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Shepley Spring Festival 2013

Although the sun was a late visitor to this year's Shepley Spring Festival, arriving without a note on Sunday, the weather was particularly kind in comparison to some of the previous festivals we've seen, with everyone's tent remaining pretty much intact, making for a much happier bunch of campers. The verdant meadows and dry stone walls became alive with colour once the sunlight broke through the clouds that had been with us since Friday. Northern Sky's headquarters were in the comparatively comfortable and remarkably conducive surroundings of Cliffe House, a short walk from the main festival site. As I looked out of the large bay windows on Sunday morning, which overlooked the tranquil gardens, whilst being served a delightfully satisfying full English breakfast, not the tampered with or cherry-picked version my Canadian house mates preferred, but the full-on traditional everything goes variety, a smile suddenly appeared on my face. Shepley is infinitely better once the sun arrives.

Cliffe House was my home for the weekend from Friday lunchtime onwards and provided a suitable place to peruse through the informative festival programme. Once again, choices had to be made; who should I see and who should I miss? I can't be in two places at the same time, no matter how much I would like to be. How painful would it be on Monday morning to discover that I'd missed the most important treat the festival had to offer? I studied long and hard, sipping tea and munching toast, lording it up in my adopted Manor as the clock's tick followed tock on the mantelpiece. 
 
The reason I made that special effort to get to the festival early this year, was to catch the afternoon concert down at the Village Hall, featuring three acts of particular interest. Ten minutes before Jess Morgan took to the stage to effectively kick off this year's festival, there was hardly a soul to be seen. Once the young Norwich-based singer/songwriter walked out into the spotlight however, the room suddenly filled up with out-of-breath festival goers, all of whom had just pitched their tents, equipped themselves with one of Shepley's fine ales and found themselves a seat. The festival had now begun in earnest, with subsequent performances from Lincolnshire-based singer/guitarist Elliott Morris and the 'champions of the standing ovation' The Hut People, featuring the noticeably reduced Sam Pirt and percussion wizard Gary Hammond.  
  
The delightfully bubbly Leila Cooper presided over the evening concert on the main stage, in the marquee that is also known as the Festival Hub, introducing each of the acts in her own inimitable style. The opening set was provided by young Leicestershire/Dorset duo Katherine Hurdley and Alex Percy, who together performed a short set of songs and tunes accompanying themselves on fiddle, whistle and guitar, each pretty much from the English tradition. 
 
The Albion Band's Gavin Davenport appeared next, performing songs from his acclaimed solo record The Bone Orchard, with a band consisting of Tom Kitching on fiddle, Nick Cooke on melodeon and Tim Yates on double bass, all appearing comfortably at home on stage. If anyone was to feel comfortably at home on that main stage, it would be the husband and wife and now mummy and daddy team Bryony Griffith and Will Hampson. No strangers to the festival, the Demon Barbers offshoot duo performed a fine set of traditional songs in an assured and entertaining manner.  
 
The eagerly awaited appearance by the much discussed Moulettes came and went in a blizzard of ingenuity and sophistication, with the band delivering their distinctive sound on cue. One of the highlights of their set was the stunningly beautiful Songbird, which demonstrates the extraordinary vocal harmony blend between core members Hannah Miller and Ruth Skipper. Also worth noting is the fact that having never noticed the bassoon's phallic qualities before now, Ruth Skipper has seen to it that I'll never look at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra's woodwind section in the same way again.  
 
Friday night's concert concluded with an outstanding performance by virtuoso quartet Kan, featuring Brian Finnegan's adventurous flute, Aidan O'Rourke's audacious fiddle, Ian Stephenson's inventive guitar and James Goodwin's intuitive drum credentials. The spirited instrumental set was delivered with no small measure of expertise, which resulted in a fine way to finish the opening night's concert. 
 
The weekend continued to bring colour and vibrancy courtesy of some of the many dance sides, none more colourful than the floral Earlsdon Morris and the predominantly blue Boggart's Breakfast. If it wasn't the richly textured colours of the dance sides invading the narrow streets of Shepley that awakened the village on Saturday morning, then it just might have been the sound of one particular herd of Friesians. There's nothing quite as effective for waking up festival campers on a Saturday morning than the full force of Barnsley's Frumptarn Guggenband. With the deep thump of their bass drums bouncing off the surrounding hills, together with all manner of brass instruments working through infectious arrangements of well-known fun hits, the band soon had everybody joining in on the chorus of Bruce Channel's (or DJ Otzi's, but let's not mention Ringo Starr's) Hey Baby, with the burning question: I wanna know, do you come from't tarn?
 
One of the more noticeable elements of the festival is the continuing focus on youth. With several children's events including the school's concert on the main stage on Saturday morning, the festival recognises a need to nurture young talent, which plays a huge part in the festival programming. With the school's concert featuring performances from children from Scissett and Shepley First Schools, the children's events continued throughout the weekend, providing a glimpse for all of what the future might hold.  

The Coach House once again provided a peaceful environment for a strictly acoustic concert starting with Elliott Morris making his second appearance over the weekend. Presided over by John Thrall, who also performed a set of unaccompanied songs, the concert brought some highly expressive guitar playing courtesy of Elliott, along with further performances by the delightful Jess Morgan and husband and wife team Winter Wilson amongst others. 
 
It's something of a tradition now to see festival patron Roy Bailey appear at some point over the weekend. This year, Roy managed to bring tears to the eyes of many of those who have followed the singer over the years, probably more years that he (or thay) would care to mention to be honest. Yes, there were one or two moments of memory loss, one or two momentary forgotten lines in songs that Roy has lived and breathed for decades. This may have been the cause of some of the tears. Others may have been induced by the vividly remembered choruses; the songs that have become an enduring part of our lives, such as You Need Skin and Rolling Home, but I think most of all, those tears were there because we love him and we always will.
 
Once Roy left the stage to return to his family and friends backstage, a variety of dance sides of all colours and descriptions gathered for the massed dance display in front of the main stage. The dance sides included Earlsdon, White Rose, Black Adder, Pecsaetan together with their special guests from Spain, Pastorets of Catalunya, with their impressive stick routines, amongst others. Meanwhile down in the Village Hall, the afternoon concert commenced featuring performances by Gavin Davenport and Tom Kitching and the four-part harmony a cappella group The Teacups, making their festival debut. Headlining the concert was the winners of this year's Best Duo Award at the BBC Folk Awards, husband and wife team Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman. 
 
Kathryn and Sean once again thrilled their audience with a top class performance featuring songs from their current album Hidden People. Kathryn's heart wrenchingly gorgeous Ballad of Andy Jacobs effortlessly found its way to the top of my own personal festival highlights list and not for the first time. It was also lovely to see some front of stage heckling from the couple's twins.
 
The award winners continued on Saturday evening with this year's Young Folk Award champions Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar who received an enthusiastic welcome from an eager audience. Then the holder of last year's Wath Festival Young Performer's Award and Young Folk Award 2012 nominee Sunjay Brayne performed a fine solo set, featuring a handful of songs accompanied by some pretty informed finger-picked guitar.   
The two sets that followed featured a couple of trios, both of which were of particular interest. The young trio Lady Maisery, featuring Hannah James, Rowan Rheinigans and Hazel Askew, delighted the audience with their multi-instrumental dexterity and vocal prowess, whilst the legendary Nic Jones appeared at his now familiar podium, flanked by Belinda O'Hooley on piano and accordion and son Joe Jones on guitar. After such a long time away from performing due to a dreadful accident in the early 1980s, the singer returned to the stage in 2010 and has subsequently worked up enough material for a full set, including some of the songs that he's best remembered for such as Little Pot Stove, Canadee-i-o and Barrack Street. The voice may not be as strong as that of the 33 year-old who recorded the classic Penguin Eggs LP back in 1980, but the tenderness of his voice and unique phrasing made Nic's performance at this year's festival one of the most memorable and definitely brought another lump to the throat. That Nic Jones and Roy Bailey have a lot to answer for.
 
After a few moments to catch our collective breaths, Saturday night's concert concluded with a performance from one of the bands who appeared at the very first Shepley Spring Festival seven years ago. The Isle of Skye's Peatbog Faeries soon had bums off seats and into a full mosh pit to engage in an energetic example of contemporary Celtic dance music, effectively seeing that the audience danced the night away.
 
With one or two patches of mud slowly hardening due to the arrival of the sun on Sunday morning, the festival site was once again awoken to the sound of drum and brass, courtesy of Frumptarn. Bradshaw Mummers acted out their scenes, whilst fire was breathed dragon-like from the gob of Smoking Smith, thrilling both adults and kids alike. Eddy O'Dwyer opened the afternoon concert on the main stage with a set of songs accompanying himself on both concertina and guitar, followed by Brighouse-based singer/songwriter Roger Davies, who provided an engaging set of self-penned songs.
 
The afternoon concert continued with a captivating set by singer/songwriter Gren Bartley, accompanied by Sarah Smout on cello and Julia Disney on piano and violin. Performing a selection of songs from his current album Winter Fires, the trio held the audience spellbound with their flair for inventive arrangements and beautiful harmony singing.  
 
Presiding over the Shepley heat of the annual John Birmingham Song Competition was Elly Lucas and Damien Barber, both of whom were faced with the unenviable task of choosing a winner from the songs submitted and performed in the Coach House on Sunday afternoon. The winning song in this heat, one of six national heats, was April Fool, written and performed by Vikki Fielden. Continuing the celebrations over in St Paul's Church was Martin Simpson who recently celebrated his 60th birthday. Radio presenter Dave Eyre interviewed the singer/guitarist before a fair sized audience in the Church, where Martin talked candidly about his early days, his music and songwriting, his years in America and finally his new found 'contentment' as a family man. Martin was also presented with a huge guitar-shaped birthday cake, which was shared out amongst the audience.
 
Over the course of the weekend, The Teacups, featuring Alex Cumming, Kate Locksley, Rosie Calvert and Will Finn, became the darlings of this year's festival as they staged their debut album launch in the Village Hall, without actually having any of the product with them. Sadly, the delivery of the album was delayed by a few days but the band invited their enthusiastic fans to pre-order by using the forms supplied, which seemed to have a healthy up-take. With their extraordinarily intuitive harmonies, the a cappella quartet performed a stunning set during the afternoon in the Village Hall. 
 
New York-born now Cambridge-based singer/songwriter Annie Dressner opened the final concert on the main stage with a set of self-penned songs, followed by a highly entertaining set by David Gibb and Elly Lucas, who soon had the audience in the palm of their hands. Greg Russell on the other hand, had coconuts in his as he joined David and Elly for an enthusiastic rendition of the traditional Jerusalem Cuckoo
 
Martin Simpson brought a touch of class to the stage by mid-evening with a fine set of carefully chosen songs from his highly eclectic and prolific repertoire, including Leonard Cohen's The Stranger Song, Leon Rosselson's Palaces of Gold and the traditional Fair Annie. Nowhere else over the weekend did the guitar sound quite so perfect. Concluding Sunday night's concert was a most welcomed return of the much missed Flook, back to thrill in the only way they know how. With Sarah Allen and Brian Finnegan taking care of the whistle and flute department and with Ed Boyd and John Joe Kelly providing the rhythm section, Flook played as intuitively as ever; it was as if they had never been away.
 
After Flook's performance, all that remained was for festival organiser Nikki Hampson to take to the main stage in order to thank a few people. Most of the people who worked tirelessly throughout the weekend or indeed throughout the year to make Shepley Spring Festival the festival that it is, were there at the end even if a good few festival goers had by this time run for the hills. The Festival Hub was still packed to hear the traditional finale, which consists of the communal singing of the Holmfirth Anthem, or 'Pratty Flowers', which is now as familiar to Shepley folk as Meet on the Ledge is to Cropredy folk. Will Noble's stance on that stage is as firm and bold as the dry stone surroundings he had a hand in building. It's that connection with the land that makes Shepley Spring Festival what it is and long may it continue.   
 
Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky