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Underneath the Stars
Sunday nights at most festivals seem to reveal a distinct sense of a speedy wind-up, where everyone begins to pack up, tent pegs are pulled, food outlet vendors wash up their well-used equipment and cars begin to vacate the field in an orderly manner, and the music hasn't finished yet. At Underneath the Stars however, Sunday night is far too important for any such talk of vacating the place, as our host Kate Rusby prepares to take to the stage for her now annual home turf concert. Kate takes centre stage and is aware that each and every member of her family, together with all her friends are close by, if not actually on the stage beside her, then scattered around the site doing their part. It's a family affair. You will not see a more relaxed Kate Rusby anywhere else in the world than right here on her own doorstep in Cawthorne, near Barnsley.
For five years now this annual event has taken place and this year at a different location for the first time, just a stone's throw from its original home Cannon Hall Farm. Neighbouring Cinderhill Farm is an ideal setting for this family oriented festival, surrounded by nature-designed forestry, the poplars acting as a perfect windbreak, not that there was any wind to speak of this weekend. The sun was very much out, covering the site with a golden glow. It was sunglasses and hats and factor 50 for the kids. During these last five years the festival has garnered a reputation as a second-to-none family festival with plenty to do for all the family, but also for its insightful and varied music programme. It's as though the mission has always been to please everybody, which it generally does, with its fine headlining pedigree; Richard Thompson (2014), Mary Chapin Carpenter (2015), Vieux Farka Toure (2016) and Newton Faulkner (2017). The festival also maintains a keen ear on the ground for rising talent, giving exposure to the likes of Olivia Chaney, Kitty McFarlane, Gary Stewart, Toby Burton and Fabian Holland, to name but a few.
As a major figure on the British folk music scene as well as being very much a household name, there's something incredibly warm and touching when Kate Rusby takes to the stage to have a chat with her oldest pal Sally Smith, who between them willingly let the audience into their childhood secrets, accompanied by unflattering slides and early music experimentation, including early home cassette tape recordings. This very portion of the festival programme, which began quite by accident last year, is the most engaging part of the weekend. You feel from this point on, that you are very much a part of the family.
Three hours later, the audience would be treated to a headline performance by Steve Earle and the Dukes, who would provide something completely different. Grace Petrie, who had performed her set a couple of hours earlier, hugged the stage, watching intently as the Virginia-born, Texas-raised and now Nashville-based troubadour delivered his message in song, treating the audience to a handful of new songs from the band's new record So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, to one or two familiar classics from Steve's back catalogue, including My Old Friend the Blues, Someday, Guitar Town, Copperhead Road and I Ain't Ever Satisfied.
There's a tendency to forget that Andy Kershaw is first and foremost a journalist and his sense of adventure is still very much in his blood. With limited time to cram in as much of The Adventures of Andy Kershaw as possible, Andy took to the big Planets Stage armed only with his hard-travelled LP box, a faded BBC logo just barely visible, which evidently holds nothing but toilet rolls. Andy pretty much left the content of his presentation up to the audience from a handful of suggested themes; "The Clash" cried one eager punter, whilst another wanted to be regaled with the Rolling Stones episode at Roundhay Park. "How about Dylan?" cried another. It was all a bit rushed but thoroughly entertaining and informative.
If Andy Kershaw, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and Joanne Harris and the Storytime Band could reluctantly be described as 'novelty' acts, they certainly were not out of place when billed alongside more serious music acts such as Blues singer Amythyst Kiah, composer John Metcalfe (with a fine performance by Rosie Doonan) and experimental folk tour de force LAU. It all made for a richly diverse programme, geared to provide a broad range of entertainment throughout the weekend, which would include British folk music (Melrose Quartet, Jack Rutter, Martha Tilston, Lori Watson), Americana, Old Time and Bluegrass (Damien O'Kane and Ron Block, Midnight Skyracer, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards), to what could loosely be described as World Music (Maya Youssef, I See Rivers, Yves Lambert Trio), not forgetting local talent, notably the Barnsley Youth Choir and throughout the weekend, the richly decorated Frumptarn Guggenband, showcasing their Mexican 'Day of the Dead' theme.
One of the most poignant moments at this year's festival was the appearance of Syrian musician Maya Youssef, who was suitably dressed for summer as she took command of her 78-string qanun, flanked by fellow musicians Elizabeth Nott on percussion and Stefan Knapik on cello to perform pieces from her Syrian Dreams project. The music gave us an opportunity to pause for thought "I will play this music until peace prevails" said the musician.
It's certainly not just the music that keeps families happy throughout the weekend though, there are plenty of other activities going on around the festival site, including the impressive Pendulum Wave Machine, the Playground of Illusions, various workshops and crafts, together with the hugely popular Panic Family Circus. Children are not only allowed to run around anywhere they like here, they are actively encouraged to; it’s their festival too. Cinderhill Farm provides a safe and clean environment throughout the weekend and the absence of litter is noticeable. I dare say this doesn't happen by accident and beneath the gliding ducks there's a whole busy mechanism of waddling feet; they just make it look simple.
By Sunday night, the quiet meadows stood empty beneath a cloudless sky as the main stage marquee filled for the festival finale, which featured Kate Rusby and her band with one or two special guests, including Mike McGoldrick and comedian Jason Manford, who joined Kate for a duet of Falling Slowly from the Once soundtrack. This year the name Underneath the Stars could not have been more perfect as the sky darkened revealing all the stars available to the naked eye, the space station making an appearance just after midnight, as the sound of the California Feetwarmers' own particular take on Dixieland jazz resonated into the night. Underneath the Stars is a most beautiful festival and is yours should you want to join in with the fun.
Words: Allan Wilkinson
Pictures: Bryan Ledgard