Gate to Southwell 2012 is a tale of old and new, near and far

Gate to Southwell Folk Festival 2012 review

published: Wed 13th Jun 2012

around the festival site

Friday 1st to Monday 4th June 2012
The Workhouse, Southwell, nr Nottingham, NG25 0PT, England MAP
from £69 for adults, £28 for a child (12-17)
daily capacity: 3000
last updated: Tue 29th May 2012

You'd be hard pressed to find a more quintessentially English scene than Southwell town centre on Saturday afternoon, the second day of the Gate to Southwell Folk Festival 2012. The sun is shining, union flags flutter and bunting blows in the breeze. The smell is of fish n chips and the sounds are of fiddles, squeezeboxes and drums. A large crowd has gathered and folk-dance from every corner of the queendom is taking place in the high street. There's rapper, border, cotswold, north-western, molly and clog, and there's an enthusiastic crowd of locals who are lapping it up.

Lucy Ward
It's a very English affair and for fans of such things, Southwell offers a tale of old and new. In with the new, we have the ever engaging Lucy Ward, who is performing and MCing here. She's a born entertainer; abandonment, poverty, death and despair have never been so much fun as with Lucy. I catch her on a soggy Sunday. 'Alice in the Bacon Box' is all the more poignant with the workhouse overlooking the venue. 'Common People' is a crowd favourite, particularly the "Are you sure?" line. 'Bricks and Love' has them riveted and she ends on that Bob Marley ode to the collie herb, Don't Worry. It's cold and wet outside but Lucy is the perfect antidote.

Next, in the new corner, we have The Fay Hield Trio. Fay sings traditional material with a spot on sense of interpretation, accompanied in luxurious manner by Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron. Henry the Eighth goes hunting, pretty Nancy's boyfriend has a hard time on a ship, cockneys do crazy things, winches rattle, stormy winds blow and Reynard gets away; all to the immense delight of the packed crowd. This is the penultimate performance of the trio, so we're told, but never fear. Fay has a new album out, 'Orfeo' and will be supercharging her band into the Hurricane Party with the addition of Jon Boden and Andy Cutting. Catch them if you get the chance.

The Melrose Quartet
Nancy Kerr & James Fagan continue Sunday's watery theme. You know it's going to be good when they open with 'Queen of Waters', a favourite of many which takes some following. They finish on Dance to your Daddy and in between, there's no slacking. There are a couple of large video screens either side of the stage which perfectly showcase Nancy's finessed fiddling during the tune sets. She's surely one of the best in the business. Nancy and James are of course half of The Melrose Quartet whose harmonies are just the thing for warming the cockles on shivery Sunday night. You can actually see their breath as they sing; a festival first for me. They end on a lovely lullaby version of 'John Ball', which, they tell us, they sing every night to their son, Hamish. Lucky Hamish.

Then, in the been-around-a-bit corner, there are two anniversary performances. Brass Monkey celebrate 30 years with a magnificent headline set on Sunday night, whilst Saturday features a celebration of 40 years of Morris On. True to the spirit of the original, we have loud guitars, a drum kit, Ashley Hutchings on bass and Gavin Davenport fronting the band. Tom Wright on guitar wears a Vincent Black Lightning t shirt and his sound, all feedback and wah, adds an additional layer of sleaze to 'The Cuckoo's Nest'. Simon Care is on melodeon, and his poor, hanky-less son does a couple of jigs by way of a lively interlude. It's a family affair; Blair Dunlop was on earlier, playing a varied set of self-penned introspection, traditional tunes and a cracking version of Canadee I O. There's a pipe dance from Simon and a broom dance from the multi-talented Guy Fletcher. A very pagan border morris dance is staged by the Witchmen. It's perhaps a bit too pagan as it heralds a 24 hour deluge. Hutchings and Co are happy to take a back seat when the modern instruments aren't required, the 'Gloucester Hornpipe' is one such highlight. Elsewhere there is unaccompanied song, with fine singing from one and all.

