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Wath Festival 2013

Once again I spent the May Day Bank Holiday weekend in the small Dearne Valley town of Wath-upon-Dearne, where the community came out in force, at precisely the same time as the sun, for their annual spring celebrations. Now in its forty-first year, the festival continues to run two specific aspects simultaneously, an outdoor community festival with a whole range of activities, including various dance displays, samba, fame academy showcases, theatre, children's magic shows and a whole variety of stalls, whilst five music concerts take place over the weekend at the Montgomery Hall, featuring the cream of British and international folk and acoustic roots music.

My main role for the weekend was to get up on stage before each act in order to introduce them. If I wasn't doing that, then I would be snapping away somewhere, chatting to people and making new friends or watching the clock to make sure everyone got a fair spot in the limelight. It couldn't possibly have been a more enjoyable task. The music started on Friday night with the first of two sets of the weekend by Birds of Chicago, featuring Chicago's JT Nero (JT and the Clouds), Montreal's Allison Russell (Po' Girl) and Texan guitarist Joe Faulhaber. The trio soon relaxed into a soulful opening set, which featured songs from the band's debut self-titled album Birds of Chicago, including Galaxy Ballroom, the French language San Souci, Sugar Dumpling and the album opener Trampoline.
With Birds of Chicago being a particularly tough act to follow, it would only take a band imbued with such musical dexterity and sense of fun as the Urban Folk Quartet to make it work. The festival chose well when booking this band, which features the stunning musicianship of Joe Broughton, seen previously at the festival with both Kevin Dempsey and Chris While, along with Paloma Trigás, Frank Moon and Tom Chapman. Starting with Jaleo Bus/Up in the Air, the quartet entertained the Wath audience with both songs and tunes, which also included The Missing Jig, Dink's Song and The Stony Step Set.
Concluding Friday night with a lively set, was The Mighty Doonans, the widely respected and unique North East family band whose membership includes Mick, Kevin, Rosie and Fran Doonan, together with close friends Phil Murray, Stu and Jamie Luckley and Ian Fairbairn. Blending both electric and acoustic instruments with a brass section and uilleann pipes, the band brought a taste of their Irish and North Eastern roots with songs such as Step It Out Mary, I Could Hew, Rosie's beautiful Heart of Stone and a soulful rendition of Sam O'Cooke's Bring It On Home To Me.
On Saturday morning the community congregated around Montgomery Square for a full programme of events including the traditional opening ceremony, followed by a succession of dance and street performances, including Wath Morris, Lizzie Dripping, Harthill Morris, Maltby Phoenix Sword, Our Lady and St Joseph's Dance Group, Wath Comprehensive School's Fame Academy, Tin Pot Theatre and the Brampton Youth Street Dancing Group, with further children's entertainment provided by 'Ace Magic' alias 'Silly Billy' including magic, balloons and Punch and Judy show. This was followed by the traditional reading of the Last Will and Testament of Thomas Tuke, once in the Square and then again moments later up at the Church. One of the most enjoyable moments followed when hundreds of people gathered in the churchyard for the annual throwing of penny loaves from the Church tower at noon. It would have been even more enjoyable if unpleasant 'stink bombs' hadn't been thrown amongst the masses.
Whilst a whole variety of other activities took place throughout the afternoon, including the prize winning Chapeltown Silver Band, local performer 'Badgers in Blankets' and combined pan pipes and drumming workshops, the afternoon concert at Montgomery Hall took place taking me away from the sunlight for the rest of the day.
With sound checks accomplished, Tom Sweeney relaxed in the green room, picking out a few notes for his afternoon set with Charlie Barker, whilst the winner of last year's Wath Festival Young Performer's Award Sunjay Brayne prepared to open the afternoon concert.
Sunjay has been busy over the past twelve months, honing his craft and getting his name out there for all to see. With guitar at the ready, the singer/guitarist opened the concert with the song that sealed for him the winning position at last years' festival Love You Like a Man. Sunjay was joined by Charlie Barker towards the end of his set to perform Going Down the Road before concluding with his latest single, the old Bob Segar song Fire Down Below.
Shortly afterwards, Charlie Barker returned to the stage, this time with Tom Sweeney for a set made up entirely of songs from Charlie's 2011 album GHOSTS AND HEROES, including I Take My Chances, Silver Thunderbird, Nanci Griffiths' It's a Hard Life Wherever You Go, concluding with Richard Thompson's Wall of Death. The set was both relaxed and enchanting, with no small measure of friendly banter between the two musicians. 
During the introduction for the next set, I compared the songs of Ray Hearne with those of Woody Guthrie's, in as much as they speak to the ordinary working man in a language that he understands. Ray responded by declaring that his guitar "pulls its face at UKIP members". The most recent addition to the small list of Wath Festival patrons, Ray returned to the Montgomery Hall stage as if it were his own sitting room, performing songs such as Things To Say, Big Society, On the Beach in Rotherham and his timeless Song for David.
For the first of two performances of the day by the West Midlands-based quartet Toy Hearts, a band that features siblings Sophia and Hannah Johnson on guitar and mandolin respectively, their dad Stewart on dobro and banjo and Spike Barker on upright bass, the band chose to firstly perform their regular Bluegrass set, whilst demonstrating their chops as first rate pickers. With a selection of songs that included If Your Heart Should Ever Roll This Way Again, Carolina, Tequila and High Heels and the old Beatles number I'll Cry Instead, the band brought a taste of the Grand Ole Opry to Wath. Sophia's spellbinding guitar playing was no better exemplified than in her treatment of the old Doc Watson flat-pick instrumental Beaumont Rag.
Toy Hearts returned to open the evening concert with their Western Swing set. Starting with the old Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys standard I Hear You Talkin', the band demonstrated that they are equally at home with Western Swing as they are with Bluegrass, treating the audience to such standards as Ronnie Self's Big Fool, Wayne Hancock's Thunderstorms and Neon Signs and Hank Williams' My Sweet Love Ain't Around. It was particularly nice to see Toy Hearts play Wath Festival for what will be one of their last concerts before moving to Austin, Texas for a while. 
Making his long-awaited and eagerly anticipated appearance on Saturday night was festival favourite Vin Garbutt. Performing songs such as The Silver and Gold, Neither a Wife Nor a Widow, My Eldorado and If I Had a Son, Vin held his audience spellbound with his trademark Teesside humour and surreal stories. Entertaining the audience for almost ninety minutes, the unenviable task of calling the set to an end fell upon my shoulders, with the audience demanding an encore. Vin did however conclude with a song that summed up the audience's enthusiastic response to his set, You're Welcome Was So Warm.
Making her third appearance at the festival in four years, Heidi Talbot headlined Saturday night with her small band, featuring Ian Carr on guitar, Kathleen Boyle on Accordion and Megan Henderson on Fiddle. Selecting songs from her growing repertoire, Heidi delighted the audience with songs including Angels Without Wings, Start All Over Again, Music Tree and Tom Waits' Time, concluding with Sandy Denny's At the End of the Day. Heidi's set rounded off what turned out to be a most enjoyable Saturday night concert.
Sunday morning was rather quiet around the town of Wath-upon-Dearne, that is until the sound of bells woke everyone from their slumber. The bells in question were not from the church tower, but instead from the many legs of the Wath Morris side, busily walking off the night before in order to spread joy at the All Saints Parish Church during morning service. Shortly afterwards, the final day of concerts began with an appearance on the main stage by Lincolnshire-based husband and wife team Winter Wilson. Clearly enjoying their new married status having been together as musical partners for many years, the couple performed songs such as A Soldier's Tale, We Still Get Along and Storm Around Tumbledown with an airing of the brand new title song from the duo's soon to be released new album Cutting Free, whilst enjoying some marital banter on stage.
Between sets on Sunday afternoon, the aforementioned Wath Morris provided a dance interlude inside the Montgomery Hall, whilst Gilmore and Roberts prepared the stage for their eagerly anticipated set.
It seemed like a sort of homecoming when Best Duo Award-nominated musicians Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts took to the stage on Sunday afternoon, returning to the Festival for another outstanding set. The duo, who have recently been plagued with Kat's voice problems put everything aside to perform what could only be described as an outstanding set, featuring songs from their latest record The Innocent Left, including The Stealing Arm, Seven Left for Dead, Doctor James and Louis Was a Boxer
By mid-afternoon on Sunday, the audience was ready for what turned out to be another outstanding set by Birds of Chicago. The trio's second set of the weekend and final appearance of their current European tour, included some of the band's most arresting songs including Cannonball, Before She Goes, Fever Dream and the astonishingly gorgeous Sparrow.
One of the surprises of the afternoon was Ahab's energetic and fun-filled performance, which saw the band in playful mood. Intentionally shambolic in presentation, yet acutely harmonious in performance, the London-based quintet delighted the audience with their seemingly impetuous stage presence and naughty boy attitude. It seemed for all intents and purposes, just right for the conclusion to Sunday afternoon's concert. 
One of the most appealing aspects of the Festival this year, as in all previous years, was that everything was in close proximity and therefore the audience found it easy to mingle freely with the artists in and around the venue. There's still no need for barriers, fences or security guards at the festival, which makes for a much more enjoyable experience. Chatting with both Birds of Chicago and Ahab makes for an interesting combination. 
During the afternoon, Charlie Barker presided over the Wath Festival Young Performer's Award competition, held at the Wath Rugby Club, a short walk from the Montgomery Hall. The three finalists, including Rose Redd, Connor Bannister and Chris Whitely, performed before the judges, which included Bella Hardy and Anna Massie, presenting the judges with the problem of who to choose. The winner was announced on stage at the beginning of the evening concert, with Rose Redd smiling triumphantly, before performing a short set of songs accompanied by her brother Sammy 'The Squib' on bass, including her stand out song Perfectly Useless.
The concert continued with a set by the young Isle of Axholme duo Rita Payne, featuring Rhiannon Scutt and Pete Sowerby, making their Wath debut. The set included some of the duo's most familiar self-penned songs including Ashes, Stay and Forced to Run, with a couple of new songs including Not a Penny to My Name and The Well thrown in. Rhiannon and Pete also performed the Civil Wars arrangement of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean, which the duo could be seen performing on the BBC talent show The Voice on the previous night.
Edale-born now Edinburgh-based singer, fiddle player and compelling songwriter Bella Hardy also made her Wath debut on Sunday night with a fine set of songs accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Anna Massie. Clearly enjoying themselves, the two musicians performed some of Bella's finest songs, either self-penned or traditional re-works including Good Man's Wife, Dog and Gun, Labyrinth and The Herring Girl.
The headliner band for Sunday night was The Albion Band, featuring six young musicians who aimed to ensure this year's festival went out with a bang. With a full-on Folk Rock set, the band performed some of their most hard rocking songs including Roll Over Vaughan Williams, Thieves Song and Coalville, with a reflective look back over the band's illustrious back catalogue, including newly invigorated versions of Set Their Mouths to Twisting, Rise Up Like the Sun, I Was a Young Man and Poor Old Horse. 
So to conclude, a fine, well organised festival that seemed to go according to plan with very little fuss. For my part, all the artists went on and came off stage pretty much on time and the audience seemed to enjoy the programme of events. Wath Festival has been going for over forty years now, what could possibly go wrong? Who's coming next year?
Allan Wilkinson (Festival MC)
Northern Sky