Now fully back into new found glory, the Unity Works building sits proudly once again on the corner of the middle of Westgate. Once a space to go ballroom dancing, watch bands like The Pretenders and watch silent movies, it had sat empty for around twenty years. Three years ago a community group of volunteers got together (including plumbers, painters, students, architects…) and this grade 2 listed building is now the new creativity hub for Wakefield. Sitting one minutes' walk from the new Westgate train station with direct links to Leeds, York, Sheffield and London, this really is a prime location. This is also the second festival I have been to here, and with other events like Wakefield Comic Con in July, it really is getting the usage it now deserves.
Featuring a 600 capacity seated hall with a small balcony, a 100seat function room / smaller gig room and 10,000 feet of office space, an art gallery and the newly opened café/bar, this really is a testament to those who believed in a vision for this old building. Summer's Long Division festival already uses the gig spaces as largest venue for its weekend, and this Saturday saw it hold a one day Folk Fest, featuring huge local and national names across three rooms.
The café/bar, opened only this week, stocks many craft beers and is littered with comfy sofas and has a right view of this part of Wakefield with its huge windows on every wall. The smell of Mexican food drifts through the hallways as the ground floor is selling Mexican nosh to the festival goers, though if you didn't fancy that there are plenty of places around the city, though less convenient time wise. This are is open all day and to everyone, so through the day it has a nice buzz to it as people come and watch a bit of folk and then leave, but later on the place becomes a lot more packed and the poor people trying to be heard are frustratingly ignored.
The second smaller 'Minor' room is two floors up. The building itself has a lot of stairs, so plenty of ascending and descending to work off all those beers! There is a lift (with a great sign!) to use too. No sitting on the stairs, as the friendly matching clothed door staff will move you on! The smaller room needs lighting set up over the stage, as it is pretty dark in that respect, and the main room balcony door needs a door stopper or something to stop it slamming as the people walking through did interrupt the people on this stage now and again, not meaning to mind.
The main 'Major' hall is beautiful, with old beams running across the ceiling, truly returned to its former glory (if not better). There is less beer choice in these two bars but still a good selection, with prices the same as in most other bars.
We start the day watching Gary Stewart in the Minor Hall. The Scottish chappy from Leeds has a fair few people watching him, and is in a fair few bands himself (Hope and Social, Rosie Doonan, Ellen & The Escapades). Half of the famous Wood and Cutting duo, Chris Wood's deep vocals and observatory lyrics strike a chord with the many in attendance next in the Major Hall. I have to laugh when he sings a cover from Ronnie Lane called 'The Poacher', which is sprightly but has a sound in it like that from 'Psycho'! He no one cares what these songs are called so I only manage to collect one more song name, 'The Sweetness Game', following the love song route he ends up on for the rest of the set. Singing William Blake's poem 'Jerusalem' was a crowd pleaser too.
Back to the Minor Hall and Johnny Campbell has just started. I remember seeing him before in Three Sheets T'Wind. He sounds very old and Scottish but is in fact a very talented young man from Huddersfield. I love this style of folk, traditional Irish, Scottish and Norwegian folk with a lot of punk gusto. There are unfortunately not many people here for his set, but we stay and are treated to a fair few solo songs about his favourite things; alcohol and rambling; and a couple with a lady called Rosie who joins him on the tin whistle to play a song about a true story of waiting for mountain rescue. He didn't say whilst drunk or not… There's also an on topic tune featuring the lyrics “Watching Top Gear/Clarkson is A Rogue”.
Steve Chapman Smith is playing next in the café bar, and he remembers supporting the Pretenders thirty years ago in this very building, though they were not called that then. He is glad to see it back open, as are we. The cover of 'Folsom Prison Blues' by Johnny Cash was a nice sing-along for the afternoon.
Everyone wants to see The Mighty Doonans it looks like, the place is heaving. I have heard of Rosie Doonan who played earlier in the cafe bar, but here we have a whole host of Doonan. Nine to be exact. They give a very round sound that nearly lifts the hall roof. Obviously there is a lot of talent here, generations of it as the old mix with the new (and no, they are not all called Doonan).
Charlie Padfield takes to the café/bar stage straight after. He is a dapper looking young man in a suit and soon his look and folk sound win round the punters. Martin Carthy in the Major Hall however does not do it for us; the poor chap seems to miss a few notes in songs. I know he is a folk legend, having for forty years been at the forefront of the folk scene, but tonight's show is not one of his best. 'My Son John' about a military family in Bedford is thought provoking though.
We instead go to catch RM Hubbert in the Minor Hall, who is slapping his Spanish guitar playing skills on that humble acoustic. The Scotsman has songs about Buckfast (“There's a mixture the kids in Glasgow are doing, it's Bucksfast and ecstasy, which I have called Buckstasy!”). It's not all jokes as he sobers a few of us up with tales of his depression and how he can talk to it us about it but not to anyone face to face, and that music gave him that power to do so. No one jokes about asking for therapist fees, far from it, it makes people feel very glad to be of service, if we get to listen to these great tunes too.
There's time to squeeze in a look at Loz Campbell, a very young solo artist from Wakefield, who is playing at this venue again this week. Unfortunately it is prime evening time and the people of Wakefield are out on their Saturday night and wondering into the new venue, and most are talking over her own songs, but they join in and sing 'Knocking on Heavens Door' by Bob Dylan.
Seth Lakeman is the man I am here to see, after first finding him at Wychwood in 2006. The place is full, the seats are all taken, but we don't want to sit down for this. It's a mixture of old and new songs from a solo Seth, no band or brothers for this show. He is part stood on his stomp box and is surrounded by many musical instruments. Unfortunately as he starts 'The Setting Of The Sun' he snaps a guitar string (one of many things to go wrong for him here as the stomp box does not wake up either). Loz Campbell is the only musician here to lend him her guitar (tut tut to you all), which he only uses for one song anyway, and as his set ends up being fifteen minutes short I wonder if he just sacked the other songs off. Or it could have been everyone sitting and not standing… who knows. He was jolly and polite and professional throughout the set and with songs like the beautiful 'King and Country' for his Granddad blending as well with newer tracks like 'Silver Thread Amongst the Gold' (there are a lot of these as they are on the fiddle and mandolin) the crowd love it. Some are even dancing at the back, including myself. He briefly leaves the stage to then return and do an unplugged song for the crowd. They are so impressed with the set that some give a standing ovation.
I'll finish by saying I hope this becomes regular event on the Unity calendar, as the venue has been opened only seven months it's so impressive to see it branch out into the various types of music, and this style is one that I and many others can enjoy, and it's nice to see local acts mix with the larger acts. If I had to gripe I would say a bit more food choice, some lighting in that Minor Hall and maybe some craft stalls would be a nice addition. Highly recommended however.
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Unity Works Folk Fest 2015 review