Isla St Clair
Other corners of the land are equally well represented at Southwell. Indeed, north of the border we have a similar story of old and new. Dougie MacLean performs to a rapt, attentive crowd on Saturday night and is followed by Breabach who perform a set that alternately blows people's minds with its' ferocious twin bagpipe onslaught, then eases off with some fine Gaelic singing and Scottish clogging. Later, Isla St Clair charms the afternoon crowd on sunny Monday. Her set contains many songs that I remember learning from a big blue Bakelite radio at school in the 1970's. It takes me to my happy place and is just the thing to recover from the rain of the previous day. Then, as the end of the festival approaches, it's down to Karine Polwart to sing the sun down. When the time comes to settle in, button up the cardy and float away with the music, I can think of no one better than Karine. 'King of Birds' gets them singing and swaying and 'I'm Going To Do It All' is a heartwarming encore.

Keeping the Irish end up we have the magnificent Beoga who offer a different perspective on their roots, with their twin squeezebox set up and multi instrumental prowess. Theirs is a dynamic performance, and their habit of alternately charming and ribbing the audience ensures bags of participation.

It's a similar tale from Wales with Calan, who likewise offer another kind of Celtic flavour. Their harp creates a druidy feel and their accordion adds something of the Breton to the mix. It's very chilled and quite funky. Between numbers they like to keep us amused. A game of 'guess the nationality of the performer' kills a good couple of minutes but the real treat they save to the end: a father daughter Welsh clog-off down among the crowd.

Jon Boden And The Remnant Kings
Conveniently combining old and new whilst at the same time offering a new perspective on the traditional are Jon Boden & The Remnant Kings, who support Brass Monkey on sodden Sunday and are the talk of the Monday morning coffee crowd. It's a proper rockin' start, all pumping percussion and pagan bass. As Jon says, "It's a fine night for civilisation to end." It's a set of twists and turns, formed mainly of material from 'Songs from the Floodplain', Jon's album of folk music written for a peak oil future yet to come, but looking increasingly prophetic. Folk music of the future, folk music of the past and folk music of the present sit snuggly side by side, thanks to the imaginative arrangements of Boden and co. It's just strings for 'Reynardene', three concertinas for 'Hounds of Love', and more rocky feel for the Floodplain material, albeit haunted by Rob Harbron's concertina and by the voices of the long departed, which emanate from an Edison wax cylinder phonograph placed prominently on stage: electronica for the steampunk generation. 'Hanging Johnny' contains one of the few Jubilee references of the festival. It isn't what you'd call complimentary and it gets a huge cheer. My kind of crowd.

Maniere des Bohemiens
Jon's set in many ways exemplifies the spirit of Southwell itself: a festival of twists and turns where you never quite know what you'll stumble across next. Take marquee two. At the back there are chairs and tables, cabaret style, whilst at the front it's either chairs for chilling, or a bare floor for bouncing. Maniere des Bohemiens have it this way on Friday night, and the French bar feel is perfect for their gypsy jazz blend of Gallic seduction. Overlapping with Jools, it's a bit of a sparse crowd, but slowly they shamble in out of the night. Picking their spot on the bare floor, and oblivious to any onlookers, they proceed to do their thing. Some sway, some stagger, some smooch. There's one doing Morrissey arm waving and a couple waltzing. Sylvan Chomet himself could not have animated a better scene. The lighting is at times red, like a Parisian knocking shop. At other times it's green, a foretelling of the morning to come. They finish with 'Minor Swing'. By now a throng of beautiful people of all ages has gathered and they dance one final time, before staggering into the night with the tones of Edith Piaf ringing in their ears: parfait.

