Towersey, apart from the tokens, is a triumph once again

Towersey Village Festival 2012 review

By James Creaser | Published: Fri 31st Aug 2012

around the festival site (people)

Thursday 23rd to Monday 27th August 2012
Towersey, Thame, Oxon, OX9 3QU, England MAP
£119 adult weekend ticket (Camping £20 extra)
Daily capacity: 10,000
Last updated: Fri 3rd Aug 2012

Towersey-goers are a loyal lot. By and large, we return year after year, and when we arrive at the festival, we already know how it's going to end. They will be lanterns, hugs and singing. There will be speeches and fond farewells. We've a fairly good idea how the journey will go too. Bellowhead will do bad things to the floor in Venue 65, The Chipolatas and their antics will have everyone chuckling, and Roy Bailey will be at his heart-warming best in The Big Club. The stewards will smile, the Wombles will womble free and the Bog Squad will brave the worst of what our collective digestive tracts can throw at them. These are all familiar waypoints of the yearly journey from Thursday to Monday at Towersey Festival. But as for the journey itself, the paths you can take are as myriad and diverse as the faces you see around you. Towersey is one of those festivals that you can make your own, whilst sharing in an experience that is common to all who are there.

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Towersey isn't just a festival where just you go to watch music being played. Some people will go the whole five days without attending a single concert. They are here to participate in the many workshops and social dancing events on offer. For the dancers, the Ceilidh Tent is where they'll spend their time. This year's festival begins with Dance Cupola on Thursday night, whilst much of Friday's dance action is given over to first timers. It begins with Dance Across the Centuries, a beginner friendly romp through social dancing history, then there's the absolute beginners dance workshop, for people who think they can't dance. Kerry Fletcher and her team do a fine job of teaching them the basics. Then it's up to them; they've got four days of ceilidhs to practice at, before the Grand Ball on Monday afternoon.

Style wise, there's plenty on offer from the dance scene. Kerry and her crew offer Scandinavian, Breton, Appalachian clogging and much more. Towersey Morris are also running a series of workshops, pulling off the neat trick of taking a bunch of beginners at the beginning of the festival, and training them to a level at which they can dance out at the Three Horseshoes on Monday. They're in the company of such mighty Morris legends as Armaleggan, Cuckoo's Nest and Foxwhelp and they acquit themselves admirably.

around the festival site (people)
If the standard of Monday Morris is particularly high this year, credit must obviously go to the sides, but perhaps there are darker forces at work. This year, at the festival, there is a beer token system. Here's the deal: you stand in a queue and exchange hard cash for an easily lose-able bit of paper with 'tokens' on it. You then queue again for drinks, which you pay for with your tokens at an exchange rate of £3.80 for a pint, and £1.90 for a half or for soft drinks. It's a system that is universally loathed, smacking as it does of an 18-25, mainstream festival, "Silly buggers'll pay for anything," money grabbing ethos. You can't exchange unused tokens for money, and buying rounds is very confusing. It's completely out of keeping with the spirit of the festival, and about the best thing anyone will say about it is, "At least it's keeping me from drinking." It might be good for our livers, and for the precision of our Morris figures, but as for being good for Towersey, I'm not so sure. This is a packed weekend, festival wise, and if the choice is Purbeck, Shrewsbury, Shambala or Sobriety, I doubt there are many who'll choose the latter. It's a shame because in every other aspect of the festival, people are enjoying themselves immensely.

Take the musician's workshops, for instance. Kirsty Cotter is the fiddler's answer to Kerry Fletcher, and she's running a range of Scottish themed workshops. They're aimed at improving technique and are pitched at various levels from improving beginners to advanced players. Elsewhere, Gavin Davenport is doing his guitar thing and Whapweasel offer Whapping it up, a tunes workshop for all instruments and levels. The icing on the cake must be Nancy Kerr & James Fagan's tune workshop on Monday, which will be a festival highlight for many.

For singers, the spookymeister is back. Stephen Taberner is running the Big Sing in the mornings, in addition to appearing alongside Roy Bailey at his very memorable Monday Concert. Again, non singing beginners are catered for. Jess Arrowsmith runs Can't Sing, Won't Sing on Sunday. Unfortunately, many who show up can sing and do, loudly. They're seemingly there just to fawn over Jess and they ruin the confidence of the many beginners present, spoiling the outcome of a well intentioned workshop. It leaves me wondering if there shouldn't be some sort of anti-audition for things like this; to verify the beginner credentials of the participants, and to weed out the irritating fawners.

John Kirkpatrick
For the young folk, Towersey again features the Shooting Roots project. Many a grown up is heard to groan when they see something they fancy in the programme and then realise it's just for the young uns. I'm particularly jealous of the Silver Flame rapper workshops, the Bacca Pipes dance workshop and the concert by Roy Bailey & John Kirkpatrick. Maybe we should all bring fake ID next year.

Sometimes, perhaps after a night spent with Old Rosie, you might just want to lie there and let the fun come to you. Just for those moments, there's walkabout entertainment in the showground, from the likes of Uncle Tacko's Flea Circus and madcap Jason Maverick. For those that can move a bit, there's the Market Square and the Rope Circle, featuring Morris sides and a variety of outdoor acts. My favourite is Junk, whose caveman fooling and groovy tunes, played on pipes, bins and other such discarded paraphernalia, draws in a huge crowd on Saturday evening.

