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Hartlepool Folk Festival

National Museum of the Royal Navy, Hartlepool
Friday 13 - Sunday 15 October 2017

With its cobbled quayside, authentic nineteenth century seaport buildings and imposing masts of the HMS Trincomalee, the National Museum of the Royal Navy could be the most appropriate setting in the world for a folk festival. Lean on an old barrel outside Eustace Pinchbeck's Gunmakers Emporium and you'll soon be entertained by one of several Morris sides as they dance along Jackson's Dock. Poke your head into the Baltic or Sir William Gray Suite, each offering splendid views of Indian frigate the HMS Trincomalee, and you might see one of the finest folk acts around. Grab a frothy latte in the Quayside Coffee Shop and a harpist might suddenly start playing the most beautiful and tranquil melodies you've ever had the pleasure to hear. And for those performances that demand a more formal setting, the Hartlepool Town Hall Theatre and Sixth Form College are just a stone's throw away.

The three-day event was kicked off with a selection of "Welcome Concerts" on Friday evening. Over at the Sixth Form College, John Kirkpatrick, Alistair Anderson, Gavin Davenport and Tom Kitching provided some familiar sounds whilst family vocal quintet The Wilsons - stalwarts of the local folk scene and festival patrons - performed a packed-out celebratory show in the Sir William Gray Suite having recently been awarded the EFDSS Gold Badge Award. In the Baltic Room, Johnny Mohun performed authentic renditions of such wonderfully dry Jake Thackray songs as On Again On Again, Sister Josephine and Jumble Sale before Scottish quartet Tannara and the anarchic Biscuithead & The Biscuit Badgers closed the evening in style.

As the Saturday light rose on the deck of the HMS Trincomalee, a slow-moving line of folkies braved the gangplank that runs beside a cannonball-filled brass monkey, to spend an hour with John Kirkpatrick. The legendary English folk musician adopted a painful-looking hunch for much of his performance in the low-ceilinged Captain's Cabin but nevertheless managed to get the ship rocking with bold readings of such songs as Green Mossy Banks of the Lea, the First World War march On The Quarterdeck and John's self-penned Sing a Full Song which has been re-recorded for John's latest album, Coat-tails Flying. Shortly afterwards in the Baltic, another master of the button accordion brought a slice of the West Country to Hartlepool's unseasonably mild marina. Jim Causley, along with guitarist and fiddler Nick Wyke and fiddler Becki Driscoll, performed a selection of spellbinding songs from Devon and Cornwall such as the wonderfully evocative Banks of the Tale and The Road to Combebow, with its many mentions of West Country saints.

Another West Country Jim kicked off the Saturday afternoon concert over at the Town Hall Theatre. Jim Moray's solo set provided an absorbing opening to a treat of a concert with his brilliantly topical It Couldn't Happen Here as well as traditional ballads such as Lord Douglas and Long Lankin and the stunning Sounds of Earth, a highlight from Jim's 2016 album Upcetera. And before Jim closed his set with an ethereal take on Lord Franklin, he delighted the packed theatre with a faithful rendering of Jock O'Hazeldene, dedicated to Dick Gaughan who has been unwell but, according to Jim, is thankfully getting better.

The boundaries of traditional folk music were pushed even further as Leveret took to the Town Hall stage to perform a selection of hypnotic tunes. Miss Wright's Fancy and the buoyant waltz Milford provided the set with its highlights, along with the solemn and haunting The Good Old Way, from the trio's 2016 album In The Round. There were also outings of tunes from Leveret's latest album Inventions, most notably Rain on the Woodpile, composed by Rob Harbron whose performance with Andy Cutting and Sam Sweeney was one of the best of the weekend.

Closing the Saturday afternoon Town Hall show were three quarters of The Furrow Collective. With Rachel Newton recovering from back surgery, it was down to Lucy Farrell, Emily Portman and Alisdair Roberts to please the Hartlepool crowd with their powerful blend of distinctive voices. Alisdair played some enchanting electric guitar on such songs as Willie's Fateful Visit and the sublime Dear Companion while Emily Portman led a delightful Shule Agra from the band's 2015 EP Blow Out the Moon.

On Saturday evening, the Town Hall Theatre welcomed familiar faces Martin and Eliza Carthy to Hartlepool along with a few friends. The arresting voice of Irish singer Nell Ni Chroinin opened the show with an all-too-brief performance of her "Sean-nós" or unaccompanied old-style Irish songs. Fortunately, Nell would perform a second and longer set on Sunday in the Sir William Gray Suite. And whilst members of the audience salvaged their lower jaw from the floor of the Town Hall, having been wowed by Nell's incredible talent and warmth, Eliza Carthy and American singer Tim Eriksen took to the stage for a compelling set of songs such as Logan's Lament, the Copper Family's Cats and Dogs and the stirring Traveler. Martin Carthy joined the duo for a rendition of 10,000 Miles before closing the evening's entertainment with Eliza. Before the Carthys, however, a welcome departure from traditional folk music came in the shape of former The Be Good Tanyas members Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton. Backed by guitar, bass and drums, Holland and Parton gave a shimmering performance of spaced-out Americana via such songs as Minstrel Boy, Little Black Bear and, from The Be Good Tanyas' 2001 album Blue Horse, Lakes of Pontchartrain.

After sets by Jon Boden and Lady Maisery and a second performance by the impressive Nell Ni Chroinin on Sunday afternoon, Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood provided what many were heard to refer to as the highlight performance of the festival. Along with double bassist Pete Thomas, Oates and Henwood proved their mettle as powerhouses of contemporary folk singing with a set of beguiling songs such as Megan's Bettystown, Paul McCartney's Junk and Brian Bedford's What's the Use of Wings, which the girls dedicated to the late Vin Garbutt. Like her guitar, Megan's voice has a bright finish, patterned with moments of darkness and, when mingling with Jackie's high and reedy vocals, a wonderful synergy is achieved. And talking of synergy, the festival's centrepiece performance The Barrack Room Ballads blended the talents of a host of folk musicians to create a poignant and powerful show at the Town Hall on Sunday evening. The orchestra was a star-studded affair, including such musicians as Eliza and Martin Carthy, John Boden, Damien Barber, Avital Raz, The Wilsons and Gina Le Faux, each lending their virtuosity to Rudyard Kipling's poetry and Peter Bellamy's music in a politically charged reflection of the British Empire, Indian heritage and the late-Victorian British Army. The mixture of poetry and song, led by musical director Johnny Mohun, was illuminated by the narration of comedian, broadcaster and chef Hardeep Singh Kohli whose delivery was filled with both humour and sorrow, providing pitch-perfect intervals of spoken word between such songs as Tommy and Cholera Camp, performed by Jon Boden, The Widow's Party and Shillin' a Day, performed by Martin and Eliza Carthy, and Damien Barber's bold renderings of Otheris' Song and Soldier, Soldier. It was a remarkable spectacle and a welcome melding of words and music that placed the proverbial cherry on the festival’s consistently tasty cake.

Liam Wilkinson
Northern Sky