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Underneath the Stars Festival 2016
If the powers that be were to produce a questionnaire indicating each of the essential factors that go towards making a successful festival, a festival event that would please both the organisers and the site owners, the artists and the stall holders, the staff and the volunteers, the all-important paying public - both adults and children alike - and possibly even the locals who live in the nearby villages, then Underneath the Stars is likely to tick all the right boxes. Under normal circumstances, this would probably be seen as a sweeping statement; some festivals that have been 'at it' for several decades are still learning how to get it right. What's really astonishing in the case of Underneath the Stars, is that they seem to tick all the right boxes having been at it for just three years.
The third Underneath the Stars festival took place once again at Cannon Hall Farm in Cawthorne, a picturesque village just outside Barnsley, over one of the finest weekends of the year so far. The weather was so kind in fact, that it only drizzled for a brief moment or two on Sunday afternoon just so it could present us with the arc of a rainbow, encompassing the entire site, otherwise it was hat weather for pretty much the entire weekend.
Cannon Hall Farm is a local attraction in its own right, which has been open to the public since 1989. In partnership with the farm owners, the Nicholson family, local lass Kate Rusby and her own family production team have united to create a perfect location for this festival, which now attracts a healthy and faithful annual attendance.
From the moment you climb the winding country lane along New Road and onto the festival site, passing the Hollywood-styled white letters that boldly spell out 'Underneath the Stars', you sense that something magical is about to happen. Indeed Rachel Baiman of the Nashville-based duo 10 String Symphony confessed from the main stage during the duo's Sunday afternoon set "we had no idea we were coming to Wonderland", which is more or less what I thought upon my arrival on Friday morning, making my first visit to the festival. One of the other things that you notice upon arrival is that you are greeted not by stewards exactly, each with their yellow hi-vis jackets looking like traffic wardens ready to give you a ticket for parking your tent incorrectly, but instead by cheerful smiling volunteers in purple T shirts with the highly welcoming 'Star Helper' emblazoned across the front. Could we possibly be made to feel more at home?
It doesn't take very long to settle into the swing of things at this festival; local volunteers serve local coffee and cakes, while the kids find a whole bunch of stuff to do in their own dedicated area, which it has to be said is a fairly substantial portion of the festival site. Children are not a second thought at Underneath the Stars, they are very much part of the festival and indeed great measures are taken to ensure they have as much of a good time as their grown-ups. Throughout the weekend there are regular stories delivered by enthusiastic storytellers, either in the open air or inside a darkened caravan decorated with pages from books. Then there are various craft activities and fun things to do throughout the weekend to ensure the kids don't get bored. If the festival appeared like Wonderland to Rachel Baiman and myself, then to the kids it probably is indeed Wonderland.
For those who came along to the festival to see their favourite singers, musicians and bands, Underneath the Stars provided a most excellent and varied programme of music over two main stages; the seated Planets Stage and the non-seated Little Lights Stage, with acts alternating between the two allowing for ten minutes in between, just enough time to grab a beer, a bite to eat and bit of fresh air before the next act appeared on the neighbouring stage, all sound-checked and ready to go. Another stage for young emerging artists could be found a short walk from the two main stages, which featured bands, soloists and DJs aimed at a younger audience.
With Andy Atkinson and Leila Cooper sharing compere duties, the music began on Friday afternoon with The Hut People, who effectively opened the festival with some of their own unique and highly percussive sounds. Blair Dunlop opened the Planets Stage shortly afterwards with an assured performance, presenting a selection of songs both new and not so new, whilst singer-songwriter Fabian Holland prepared for his solo set next door.
There's a sense of the proverbial Tardis when you first enter the Planets Stage marquee, it just seems so much bigger inside than the exterior lets on. Fully seated, the size of the venue at first seemed to tower majestically over the head of little Olivia Chaney, an extraordinary singer-songwriter whose voice and mature songs soon reversed that balance, with Olivia dominating the stage with a superb set that featured such songs as Swimming in the Longest River, The King's Horses and topped by a most exquisite reading of Joni Mitchell's A Case of You.
If Olivia Chaney arrived at the festival after a long train journey, followed by a short car ride, then local duo Gilmore and Roberts could possibly have walked to the festival had they not been weighed down by their instruments. A home festival appearance then for this popular duo, who this year celebrate their tenth anniversary as a joined-at-the-hip duo. Having successfully spread their wings over those ten years, the duo are now just as popular nationally as they are locally and Friday evening's concert seemed a bit like a homecoming with the duo performing some of their best known songs.
If Michael McGoldrick and Friends brought a touch of class to the Planets Stage, with some fine arrangements of traditional tunes, Holy Moly and the Crackers transformed the Little Lights Stage into the Moulin Rouge for an hour with the charismatic Ruth Patterson and Conrad Bird at the helm. The seven-piece North-East based band was very much on form as the audience was encouraged to join the party, with everyone on their feet dancing the night away.
The night however was still very young by the time Vieux Farka Touré stepped out onto the Planets Stage delivering a taste of his own particular Malian blues. Known as the 'Hendrix of the Sahara', the singer-guitarist, together with his trio, communicated with the audience in the best way possible, through their infectious music.
Nothing could have prepared the Underneath the Stars audience for the climax on Friday night as Leeds-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Gary Stewart presented his tribute to Paul Simon's ground-breaking 1986 album Graceland. The performance was as uplifting as the album itself, with his band faithfully recreating the South African township jive rhythms of I Know What I Know, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes and the title song, along with a stunning Under African Skies and a crowd pleasing You Can Call Me Al. A festival high point that effectively raised the bar musically for the rest of the weekend.
On Saturday, the sleepy site soon awoke to the beating of African drums as children congregated under the Make the Light marquee for an early morning drumming workshop. The first morning coffee beckoned from the adjacent cafe as the fifteen-strong Grand Old Uke of York entertained in the spirit of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain with a selection of multi-generational rock and pop songs including Born To Be Wild, It Must Be Love and Teenage Kicks, together with the obligatory Beatles and Abba mash-ups. Meanwhile the powerful voice of Beccy Owen, singer with from the four-piece band Joy Atlas flittered over the festival site during the band's morning sound check and then again during the band's midday main stage performance. Beccy would also be seen conducting an engaging singing workshop later in the afternoon, reminiscent of a certain nun spinning over the meadows in a popular Sixties musical.
For a more intellectually challenging act, the afternoon saw Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers perform such fine ditties as I've Got My Finger Up My Nose, whilst the former New (and Old for that matter) Rope String Band frontman Tim Dalling stepped out onto the Planets Stage flanked by guitarist Ian Carr and Tim's daughter Rhona, a singer-songwriter in her own right, along with bassist Neil Harland, to demonstrate a rather different side to the popular musician than we are used to.
There was a good deal of anticipation prior to the appearance of Union Station's Ron Block, together with mandolin protégé Sierra Hull, who between them startled the audience with some of the finest musicianship of the weekend. Later in the afternoon, fiddle player Duncan Chisholm would do something similar albeit in an entirely different musical setting, surrounded by five brilliant musicians.
After Rory McLeod's engaging set in the Little Lights marquee, the festival's first lady appeared on the main stage for a fine set of songs that were either old, new, borrowed or notably blue, as in the encore song for which the entire band appeared on stage in blue super hero capes and masks for a performance of Big Brave Bill, a song written especially for the occasion about a local hero who likes a drop of Yorkshire Tea, as does the singer herself. Relaxed, playful and utterly at home on the green pastures of Cannon Hall Farm, Kate Rusby, herself never too far from a mug of tea, invited Ron Block onstage, who stayed there pretty much for the duration of a most engaging set, which also featured such songs as The Elfin Knight, The Ardent Shepherdess and the audience favourite Awkward Annie, complete with both strings and brass sections.
Sunday awoke to the sound of drums once again over in the Make the Light marquee, a rude awakening for those who enjoyed a late night after concluding sets by both Dervish and Bye Beneco on the Planets Stage and Little Lights Stage respectively. The concerts began on Sunday with the gentle sound of Pembrokshire-based singer-songwriter Lowri Evans, whose songs eased in the day with a little less volume than the drums whilst Nashville-based duo Rachel Haiman and Christian Sedelmyer, otherwise known as 10 String Symphony, named after the number of strings in total on their two fiddles, or for that matter the fiddle and the banjo, greeted in Sunday afternoon with a set of Old Time Bluegrass songs. Standing closely together, huddled around a single mic, the intimacy of their highly rhythmic and syncopated music was evident from the start.
After a solo act, then a duo, it seemed only numerically logical to proceed next with a trio, and an award-winning trio at that. Talisk have become a much more confident and dextrous trio since many of us first became aware of them at the 2015 BBC Folk Awards, where they picked up the gong in the Young Folk Award category. On Sunday afternoon, the three musicians mesmerised the audience with some of their most complex arrangements on fiddle, guitar and concertina.
Whilst we're still counting, let's add another musician to make the four-piece version of Blue Rose Code, the vehicle fronted by Edinburgh-born Ross Wilson, who touched upon the sort of soulful folk music once produced by John Martyn, before, yes you guessed it, the five-piece Curtis Eller and his American Circus arrived onstage next door, providing a spectacle that the festival is not likely to forget in a hurry. What Curtis Eller does is hard to explain but easy to understand; it's Buster Keaton in style, burlesque in delivery and thoroughly entertaining to anyone who actually gets it, especially in a marquee that has easy to climb poles. Joined by the latest incarnation of the American Circus, the Detroit-born banjo-weilding yodeller romped through a set of crowd-pleasing numbers such as Taking on Serpents Again, Old Time Religion and Sugar in My Coffin whilst flying through the air at regular intervals.
For the slightly less animated Damien O'Kane's Sunday night set, the entire O'Kane family gathered in front of the stage to see their boy do good. Joined by his own band, the husband of the festival's first lady must have been proud to have Kate join him on stage to help sing on one of his established songs Summerhill with daughter Phoebe by their side. The marquee was packed solid as the band performed songs from Damien's critically acclaimed album Areas of High Traffic, including such songs as 'Til Next Market Day, The Maid of Seventeen and Erin's Lovely Home.
As twilight descended upon Sunday night, the Planets Stage prepared for one final spectacular which came in the form of the Demon Barbers XL show, which as always incorporated traditional folk song with traditional and contemporary dance. With singer, guitarist and concertina player Damien Barber at the helm, who also acts as MC throughout the band's spectacular show, the Demon Barbers XL glide through a seamlessly choreographed show that celebrates the relationship between song and dance like no other.
With so much going on over the three days, it's possible to see most things but impossible to see it all and there were one or two acts I caught just the briefest glimpse of such as King Zepha, Kezia, Dancing Years, Jim Evans, West of Eden, Declan O'Rourke and Tantz, not to mention a host of acts over on the Make the Light stage, but what I did manage to catch and pay attention to made for some of the finest performances I've seen in quite a long time. Strangely, as I did some final hugs and handshakes and left the festival site on Sunday night, which I traditionally accompany with the sound of a newly acquired CD by one of the festival acts, blasting out of my car stereo, I reached over instead and inserted into the player Paul Simon's Graceland album and left Barnsley to the sound of Boy in the Bubble, which in a way formed the soundtrack of the festival for me personally. The very last thing I did before the day was done was to pop next year's dates in the diary.
Words: Allan Wilkinson
Pictures: Phil Carter, Bryan Ledgard and Allan Wilkinson