Underneath The Stars Festival
Cinderhill Farm, Cawthorne 2-4 August 2019
It’s Friday and the crew at Underneath the Stars have done a fabulous job of overcoming the preceding day’s rain, with very little evidence of the downpour on the Festival site. The welcoming sign as you approach the Festival site, that says ‘Welcome Stargazers’, perfectly communicates the inclusive atmosphere of this engaging and intimate Festival, that is guaranteed to delight those joining the Festival community, with new and exciting musical discoveries, and reconnecting with old and cherished musical friends.
Opening up the first day of the Festival on the Little Lights stage is Sheffield’s Toby Burton, who previously played the Festival in 2015. The second number was the beautiful Shining with its gentle hanging guitar chords and lovely refrain of “Your eyes are shining”. Switching to the piano, Toby plays a song called Satellite, from his first EP, which is about a panic attack and the support he received from an ex-girlfriend. The song has a vocal full of emotional yearning for release, with the lilting piano accenting the redemptive pull of a friend, at a time of crisis. Lost and Found a new song, shows Toby’s heartfelt and warm singing at its best. He is a fine songwriter and performer and begins the Festival in fine style.
Emma McGrath is the first artist to appear on the main Planets stage. With a small band of drums, bass, keyboards and Emma herself on guitar and vocals, the Festival really hits its stride with Emma’s set. Butterfly the second number, has a cool driving groove, with Emma’s vocal completely filling the vast space of the Planets stage tent.
White Lines weaves a gently meandering melodic path, with Emma at one point kneeling on the stage, as if to see who is in the audience. The musical spaces in Emma’s songs, allow the emotional resonances of her words to settle and communicate themselves, to an attentive audience.
Old Times, about a friendship, demonstrates the full creative range of Emma’s voice, from floating almost instrument like, to crystal clear and bluesy, with a final section where Emma and the band charge at the music, with a completely infectious rhythmic intensity.
Love You Better released last year, is a staggeringly good song, The live treatment of the song adds new layers, as the ringing guitar and soft piano chords lead into an engaging jangling indie beat. The song is full of impassioned and haunting singing and harmonies, and contrasting quieter guitar-led sections. Emma’s emotional communication of the song seems to really connect with the Underneath The Stars audience. The set concludes with a rousing Honey, garnering a really appreciative audience reaction, for Emma and her fine band. An artist whose work is well worth seeking out.
You Tell Me brings together Peter Brewis of Field Music and Sarah Hayes, solo artist, and also of Admiral Fallow. Early in their set, the song Get Out Of The Room has a great funky feel, and hits a great instrumental section, propelled by some powerful drumming and wailing guitar. Enough to Notice has a quirky pop sensibility, with a terrific harmony led chorus, and lots of almost prog like instrumental sections, which can best be described as folky prog, laced as they are with medieval music like resonances. A really creative sound.
Peter and Sarah had met at a concert celebrating the music of Kate Bush, and play Kate Bush’s song Dream of Sheep, with a subtle vocal from Sarah, that fully inhabits the musical contours of the song.
Invisible Ink, from the new album, Peter and Sarah describe as having a great synth solo, but as they then say “we forgot to bring it”. It’s a great song, with flowing keyboards and a great Fairport Convention like tinged dual vocal. Peter calls out where the synth solo should be, and the band go with a great ascending rhythm pattern instead.
The last song, Peter describes as bringing together John Peel favourite Ivor Cutler with a Bo Diddly beat! The song’s little storytelling vignette seems totally suited to a rollicking rock and roll beat. Just fabulous.
The Local Honeys from Kentucky, comprising banjo, fiddle and guitar, gathered around a single microphone on the Little Lights stage, to a completely packed tent. They play a hypnotic blend of traditional songs from their home state, and their own material. The group talked movingly about Jean Ritchie who helped maintain the heritage of songs from the Appalachian coalfields. She wrote a song about the coal owners extracting the coal and then declaring bankruptcy to escape their responsibilities to their workers, with an impact also on the railways carrying the coal. The song is sung with great empathy and a keen sense of injustice, with the mournful sounds of the fiddle accompanied by staccato-like playing on the guitar and banjo.
I Have Endured, a hymn to the endurance of the human spirit shows a real grace to the trio’s playing and singing and some charming banjo picking. He Split The First Church of God is laced with humour and fine ensemble playing, as it considers with a warm heart, the schisms of change that can lead to tensions in church communities. Cigarette Trees is a touching depiction of the process of strip mining, that destroys mountains and resulted in a disaster in one Kentucky town. It’s a song for our times, with determined playing and soulful vocals, and gets an enormous cheer.
Freight Train Blues ended the set, An earthy blues with overtones vocally of Billie Holliday. The Local Honey’s set is the highlight of Friday and one of the standout performances of the Festival. Their finely honed musicianship and singing, empathic musical settings, and strong connection with the audience are both moving and a joy to experience.
Old Man Luedecke from Nova Scotia, on the Planets stage, spoke and played songs, with a very endearing self-depreciating humour. On a more serious note, a song talking to his dad about what troubles him, with the evocative line “red herring for supper in a fascist age”, seemed to really touch the audience. A version of Dylan’s A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall in French, had the audience completely smitten, as they sing along with the chorus in French.
And who would think that a song written about sardines on toast could win our hearts….well here it was in all its warm-hearted charm. Old Man Luedecke was an unexpected musical pleasure, and I am sure everyone who saw his set, left feeling the world a little better place.
CC Smugglers lead singer Richie Prynne came on the Little Lights stage and mischievously warned the crowd of a “semi circle of fear….the mosh pit”, at the front of the stage. So, a touch of metal comes to Underneath The Stars!
The band are capable of letting loose the most monstrous dance grooves. From rockabilly to a barn dance number they are irresistible. Richie gave himself the challenge of getting everyone who is sitting down to get up for their set, and had it done by the third number!
A blues number brought us some cool guitar, harmonica and piano solos, and it felt like we were in the southern states of America rather than southern Yorkshire! A boogie number with call and response saw the audience completely in the hands of the band. Dirty Money a Stax like R&B number has the audience swaying in synchronisation with the swinging backbeat, with everyone joining in the chorus “We don’t need no money, happiness comes for free”. A triumphant set, well done guys.
Scotland’s very own The Proclaimers headline the Planets stage, and pretty quickly the audience are in the aisles dancing. Letter to America with its theme of emigration and the devastation of industry and land, has a soaring and anthemic quality that has everyone swaying and singing along. On the song Sean, Charlie and Craig’s voices combine in falsetto harmonies, with some very jaunty rhythms played on acoustic and electric guitars.
Sunshine on Leith is a song where the audience seems to know all the words of the song, as they accompany Charlie and Craig choir-like, through one of their most iconic numbers. At several points during the song, the lights pick out the audience, and spontaneous applause breaks out, which speaks to the shared sense of community between the band and their audience. The pedal steel guitar adds an aching quality to the song.
I’m On My Way has a swinging beat that proves completely irresistible in the aisles, as the applause after each song gets louder and more prolonged. I’m Gonna Be (500 miles) raucously rounds off the set, as everyone jumps up and down in complete abandon.
A great first day then at Underneath The Stars, accompanied by sunshine, and the shared sense of a community of music, that runs through the spirit of this great Festival.
So, it’s Saturday and the second day of the Festival, with headliner Billy Bragg to look forward too. Alden Patterson and Dashwood, a trio from Norwich who combine dobro, fiddle, acoustic guitar and sublime harmony vocals, start the day on the Little Lights stage. The band play Ten Thousand Miles, learnt from a Nic Jones record, but warning us that “for folk purists, we have changed it a lot”. All three musicians advance towards each other, as the dobro picks out some wonderful melodies. Then the collective harmony vocals soar out from the stage towards the heavens. A single voice finishes the song with “If I go ten thousand miles.” Truly an ode to absolute love.
Alden introduces the band and asks the audience to all shout out their own names, and then remarks rather sweetly “as we all now know each other, please join us on the chorus of this next song”. By the Night the title track from the most recent album has a beautiful chorus full of hope, which goes “And I’ll keep, keep moving on”, and is sung and played quite exquisitely, with some of the most spellbinding dobro playing this reviewer has heard.
Alden describes that each week they meet to rehearse, eat, and hand produce CDs; and very beautiful the CDs are too, with wonderful artwork and design, as well as containing quite wonderful music. Well worth getting hold of.
The beer and gin tent opened just after mid-day, to the many thirsty Festival goers who were able to drink accompanied by the music of Einaudi, floating across from the guest piano. Underneath the Stars is full of musical surprises!
The Sam Kelly Trio take the Festival by storm. Early on they play a sea shanty song called The Golden Vanity, with Sam suggesting everyone do some rowing and pretend to be pirates! With the audience joining in the chorus “In the lowlands, in the lowlands, you sink her in the lowlands low”, the song had a fabulous jaunty jig feel, with of course the sting in the tail of the story, of the betrayal of the hero of the tale.
A fast-paced Crossroads, the Robert Johnson song made famous by the Cream, raised the roof of the Little Lights Stage, with some fine guitar playing by Jamie Francis, that drew spontaneous applause. They followed this with a storming bluegrass version of Dire Straits Sultans of Swing, with a magnificent frenzied banjo solo by Jamie that is full of intense melodic runs that ignites everyone watching.
Bob Dylan’s Crash on the Levee from the latest album, saw all the band exchanging glances, as they got into a really gritty reading of the song. The guys then close with Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, where they make the Festival their own, with the instrumental section going into the musical stratosphere, with Jamie’s turbocharged banjo solo, driven by Evan Carson’s earth-shaking percussion. Sam takes on the final Fleetwod Mac harmony lines with real vocal passion and skill. A massive festival highlight!
The Unthanks on the Planets stage are appearing for the first time in a year as a ten-piece. Opening with a softly sung Magpie, they went into Whistling Woman, from the Lines trilogy, and the song cycle focusing on Hull fishing worker Lillian Bilocca. It’s a song with wonderfully contrasting musical sections, including in one section, some really exciting strident piano and strings.
The cycle of Emily Brontë poems set to music by Unthanks arranger/pianist Adrian McNally, has the words sung by Rachel and Becky, flowing like the brush strokes on a painting, accompanied by delicate cascades of sound from the piano.
The King of Rome “a song about a pigeon”, is set to the most soulful of strings, and wistful trumpet, against a jazz backdrop of piano, bass and drums, and the most gorgeous vocal performance and storytelling of the Festival from Rachel and Becky. A closing trumpet led section had an unrequited sad feel to it, with a final jazz flourish ending an utterly stunning performance.
The next song combines clogs with King Crimson like urgent ensemble playing and great swathes of heavy riffing, that gives the Unthanks music quite incredibly an almost doom metal-like sound. On their final number, they create a cinematic like soundscape, with some lyrical trumpet playing that spoke to Miles Davis’s playing on Sketches of Spain. The brushed rhythm with some rumbling double bass underpinning floats the song to a crescendo, that then crashes back down to earth to just the voices and piano, before ascending again with the voices surfing a great wave of sound. A standing ovation is a justly deserved result for this magnificent music and performance.
Damien O’Kane with family and friends play a very well-received set. The Banjo Strikes Back from last years Banjophony album with Ron Block, is initially a solo piece beautifully played by Damien, before the band with Stevie Byrnes guesting on guitar join in, and the pace picks up, and the audience quite wonderfully get carried along with the flow.
For The Banks of the Bann, Kate Rusby joins the band. It’s a lovely ballad sung with an engaging pathos by Damien, with a shimmering guitar motif that Damien weaves in and out of the song.
For the upbeat The Breaking of Omagh Jail, the lights are turned up, and the audience encouraged to come down to the front to dance, to which they overwhelming oblige. The Planets Stage momentarily becomes a fabulous dancehall, as a tin whistle flies over the top of the dance beat. The band lock in on the final instrumental section to create a joyous atmosphere on stage.
The last number is the traditional favourite Molly Malone, where the whole family come to the stage. Damien’s mother who leads the singing, says very touchingly, “We started off two of us, now we are twenty two”.
The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican’s reputation preceded them and they didn’t disappoint, resplendent in the most garish of tank tops imaginable.
The Travis song Sing hilariously rhymes singers and bands with the song’s title, and The Lady in Greggs brings an interesting new dimension to the Chris de Burgh song The Lady in Red, and even had the crowd swaying their arms with lit phones held aloft!….and the less said about the Bee Gees spoof How Deep Is Your Glove the better…
A hoedown shows that without doubt these guys can really play, and the call and response segments and rock star poses go down a treat.
The pinnacle of the set though is when their fabulous take on the House of Pain’s classic hip hop track Jump Around that morphs into the South Yorkshire folk styled Jump Ararnd, led by the inimitable Scott Doonican. Everyone is jumping, as metal-head culture joins folk and hip hop in an intoxicating mix, that sees Scott crowd surfing and then leading the crowd on crouching on the ground and then jumping up in unison Slipknot style.
Ruth Notman and Sam Kelly, joined on stage by Damien O’Kane on guitar and Duncan Lyle on bass, swing into Young Brian of the Sussex Wold, an exquisite song underpinned by some lovely piano phrases from Ruth, and a joyous melding of instruments and voices.
Also from new album Changeable Heart, Ewan MacColl’s Schoolday’s Over creates an authentic picture of a young person’s transition into life as a miner and seems to speak to the dismantling of coal mining communities that our age has witnessed. Damien’s ethereal guitar and the beautiful vocal are very moving, and Ruth describes in introducing the song, that she grew up living next to a coal mine in Mansfield.
The Cunning Cobbler is a highlight, as banjo, accordion, guitar and bass combine and fill the tent with an intense rolling musical sound.
Billy Bragg opens his headlining set on the Planets stage with Sexuality a song celebrating diversity and liberation. Billy explains that “Folk audiences have kept the topical song alive, but that means you have to repeat them…”.
A garage-style The Milkman of Human Kindness played with Billy’s characteristic punk approach to the electric guitar, has the crowd immediately singing the chorus.
Billy talks a little about Morrissey, saying that Morrissey has lost his sense of empathy. “There was no band like the Smiths that reached out to the outsider, and more than any other band offered empathy… At the moment there is a war on empathy. We need to ramp up empathy in music”. He follows it with a powerful reading of Why We Build the Wall.
A rendition of Thomas Hardy’s The Man He Killed which tells of the way war pits people against each other who might in another context be friends, is aptly followed by Between the Wars, with the audience singing the words with Billy like an accompanying choir, and cheering the reference to a ‘living wage’.
Billy warmly refers to Extinction Rebellion as “the new punk rock”, and says how listening to the speeches from school strikers, he has been reminded of the speeches made by the families of the miners, during the 1980s strike, who were speaking for the first time at events and directly from their personal experience.
Levi Stubbs’ Tears is one of Billy’s most poignant songs, and it ends with a lovely pedal steel solo coda played by C.J. Hillman. It felt like a homage to the Redskins live reading of the song in 1985 at their final concert, which ends with a lyrical trumpet solo. Billy has referred to their interpretation, as one of his favourite covers of his songs.
A Woody Guthrie song about the fight against fascism is followed by Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin with a contemporary adaptation… “The times they are a-changin back..”. Ending with Billy’s new line “ The times they need a-changin”
Billy near the end of a superb set, and from the heart, says “Music cannot change the world, it doesn’t have agency, only the audience can change the world. Your responses fuel my activism, so take that feeling away from Festival. Give a shit!”. There is Power in a Union follows, solidarity expressed in song, and accompanied by clench fists of solidarity in the audience.
It all ends with Which Side Are You On and A New England with a verse wonderfully dedicated to Kirsty MacColl. Billy Bragg is a musician and songwriter, who can move, inspire, bring a joy of music, and connect with an audience at depth. We are very lucky to have him.
Written by Gareth Allen, with thanks to Anne Robertson for her musical insights.