Arriving at Gate to Southwell Folk Festival 2013, it's difficult to imagine a more apt location for a folk festival. You find yourself camping in beautiful rolling countryside and a short walk into town reveals period drama architecture and the spectacular centrepiece of Southwell Minster. For an added folky touch, the festival itself takes place in front of Southwell Workhouse, and there's an old mill just down the road. It's a quintessential English setting for a quintessentially English art form.
Or so it appears, but a quick poke about the site reveals a festival that has ambitions that stretch beyond Olde England, beyond the bounds of Earth even. The first clue is that you can get a wifi signal on the site; not something you'd normally expect at a folk festival. Following the signal to its source reveals a retired teacher called Charles who, with his wife Heather, resides backstage in a van which he's converted into an outside broadcast unit. Barely noticeable remote cameras in the venue film the performances which are shown on the usual big screens. The footage is also beamed to a satellite, and from there broadcast via the internet. Thus the festival can then be viewed from anywhere in the world, and it seems that the world is watching.
And well it might, for the acts on the bill this year deserve to be shared with as wide an audience as possible. Pick of the headliners has to be Eliza Carthy and Jim Moray, who perform the only festival appearance of their Wayward tour on Thursday night. They're certainly value for money. You get a set from Jim, then a set from Eliza, both backed by a 13 piece folk super-group featuring some stellar names from the scene. Eliza and Jim have their musical roots deep in the soil of the English tradition but neither are afraid to explore and embrace other styles and influences. We get some orchestral strings and a polished up brass section that jazzes things up nicely, forming the perfect compliment to Eliza's feisty front-woman presence. There are also fireworks, party hats, and someone dressed as a cow.
Hot of the heels of the Wayward posse in the entertainment stakes is Show of Hands, who headline on Saturday. Their set resembles a K-Tel Christmas mega mix of everyone's favourite Show of Hands songs. There's Country Life, Roots, AIG, Crow on the Cradle, Cousin Jack, Santiago and many more. Their standing ovation is encouraged by Steve but deserved nonetheless. Oysterband, who headline on Friday, are a bit more Marmite. A decent sized crowd piles down the front to dance the night away, joined by John Jones at one point. A few remain seated, and another crowd heads out the back for a pint and a bit of something else.
And well they might, for Southwell is a festival of many venues, and the other acts on the bill are every bit as solid as the high profile headliners. In terms of packing folks in and entertaining them, the stand out acts of the event prove to be an unlikely combination. Lucy Ward sets things up with her brand of merry misery that manages to be pure trad. and top notch entertainment at the same time. She's followed by Tim Edey and Brendan Power who showcase a musical multidimensionality that takes you by the ears and leads you to new, unexpected and exiting places. There's gypsy jazz, there's dance, there's flamenco and there's a love song to a GPS. Then comes a nifty bit from Brendan involving beatboxing, a harmonica and a loop pedal. It has to be seen to be believed. Brendan and Tim follow Lucy on a couple of occasions, inheriting from her a crowd which is already bubbling and cranking up the atmosphere another notch or too with their unique brand of virtuosity. There's not a seat to be had whenever either act appears, and the Saturday afternoon gig features a 'house full' sign and a fairly lengthy one-in-one-out queue. Both are, deservedly, quite a draw.
Lucy Ward's performances here illustrate that she has transcended her 'up and coming' status and is now a folk megastar in her own right. At Southwell, it's good to see a fair few other young, vibrant and talented acts, hot on Lucy's heels. David Gibb & Elly Lucas' concerts are similarly smile-inducing. James Findlay & Alex Cumming are definitely ones to watch, and if Sunjay Brayne's Saturday concert is anything to by, success seems assured.
Southwell, with the aid of its satellite, does a fine job of showcasing the folk scene to the world. But it's far from a one sided deal. The lineup features many acts from far and wide, who greatly enhance the musical culture of the festival. Canada features prominently this year, particularly on Sunday, when Genticorum weave their Quebecois magic and Gordie Mackeeman and his Rhythm Boys get the joint jumping in fine old-timey style.
The biggest mosh pit of the festival is whipped up by Habadekuk, a Danish folk/dance/salsa/jazz ensemble. They manage to do this, against the odds, in seated marquee 1 on Saturday afternoon. Then, to prove that wasn't a fluke, they raise the roof of a standing marquee 2 during their headlining performance later in the evening. A standing venue at a folk festival isn't something you often see, as many folkies like to have a good sit down during the concerts. The organisers at Southwell have hit on something of a compromise in that marquee 2 is seated during the mornings, then the seats come out for ceilidhs, bals and plain old dancing to the bands. The upshot of this is a much healthier audience demographic than is usual at a folk event. There are plenty of young folks and plenty of partying, which bodes well for the future of the festival.
For the very young folk, there's plenty on offer too. Jan is here, with her van. Then, there's a children's concert marquee and workshops too. My favourite is 'Toddle Bop' but you have to be under 5 to attend. Shame.
Many of the artists are performing at the festival also run workshops too. Take Pilgrim's Way. In addition to performing a range of highly entertaining concerts throughout the festival, there's also an English fiddle workshop run by Tom and a melodeon maintenance workshop run by Edwin. If that isn't enough, Jon Loomes puts in several appearances with his other band Hérétique. Inspired and unpredictable, they are a must see act wherever they appear. Their performance at Southwell takes in Robbie Williams, strip tease, the A-team, a bawdy song in french about cheap prostitutes and the best version of Sir Patrick Spens that I've heard in ages. In true folk festival style, you can either sit and listen, or you can take part. Sunday morning sees the Hérétique French Bal. It's a proper mish mash of a crowd: parents, tiny children, loving couples and belly dancers. The diversity suits the occasion, and everyone has a great time.
The festival derives its name from the Gate to Southwell, a Whitsuntide procession from Nottingham to Southwell Minster. It was revived in 1981 and apparently dates back to the twelfth century. It's an ideal way to connect the festival with the town. The event itself features morris dancing in the Minster, something you don't see too often outside of mummers play season, and in the preceding days, the minster provides a fine concert venue. Niamh Ni Charra gives a charming performance here on Friday. She is supported by Pete Morton, who is usually to be seen MCing. Here he gives a concert featuring his unique style of folk rapping, or 'frapping'. You need to switch your ears to 78 to catch all of the words, but it's a lot of fun trying.
Southwell itself is an ideally sized town to be taken over by a folk festival. There are plenty of pubs playing host to festival events, many of which feature festival artists hosting themed performances. On Saturday, you can take your pick from a folk club open house in the Bramley Apple, featuring spots from Lucy Ward and the Infinite Cherries whilst, at the same time, there's a garden concert at the Hearty Goodfellow and an Irish session a the Final Whistle. I head to the Old Coach House for some Gypsy Jazz and Swing from the Maccaferri Club and the Chuck Pinkett Quintett. It proves a popular event, the place is heaving.
Elsewhere in the town, there are dance displays and mummers plays taking place throughout the festival weekend. Pick of the dance sides has to be Four Hundred Roses, who embody the global spirit of the festival perfectly with their tribal belly dance / morris fusion. If fairgrounds are your thing, then there's a big one on the village green and if your thing is eating, there's an Italian food market too. A particularly splendid touch is the horse and cart which shuttles people from the festival, around the town and to the co-op. It typifies the attitude of the organisers who seem to have taken the concept of a folk festival and, through touches such as this, polished it up into a very fine thing indeed. On leaving, I'm struck by a profound feeling of pity for those poor unfortunates who 'don't do folk'. They should try a pilgrimage to Southwell. If that doesn't cure them, then I fear that nothing will.
latest on this festival
line-ups & rumours
festival home page
line-ups & rumours