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There are few more pleasant ways to arrive in Whitby than on a crisp autumn afternoon, bathed in unseasonable sunshine. After parking the car and checking into The Captain's Lodge B&B on Crescent Avenue, we made our way across the Royal Crescent, past the house once frequented by Bram Stoker, and to the Whitby Pavilion where this year's Musicport Festival was being unpacked stage by stage, stall by stall. By the time this pair of excitable festival reviewers had arrived, Maia had already kicked things off in the Pavilion Theatre - just one of the handful of stages at the venue - accompanied by a throng of musical pupils from the Fyling Hall School. Sitting in the deep black shadows, a crowd of local adults and children showed warmth and appreciation for this free festival opener, providing a positive start to what promised to be a weekend of diverse music, dance, poetry and even cooking!
After grabbing our wristbands, passes and programmes, we were fortunate enough to run into the very busy-looking Jim McLaughlin and Pete Holden who were on hand all weekend to ensure artists and press alike were looked after with what seemed to be typical Musicport hospitality. With this being Northern Sky's first visit to the 'international, inclusive, inspirational' North Yorkshire festival, it was notably reassuring to arrive at what turned out to be an exceptionally well-organised and friendly event. And, before the festival was officially opened, we left the organisers and stewards to their busy preparations and headed into the stunning coastal town for some grub.
Later, with a hearty Magpie Cafe meal inside of us, we returned to the West Cliff where the Beastie Drummers and Fire Jugglers were lighting up the Whitby dusk with swirling fire and bone-shaking percussion. The Scottish group then led a procession down the cliff and into the Pavilion where, on the main stage, the festival was launched by organisers Jim and Sue McLaughlin, followed shortly afterwards by a performance by Zimbabwe's Rise Kagona and the Jit Jive Band. If any music was guaranteed to get things off to a flying start, it had to be the sound of the former Bhundu Boys guitarist's infectious Jit, which was evident immediately as the dance floor filled before the second song was underway.
Down the spiral staircase, on the North Sea stage, a handful of intrepid young singer songwriters were warming up the crowd for Attila the Stockbroker. The Punk Poet gave a typically angry, politically-fuelled performance which, in turn, gave his like-minded audience a chance to whoop and holler in appreciation for poems and patter on the subject of Tory politics, the demise of Old Labour and Margaret Thatcher's death. A shame that left wing politics has to sink to celebrating death, but nice to hear the bubbling of honest performance poetry nonetheless. Amongst Attila's repertoire this evening were poems such as Poison Pensioner – a delightfully acidic attack on that useless, self-centred relative we all know so well, who turns up in a crisis to enjoy the tea and biscuits – as well as Guy Fawkes' Table which lamented the loss of Old Labour from Fawkes' table in the Mother Shipton Inn, Knaresborough. If you're going to host a festival with a handful of poets on the bill, you might as well get the ball rolling with Attila the Stockbroker, who never fails to give a spirited, thought-provoking performance.
Soon, and with great contrast, the Chinese flautist Guo Yue appeared on the Galley stage to give a demonstration of traditional Chinese cooking. Opening with a tantalising wisp of bamboo flute, the demonstration soon drew a large crowd of onlookers with its aromas of light soy sauce, finely chopped ginger and chilli oil. Along with his sidekick, Mim Suleiman, the Beijing cook and musician prepared a delicious dish of seasoned glass noodles for all present. The very humble and warm Guo also talked briefly about his two books, his friendship with Peter Gabriel and his restaurant in London – a tantalising treat for those looking forward to Guo's Main Stage performance on Saturday. After the mesmerising cooking demo, and with the lingering taste of fine Chinese cuisine on his tongue, this reviewer headed back upstairs for Friday night's closing acts on the Main Stage.
The Main Stage had been in the capable hands of Jo Freya and Michelle Scally Clarke throughout the evening who introduced such bands as Tantz, who brought a feast of vibrant Klezmer music to the festival, their set including the obligatory Hava Nagila, a pretty laid-back acoustic set by Scots band Idlewild, featuring Roddy Woomble, who even at one point played the guitar! That's got to be a first. The opening evening concert was brought to a climax by Brixton’s Yaaba Funk, who provided an exhilarating and highly charged performance, which effectively saw everyone cheerfully off to their beds. For those whose bed could wait a little longer, Andy Kershaw took to the turntables in the Hub, relishing in what he does best, that is to introduce great music to the masses, cherry picking from his alleged seven ton record collection, with some highly danceable Reggae tunes.
Not even twenty-four hours in, it became clear that the Musicport Festival was not simply a cavalcade of performances from a diverse range of world musicians. Along with the ever-present song of seagulls and the billowing of salty sea breezes, the festival exuded a constant sense of cultural awareness and the appreciation of world traditions. This morning's opening performance in the Theatre embodied the entire spirit of the festival as the Tashi Lhunpo Monks gave a ninety minute demonstration of meditations, chants, dances and even traditional Buddhist argument rituals. Now re-established in India, after the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery preserves the traditions of the Tibetan monks and this morning's performance offered a glimpse into their practices. This enchanting demonstration included ancient masked dances such as the haunting Durdak (Lords of the Cemetery), the Shanak (Black Hat Dance) and Bakshi (The Lords of Death) interspersed with moments of entrancing calm as the monks led the crowd in sessions of Kunrik meditation. This perfect way to begin the second day of the festival was also the ideal precursor to various other performances from the monks scheduled for the remainder of the event.
With a clear and relaxed mind, this somewhat enlightened reviewer floated out of the Theatre and down the corridor and downstairs towards the North Sea stage, where writer, storyteller and broadcaster Ian Clayton was being grilled by Heath Common about his life and career, with an emphasis on his new book Song for My Father, which the author was only too happy to sign in the cafe directly above. Ian Clayton was the first of two authors to be interviewed at the festival on Saturday, the other being The Fall's Steve Hanley who appeared in the Theatre later in the afternoon. On the Main Stage the New Rope String Band managed to undo much of the tranquillity with their typically energetic comedy performance. Fusing musical dexterity with Pythonesque comedic genius, this trio of lunatics filled the room with belly laughs as they incorporated clever optical tricks, such as walking in and out of the projected film and appearing to sprout several new limbs. And if this wasn't enough, the show reached its zenith with perhaps the only inflated lilo-fuelled double melodica performance this crowd will ever see.
A return to tranquillity came after the New Ropes had departed to rapturous applause. The Yorkshire-based spoken word troupe A Firm of Poets gave their first reading of the festival as the stage was being set for the Perunika Trio. A Firm of Poets consists of four northern wordsmiths who took turns in bringing their own brand of spoken literature to the festival. Geneviève L Walsh, described as a 'scary, sweary, verse-writing fairy', admitted that, as a Goth, she had somehow arrived a fortnight early (Whitby's Goth Festival being just two weeks away) before she gave an air-stilling recital of elegantly blunt poems in a Halifax accent. Ralph Dartford and John Darwin stabbed the air with concise yet captivating poems on subjects as diverse as the Hillsborough disaster and stealing Mars Bars, whilst the indefatigable Matt Abbott pummelled the atmosphere with his swiftly-delivered social poems that always packed a political punch, giving Attila a run for his money, for sure.
Shortly afterwards, the Perunika Trio appeared on the Main Stage dressed in traditional Bulgarian costume. Their distinctive voices and close harmonies, reminiscent of (if not identical to) Trio Bulgarka, soon resounded around the room bringing a certain stillness to proceedings. Once again down on the North Sea stage another Yorkshire poet was sitting with her notebook, compiling a set list for what became a highlight of the festival's spoken word bill. Leeds-based performance poet Michelle Scally Clarke brought a charming warmth, as well as a profound silence, to the North Sea stage as she pin-balled between poems occasioned by the pain of her turbulent early life and amiable, unguarded stage patter that melted the audience like butter. Her delivery was, more often than not, tinged with the eager questions of a soul desperate to find its sense of belonging. But these sincerely serious poems were always coloured with humour and, best of all, a motherly compassion that had this reviewer rushing out for copies of Clarke's books, I Am and She Is
With Clarke's poetic lines tied around my mind, I made my way up to the Main Stage to catch Guo Yue's second performance of the festival. Having already sampled his delicious cooking, I was eager to enjoy a serving of Guo's celebrated flute playing. Lying on inflatable beds in front of the stage, the Musicport crowd were treated to a recital of Guo's meditative compositions from such recordings as White Jade and Music, Food and Love. Each tune was introduced with the tale that inspired them including the one about Guo's childhood attempt to train a dragonfly, culminating in the utterly bewitching composition Dragonfly – just one of many performances from this charmingly humble musician that managed to lull the afternoon audience into a state of quiet rapture.
It's impossible to see everything at Musicport with so much going on simultaneously and pretty soon both of our respective programmes were being marked in earnest with circles and arrows ensuring we didn't miss any of the really important events, but alas this was beginning to happen quite frequently. Saturday afternoon was particularly packed with those aforementioned important events, with appearances over three stages by the likes of Mosaik, Haddo and The Bevvy Sisters. The Sudanese singer Shurooq Abu El Nas performed her afternoon set in the Theatre, bringing songs from the Arab world to Musicport. Equipped with a couple of percussionists and a keyboard player, together with a pair of unfeasibly high-heeled red shoes, the singer brought a taste of Khartoum to a very appreciative Musicport audience.
Later in the afternoon, the youthful Warsaw band Mosaik provided a set richly imbued with the traditional sounds of Poland, before London-based Turkish singer Oclay Bayir settled into a classy set of songs from the regions of Anatolia and Mesopotamia; a perfect time to take the weight off and take advantage of the space in front of the stage, as dancing feet were temporarily replaced by reclining bodies.
Renowned musical comedian Mitch Benn was on hand to launch the evening's musical entertainment in the Theatre. A regular contributor to the BBC Radio 4 programme The Now Show and the man behind such Edinburgh Festival successes as Don't Believe a Word and Mitch Benn is the 37th Beatle, Mitch has just become a Sci-Fi author with the publication of his novel, Terra and its sequel Terra's World. Fortunately, Mitch was able to find a small space in his busy schedule to bring comedy and song to the Musicport Festival. Ensuring that all small children were ushered out before he debuted the strongest of his swear words, Benn went on to impress with a repertoire of cunningly composed songs on such subjects as break-ups, the Beatles and his beloved Doctor Who. As musical comedy goes, Mitch is up there with the best of them and each cheek bone in the Theatre was surely aching as this superlative writer of comedy songs launched into his Billy Joel-inspired I'm Proud of the BBC which is built from a long list of classic BBC shows, rhymed for our pleasure.
Saturday evening's concert on the Main Stage continued with an appearance by Derby's Lucy Ward and her eponymous band, which the young singer led with utter conviction, charm and enthusiasm. Appearing with Belinda O’Hooley, Heidi Tidow, Sam Pegg and Steve Maclachlan, the band also featured the surprise inclusion of Anna Esslemont, who was standing in for regular fiddler Joy Gravestock.
It really cannot be denied that Musicport is prepared to take risks from time to time and this year was no exception. The inclusion on the bill of Robyn Hitchcock, one of England’s true eccentrics, was for some of us a rather inspired decision. For those unfamiliar with Hitchcock however, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise to see one or two leave before the second song. Intelligent, uncompromising and at times decidedly odd, Hitchcock set out to entertain his audience with a bunch of songs new and not so new. Sporting one of his trademark polka dot shirts, the wispy silver-haired icon of strange who often dreams of trains had fun playing with the sound crew, who variously provided such sonic atmospheres as cathedral, toilet or whatever sprang to mind at the time, much to the amusement or bemusement of the audience, depending on which side of the Hitchcock fence you're on.
After Hitchcock's performance, the Theatre stage was reset for Heath Common and the Lincoln 725. Described by R2 Magazine as an original from the same ranks as Ivor Cutler and Syd Barrett, Heath Common took us on a spoken word tour of his intriguing past, stopping at such events as seeing Jimi Hendrix fall into the back of a cab in Soho and catching a glimpse of Mick Jagger on the set of Performance in the late sixties. His meandering, and often hard to believe tales, were accompanied by the music of the Lincoln 725 – a four piece band whose musical backing often stole the show.
Headlining Saturday night was the much anticipated Lo’Jo, whose band name letters hung like Spinal Tap monoliths in the background, following the waving lines of the Musicport logo as if it was always meant to be there. The main hall was packed for this highly enjoyable set and provided the ideal finisher for what turned out to be an almost exhausting day of fun and music.
If Saturday morning hadn't already filled our heads with the enthralling meditations and rituals of the Tashi Lhunpo Monks, then this morning's performance was sure to have us spilling over with respect for Buddhist traditions. The monks led a procession down West Cliff to the windy Whitby beach where, in full traditional regalia and with Tibetan dungchens sounding from the beach huts, they blessed the sea and allowed us another chance to witness their ancient rituals up close. And as the rituals passed, many of the crowd stripped down to swimming costumes and plunged straight into the October-cold waters for a morning swim. This kind of thing doesn't happen at many of these events and, once again, Musicport's place in that special category of must-do festivals was confirmed.
Back at the Pavilion, the final day was about to commence with another packed programme of music, dance, poetry, storytelling, workshops, cinema and cooking. The Big Ukulele Busk was just coming to a close when we arrived at the North Sea stage, especially to catch some of Barcode Zebra's set, led by Jess Gardham. Having seen the band earlier this year at the Beverley Folk Festival, Jim McLaughlin made the right decision to invite them along this weekend.
Great songwriting was celebrated during the first couple of hours of Sunday afternoon as the inimitable O'Hooley and Tidow once again returned to the Main Stage in order to deliver one great song after another, perhaps none so powerful as Two Mothers, which brought the hall to silence. By contrast, after a thoroughly engaging set by the four-piece Sandrani, whose fusion of classical Indian raag and gypsy jazz proved to be much more dextrous than expected, singer songwriter Kathryn Williams took to the Theatre stage to deliver some of her best loved songs in her own enchanting style, with some nifty loop pedal work thrown in during Little Black Numbers.
Uncertain whether this was by complete chance or by deliberate design, the three consecutive performances that followed on the Main Stage on Sunday afternoon were probably the best of the entire weekend. One superb set followed another starting with a beautiful performance by Amira Kheir, the 'Diva of the Sudanese Desert', whose voice was just as enchanting as the programme suggested. It's hard to explain but it just seemed that the quality had been raised a notch over the next three hours and it was futile to venture out of the Main Stage area.
Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita followed Amira Kheir and were rewarded with respectful silence for much of their set. The duo from Wales and Senegal respectively, performed some of the delicate pieces from their celebrated album Clychau Dibon before a thoroughly enchanted audience. The complex interplay between the Welsh harp and the African kora in the hands of these two musicians cannot be overestimated, yet the duo perform with such flair and playfulness at the same time. It's utterly spellbinding. After their set, the jury was out on things getting any better, but then the surprise darlings of the festival turned out to be the multi-faceted Världens Band, whose energetic and ever-changing performance kept the audience thoroughly engaged right through to the end. The fourteen-piece collective from three continents took most of us by surprise and probably even took themselves by surprise too, especially when Seckou Keita got up on stage in his civvies to sing with the band. Nobody in the room envied Jo Freya's task of bringing the set to its eventual close.
Whilst the music kept most of us busy on all the stages throughout the weekend, there was always something going on elsewhere in and around the area. By the east entrance of the Pavilion for instance, Sol Cinema, the world's smallest solar powered movie theatre, entertained eight people at a time whilst other events took place in just about every available space, including Tai Chi, African singing, spoons and percussion demos, storytelling, flag making and music tots workshops. Plenty to do for all the family. There was even dancing in the street over by Johnny Baghdad's ultra busy kebab van.
Meanwhile over in the Theatre, the broadcaster Doctor Rock was in the process of interviewing Whitby's famous son Arthur Brown, who was seemingly relaxed as he reminisced over his formative years as a Whitby lad, dodging the bombing campaigns of WWII, together with his memories of first hearing rock and roll, which would form the basis of his subsequent career path.
As Sunday drew to its inevitable close, there was a couple more bands to enjoy. Zimbabwe's extremely energetic drum and dance combo Siyaya, made a welcome return to the festival just over a decade after their last visit, with some colourful dance moves, stepping in at the last minute for Amine and Hama who sadly had to cancel their visit to the UK.
Finally it was down to the Whitby native himself to close this year's Musicport Festival, with a highly entertaining set. Dressed in familiar regalia - face paint, masked, robed and helmeted - the 72 year-old moved across the stage with the energy of a teenager, performing such songs as I Put a Spell on You and the obligatory hit single from 1968 Fire, complete with its amusing preamble.
Arthur Brown was still in full flight as we passed through the Pavilion cafe area, up the steps and out into the mild October evening, the lights of Whitby illuminating the darkened coastline. The feeling that we had stumbled upon something very special accompanied us during the drive home, along with the obvious question; why did it take fifteen years for us to get to Musicport? The answer to that question is anyone's guess, but get there we did and a return is definitely on the cards for 2015.
Allan and Liam Wilkinson