Arriving at a festival is always a moment of blessed relief after the stresses and strains of getting there. It’s always particularly prominent feeling at Towersey, it being ‘Another Lovelier Place’, as the sign at the entrance says.This year though, there’s an added edge to the excitement, for this is the 50th Towersey Village Festival. The days that lie ahead promise the usual Towersey treats plus, no doubt, a fewspecial birthday events.
On arriving at the festival site, the first thing that strikes me is the crowd. For a start, it’s massive!
The showground is packed, and latecomers beware; there’s barely a seat to be had in the Big Club, with other venues running at capacity too. Then there’s the look of it. It’s a group that wouldn’t be out of place at Green Man, or End of the Road, or anywhere at the quality end of the mainstream festival scene. And why not? Folk music is, in a large part, dance music, and the glowing orange cider that they are serving here will scramble your neural pathways as much as anything you might buy from the dodgy bloke in the ‘Psy-Trance’ area. If the ‘beard and woolly jumper’ folk stereotype ever applied, it’s certainly not the norm at Towersey this year.
This being Towersey’s 50th birthday, you might expect a good crop of Towersey regulars, and they’re certainly here in abundance. But a glance around the campsite confirms that there plenty of first timers about too. Mostly, it is evident in the lengths they’ve gone to in order to keep their kids entertained. One family has even set up a sand pit next to their tent. This might be necessary at some mainstream festivals where the first half of the day is just to get rid of your hangover and nothing starts until about two, but here, in Another Lovelier World, things are different.
For Towersey is an event that caters to folk of all ages. The festival day starts early in the morning and finishes, well, early in the morning. For the younger ones, there’s a dedicated children’s festival in its own secure area next to campsite one. There are workshops, activities and concerts aplenty, but it’s the drama workshops that seem to be a hit this year. For the older ones, there’s ‘Shooting Roots’; operating out of The Hive and again offering workshops, plus collaborative musical projects that end with the chance to perform in a concert on the final day.
A festival that is 50 years old, especially one so popular among the folk crowd, is old enough to have had its own particular traditions emerging. Like something David Attenborough might talk about, Towersey regulars return year after year to the same spot on the campsite, enjoying the company of the same neighbours and indulging in their distinct, preferred activities, and over the years, traditions have arisen. During the course of the festival, I hear about ‘Scrumpy Thursday’, ‘Cider Sunday’ and, my particular favourite, the ‘Gin and Tonic Workshop’; featuring dicky bows and posh frocks, but reassuringly, not deviating far from the alcoholic theme.
Sir David, should he look further, might notice that there are distinct subspecies among the Towersey population. There are the concert goers, the social dancers, the workshoppers and the Morris sides, to name but a few. Of course there are those who like a bit of everything, but it’s not unusual to find people who spend the entire festival in the ceilidh tent, or morris dancing, or playing in sessions or even perhaps just mooching about catching up with people, but not attending a single concert.
But there are plenty that do enjoy the concerts, and by necessity, it’s a classy line-up. For the folk crowd are doers: they play instruments, they sing and they dance. If you’re going to entertain them, you need to be better than brilliant, because the bar is set quite high. This year’s festival rises to the challenge, beginning on Friday night, with Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker.
Josienne is a singer whose forte is what she refers to as the ‘psycho-ballad’, but if her music is dark, her humour is even more so, and the crowd are lapping up both. In fact, the more she piles on the death, despair and desolation, the more they love her. ‘I just heard this voice and had to come in’, someone says nearby. ‘It’s just like being at a Joni Mitchell concert’, says someone else. But my favourite quote of the evening comes from the lady next to me,’It’s almost worth breaking up with someone, just to drink a bottle of wine and listen to this’, she says. Of course, Josienne’s singing wouldn’t be the same without the sweet, sophisticated playing of Ben Walker. Someone out there remarks, ‘He plays so sensitively, like a tiny child with a new toy.’ Honestly, that’s what they actually said. But it’s clear he’s had this particular toy for quite a while.
|The Melrose Quartet|
When the crowd builds like that for an opening act, it’s tempting to think that they are just getting in early for the concerts to follow, but that isn’t true tonight. A significant number leave before the next act. Strange, because it’s the ever classy The Melrose Quartet. Josienne and Ben are a tough act to follow, and additionally, the venue is suffering from sound problems: the PA isn't working properly on the left hand side of the stage. But the Melrose Quartet have a solution to this. Earlier, they had hosted one of their popular singing workshops in the church, to over 200 people. Most if not all of them are here, so they’ve little need for PA when it comes to adding volume and harmony. The following day, fiddlers can also have a dose of Melrose magic, when Nancy and Jess host their harmony fiddling workshop.
The PA troubles are quickly seen to, but if you feel you’ve missed something, the Melroses appear in various other guises throughout the festival. Nancy Kerr & James Fagan, and Jess and Richard Arrowsmith play as their respective duos, and Sunday night features the world debut of Nancy Kerr and the Sweet Visitor Band. It features original songs penned by Nancy, an electric guitar which James seems to very much enjoy playing, the bloke from Blackbeard’s Tea Party on bass and Lady Maisery’s own Rowan Rheingans on singing, viola and triangle. It’s another festival highlight.
The Towersey ‘Enjoyed the act? Now attend the workshop’ philosophy extends beyond the Melroses. The Urban Folk Quartet, who headline the Big Club on Sunday Night, deliver
instrumental prowess, musical innovation, bare faced cheeky crowd banter, Paloma’s smiley face, Dan’s depressed songs, a lesson in clapping in 11/8 and a triangle solo. In the end, they simply harangue the crowd into a frenzy of funky dancing. If there was a folk award for ‘band most people would like to be in’, and if it wasn’t a fix, then the Urban Folk Quartet would be a shoe-in. They are just too much fun to miss, and if you want your playing to be as cool as theirs, they’re running a workshop in the village hall the very next morning.
Sophisticated seems to be the theme in the Big Club. Lau headline on Saturday night. It’s a tough choice as they are up against Richard Thompson in Venue 65. They rip the place apart yet again, though, warming up the crowd before sending them out into the almost freezing night just in time to catch 1952 Vincent Black Lightning in the other venue. Everyone’s a winner. The Urban Folk Quartet on the other hand, are up against Seth Lakeman: very loud, apparently.
This being Towersey's 50th, there are a number of birthday treats on offer, some widely billed, others that need to be sought out or accidentally discovered. Friday night sees many of the folk illuminati, Simon Care, Ashley Hutchings and Simon Nicol among them, hanging around the ceilidh tent looking very exited. They're all there to see Cock And Bull Band, featuring Dave Whetstone who returns to playing here after a 15 year lay off. It's a popular event, the tent is rammed but the atmosphere remains the very opposite of hectic: a successful comeback.
The Chipolatas, always a Towersey favourite, again have a few treats on offer. Eliza Carthy joins them, as do the Fabulous Salami Brothers. Famous in pre-health and safety days for daring escapology and for swinging a fireball around at the crossroads, this year they give us a policeman skit, and very funny it is too.
On one night, a loud bang is heard in the sky over the festival. Unconfirmed and I must say, slightly inebriated reports from the site of the explosion inform me that the mortal remains of Towersey legend, Richie Three Balls 'I am a juggler, not a mutant' Taylor, have been scattered over the festival site via a large firework. As I say, everyone is a bit pissed by now, so they could be having me on but, in a profound 'circle of life' type way, it’s a nice story. For the usual folkie way of creating new folkies is to breed them, and it’s evident, both from the size of some of the family groups performing here, such as the ever enthralling The Wilsons, and from the noises coming from the campsite every night, that they are as fecund a bunch as any. The thought of Richie's essence, floating down through the evening air, landing in someone's pint and, through the miracle of human reproductive biology, being reborn as a Towersey baby, is a beautiful one. We must all look for portentous signs..........
So that’s it for another year. In fact, that was the last Towersey festival in Towersey. To ensure its longevity, it’s moving to Thame Showground next year, which should reduce the walk from tent to festival considerably. Towersey then, honed by 50 years of evolution, is indeed Another Lovelier Place. It’s nice to know that there’s a few years left in it yet.
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