a selected review of Sidmouth Folk Week

Sidmouth Folk Week 2013 review

published: Thu 22nd Aug 2013

around the town (cream of Devon showcase)

Friday 2nd to Friday 9th August 2013
various venues, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
264 for all-in-one adult ticket
daily capacity: 25000
last updated: Thu 4th Jul 2013

Saturday 3rd

Ham Marquee. Opening Concert.

The Sidmouth Town Band were an excellent choice to be the openers of the concert. They played a wide range of music with precision and enthusiasm. No information was given regarding the set list, but it contained some well known tunes from the shows and a few competition piece, favourites. Clearly a band which is a credit to the town and which has only added to its stature since its last performance on the Ham stage twelve months ago.

Second on stage were Ron Taylor and Jeff Gillett. Both are well known performers of English traditional music. Ron’s choice on this “ taster” concert were the songs 'Adieu John Barleycorn' and an up tempo version of 'Lovely Nancy'. His delivery and clear diction is recommended to any singer aspiring to learn how to perform this type of material. Jeff on the other hand, is the type of accompanist whose skill on guitar never intrudes on the song , which is frequently a weakness found in many duo performers. Jeff is of course, a regular performer at singarounds with his charming wife and recognises the need to balance guitar virtuosity with the telling of a story in song. 

A change of genre, saw the Halsway Manor Group, “Strutting their stuff” in the form of traditional music augmented by a group of contemporary dancers. These youthful performers had only been together at the Manor for a week and it was a delight to see and hear them and admire how quickly they had gelled as a performing group.

It is important that the Halsway Manor continues to receive support as these young folks are the “acorns” of our musical interest. 

The third performer was Siobhan Miller from Scotland, already in receipt of prestigious awards and deservedly so. She is of course the daughter of a well known Scots singer and maybe it is genetic good fortune which has gifted such a stunning voice. Purity of sound and a rather mystical Celtic overtone, reminiscent of the great Karen Mathieson, has given her the ability to hold an audience in the palm of her hand at an unexpectedly early age in her career. She sang versions of 'The Four Marys' and 'The Kings Shilling'. 

Blair Dunlop is another performer with a “folk pedigree” finished the concert with three numbers. He has a strong clear voice and clever guitar technique, which lends itself to contemporary treatment of folk standards and self-penned material.

He is a rising star in the folk firmament and no doubt has the ability to attract a wider audience.

 The Bedford. 230pm

This two hour concert, was shared between two solo performers, Lucy Pringle, James Findlay and Coope Boyes and Simpson.

Lucy from the Edinburgh area, opened the afternoon, never an easy task for a solo unaccompanied performer. She confessed afterwards to having felt nervous on this her first visit to Sidmouth. Not that it showed, and in any case it generally serves to keep a performer on his or her mettle.

Lucy would normally sing most of her programme with guitar accompaniment but she had instead chosen her acapella programme carefully, to offer a contrast in pace and sentiment.

She has a fine voice and it is easy to see why she has become a popular choice of Folk Club and Festival organisers throughout Scotland.We look forward to hearing her more often over the Border in the future. 

James Findlay, is a talented young man, with the ability to accompany his songs on fiddle, guitar and melodion .He also has a quirky sense of humour which went down well with his audience. He was a winner of The BBC Radio2 Young Folk Awards in 2010 with a recent release of his Fellside album “ Sport and Play” No doubt he is destined o become a permanent fixture on the scene should he so wish.

Coope Boyes and Simpson, began their set with chorus songs from their well known repertoire, which pleased their fans and perhaps one or two who had not heard them before, although this seems unlikely given their long standing popularity. I thought that the sound balance produced by the members of Doug Bailey’s experienced team was particularly good. Jim Boyes’s strong baseline providing a firm foundation for the vocals of Barry and Lester.These are established performers at the top of their game and are reviewed below at their later Ham Marquee concert.

Ham Marquee. Evening 

The opening performers, Coope Boyes and Simpson, began their programme with one of their trademark numbers, 'The Cool of the Day' familiar to all of their fan base and guaranteeing an immediate positive reception from the audience. It is clear to see why the trio have become such a popular choice for Festivals and Folk Clubs.

On stage personality and professionalism is perhaps the key to their shows, but they are equally popular off stage. Incidentally their collaboration with world renowned author Michael Morpurgo, has deservedly brought them to a wider audience.

Like all artists of long experience and talent, the performances are made to look easy with casual banter between the trio and amusing anecdotes .Their list contained a wide ranging choice with a song about New Zealand, one from the pen of the late Michael Mara, Rufford Park, (collected by Percy Grainger in 1906 and a couple from their usual wide repertoire.

These were followed by the song, 'Little Hill of Shoes' a poem originally composed by the polymath broadcaster and author Clive James.

Now and again, a song well performed can create a special moment and this was one of them. The audience were spell-bound and the connection between them and the trio was palpable. The story is based on the iconic holocaust photograph of a, pile of shoes once worn by victims of the gas chambers. It became a moment for the long term memory bank.

The trio finished with the rousing chorus shanty, 'Shallo Brown'. 

Maddy Prior, Hannah James and Giles Lewin were the following artists. Over the years, Maddy has become expert at re-inventing the mix and this grouping was no exception and well up to her usual high standards. I am of course familiar with the individual talents of these performers but this was my first experience of them as a trio. Needless to say, I was impressed. Maddy’s voice was in particularly good form and has in my opinion, mellowed nicely with maturity. Occasionally, I have found the tone a little strident but not now.

Hannah performed a lively rendition of the 'Brisk Young Farmer', and this was followed by Maddy’s 'Collier Lad'. The mood then changed to songs from The Border Lands, near to which Maddy now lives. 'Lock The Door Lariston' and 'Lammermoor' were included and close harmony took centre stage on 'Lord Dacre' with mediaeval pipes and accordion.

A geographical Doctor Who moment then took place, with the trio transporting us to Eastern Europe, with songs from both Georgia and Bulgaria. All in all a very enjoyable musical experience which I hope to repeat. 

Sunday 4th

The Bedford. 2.30pm   

Now I never did get the opportunity to ask Infinite Cherries, our opening duo, the origin of their name.

I expect that it may well change as they form new partnerships and perhaps musical styles. Suffice to say that these are two very talented young men who somehow have managed to combine school work and the obvious duo rehearsal time, which has resulted in performances on melodion and fiddle beyond their years. Their twenty minute instrumental spot was lively and entertaining. We will hear much more from these two I am sure.

Jeff Warner, is well known to both British and American Folk audiences and of course grew up in a musical family with parents who were esteemed collectors of American traditional music.

He is renowned for his seemingly laid back delivery and ability to connect with his audience whilst providing a scholarly history of each of his chosen songs.

He began his set with a Stephen Foster song 'Old Louisiana' followed by a shanty from his collaboration with other artists on the 'Short Sharp Shanties' project, instigated by the well known singers Tom and Barbra Brown from Devon and recorded on the Wildgoose label.

His programme contained a version of 'The Devil and the Farmers Wife' no doubt transported to The States by settlers and changed over the centuries.There are both English and Scottish versions, the latter known as Kellyburn Braes and published in the 18th C. Scots Musical Museum. On Jeff’s version, it was accompanied by the Jaws Harp. No doubt a scourge of the dental profession!

The mood was changed by a fine rendition with concertina, of 'Her Bright Smile Haunts me Still'. He then tackled some minstrel songs and next, had the audience singing along to 'Buffalo Girls' with dexterity employed on a dancing doll. Simple, but effective.

Jeff concluded his set with the song 'Eight Miles to Louisville'. 

Eddie Upton, needs no introduction to a Folk based, audience, or indeed to anyone with a scholarly interest in English Traditional song. He has for many years been involved in promoting, performing and Festival Directing, the genre.

Eddie described himself as a Retro-Singer ! and he has been fortunate in retaining his fine voice, well suited to his chosen material.

Songs from the Cecil Sharp collection on which he is an authority, were to the fore and we were treated to a harmonica rendition and a poem in his set. A dialogue with his friend and fellow artist MC Barry Lister, kept things moving along nicely. 

John Lyons and his family, The Lyons Family, are resident in County Clare Ireland and are well known in the Traditional musical culture of the Country. I had first heard him quite a few years back at a Festival in Nenagh, where I was a guest and he, accompanying Niamh Parsons. It was therefore a nice surprise to find that he and his musical family were guests at this festival.

John's wife Ann, is herself a well known as a solo artist , and there was proof of that in a beautifully sung ballad. Their daughter Aisling was to the fore with dextrous and accurate concertina playing her sibling Sean, on whistle. Sean also plays Uillean pipes although not in this set.

Aisling then turned to her harp and proceeded to wow the audience with a fast paced solo polka with some backing on melodeon whistle and percussion.

John in the meantime, kept all things together, although I suspect that these duties will soon be taken over by the talented children. That must be a satisfying prospect for any musical Patriarch.

Ham Marquee - 8pm  

Show of Hands gave their annual 'sell-out' performance on Sunday evening in the Ham marquee, to an appreciative audience. Their set this time featured songs from the latest album 'Wake the Union', which includes folk, blues and a sprinkling of country, all in a lovely mix. There were of course the old favourites that everyone loves, expects, and sings along with!

This year Show of Hands joined Martin Carthy as Patrons of the Folk Week, and this made their performance more significant than usual.

Another welcome addition to the festival, I feel, is the new and improved Ham Marquee, and at the Show of Hands gig its darkness added atmosphere to the feel and mood of the show. They are always festival favourites and yet again did not disappoint.

(Review: Sam Hindley)

Monday 5th 

The Bedford. 230pm

This concert was advertised as “Four Voices” and worthy of the title! 

After a couple of days at the festival, Lucy Pringle was now in fully relaxed mode and began with a song of 'Little Yellow Roses' followed by a version of the well known 'Marrow Bones' although on this occasion attributed to the Kelso area.  This was followed by a version of a ballad related to the well known 'Scarborough Fair' evidence again of how these old songs found their way around these Islands and were adapted and re-invented to suit the circumstances. I well remember hearing the Donegal song 'Glen Swilly' long before I heard Jimmy Mc Beath sing 'Tramps and Hawkers' to a version of the tune. Lucy, is a fine singer and employs no unnecessary vocal acrobatics or incomprehensible dialect to convey the story within the ballad. This is especially important when performing to a largely English audience. She chose a varied set of songs which were well received

Siobhan Miller from Penicuick, has been the subject of a previous review, but it is continuing pleasure to hear this lass sing, She started with an exquisite rendition of 'Go Away From My Window'. Her programme, contained the song 'Andro and his Cutty Gun' from a Burns collection, the song of The Pit Girl, finishing with Adam Mc Naughton’s amusing plea, to reject the fashion of a low cholesterol diet.

Debs Newbold is a highly trained actor, who has applied her talents to a fascinating technique of story telling. She is quite simply a phenomenon and capable of holding the attention of any audience in any chosen venue in this writers opinion. She has been a guest at this festival on previous occasions and has played to “full houses” during her solo performances. Festival attendees are used to story telling sessions, but certainly not to these energy filled and compelling performances. On this afternoon, she regaled the audience with a self penned poem written two days before, on a delayed journey down the A303. A very amusing and brief history of the Trojan Wars, which culminated in the warning of “Never let a gift horse in the house!”

Next came the tale of “Edric” a mythical hunter from the Shropshire hills,who married an Elven Queen and learned a few lessons in manners along the way. Debs moves with a dancers grace and is able to illustrate objects and moods with body movements and perfect timing. This lady is a rising star if she gets the luck and promotion she surely deserves. 

Grace Petrie is another young lady possessed of abundant energy, which she has directed towards her ability to write and accompany on guitar, hard hitting songs of a mainly political nature. She commenced her set with a tribute song to Emily Pankhurst. This was followed by a quirky number about her “first love” her elderly Vauxhall Cavalier car, always a significant milestone in any young person's life. A song about the Spanish Civil War, was delivered with great passion and style as was one deploring the current state of our Welfare System and the proposed changes some of which could seriously impact on already vulnerable people.

Of course, Grace’s political opinions may not suit everyone, but she is a voice which should be listened to and I hope that she will be heard on many more Festival stages.

Tuesday 6th 

Ham Marquee - 12pm

Five fine voices, spanning quite an age gap, sang from the same song sheet in the Ham marquee at the Peace Concert on the very day that Hiroshima was remembered - August 6th.

Roy Bailey, Lester Simpson, Sandra Kerr, Grace Petrie, and Mark Block all contributed to a wonderful concert. The songs had light and shade, sadness and hilarity. The performers were individually unique but sang in solidarity. The reality of war was recalled by Lester with memories of his great uncle - 'what can't be changed must be endured'. Sandra joined the anti-war chorus with ' I didn't raise my son to be a soldier'. Roy's rendition of   'Johnny came marching home' was different and powerful. Grace's songs on the Spanish Civil War had a maturity way beyond her years.

On the lighter side Sandra sang of the five lives of the 'Tin Bucket' and Lester urged us to   'Make it, mend it, wear it out, make it do or do without'. Roy's linking banter was at all times good humoured. Mark Block was at all times vocally and instrumentally a vital constant.

(Review: Peter Grogan)

Kennaway House. 3pm (Folk Roots)

Making a return to the Festival scene this year, after decades of not performing, was the Scots singer/songwriter Shelagh McDonald. Her programme included both Traditional and Contemporary songs , ranging from the 'Rigs o’Rye' to Leonard Cohen’s 'Boogie Street'.

Her strong clear voice was augmented by the kind of guitar accompaniment and chord structures which would make most of us wonder why we even try to play the instrument. Clearly, she has lost none of her skill in the intervening years. Just occasionally, that kind of virtuosity can detract from the main purpose of a ballad and on one number, I felt that this was the case. This is not however implied criticism just personal taste. Sheila’s set was clearly a hit with the audience and it is to be hoped that she will continue to re-build her presence on the scene.

Now living in Cornwall with her family, Sarah McQuaid has been steadily building up her fan base throughout the UK, Ireland, Germany, Holland and Belgium. She also tours extensively in The U.S.A., but does manage to spend some time at home during the school holidays.  Known for her almost exclusive DADGAD tuning she has produced a tutor book on the subject and frequently holds workshops, as at this Festival.

Sarah has a unique soft toned, alto voice which compliments well, her own songs. She began the set with the American trad. song 'The Chickens They are Crowing' before moving on to one of her own songs,inspired by observing the towers of Bess of Hardwick’s castle .The title of her latest C,D. which has been critically acclaimed, is taken from another of her songs. 'The Plum tree and the Rose' and this she sings with mesmerising sensitivity. The sound quality at Sarah’s performances is always perfect as it is in the hands of her Manager/Sound Engineer Martin Stainsbury. He has developed an interesting technique of sampling parts of a song during a performance, which allows him to instantly drop in a harmony line on chosen lines.

Sarah finished her set with MacColl's 'Joy of Living' and encored with his 'First Time Ever' All in all a very nice performance. Perhaps it might have benefited from a couple of up tempo numbers in the set but that is but small criticism. Sarah’s work rate is prodigious and is beginning to bear fruit with gigs at the more prestigious venues here and abroad.

