Sidmouth remains the gold standard

Sidmouth Folk Week 2018 review

By Hector Gilchrist | Published: Tue 28th Aug 2018

The Bulverton

Friday 3rd to Friday 10th August 2018
various venues, Sidmouth, Devon, EX10 8XR, England MAP
all-in-one ticket £295. Many other ticket options available
Daily capacity: 25,000
Last updated: Tue 24th Jul 2018

Arriving in Sidmouth, after the rigours of travelling over the various congested routes which is a fact of life these days, is always balm to the tortured soul, further enhanced in my case, by a cooling pint served in The Swan, one of the many friendly pubs in this attractive seaside town town and conveniently adjacent to my home for the week.  That this annual Festival invasion may cause inconvenience to some residents is possible, but the great majority of the Townsfolk welcome the intrusion and indeed many businesses enjoy a serious and welcome boost to their turnover during the week the “Folk Circus” is in town. Of course, the weather this year was exceptionally good for six of the seven days if a little oppressive during afternoon concerts when the approximately 1,150 seat Ham Marquee venue, was at full capacity which it was on a number of occasions.

Apart from “The Ham”, The Festival makes good use of several other venues all within easy walking distance of the Town Centre. The Manor Pavillion Theatre,  The Bedford Hotel,  The Woodlands Hotel,  The Arts Centre, The Kingswood room  at the Kingswood and Devoran hotel  and this year, a welcome return to the cellar bar room at Kennaway House. The Royal Glen Hotel has a peaceful haven of a room housing poetry workshops and the themed singaround organised by long time supporters of The Festival, Colin and Sonja Andrews.

Local churches also play their part. The Methodists opening their Church and Hall for  music and choral workshops and  St Teresas Catholic Church their main hall for dancing.  Other venues used  mainly for workshops include The Richmond room at the Sidholme hotel,The Rugby Club, The Unitarian Hall,and Stowford Community Centre.

The site for the Children's programme is the Town's Blackmore Gardens, with Marquees set up with stages and an additional dance venue . Within this area are housed,  in a dedicated marquee, the stalls of  the makers and vendors of  folk instruments and associated equipment. The site of the main official Craft Fair is adjacent. 

It is an accepted fact that there are a number of “folkies” who come to the Festival each year and perhaps eschew all but a few of the official events, preferring to join familiar faces and voices in congenial morning and evening singarounds, held in for example, the Royal York and Faulkener Hotel and The Volunteer pub. Other sessions within  local pub premises are spontaneous happenings and welcome entertainment for many summer day visitors, who may not have expected the bonus.The Anchor bar Garden also supports a programme listed Ceilidhs throughout the week. 

Sidmouth is  an important date in the calendar of many Morris sides who display their dancing talents on stage and at selected areas along the sea front  sometimes mingling with the stallholders set up on the promenade. In itself, this promenade is a major part of the Festival with the sea wall providing a platform for amateurs to try their hand at busking. At night it becomes an extension for the mainly younger element crowding round the Dukes Hotel stage to rock and join in with the bands performing there. A kind of Sidmouth fringe?

Almost a separate Festival in itself, the Bulverton Marquee with Bettys Lounge  is connected to the Town by a ten minute frequent bus service. Adjacent, is the Main Camping site and car park, access to which has been improved by the placing of temporary tracking. A short uphill  walk up to the Bulverton, will  find one in a vibrant and popular centre for dance enthusiasts  and the place to be, for the night time gigs and ceilidhs.

The Town of Sidmouth provides all of the normal services and facilities expected of a long established community and it is a popular venue for day trippers and longer term holiday makers. Restaurants and cafes are plentiful and for Festival regulars, the Ham hub is a popular place to meet and choose from a number of quality food  and drink outlets. 

The organisation and running of this the 64th Festival is a major undertaking which no doubt has occupied the minds of Festival Director John Braithwaite and his Production and Management team for most of 2018. The team includes Artistic and Marketing Director Alan Bearman, Event Production John Radford. Admin and Finance Jason Knight,Commercial Support John Heydon and Advisors Colin Trussell and Mike Norris. Over 500 Volunteers have been recruited to assist and help steward during the week, resulting in a programme of over 750 events.

The line up this year of many well known and award winning artists occasionally poses difficulties for the organisation to forecast the attendance numbers at the various venues, resulting in  problems when the desired choice becomes a full house and some ticket holders may feel they have been short changed if they end up behind the queue cut off point. There is no easy practical solution to this, other than to ensure that one gets into the queue early which advice is clearly posted on the tickets.

Overall  however, the 64th Festival was a great success and the Director and his team deserve congratulations all round.  The photographs by local photographer Eve Mathews which are displayed in parallel with this article, are further proof that The Sidmouth “First Week in August” Festival, remains the gold standard for similar events held throughout the U.K.

No Festival of this kind can exist without the support of Sponsors and Supporters and they are many. For example, fRoots magazine, Sidmouth Hotels, Hobgoblin, efdss, Halsway Manor, Sidmouth Churches and a long list of others contained and displayed in the comprehensive and well  designed Official Programme. 

Festival Programme.

The Organisers have been careful in their selection of artists balancing their choice with established names, high profile newcomers and other artists who may have had limited exposure at Festival venues. Hence the list contained the names,of the ever present Show of Hands, whose sell out show in the Ham was up to their usual high standard, Karine Polwart, Cara Dillon, all drawing crowds and others like Cohen Braithwaite Kilcoyne, Emily Askew, Kitty MacFarlane adding to their increasing popularity.

The Manor Theatre was the venue for some special events including a rare interview by Sandra Kerr with Peggy Seeger talking about her Memoir “The First Time Ever”. Also held here was Billy Bragg's interesting (and non-political) talk with interviewer Colin Irwin, on the subject of his best selling book “Roots Radicals and Rockers” charting the influence of skiffle in the U.K. And also Mathew Crampton's latest show with Paul Sartin, entitled “Living by The Sea”. 

Up at The Woodlands, events were mainly Traditional, with Song and Story Telling and the regular evening Ballad Session run by Sheila Miller and Moira Craig. The Bedford  concert room is always well attended and is quite often the choice for those who prefer a more intimate performance venue and a variety of the less well known performers  along with established names.

A Taste of The Festival. (Selected Reviews)

It would require a team of reviewers to cover the many performances scheduled during the week, but the following brief reviews may help to give an impression of the range of talents on show. There had been on the Thursday afternoon, a fascinating concert of Poetry and Music provided by the well known Liverpool poet Roger McGough and band Little Machine These Pre-Festival concerts are open to all and attract many locals in addition to the ticketed Festival goers.

The evening concert in the Ham showcased the long running group Fairport Convention, whose line up has seen many changes over the years rather like the “blacksmiths hammer” but still retaining the enthusiasm for hearty foot  stomping English folk standards interspersed with sensitive numbers like those by the late Sandy Denny and Anna Ryder. Certainly still a force in the business The band finished with a version of Little Musgrave  before making preparations to head off from Sidmouth to prepare for their own home festival of Copredy.

Friday . The Ham

It will not have escaped the notice of the general public many of whom may have no appreciation of Folk Music, that the country has been invaded by the phenomenon of “Ukeitis”. Every purveyor of musical instruments will have a selection to hand ranging from garishly coloured inexpensive models  to hand crafted examples. Just four strings and a few simple chords can bring pleasure to the beginner if not always the captive audience. Of course, George Formby might well be accused of starting the trend over here, but in truth it is the modern day ensemble of  The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, which has raised the appreciation and playing of this instrument to levels previously unknown.

The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain

On a very warm and airless day in The Ham, the seven members  of the orchestra (on this occasion)  breezed their way through David Rose's  “Holiday for Strings” as an opener followed by an astonishing range of material including a Transylvanian love song,one about a teenage uke player, a hedgehog waltz , The Proclaimers five hundred miles,various solo spots and even in the second half three totally different tunes played simultaneously ! 

I am well aware that the Festival is a Folk event but irrespective of this, if there was a prize for all round entertainment in any genre, this group would surely scoop the top spot.

Saturday  The Ham.

The “Welcoming Concert” free to everyone and held in the afternoon, provides an opportunity for the Festival Committee to get together with the many sponsors  over a glass or two and presumably thank them for their essential support whilst allowing the local Mayor to address the full house and John Braithwaite, to honour  a long serving individual volunteer Steve Thomson,for his contribution to the  the Festival organisation. The programme provides a taster of  performances to be enjoyed throughout the week.

First to take the Stage was  The Sidmouth Town Band under the Directorship of Adrian Harvey. There is always something joyful and re-assuring in listening to a fine band such as this and as spirit lifting medicine, it is hard to beat. Fast paced competition numbers, popular melodies such as “Under the Boardalk” with flugle horn solo, Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah”, another version of “500 miles” and finishing with “We  Will Rock You” to an enthusiastic reception.  Hopefully they will be there again in 2019.

The Outside Capering Crew

This turned out to be a kind of light hearted Morris taster with two lassies and a lad exhibiting athletic and artistic dancing skills with traditional accompaniment with not only regular partners, but in the lad's case with an apparently almost alive broom ! Clever stuff.

Halsway Manor Young Folk.

The Courses on Music and Folk Arts held at Halsway have become essential to the continuance of English music dance and song and it is pleasing to note that the organisation is well on their way to reaching the final financial target needed preserve and maintain this exceptional facility.

The evidence exists that there is a strong base of young people who are enthusiastic performers of Folk music and a large group of these filled the stage to demonstrate that the roots of the genre are in good shape.They demonstrated a piece which they will be working on at various workshops during the week.

Pete Coe.

Pete has been a stalwart and regular popular performer throughout the recent history of Folk music since the so called revival. Not only is he a skilled performer and historian of his craft but his honest and forthright views on the political scene are clearly stated. He has often been described as a one man Folk Industry but perhaps his mentoring and support for young and upcoming performers is less well known.

He began his set with the familiar “Penny for the Ploughman” and included and audience participation version of “All Gods Children” which went down well.At one point his charming wife Sue, a dance tutor at the Festival,performed as he played. He finished with another of his standards, “The Seven Warnings” Long may he entertain.

Sunday, Kennaway House.   Rock of Eye.  Tim Smith and The Dark Lanterns.

A return to Kennaway House is a welcome one and a suitable venue in which to house  fRoots sponsorship of “A Cellar Full Of Folkadelia” The structure of this cellar bar area is challenging from a sound point of view but particularly good  engineering from the desk during the week overcame  potential problems.

First up were a remarkable trio Rock of Eye,  making their only performance and playing with great skill and virtuosity ,mandolin, bowed psaltery, double bass and violin.

I doubt that the majority of the audience were quite prepared for this continuous and highly complex 50 minute take on Traditional folktunes. Using each tune as a base melody, these professional musicians, Alex Vann, Ron Phelan and Francesca Simmons moved into a “modern jazz style” extemporisation, returning to the core melody before seamlessly transitioning in to the next chosen tune. Quite brilliant and a refreshing take on the Tradition.

Tim Smith and his band  The Dark Lanterns  A contrast in style, returning to the form of presentation normally found in the Folk scene. The Band's name is apparently a reference to  the shrouded lights used by people on both sides of The Law, who wish to avoid detection at night. Perhaps not ideal for a folk group intent on raising their profile but intriguing nevertheless.

Tim sings in a rich powerful baritone ideally suited to his choice of material.Songs like Ramble Away, Down with the Dead Men, are sung with confidence and understanding backed with his own sound guitar technique and  arrangements, by his band of fellow instrumentalists,Karen Phillips on fiddle,  Robin Timmis viola, Ted Kemp on concertina and on electric bass Ben Morgan Brown a recent recruit to this line up.

Tim's partner Em.Marshall, who is a popular duo and solo performer in her own right, provided the necessary lightness and sensitivity required by a second vocalist and the resulting balance was perfect. It would have been interesting to hear an acapella number from this pair.  Em. is currently juggling musical engagements with the needs of a six month old child who on this occasion, was perfectly behaved.

It is to be hoped that Folk Club and Festival organisers will take note of this group and provide a wider platform for their performances. Perhaps the Sidmouth Festival will oblige next year. 

