It is a truth, universally acknowledged, at least for the past sixty-five years and hopefully for many, many more to come, that as sure as summer follows spring the first week of August has to be Sidmouth folk week, which most of the locals embrace – and those who do not leave town.
The festival organisers do an outstanding job utilising every available space as venues for workshops, singing, dancing and other performances. Apart from the large marquees shipped into town for the week every hostelry, hall, and even a coffee shop, opens its doors to musicians, singers, poets and storytellers to jam and do their thing. Many hotels have joined the behemoth that is now called the Sidmouth Folk Festival and most of the church halls around the town also host events, proving that no space is sacred.
The Sidmouth festival is definitely a family affair and there is a children’s programme that runs alongside the main events and caters for the very young - four years and under - up to young adults. And therein lies something completely magical about the festival - so many of the rising stars on the folk scene have happy memories of coming to the festival with their families... thus beginning a musical journey that will ensure the perpetuation of the marvellous tradition of folk music.
Latterly the organisers have taken to booking some big names from the folk tradition as pre-festival events, this year it was Lindisfarne and Ralph McTell. These concerts are ostensibly sold as a sweetener for ‘the residents’ but, naturally, these acts draw people to the festival earlier than the official start – and who can complain about that when it extends the length of what is unfailingly a fantastic folk ‘week’.
Ham Marquee: A major concert space with three shows daily: lunchtime, afternoon and evening
Bulverton Marquee & Betsy’s Lounge: Host to concerts, ceilidhs and workshops, particularly a late night ceilidh every evening as it is out-of-town. There is a bar and eateries on site
Blackmore Gardens Dance and Children’s marquees: Dance marquee, with a bar, for folk dance workshops, dance displays and ceilidhs. Two children’s marquees for workshops and crafts
Manor Pavilion Theatre and Arts Centre: Morning workshops, afternoon and evening concerts
Church Halls: St Teresa’s church hall, used for dance events, workshops and evening folk dances; All Saints hall, for dance events and evening family shows; Unitarian hall, for children’s workshops; Methodist church and hall, for evening folk dances and daytime workshops;
Kennaway House Cellar bar: Host to morning, afternoon and evening concerts
Hotels: Bedford Hotel – host to concerts in the dining room, jam sessions in the bar; Kingswood & Devoran Hotel – instrumental workshops and ‘folk club’ style evenings; Sidholme Hotel – instrumental and song workshops, folk dances in the Music Room; Royal Glen Hotel – poetry, themed singarounds; Woodlands Hotel conservatory – storytelling, workshops and informal concerts; Royal York & Faulkner Hotel – music and song sessions; Dukes – live music on the forecourt;
Hostelrys: Anchor Inn – garden for ceilidhs and concerts, upstairs & bar song sessions; Volunteer Inn – ‘in the tradition’ events, afternoon & evening entertainment; Radway Inn – lunchtime & evening music sessions; Swan Inn – all day music sessions.
Sidmouth Church of England Primary School: Host to music, dance and instrumental workshops
Esplanade – Bedford and York Steps: Morris sides dancing throughout the day (also a performance space for acoustic musicians)
Port Royal (pedestrianised area): Performance space for dance and ‘Sidmouth Horse Trials’.
Market Square: Performance space for dance teams and street performers.
Lindisfarne with Miranda Sykes : Ham Marquee Thursday 1st August 8pm - 1030pm
Miranda Sykes: An appreciative crowd warmly welcomed Miranda Sykes onto the stage. Most of the audience probably know her through her appearances with Show of Hands, whom she frequently accompanies with her trusty double bass. We learn that she took up the instrument when she was eight years old and, throughout her performance, she was most comfortable in the songs where it accompanied her. It is an unusual instrument for a solo artist to perform with, but Miranda has a strong voice and makes the double bass sing with her to great effect. Promoting her new album, Behind The Wall, Miranda had a very relaxed stage presence, and endearingly engaged the audience with her own festival memories. She quickly took possession of the large Ham stage, and held the packed venue’s attention with her carefully chosen songs.
Lindisfarne: Who hasn’t heard of this English folk rock band from the late sixties? The packed Ham marquee eagerly awaited their arrival and they did not disappoint, getting the audience going from the very first song. Their sound still has a popular appeal, and their relationship with the audience was very fresh and lighthearted – apart from when they favourably matched Whitley Bay against Sidmouth, which did not go down well with the residents. All in good humour, of course!
They would have seriously disenchanted the audience if they failed to include their most famous hits, ‘Lady Eleanor’ and ‘Meet Me On The Corner’, but happily they obliged and both these iconic songs went down a storm in the Ham marquee to much applause.
The Spooky Men’s Chorale with Hannah Rarity: Ham Marquee Saturday 2nd August 8pm – 1030pm
Hannah Rarity: The winner of BBC Radio Scotland’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year 2018, Hannah Rarity is a gorgeous Glaswegian redhead with a beautiful voice. This was Hannah’s debut show in Sidmouth and she was promoting her debut album, Neath the Gloaming Star. Accompanied by guitarist Ewan Robertson, Hannah mostly performed her own songs, along with a few covers. Considering this was her first time performing south of the border, Hannah was very comfortable on stage and confidently engaged with the audience. This wee lassie, with her striking red hair under the stage lights, and her exquisitely sounding voice, clearly won the hearts of the audience.
Her closing number, a cover of ‘Where are you tonight, I wonder?’ was haunting and very accomplished. Hannah could easily take up the baton from June Tabor and is becoming a very bright shining light in the folk world.
The Spooky Men’s Chorale: Sold out as usual, The Spooky Men’s Chorale never fails to go down well at the Festival. Their bi-annual tours to the Western hemisphere have historically included Sidmouth and their arrival is always eagerly anticipated. You know they have arrived when flyers start spookily appearing around the town, proclaiming things like ‘back-packer found in spooky beard’!
Unlike rolling stones that gather no moss, since their first appearance in Sidmouth in 2007 The Spooky Men’s Chorale have gathered a ma-hoosive fan base – the completely sold out 1,125 seat Ham marquee a testament to their manly greatness. Whether singing the close harmonies of unintelligible Georgian songs, original material or their own interpretations of popular tunes, they never fail to be entertaining – visually as well as audibly. In response, men of all genders want to take the black and be part of this extraordinary group - albeit clad in spooky t-shirts and other merchandise – and, if you look closely, they can now be spotted up and down this sceptered isle.
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff with The Young ’Uns : Ham Marquee Tuesday 6th August 3.30pm –5:30pm
The Young ‘Uns are Sean Cooney, Michael Hughes and David Eagle, accomplished songwriters and three times winners of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. In 2015, at a concert of theirs in Somerset, they were approached by a man called Duncan who showed them a potted history of his father’s life, in the hope they would write a song to commemorate him. The lad’s did much better than that – they wrote sixteen!
The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is the result of The Young ‘Uns following up on the leads Duncan gave them and it is a marvellous, multi-media, show that features both images and the voice of Johnny Longstaff himself (thanks to his account of his life being recorded by the Imperial War Museum before his death). Mssrs Cooney, Hughes and Eagle intertwine Johnny’s life story with their original material, cleverly putting three of their sixteen songs to tunes Johnny would have been familiar with. In short, at 18 years of age, Johnny Longstaff volunteered to join the International Brigade, 35,000 men from all over the world who went to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War. The Ballad is Johnny’s story. It is an amazing piece of oral history as musical theatre – thought provoking, humourous in places and incredibly poignant.
In this reviewer’s humble opinion this was the best event at Sidmouth this year and although The Young ‘Uns tour is taking The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff to festivals around the world, it deserves to be seen on much bigger stages (are you reading this Cameron Macintosh?)
Flook: Ham Marquee Tuesday 6th August 9pm – 1030pm
Flook are a band of four virtuoso musicians who are inspired by both English and Irish traditional music. With Brian Finnegan on whistles and flutes, Sarah Allen on flutes and accordion, Ed Boyd on guitar and John Joe Kelly on bodhran they have a very unassuming and relaxed style. Audience participation was definitely encouraged, especially in making “trombone” sounds for a song that needed brass instrument accompaniment!
Flook cleverly fuse tunes embedded in tradition with their own particularly distinctive sound. The lady flautist had a particularly unique playing style, every tune being performed while standing on one leg…!
Richard Thompson with Kirsty Merryn : The Ham marquee Thursday 8th August 8pm – 1030pm
This show went on despite the quite challenging weather conditions that led to all the outdoor events on Friday the 9th being cancelled.
Kirsty Merryn: has a distinctive style that combines dramatic keyboard playing with a rich and distinctive voice. Her opening lyrics “As I walked out a’ darkenin’ evening…’ made a refreshing change from the usual “As I walked out one May morning…”! Kirsty performed a number of songs from her debut album, ‘She & I’, which focuses on the individual stories of inspirational women in history, such as Emma Hamilton and Grace Darling. Kirsty Merryn is an interesting young singer/songwriter with an undoubtedly successful career ahead of her.
Richard Thompson: The unfortunate weather meant that the sold-out Ham was not quite as full as it should have been. Despite the challenges of precipitation and high winds, which caused Richard Thompson to lament that he would have to speed up his set as the marquee could take off at any moment, the venue stood firm and the audience settled down to enjoy Mr Thompson’s wry humour and social commentary. He certainly knows his way around a guitar and his ‘fleet-fingered fretwork’ was mesmerising. However, whether it was the weather, his longevity in the business or his OBE he did not engage well with the audience and came across as arrogant, but maybe he has gone beyond wanting to endear himself to his audience. Mr Thompson’s set was the only event that imposed a ban on photography.
Dan and Skip, street performers: Market Square throughout the week
These two young men were absolutely fantastic acrobats, performing without any special equipment or apparent concern for their own safety. Their dry humour kept the crowd engaged – possibly assisted by their semi-clad appearance! (They did not wear tops) They were both very good at persuading the gathering audience to participate in their shenanigans. Apparently Dan met Skip on a bus and they put the show together on the way to Sidmouth – sorry guys, but that is hard to believe in an act that needs complete trust and much practice! They performed in the Market Square throughout the week, and always to a large crowd. If these two pop up at another festivals give them your time, you will not be disappointed.
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