Kennaway House. 5.45pm

I had intended to move on after the previous concert, but thought that I might take in a couple of tracks at the launch of a new album by Australian singer/songwriter Lucy Wise. In the event, I stayed until the end and even bought a copy of the album.

She was joined on stage from time to time, by two fellow musicians on guitar and trumpet, but the remarkable thing was that she accompanied most of her songs on a baritone ukulele with a skill which made it sound much more.

Quite a remarkable young lady , who unfortunately for us lives on the other side of the world which may mean that she may not be heard too often on these shores unless more festival organisers take note. She was also in concert during the week, with festival favourites - The Spooky Men.

Ham Marquee - Hobgoblin Stage. 3.15pm  

Tuesday afternoon in the Ham marquee at Sidmouth Festival was a real mix of English and American traditional music from young and old. To kick off there was a twenty minute set from this year's BBC Young Folk Award winners Greg Russell and Kieron Algar.

What is striking about these two musicians is their maturity both in performance and material. Kieron is an amazingly gifted fiddler and Greg has a simply massive voice. One of their tunes was written at last year's Sidmouth Folk Week.

Jeff Warner gave us an impressive set off old time American songs and tunes.

The Melrose Quartet, named after the Sheffield street where they live, finished off the afternoon - these guys never disappoint with their fantastic harmony singing and chorus songs for everyone to join in with. The Melrose Quartet album '50 Verses' is out now.

(Review: Sam Hindley)

Ham Marquee - 8pm  

There were many unique performances at Sidmouth Folk Week this year and one of these was a new collaboration between four of the folk scene's leading young performers - Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy, Lucy Farrell and Kate Young.

The quartet released an album earlier this year this formed the basis for their set at the Ham on Tuesday night. A mix of traditional material, classic songs, and one self-penned song from each gave us an evening of fantastic fiddle playing and gorgeous harmony singing.

This band felt fresh and interesting from the start, with talented members - they appeared to enjoy playing together, and I certainly enjoyed their show!

(Review: Sam Hindley)

Wednesday 7th 

Kennaway House. 11.30am  

Billed as 'Beyond The Desert Island' this show saw Martin Carthy interviewed by Lester Simpson. The hard working Lester, has the knack of getting the best from his guests. In this instance, the task was relatively easy as Martin was happy to talk about his life in Folk music and his unique guitar style.  

He was invited to begin with a couple of songs and this he did with his version of  'The Bedmakers' and 'The Whalecatcher', and a couple of anecdotes later, he was reminiscing about his early days of researching the EFDSS library having gained the confidence of librarian Miss Noyse (sic).

This despite the Society’s intransigence in generally keeping the archived material away from the eyes of those who were most likely to benefit and to popularise English Traditional song. Fortunately, that Martin succeeded, is a matter of history.  Lester raised the matter of Martin’s guitar tuning which resulted in a fascinating discussion about how he progressed by trial and error from standard, via dadgad to various other combinations, until he eventually hit on one which best suited English songs.

Early influences including Davey Graham, MacEwan Bros. Singing at The Troubadour and travelling with the Thamesiders were discussed and reminisces of the various groups of which he had been a member, took us to the end and up to date. He finished with a performance of 'My Son John' a tribute to Lal Waterson and the resounding applause, of those who had been lucky to attend.  

Manor Pavilion. 3.30pm  

Sandra Kerr conducted an attentive and melodic choir to open the tribute concert to Emily Wilding Davison. We remember this year the centenary of the death of Emily, who was a political activist and leader of the Women's Suffragette Movement. The choir wore the Suffragette colours of purple, green and white; they sang in unison the song 'Emily Inspires Us Yet' - a song written by Emily herself.

Sandra introduced her daughter Nancy, who played the fiddle beautifully. Her own song 'The Little Drummer Boy' is a gem. On came Rosie Davis from 'Sisters Unlimited', who added greatly to the concert. Her harmonies were spot on, and her set dance brought the house down. They gave the audience songs, autoharp, fiddle and dance, before the choir returned to close the concert.

Emily would have been proud.

(Review: Peter Grogan)

Thursday 8th 

Lower Methodist Church Hall. 9.30am  

Ron Taylor, is a well known and respected singer of English Traditional songs. He was appearing during the Festival with Jeff Gillett on guitar, but on this occasion he was demonstrating his mastership of the technique of unaccompanied Traditional singing.

The audience were advised to heed a number of basic rules. Firstly, to learn the song thoroughly before attempting to sing it in public (how many times do we see crib sheets !) Secondly, to use a pitch pipe as there is a tendency particularly if nervous to pitch too high. Thirdly, to stand up if possible as breathing technique is important and will assist in phrasing. There are also a number of exercises which are useful in developing this technique.    

Ron, answered a number of questions from the audience and he urged singers to develop the song and to take ownership of the performance by engaging with the audience and at the end of the ballad, consider how the finish could be made clear. He also demonstrated differing styles from established singers performing the same ballad and suggested that individuals should not slavishly copy, but consider how best they could approach the material. An interesting afternoon which I am sure would have benefited those who were new to the medium. 

Kennaway House. 11.30am  

Mention has previously been made to Lester’s skill as an interviewer. On this occasion he did not have to work to hard as Colum Sands is the perfect subject, popular,engaging and full of Irish charm and wit.  He did not need too much encouragement to launch into two songs from his new CD. Beginning with the song 'Lazy Hill' about his home area. This song had been written when he was having a recent sabbatical from the round of International travel and performances. He followed this with a contrasting number called 'Two Angry Dogs' written about the recent disturbances in Northern Ireland instigated by the decision  to limit the flying of The Union Flag on Public Buildings, bringing it into line with general U.K. practice. A translation of this song was published with his approval in the German press.

Lester then asked about the family background of music and the development of his interest in performing which was sparked off by his brother bringing home a guitar which he picked up and learned his technique. Later on, he performed throughout The Province and overseas with the Sands Family Band, until it was interrupted by the death of his brother Eugene in a car accident.

Colum decided to start recording initially with reel to reel equipment in 1980, but now he operates his own label with a state of the art studio.

He continued throughout the interview to add in various songs, ranging from the song about the Sarajevo Cellist to the one about Fred Jordan’s Boots, which he wrote after seeing them in the possession of a New Zealand Club organiser.  Altogether , he enhanced his reputation as a charming and erudite man, who will remain a popular performer in this country and abroad. 

Woodlands Hotel.  3pm  

Woodlands was host to Spotlight Scotland featuring Siobhan Miller, Lucy Pringle, Pete Shepheard, Arthur Watson, Jimmy Hutchison, and MC Hector Christie. Given the accepted status and experience of the above performers, I found this informal concert rather disappointing. All had performed throughout the festival with distinction but maybe a little fatigue had begun to creep in. Certainly the individual choice of material contributed to a low key programme overall, always a danger when the emphasis in on the Tradition.

The venue from an acoustic point of view, is a rather odd shape with a low ceilinged section, on to which has been grafted a glass and wooden structure with a vaulted ceiling. This can work, but only if the performers realise that it is necessary to project the song introductions or other spoken word with special emphasis. Even the MC was guilty of speaking too quietly. The situation has not been improved by the installation of a large number of settees and arm chairs. Sound absorbing and perhaps a little too comfortable for a post lunch, performances.

I can only say that on this occasion the “Spotlight on Scotland” was rather dimmed.    


Authors of additional reviews are credited under their contribution.

review by: Hector Gilchrist

photos by: Eve Mathews

Friday 2nd to Friday 9th August 2013
various venues, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
264 for all-in-one adult ticket
daily capacity: 25000
last updated: Thu 4th Jul 2013

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