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The Great British Folk Festival

Butlins Holiday Resort, Skegness
Friday 3 - Sunday 5 December 2015

If you were to pick up a pencil, draw a spiral starting from the outer edges of the page and work your way into the centre in ever decreasing circles so as to illustrate the pinnacle of Friday night's concert on the Centre Stage, that point would lie squarely at the moment Eliza Carthy sat at the front of the stage to sing Willow Tree; specifically the moment when a female fan went right up to the singer and planted a kiss on her cheek. Now I don't know about you, but I think that constitutes a memorable moment; maybe not as memorable as Dylan's 'Judas' heckle at the Manchester Free Trade Hall in the mid-1960s, nor the moment Jimi Hendrix played the Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, but a memorable moment nonetheless.

Now firmly established on the annual festival calendar, the Great British Folk Festival is a curious affair in that it's the only folk festival that I know of, where you might be asked by the person standing next to you "who is Eliza Carthy anyway?" followed by "is she any good?" Then an hour or so later that same person comes up to you and says "you're right, she's amazing." This did happen, as did the moment when a Fairport Convention fan (the t shirt gave it away), who was standing in the extremely long queue at The Unthanks concessions table, surprised me when he claimed "I've never heard of The Unthanks before, but I thought that was blimmin' fantastic" as he went up to his newfound heroes to get a copy of Mount the Air signed. This is all extremely good and encouraging, that folk music is being discovered by an entirely new audience and what's more at the highly unlikely setting of a Butlins Holiday Resort in Skegness.  

That's the thing about this festival; it's not entirely populated by 'folkies' but rather 'musos', people who just want elements of folk music in their eclectic musical lives. They're willing to give anything a try and in some cases that attitude presents positive results. Of course the die-hard folk festival regulars who know perfectly well who Eliza Carthy is and who The Unthanks are, might have previously frowned upon the festival's booking policy, but this year, the festival's sixth year, we saw possibly one of the strongest line-ups so far, with a programme that included such bang up to date folk-related acts as False Lights and Moulettes together with old favourites such as Steeleye Span, Sharon Shannon, Jacqui McShee's Pentangle and the beautifully re-imagined Fotheringay.

Over the weekend the two main festival stages were presided over by Jim Moray on the Centre Stage, who kept the audience entertained with his eclectic selections from the likes of Traffic and King Crimson to the odd soul classic and 1960s hit, whilst local radio personality Sue Marchant kept everyone happy on the Reds Stage. Looking after the Introducing Stage under the Skyline Pavilion was promoter Stephen Stanley, who was helped along by Alan Ritson, between them making sure the newer artists and bands got a fair hearing, artists such as Said the Maiden, Itchy Fingers and the highly watchable Polly and the Billets Doux, each of whom were voted the day's best act respectively over the three days. Those acts will automatically be featured on the main stages at next year's event, although some of the other acts, if not all of them, probably deserve a place on the bill as well, including Chris Cleverley, Gilded Thieves, Dan Webster and The Black Feathers, all of whom performed well during the weekend. 

Although the festival actually got underway as early as Friday afternoon with the first four acts on the Introducing Stage, the main evening concerts started in earnest as the safety curtain rose to reveal the relatively youthful figures of Jim Moray and Sam Carter's False Lights project, the band going on to present a lively set of hard rocking traditional songs, each one treated to an old fashioned, yet very much contemporary, folk rock arrangement. Could there be a better opening song than the galloping Skewball? It wasn't all galloping folk rock though as the band slowed to a gentle trot with their a cappella performance of How Can I Keep From Singing, as each of the members of the band, including fiddle player Tom Moore, stood at the front of the stage to sing with no amplification whatsoever, which is no mean feat. That's a heck of a large room to attempt such a thing. This wouldn't be the last we saw of both Jim and Sam throughout the weekend with the former acting as DJ on the Centre Stage and the latter delivering his own solo set on Saturday night. 

Next door Billy Bragg walked on stage to whoops and hollers as his faithful fans awaited a few words of unity after a week of frustration in world affairs. There was anticipation in the air as his audience hung onto his every word. His opening statement was less political than imagined as the singer-songwriter and activist, electric guitar hung over his shoulder, greeted the audience with the revelation that he actually likes folk festivals for the simple reason that, unlike other festivals, everyone involved is "actively encouraged to grow old." Grey beards are apparently in at last. Meanwhile on the Centre Stage Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band stormed the party, our heroine suitably attired for an evening at the Folies Bergère, with white boa attached and barcode zebra dress. The 12-piece band delivered just the sort of set that gets any festival off to a good start and midway through I began to feel for the band that had to follow.

One of the more inspired ideas at this festival is the fact that the music doesn't get underway until well after midday on both Saturday and Sunday afternoon. This allows for a leisurely start to the day. There's no need to rush to find some grossly under-attended fiddle workshop or banjo demonstration, although I do believe there are French dancing classes. Breakfast can therefore be enjoyed slowly over the morning papers. On Saturday morning there was a change to the programme and a quickly cobbled together outfit featuring the first appearance of the weekend by guitarist Jerry Donahue stepped in to replace a poorly Sam Lee.

Moulettes' highly inventive arrangements were initially marred by poor sound in the vocal area, which was soon resolved by their own sound engineer. Once those teething problems were sorted the band played an entrancing set, which featured the band's newest recruit Raevennan Husbandes on electric guitar. Magna Carta followed, re-tracing a repertoire from decades before, when just about every other house on the street had a copy of the Seasons LP knocking about somewhere. On Saturday afternoon the band, still very much led by founder member Chris Simpson, performed songs old and new before an attentive Skegness audience.

With their colourful van 'Frank' parked backstage, Coco and the Butterfields took over the Reds stage by mid-afternoon and treated the audience to another rousing display of energy with the enigmatic Dulcima Showan's fiddle pretty much to the fore. Their Canterbury busking days may be over now but their youthful energy is still intact as the band delighted their audience with their own brand of folk, rap, country, rock and blues.

Saturday night's concert started with a performance by Tom Robinson. Seated and flanked by Adam Phillips and Gerry Diver, the singer-songwriter and broadcaster delved deep into his repertoire to include in his set such delights as Glad to be Gay, which was prefaced by a priceless tale of being confronted by Alex Harvey in the mid-1970s, the poignant War Baby and the crowd pleasing 2-4-6-8 Motorway, which soon had arms flailing with determined fingers pointing upwards.

One of the first bands booked for the inaugural Great British Folk Festival back in 2010 was The Unthanks, who try as they may, couldn't get through the Northumberland Tundra during that particular icey cold December weekend. They were not alone, the late John Renbourn couldn't get through that year either, more's the pity. This year the weather was kinder and after six years of trying, the festival finally managed to get one of the UKs leading folk acts over to play at the festival on Saturday night. This band, it has to be said, has unintentionally provided the folk world with the ultimate 'Marmite' test. As a long-time fan of the band I feel qualified to say that this band, simply based on what I have heard, witnessed and experienced, is either loved with a passion or hated through sneering gritted teeth and I haven't come across many people who actually say "they're just okay". It really does seem to be a case of love 'em or hate 'em. After their superb show on Saturday night I found myself asking people "did you love 'em or hate 'em?" I was curious to know because I personally can't see what's not to like. Saturday's set drew easily the biggest audience of the weekend, a set that included both older and new material, from Cyril Tawney's mournful On a Monday Morning through to the epic title piece from their current album Mount the Air, by way of one outstanding performance after another. 

If the upward spiral mentioned earlier placed an imaginary spotlight on the most memorably positive aspect of this festival weekend, then the inverted downward spiral pointing towards the most negative aspect could be attributed to the dreaded 30 minutes before the Demon Barbers came on. This set-up over-run could have been down to any number of things, from a tangled wire to a faulty instrument, a stray Hip Hop dancer locked in the dressing room, a possible mix-up of clogs, you know the scenario, "this one's Becky's, that one's Rachel's, no it's Laura's, but there again where's Tiny's?", that sort of thing, or even for all we really knew, a wild animal left over from the Great British Rock and Blues Festival could have been let loose backstage. The audience, as audiences do, chose to lay the blame squarely at the doorstep of the sound crew, who in my opinion do a stella job throughout the weekend. The fact that the turnaround time ran over by half an hour between such bands as The Unthanks and the Demon Barbers is probably understandable when you think about it; those are two big bands with lots of radio mics, amplified clogging boards, string quartets, brass sections and any number of other things to consider. The demands, slow hand claps and at one point shouting from side stage was all completely unnecessary. The highly-charged Demon Barbers however, did eventually come on stage at around midnight and performed brilliantly. Their energy-driven dance spectacular, which included Hip Hop, Clog, Morris and even at one point contemporary Ballet, was certainly worth the wait. It was Saturday night going into Sunday morning and who was in any hurry for breakfast anyway? 

Once the dawn broke a few hours later, campers rose for the final day of the festival, which saw the arrival of Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, whose gentle songs eased in the afternoon. The timing of the set was actually perfect, a gentle cure for any late morning hangover, as one of the most musically accomplished husband and wife teams engaged with their attentive audience. 

There was a late addition to this year's line-up as TRADarr replaced the previously billed Acoustic Strawbs. This rather tasty collective, made up of Greg Cave, Marion Fleetwood, Guy Fletcher, Mark Stevens and PJ Wright, all seem to know how to enjoy themselves on stage, whether performing hard-core Folk Rock anthems, delicate ballads or the odd Morris tune, the band's enthusiasm was reciprocated by their audience who clearly enjoyed the set.

Returning once again to the festival on Sunday afternoon was Jacqui McShee, who first appeared here in 2011. Joined by the latest incarnation of her celebrated band Pentangle, the singer opened with She Moved Through the Fair and included in the jazz-inflected set, one or two classics from the band's repertoire, including Once I Had a Sweetheart and I've Got a Feeling, concluding with the much-loved and highly memorable Light Flight

Sunday night's concert on the Centre Stage began with an easy going set by the Ric Sanders Trio, whose set featured a bunch of standards including Leadbelly's On a Monday and Willie Dixon's Diddy Wah Diddy. The interplay between Ric Sanders and singer/guitarist Vo Fletcher was both complex and entertaining at the same time. 

Whilst Steeleye Span delivered their usual blend of rocked up or rocked out folk songs before their fans on the Reds stage, returning to the festival once again after their last appearance a couple of years ago, the highlight on Sunday night was a performance by the re-formed, rejuvinated and re-established Fotheringay, a band I never thought I would ever see. Original members Jerry Donahue, Gerry Conway and Pat Donaldson were joined by PJ Wright, pretty much doing the late Trevor Lucas's job and both Kathryn Roberts and Sally Barker sharing vocal duties in lieu of Sandy Denny. This in itself was an inspired idea, to bring in the voices of two prominent female singers, who neither attempt to sound like nor imitate the inimitable Sandy Denny. However the two singers certainly made a good job of bringing Sandy's songs to life once again, songs such as Solo, The Sea and No More Sad Refrains, whilst PJ took care of The Ballad of Ned Kelly and the like. We can all get sentimental and teary-eyed about Sandy Denny even now, almost 40 years after the singer's untimely death, but as we witnessed on Sunday night, the songs haven't died; they're not even slightly ill.

Well, six years of the Great British Folk Festival and things have only gone from strength to strength with the festival now easily selling out in good time. Some things don't change though; the weather is usually quite chilly, which is compensated by warm chalets and warmer concert halls, the food is always good, depending upon where you wish to dine, the beer is reasonable, unless your tankard quivers at anything other than the real stuff, and the entertainment, as has been proved once again this year, is second to none. Yes there could be quicker turnaround times between acts and yes there could be shorter queues, but I am really loathe to criticise this very enjoyable and important event on the festival calendar. Long may it continue.   

Allan Wilkinson (Words)
Phil Carter (Photos)
Northern Sky