Continuing the gypsy theme are The Toy Hearts. Their blend of bluegrass, gypsy jazz and western swing wins over the packed crowd whenever they play. They sing sweet, sisterly harmonies in American, and their pickin' is faster than a Dukes of Hazard car chase. Their dad stands at the back and accompanies them on a sultry sounding dobro and a triple necked pedal steel. Like the finest moonshine, it goes down a treat and then knocks you out cold.

around the festival site
The next day, I notice a sign in the far corner of the field that says, 'Yurts' and I mooch in that direction. I follow a trail of faerie lights and presently come to a clearing in which I find three Yurts. Inside are various workshops featuring festival artists. My pick is the guitar workshop run by Sophia from the Toy Hearts and John Kirkpatrick's Melodeon session. Whatever your thing, be it picking, banging, blowing, squeezing or singing, just follow the faerie lights and you will find your heart's desire.

The Yurts also play host to informal sessions at certain hours, as does the beer tent every morning. Here we have a slow session, ideal for beginners to come to terms with session playing and to learn tunes in a pressure free environment. The tunes are available to download from the festival website, giving plenty of opportunity to gain confidence beforehand. It's a genius idea which will hopefully catch on elsewhere.

Informal sessions, together with performances from festival artists, take place at various venues in the town. Southwell makes significant efforts to include local residents and the results are evident from the parade, the packed venues and the lively pub scene that sweetly complements the event.

around the festival site
Taking a closer look around the town centre, another story is revealed. Next to the quintessentially English chippy is the quintessentially English Khyber restaurant and the quintessentially English Chinese takeaway. On the festival site, you can choose from Greek, Caribbean, Vegetarian or Pizza, a far cry from the gut busting burgers, hotdogs and chips normally available. The English spirit of celebrating ethnicity and welcoming diversity extends to the music on offer too. Southwell is a festival with a broad musical spectrum and within that plurality resides succour for many tastes. Musical treats are often found around the next corner.

On Saturday, something about Grupo de Cordas da Seccao de Fado 's Portuguese tunes seems to carry on the air, enticing people in and packing the venue for a full house of clapping, stomping and dancing when they end on 'Kalinka'. Seven Little Sisters then get the floor moving with their lively brand of stomp, then the mood builds and builds with the Australian phenomenon that is Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson. Hat plays a demon blues guitar and Cara sings, drums and jazzes things up with the whistle. The crowd love them and the longest CD queue of the festival forms at the end of their set. The next day, Harry Bird & the Rubber Wellies take audience participation to another level when the spot a couple with ukuleles in the crowd and invite them up in the middle of their groovy, Hawaiian tinged set to join in.

Jools Holland and the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra
The festival is bookended in fine free range style by rip roaring sets from Jools Holland and the Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, who headline on Friday and Le Vent du Nord, who close the festival on Monday. Critics might argue that Jools' thing isn't folk but Duke Ellington said it is and that's good enough for me. From the onset, people are dancing in the isles. It's a mixed crowd, from toddlers to pensioners, some stone cold sober and others steaming drunk. It's an all seated venue but Jools' boogie-woogey magic is potent stuff and by the end they're all on their feet. It's a similarly storming performance from Le Vent du Nord. Their multi flavoured Quebecois music is perfect for ringing every last bit of life from the festival. It's a hypnotic, tribal start; clogged Gallic rhythms from the fiddler and a thumping visceral bass. Again, people of all shapes and sizes leave their seats and head down the front for some intense stomping. The songs are all in French but we join in anyway and occasionally there is an explanation of the sentiments. 'Don't die without doing anything' is my favourite. It's infectious stuff and nigh on impossible to keep still to. They are called back for several encores and the final quote sums up the festival nicely, 'This music makes me happy. I hope it does the same thing for you.' Exactement.

Le Vent du Nord

review by: James Creaser

photos by: Ian Wright

Friday 1st to Monday 4th June 2012
The Workhouse, Southwell, nr Nottingham, NG25 0PT, England MAP
from £69 for adults, £28 for a child (12-17)
daily capacity: 3000
last updated: Tue 29th May 2012

latest on this festival

Southwell Folk Festival
festival home page
last updated: Mon 20th Jan 2020
Gate To Southwell Festival 2019
festival details
last updated: Wed 22nd May 2019