Sidmouth Folk Week offers a feast of live concerts

Sidmouth Folk Week 2011 review

By Hector Gilchrist | Published: Tue 16th Aug 2011

The Spooky Mens Chorale

Friday 29th July to Friday 5th August 2011
Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
£248 for all-in-one adult ticket
Last updated: Tue 19th Jul 2011

Concert: Steve Knightley with Luke Jackson, Hannah Martin and Philip Henry.

This was billed as a 'Hangover Brunch'… Perhaps Steve Knightley may have been suffering a little from a pint or two extra of 'Otter' but true professional that he is, he carried it off without a hitch. He sang some of his well known songs and introduced young protégé Luke Jackson, whose unique and remarkable voice will no doubt be heard by a wider audience in the future. Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin, now touring as a duo, delighted with their combination of music song and dance.

Concert: The Ham Marquee Sunday evening.

Maggie Holland opened this one. I confess that I hadn't heard her in a live performance since an appearance at the Fleet Folk Club probably a couple of decades ago. She is of course well known for a number of her well crafted songs. Starting a little nervously, perhaps due the pressure of preceding the main guest, she was soon into her stride with an English version of a Scots poem, one from the pen of Derrol Adams. Later she sang Robb Johnson's 'Herald of Free Enterprise' with real passion. A fairly short set overall, but evidence that she is still a major performer.

Peggy Seeger
The stage was then graced by Peggy Seeger, who has returned after 16 years living in the United States to take up residence in Oxford. Peggy demonstrated her musical skill on a number of instruments, including her ever present banjo, dulcimer, guitar, keyboards, and even a kind of fretless guitar constructed from an old ammunition box!

This remarkable woman has lost none of her ability to connect with the audience and entertained with a range of material, including some amusing anecdotes and the obligatory 'First Time Ever' - Ewan's love token and much covered ballad. It was real treat to see her performing again. Her vocal skills are naturally not as strong as in her youth but a delight nevertheless. Eliza Carthy, and Sandra Kerr were her special guests on this evening.

Concert: Monday Afternoon.

First on were the duo of Will Pound & Dan Walsh whom I had first heard briefly at Banbury a couple of years ago and more recently at The Ram Club, in Surrey. The combination of guitar and harmonica might not suggest at first a combination of instruments for a full evening, but their performances are quite spell-binding and technically fascinating. They completed a shortened set with skill and humour. Not to be missed if in your area.

Home Service
The main guests were the reformed band, Home Service, enjoying new life and accolades on the Festival circuit. They are, of course, hugely experienced in the fields of Rock and Folk.

My initial reaction was to fear that the overall volume was going to be too high for my ageing ears, but such was the sound balance of instruments and vocals that this turned out not to be the case. John Tams has a most accomplished and attractive vocal technique and his quick wit soon had the audience in the palm of his hand. To my mind, this was one of the best concerts of the week.

Concert: Monday evening.

The trio Uiscedwr, just back that day from Germany, opened with a lively set of tunes and a set as sparkling as fiddler Anna Esslemont's spangled white outfit.

This high energy group soon had the full-house audience tuned into their beat and they proved to be the perfect openers for the main guests of the evening. In contrast, Anna sang beautifully a Sandra Kerr song, 'No Limits' and husband Cormac amazed with his percussionist skills on the specially amplified Bodhran. The group is disbanding as a trio this year but I understand is to be re-formed as a quartet in the future.

The Spooky Mens Chorale
The Spooky Men's Chorale are quite simply a touring phenomenon. Clearly their leader Stephen Taberner has a bizarre sense of humour, which has communicated itself to his choir members, but he is also a skilled choirmaster and remarkable musician.

Most of the choir members have been recruited from the Blue Mountain area of Australia but they are occasionally joined by one or two 'mercenaries' as they travel… two from the UK, in this instance. The choir members mostly have day jobs and in this lengthy three month tour some will be replaced during the schedule.

Their programme, as ever, is a mix of their popular 'off the wall' numbers, where they may 'Dream of Mastadons' and worship the cult of tools. These are interspersed with cleverly constructed harmony songs, based on Georgian melodies.

I acknowledge that not everyone appreciates their humour but I for one came away uplifted, as did the packed audience in The Ham Marquee.

Concert: Tuesday afternoon.

The Irish band Teada, (strings in Irish) opened up the afternoon with a jig and reel set. The young band members play Flute, Fiddle, Melodian, Guitar and Bodhran.

They are another example of the skilled and enthusiastic musicians which Ireland seems to produce in quantity, but this is a very excellent combination at the top of their game.

The Damien O'Kane band followed, with Damian reprising numbers from his CD Summerhill. Damian comes from near Coleraine in the North of Ireland and demonstrated that this area is also a source of unexpected material.

His skill on the banjo is remarkable and his voice rings with an authentic traditional sincerity. Their popularity on the circuit is ensured.

Concert: Tuesday evening.

Alasdair Roberts was first on stage. He has become a feature on the Scottish scene but has not travelled widely over the Border to date. Songs from the Tradition are the main part of his repertoire accompanied by a unique guitar style which blends nicely with his vocal style. He was joined on stage by the main guest of the evening, to duet on the well known ballad 'The Flooe'r o' Northumberland.'

Karine Polwart, accompanied by her brother Steven, and regular accordionist Inge Thomson, delighted the audience with a range of her popular songs and more recent material. Karine's vocals were as ever, crystal clear, unlike some of the week's performers who seem to favour a heavy instrumental sound mix rather than let the essential story line come through. Her rapport with the audience is instant as a result. I am not sure that some of the peripheral percussion and amplification of the accordion base is as effective as it might be, but in the end it was a pleasure to be there.

Concert: Jez Lowe and the Bad Pennies.

Jez Lowe and The Bad Pennies
The Manor Pavilion was the setting for Jez Lowe's take on a Summer Radio Special 'Wotcheor' which was a pastiche of a Northern Radio Variety show of the 50's. With limited rehearsal time this didn't quite come off: however, it was a vehicle for Jez's quick wit, and a parodied sketch involving characters from Star Wars.

Nevertheless we were treated to Jez and the Pennies fine brand of music, with contributions from Northumbrian stalwart singer and musician Benny Graham.

Concert: Kate Rusby and Band.

Hannah James and Sam Sweeney
A sell-out audience at the Ham Marquee had gathered to hear the popular lass from Barnsley. Supporting were the duo of Hannah James & Sam Sweeney, now well known throughout the folk scene. Their contribution vocally and instrumentally was as fresh as ever and Hannah's clog dancing to Sam's quick and accurate fiddle defied gravity. They had an enthusiastic round of appreciation at the end of their set.

Kate Rusby
Kate Rusby is of course, a major influence on the scene, and she has gathered an enthusiastic following. Her early career has been an inspiration for many a young and budding artist. Fans would not have been disappointed in the evening's entertainment. For me, some of this was spoiled by an over amplification of the instrumental backing, resulting in the vocals being lost in the mix. I am not sure if this was a one- off situation, or a result of an attempt to produce a stadium sound within the marquee. Kate was as engaging as ever, Damian might have smiled a bit more.

Meet The Artist: Peggy Seeger: Interviewed by Derek Schofield.

Derek of course plays a major role in the life of the Festival, swapping between duties as MC, Presenter, Historian, and even late night logistics assistant for those 'tired' artists who have forgotten where their digs are.

Peggy Seeger
Peggy began by describing her happy childhood which began in a middle class American home, surrounded by music. Her mother, in particular, was a professional- standard pianist from whom she learned the basics. A change of fortune in her father’s circumstances, and later on the early death of her mother, contributed to her decision to drop out of college and take off to Europe, where she soon found herself befriended by fellow musicians and a period of travelling resulted. Her elder step-brother Pete had been a major influence on her musical roots. A meeting with Ewan Macoll became a life changing experience, firstly as a collaborator in the Radio Ballad series, and later after a difficult three years, as his wife. The rest is probably well known as they were significant movers in the Folk Revival. As always, the question of the merits of the traditional versus contemporary material in the folk song genre arose.

