You are here

Great British Folk Festival 2013

Over the last four years the annual Great British Folk Festival has grown in popularity, this year pretty much selling out the popular Butlins holiday resort on the Lincolnshire coast; not bad going for a winter festival. Almost at the same time, the festival calendar has grown from a handful of events up and down the country into something of a mammoth beast, with practically a festival on every street corner in the UK. The labelling of these festivals seems to present the greatest problem for organisers, prompting boardroom debates - or more like discussions over the kitchen table - on whether their little festival should include the most incendiary term in music or just play it safe with the now familiar 'roots' or 'acoustic' moniker; anything really that avoids the accursed F word. If you dare to use that word, then your little festival will be subjected to scrutiny by the so called 'folk police' who will let you know in no uncertain terms what is and what isn't folk.

Although this festival is fearless in its use of the word, I personally prefer to think of this annual event not as a folk festival at all, but instead an eclectic music gathering whose programme reflects all those wonderful 'sampler' LPs we once collected back in the day, where seemingly unrelated artists are juxtaposed, bringing a strong sense of the diverse, which appealed to me back then and if pushed still does today. So why not strive for the same in a live setting?

The Butlins venue itself is purpose built for entertainment and has been since 1936 when Billy Butlin first came up with the idea. The more recent idea of utilising these facilities throughout the winter months for music festival purposes is really quite inspired. As usual the main focus of the event is the two main stages, the Centre Stage and Reds Stage, both of which are presumably used for children’s entertainment, knobbly-knees contests, bingo and the like at other times in the year. For this weekend though, the Red Coats were replaced by our weekend hosts Sue Marchant and Scott Butler, who pretty much kept us up to date on proceedings, as Skegness Butlins provided a temporary home for the likes of Barbara Dickson, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Judie Tzuke and two Edwards, one of the Tudor Pole variety and the other of the highly danceable reggae/folk fusion variety that has been known to knock out some red hot polkas in their time.

There was hardly an empty seat in the house by the time Jim Moray took to the Reds stage, effectively opening the festival on Friday night, who was in fact celebrating the tenth anniversary of his debut album Sweet England. In celebration of this fact, the title song from the album was included in his performance, together with such traditional fare as Poverty Knock, Billy Don't You Weep and the thoroughly engaging Lord Douglas. Barbara Dickson followed and paid tribute to her late friend, the celebrated singer/songwriter Gerry Rafferty, with a handful of songs including Over My Head and Steamboat Row, as well as folk classics such as Bob Dylan's Don't Think Twice It's Alright, Sandy Denny's Who Knows Where the Time Goes and The Beatles' Across the Universe.

After a rather long and restless sound check, the young festival whippersnappers Ahab finally began their set which was subsequently plagued by sound problems. In retrospect, the band could have handled the situation better instead of making a public display of their frustrations. In a festival setting, there ought to be more room for patience. This minor upset didn't stop the band playing until well after 1am on Saturday morning.

Saturday came along with bleary-eyed anticipation, one of the highlights being a performance by singer/songwriter Judie Tzuke, who handed over the first half hour of her set to her daughter Bailey. Normally accustomed to singing back-up in mum's band, the young singer/songwriter noted "it's normally the other way round", as she glanced around at her mum who was sitting behind her throughout the set, providing some atmospheric backing vocals. Judie is one of those artists associated with a certain time in the late 1970s, an artist who over the years has managed to maintain a loyal following. On Saturday Judie demonstrated why that name has never been forgotten. The performance was the first outing for a handful of stripped down to basics songs that Judie will be performing in the New Year and Butlins provided an ideal sounding board for the voice that captured the imagination of many in her heyday and which is still very much intact. Saving her most celebrated song until the end, the singer finished with Stay with Me Till Dawn, receiving rapturous applause from the audience.

Jim Moray returned for his second set of the weekend, this time joined by the Skulk Ensemble featuring Dave Burbidge on drums, Barn Stradling on acoustic bass and Nick Cooke on melodeon. Much more animated than during his Friday night solo appearance, the young musician delivered a fine set of songs from his most recent album SKULK, together with one or two familiar songs from his back catalogue including Anais Mitchell's If It's True, the traditional William Taylor and Lord Bateman and finally XTC's jaunty All You Pretty Girls. The Centre Stage meanwhile saw performances by The Alarm's Dave Sharp, Big Country's Bruce and Jamie Watson and one of the most eccentric performers of the weekend Ed Tudor Pole, who apparently had no idea he was playing a folk festival. Some may think he wasn't (see above).

Saturday evening saw the return of Jacqui McShee, this time with a stripped-down version of her most celebrated band Pentangle, the five-sided shape now reduced to a mere triangle under the name of Take 3, presumably a nod to the 1960s TV drama series Take Three Girls, the theme song Light Flight, which was performed by Pentangle. With sensitive guitar accompaniment courtesy of Alan Thomson and gentle percussion from husband Gerry Conway, the singer blended her jazz and folk influences to deliver a memorable set of familiar material to an almost silent and respectful audience, including some of Pentangle's best loved songs such as Nottamun Town, Once I Had a Sweetheart and Will the Circle Be Unbroken, returning for an encore of the aforementioned Light Flight. It was nice to see Fairporters Simon Nicol and Ric Sanders queuing up with the rest of the fans to see Jacqui after the set.

Whilst Cara Dillon and her band performed a gorgeous set in Reds, The Springfields, led by long-time member Mike Hurst, delivered a nostalgic set, which soon had the entire venue singing along to such familiar songs as Cottonfields, Island of Dreams and Georgie Girl and it has to be said that no one even attempted to immitate the late Dusty. The Strawbs followed shortly afterwards, returning to the festival having appeared at the inaugural event back in 2010, with Dave Cousins' rasping voice which for all intents and purposes could strip paint, delivering a potted history of the band thus far, interspersed with some of the band's most familiar songs. Closing proceedings on Saturday night with no short measure of energy was the full-on force of Edward II who delivered some of their highly infectious rootsy reggae, including band favourites Wild Mountain Thyme and Dashing Away.

The festival also made use of several other areas within the complex such as the main stage area of the Skyline Pavilion, which on Sunday saw the colourful Moulton Morris dancing in front of the stage whilst the duo Panjenix played in the Jellyfish Lounge. The Front Room hosted a couple of sets by Bournemouth-based singer/songwriter Annie Winter on Saturday afternoon, whilst on Sunday morning, Tourdion attracted a large gathering in the Sun and Moon pub in order to partake in a selection of French songs and dances. Also throughout the weekend Brian Eastwood hosted the open mic sessions around the corner in Jaks nightclub.

Sunday afternoon saw acid folk duo Tír na nÓg perform a delicate set of vintage songs from their early 1970s repertoire. The duo, consisting of Sonny Condell and Leo O'Kelly, reminded those of us of a certain age of the duo's heyday with such enduring songs as Time is Like a Promise, Our Love Will Not Decay and Daisy Lady, followed afterwards by an extremely long queue at the concessions stand. Despite the duo's beautifully ethereal set, Sunday afternoon really belonged to Fairport Convention, who was the only band to be allotted two consecutive sets in Reds. The now familiar tagline 'Cropredy by the Sea' seems to have become a reality as the celebrated folk rock outfit spread highlights of their 47 year repertoire over a couple of hours during the afternoon. Simon Nicol quipped "the few people who haven't seen us before, don't be frightened." With a set featuring such delights as Sir Patrick Spens, Fotheringay and Matty Groves, the band concluded with a predictable Meet on the Ledge, the song mostly associated with the band. Meanwhile, dividing both the audience and their loyalties, festival headliners Steeleye Span played simultaneously on the Centre Stage, with a fair slice of their set featuring songs from their new Terry Pratchett collaboration album Wintersmith.

Sunday night was awash with singer songwriters with Reg Meuross performing some of his most familiar songs including Dragonfly, My Name is London Town, Lizzy Loved a Highwayman and Drover's Road. The rapport between Reg and his audience was tangible throughout the set and the singer songwriter was clearly enjoying his time at the festival. Joining Reg on stage for one song was another singer songwriter Jess Vincent, before Reg returned for a well deserved encore. Richard Digance returned to the festival with more songs and banter, which included cajoling the audience into singing a chorus of All Around My Hat and not for the first time of the day. Luke Jackson appeared as Martyn Joseph's special guest, the young singer/songwriter dominating the stage with an assured solo performance that featured a handful of self-penned songs, including the title song from his forthcoming second album. Martyn Joseph then took to the stage to deliver another fine performance of songs from a remarkably prolific repertoire. Whilst St Agnes Fountain heralded in the festive season with a collection of Christmas songs and carols, Slim Chance closed the festival by revisiting the Ronnie Lane songbook, filling the dance floor with timeless numbers such as the band's new single release How Come?

The Great British Folk Festival is not perfect and there are one or two lessons still to be learned and one or two problems still to sort out, such as the lengthy spells between sets and one or two sound problems, but the festival is maintaining its extremely fair prices and its attention to comfort, especially at such a hostile time of year on the English coastline. Fortunately those long set up times between acts was filled by Fatea's Showcase Sessions CDs, bringing new music to new ears throughout the weekend. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky