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Great British Folk Festival 2014 - Friday

Once again the original Butlins holiday resort in Skegness on England's East Lincolnshire coast plays host to the Great British Folk Festival, now celebrating its fifth successful year with a varied programme of folk music, folk related music and 'not really folk at all but who really cares?' music. In just five years the annual December event has built up a strong and stable following by providing great facilities, warm chalets, good food and drink and most importantly an impressive programme of top quality acts. If your memory of those last five years conjures up looming question marks surrounding what is and what isn't 'folk', then a quick reminder of who's played so far will confirm the festival’s credentials as an important feature on the folk music calendar: Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Albion Band, The Fureys, June Tabor and Oysterband, Kate Rusby, Show of Hands, Ralph McTell, Cara Dillon, Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party, Emily Smith, Heidi Talbot, Chumbawamba, Martyn Joseph, Ashley Hutchings’ Morris On, and the list goes on. The festival has taken a few risks with its audience over the years and continues to, but it’s all in the pursuit of eclecticism and variety. A good section of the audience is completely on board with the idea of a bill that includes anything from 1960s legend Donovan, comedian Phil Cool, cider guzzling Wurzels, rock vocalists Deborah Bonham and Sandi Thom and a local band whose guitarist plays a sewing machine, which may not be strictly akin to Cecil Sharp’s idea of folk music, but there again this isn’t 1911. 

The opening night provided the same sort of musical eclecticism that has been demonstrated previously since the first festival back in 2010. If the winter chill tonight made for a few shivers, it was nothing in comparison to the frosty inaugural festival, where the snow and ice was so harsh it prevented some of the acts from getting here, such as The Unthanks and John Renbourn. Tonight, the two main stages Reds and the Centre Stage, hosted by Sue Marchant and Jim Moray respectively, saw major league bands Bellowhead and Altan, rubbing shoulders with ex-members of Ocean Colour Scene, together with the staggeringly dextrous Ross Ainslie and Jarlath Henderson, not to mention the voice largely responsible for us all having a lovely day in Bangor back in the 1970s. 

Cathy LeSurf didn’t actually delight us all with Fiddler’s Dram’s memorable novelty hit but instead opened up the concert in Reds with her new band Wolfescote, performing at their first ever folk festival. The band, made up of Cathy with Gary Southwell, Isobel Morris and Jim Kimberley, played to a packed house (Bellowhead were up next) with a gentle set of mainly traditional material including a fine interpretation of Here's the Tender Coming, featuring a guest appearance by guitarist Gordon Giltrap. 

Earlier in the afternoon, the newly established ‘Introducing Stage’ under the Skyline Pavilion saw performances by the York-based singer/songwriter Ashley James, the infectious and harmonious Doncaster-based duo Rita Payne (Rhiannon Scutt and Pete Sowerby), singer/songwriter Lotte Mullan and rounded off with the much talked about Coco and the Butterfields. 

The Steve Cradock Band opened proceedings on the Centre Stage, with a relaxed set of highly melodic songs suited to the band’s rich blend of harmony singing and almost psychedelic accompaniment, which included one or two choice samples on such songs as Any Way the Wind Blows. The Ocean Colour Scene guitarist's five piece band, which includes Cradock's wife Sally on keyboards, brought to the festival a taste of Nineties Moseley Britpop that would be further explored later in the evening with Merrymouth, featuring other OCS members Simon Fowler and Dan Sealey and a guest appearance by John McCusker on fiddle and low whistle. 

By mid-evening, County Donegal's Altan made their Great British Folk Festival debut with a delightful set of songs and tunes from their own particular neck of the woods, something the five-piece band have been doing quite successfully for the best part of thirty years now. Led as always by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, whose infectious smile and equally infectious fiddle playing dominates the band’s onstage presence, provided a perfect counterpoint to the sheer musical exuberance of the main headlining band next door. With the festival’s impressive track record as indicated above, it was only a matter of time before Bellowhead, clearly the country’s leading live band on the folk and roots circuit today, took to one of the resort's main stages. The queue outside Reds was one of the longest we’ve seen in five years and one that was rewarded with an energetic and full concert-length performance. There may have been a slight kerfuffle front of stage prior to the show, but once the over-enthusiastic fans were moved on in order for those who had queued the longest to get those front row seats, the band appeared onstage on time, on cue and in full throttle to entertain their audience accordingly. A fine start to a promising weekend.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky

Videos filmed by Simmo, Ed, Jon and Drew

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