Kennaway House    Paul Downes.

I went along to this venue not to review the presentation, but to join the audience celebrating the 65th Birthday of  this popular songster and musician who quite definitely has no plans for retirement!  Known as one of , if not the most versatile guitar player on the scene, Paul is also a fine singer and he certainly enjoyed  parading along with old friends, partners and band members from his lengthening career. Even the MC Barry Lister was asked to come on stage and why not, as he has still one of the best voices in the business. Congratulations to Paul and keep the music coming.

The Ham.   Jim Causley and Blowzabella.

There is no doubting that Jim Causley has stage charisma in spades and the ability to walk on and grab the attention of a Ham audience, is a gift well practiced. Sadly,this was his only booking this year so perhaps he will be more evident on future occasions.

Jim sang an eclectic mix of songs with his own accompaniment as is usual, including his own composition “Cry of the Tin” unusual in that most people think only of Cornwall being involved in that Industry. He followed on with a song deprecating the sale of weapons, a celebration of a “Glorious Devon Morning” , a Billy Bragg tune a Woody Guthrie song and a Bette Midler classic.  A rather shortened programme but as we were to discover later, he re-appeared as a guest with Blowzabella !

With founding member Jon Swayne still going strong and Paul James who joined the line up a couple of years later in 1980, the Group can be proud of their 40 years of existence .Of course over that time there have been eight changes in the line up for various reasons, but the current crew of seven, have been on board since 2006. That undoubtedly makes for the tightness of the arrangements and the slick presentation which filled the auditorium with their famous English Folk “Wall of Sound” Nicely contrasted with solo vocals by Jo Freya,(surely one of the hardest working perfomers on the Folk  scene.)   That the band are also popular in Europe,is perhaps due to the cross border influence of a driving amplifed hurdy gurdy  now in the hands of Greg Jolivet and  and the adoption of Continental folk melodies into the repertoire,but the overall sound is, I think, unique.

Half way through their set list, they were joined by Jim Causley which was an opportunity to hear him singing together with Jo. There were other cameos from members of the band including  that of Andy Cutting's. Overall, a varied menu, mais Magnifique!

The Bedford.  Gemma Kawaja . Jack Rutter. Alden Patterson and Dashwood

Billed as a EFDSS Folk Rising Plus, this concert featured artists who have largely become established in the recent  Folk scene. The exception might be the emerging presence of  Gemma Kawaja but she has now become  deservedly recognised as a rare performer of mainly Traditional folk songs.

Jack Rutter. Yorkshire born Jack, a Graduate in Countryside Management, has become a popular choice for many a Festival's Artist List. Perhaps it is his love of  Nature and open spaces which have resulted in his simple and sensitive performances of  his chosen material . He sings without any pretensions or over decoration, rather reminiscent of the early days of  the 60's Revival. It is of course not as simple as it looks and sounds, as he pays great attention to his performance engaging the audience with his pleasing personality,humour and skilled playing of his top grade instruments, which include guitar ,bouzouki and concertina. A glance at his web site indicates a very busy programme ahead.

Jack's programme is mainly Trad. based and on this occasion he included The Lakes O'Donegal, better known in Scottish circles as the Irish tune adapted to Tramps and Hawkers,  On Board a Man O'War, My Dog and I and a version of John Barleycorn. Definitely a rising star.

Alden Patterson and Dashwood. I had heard this trio quite recently at my local Club ,The Ram, in Thames Ditton and was immediately impressed. For a Group which really only entered the scene in 2016 and have in this season been booked at major Festivals and Clubs throughout The Country.  It is clear that they have a special appeal. This may be the fortunate combination of several factors.  Firstly, they obviously enjoy music making, mixing self penned songs, and adapting others to suit their style. Christina, guitar and vocals and Alex fiddle/vocals are a couple and live in Norwich, close to the home of Noel Dashwood resonator guitar /vocals. Noel moved to Norwich as a Social worker but was born on a Pacific Island and served in the Australian Navy.One could say that he has been around a bit! They meet together very regularly and rehearse their well honed act.

Christina has a clear true vocal which, combined  with Noel's clever playing and his gently understated harmony, produces a sweet and balanced sound supported by Alex's fiddle line.

Their programme is well thought out with cleverly crafted songs of their own and a few more familiar numbers. The Group has a firm view of where they would like to be in the future and hopefully the Folk Community will be able to support their ambitions and allow them the freedom to keep making music together. Perhaps a little lesson for other newcomers to the business, their C.D. “By The Night” has been produced to a budget but the design and  production of 500 units has resulted in an attractive package which should soon repay their investment at the rate which they currently sell post gig.

Gemma Kawaja. A few years ago at a venue which escapes me, I heard  Gemma sing an English Traditional song and was immediately impressed with her quality voice and diction.Thereafter, when an opportunity arose I would suggest to those who might be interested that they should offer her a support booking. I doubt that this had any great influence but in the end quality wins through and I was delighted to see her booked at the Festival as a featured artist.  She accompanies most of her songs simply, on six string and four string guitars, but it his her delivery and sympathy with the song which fascinates. She included in her set “All Things Are Quite Silent”, the lovely “Low Down in The Broom” an unaccompanied song  “The Fowler” and a stunning version of Ann Lister's “Icarus”. I am sure that she can look forward to other Festival appearances 

Josie Duncan and Pablo Lafuente.  The Woodlands.

This young couple are fairly recent arrivals on the circuit.However they come with a great C.V having been award winners on BBC 2's Young Folk Awards programme, Josie ,graduating from The Scottish Conservatoire and Pablo The Traditional Music College in Plockton. Josie,is from Lewis with the ability to sing in either Scots Gaelic or English and Pablo despite his Spanish connections, is long time resident of Glasgow.

Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente

At the Woodlands they were showcasing their new C.D. The Morning Tempest the first track of which alludes to the title. This is a Scottish version of one of the many Night Visiting songs which abound in the Tradition. They sing and play this well known song at great pace,perhaps a little too fast for my taste, but nonetheless it shows why this duo has become a “must book” in their Homeland. Pablo is a really skilled guitarist and accompanist and Josie sings in a clear sweet tone with the excellent diction often heard in singers from the Hebrides.

They followed this intro.with Shift and Spin strictly not a traditional song ,but written to celebrate the Town of Paisley and its connection to the spinning and weaving Industry and its poetic son Robert Tannahill .  A contrast was then provided by a Gaelic song from Barra and peurt a baile the Gaelic mouth music once used to accompany dancers or tweed waulking.

Two songs in English were beautifully performed, the popular Lakes of Ponchartrain and There's a Man in My Bed, a poignant ballad of a husband dying of silicosis. With a Gaelic version of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice plus a tribute to the importance of the tattie ! Josie and Pablo demonstrated just why they are a sought after act. Their new C.D. was in much demand at the end of the performance. 

The Ham,   Kaia Kater.     Karine Polwart 

Kaia  is a young and very talented singer writer and musician with an African/Canadian background  whose vocal talent has been compared to that of Nina Simone.Quite an accolade, but her vocal tones are as smooth as a blend of honey and warm liqueur . She plays a very authentic style of old time banjo picking and frailing to compliment the  mood. Born in Montreal of  Grenadine parentage, she spent some time in the  West Virginian  Appalachians, which undoubtedly influenced her technique. She was accompanied  at Sidmouth by one assumes,her regular acoustic bass man with whom she sang an a cappella duet at one point.

Quite a few of her numbers are self penned and there are five of those on her latest CD Ninepins. In some ways I wish that I had referred to these before I heard her sing as whilst my hearing isn't what it used to be, I had difficulty in making out some of her lyrics but then that is part of her captivating style. She could well travel far in the musical world as good luck and opportunity will allow and hopefully she will make a swift return to The U.K.providing nothing happens in the future to cause problems with travelling musicians' working visas !

Karine Polwart. Karine is  of course an icon in the British Folk Scene having long ago earned her stripes on the Club scene North and South of the Border with the group Malinky and The Battlefield band. Now she is an established International artist filling Theatres and Concert venues. Towards the end of the year she is booked at Carnegie Hall's Perleman stage with, as it happens, support from Kaia Kater. Through it all she has kept firmly grounded and is still as approachable as ever.

Her talents as a songwriter are well know with early compositions like the now folk club standards Follow The Heron Home, Salters Road and The Sun's Coming Over The Hill. Today however, Karine has moved on and added to her C.V. as an essayist with strong political views on Home and International events. She has also developed new directions in her musical compositions as in her stunning stage show  “A Pocket of Wind Resistance” and  the resulting C.D. which captures the essence of the staged performance.

This evening however, she lined up with as she freqently does,  her brother and her long time collaborator Inge Thomson and began by introducing a song innocently entitled “The Granite Gneiss of Lewis” which turned out to be a political assassination of Donald Trump! who has ancestral ties to the Island and is less than popular in certain (most? ) areas of Scotland. I'm just wondering if she will dare to sing that one in Carnegie Hall. Thereafter followed a suitably mixed programme which delighted the attentive house and further enhanced her reputation as a thoroughly nice lassie with  a good slice of genius added.

The Ham.   Jacquelyn Hynes Trio.    John Doyle

 Making her at least third visit to the Festival ,Jacquelyn took to the stage with her trio and changed line up, which included Steph West on Harp and the multi tasking Jonny Dyer, who was also sound engineering in Doug Bailey's team. No better man, as the Irish might say to step in when a lady asks for help. They had of course previously managed to fit in a couple of rehearsals. The result was a delight and how could it not be with these three talented professional musicians.

Jacquelyn is of course a flautist of  high repute and is firmly established  as a Lecturer and Teacher of  the concert flute and Traditional Irish  flute and whistle. Her most recent C.D. praised in the Musical Press  entitled Silver and Wood and is a compilation of Irish tunes described by Donal Lunny as “Wonderfully wild” and it does include many of my favourites.

John Doyle. What  more can be said about this virtuoso player of an instrument which I do recognise as a six stringed acoustic guitar, but can't seem the compare the music produced  to any which I have tried to make on my own Thornbory ! There are of course many fine players of the folk guitar but John has lifted the art to a level not achieved by many professionals and he is  currently probably the best in Ireland.

John Doyle

A founder of the Irish /American group Solas,which toured successfully for many years.John went on to influence and to collaborate with all the great names of Irish Traditional music and many British  ones as well.The list would fill  several pages. Nowadays he tends to concentrate on songwriting and to appear in Festivals of note like Glasgow's prestigious Celtic Connections.

On this rather quietish afternoon in the Ham, John's set included some well known songs and his own compositions “ I know My Love” “Willie Taylor”  “Heart in Hand” “Across The Western Ocean” plus a solo guitar piece played at unbelievable tempo.

Debs Newbold.

A much anticipated return to the Festival was that of Sidmouth favourite Debs Newbold and she never disappoints.  Energising and entrancing the audience with her one woman plays and story telling. An experienced actor, writer and director, she manages to create, convey and deliver  with faultless ease Comedy and Tragedy in equal measure.

The problem for the organisers is that she fills the smaller venues here leaving several people disappointed and although she has performed on a previous occasion at the Manor to a well filled auditorium, we have become used to the intimacy and the subtlety of facial expression. Undoubtedly she has performed on much larger  venues as she has regularly tutored at The Globe in London. I did not get to see her Romeo and Juliet this year, but journeyed up to The Woodlands to see her take on the story of  Grace O'Malley. Having worked in Ireland and knowing a bit of  Irish history the subject was known to me if not the detail. This was a new production for her and although she had prepared an aide memoire as a prompt, it was never required.

Briefly, it is the true life story of a remarkable 13th C. Irishwoman who was both the Clan Chief of The O'Malley's and pirate in the south western seas around Ireland. Following a long nine year battle to retain her power against a scorched earth policy and the murder of her firstborn by an English force, she, at the age of 64 sailed to Greenwich to plead with Queen Elizabeth and won her case with the restitution of her lands and the recall of the General Bingham.

Debs imagined both dialogue and action,painting a vivid picture which must have been close to reality and an insight to the contrasting life styles of the two main female characters. Debs Newbold? Let's have more of her.


review by: Hector Gilchrist

photos by: Eve Mathews

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