Towersey Festival is a friendly feast for folk of all ages

Towersey Village Festival 2011 review

published: Wed 7th Sep 2011

around the festival site (people)

Thursday 25th to Monday 29th August 2011
Towersey, Thame, Oxon, OX9 3QU, England MAP
£98 adult weekend ticket (Camping £20 extra)
last updated: Tue 9th Aug 2011

Well, what a weekend that was. Heard some great music, learned some new dances, made a whole load of new friends, took part in a Visigoth invasion, got a bit too acquainted with someone called Old Rosie and woke up cuddling a shiny new melodeon. It seems like a lot for a bank holiday weekend but it is I'm sure, a fairly typical experience for anyone who was at Towersey Festival 2011.

Billy Bragg
Towersey acolytes use the word 'friendly' a lot, and my first experience of Towersey friendliness isn't long in coming. I wander into the festival dance house on Thursday night and meet a bloke called Barney. We chat whilst queuing at the bar and he buys me a pint when we get to the front, and much obliged I am. Barney has come up the road from Thame to see Billy Bragg, who is a big name for a Thursday night opener. It hints that the organisers are taking nothing for granted and are intent on making this year's festival the best yet. He has lost none of his fire, playing a storming set of material drawn mainly from his early days. These are great times for a political song writer, he tells us, especially when you realise all of your early stuff is a relevant as it ever was. It saves you a fair amount of work. He finishes on a warming version of 'A new England'; with two thousand odd people singing along for all they're worth. It's a strong start.

The festival dance house is itself an improvement on last year. It's made from blackout material ensuring a dark, proper-gig atmosphere whatever the time of day. Towersey is a family-friendly festival, and you do need to watch out in earlier concerts for little people dancing around very cutely, in ear protectors. Then again, a fair few are still around at midnight. Start 'em young, as they say.

3 Daft Monkeys
The dance house regulars also hail from the younger end of the Towersey population, and are here to have a bit of a bop. Someone really should tell this to the bizarre minority who insist on pitching up their deckchairs in the middle of the dance floor, but then again no one really seems to mind. The atmosphere is a bit beery, a bit bouncy, and very loud. They lap it up. 17 Hippies, all twelve of them, seem made for the occasion with their fiery Balkan tunes and ready rapport, but its 3 Daft Monkeys, all four of them, who generate a moment of Towersey magic when they headline on Friday night. It's an uneasy start. With most of the crowd caught out by a quick change over, it's fairly sparse at the beginning and the sound is harsh. Luckily a quick downpour gets them piling back in. This tempers off the acoustics nicely and the monkeys are into their stride. Bodies are bouncing up and down and so is the floor. It's typical of a more mainstream festival or perhaps a student's union as closing time approaches. Then they play Days of the Dance, and everyone takes a partner and starts waltzing, with proper technique, anticlockwise round the room. You just know that these are Towersey kids through and through. It's a beautiful couple of minutes; before bouncy mayhem reigns once more.

Just round the back of the Festival Dance House, but miles apart in terms of vibe, is the Hive. I meet a dreadlocked couple outside who tell me, "It's a bit too chilled" and I head right in. I'm glad that I do, because I catch Laura J Martin. Laura is a physical performer; acting through her songs she's well worth catching live. She's pretty unique too. She plays a breezy mandolin and some Jethro Tull tinged flute. The rest of her band seem to be inside a laptop somewhere, so musical differences will never be a problem. She ticks all the boxes for the crowd present. My dreadlocked new friends are partly right though; it's very chilled. People sit on sofas, perch on logs or lie on thoughtfully provided cushions. The d├ęcor is all red neon and vintage lampshades. It's a perfect antidote to the dance house; and no venue can be too chilled. That's just impossible.

Towersey's best kept secret, at least in terms of concert venues, is the village hall. The performers are unamplified, generating a pure sound and an intimate atmosphere. It's not much of a secret admittedly, and those who don't get in early are reduced to peering in through the windows, straining to listen. Tim Edey & Brendan Power headline the Village Hall Concert Party here on Friday night, and generate a buzz which draws packed and enthusiastic crowds to their subsequent performances.

