Sunday, May 01, 2011

Bristol Folk Festival

This weekend I have

1: Drunk Gem Ale
2: Worn flowers in my hair (artificial)
3: Danced (there may be photographic evidence)
4: Drunk Gem Ale
5: Eaten three different kinds of hamburger
6: Played a hammered dulcimer ("You might want to hold those sticks by the other end")
7: The flowers, I mean, not my hair
8: Laughed (e.g at the little man singing about busking, and at Phil Beer's joke about the nerd in the music shop.)
9: Cried (about Joe Peel, John Ball and (actual proper sobs) Cousin Jack)
10: Points 1, 4 and 9 may be related.
11: Joined in, frequently.
12: Worn a union jack tie
13: Seen Steve Knightley dancing along to Remember You're A Womble
14: Seen Jim Moray playing his accordion in the bar
15: Seen English people queueing politely for the bar
16: Drunk Gem ale.

Friday Afternoon and Evening

Officially, the Bristol Folk Festival started at noon on Friday, although there was no scheduled music until three. Until then you could hang around and buy kaftans and hammered dulcimers and having your feet nibbled by fish, though. There were two men dressed as Wallace and Grommit outside the theatre. Whatever anyone else may say Wallace and Grommit are from Bristol. And Banksy. And Blackbeard. And Cary Grant. There was also the biggest collection of Morris Dancers ever assembled in captivity. One of the best things about the festival was hearing the tinkling of tiny bells and noticing that the person behind you in the queue at the bar was in full Morris regalia.

Oh, what foreigners must think of us, and how little we care!

However, I think the festival really began at 8.15PM, when Three Daft Monkeys, (a sort of sub-Bellowhead gypsy influenced dance band) performed a song about the legend of the Strasburg dancing-plague -- when lots of people supposedly developed a mental illness which meant that they heard music in their heads and couldn't stopped dancing to it. "They danced, they danced, they danced, they danced..." went the refrain. "Can you guess what they did then?" asked vocalist Tim Ashton? "They danced...they danced...they danced". Now, this isn't precisely my kind of thing. I'm more in my comfort zone when it's a guy with a guitar telling me he wants to share a very old story, about a lady, probably one sitting in a tower, very probably sewing a silken seam. Never mind. Everyone was seated, in a very English decorum Westminster Abbey kind of way. We worked out that the closest we could get to dancing...and dancing...and dancing...was swaying...and swaying...and time with the music. We swayed. A couple in the front row got up and bopped vaguely. And then two people started dancing. It was perhaps more a tango than a waltz. Didn't matter. We were at a folk festival. And the folk were dancing. Dancing in the aisles....

Actually, I'd already had two personal highlights by that point. The first group on the main stage were Sean "Seth's Brother" Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts. Initially, I thought they were going to be a bit shouty and electric for my taste. But two numbers in, Kathryn announced that she was going to sing her favourite song "which I learned from the singing of June Tabor." (And there is no better place the world to learn you favourite song.) This was a lovely deep expressive cover of a Pete Bond's Joe Peel, the beautiful terrible ballad in praise of an ordinary life. "You'd never have believed it you'd known / How many people mourned your going / And how lucky folks still feel / To say they knew Joe Peel". Broke my heart all over again. Really. She also did her own, rather brilliant modern song in the persona of a coal-miner, explaining to his wife why its his duty to join the strike, even though their livelihood is going to fall apart.

I was indifferent to Phoenix River Band – local sub-American electrical country rock, although I did enjoy the mock dust bowl ballad about praying to God for rain.

But next up (we didn't stir from the main hall for much of Friday) was Jim Moray, one of my utter favourite performers. Rather surprised he wasn't a bigger draw, actually, although it was early in the festival and he was up against the reasonably large name Bella Hardy in the other hall.

To be honest, I am indifferent to some of his electrical jiggery pokery. He had an apple mac on the stage ("just need to check my e-mail") and was doing clever things like sampling his voice on the spot, so that he ended up singing multi-part harmonies with himself. All jolly clever, but I don't think his voice needs that kind of enhancement. (Not that the electrical stuff and weird traddy/ hip-hop mashups on the Low Culture album aren't brilliant, or course.) He's at his best sitting at the piano singing the cod-traditional Poverty Knock -- often done as light Morris style sing a long, (Poverty poverty knock / My loom it is singing all day-oh / Poverty poverty knock / The gaffers too stingy to pay-oh) but here a mournful lament to a life wasted in the factory; or standing with the guitar to draw out the melody of the Rufford Park Poachers or yet another version of the Cruel Sister. ("Here's a song about beating your sister to death with a stick and throwing her body in the river".) I find his voice impossible to describe: I keep resorting to words like "choirboy" "innocent" "cheeky" "ethereal" -- the album covers with him as a kind of nature spirit somehow seem appropriate. There's a perpetual catch in his voice, as if the story of Lord Bateman's love for the King of Turkey's daughter or the three poachers murder trial is bubbling up from inside him, or as if it's so sad he can hardly bare to sing it. He really is something extremely special and unusual. And he clearly loves the traditional song book enough to muck around with it.

I can't remember one thing about Ruarri Joseph, so I assume I didn't like him very much.

The headline act, Seth Lakeman, I hadn't ever heard him before. He's the patron of the festival, and very popular. I'm afraid he was the one low point of the weekend for me. I just didn't quite see the point of him. Certainly, he's a mean fiddle player, and the climax of his main set, doing that faster-and-faster -and-faster blazing fiddles thing, was quite exciting. Intellectually, I understand what this kind of music is meant to be doing: my heart is supposed to beat in time with the rhythm (horror movie makers try the same trick, I am told) and this is supposed to make me so excited that I want to dance to it. All as theoretical as some of that young people's electrical drum and guitar music I've occasionally heard. (Nick made me listen to someone called The Wedding Present last year. Very interesting they were, but I kept thinking "I wish he'd send this nasty band away and let me listen to the obviously quite clever lyrics.") Of anthropological interest only: the main lyrics were clarly based on traditional folksongs, but it was so overwhelmed by rhythm that he could have been singing anything at all. Do folkies like this kind of thing, or is he "the folk musician for people who don't really like folk music?" I quite like the Pogues and seem to remember enjoying Gogol Bordello a year or three back, so clearly electric noise and folk can be brought together in ways I like. He went down very well with the rest of the audience.

Saturday Afternoon

Arrived about 12. Folkbuddies inform me that I have missed the first spontaneous full on standing ovation of the weekend, for Wildflowers, a trio consisting of three children around the age of thirteen (two fiddles and a guitar). They do a spontaneous set in the bar later in the evening, and they do indeed seem to be astonishing.

I start the day in the upstairs bar where the always reliable Hodmadoddery are applying their inventive guitar stylings to John Barleycorn -- and what better way is there of feeling that it is really spring and you are really at a folkfest then by listening to two men with guitars singing John Barleycorn in a bar? This is followed by an open night. The standard is extremely high, as you'd expect. She has a beautiful voice, but isn't at all confident on the the guitar (says me, who can't play a note). A young girl named Catherine Holt, accompanied by her father on the guitar, looks fantastically nervous, and then delivers a flawless, and quite emotive cover of the Soldier and the Princess.

Folkbuddies went off to see the Mummers Play about the life of Brunel. (If you don't know what a Mummers play is, it's part way between Morris Dancing and a pantomime. If you don't know who Brunel was, then, all you need to know is that he came from Bristol. They said it was great.) I stayed in the bar to hear a band called the Bristol Shantymen, because they come from Bristol and sing sea shanties. They were stunning. Not because they sang great tunes, were a decent choir, and had one man with a rather weak voice but who was brilliant at doing the funny lines and the silly long-drawn out yodels, but because they really, really, really, really, cared about the history of sea shanties. They could tell you about particular old sailors who used to sing these songs in pubs in the 60s. They cared about which songs were specific to Bristol and which came from elsewhere. They sang a shanty with the "call" lines in French but the "response" lines in English, because that's how French sailors sung it. They loved their material. It oozed authenticity and love for tradition. This is the kind of thing I'm here for.

Had to take a bet on whether I'd be more likely to enjoy Mabon("interceltic funk folk") or Pilgrim's Way ("gimmick free folk at it's finest) in the smaller Fred Wedlock stage (named after Bristol's oldest swinger in town.) Naturally went for
Pilgrim's Way. They ran though some very adequate versions of traditional songs (Weaver and the Factory Made, Tarry Trousers) before utterly blowing us all away with the songs which gave the band its name. They called it "a great humanist song" but I must admit that during the compulsory "all join in" bit, I sang "The people Lord, thy people are good enough to me" (as opposed to "the people, oh the people"). Because that's what Kipling wrote. What a great poem! It deserves to be far better known than the horrible "If..." And what a stonking tune Peter Bellamy made up for it. I have occasionally thought that a couplet from might stand very well at the top of this very blog:
And when they bore me over-much, I shall not shake my ear
Recalling many thousand such whom I have bored to tears
And if they labour to impress, I shall not laugh or scoff
Since I myself have done no less and sometimes pulled it off

Phil King has a big local following. Lots of people clapped him. I could really take him or leave him. He can play his guitar, no doubt about that, but his voice doesn't excite me, and his songs seem.... Artificial. Inauthentic. It reminds me of that review of Virginia Woolf, where the reviewer wanted to shout "No, she didn't!" after every line of the novel. Apparently, when the singer was stung by a scorpion, it reminded him that Orion, the only constellation he can recognise, died from scorpion wound, and that he feels as if that hunter has somehow watched over him through his life. "No, he doesn't!" 

Other people seemed to like him a lot.

Caught the very end of Elfynn in the main hall. They appeared to be rather good.


I have done a bad thing.

Last night I drunked beer, and this morning I woke up feeling distinctly woozy, and found that I had nothing in the fridge for breakfast. What a shame there isn't some kind of, I don't know, supermarket at the bottom of my road. (OH! YOU CAD! YOU BOUNDER!) So I walked in via Cabots Circus and taken breakfast in, er, McDonalds. Not a very traditional way to greet the first day of May.

Apparently some of the Morris sides really did get up before the break of day-oh to great the May-oh at 4AM on the patch of grass behind the shopping mall-oh. (Fay Hield tells us later that the Newcastle's version involves washing you face in the May-dew, or, since the park in question is much frequented by pet-owners, the May-poo.) My enthusiasm doesn't extend quite that far, but when I get to Colston Hall, the seating has been removed from the main auditorium, and various groups are hey-nonny-no-ing away. 

Some ladies are doing rapper dancing in doc martin boots, with a caller in a top hat. Another all-female group are doing something possibly connected to a May Pole dance, holding long flowery sticks in the air and making arches; followed by one of those ones where they bash sticks together. There is tiny girl of about eight, who seems to be as good a stick-basher as any of the others. A male group leaps around and waves hankies in the air. "Before we go, can I draw your attention to this spot" says the old-timer who leads the group, pointing to one of the places from which seating has been removed. "That's where I was sitting when Bob Dylan played the Colston Hall in 1966." 

Yeah. There can be nu-folk and folk-rock and punk-folk and people I wouldn't swear were folksingers at all but I deeply respect and approve the way the festival has tried to establish links with the old, the traditional, and, indeed, the silly. 

Dyer Cummings, who I have never heard of, were a nice bouncy dancy band, who played a lot of infectious tunes with the usual fiddle-accordion-guitar combo, but topped out the set by leading the audience with an akapella John Ball (the aforementioned Sydney Carter carol about the preacher who was killed for supporting the Peasants Revolt). "Are all Protestant hymns like that?" asked Folkbuddy.

Only caught a little bit of today's Open Mic but I was glad I did. Tony O'Hare is a guitarist who haunts local folk clubs. He sang a silly ballad about the brouhaha that blew up a year or so back when a wartime bomb was discovered in the river (it turned out to be a supermarket trolley, of course). And a song about busking all day and earning "six quid and a banana". And splendid piece about MPs expenses, with increasingly preposterous Dylanesque rhymes for "sleaze". (The joke was compounded because the song used the harmonica riff from Lilly, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts, and I would totally have noticed that if Folkbuddy hadn't pointed it out.) He wasn't the best writer, singer or guitarist of the weekend. But he came the closest to embodying my idea of what a "folk-singer" ought to be like: a guy ploughing his furrow in the bar, playing to anyone who'll listen and trying to make them laugh. (He was also clearly a believer in Tom Lehrer's maxim that singing 50 verses is twice as enjoyable as singing 25). And he was the person during the weekend who most strongly made me think: "I want to learn to do that." 

And thence to the main hall for the sellider (pronounced "barn dance) led by, get this Spiers and Boden. (That's like saying that you've waltzed to Yehudi Menuhin, isn't it?) There is in existence photographic evidence of me on my feet, wondering what a willow is and why one might want to split one, whether I am couple one or couple two, and precisely which is my left and which is my right. I may have initiated a couple of collisions. Folkbuddy 2, I hear, caused a major pile up. Folkbuddy claims to have taken a superb picture of Folkbuddy 2 and I, but found no evidence of it on her camera when she got home, and has therefore supplied the above line drawing. Jon Boden sang the one about the spotty pig, but mostly, the two Jo(h)ns just played perfectly bounced tunes, with ebbing and flowing rhythms that you can't help dancing to. Well, or badly, as the case may be. 

The Fay Hield Trio I almost overlooked, owing the fact that the programme decided helpfully to tell me which other artists her record label published, rather than the salient fact the other two members of the trio were Robert Harbron (as in "Kerr, Fagan and") and Sam Sweeny. That is to say: one of the best squeeze box men in the business and one of the best fiddlers in business. "Sam is in another group called...." explained Fay. "Bellowhead!" shouted the audience. "Kerfuffle!" I suggested. Actually, the trio could usefully have been billed as "a bit like Kerfuffle", in that you had virtuoso fiddling and melodian-ary behind exquisite female vocals, doing traddy material like King Henry and nearly traddy stuff like Oak, Ash and Thorn. (Mr Kiplings Poem, set to music by Peter Bellamy, who may have been mentioned before and may indeed be mentioned again.) Fay Hield is Jon Boden's partner. The last day of the festival was, as you might expect, Bellowhead-centric. 

The small hall was a very nice space when it was half empty: you could sit on the floor or lean against walls -- but when there was nothing going on in the main hall, it got awfully crowded and became "standing room only". Balshazzar's Feast perform seated, so I only got a glimpse of the tops of their heads. This was a little frustrating, as it meant that one could hear frequent ripples of laughter from the front three rows who were (I assume) the only people who could see what were (I assume) hilarious on-stage antics. So I can 't say whether I would have found them terribly funny or (as I suspect) terribly irritating. I will certainly try to hear them again and see them for the first time at some point. 

This was really the only logistical issue over the whole weekend. People formed neat, British queues without any rioting at all outside the main hall before the headline acts, but actually I think this was hardly necessary. For Bellowhead on Sunday night, frixample, everyone in the standing area mosh pit could see perfectly, and anyone who wanted to be there could be. 

(Question: Why does Belshazzar's Feast use an image of two heads on platters on their album cover? Surely that was Herod? Belshazzar's was the fellow with the writing on the wall?)

Sheelanagig, preceded Bellowhead on the main stage. I could take them or leave them. They were clearly very good. I think it was slightly ill-judge to precede Bellowhead with a rhythmn based klezmer (didn't look it up, taking a shot in the dark) party band. However good they were (and Folkbuddy observed a small child, just in front of our party, who seemed likely to explode with excitement) they weren't going to be as good as Bellowhead. I suppose having gone to the trouble of clearing out all the chairs, it made sense to have another band people could dance to to. I'd maybe have preferred a total contrast. This was the only point where I felt I was watching a support act and waiting for the main group to come on. 

Bellowhead are fantastic. Bellowhead are always fantastic. It is their job to be fantastic. There is plenty of space in the main hall, so people can stand if they want to. They can jump in the air to Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth. They can indicate with their fingers whether Jack is up to the rigs or down to the jigs of London town. They can shake their heads in time with the Slo Gin set. There are rumours, in fact, that Bristol's Only Celebrity Folk Blogger (TM) may have attempted to few faltering polka steps with Bristol Leading Citizen Folk Journalist (TM) during Oh You New York Girls, Can You Dance The? Jon Boden eschews witty banter, and simply sings. When I first heard it in the Old Vic last year, I had my doubts about Port of Amsterdam, but I now think it's the best thing he does. A signature song. He seems to be in melancholic agony every time he sings it. He sings about the girl who will only marry the lord if he can answer six questions ("and that is three times two") as if no such song as ever been sung before, seeming to scratch his head and think for a moment before realizing that the cock was the first bird that did crow and the dew did first downfall. There is just the faintest trace of surprise in his face when he tells us that the finest month in all the year is the merry, merry month of May, as if he has only just noticed that he's singing the song on May Day. I still think that there are moments when the performance blots out the song: The Two Magicians ("wizard copulation") is too good a story to get lost amongst the ska style brass (I looked it up) -- and we only get to sing bide lady bide (there's nowhere you can hide a couple of times. But the Broomfield Wood utterly remains a folk song. You can hear the pique in the horse's voice when he's blamed for not waking up the sleeping lord. And Jon chews up the furniture for Cholera Camp, as always. ("Theeee chaplain's got a banjo....!") (Cholera Camp, Pilgrim's Way, Oak, Ash and Thorn: we have rather been followed around by Mr Bellamy's interpretations of Mr Kipling this weekend. You can't listen to Folk Song a Day and not realise what high regard Boden holds Peter Bellamy in.) The stage sprays the audience with confetti during the final number. With their songs about lusty blacksmiths seducing shape shifting wizards, and knights falling into magical sleeps in broomfield woods, and jolly sailors being ripped off by jolly prostitutes, and jolly prostitutes being ripped off by jolly sailors, and happy beggars, Bellowhead are, in their highly idiosyncratic way, painting a picture of yet another England. It is not clear with their piratical stylings are intended to impart a john barleycornish new life to Merrie Englande, or if they are actually taking the piss out of the whole thing. Probably both at once. 

The bar stays open after the show finishes. It hasn't run out of beer. (When I first saw the revamped Colston Hall, I thought "Why have they attached an airport lounge to the theater." It has grown on me. How many theaters are there where you can get a drink after the show?) Someone starts playing the fiddle. Half-a-dozen ladies in civvies get out their rappas and start dancing; another lady, starts calling out the moves, just like she was doing, in her top hat, on the floor of Colston Hall this morning. The bar-staff turn off the lights as if they want us to leave, and then possibly think better of it and turn them on again. The rappa-ing finished, a guy and a girl start unselfconsciously doing leap-in-the-air scottish country dance steps. Someone produces an accordion to accompany them: it turns out to be Jim Moray. (Twenty minutes earlier, he'd been up on the main stage, giving Bellowhead the Froots prize for Best Album of 2010 in his capacity as winner of the best album of 2009. Hedonism was, incidentally, no way the best album of 2010. I think he regularly plays the squeeze box for Nonesuch Morris.) 

In the end, Bellowhead is a party: a party going on on stage, to which the audience is invited. They aren't what this music is about. It's about ballads that make you think and make you cry and make you cross. It's about someone being up on stage one minute, and playing in the bar to an audience of none the next, presumably because he likes it. It's about amateurs who care about which work-song was sung on which ship when and strumming away to silly ballads about something they read in the newspapers.

1 comment:

culfy said...

I would have loved to go to the Bristol folk festival. Sadly, I didn't even get out of the house to the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.