that really a hurdy gurdy?

John Tams

On a quieter note – I attended a series of interviews that Lester Simpson hosted with the main singer/songwriters appearing in concerts through the week. Generally he had little to do but prompt the flow of information from artists of widely different backgrounds and experience. Ian Bruce, John Tams and Roy Bailey are well established as writers and performers of interesting song and they contrasted well with Lisa Knapp and Karine Polwart, both more recent, award-winning song-writers. The interview with Sid Kipper was a more difficult task, for Lester could never quite tell which persona he was addressing. The limericks were entertaining, though.

New Rope String Band
Continuing in comic vein, I went to the Laugh with Me concert at the Manor Pavilion. The show started with Wyndebagge, Paul Saunders in the guise of court jester, player of hurdy-gurdy and bagpipes. Great fun, great repartee with the audience. Belshazzars Feast followed, with their consummate instrumental skills and gently mocking humour. The New Rope String Band – their slapstick and circus-style routines are laced together with musical virtuosity – track down a performance if you can. The pix give some idea of the complexity of the show and the theatricality of their performance. It was a shame that this particular show was not staged at the Ham, as there were a lot of people who could not get in, and New Rope String Band are a particular favourite with young audiences.

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As ever, the Festival came to a close on the Friday with long established regular features. There were the afternoon performances of the major workshops – the Festival Choir with over a hundred attendees is always impressive under Sandra Kerr's guidance... and another feature is the Ceilidh in the Ford, that doesn't really happen, honest, but is great fun for all involved! The final procession of dancers, and some from the craft workshops with their paper lanterns, paraded along the promenade, descended onto the beach, and their lighted torches were then extinguished in the sea. A firework display finished the official events, apart from the farewell gatherings at Late Night Extra or the bar at the Bedford!

It is always difficult to come to terms with the quiet that has descended onto the town by the following morning, so suddenly does it revert to its peaceful personality.

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review by: Eve Mathews

photos by: Eve Mathews

Friday 1st to Friday 8th August 2008
Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
Adult season ticket £155, other prices vary depending on event
last updated: Tue 15th Jul 2008

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