Gig wise, you need to employ a bit of thought. There's a diverse range of acts on the bill; from the established and revered, such as John Kirkpatrick, Roy Bailey, and Nic Jones; to the inspired and modern, such as Spiro and Bev Lee Harling. There's plenty of Americana too; from actual Americans Larkin Poe, from young, Canadian, Old Man Luedecke, and from quintessentially English, Walsh and Pound. Venue wise, there's also a bit of a choice, and it's here that you find out what sort of a music lover you are, because the choice you make very much depends on how you like to enjoy your gigs.

If you like to stand and dance then Venue 65 is for you. The festival starts here with The South on Thursday, then on Friday, it's the turn of Towersey favourites, Bellowhead. It's become something of a tradition for them to break the floor here and they've compiled their set to seemingly achieve this purpose; restrained it ain't. The floor wobbles in waves from the stage to the back seats, but this year, it stays in one piece. Later in the festival, it endures a storming Sunday set by the Peatbog Faeries and the final closing concert by The Albion Band. If it can survive Bellowhead, it can survive anything.

In the day time, Venue 65 takes on an altogether more chilled demeanour. People sit on the floor, or lie, or loll and just listen. Larkin Poe rock out to a recumbent crowd here on Saturday; then on Sunday its music of many moods from Walsh and Pound. They are soon to go their separate ways, and we'll miss them.

Larkin Poe
If you like sitting and listening, then The Big Club is the place to head to. It's all seated and the crowd are regularly reminded that there's no talking allowed during the performances. Although there's the odd person muttering along the lines of, "It's like being back at School," the vast majority are appreciative of the atmosphere it engenders. There's a lot of nuance on display here, and to get your ears around it properly, you need a bit of quiet.

The Martin Simpson Trio is on fine, intricate form when they play The Big Club on Friday night, soothing our tinnitus traumatised ears after Bellowhead. Jamie Smith's Mabon charm everyone with their tunes on Saturday, and later, Pilgrims Way are stunning. Elsewhere on the bill, Nancy Kerr & James Fagan provide another highlight when they support national living treasure, John Kirkpatrick on Sunday.

Nic Jones
Belinda O'Hooley & Heidi Tidow are the talk of the bar queues, ceilidhs and food stalls when they take their turn in the Big Club, and they create quite a following at their subsequent festival appearances. Roy Bailey's Monday concert threatens a scene of public disorder when members of the audience threaten to stage an 'occupy' protest if he doesn't play just one more encore. However, the Big Draw at the Big Club has to be Nic Jones, Joe Jones and Belinda O'Hooley. They headline on Saturday and believe it or not, there are some Towersey goers who aren't too familiar with Nic and his legacy. I sidle up to one of them after the performance, hoping to get a straightforward appraisal, unclouded by nostalgia. "He was brilliant," she says. "Like an English Bob Dylan, only good and who can sing."

For those who like their folk club atmosphere more intimate, the Village Hall fits the bill finely. There is a folk club running here throughout the festival, where folk can go and join in with the singing and with the tunes. At other times, the venue plays host to some big names. John Kirkpatrick does his Victorian Farmer's Year in Song concert here on Sunday, and the lucky few who get in are treated to a memorable evening. John is on fine form, unencumbered by lighting, amplification or a stage. What really makes the performance so special though, is an audience who knows what they're about when it comes to joining in. The singing is hearty and the harmonies are right on the button. It's like giving your ears a warm bath in a soothing sea of sound.

I nearly didn't see John because he was clashing with a couple of my favourite acts, The Melrose Quartet and Old Man Luedecke. This problem is always going to crop up when there are several things on offer at the same time at a festival. Sometimes a bit of rushing about is necessary, like when the brilliant Spiro threaten to clash with the not-to-be-missed Roy Bailey on Monday. Thankfully though, many of the artists appear more than once, so not only can you plan carefully so as not to miss anyone; you can also, in the best of bespoke tradition, choose a venue which best suits your taste in musical surroundings, and the context in which you would like to experience your favourite acts. Old Man Luedecke appears pretty much everywhere, collecting quite a following with his stories within songs, stories between songs, and all-round-nice-guy manner.

Bev Lee Harling
Bev Lee Harling, likewise, is in more than one place. I catch her at The Hive, and it's the perfect venue for her. It has the atmosphere of a late night jazz club; sofas, carpets and cool cats lounging about. You could call it a gig but really its more of an all round sensory experience, for Bev isn't one to allow her imagination to be reined in by convention. Her band's set up is jazzy: sting bass, acoustic guitar and percussion. Bev stands, centre stage at a kitchen table. You heard that right, a kitchen table, stocked with kitchenware. She sings, and does whatever else her songs call for. Having come out of Bev's brain, their demands are sometimes a bit 'left of centre'. She plays at various points, a cheese grater, an electric drill and a percussively chopped cucumber. For her finale she comes among us distributing coconut shells, other assorted percussion and a kazoo. The lucky few recipients then get to add their own flavours to Bev's unique blend. That this is my favourite festival highlight is due in part to that fact that it is a typically Towersey experience. It's effervescent, engaging, always surprising and above all, infinitely smile-inducing.

It's these qualities, I feel, that ensure that Towersey-goers return, year after year. The fact that we generally return to the same spot on the campsite, sit in the same place in the venues and favour the same workshops and ceilidhs, makes it effortless to rekindle festival friendships with folks that we only see once a year, but look forward to reconnecting with in the intervening 360 days. When the time comes, and we arrive here once more, we know what we're going to get. And we wouldn't have it any other way. Apart from the tokens, that is.

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

photos by: Ian Wright

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