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Wath Festival 2014 - An MC's Perspective

Wath Festival is nothing short of a relaxing holiday for me, despite being asked every year to stand up on the main stage and introduce all the acts; what easier task could there be, especially if you're fond of all the singers and musicians up there and have a splendid back-up team milling about here and there? Being the voice up there on stage on behalf of a hard working committee is a labour of love for me but one I take seriously. This year especially, I found a smooth running operation, where I was able to arrive at the festival in the morning confident that stage manager Leila Cooper would have all the artists feeling comfortably at home, whilst the organising team and stewards would be there out front greeting the audience with warm smiles. All I had to do was be there ready to be handed a radio microphone at the appropriate time and then pop up there on stage to introduce someone I quite like. Simples, as they say.
 
Voted the best 'Village Festival' in 2013 by Fatea Magazine, the Wath Festival celebrated its 42nd year over the Bank Holiday weekend, once again bringing together the community in a celebration of music and dance together with street theatre, arts, crafts and photography and of course the 200 year-old tradition of throwing bread from the church roof on Saturday noon. Having a well-established pedigree, the festival this year stretched to almost a week, starting with a photography exhibition by the Dearne Valley Camera Club, a dance showcase at Montgomery Hall the Saturday before and drum, pan pipe and ukulele workshops during the week leading up to the weekend. The focus of the festival came on Saturday morning, when the community gathered in the town square for various dance showcases, featuring Wath Morris and visiting dance sides, rapper dance, a samba band, school dance teams, street theatre and even this year for the first time children dancing around the maypole. The traditional ritual of reading out Thomas Tukes' Will followed by a procession up to the Parish Church, whereupon dozens of bread loaves were hurled to the masses from the church roof, brought back memories of previous festivals over the years. Having stood in that churchyard many times before, with camera in hand, I knew instinctively to keep my eye on the bread buns or otherwise have one land squarely on my forehead. It has happened, much to the amusement of onlookers. 

Meanwhile Montgomery Hall played host to several concerts throughout the weekend, which was where my particular focus lay. The opening concert on Friday night featured British Columbia's The Sweet Lowdown who, concluding their current British tour brought a taste of Bluegrass and Old time music to the festival. Gathered around a single microphone in Grand Ole Opry fashion, the trio featuring Amanda Blied on guitar, Shanti Bremer on banjo and Miriam Sonstenes on fiddle, delighted the audience with a set of songs and tunes from a bygone era. Lau's Kris Drever followed with his first solo appearance in four years by his reckoning, with a relaxed set of both traditional and contemporary songs, whilst headliner's Ashley Hutchings' Morris On Band provided a superb set of Morris dance tunes, peppered with humorous doggerel, eccentric dance routines including the Clay Pipe Dance courtesy of Simon Care, the Sweeping Brush Dance courtesy of Guy Fletcher and some Morris dancing by Five Rivers Morris, along with some songs including one by guest singer Judy Dunlop.      

One of the relatively new features of the festival is the annual Young Performers Award, which was once again presided over by Charlie Barker. This year the competition was held on the main stage on Saturday afternoon for the first time. This gave me a break from my duties, which enabled me to join the audience and thoroughly enjoy the competition. The shortlisted contestants included singer/melodeon player Ollie King, singer/songwriter Dylan Brierley and singer/fiddle player Hannah Cumming, all of whom performed three songs before the festival audience as well as the three chosen judges. Judging this year's competition was the former Chairman of the festival David Roche, one of the current organisers Danny Stockdale and special guest Flossie Malavialle, who after some deliberation chose Somerset-born Hannah Cumming as this year's winner. Hannah followed in the footsteps of previous winners Luke Hirst and Sarah Smout (2011), Sunjay Brayne (2012) and Rose Redd (2013). The concert also featured a set by last year's winner with her trio, followed by a closing set by Flossie Malavialle.

The only downside to being in Montgomery Hall on a fine spring day is that you might be missing out on the sunshine outside. Good fortune was on the side of the Wath Festival this year as in many of the previous years, as the sun did indeed come out to play and simultaneously put a smile on the faces of everyone on the village green. As the beer flowed, music and dance continued throughout the afternoon with several bands and artists performing on the outdoor marquee stage, including Sheffield's The Broken Saints, whilst children's events and activities took place on the village green.   

Saturday night's concert at the Montgomery Hall featured a show-stopping performance by The Demon Barbers XL, which included various dance styles from traditional clog, rapper sword and energetic street and hip hop dancing, with the core Demon Barbers band on top form. Earlier, Rhyl's Goat Roper Rodeo Band brought some of their very distinctive 'cosmic country' flavourings to the festival with a highly energetic opening set, followed by Teesside's husband/wife team Megson, who performed some of the new songs from Stu and Debbie Hannah's brand new album In a Box due for imminent release.  

With little rest for the wicked, largely due to some very late night hotel nightcaps, the concerts continued on into Sunday afternoon, opening with a relaxed performance of unaccompanied songs courtesy of South Yorkshire singer Kirsty Bromley. Making a welcome return to the festival, singer/songwriter/frapper Pete Morton delivered a storming set of self-penned songs, predominantly from his new album The Frappin' and Ramblin' Pete Morton, a veritable feast of social observation, which at one point saw the singer compressing the history of England into one single song. After Pete's highly engaging set, the four-part vocal group The Teacups took to the stage to engage the audience further in some well-arranged traditional songs and shanties. Headlining the Sunday afternoon concert was Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston, who brought a touch of class to the afternoon concert, featuring both traditional and contemporary songs arranged for two diverse stringed instruments, the double bass and the mandolin, with the occasional bouzouki thrown in.

On Sunday evening, festival concert programmer Hedley Jones took a gamble on the New York-based psychedelic rock outfit Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, whose highly entertaining stage show soon garnered the appropriate support from the Wath audience. Hedley's initial concerns were dashed as the Sunday night concert became the weekend's first sell-out show. After a slight technical hitch at the beginning of their set, the band presented their 'Grand Slambovians' show, which incorporated just about everything from Leonard Cohen's Suzanne, Donovan's Hurdy Gurdy Man and even Merle Travis' Sixteen Tons to their own hugely invigorating blues stomper Trans-Slambovian Bi-Polar Express. Earlier in the evening Sam Carter made his Wath debut with a fine set of self-penned songs, followed by local favourites Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman, who performed a sublime set of songs both new and old, including the stunning Ballad of Andy Jacobs

For the first time in the history of the Wath Festival I was pleased to announce to the audience on Monday afternoon "welcome to Wath Festival Day Four", as the festival added an extra concert on Bank Holiday Monday with a concert featuring Rusty Shackle and The Dovetail Trio, who both delivered well-received sets. A late addition to the programme came in the form of Driffield-based singer/songwriter Edwina Hayes, who performed a spotless opening set of self-penned songs with one or two well-chosen covers including Leonard Cohen's Famous Blue Raincoat and John Prine's The Speed of the Sound of Loneliness.

Switching off the radio microphone and handing it back to one of the sound crew for the last time before the final song of Rusty Shackle's set, I felt that I wanted to go back to Friday and do it all over again. Each year, we tend to feel that we've made a few new friends from all over the country, this weekend including a couple from as far away as California. Over the years Wath has played host to many of our top performers on the folk and acoustic roots scene from Fairport Convention, Battlefield Band and Lau to Eliza Carthy, Cara Dillon and Dougie MacLean, but this year I had an inkling that we might have just witnessed our best year so far. So here's to the next 42 years.    
 
Allan Wilkinson
Northern Sky