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Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival 2008

Beverley Leisure Complex, Beverley
Friday 20 June - Sunday 22 June 2008

To a full festival ticket holder, the Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival offers both comfort and convenience with the thoughtful provision of car parking right next to your tent, hot showers and ample amenities a mere stones throw away, early morning wake up calls courtesy of the Minster bells, which is not a cheer leader troupe but celestial chimes of course, and the centre of a beautiful market town lined with pubs, cafes and shops just a short walk away. 

The festival has grown during its twenty-five year existence but it's still possible to find a decent camping spot and see just about everything on the bill with relative ease. Yes, one or two concerts clash and you have to make that all important decision about which venue you would most like to visit, but Beverley makes this easy by applying logic to their diverse programming. Mike McGoldrick and Buzzcocks for example. By providing such a contrasting Friday evening programme, Beverley managed to please just about everybody. Those who wanted to kick their weekend off with a taste of Celtic music courtesy of Mike McGoldrick and Friends had to take a short walk over to the Memorial Hall, where they would also have been entertained by upcoming Wheeler Street and established songsmith Eleanor McEvoy. Those who had a taste for the louder end of Manchester's music scene congregated en masse for a hot and sweaty shoulder-to-shoulder belter of a night, as the volume grew steadily and climaxed with the much-anticipated Buzzcocks set. Isn't it nice when a festival team doesn't automatically assume that all folkies are musically tunnel-visioned?

Bravely kicking off the festival was Like A Thief's Holly Jazz Lowe, who provided a handful of songs accompanying herself on piano and guitar. She seemed to be relaxed but one guesses she might have been bricking it all the same, as this very contemporary songwriter faced what could have been a traditional folk audience with furrowed brows. Starting with Dilemma Dilemma and culminating in a pretty faithful reading of Gershwin's Summertime, Scarborough based Lowe did a grand job of getting the audience warmed up for the fun and games that followed.

Hull-based band The Favours successfully bridged the sonic gap between Holly's lightness of touch and the Buzzcocks' unbridled rampage that followed. Fronted by the Debbie Harry-esque Sara Sanchez, The Favours provided the festival's Silver Anniversary celebrations with its first taste of rock n roll of the weekend. 

During the short interval between The Favours and Buzzcocks, someone cheekily fiddled with the dial and boosted the volume up to eleven, which soon sorted the Minster's bells out and indeed the wind in the trees. I dare say even Mike McGoldrick's gentler numbers may possibly have been hindered by Steve Diggle's guitar licks as he leaped around the stage whilst a bemused Pete Shelley looked on from centre stage. If there was any confusion on Friday evening as to whether this was a folk festival or not, the half attempted act of crowd surfing probably provided the pinnacle of that doubt.

After the main sets on both stages at the Leisure Complex and the Memorial Hall across town, things began to liven up in the Wold Top Marquee, presided over by Miles Cain, who ushered artists on and off stage at frequent intervals, providing an eclectic mixture of both established names and newcomers alike. Roy Bailey popped along to support the sessions, as did Wheeler Street, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset and many more during the weekend.

There's not much in the way of hanging around too much at this festival as things get off to an early start on Saturday morning with various workshops and special events on offer. I meandered in and out of various venues during the morning starting with the Wold Top Marquee, where Tasmin Little was providing handy tips, hints and guidance to our young budding violinists of the future. As indicated in a recent South Bank Show special, the acclaimed concert violinist is indeed campaigning to bring classical music to the masses, and where better to start than with our youth. 

If scraping the horse's hair over the cat's gut is a bit un-vegan friendly around the festival village, then a lesson in the wonderful art of song writing might easily have been up your street instead. Eleanor McEvoy equipped herself with ghetto blaster and flip chart in order to explain the ins and outs of putting your ditties together with favourable results. Using Dylan, Springsteen and Marshall Bruce Mathers III of all people as examples, to name but a few, Eleanor attempted to simplify the various forms of song writing technique and enlightened her audience of budding song writers on how to break the rules 'as long as you know why you are breaking them'.

My final workshop of the morning was over in one of the two Priory rooms, adjacent to the Minster, where Zak Borden was going through the rudiments of bluegrass mandolin. With the help of his partner Rachel Harrington, Zak demonstrated how just eight short strings helped to change the course of country folk music and subsequently opened the doors to clever pickers worldwide, courtesy of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack.

The Hut People are the unusual combination of Sam Pirt on accordion and Gary Hammond on various assorted percussion including pots and pans from the scullery. In a broad Johnny Vegas-esque brogue, Sam Pirt delighted the audience with everything from jigs, reels and schottisches to French Canadian romper stompers.

Over at the Memorial Hall, Eleanor McEvoy was headlining an afternoon concert under the banner of 'From the West of the Pennines', where each of the acts were indeed from that side of the world with varying degrees of distance. Bernard Wrigley probably felt comfortably at home (being a Bolton boy), McEvoy from slightly further over the rainy moors and an entire Irish sea and then there's Oregon based Rachel Harrington and Zak Borden feeling positively homesick. Rachel's much anticipated set coincided with the delivery of her second album CITY OF REFUGE fresh from the press, which was made available to buy at the festival, a couple of months prior to it's general release.

Headlining the Saturday afternoon Main Stage concert was the ever-delightful Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Performing lots of goodies from their much admired second album THE BAIRNS as well as On A Monday Morning from their first offering and opening with the traditional Sandgate Dandling Song. Their first appearance of the weekend culminated in the exquisite Unst Boat Song, the only song that could possibly follow their regular finisher Fareweel Regality.

After their recent tour took them half way around the world with various appearances at festivals and clubs both folk and non-folk related, the quartet have now settled into some tight arrangements and their experience is showing in the clarity of their harmony singing and general performance. Becky Unthank's sublime reading of Robert Wyatt's Sea Song was once again a high point of their set. 

Saturday evening saw the 25th Anniversary Concert kick off in style with the ever-tight Chumbawamba, making a welcome return to the festival and opening with Jacob's Ladder with its timeless nod to those who went before. They manage to dominate the stage with their presence, all of which helps to kick their message home with no trace of ambiguity. Their ironic take on the modern world with references to Ebay and social networking websites, makes us stop to ponder upon the banality of modern life.

Martin Simpson is no stranger to Beverley Folk Festival. The teaming up with BBC Folk Award Musician of the Year Andy Cutting was no accident. Festival organiser Chris Wade had more than a hand in it by suggesting that Simpson choose a musician to tour with, a musician whom he had not previously worked with and 'the more unlikely the better.' The pairing has proved to be astonishingly successful and some of the magic of that relationship came across on Saturday evening. 

In a smoky atmosphere, caused by a steadily bellowing smoke machine rather than the now outlawed demon ciggies, Simpson emerged triumphantly to present much of his PRODIGAL SON set with Andy Cutting by his side. Unfortunately Simpson fell victim to stage gadgetry, not by emerging Cliff Richard-like through a vista of smoke, but by having the Leisure Complex fire alarm add it's metronomic chimes to the coda of Never Any Good, which should've been the high point of the set. Simpson may have been irritated by the unfortunate climax, but the audience loved it nevertheless. 

To all intents and purposes, there was hardly another act who could've celebrated the 25th Anniversary Concert more aptly than the family band known as The Watersons who were there at the very first festival. Under the guise of Waterson:Carthy with Mike Waterson, we were really witnessing The Watersons, with Eliza making up for the absence of Lally, and anyone with a pair of ears noted instantly that the voice of their youngest member has matured so much as to blend in perfectly well with mum Norma, Uncle Mike and dad Martin Carthy, which in turn brought back to life the wall of sound that was created in the Sixties. Beverley's Silver Anniversary would have been incomplete without this family to help revive everything that was good and honest about the Folk Revival.

Beverley was buzzing with activity around town during Sunday lunchtime. Whilst dance teams drenched the market square with colour and vibrancy and Rachel Harrington provided advice and inspiration to young songwriters over at the Priory, the other Rachel of the Unthank variety was conducting a Q&A in the Club Room over in the Leisure Complex, where the room had filled with festival goers curious to know a little more about the Northumbrian siblings and their Southern chums. They answered questions candidly and succinctly and performed requests at the drop of a hat. 

Although Waterson:Carthy returned to the Main Stage for their second set of the weekend during which they performed probably the highlight of the festival so far with Lal Waterson's Some Old Salty, Sunday really belonged to four musicians who have worked extensively in various guises over the years, appearing in such outfits as Fairport Convention, Hedgehog Pie and Dando Shaft as well as with the likes of Bert Jansch, to name but a few. It was in the guise of Whippersnapper that these musicians gelled and excelled and subsequently became one of the tightest acoustic combos in folk music history. 

Whippersnapper made two outstanding appearances at the festival, during the afternoon on the Main Stage and later in the evening just after a surprise appearance by Zimbabwe's Black Umfolosi, who made a welcome return to Beverley. I had personally given up any hope of seeing the original line up of Whippersnapper ever again after Swarb left the band in the Nineties. A certain obituary in the telegraph made it almost a certainty that this quartet would go down in the annals of folk history as a footnote of good memories. Major surgery and fixed differences as well as a miraculous resurrection from the dead, with no small measure of determination from the organisers of this festival, saw the re-emergence of Whippersnapper in all it's former glory. I was almost ready to comment predictably on how the ensuing time span has manifested itself in chronic hair loss but in the case of Chris Leslie, the years have apparently been favourable with his Rapunzel-like locks.

Much of the repertoire has been preserved in a handful of albums, but it is in their live performance where Whippersnapper excel. No one musician takes the lead, rather they divvy out the songs democratically and each takes his turn to allow the focus to be turned on them. Dempsey brings a plaintive air to beautiful songs such as The Maid of Coolmore, Pride of Kildare and Sandy Denny's astonishingly beautiful One Way Donkey Ride; whilst Jenkins provides a much more contemporary feel to Romanitza and Downtown Rodeo. Leslie and Swarb come into their own not so much as singers but as consummate musicians with a pair of fiddles that were just made to play together like veritable siblings. Their two sets were completely different save for a repeat of No More as a final encore, which may suggest they were trying to tell us something. I hope not, but we'll have to wait and see.

So called 'novelty' acts can only really survive with folk audiences if they combine tasteful humour with astonishing musical virtuosity. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain excel equally in both areas and performed a superb closing set on Sunday night. Nothing is safe from their virtuoso lampooning, whether it be the soul of Otis Redding's Too Hard to Handle, the wild and windy warbling of Kate Bush's Wuthering Heights or the king of the four stringed plank himself George Formby, whose Leaning on a Lamp Post is given an itinerant Klezmorim sort of treatment, all important ingredients to help bring this delightful little festival to a successful climax.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky