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Moonbeams March Weekend

The Bell Hotel, Driffield
Friday 3 - Saturday 4 March 2017

Driffield was a little on the soggy side by the time the rush hour traffic subsided ready for the Moonbeams March Weekend to commence. Singer-songwriter and musician Kaia Kater, a late addition to this year's line-up, strolled through the Bell Hotel lobby, banjo case in hand as people arrived from all around undeterred by the weather. Spirits were high despite the rain and the Wold Top beer began to flow as coats dried on the backs of chairs. The Town Hall was aglow with tall candles as Kaia wandered around the stage, tuning her banjo strings and getting a feel for the place. Prior to MC Andy Atkinson's fine introduction, Kaia could be seen sitting side stage, plucking her banjo, relaxed and ready to go; the place had that sort of relaxed feel from the start. The Canadian has been recently touring with Kris Drever, who played his own first set simultaneously on the Maple Room stage and it seemed something of a no-brainer to have her along for the ride, as she introduced most of the audience to such songs as Southern Girl, Little Pink, Paradise Fell and Saint Elizabeth for the first time.

This was the very start of this year's annual Moonbeams March Weekend, sometimes referred to as the Moonbeams Winter Gathering, which has been running for a good few years now. By Saturday night, Moonbeams organiser Leila Cooper astonished the audience whilst delivering her thank yous on the main stage by announcing that this would be the very last winter gathering. Anyone who knows Leila will be aware of the level of commitment and dedication she has shown over the years and will probably be aware of the different roles she plays as a festival organiser and artist's agent and now that she is a proud grandparent, everyone will undoubtedly understand her decision to call this aspect of her multitude of tasks to a halt.

Friday night's concerts alone would mark the end of this particular era in style as the new three-piece experimental acoustic roots band Stillhouse took to the stage to showcase a handful of songs destined for their debut EP release next month. With the now familiar Moonbeams logo forming the backdrop to the Town Hall stage, the young band dazzled the audience with their fine arrangements on guitar, double bass and notable Polly Bolton's infectious mandolin playing. Opening their set with a Strokes song, Heart in a Cage, the trio played an all too short set, leaving the audience calling for more, whilst the Maple Room hosted performances by festival regulars Andy Stones and Edwina Hayes.

Kris Drever has been a Moonbeams favourite since the start and this weekend he made his fourth appearance at the festival, once again bringing a touch of class to proceedings. Familiar songs such as The Call and the Answer and Harvest Gypsies, mixed with newer material like the tender When We Roll in the Morning and the title song from his latest release If Wishes Were Horses. Having played two sets, Kris would demonstrate his agility by joining in the late night session long after The Nick Rooke Band had finished their Friday night closing set, joining Driffield locals including singer-songwriter Edwina Hayes amongst others.

Saturday morning came as a shock to most of those who braved the five-hour late night session in the bar, preferring the light to go away and the head to stop throbbing, whilst others wandered up and down Market Place, nipping in and out of the charity shops or taking advantage of The Bell Hotel's breakfast facilities. The East Riding Dialect Society presented some poetry readings, each demonstrating the vibrant use of language, specific to these parts. This was probably the most relaxed hour of the weekend, which also gave an indication that regional tongues are very much alive and well, not just here in Driffield, but throughout the country.   

Gathering themselves around a single microphone, Pete and Polly Bolton brought a taste of old time music to the weekend, drawing from Pete's encyclopaedic knowledge of American folk song including the traditional The Cuckoo as well as one or two contemporary songs from the pens of Bob Dylan (Blind Willie McTell), Steve Earle (My Old Friend the Blues) and Randy Newman (Louisiana 1927). Singing together for practically a lifetime (Polly's), this father and daughter team demonstrated their musical empathy, a match made from flesh and blood.

The Sam Kelly Trio travelled up from Penzance on Friday night for their afternoon set, with Sam pointing out that the trek was all the more gruelling having already been in Yorkshire just the day before. No matter, the young trio performed a couple of sets throughout Saturday and were still on form at midnight, when they joined the late night session. Joined by Jamie Francis on banjo and Evan Carson on percussion, Sam performed a thoroughly enjoyable set on the main stage, once again confirming his credentials as a deserved recipient of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards prestigeous Horizon Award last year.

Bridging the gap between the afternoon and evening finale concerts, session musicians of all ages gathered in the bar to partake in a 'sore fingers' extravaganza, featuring such musicians as Pete and Polly Bolton, Stew Tindale, John Yeaman and Brian Swinton as well as a couple of very young performers on mandolin and ukulele respectively. Meanwhile craft workshops were taking place between the main bar and the Town Hall, courtesy of Wom-Bling Arts, where tote bag and shopper bags were being crafted on old hand wound sewing machines. Plenty to keep everyone occupied between concerts.

Saturday night started pretty much where the afternoon concert left off with the second appearance of the day by Richard Digance, who closed the afternoon concert in the Town Hall and then opened the evening concert once again in the Maple Room. The popular entertainer and festival favourite provided a set littered with nostalgic references, easily recognisable to people of a certain age, from John Lennon singing Twist and Shout to snake belts, Lady Penelope and various assorted confectionery items. Some of those items were delivered to him by hand as he stood there on stage, which seemed to throw him momentarily. Rarely has Richard Digance been lost for words on stage as he placed the items in the soundhole of his guitar "for later". 

Saxophone legend Snake Davis also switched stages by evening time, on this occasion opening the Town Hall concert after word had spread around about just how good his afternoon set had been, when he shared the stage with one of our finest jazz singers, Helen Watson. Sharing some fine musical memories with the singer, who accompanied herself on guitar, Davis was on fine form as an accompanist on a range of instruments from the saxophone family as well as flute on such songs as Mystery Train, Is That All There Is? and an astonishing reading of the old Jimi Hendrix classic The Wind Cries Mary

Former Seahorses front man Chris Helme played a relatively laid back set by mid-evening, performing such familiar fare as The Seahorses' Blinded by the Sun, The Faces' Ooh La La and The Doors' Five to One featuring the epic line No One Gets Out of Here Alive, dedicated to 'The Orange One', as well as a couple of more recent songs destined for his forthcoming album, Sailing Home and Closer Now, which Chris dedicated to his mum who was sitting in the audience. Balancing his set to appeal to most of the audience, whilst delivering some of the finest vocal performances of the weekend, Chris was urged by MC Andy Atkinson to do just the one request, a song that the festival is named after, Moonbeams, which he was only too pleased to do.

After Edwina Hayes' final performance on the Maple Room stage, overseen by MC Martin Peirson with sound courtesy of Wee Dog Sound's Ani McNeice, everyone congregated as one big family under the Town Hall roof for the final set of the weekend, which was left in the more than capable hands of the Jon Palmer Acoustic Band, whose members were on their usual fine form. Although Leila's revelation prior to this final concert set was delivered with a tinge of sadness as she thanked one and all for their help, assistance and continued enthusiasm, the weekend actually ended on a much more cheerful note as news of other forthcoming Moonbeams events were announced, not least the main summer gathering up on the Wolds in July, which this year features such acts as Seth Lakeman, Skippinish, Hope and Social, Holy Moly and the Crackers and many more. Earlier in the evening, Richard Digance articulated precisely why Moonbeams works so well, and that coming from a well-seasoned festival performer, when he said that "Moonbeams is all about friendship", and this really is what we can all take from it, time and time again, whether that's in the summer, the winter or spread across the seasons.

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky