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Shepley Spring Festival 2009

The Cricket Club, Shepley
Friday 15 - Sunday 17 May 2009

There's a couple of young musicians who live down the lane in the self-contained village of Shepley, almost hidden amongst the rolling meadows of the Pennine fringe just to the south of Huddersfield. You imagine Jack Rutter and Lydia Noble would be delighted to have the opportunity to develop their craft each Spring without travelling much further than their own doorsteps. These two young multi-instrumentalists are but two of a handful of musicians fortunate enough to share a stage with some of the best known names on the national and international folk scene, and still be home in time for tea.

For three consecutive years now Shepley has played host to one of the most talked about festivals on the folk music calendar and its reputation grows each year as one of the friendliest, most exciting and vibrant musical events in the country. Word of mouth brought me to Shepley this year and I was pleased that those words - from very reliable mouths I might add - turned out to be true. An impressive cast had been assembled for the weekend, with one or two special events thrown in for good measure, and I was keen to see why so many people would brave the elements at this time of year to camp out in what could potentially be a hostile environment in terms of the mid-May climate. For those who are fond of the smell of rain, me included here, Shepley is a veritable boudoir of seasonal delights, and it soon became clear to me that no one seemed to care one single jot whether it rained or shined. Young Jack and Lydia are probably used to it.

The temporary festival village works in tandem with the permanent village just down the lane, whose streets are filled with colour and music throughout the weekend. Outside the Farmer's Boy pub, you are more than likely to find a bunch of Beefeaters, resplendent in their red and black tunics, stopping off for a beer or two on their way to the next pub down the lane. The Frumptarn Guggenband's brass instruments would no doubt be taking temporary shelter from a shower, whilst a strange bowler-hatted troupe - La Goulee D'Ev - march down the lane, proudly carrying their flag on high like Liberty herself in one of those Neo-Classical paintings hanging in the Louvre. A long way from Shepley methinks. Even the distant drums of the Mighty Zulu Nation, presumably coming from the Black Bull, don't seem out of place here at all. 

The short walk from the festival site at the top of the hill down through the attractive village, would be accompanied by the sound of several pairs of clogs hitting the ground, a host of wooden sticks colliding in mid-air and the clattering of swords and the sight of several dance teams only distinguishable by their contrasting colourful costumes, and all accompanied by the ever present fiddle or melodeon, or both.

The festival got off to a good start on Friday evening with a performance by a young emerging singer songwriter with a familiar name. Ella Edmondson made her second appearance at the festival with her own small trio performing songs from her new album HOLD YOUR HORSES including the haunting Fold and the potential radio hit Hunger

For sheer musical dexterity, Belshazzar's Feast provided their first set of the weekend, incorporating classical baroque influences with traditional folk tunes as Bellowhead's Paul Sartin alternated between fiddle and oboe, whilst at one point emptying the contents of his briefcase out on stage, whilst playmate Paul Hutchinson provided ample pyrotechnics on his accordion, all peppered with lashings of sardonic wit and banter-a-plenty.

Martin Simpson's name has become synonymous with quality and class, specifically within the realms of handful of truly great guitar players to have emerged over the last couple of decades or so. Joined by Andy Cutting and Andy Seward on melodeon and double bass respectively, the trio performed a set of well chosen and eclectic songs such as Chris Wood's Come Down Jehovah and Roly Salley's touching Killing The Blues recently revived by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss for their Mercury nominated collaboration album RAISING SAND.

Whilst Welsh band Mabon performed a lively set to bring the Friday night concert to a close on the main stage, the newly reformed Edward II delighted a packed dance tent with some familiar favourites from their back catalogue. A perfect end to the opening night of the festival.

On Saturday lunchtime, Mick Ryan presented a special event in the church hall, re-named 'The Acoustic Cafe' just for the weekend, where you could pick up some good old homemade cake and sandwiches and a cup of coffee or a beer, whilst enjoying some of the fringe events in the comfort of possibly the warmest place in Shepley. 

'The Navvy's Wife' chronicles the hardships and triumphs of the ordinary people who helped carve out our roads, canals and railways from the time of the industrial revolution, performed in a seamless organic flow of words and music by an impressive cast assembled by Mick Ryan himself, including singers Heather Bradford, Judy Dunlop and Jackie Oates, and musicians Paul Downes and Roger Watson. The two hour production held the audience spellbound, as the stories unfolded with both humour and heart-wrenching sadness in equal measure. When I asked Mick how long it took him to write the piece, he casually replied 'oh about four days'. I imagine the research took a good deal longer. The big surprise for me was the hidden talents of one Paul Downes. If ever he tires of his music career, he wouldn't half make a great character actor. One waits in anticipation for the next BBC Dickens adaptation. 

Local singer songwriter Belinda O'Hooley together with partner Heidi Tidow had the unenviable task of finishing off the Saturday afternoon concert on the main stage only to return a couple of hours later to kick off the evening concert, which would feature one of the headlining acts of the festival, Show of Hands. Belinda is a rare figure on the current folk scene, being the only self-confessed Bonnie Tyler fan I can think of at the moment, whose songs can be heard amongst other pop tunes during her day job, that of entertaining the elderly in care homes. Whilst the achingly painful Whitethorn sent shivers, the contrasting medley of Abba's Money Money Money coupled with Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero was a complete hoot, a perfect start to the evening concert. 

With the disbandment of one of the most exciting live acts to have emerged over the last decade or so, two former Last Night's Fun members made a welcome return to form, with a set filled with great songs and tunes, sung in crystal clear fashion by the gentle Denny Bartley, whilst being teased relentlessly by his buddy, the charismatic English concertina wizard Chris Sherburn. 

Bridging the gap between two outstanding acts from this side of the pond, were the popular traditional Québécois trio Genticorum, whose energetic rhythms resounded around the main concert marquee as the seated fiddler Pascal Gemme kept an almost constant beat with his feet, whilst guitarist Yann Falquet showed us how a Jew's harp should really be played and Alexandre de Grosbois-Garand fluently lipped his flute and provided the bottom end on electric bass, all topped off with delicious French Canadian harmonies. 

Consummate professionals Show of Hands, now joined by double bassist Miranda Sykes, provided precisely what was expected of them; an outstanding Saturday night set of well crafted songs from one of England's most enduring musical partnerships, Steve Knightley and Phil Beer. 

On Sunday morning I felt rather privileged to have spent an hour or so in the company of Jackie Oates, one of the busiest musicians on the folk scene today. Jackie's fiddle workshop was attended by just the one fiddle player who was treated to what turned out to be essentially a free hour-long master class lesson, where the young Devon fiddler went through a few Cornish tunes in the much more tranquil surroundings of Cliffe House, a short walk from the festival site. A joy to watch. 

One of the most important things on the Shepley Festival agenda is the provision of a platform to showcase young emerging performers. The Shepley Springboard provides such a platform and as the name suggests, helps launch younger artists such as the aforementioned Jack Rutter and Lydia Noble as well as the likes of Jonny Kearney and Lucy Farrell, which potentially gives each of the young performers a well deserved helping hand in their respective endeavours. Young folk quartet Jiggawatt could be seen on most of the festival stages during the weekend showcasing the outstanding talents of fiddler Sarah who appears equally at home with the traditional Lark in the Morning as well as the challenging cool jazz groove of Brubeck's Take Five.

Sunday evening got underway in the main concert marquee with the young unaccompanied traditional singer Maz O'Connor, whose command over traditional song was both assured and confident as well as touching and compelling. At just 18, the Cumbria-based singer has already received accolades such as winning the Fred Jordan Memorial Singing Competition at the Bromyard Folk Festival in 2007 and being a finalist in this years BBC Young Folk Awards.

Two fine musicians from the ranks of the Demon Barbers, fiddler Bryony Griffith and melodeon player Will Hampson stormed through one of the most exciting sets of the weekend. At no other point during the three days was there a more tangible family connection, as family and friends gathered to witness the infectious personalities of Bryony and Will as they took to the Shepley main stage for the first time as a duo. Normally backed up and supported by the mighty Demon Barbers, the duo played with the same intensity and appeared to lose none of the power associated with the rightful winners of this years BBC Folk Award for best live act. Bryony's vocal prowess is reminiscent of a young Norma Waterson, you know the one we remember in black and white, together with a touch of Margaret Barry's assertive projection. Bryony is a singer whose singing means business. 

Bringing a touch of class to Shepley this year was Bob Fox whose voice has become one of the best loved on the folk scene. His song choices are now as familiar to us through his interpretation as they originally were by their authors, Jez Lowe's Taking On Men for instance. Bob took command of the Shepley main stage and soon had the audience in the palm of his hand. 

Rounding off Sunday night's main stage programme was the Michael McGoldrick Band, whose adventurous Celtic fusion served as just the thing to round off a brilliantly successful third festival. Whilst the band were busily sound checking in the main marquee, and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers were preparing to provide the rhythms for the final highland fling in the dance tent, I took a moment to reflect in the surprisingly calm spring evening air as the pink sky reflected off the imposing Emley Moor mast in the distance. I thought once more of young Jack Rutter and Lydia Noble, who would soon be bidding farewell to all their newfound buddies, before heading off down the lane to their respective homes. I have a feeling they'll all be back to reunite next Spring, and so will I. 

Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky