Now in its 9th year and the sun shone down. A host of star names from the global roots, folk and acoustic music scenes joined the international line-up at the Gate’s new site at Southwell racecourse in Nottinghamshire. A truly eclectic international mix of acoustic and roots music, plus great family entertainment on your doorstep, for many just a free bus ride away.
With the Tories in power and UKIP gathering support, these are fertile times for Billy Bragg who headlined the opening night. Now a 55-year-old with a beard , Bragg’s voice is ripening at the very moment his music has become more subtle, more rewarding and less anthemic. Having started out as an angry young man who could write a song but not sing or play a musical instrument (as he described himself in an affecting tribute to Lou Read) he has matured into a fine performer of other writers’ material as well as his own. Those in the packed marquee were in fine voice on the choruses of ‘A New England’ and ‘Greetings To The New Brunette’, a great opening night.
The Young'Uns, undoubtedly the band of the moment, provided a fantastic set on the Friday evening making it clear why they had recently won the BBC Best Folk Group 2015 award. Earlier in the day they’d performed in the Minster and this was followed by a hugely entertaining but at times thought provoking set on the main stage. Opening with a superb rendition of Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars this trio , Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes have many strings to plentiful bows – not least a rampant humour which occasionally made them appear more like stand-up comedians, mercilessly mocking one another and involving the audience at every turn. In Sean Cooney they have a superb – and so far – vastly underrated songwriter of their own, with a refined ear for a haunting melody and the pointed detail in a colourful tale. The horrifying “honour killing” of Farzana Parveen is the painful subject of The Streets of Lahore whilst the moving rendition of the WW1 story Private Hughes was worth the weekend admission alone - yes I really mean that.
With a lifetime achievement accolade at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards to their name Clannad concluded the Friday evening on the main stage with an atmospheric movement through their greatest hits including ‘Harry’s Game’, ‘I Will Find You’ (from the Last of the Mohicans), ‘Closer To Your Heart’ and ‘Newgrange’ along with a few tracks from their comeback album ‘Nadur’. At the heart of it all Moya Brennan’s ethereal voice sets them apart and confirmed their Celtic legend status. Over more than four the decades selling fifteen million records worldwide Clannad have made music that entwines the traditional and the modern, the past and the future, with stunningly beautiful results. Those who had enjoyed the upbeat harmonies of the Young Uns were now entertained with Clannad’s haunting songs, mesmerizing vocals, and captivating sound.
The Saturday morning saw the traditional Saturday procession thought this beautiful Nottinghamshire town before the centre of attention returned to the festival site. The only difficulty was deciding which of the four stages to focus on although seeing the Young Uns dueting on stage 2 with renowned English vocal harmony group Artisan was a must and a rare treat.
On the main stage on Saturday night, there was an atmospheric splendour about the performances of Chris Wood & Andy Cutting followed by the award-winning quartet Galway’s We Banjo 3.The two sets of brothers who make up We Banjo 3 (yes, there’s four of ‘em!) worked wonders mixing traditional Irish sounds with cutting edge banjo-powered bluegrass Americana played fast and full of joy almost impossible not to dance to it, certainly one of the highlights of this year”s festival.
As if this wasn’t enough CoCo and the Butterfields didn’t so much hit the stage as engulf it combining banjos, fiddles and double bass with their powerful vocal melodies and an undercurrent of driving beatbox they delivered catchy songs and resonating in an urban pop vibe. It was clear to see why this Canterbury band of buskers have established themselves as one of the must-see live acts in the UK, earning critical acclaim for incendiary performances at Glastonbury in recent years.
Hot on their heels came BOC, an eight-piece band from Mallorca with their first performance outside of Spain. A young group of brilliant Spanish musicians who have folk influences from around the world mixed up with more contemporary influences such as hardcore, new age, metal, and ska. They have won numerous awards in Spain and certainly knew how to lift an audience.
Elsewhere there was plenty to chose from not only the range of beers available in the well stocked beer tent but with music for all tastes If, like me, you go to music festivals is to discover something new and different you would not have been disappointed. On the open stage we were blown away by the reels of Floot Street. a name to look out for if you are attending one of the other summer festivals -Warwick, Towersey, Bromyard…… whilst there were outstanding sets on many of the smaller stages. The Australian trio Cloudstreet entertained on the second stage and concluded their UK tour on the main stage whilst the stylish The Tweed Project – a combination of the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award winners from 2013 and 2014 wowed us on the Sunday afternoon.
There was a real international feel to this years festival. Virginian livewires The Hot Seats having wowed the crowds at big events such as Celtic Connections did the same on Thursday evening. There were the beautiful, intimate and melancholic songs of Mark Rogers & Mary Byrne from Brooklyn NY who played their first UK gig at the Final Whistle pub on the Saturday afternoon before their later performances on the festival site. Added to this were the entertaining Americana rock of San Francisco’s Blind Willies who, with a wide range of influences including Dylan, The Pogues, Zappa, Leonard Cohen and many soul and blues legends, offered up a mix of folk, blues, Americana and rock 'n' roll. The songs and lyrics influenced by singer/songwriter Alexei Wajchman upbringing, stories of life on the streets of San Francisco with music as powerful as it was eclectic.
Just when I thought it couldn't get any better came the The Railsplitters, a two guys two gals roots band with a country twang from Colorado with Dusty Rider's liquid banjo picking and Peter Sharpe's superbly inventive, percussive mandolin style, and all-round-one-mic singing charm they quickly became another festival highlight.. Although at home in the bluegrass style, this was just the starting point of their musical journey on stage which embody funk and Latin American rhythms with songs such as My World and Planted On The Ground showing the diversity of their talents. They return to the UK in April 2016 —catch them if you can.
On the main stage the Sunday evening concluded in style with the quite remarkable Conservatoire Folk Ensemble from Birmingham, led by Joe Broughton (following his performance with the wonderful The Urban Folk Quartet) and featuring around 50 (yes 50) of the brightest young folk musicians in the country. A global fusion of roots musics, and bouncing with such boundless energy and fresh talent that the big marquee crowd was overwhelmed with musical enthusiasm and appreciation. A sight to be seen with the stage as packed as the marquee!
Although this concluded performances on the main stage the music continued well in to the early hours of Monday Morning. On the Barleycorn stage we were treated to a trio of the American bands on stage for a final farewell, a fitting close to a great weekend.
There is much I haven't mentioned the celiidhs and the workshops, the craft tent, children’s shows and the traders - in all the festival was a credit to the hard work of those who organised it.So if your music collection has begun to sound a little stale and the music on your radio doesn't excite you like it used or if you missed the weekend because you stayed at home watching one of the numerous television talent shows then you missed something special. This was a real and live talent show on your doorstep. However the good news is that it returns next year!
Thus I close by encouraging you to check out http://southwellfolkfestival.org.uk and mark the date for 2016 in your diaries. Together we can further expand our musical horizons in 2016… I for one can’t wait !...
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