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The Great British Folk Festival 2012
The cheerful banter usually starts with the compere uttering the well-worn catchphrase 'Hi-De-Hi', to which the audience is supposed to respond with the equally cheerful 'Ho-De-Ho'. It doesn't often work out as planned as the exclusively adult audience doesn't necessarily need to be reminded that this is one of those holiday resorts normally frequented by children during the summer period, where red is the predominant colour and fun is the predominant aim and grown-ups line up on stage to exhibit their spectacularly knobbly knees, whilst young women risk potential embarrassment as they vie for the coveted Miss Butlins title, wearing nowt but a swimsuit and a sash. The attendant audience during the folk weekend is more likely to draw a comparison between the Butlins holiday resort and the concentration camps of 1940s war-torn Europe, with rows upon rows of tiny huts enclosed within a high fence as uniformed 'guards' wander around to keep an eye on things. This of course is not the case; it's just a bit of banter, although during this chilly winter season Butlins is in fact undergoing some major out-of-season demolition and construction work and the camp does appear to offer a bleak vista of destruction and doom, the site in some places being fenced off to the festival going public in order to avoid injury. Renovation work can be expected at this time of year as all the outdoor attractions are mostly closed and no one in their right mind would want to venture out in the cold other than to get from one place to another as quickly as possible. It certainly is cold on the east coast in December.
Inside though, it's an entirely different story. These days the four remaining Butlins holiday villages endeavour to move away from the standard Butlins summer format, the 'fun for all the family' aspect, in order to provide a handful of hugely enjoyable themed festivals, each going under the 'Great British' banner. Whether it be Rock and Blues, Country and Western, Jazz or Alternative music, the festivals have been a roaring success over the years and now the Great British Folk Festival reaches its third successful year and is gathering momentum with each successive season.
Upon arriving at the resort after a pleasant journey through the Lincolnshire Wolds, we find evidence of improvement such as the 'drive-in-check-in' facility over by the 'gold apartments, where those residing in the luxury apartments for the weekend don't even have to get out of their cars to pick up their chalet keys; they have them handed to them as they drive through. One suspects the obliging staff would even help you with your bags if you were to ask them nicely. The other notable change this year was the additional programme of afternoon concerts on both Saturday and Sunday on the Reds stage. Suggestions of potential improvements are always welcome but it has to be said that one or two have been slightly delayed, such as the much needed trim down of time between acts, which on one or two occasions this weekend stretched to around an hour. This is not a major grumble however, as during these intermissions we can always go to the bar or even dare I suggest, socialise with the people on the next table. It really isn't the end of the world if one act doesn't segue seamlessly into the next.
Friday night's simultaneous concerts on both the Centre Stage and Reds Stage got off to a gentle start with an opening set by Suzie Ungerleider, otherwise known as Oh Susanna, who performed a fine set of self-penned songs from a fifteen-year career in song writing. Suzie, who holds both American and Canadian citizenship, performed her music with a clear and faithful adherence to Country, folk and Americana despite admitting from the stage that she learned everything she knows from Mick Jagger. Whilst Fake Thakray opened proceedings on the Centre Stage next door, the other performers on Friday night included the Irish favourites The Fureys and Davey Arthur, the local band Pie, whose guitar player appeared at various stages of the performance to be playing a sewing machine and closing the Reds Stage on Friday night was the Manchester-based Travelling Band.
Friday's headliner act on the Centre Stage was Hugh Crabtree's Feast of Fiddles, featuring Steeleye Span's Peter Knight, just one of four fiddle players occupying the current line-up, which also occasionally includes Fairport Convention's Chris Leslie and drummer Dave Mattacks, together with Scots fiddle maestro Brian McNeill. The band's performance included a mixture of traditional fiddle tunes and contemporary pop and rock songs, a far cry from your usual standard issue fiddle combo.
Even a seasoned festival goer would admit the accommodation at this festival is infinitely more comfortable than a tent in a field at any gathering on the folk festival calendar. Breakfast in any of the dining areas beats crouching over a calor gas stove anyday and a bathroom with hot running water is an utter luxury compared with a cold water sponge down. After a good night's rest, Saturday's music started with an informal performance by the three-piece Panjenix, who entertained those sat around the cafe area in the Skyline Pavilion, busily digesting their hearty breakfasts over coffee before the concerts started on both main stages. Those afternoon concerts got underway with a fine and mellow performance by singer-songwriter and former Waking the Witch member Patsy Matheson, sporting a new dress and matching hair and featuring some of the songs from her most recent record Stories of Angels and Guitars. During her gentle performance Patsy invited the entire audience over to my apartment at midnight for a party. Nice one Pats.
Deborah Bonham may be following in her brother's giant footsteps on the British rock scene with a band that could rock any house at any time. For her second appearance at the Great British Folk Festival in three years, the soulful singer returned to stripped down basics as she performed the enchanting Battle of Evermore in a set that also included her latest single Take Me Down.
World Music is one of the areas Butlins has not yet seriously investigated, so on Saturday afternoon East met up with West as London-based fusion band Moonshee mixed English and Irish balladry with Indian classical music, expertly presented by Jonathan Mayer on sitar and Mitel Purohit on tabla, during a set that was received with the respect the music thoroughly deserved. Other Saturday afternoon performances included Shinjig, Babajack and the Billy Mitchell Band.
Saturday evening provided the first problem in terms of decision making, was it going to be Thea Gilmore or June Tabor? Both stages provided plenty of choice throughout the evening with Blue Swamp kicking off the Centre Stage concert with a bluesy back porch set, whilst Fay Hield and the Hurricane party took to the Reds Stage. By Fay's own admission, the catalogue of folk songs in her canon were always intended to be sung in pubs but with a stella cast of support musicians including Rob Harbron, Sam Sweeney, hubby Jon Boden and Roger Wilson, the former Witch of Eastwick and Sheffield-based singer's debut at the festival met with a favourable welcome.
Over on the Centre Stage, singer-songwriter Thea Gilmore once again provided an engaging set featuring some of her best known songs. Joined by husband Nigel Stonier together with a touching cameo appearance by their son Egan on fiddle, Thea demonstrated her undisputed credentials as a class act, which was difficult to follow.
Fans of folk music are continually troubled by the question of what is and what is not folk music. The argument is resurrected time and time again and because of this, it begs the question 'does anyone really know?' This reviewer doesn't really want to know if it means continual interrogations of why was this, that or the other act booked for the folk festival this year? 'Why are The Animals here?' was one question raised for instance. As I recall the 1960s band's biggest hit House of the Rising Sun, a number one on both sides of the pond, was a traditional folk song. One could argue then why would a band singing a Joy Division song be invited? Because it's June Tabor and Oysterband of course. One of this country's finest folk singers joining forces with one of the country's finest folk bands, who between them, provided the weekend with one of its most memorable performances.
The roaring success of this years' festival was an appearance by Matt Gordon and Leonard Podolak, whose fun-filled Appalachian set captured the essence of what this music is all about, which included fiddle and 5-string clawhammer banjo dance tunes, step dancing routines and a quick lesson in the energetic art of hamboning (the rhythmic slapping of one's bodyparts). Touring in support of Show of Hands, the duo engaged with the audience from the start and soon had them in the palm of their hands.
Show of Hands attracted one of the largest crowds of the weekend, completing their current Wake the Union tour, with Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes, giving the audience what they wanted. Although the award winning outfit scored high on the attendance rate, the Reds Stage attracted a smaller audience but an audience that wanted to have fun. The band who attracted this attention was Merry Hell, who soon had them dancing in the aisles. It's difficult to stray too far from a Show of Hands set but those who did would have been more than happy with the alternative.
Sunday afternoon saw a delightful opening set by Oldham's Steel Threads, a trio now including Mansfield fiddler Laura Wilcockson, who brought their own brand of folk rock to the festival. The audience soon warmed to the trio, who performed songs from their debut album Timing is Everything as well as a couple of well-chosen covers, Dylan's All Along the Watchtower, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and finishing with Steppenwolf's Born to Be Wild.
Hunter Musket's return to the Great British Folk Festival, having played at the inaugural festival in 2010, was plagued by sound problems sadly. The band that was originally formed in the late 1960s soldiered on throughout the set and was joined towards the end by the legendary Jerry Donoghue and Lindisfarne's Ray Jackson, both later to be seen with Doug Morter in The Gathering.
The radient Heidi Talbot was surrounded by some of the finest musician on the British folk scene, including husband John McCusker on fiddle, Andy Cutting on melodeon and Boo Hewerdine and Ian Carr sharing guitar duties. The set was not only well received but also well placed in the programme; a fine conclusion to an excellent afternoon of music. Other performers during Sunday afternoon included The Animals and Friends, Jiggerypipery and Gigspanner featuring some fine fiddle playing by Peter Knight.
After a full weekend of running between stages in an attempt to see a little of everything, the Centre Stage provided a full and irresistable programme for Sunday night. String Driven Thing, featuring founder member Chris Adams and violinist Graham Smith, provided some unashamed nostalgia as they selected songs from their back catalogue, which stretches right back to the late 1960s including Circus, Night Club and Sold Down the River.
Also stretching back to the early 1970s, Ashley Hutchings resurrected some of the highlights from his seminal 1972 LP Morris On with a little help from Simon Care, Gavin Davenport, Tom Wright and Guy Fletcher, filling the boots of John Kirkpatrick, Barry Dransfield, Richard Thompson and Dave Mattacks respectively, with Tom Wright providing one of the most spectacular tumbles in the history of the Morris. Brushing himself down, the charismatic drummer/guitarist continued to the end of the set without further incident.
The finale to this year's Great British Folk Festival was a wise choice as The Albion Band reached the end of their current tour and a very successful year. The performance was crowned by a guest appearance by the man who started it all in the first place as Ashley Hutchings joined his son for the climax of the performance. There was a sense of it all coming around full circle for this particular band and Skeggy Butlins seemed for all intents and purposes the ideal place to stage it. Other artists appearing on Sunday night included Gordon Giltrap, King Arthur's Dream and The Gathering. With three events now in the Great British Folk Festival can take its rightful place on the folk festival calendar in earnest.