You are here

Derby Folk Festival

I arrived in the city on a bright and cheerful Friday afternoon and immediately set myself the task of familiarising myself with the location and in particular the Cathedral Quarter, which would serve as the hub of the festival for the rest of the weekend. The market square provided ample space for a festival fringe, including a variety of stalls and dance displays, together with a small music marquee for some of the lesser known or up-and-coming musicians to perform. The imposing Assembly Rooms, home to 'Derby Live', would serve as the main venue for the bulk of the concerts, with one or two events held in the old Guildhall across the way.
The opening concert in the Great Hall was dedicated exclusively to young musicians as festival co-organiser Mick Peat dutifully handed over the microphone to two of the festival's young supporters, pointing out that the job of introducing Friday's Folk Rising concert really should be in the care of young people to match. That job was promptly given to radio presenter and occasional Northern Sky reporter Sam Hindley and the South Yorkshire singer Kirsty Bromley, who between them introduced the first couple of acts of the festival.
Canterbury singer/songwriter and Horizon Award nominee Luke Jackson was first up, delivering a confident performance, with a set of self-penned songs including Whiskey and Women, Luke's homage to the Blues, which references both Muddy Waters and Son House. With a set chiefly made up of songs from his debut album More Than Boys, Luke also showcased a couple of new songs from his yet to be released follow up album, including Charlie and the Big One, setting the bar high for the rest of the night.
Also nominated in the prestigious Horizon category of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards, was Maz O'Connor who, accompanied by Jack Rutter on guitar, treated the audience to some fine arrangements of both traditional and contemporary songs, augmented by some of Jack's brilliantly groan-worthy jokes. Whilst the Great Hall filled with some fine music by these two young performers, the Darwin room played host to a traditional Friday night ceilidh, presided over by the Derbyshire Volunteers, who soon attracted a full dance floor.
Making one of their last appearances for a while, Hannah James and Sam Sweeney took to the stage in the Great Hall. The two musicians actually first met here in the Assembly Rooms a few years ago and almost considered the concert as a sort of home coming. The duo played a relaxed set, effectively opening the main evening concert. Having played together as part of the young band Kerfuffle as well as being an acclaimed duo in their own right, Hannah and Sam announced that they would be taking an immediate break from playing together after the show to concentrate on other projects but promised to return for a handful of shows in the Spring.
Headlining Friday night's concert was the North East family band The Mighty Doonans led by Mick Doonan, stalwart of the British folk music scene. More than just a fun band, the family and friends outfit endeavoured to let their hair down whilst at the same time exploring their Irish and North East roots with a set of well known and hugely enjoyable club favourites such as Step It Out Mary, Sally Free and Easy and The Rambling Siuler.
On Saturday morning, whilst the market square came alive with music and dance, the Darwin room hosted a midday concert featuring three popular duos; Richard and Jess Arrowsmith, Winter Wilson and Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, all of whom were in fine voice, perfect for a Saturday lunchtime. At the same time, the Great Hall prepared for one of the highlights of the festival, as John Tams and friends set out to revisit a vintage LP from the early 1970s. 
The Derbyshire Volunteers joined John Tams on stage to perform the entire Muckrum Wakes LP A Map of Derbyshire, which was originally released in 1973. Forty years has done little to soften the power of these songs. A relaxed ensemble filled the Great Hall stage whilst a handful of singers and musicians took it in turn to take the spotlight, including and Helen Hockenhull, who as Helen Watson appeared on the original recording, as well as Derby's own Lucy Ward. 
Festival patron John Tams sat at the side of the stage introducing each of the performances clutching a copy of the original LP in his hands, whilst reminiscing about the recording and the circumstances surrounding that particular period. The concert provided something memorable for the players and the audience alike and once again demonstrated precisely what these songs meant to the people of Derbyshire back then and continue to mean to the people now.
At the same time over in the Darwin room, husband and wife team Winter Wilson made their first visit to the stage of the weekend, Kip sporting the reddest of red dresses, whilst Dave Wilson toned it down a little. The duo showcased some of the songs from their brand new album Cutting Free. Finally one of the most accomplished of duos, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan provided the climax to the concert, with a fine set of songs and tunes from around the world.
The Great Hall played host to another concert during the afternoon, this time featuring two trios, firstly the Teesside vocal group The Young'uns, who once again delivered an entertaining set of songs, followed by popular folk trio Tyde. 
Tyde were actually a replacement for Mawkin who couldn't make the festival. The trio consisting of Andrew Waite on accordion, Heather Gessey on fiddle and Seth Tinsley on guitar, were joined by Pete Thomas on double bass. Towards the end of their set, nine teenagers joined the band for an impromptu Macarena on the dance floor before them.
The afternoon concert in the Darwin room saw performances by York-based duo Union Jill, who are now getting the recognition they deserve after the release of their critically acclaimed album Respectable Rebellion, together with an appearance by performance poet Les Barker, followed by the first of two eagerly anticipated sets from the Canadian singer, fiddle player and step dancer April Verch along with her trio, who would later captivate the audience in the packed Great Hall. 
Stalwart of the Irish music scene Andy Irvine appeared early on Saturday evening for a relaxed set of songs preceded by a short interview with Lester Simpson. Surrounded by an array of eight-stringed mandolin derived instruments and a handful of harmonicas, the revered singer and musician revisited some of the songs he is most associated with such as Rambling Boys of Pleasure, The Blacksmith and the sublime Kellswater from his Planxty days.
Opening the evening concert, the April Verch Trio dazzled an unexpecting audience with a showcase of old time American music and dance. A skilled fiddle player, April also demonstrated some of the niftiest footwork of the weekend, with some highly skilled and thoroughly entertaining step dance routines. April was joined by Hayes Griffin on guitar and mandolin and Cody Walters on clawhammer banjo and bass with both helping out on vocals, providing some of the most delicious harmonies of the weekend.
The Melrose Quartet had the unenviable task of 'following that' but did so anyway. The quartet, which is made up of two couples Nancy Kerr and James Fagan and Richard and Jess Arrowsmith, who apparently live on the same Sheffield street and all of whom have already provided their own individual duo sets over the weekend, combined forces to bring their own distinctive sound to the festival. Between the sets, one or two dance sides demonstrated their routines in front of the stage in the Great Hall, providing entertaining interludes whilst the next act prepared.
The headlining band for Saturday night was the popular Irish outfit Dervish who brought to the festival their own brand of Irish Celtic music. So taken was the band by April Verch's dance steps, that band leader Cathy Jordan invited her back up onstage to dance with the band, providing an excellent climax to their set.
A blanket of sunshine covered the market square on Sunday morning as the stalls re-opened and the Cathedral bells rang out, almost certainly waking the majority of the festival goers who were staying at the nearby Jury's Inn. With one more full day of music ahead, the festival made a steady start, with dancers congregating on the market square.  
Inside the main venue, Lester Simpson led the Sunday Sing with several people gathering next to the Darwin ready to flex their tonsils. Over in the Great Hall, Bob Rushton introduced the afternoon concert, which opened with Winter Wilson, after which singer Kip Winter was presented with a huge cake for her birthday. It was a busy weekend for Dave and Kip who not only played their two concerts but also ran the open mic sessions in the foyer.
Cupola:Ward followed swiftly with a tight set of songs and tunes, featuring some blissfully cohesive four-part harmonies. With an array of musical instrumentation including fiddle, ukulele, melodeon, percussion, guitar and woodwind, the band performed songs so diverse as to include The Beatles' Nowhere Man and even Brittney Spears' Baby One More Time, together with some of their own compositions, traditional and contemporary songs, notably their rendition of Dave Sudbury's timeless King of Rome.
Whilst Brian Peters and Jeff Davis presented their specially illustrated concert 'Sharp's Appalachian Harvest' in the Darwin room, the main stage audience were busy shuffling their feet as they waited for Vin Garbutt to arrive. Unfortunately the charismatic Teesside singer was late due to some confusion over the schedule and therefore had to cut his afternoon set short. With the remaining 45 minutes, Vin provided a quality set of half a dozen songs, together with some of his inimitable between-song chat. Apologising for being late, Vin offered (as compensation) to stand in the foyer in his underpants for anyone who felt inclined, to take brass rubbings.
Derby Folk Festival takes pride in the diversity of music it provides and endeavours to bring to the festival a good range of styles. Rhiannon Giddens and Leyla McCalla of the Carolina Chocolate Drops brought a taste of the Deep South to Derby. With Leila's Haitian roots, along with her more recent Louisiana influences, together with Rhiannon's grounding the Piedmont folk blues styles, the duo took the festival on yet another tangent, delivering a highly engaging set of songs from around the world.
One of the most outstanding musicians on the music scene at the moment is Tim Edey, who appeared on the Darwin stage on Sunday evening, providing the festival's penultimate performance. Keith Kendrick and Sylvia Needham joined Tim during his set after appearing earlier on the bill of the same concert. Tim has a penchant for dazzling his audiences with his dextrous guitar playing and then does the same with the melodeon. The climax of Tim's set this year was an astonishing version of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra's Music for a Found Harmonium played solo on guitar, which Tim played with apparent ease.
Tim Edey is a tough act to follow and therefore it was only right to get a band of Lau's stature for this year's finale concert on Sunday night. As one of the British folk scene's most consistently inventive trios, Lau filled the Great Hall with sound as Kris Drever, Aidan O'Rourke and Martin Green brought the house down with there complex rhythms and highly imaginative arrangements. Lau's distinctly original progressive chamber folk combined with Martin Green's highly charged accordion pyrotechnics makes for an exciting sonic experience and that's precisely what the Derby audience got as a conclusion to this year's festival.
As an added bonus, many of the festival singers congregated out in the foyer for the final song of the festival, Rolling Home, which served as a farewell to those who had come along for the weekend and which was the perfect tune to accompany me home as I headed back up the M1 on a calm and mild Autumn evening. I was impressed with Derby and shall return next year for sure.
Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky