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Rotherham Open Arts Festival 2007

Spiegeltent, Rotherham
Saturday 15 - Sunday 23 September 2007

As part of the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, a group of talented local musicians congregated for the first of two afternooon concerts, under the banner of the 'Real Music Bar', run by Pete Thornton-Smith (MC). The first of these concerts in all fairness should have attracted a capacity crowd, not just for the standard of musicianship on show, but certainly for the entry fee. There must have been something desperately good on the telly is all I can say.

Laura-Anne Collins was the first special guest kicking off the proceedings in the Spiegeltent on Saturday afternoon, which has been erected in the heart of Rotherham town centre, just beside the Minster. Laura-Anne is an Irish singer/songwriter currently based in the North of England. To label Laura-Anne simply a singer/songwriter is really slightly unfair for she has so much more about her than just a bunch of songs. Her impressive musical credentials, as shown on her CV (which quite possibly runs into several pages), shows that she is a highly competent composer and arranger who has worked in both film and theatre and who is amongst a handful of artists currently experimenting in live looping; KT Tunstall and Nick Harper spring to mind as good examples. Proficient in both guitar and piano, Laura-Anne played a couple of delightful sets on Saturday to an audience of musicians, folk music fans and curious onlookers, dropping in to see what it's all about. 

Leeds based guitarist Troy Faid's reputation is steadily growing at the moment and there is really little wonder. Once you see Troy live there is no doubting his command of the guitar. His easy going laid back approach to country blues and his understated vocal delivery puts him right up there with the leaders in the field. His influences read like a who's who of important exponents of this style of playing, including Lonnie Johnson, Skip James and Robert Johnson as well as more recent 'keepers of the faith' Kelly Joe Phelps, Eric Bibb and Martin Simpson, who incidentally shared the same stage later in the day.

South Yorkshire based couple Ruth and Gary Wells need no introduction, at least within a fifty miles radius of the little town of Wath-upon-Dearne at any rate. When Ruth isn't singing her own compositions, she delights in bringing to her audience songs from her own particular favourite female songwriters such as Eleanor McEvoy (Only A Woman's Heart) and Natalie Merchant (Motherland) as well as a few good blokes as well, Richard Thompson (The Sun Never Shines On The Poor) and Martyn Joseph (Strange Way). Gary introduces most of the songs and plays six string bass and tries to behave himself, but often can't.  

I keep bumping into Roger Davies for some strange reason and that's not a bad thing at all. Davies is a wonderful songwriter with a distinctive, immediately recognisable singing voice. He sings in his West Yorkshire vernacular and perhaps does for Brighouse what Kate Rusby does for Barnsley. Huddersfield Town, Northern Trash and Old Fashioned Man are melodic songs that resonate long after the guitar's popped back in its box. The stand out song, especially for a warm South Yorkshire afternoon, is Beer Belly Blues where he name checks about fifty pubs, real or imaginary. 

For the duration of the festival there was a strange exotic Baroque construction right in the heart of Rotherham town centre, standing in the shadow of the imposing Minster. The sight of this strange pavilion has been attracting curious onlookers, both young and old alike throughout the week, and on Saturday evening sublime sounds came from within. Sitting on one of the benches in All Saints Square, whilst munching away on a rather tasty Subway sandwich and inadvertently attracting a couple of local pigeons, I felt that I was the only person on earth who had the pleasure of hearing those perfectly harmonious voices, coming not from the Minster itself, as part of a Sunday evenings' service, but from within this strange temporary construction before me. 'What is it?' enquired the pigeons. Why it's the Idolize Spiegeltent I reply. 'And what's that sound?' Ah, now that would be messers Coope, Boyes and Simpson, sound checking for what could turn out to be one of the highlights of this years folk calendar. 

For this part of the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, Martin Simpson was asked to come up with an exciting programme entitled 'Local Heroes' requesting the pleasure of the company of some of his favourite local singers and musicians on the current folk scene. The programme consisted of two nights of folk music and on Saturday night Simpson chose wisely methinks. Bringing together one of the countries finest singers in John Tams, together with Barry Coope, Jim Boyes and Lester Simpson, who clearly have three of the most compatible voices on the planet, specifically to share the stage with one of the most extraordinary virtuoso guitarists in the country, left me wondering why it took so long to happen. 

Upon entering the Spiegeltent, you feel a very distinct otherworldly ambience. Ornate cherubs play seriously disconcerting games upon the constructions' main supports, whilst plush upholstered seating in decadent crimson and gold give the impression of a turn of the century Parisian boudoir that Louis XVI would've been proud of. If Nicole Kidman was to swing above your head whilst Ewan Macgregor warbled Your Song you wouldn't even bat an eyelid.

The evening concert consisted of two sets featuring Martin Simpson (solo), John Tams and Barry Coope (duo), Coope, Boyes and Simpson (trio) and finally a quintet that must've been made, if not smack bang in the middle of, then surely not far from Heaven. Martin opened the show with a couple of guitar pieces entitled She Slips Away and Mother Love before segueing into Little Musgrave from his new and much talked about album PRODIGAL SON. Twenty albums on from the time when the young son of Scunthorpe used to travel up and down the country, green guitar in hand and cheeky grin on his face, dazzling folks from all around with his unique and highly polished guitar style, I can confirm that after witnessing his new album launch at this years' Cambridge Folk Festival, sharing the stage with Danny Thompson, Kate Rusby, Kellie While and Andy Cutting, he is still very much 'The Man.' 

Martin is also a generous musician who can stand back from the spotlight in order to allow others to take centre stage. This is all about respect. In the case of last Saturday, he let John Tams, one of our most enigmatic performers, take over the stage. With Barry Coope at his side, John delighted the Rotherham audience with songs new and old including Lay Me Low, Amelia and Will I See Thee More. There is a warmth to John Tams that cannot be contrived. He is a passionate performer with a very English, very northern sense of dignity. You simply cannot leave his presence without being touched by it. He also has a unique way of making you giggle without any seemingly planned stage patter. His observations on life just come naturally.

Coope, Boyes and Simpson came on next to raise the roof with, curiously enough, Raising the Rafters, which tested the audiences communal singing credentials. Barry Coope in all fairness was suffering from the sniffles and I suspect he probably felt he wasn't on top form, but we the audience couldn't tell. He probably just worked harder than anyone to cover it up. The trio finished the first part of the concert with Horkstow Grange, the song that features a character called 'Steeleye Span' from which a very well known folk rock outfit took their name. 

The second part of the evening was a fine collaborative effort for all concerned when all five musicians came together to form, for the sake of argument, Coope, Boyes, Simpsons and Tams. Songs from both sides of the Atlantic were chosen to represent this second half, with Hedy West's Pans Of Biscuits, one of the most common choices of funeral songs Didn't He Ramble, Richard Thompson's Down Where the Drunkards Roll and a couple from John Tams' current repertoire Remembrance Day and Harry Stone. Martin Simpson led with a Cyril Tawny song from his BRAMBLE BRIAR album Sammy's Bar before allowing John Tams to finish the set with a rousing airing of Vulcan and Lucifer and Steelos from the Radio Ballads series, and incidentally, from the Radio Ballad that is closest to our hearts, particularly in this neck of the woods, THE SONG OF STEEL. 

The first of these two 'Local Heroes' concerts was brought to a close with the help of the enthusiastic audience. As the sleepy All Saints Square pigeons nestled into the nooks and niches of Rotherham Minster, peering in through the green and blue tinted skylights of the Spiegeltent, the final chorus of Rolling Home could be heard down the streets of Rotherham on what turned out to be a fine warm summers' evening.

On Wednesday night the second of the 'Local Heroes' concerts devised by Martin Simpson for the Rotherham Open Arts Festival, showcased two sides of the current Martin Simpson phenomenon, that of a solo artist in his own right and that of a band leader at the helm of a stunning new band featuring Andy Cutting on accordion, Andy Seward on double bass and Kellie While providing backing vocals.

The first half was Martin Simpson as we're used to seeing him, full of confidence and musical flair as he alternated between two Stefan Sobell guitars, covering anything from traditional Irish ballads, self-penned originals, Dylan songs and of course The Blues. His version of Blind Willie Johnson's I Just Can't Keep From Crying filled the already atmospheric Spiegeltent with tastefully executed ambient music that immediately silenced the audience. You could hear a pin drop. There's something about the way Martin Simpson applies the neck of a bottle to a newly strung guitar that makes you pay attention.

Because the Spiegeltent stands in the shadow of Rotherham Minster, the choice of A Blacksmith Courted Me, which is basically the self same melody as To Be A Pilgrim, led us all kicking and screaming back to the Sunday School room, although we were soon brought back to reality by Martin's astute confession that he feels he has to abandon God for the simple reason that he doesn't like the way he talks to George W Bush. Amen to that.

It was nice to hear the new arrangement of The Granemore Hare, formerly performed as a solo guitar piece. Now, for his PRODIGAL SON album, Martin brings us both the song as well as the air; two pieces of beauty for the price of one, bargain! Also from the new album, Martin repeated a song from the first 'Local Heroes' concert on Sunday night, Little Musgrave, which has subsequently become much more famous to folk rockers as Matty Groves.

More contemporary choices of borrowed songs came in the form of Dylan's Buckets of Rain, and Lowell George's Long Distance Love. Anyone who covers Little Feat songs remain forever on my Christmas card list. Martin's eclecticism has always been the single most important reason I have revisited his concerts (and recorded work) time and time again. His choices are always intelligent and carefully selected using something that can only be described remarkable taste. It's almost because of this that he can be forgiven for not being a prolific songwriter himself, but then for his RIGHTEOUSNESS AND HUMIDITY album he astonishes us all with Love Never Dies, which he finished the first half of the concert with. Not only does he write a song, but a humdinger of a song to boot. 

"Frost follows clear skies
From the flat lands I come from
But in this Arkansas truck stop
Love never dies"

You cannot help but follow this man's well travelled heels all the way. 

For the second half of the concert, Martin was joined on stage by what is essentially the band he put together to record PRODIGAL SON. Although Alistair Anderson, Barry Phillips, Kate Rusby and Jackson Browne were absent (Jackson Browne? - boy this Scunthorpe lad keeps some good company), the essentials of the band were present. Andy Seward does a remarkable job of filling Danny Thompson's shoes on double bass, and Kellie While and Andy Cutting make up the quartet that first played together at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival, where the album was launched.

Most of the new album came out to play for the second half. Lakes of Champlain, possibly better known as Lakes of Shilin, a Nic Jones classic, Never Any Good, another remarkably good song from Martin's pen, and Duncan & Brady with it's memorable refrain 'Been on the job too long', which had all the bluesmen amongst us tapping our feet. For Andrew Lammie Martin temporarily ditched the Sobell's for a strange 'Weissenbown' slide guitar, which made a perfect partner for Andy Cutting's trademark accordion accompaniment.

Normally I am of the opinion that once a song is recorded by an artist, there it shall stay, a statement made and filed for posterity. However, I was so pleased when Martin re-recorded Randy Newman's Louisiana 1927, which appeared on his very first LP GOLDEN VANITY (my old copy of which he was good enough to sign for me tonight.) Martin told me that he decided to re-record the song for the new album and put it back on his set list for no other reason than to pay homage to the city he loves, New Orleans. It remains one of Martin's most important songs, which is sadly much more poignant now in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. 

One of the highlights of tonight's concert was Martin's duet with Kellie While on Richard Thompson's Strange Affair. Up to this point, I thought Kellie was probably a little too far back in the mix and I was longing to hear her fabulous voice. For Strange Affair it appeared in full swing and probably provided for all intents and purposes, the cherry on top of what turned out to be not just a great gig, but a great festival. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky