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Great British Folk Festival

Butlins Holiday Resort, Skegness
Friday 2 - Sunday 4 December 2016

This hugely popular winter festival, held in the sleepy seaside town of Skegness on the east coast of Lincolnshire, seems to have gone from strength to strength over the last seven years. During the summer months the site is usually populated by thousands of families, but each December the famous Butlins holiday resort opens its doors to a few thousand adults suitably attired in woolly hats, scarves and gloves, replacing the array of brightly coloured festival-wear reserved for much warmer climates. It has to be said though, this year the climate was relatively mild compared to previous years and people could actually be seen taking a leisurely stroll along the beach in the sunshine, although the skinny dipping still had to be kept to a minimum.

Upon arrival, there's the tendency to look for changes - however minute - that might have occurred since the previous year. The most notable change was the fact that the festival took a risk in doing away with wristbands, the familiar festival accessory being replaced by a quick flash of a chalet key at the doors of each venue. The other notable change was the re-named Sun and Moon pub which is now The Beachcomber, though still the first port of call for those arriving early on Friday afternoon for their first beer of the weekend, as well as it being a suitable venue for some seriously French dancing on both Saturday and Sunday morning.

Some things don't change though and as always the programme was suitably diverse in terms of the range of artists who fall loosely under the category of 'folk'. Even after seven successful years, there's still a tendency to find oneself defending the festival's booking policy, which usually has something to do with the odd curveball thrown in by the organisers - this year the curveball being Bob Geldof. If there was any nervousness about booking Bob Geldof for a folk festival, it would have soon evaporated by Saturday night when the former Boomtown Rats frontman delivered an astonishing performance on the Reds Stage. Attired in a shiny blue suit, familiar unkempt grey hair and wielding a battered Gibson, the singer held the audience captive for a set that ran well over its scheduled time. I Don't Like Mondays, Rat Trap and Banana Republic came out to play as if the songs had never been away. Unlike the potty-mouthed prima-donna superstar that some of us were probably expecting, Bob Geldof was good-humoured, warm, generous and thoroughly entertaining during his set and even stuck around until Sunday afternoon when he could be seen heckling Chris Jagger during his afternoon set. Witnessing the man behind Live Aid heckling Mick Jagger's kid brother is just the sort of thing we've come to expect at an event under the 'Great British' franchise.  

If Bob Geldof may have been reluctant to include the seasonal Do They Know It's Christmas in his set, then his Band Aid band mate Paul Young was even more reluctant to labour under his own former pop glories, appearing as his cowboy alter ego in Los Pacaminos, the Tex Mex outfit who's infectious Borderland Americana transformed the Reds Stage into a Southern States Tejano zone for their Tequila-fuelled set on Friday night. At one point during the set, compere Sue Marchant strolled on stage with a tray of Tequila shots for each of the cowboys on stage, which is probably a feature of all their shows. It was a well-timed set as Lindisfarne, in any of the band's many incarnations, is certainly a hard act to follow. This weekend's line-up included original member Rod Clements, whose own song writing repertoire includes some of the band's most memorable numbers such as Meet Me on the Corner, Road to Kingdom Come and Train in G Major. Meanwhile Dave Hull-Dunhelm more than capably handled some of Alan Hull's most familiar songs with uncanny resemblance to the originals, songs that included Lady Eleanor, All Fall Down and the beautiful Winter Song.

One or two acts made a welcome return to the festival this year including Donovan, who appeared at the inaugural festival back in 2010. On Sunday night the Scots-born singer-songwriter and King of All Hippiedom announced at the beginning of his set that he would not stray further than three minutes from a hit record, a promise he kept throughout his hour-long set. Songs like Catch the Wind, Sunshine Superman, Colours, Hurdy Gurdy Man and Mellow Yellow tripped off his tongue as he sat centre stage on the Centre Stage, perched upon a stool as if he were back there in 1966. Others making return visits to the festival were Kate Rusby with her seasonal show on Saturday night and also Cara Dillon and Oysterband. 

If some of the more mainstream acts not usually associated with the British folk scene such as Bob Geldof, Paul Young and Jona Lewie were to leave some people scratching their heads and questioning whether this is indeed a folk festival at all, then just a quick look back over the last seven years would confirm the festivals 'folk' credentials in spades; Eliza Carthy, June Tabor, Ralph McTell, Fairport Convention, Bellowhead, Fotheringay, Eddi Reader, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, The Unthanks, The Home Service, The Demon Barbers, Show of Hands, The Full English, Treacherous Orchestra, Capercaillie, The Young'uns, Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party, The Albion Band, Billy Bragg and Moulettes have all appeared at the festival so far. Yes, curveballs have been thrown and to be fair, some have almost taken an eye out, acts like Ed Tudor Pole, Phil Cool, Steve Cradock, Judie Tzuke, Deborah Bonham, String Driven Thing and Justin Currie, but this really just adds to the festival's diverse appeal.

With Jim Moray and Sue Marchant introducing the afternoon concerts on both the Centre Stage and the Reds Stage respectively, we saw appearances by Billy Mitchell, Jez Lowe, Bob Fox and Benny Graham, otherwise known as the Pitmen Poets, who brought tales and songs from their particular neck of the woods, singer-songwriter and recent star of The Voice Sally Barker, the wonderfully eccentric mediaeval folk experimenters Gryphon, some fine blues from the Gary Fletcher Band, the songs of Ronnie Lane courtesy of Slim Chance, a wander down memory lane with Fake Thackray doing Jake's songs and the infectious presence of Martin Stephenson. 

Sandwiched between the afternoon and evening concerts, Stephen Stanley and Alan Ritson looked after the Introducing Stage, which offered the chance for some lesser known acts to demonstrate their musical chops under the Skyline Pavilion. Once again the polling station opened for the specific purpose of allowing the audience to choose who they would like to see return to play one of the main stages next year. Last year Polly and the Billets Doux, Said the Maiden and Itchy Fingers won their places and each of those bands performed as promised on the main stages throughout the weekend. Sadly Polly and her band had to follow Levellers, for whom a massive space had been cleared, and with all the will in the world, that gap would not be filled at that time of night and the Bristol band were forced to play to a vastly depleted audience; a shame really because they are spectacularly good. This year the acts ranged from soloists Kelly Oliver, who effectively opened the festival on Friday afternoon, blues singer Mark Harrison, singer-songwriters Louise Jordan, Richi Jones and Roger Davies; the duos included husband and wife team Winter Wilson and guitar/fiddle combo Woof and Wilde and the bands including Bramble Napskins, The Life and Times of Brothers Hogg, Linda Em, Crumbling Ghost and country outlaws Crazy Heart, all of whom delivered excellent performances. 

As always though, it was the evening concerts that drew the biggest crowds as both the Reds Stage and the Centre Stage hosted the aforementioned headliners, Bob Geldof, Kate Rusby, Donovan, Oysterband, Lindisfarne and the much anticipated Levellers, together with some fine opening spots by the likes of Liam Blake, Kasim Sulton, David Knopfler and Harry Bogdanovs and on Sunday night, Jona Lewie, whose Stop the Cavalry was probably the most eagerly awaited song of the weekend, if only for the rousing scat chorus.. Dub a dub a dumb dumb, Dub a dub dubadum dubadum dub a dub dubadum..!

For those with enough energy and resilience left at the end of the day, it was well worth going that extra mile to see some of the acts occupying the witching hour with performances by such bands as Mad Dog Mcrae, Travelling Band, the aforementioned Polly and the Billets Doux and most notably, the stunning Newcastle-based band Holy Moly and the Crackers who delivered one of the best closing performances of this or for that matter, any of the six previous Great British Folk Festivals. Great to watch, great to hear, Holy Moly and the Crackers' self-styled gypsy folk rock certainly left a mark on the festival's growing reputation as one of the most enjoyable music events of the year.   

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky

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