Bryony Griffith and Will Hampson
Many of the artists here are showcasing new albums, including Bryony Griffith & Will Hampson, and Maz O'Connor. Both offer unique and sensitive interpretations of traditional material, and are well received by the crowd here. Emily Portman plays a blinder as does Alasdair Roberts, who manages to be the talk of the concert tent on Saturday night. If you get here really early and queue for a bit, you'll be treated to more established artists such as Roy Bailey, and Coope, Boyes & Simpson. If you can't get in, never fear, you can catch them later in the concert tent.

The concert tent is at the opposite end of the festival site to the dance house, and it houses a comparatively more mature crowd. Here is where you sit down and soak it up. Speaking of maturity, Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick, who play here on Saturday night, are both in their seventieth year. Its standing room only, and the expectant atmosphere has a slightly fretful edge. Some saw them back in the day, whereas for others, it's the first time. Whatever, we're all united in the hope that the magic still remains. Proof that it does comes from an unexpected source. A grey haired chap arrives late and elbows his way into the crowd, who are by now standing shoulder to shoulder along the sides of the tent. He then proceeds to fart, loudly, at random intervals throughout the set. With Spartan resolve, we all stand our ground. The performance is captivating and the audience are on their feet at the end; and deservedly so.

Karine Polwart
On Sunday night the concert tent hosts the Spotlight on Scotland concert. Saltfishforty do an excellent warm up job with an energised yet varied performance. They are followed by Alasdair Roberts fresh from his blinding village hall show. Then comes the ever engaging Karine Polwart, whose set interweaves Robbie Burns and Dave Goulder with her own material, and is spiced with tales from recent adventures singing to Scottish MPs and American folk-tourists. She goes on to mash up Katy Perry's Firework complete with a three part audience sing-along, and then gets Lau on for the finale. She goes down a storm. Lau are at the end of their festival season and seem intent on going out on a high. They begin with a slow slide-guitar build up, play us a new tune about a small island, and by the time they get to The unquiet grave, "You don't want to dance to this!" There are mesmerised looks all around. Cheeky quote of the evening comes before the final sing-along, which precedes the cacophonous finale, "You can join in if you want, but anything more than fifths is pretentious." Sitting near me is Jude, a fiddle player of some renown who says, "They are brilliant, they just blow the place apart." She sums up the evening nicely.

around the festival site (entertainers)
There's more to joining in than singing along with your favourite artists. A few who are here will not go to a single concert; they come purely for the workshops. There are at least fifty listed in the programme, ranging from yoga, to storytelling, to the Spanish Fandango and encompassing everything in between.

My Saturday morning, and that of maybe a hundred others, begins with Kerry Fletcher's Scandinavian dance workshop. It's with some trepidation that I enter the venue because dance workshops are new to me, but Kerry makes everyone feel very welcome. There are clearly some very expert dancers here, but also a fair amount of beginners. Partners are swapped regularly and I'm grateful for this. Firstly, it helps assuage the guilt about inflicting my dance moves on anyone for too long. Secondly you do learn a lot more with this approach; with another beginner you can talk things through and work things out, and an expert will give you a polite but firm nudge in the right direction: much appreciated. We learn two dances, a lovely simple Schottische and a Polska, arguably an invention of the devil made purely for humiliation. Nevertheless by the end, the overwhelming sense is one of accomplishment. We've learned two new dances and it's not even lunchtime yet.

around the festival site (people)
Dance wise, there's plenty more on offer in terms of workshops. There is also a wide range of dance sides performing varied traditions of Morris, Molly and Rapper outside the Three Horseshoes pub in the village. Worthy of particular mention are Towersey Morris, who run a series of workshops, culminating in a dance-out on Monday. We're it not for the kit, you'd have a hard time distinguishing between the beginners and the more practiced side members. I bet it's a good recruitment strategy too.

Dancers needing more of a fix, do not fear. Somewhere there will be a ceilidh happening. Interestingly, it's the newer, younger or edgier outfits that get the biggest thumbs up from the crowd. Be they teens, pensioners or somewhere in between, the names I keep hearing are the Monster Ceilidh Band, Bedlam, and Random. I ask Jane, someone I know to be an experienced ceilidh-er, to pick a winner. She plumps for Random, "Because there were lots of nice young men to dance with." So there you go.

Musicians amongst us were also spoilt rotten by a choice of workshops. The Eastern European Music for Strings workshop on Saturday was cited by many as a source of new tunes and new inspiration. The same was said about Sunday's fiddle workshop in the church, led by Kirsty Cotter. Kirsty has studied Scottish music academically; and all I spoke to, be they learn-by-ear types, read-the-dots types or a bit of both, were inspired by her approach.

around the festival site (entertainers)
For the young folk among us, there's even more on offer. For the 12-25s, there's Shooting Roots, a programme of workshops, events and performances running throughout the festival and culminating in the Monday showcase. If you drop into the Hive of an evening, you might catch some of the stars of tomorrow, performing with like-minded musicians, whom they met at a Shooting Roots session. Remember where you saw them first.

The littler people have their own children's festival. This takes place in its' own enclosed venue, with an occasional bit of venturing out for workshops and events on the festival showground. I remember once walking past and being jealous because they were going on a bat walk. Other adults reported similar, 'Wish I could do that' experiences. It's worth remembering too, that the young folk can join in with the adults if they want to, and are made very welcome. It's obvious from what's on offer to the youngsters that Towersey is committed to spreading the word and passing on the tradition. This is extends to the adults too. There are talks and presentations throughout the weekend, notable among which is Derek Schofield's talk marking a century of folk dance. It's full of interesting facts but for me, a recurrent theme is that some things that seem as old as the hills are comparatively new. For instance, melodeons first appeared on the English dance scene in the 1940s and the word Ceilidh was introduced in the 50's. Equally worth a visit is the Den for Feet Don't Fail Me Now, featuring John Jones of the Oysterband in conversation about his experiences touring some gorgeous parts of the country on foot. John has walked to Towersey and many of the crowd present have accompanied him for the last part of his walk to the festival site, generating some much needed warmth in the face of changeable festival weather.

The Spooky Mens Chorale
The Spooky Men's Chorale are again part of the Towersey fabric. You can watch them, in one of the many concerts they perform over the weekend, a highlight being their headline performance on Saturday night which gets the crowd on its feet. Alternatively, if joining in is your thing then a packed festival dance house was once again home to the Sing Like a Bloke workshops, for 'blokes of all genders.' Many, like me, have only sung before in the showers. The Spookys though, through some fun games and clever exercises, get us confidently belting out the notes in no time. As the Spooky-meister says, singing in a crowd of like-minded people is a safer place to sing than even the shower. It's a beautiful feeling of collective achievement and its capped off by a flash mob invasion of the showground on Sunday, singing a Visigoth invasion anthem. I love the full-circle feel of the thing; watching the Spooky Men, getting inspired, joining in and finally performing to an audience. They clapped too, so we can't have been that bad.

By the time Roy Bailey plays on Monday afternoon in concert tent, it is clear that the Towersey Magic has worked it charm once more. Folks join in eagerly and sing heartily, knowing deep down that the end will soon be upon us. Typical of Towersey, there are actually three finales. The Final Concert is headlined in some style by Spiers & Boden. They are egged on by the crowd who jig in the isles and sing along with buckets of enthusiasm and no small measure of note-perfect quality.

around the festival site (lantern parade)
Then it's time for the Family Finale. The night air glows with coloured light from the lanterns that people have made during the festival. There are probably hundreds, ranging from a spectacular animated dragon to the Higgs Boson. To the music of Random and led by the spectacular, flag throwing Draposmaaiter, they process to the festival arena. Here there are words of thanks from the organisers, most importantly to the exceptional Towersey stewards. These are followed by poetry from festival poet Paul "Shez" Sherreard, capped off with a sing-a-long to 'Hey Jude'. Then it's over to the Dance House Festival Finale where the fancy dressed The Demon Barbers finish with a riotous version of Come on Eileen. Then 'Hey Jude' breaks out once again and echoes around the campsite for the rest of the night, along with snippets of the Spooky Theme.

When time comes to leave, I seek solace in the feeling I'd had when I arrived. A familiar feeling it was, almost a sort of homecoming. And you do have to come back. There are 455 events listed on the programme and to do them all you'd have to be in several places at once. When I got here, I didn't feel like I'd been away for any length of time. It was more like I'd just popped out for a bit as people do; perhaps on the red bus, perhaps on the cycle path. And that's the sum of it: you don't ever leave Towersey, you just 'pop out' for a year. See you in 2012?

around the festival site (entertainers)
review by: James Creaser

photos by: Ian Wright

Thursday 25th to Monday 29th August 2011
Towersey, Thame, Oxon, OX9 3QU, England MAP
£98 adult weekend ticket (Camping £20 extra)
last updated: Tue 9th Aug 2011

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