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There are few reasons why we in the UK would be motivated to look forward to the month of October. Isn't this the time of year when Autumn leaves start to decay and muddy our footpaths, a time when clocks go back and plunge those same paths into darkness, a time when 'brass monkeys' becomes the popular term for just about everything? This may or may not be so, but we at Northern Sky start looking forward to October in earnest as early as Spring for one reason and one reason only... Musicport!
Once again, the bright and breezy flags fluttered to the onset of dusk beside the cliff side Pavilion as the seaside town came alive to the sound of drums and brass and marching feet on the clifftops right there in the shadow of Captain James Cook and his neighbouring whale bones, whilst the festival prepared itself for another full-on weekend of music and song, dance, spoken word, cinema and an assortment of fine culinary delights. As the early arrivals poured into the so-called Hub in order to reacquaint themselves with one another over a coffee or perhaps a first beer, there was a feeling of.. oh, where did that year go? The decor this year was dominated by delicately constructed marine life with green and blue fish in the main hall and seagulls occupying the skylight space, bringing into the pavilion clearly what was already outside.
Whilst the powerful vocal sounds of Zimbabwe's Black Umfolosi bounced off the walls of the main hall, effectively opening the main Friday night concert, Yorkshire's very own father and daughter duo Pete and Polly Bolton served up a dish of America's 'alternative songbook' down on the North Sea Stage, contributing towards the rich tapestry of contrasting sounds from the start.
If the organisers of Musicport describe their annual festival as "a journey through the world of music and more" then Morris-Natyam provided a perfect illustration of this sentiment in action. This unique collaboration between dancers and musicians of Indian and English origin created a colourfully engaging spectacle on the theatre stage, much to the delight of the captivated Friday evening crowd. The performance smoothly fused the artistic traditions of two cultures which seem, on the surface, entirely separate. Thanks, however, to the dexterity of English Morris dancer Lisa Heywood and Indian Bharatanatyam dancer Priya Sundar, Morris-Natyam proves explicitly that these traditions are not, in fact, worlds apart. Whilst the distinctly English sound of Mel Biggs's concertina knitted itself to traditional Indian strings and percussion, Heywood and Sundar led the audience through a year of seasonal dances via the floral awakenings of spring, the sun-worship of summer, autumn's battle with evil spirits and the dead of winter, demonstrating the occasional differences between the two traditions as well as their many remarkable similarities. There were moments when it seemed impossible to note any difference whatsoever and, thanks to the careful choreography, our ancient cultures were gracefully sewn together before hundreds of bedazzled eyes.
It was a pleasing year at Musicport for anyone with even the slightest interest in jazz, especially when one of the world's leading jazz guitarists gave a blazing performance in the theatre on Friday evening. The name Martin Taylor is synonymous with dexterity and fervour when it comes to handling some of the most complex jazz compositions. His reputation towers over the best of them, having performed with such legendary musicians as Stéphane Grappelli, Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel and David Grisman and producing a series of successful solo records over the last four decades. This year, Taylor celebrates forty years in the business as well as his sixtieth birthday, and his performance at Musicport proved that one of Britain's best loved jazz musicians, despite considering himself "officially grumpy", is sounding as vibrant as ever. And whilst tunes such as I'm Old Fashioned, I Got Rhythm and Just Once harked back to Taylor's success as Britain's answer to Django Reinhardt, there were reflections of harder times, too, during this engaging solo performance. Martin sadly lost his son in 2005 and, via the striking beauty of his self-penned composition One Day, it was equally moving and fascinating to see how Taylor had tackled adversity to keep his music alive. The performance was peppered with several well-known numbers such as I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free and The Carpenters' I Won't Last a Day Without You, each showcasing Taylor's almost otherworldly deftness. But it was, perhaps, Taylor's self-penned Down To Cocomo's, with its contagious tropical rhythm, that rang in the ears of a satisfied audience for the rest of the evening.
Even without the late Ian Dury, the plethora of familiar songs in the Blockheads back catalogue kept the Musicport crowd happy as one hit followed another during the band's headlining set on Friday night. Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll, What a Waste, Wake Up and Make Love With Me, Billericay Dickie, Sweet Gene Vincent and the list goes on. The handsome 48-page programme indicated from the start that The Blockheads are 'one of our favourite bands ever!', so it really went without saying that the band went down a storm during their headline spot on Friday night.
You would have thought that that was enough for Friday night but no, remember we are at Musicport here. The sound of 1930s cabaret was delivered to the North Sea Stage in the early hours of Saturday morning thanks to the Moscow Drug Club; an ensemble which blends the red hot rhythms of gypsy jazz, Vaudeville and Russian folk for an equally energetic and hypnotic show. Led by North American vocalist Katya Gorrie, the band succeeded in keeping the festival's engine running long after the other stages had gone quiet. Bathed in burning red light, the North Sea stage was transformed into an eastern European speakeasy as Denny Ilett's chugging guitar was threaded with the improvised melodies of well-respected British trumpeter Jonny Bruce on numbers such as Marion Sunshine's When I Get Low I Get High and Leonard Cohen's Dance Me to the End of Love. Andy Crowdy rattled the Pavilion's underbelly with his double bass as Polish musician Mirek Salmon consolidated the ensemble with his enchanting accordion.
On Saturday morning, after we'd all had some sleep, things got off to an early start once again as Jess Wright and Delia Stevens returned to the festival once again to showcase some remarkably sensitive and beautifully performed duets for piano and marimba. Their Project Jam Sandwich and Sura Susso collaboration of last year sprang immediately to mind as these two musicians once again presented some fine original music, which has taken the best part of the last twelve months to plan.
Michael Messer's reputation as blues innovator and slide guitar maestro is no secret. As well as performing with such respected artists as BJ Cole, Louisiana Red and Davy Spillane, Messer has also had a reputable solo career and has inspired praise from fans, critics and collaborators alike, including one Johnny Cash. Messer performed at Musicport as part of his current tour with Mitra, a trio in which the slide master is joined by tabla player Gurdain Rayatt and Indian slide guitarist Manish Pingle for an often spellbinding fusion of blues and classical Indian music. These kindred traditions, both infused with soul-dredging improvisations, rub together with a spark of pure magic. Well-known blues classics such as Lonnie Johnson's I Have No Sweet Woman Now, Muddy Waters' Rollin' and Tumblin' and JJ Cale's Any Way The Wind Blows retain their raw American sensibilities but undergo a widening transformation as Pingle's sinuous Mohan veena improvisations and Rayatt's mesmeric rhythms magically relocate them.
Whilst Musicport's mission to bring the world to Whitby weaves a golden thread throughout the weekend, the festival also succeeds in delivering Whitby to the world. The Esk Valley Big Band drew an appreciative crowd in the theatre on Saturday afternoon for a performance of vintage, mainstream and contemporary big band numbers from this impressive home-grown outfit. Consisting of mostly young players from the Whitby Music Centre, the band attempted to blow the roof off the older wing of the Pavilion with impassioned renderings of Weather Report's Birdland, Glenn Miller's In The Mood and Pick Up The Pieces by the Average White Band. And whilst the twenty-five piece band were at their very best when firing on all cylinders, there were notable solos from the saxophonists, trumpeters and the band's ferociously adroit drummer.
Running alongside the main festival, as if that wasn't enough, was the fringe festival located once again down the road at Rusty Shears 'a most unusual teashop', which saw several informal and cosy performances by some of the artists including the young Hull-born singer-songwriter Katie Spencer, who delighted a packed room with her beautifully crafted self-penned songs. Katie would also appear as part of the Young Women's Showcase on the North Sea stage on Sunday afternoon.
Middlesbrough is known for an assortment of things including its days as the North East's "Ironpolis", its imposing Transporter Bridge and highly cherished football team. The industrial northern town is, perhaps, lesser known for its Flamenco but, thanks to guitarist and singer Mark Boden, Whitby was offered a taste of Teeside's musical tapas with a sassy Saturday afternoon performance from Flamenco Con Fusion. This four-piece combo, consisting of guitarists Boden and Phil Philo, bassist Jamie Donnelly and cajon player James McCann, proved that music doesn't necessarily need to be in the blood to be passed through the heart. Boden's guitar solos and passionate vocals are just as fiery as some of the best Flamenco players out there and the band's North Sea stage performance justly gathered an excitable crowd with its readings of music by such eminent Spanish artists as Paco de Lucia and Camarón de la Isla.
Poets have brought an extra dimension to this all-embracing, forward-thinking festival over the years and this year was no different. Indeed, you could do far worse than invite one of the country's best performance poets to twice entertain the Whitby crowd, and Lemn Sissay's performances didn't disappoint. Familiar to BBC Radio 4 listeners for his appearances as presenter and guest on many a programme and to readers and theatre goers for his poetry collections and plays, Manchester poet Lemn Sissay is never more engaging than on stage. His comfortably excitable performances at this year's festival proved that, in the right hands, poetry can literally burst off the page and stage with all the joy and passion of the diverse musical acts on this year's bill. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that, for all his poetic prowess and skills as a literary wordsmith, Lemn Sissay is one of the funniest comedians you'll ever see. His poetry, at times devastatingly truthful and insightful, is perfectly balanced and, at times informed, by his refusal to take the world too seriously. The term "life-affirming" can be applied to a select few contemporary poets, but Lemn earns the description with even the shortest of pieces. And whilst his infectious brand of comedy often lays the foundation for his poems, the hard lessons of his youth seem to set up some of his most engaging moments of irresistible wit. He was joined on stage at this year's festival by a cast of supporting characters, each of them voiced by Sissay himself, creating several moments of complex conversations in the noisy room of his split-personality. Even Roger McGough, so exquisitely rendered, made an impromptu appearance. But despite the sheer exhilaration of Sissay's stage patter, it was his fine selection of poems that provided the highlights. From his Immigration RSVP, which takes only three short verses to expose the imbecility of racism to his Invisible Kisses, a love poem that will surely last as long as those of Shakespeare and Donne, Lemn's readings of his poems reminded his audiences that poetry is infinite in its abilities to inform, to entertain, to fight hatred and advocate love.
One of the most welcome performances at this year's Musicport came courtesy of Northumbrian smallpiper Kathryn Tickell who, along with accordionist Amy Thatcher, harpist Ruth Wall and cellist Louisa Tuck – better known as The Side – delighted their Saturday evening audience with a selection of lively reels and sweet north eastern melodies. The ensemble managed to inject a generous dosage of new life into Tickell's well-loved brand of traditional folk, especially during such tunes as the Catherine Cookson-inspired Ruthless Reel and the beautifully serene Stonehaugh; the former inspiring impromptu jigs around the main hall and the latter infusing the festival with a touch of Celtic magic. It was during this particular performance, amongst the echoes of the Indian strings, tablas and African rhythms of other artists on the bill, that the spellbound Musicport crowd was reminded of the rich folk traditions of our own little island.
One of the other aspects of the festival that attracts fair sized audiences is their commitment to cinema, not only the tiny solar-powered Sol Cinema just next to the entrance to the Hub, but also in the Theatre, where Don Letts' documentary about The Clash Westway to the World received a screening on Saturday afternoon. This not only provided the chance for those of us familiar with documentary to see it on a large screen, it also gave us the opportunity to hear the film maker talk about the film afterwards with Daniel Rachel, whose recently published book Walls Come Tumbling Down was on sale in the Hub.
There are moments during any Musicport Festival when you're reminded of the great breadth of diversity within contemporary music, not to mention the exciting lengths to which the organisers go in their attempt to nourish us each year. It's not surprising, then, that a handful of artists on this year's line-up could sit just as comfortably on the bill of a jazz festival. Take, for example, Sarah Jane Morris & Bloody Rain Band. Sarah Jane is one of this country's most treasured jazz vocalists, having steadily built an impressive reputation since the early 1980s when she was spotted by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox who consequently invited her to sing on their first single. Over thirty years on, Morris has earned a reputation as one of the most daring of our jazz singers and her African-inspired 2014 album BLOODY RAIN typifies her exploratory approach to making music. Along with Trinidadian guitarist Tim Cransfield, London-based musician and composer Tony Remy and the rest of the Bloody Rain Band, Sarah Jane gave a warm performance at Musicport of some of the songs from the Bloody Rain album as well as a fascinating rendering of John Lennon's Imagine.
Closing the theatre stage on Saturday night was the Leeds-based outfit Manjula. Led by Leeds College of Music graduate Vanessa Rani and comprising percussionist Sam Bell, bassist Simon Read and guitarist Joe Harris, Manjula – meaning "melodious" - fused musics of India, Africa and Latin America with contemporary western jazz to produce a genuinely seductive sound. Harris's guitar reached some dizzying heights throughout the band's captivating performance, but never departed from this fine musician's thoughtful precision and sensitive touch. Bassist Simon Read is a young stalwart of the British jazz scene having confirmed his reputation as part of the Matt Holborn Quintet as well as his own Octet; his supple basslines both smeared and tip toed over the skins of Sam Bell's mesmeric congos throughout whilst Rani's arresting vocals blended her crystal clear affinity with Indian music with the lithe improvisations of a first-rate jazz singer. From the opening melodies of eden ahbez's Nature Boy to the Pentangle-sounding Come Away, Manjula's Musicport performance was an equally entertaining and educational experience, mixing the band's sincere passion for world traditions with a perpetually engaging exchange of improvised solos and meditative explorations of rhythm and melody. Even the spider that lowered itself on a fine thread in front of the band during the performance seemed beguiled by this exceptional combo, remaining there for most of the show.
Saturday night really belonged to Johannesburg's Mahotella Queens freshly arrived from South Africa and ready to perform in their own inimitable style on the main stage. It has to be said that of all the bands, groups and combos that have been performing for over fifty years, and there can't be all that many, the Mahotella Queens can still dance with excitement, enthusiasm and determination, whilst still making a great sound with their harmonious voices. Hilda Tloubatla, Nobesuthu Mbadu and the younger Amanda Nkosi, who replaced original member Mildred Mangxola, who was forced to retire due to ill-health, appeared on stage in traditional dress over their own pale blue merch t shirts, and soon had the audience on their feet dancing to their infectious music.
On Sunday morning over breakfast, the perusal of the programme booklet proved to be a taxing affair with so much on the menu for the day ahead. It was a case of missing the toast in order to get over to the main hall for Harpeth Rising's 10am performance. Mixing their classical training with rootsy sensibilities, the all-female band raised the bar pretty high for the remainder of the day, which also saw performances by Maz O'Connor and her trio, festival favourites Coope, Boyes and Simpson in the Theatre and Bluegrass band Ragged Union on the main stage.
One of the most beguiling voices in world music was in attendance at this year's festival, pleasing those who had heard his albums and making swift fans of those who hadn't. Argentina's Martin Alvarado possesses a uniquely attractive voice that perfectly complements his repertoire of Argentinian tangos and moving love songs. Together with deadpan Finnish pianist and bandoneon player (not to mention striking Orson Welles lookalike) Mikko Helenius, Alvarado charmed the crowd with both music and wit. Indeed, there were moments when this Argentinian/Finnish duo channelled the comedy of Laurel and Hardy, surprising an audience that had expected only to hear the finest tango music from one of the genre's best proponents. During their closing number, Helenius interspersed his rhapsodic piano and Alvarado's soaring melodies and guitar runs with brief tenor blasts of well-known English songs such as Jerusalem and The Long and Winding Road which had the audience in fits.
Back in 2014, the Musicport Festival was set to be graced by the unique talents of a singer songwriter who has been called "spellbinding", "effortlessly captivating" and, best of all, "a magician". Sadly, due to some scheduling difficulties, John Smith had to put his Whitby show on hold until this year's festival. Despite his name, Smith is as far away from unremarkable as you can possibly get. His voice is pleasingly weathered, his guitar playing exquisitely nuanced and his charismatic Devonshire delivery holds everything together nicely as he performs self-penned songs that stretch far beyond this young artist's years. During Sunday evening's theatre performance, this highly accomplished singer songwriter won over a vast crowd with his delicious Joanna, written whilst travelling in the Pacific Northwest of America, his vibrant, chugging I Will Give It All and the stunning title track of his 2013 LP GREAT LAKES. John also managed to slide in a few choice covers, including a stunning reading of Lord Franklin which he learned from late friend and mentor John Renbourn. Armed with two guitars, a few peddles and a little amp, Smith's universally likeable character managed to fill the stage and, indeed, the entire theatre as the rusty-bearded troubadour picked his way through a heartfelt set that was well worth the wait.
The most anticipated event of the entire weekend came with the sound of Robert Wyatt's songs as performed by Annie Whitehead's collective Soupsongs Live: The Music of Robert Wyatt. A true original, Wyatt gave his blessing to this project which captivated audiences across the land back in 2004, when a handful of the songs were used as part of the documentary film Free Will and Testament, which also provided a rare glimpse into the life and work of the former drummer with Soft Machine and Matching Mole. As the collective stepped up onto the stage on Sunday afternoon, that anticipation transformed into bliss as some of Wyatt's most beautiful melodies came to life once again, songs such as Sea Song, Gharbzadegi and Free Will and Testament, each performed with authority and passion by a band that also included Jennifer Maidman, Janette Mason and original member of Wyatt's first semi-successful Canterbury Scene band The Wilde Flowers, Brian Hopper, who Wyatt once cited as the founder of that scene "because he had all the records".
It was hard to believe that even at this stage of the festival, with so much music already performed, words spoken, dishes cooked and dances danced, that there was still a couple more treats left to deliver. The much discussed Irish quartet Lynched thrilled the audience with their take on the old songs, delivered in a refreshingly new, yet at the same time well-trodden style, before the mass migration to the Theatre for the festival finale, with the Sweden-based multi-fascetted trans-global collective Världens Band, making their third consecutive appearance at the festival after winning the hearts of audiences in both 2014 and 2015. Once again their enthusiasm for collaboration shone through their performance, which gave the audience reason to leave the festival with smiles on their faces, almost as broad as box player Dave Gray's, whose sheer ebullience makes all the troublesome aspects of our lives seem momentarily irrelevent. A better way to close the festival, I struggle to imagine.
Liam and Allan Wilkinson
Listen to the Northern Sky Vaults Musicport Specials:
Individual interviews can be found in the Media section