There's more than one way to gain an impression of a folk festival. You can look at the line-up or check out the workshops. Or you can taste the food, mooch around the stalls or chat to fellow festival-goers in the beer tent. The true character of Warwick folk reveals itself at about ½ four in the afternoon, on Saturday. It's that magic hour when the Morris dancers start to return, slightly worse for wear, from the day's dancing. The afternoon concerts end, and the crowds spill out to sit, drink and chat, in the sun. At one end of the site, a crowd has gathered for a sing and are giving 'John Ball' everything they've got. At the other end, another crowd are singing songs more medieval in nature, accompanied by Hurdy Gurdy. Elsewhere, guitars are strummed, accordions are squeezed and fiddles are bowed. Wondering here and there is the Wild Man of the Woods, a singing and drumming Green Man who entertains with stories and songs from ancient times. It's a diverse scene, a many faceted mosaic of all things folk; in parts traditional, in parts progressive, always inclusive and friendly like only folk can be.
Warwick is a great place to have a folk festival. In fact it's a great place to have a place. Everyone I meet, be they from the South, the North or the darkest borders of Wales, mentions how easy and how quick it is to get here. Warwick, resplendent with its Castle and its black and white buildings, forms an ideal backdrop to the concerts and the dancing taking place in town throughout the festival weekend. The narrow medieval streets seem ideally suited to the processional Northwestern Clog styles of Saddleworth and Earlsdon; and after Seven Champions have danced in the main street on Saturday, the shops are full of punters gleefully molly dancing their way around the isles. It's an infectious spirit, and it seems to be catching.
Warwick is a festival that is happy to spill out of its site and take over the town. There is dancing aplenty, and it's also possible to catch many acts performing concerts in the castle and in various venues around town. Worthy of special mention here is Maz O'Connor, who, on Sunday, goes beyond the call of duty and performs in Warwick Conservative Club. A fair few festival goers bravely make their way in to see Maz but probably half of the audience; the tattooed, angry looking, League of Gentlemen half, are 'regulars'. It takes them half the gig to realise they are supposed to keep quiet during the performances, but Maz works her magic and they are spellbound by the end. If you can win this lot over, surely the world is your oyster.
The festival site itself is on the site of a local school, which works out well for all concerned. The main concert tents, the food stalls and the beer tent are on the sports field. The campsite is here too, and is laid out along highly organised lines, each row of pitches having its own street name. There are quiet areas, kids areas, and no one is more than five minutes walk from all the fun. The school buildings double as venues for both workshops and concerts, there are flushing toilets, hot showers and even a swimming pool if you fancy a cooling dip.
The fun begins on Thursday night with a rare treat, namely a staging of The Lock In in the main concert tent. The scene is set in a pub, 'The Fighting Cocks', into which wander a collection of dancers of sundry kinds: from the folk side there's Morris, Rapper and Clog and from the 21st Century there's b-boying, popping and krump. There's not much love lost between them but it's past the witching hour, a strange wind is blows from the north and nature spirits abound who have other plans..... Throw in a Demon Barbers concert, an emotionally charged Morris stand-off, a pool cue rapper dance and a talismanic tankard; well, you have the beginning of something truly wondrous..... The Lock In would knock 'em dead in the West End and is currently crowd funding for an Edinburgh Festival appearance. It's well worth parting with a few quid to take folk to new and exiting places in such an inspired way. At Warwick, the feeling that we are all left with is "It's only Thursday, how are they going to top that?"
Luckily, the Lock In turns out to be more of a teaser than a show stopper, heralding some fine musical treats to come, which are equally diverse in nature. From the traditional side, James Findlay is an artist going from strength to strength. Tackling infinitely versed Child Ballads with the fearless purpose of a man-o-war setting about a French Frigate, he's surely one to watch. Maz O'Connor, in more familiar surroundings, plays a blinder of a concert in the drama studio on Friday. The Young'Uns are on top form when I catch them performing outdoors under a big old silver birch tree on Sunday; few can touch them when it comes to unaccompanied traditional harmony. They end on a rousing version of John Ball, a song I've already heard several times at Warwick, must be something in the wind.....
As the Young'Uns wrap up and the crowd disperses, the chief topic of conversation is "Have you heard the Polish shanty singers." The singers in question turn out to be QFTRY, who make a lot of new friends at Warwick with their Polish folks songs and sea shantys delivered with a nuanced harmony that is well worth a listen. They perform several concerts throughout the festival but their folk club concert on Sunday offers a chance to hear the songs in a natural habitat. The folk club is run by the Banbury organisers and takes place throughout the festival weekend. As well as staging concerts, there is ample opportunity for floor spots so if you're tired of being a passive audience member and want to have a go, then head over there. QFTRY team up with American shanty superstar Tom Lewis for their folk club appearance and the results are a standing ovation, sniffles and many eyes that are far from dry. Top stuff.
There's plenty more on offer at Warwick for those who like to join in. The festival has a permanent Ceilidh venue, in what appears to be the sports hall of the school. It's always packed, and a star studded Steamchicken are an oft mentioned favourite of the Ceilidh crowd. A scratch choir is formed and, rehearsing throughout the festival under the tutelage of Bruce Knight, stages a confident and impressive performance on the Plaza Stage on Sunday afternoon.
There's a full programme of workshops on offer throughout the festival. The tune sessions are run by the excellent Tuneworks: there are beginners and improver's sessions and the tunes are available to print out on the festival website so you can arrive pre-prepared. There are instrument and dance workshops aplenty, including a couple of Hip Hop sessions run by the Lock In posse: a rare event at the folk festival, but hopefully an enduring one.
So, as was foretold by the Lock In on Thursday night: whilst there's plenty at Warwick for fans of the traditional, there is also an progressive element to the programme and it is here that some real gems are to be found. Tandem appear on Friday at the Plaza stage; they're a guitar, fiddle and singing duo with a modern, Lau-esque aspect, which creates a buzz whenever they perform. They're well worth catching. A real revelation, in a genuine evangelical sense, is The Old Dance School. They perform several concerts at Warwick but the place to catch them is the Drama Studio. Its intimate setting and razor sharp acoustics are the perfect way to showcase the luxuriously textured soundscapes that comprise an Old Dance School performance. Theirs is music that paints pictures, often of wild and romantic places. They're rooted in the traditional but they take their inspiration from a wide range of sources in the here and now. Silver Tide is inspired by a night time boat ride through an algal bloom and if you close your eyes, you can see the moonlight shimmering on the waves. Their version of John Ball is the finest I've heard, and there have been a fair few versions sung this weekend. It's delivered with a knowing smile and an evangelical glow that seems to be channelling the spirit of the eponymous hero himself: it's the highlight of the festival for me.
Back in the main tent, following the Lock In is always going to be a challenge, but several acts step up to the mark. Sunjay Brayne seems to be setting a record for the highest number of toes tapped in a tent when he performs on Sunday afternoon. O'Hooley and Tidow do it their way on Saturday. It's a performance that is ever charming and highly entertaining, though I do despair of ever winning the singing contest.
Keith Donnelly gets the crowd bubbling on Sunday night, then it's a sitting and listening affair; first with Wes Finch, whose cover of 1952 Vincent Black Lighting is a clear highlight for many; then with award winning duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman. Wearing a green polka dot dress and possessing what may well be the sultriest voice on the scene, she sings, sways and shimmies whilst he belts out those chunky Lakeman riffs, only speaking when given permission. They're a class act, but that eerie north wind isn't done yet......
The first sign of stirring magic is when a man gets up on stage and proposes to his girlfriend. She says yes! The crowd goes nuts, and not even the inevitable speeches before the headline act can dampen the mood in the tent. Then Le Vent Du Nord hit the stage, beginning with a set of tunes, then building the mood and stoking the passion with Quebecois songs of love, of matricide and of the British being horrible to the French. It's late on Sunday night, the time when people usually drift off home, but that doesn't happen here. Instead, perhaps stirred by the intricate foot percussion of Olivier Demers, they make their way forward to dance. There's just one or two at first, then a steady trickle, then a burgeoning crowd. There are few at the end who aren't on their feet. The festival ends in same energised fashion as it began, with smiles all round.
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