Peggy is quite clear that for her, it is important to preserve the body of traditional song in this country and across the Atlantic. She is however quite happy to include modern material in her gig list.

Meet the Artist: Dougie Maclean: Interviewed by Lester Simpson.

Dougie Maclean
Dougie MacLean hails from a Dunkeld-based shepherding family, again with strong musical interests. He remembers his Gaelic speaking grandfather in 'emotional' evenings when returning from the 'local', singing haunting gaelic tunes by the fireside. That is no doubt the basis of his use of the C tuning of his guitar which can lead to modal based riffs which have in turn been the foundation of many of his most successful compositions. He is of course a fine fiddle player and has currently taken up the piano. Following his decision to quit University in favour of a musical life, touring with the Tannahill Weavers, he later decided to go solo and set up Dunkeld Records at Butterstone.

Remarkably, his most famous song 'Caledonia' was written in his early twenties and is now known internationally, and sung in several languages. Another success was a film tune written for 'The last of The Mohicans' and several other less well known, commercial efforts, in addition to the 20 CDs he has recorded over the years. He has now cut down on his touring commitments to spend more time with his family and to organise the popular Amber Festival. Dougie raised concern about the impact of the Free Download culture promoted by the two major players within the industry. He acknowledges that this will greatly affect the income of most Folk musicians and is in discussion with fellow artists in an attempt to perhaps create a subscription site which might help protect income to some degree.

Folk Opera: The Transports. In Cooperation with The Arts Council of England

This was another sell-out production at The Ham. Written by the late Peter Bellamy, the folk opera was chosen as a memorial to his too early passing, twenty years before.

The Transports (Peter Bellamys folk opera)
Joan Crump, Artistic Director of the Festival has been instrumental in bringing together the new cast for this production and approached the artists Paul Sartin, Sam Sweeney,and Jim Moray to prepare an updated score for this new casting. This included one of the original cast members, Martin Carthy on this occasion, taking the part of the Narrator originally played by Peter.

Other principal parts were taken by Damian Barber, Gavin Davenport, Eliza Carthy, Jackie Oates, Lester Simpson, Jim Moray, James Fagan, Jez Lowe, and the Young 'Uns.

The Musicians were very ably led by Paul Sartin and included Sam Sweeney, Paul Hutchison, Peter Judge ,Beth Porter,and David Byett. The intensive rehearsal time fitted in and directed by, Joan between commitments during the busy week's schedule was a credit to all who took part. An interesting twist was the part of the 'Humane Turnkey' being taken by an Australian (James Fagan).

The Production was introduced on stage, by Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of South Bank Arts, who have co-operated in the production of this ballad opera.

The story is a simple one about the transportation of convicts to Botany Bay with a sub-plot of a young girl and her lover - a fellow convict. Shortly after giving birth in jail, she was to be separated from him by her proposed transport to Australia and his transfer to another jail. Fortunately the kindly turnkey has influence and the couple are re-united. Whether or not they land safely in Botany Bay is not disclosed.

In the event this production was a roaring success with a standing ovation from the audience. It is to be hoped that it will be performed elsewhere in the future.

Concert: Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick.

The Sidmouth Festival was an occasion to celebrate Martin Carthy's 70th year and for the evening he was joined by his original partner Dave Swarbrick. Those who know "Swarbs" medical history will know that he is a phenomenon in that regard, which always makes the occasion more poignant and remarkable.

The two musicians reprised their back catalogue of traditional material opening with the signature song 'Sovay', which will remind those of us who were around at that time why we bought their first L.P, and why so many were encouraged to take an interest in the revival of the English Folk Tradition. We owe much to the inspiration created by this original duo and to Martin's continuing support of the Folk Scene, particularly during this difficult year of Norma's illness. We wish them both well.
review by: Hector Gilchrist

photos by: Eve Mathews

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