Beverley Folk Festival
June 20th-22nd 2014
Big enough to attract top class performers, small enough to still be friendly. That’s what they claim. idp checks to see if the Beverley Folk Festival lives up to its billing. (It does too).
Festivals can be hard work, especially if you’ve got cameras to lug about. There’s a lot of dashing between stages, forcing your way to the front of crowded venues and getting in the way of the view for people who paid good money to get in here mate and are happy to let you know just how pissed off at you they are – but if you get a good one, if everything just falls into place so you can enjoy the day, and the music and you get some decent pictures as well, then festivals can be great.
On the whole I can’t think of many pleasanter places to spend a weekend listening to music than the Beverley Folk Festival, (just north of Hull for those not in the know). The festival, which has been running for over thirty years, is now held at the racecourse, which means the facilities are a cut or five above what you get at most fests (no mile long queues for stinking portaloos here, just air conditioned luxury and soft paper) and the organisers have wisely decided not to adopt the usual policy of trying to make the whole thing seem bigger by dotting the stages and tents and stalls around the perimeter of a vast field. At Beverley everything is arranged around squares which means that the various venues are all within a short walk of each other. This in turn means that I end up spending much more time actually listening to music than I’ve managed anywhere else and a lot less time trundling across the grass and up bloody great hills (do you hear me Bingley?)
The racecourse is set in pasture land just outside the town in an area where cattle usually roam freely. From the car park you can see the spires of the minster shining in the sunlight and to the north the Yorkshire Wolds stretch for miles. It’s ridiculously picturesque and as I park up the car in glorious sunshine I think that there’s not much can go wrong on a day like today.
Except of course that there is a fence around the car park which is cunningly designed with gaps that are just big enough to allow a person through but won’t permit the passage of a cow. I try but I can’t get through. I feel like all the cattle in East Yorkshire are mooing “You fat bastard” at me. So I go out through the vehicle gate, hoping no one noticed, but I do a huge theatrical shrug and a shake of the head so that if anybody is watching they can see that the irony of the situation is not lost on me. The only thing worse than being fat as a cow is being fat as a cow and lacking self awareness.
This is one of those festivals where there is music pretty much wherever you go, three stages plus workshops and singalongs in many of the grandstand bars, al fresco unplugged performances on the terraces, a performance area for dancing and for people to terrify babies by dressing as pirates and going “Aaaaargh!!” and it seems like every stallholder is just looking for the excuse to put down their cooking utensils for a while, pick up a guitar or a washboard or an upturned saucepan and form an impromptu a capella band.
One particularly nice feature is that performers often appear on more than one stage (not simultaneously) which means there are less of those awful “Who shall I miss?” choices to be made; and on the third stage, The Wold Top, there is every chance that the big names from the evening’s bill will pop in late on for an informal sing song. In the end I get to see all but one of the people I have marked in my programme as unmissable and in most cases I stop for the full set, which makes a change from hearing the opening two or three numbers and then dashing off to catch the start of the show on the next stage.
There are far too many excellent performances to list them all but away from the main stages special mentions go to Green Diesel, whose version of The Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance was a welcome reminder of a favourite tune that I haven’t heard in years, Danny Pedler and Rosie Butler-Hall for the best hurdey gurdey/violin duet I’ve heard in ages, Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers for being generally bonkers and a young gent called Owen who played a cracking violin solo when in a singaround with Duncan McFarlane.
Favourite is singer songwriter Katie Spencer, who I see briefly early on Saturday and make a point of catching later in the Wold Top. Having delivered a fine version of John Martyn’s Spenser The Rover (not short of ambition then) she has the nerve to introduce a song which, she informs us, is about the fact that however old we may be we’re still all children at heart really. Young people can be infuriating can’t they? The nerve of it. I have stuff in my freezer older than Katie Spencer.
Filled with righteous geriatric indignation I heroically fight the temptation to point out loudly and in my most world weary voice that we’re no such thing. It is probably as close as I’ve ever come to a heckle in my life. At which point Katie Spencer shoots me down in flames with a really great little song that contained one of the best lyrics I’ve heard in years –
“We’re all just children
Trying not to mix the play dough
Trying not to turn it brown.”
Yep. That just about sums it up. So she’d best carry on being naive and idealistic and I’ll try to be less of a depressing old cynic in future.
Apart from music there’s plenty of other stuff going on, including lots of cloggery and morris dancing and craft displays and also a mini literature festival which included readings by Michael Morpurgo, John Hegley and Andy Kershaw. Kershaw is great value as he explains how he started his career in music by being Ents Officer at Leeds University, organising gigs by some of the top names in the world and acting as crew for The Rolling Stones at their legendary Roundhay Park gig. He also stands for a long time in front of a large image of his own of the Clash on their London Calling tour of which I am very jealous indeed.
There is also comedy from Mitch Benn and Sean Hughes, whose wide ranging set encompasses everything from his father’s wartime exploits in the great skiing war to an exquisitely deft skewering of a young audience member – “24? You shouldn’t be at a fucking folk festival. You should be out shagging someone up against a skip.” I get a picture and he seems to notice and I decide to beat a retreat before I’m the next target.
On the main stages the performances demonstrate the rude health of the contemporary folk scene with plenty of young bands wowing the crowds with sets which incorporate not only traditional music but also elements of jazz, blues, hip hop, cajun and Americana. In fact performers who adopt a relatively straight approach to the folk canon, such as Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, (whose guitar and violin duets were among the highlights of the weekend), are in a minority. The most inventive performance comes from CoCo & The Butterfields who manage to incorporate beat boxing and hip hop into their sound so successfully that it isn’t until I cut round to the side of the stage to get a shot of the drummer that I realise there isn’t one. This is because I’m stupid.
There are excellent sets from Barbara Dickson and Rab Noakes (with Tears Of Rage a standout moment and the only Dylan song I hear all weekend), Chas and Dave (who seem to have only one pair of trousers between them and tonight it is the bass player’s turn to wear them) and Martin and Eliza Carthy, whose set is so full of great songs it’s hard to pick a favourite but two songs from their newest album, Happiness (by Molly Drake) and The Elephant (a version of the parable of the blind men and the eponymous pachyderm) will stay a long time in the memory.
Top sets of the week list kicks off with Friday’s headliner Billy Bragg who’s on great form – the new Americana stage persona seems to have bedded down nicely and the songs from this year’s Tooth And Nail album sit more comfortably in the set than they did when I saw him at Sheffield last year. There’s plenty of politics of course, including mentions of local fracking controversies, but he doesn’t seem quite as angry as usual. Still a bit peeved though. Philip Larkin gets a bit of stick. Tank Park Salute makes my wife cry again. As we leave the people in front of us are complaining about the chat/music ratio. The woman turns to me and says “Too much preaching didn’t you think?” This doesn’t happen often to me. I don’t have the kind of face that invites conversation with strangers. “No”, I say, “I always enjoy the preaching.” The woman looks incredulous. “Really? Are you a masochist?” she asks. “No”, I explain. “I am an unreconstructed socialist dinosaur.” This shuts the conversation down quicker than if I said I ate children for a living or knew someone who was unemployed.
Following on from Mr Bragg’s suggestion I take myself up to the nearby fracking camp next afternoon. I’ve been told that there are lots of punks up there and that I should go and get some pictures of them in their natural habitat, which is apparently the Yorkshire Wolds. I explain that I’m from Louder Than War, not Special Branch (although I do have the feet for that), and everybody is very friendly and we shoot some pictures outside the makeshift fort which guards the gate onto a piece of concreted over countryside, the first of many if the oil money gets its way. Round the corner there are two shifty looking blokes parked in a lay by. I think they make a note of my registration number as I go by. I give them the finger from the safety of my car and hope Billy would be proud of me.
Saturday night it’s Home Service, the reconstituted 1980s folk rock combo. I have to plead a measure of ignorance here – I know relatively little about Home Service when they come on stage and I am planning to get some pictures for a little while and then sneak off to the other stage to see Lau, but it doesn’t work out that way. Home Service are so good I stay for the whole set. With a three piece brass section and everyone on stage a first rate performer, plus a mesmerizingly charismatic front man in John Tams, they can turn their hand to traditional folk plus a wide variety of styles that include elements of jazz and klesmer amongst others. Highlights of the set include I’m Alright, Jack and Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy and I have already ordered some Home Service CDs so I won’t be so ignorant next time.
Highlight of the festival? A truly awesome set on Sunday afternoon by Thea Gilmore. Now here I feel like I ought to be on safe ground – I’ve been a fan since somebody passed on a copy of Rules For Jokers to me and said “This is new, you should give it a listen, you’d like it” but I’ve never seen her live before and the luminous perfection of her singing catches me off guard and makes all the songs sound new again. The material on her newest album Regardless may be Radio 2 friendly but it’s pretty bloody good all the same and she covers Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World and All You Need Is Love. This last is a song that I’ve always regarded as one of The Beatles weaker efforts, a bit of a chuck together job, but Gilmore’s reading makes it a much slyer and more knowing song altogether and I may just have to dig out my copy of the original and see if it’s ready for a spot of reappraisal.
So all in all an excellent festival with a lot of good music and some great music in there for good measure, and the only thing that threatened to turn the play dough brown was those gaps in the fence so if they could just make them a bit wider everything would be perfect.
Artists mentioned in this review can be found on the following social media: Green Diesel, Danny Pedler and Rosie Butler-Hall, Tom Mason and the Blue Buccaneers, Duncan McFarlane, Katie Spencer, Michael Morpurgo, Andy Kershaw, Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, Coco & The Butterfields, Barbara Dickson, Rab Noakes, Chas and Dave, Martin and Eliza Carthy, Billy Bragg, Home Service, Thea Gilmore