Saturday, July 07, 2012

Priddy Folk Festival

It rained and it rained and it rained. Piglet said that in all his years of going to festivals, and he was goodness knows how old -- three was it or four? -- he had never seen such rain. Except at Glastonbury last year, of course. That was real mud. At Priddy I didn't do much worse than get the tops of my wellie boots damp. In the old days when we had proper mud, we used to sink right down to our knees. Took two people to pull me out, it did, and leave my boots stuck in the mud. And you try to tell people that, and they just don't believe you.

In a way it is a Good Thing that this festival was such an Adventure. It is the first proper folk festival I've gone to under my own steam, as it were, and having survived more or less intact and even had a good time, I will feel confident of striking out on my own the next time two men with fiddles and one man with an accordion are playing music in a wet field in Somerset. (For example, the Trowbridge Village Pump festival the weekend after next. It could plausibly be argued that I am completely insane.)

Priddy is a smallish village, about 6 miles from Wells (as in "the bishop of Bath and") and about 15 miles from Brizzle. The only thing I knew about the place previously was that in the 19th century someone heard a friend of a friend remarking "As sure as the Lord walked in Priddy" and spliced the place into the "Jesus lived in Glastonbury" myth which Dan Brown inexplicably ignores. There is a church, a village hall, two pubs, a village green, no shops and a regular bus service (every Tuesday). I had a plan to get the bus to Wells and walk to Priddy if the weather was nice. So I got a taxi, shared with a nice man with a beard who was headed the same way and seemed to know absolutely everybody, and told me slightly more about medieval coins than I was able to absorb in one sitting. We had a drink in a pub and I proceeded to the Field to put up my Tent. 

All credit to the man in the camping shop at the top of Park Street. I asked for a tent that was a: waterproof and b: idiot proof, and he sold me an end-of-line thingy for about £25 which was so light that I was fairly sure there must be a bit missing. (Do the Boys Brigade use this type of tent nowadays, I wonder? I can't help thinking that tents which are easy to put up and stay where you left them even on dark and stormy nights take all the fun out of camping.) I erected the thing in a light drizzle; and while I had to admit that what I ended up with was tent shaped, the instructions (which made Ikea look like a model of clarity) gave relatively few clues about what I was meant to do with the various pegs and ropes that came with the package. Having put my tent as "up" as I could make it, I went back to the field where the actual music was happening.

The "official" part of the festival (accessible only to those of us who had purchased arm bands) consisted of two marquees, with concerts going on on Friday night, Saturday afternoon and evening and Sunday afternoon. They had, of course, cunningly arrange for James Findley, who I badly wanted to hear, to be playing in the small tent and the same time as Belshaazzars Feast, who I even more badly wanted to hear, were playing in the large tent. Such are the frustrations of festivals. I seem to recall that at Glastonbury (which was very muddy) faced me with a choice behind the Wombles and Show of Hands. Having positioned myself towards the front of the main tent, the rain decided to level up from drizzle to torrential, which made any question of running between tents, or even grabbing a beer, rather moot. Someone said that the entire rainfall for July fell that evening, although I don't think that can be right because it rained the next day as well. All I could think of was whether my extremely small tent would actually still be there when I got back....

The Saturday Do was opened and compered by The Willbees, two men singing close harmony and playing the ukelele, with a nice line in silly patter songs. I particularly enjoyed the one about the reversible ("I call it percival") fleece. We also had Jackie Oates, doing her sweetly traditional thing, this time in the company of a guest hurdy gurdy player. We had The Incontinentals, a comedy skiffle band who obviously believed themselves to be the funniest thing in the world. If they had quit the stage after 20 minutes, I might have agreed with them. We laughed when they sang an insanely OTT Grand Coulee Dam in cod American accents, practically getting on their knees for " uncle Sam's fair land..." And we were almost literally rolling in the aisles when they said "And now, we're going to introduce the band...." before going into a huddle, turning their backs on the audience, and introducing the band to each other. But there is really only so long that it remains amusing for one person to sing a song while the other person puts a chicken on his head.

I finally got to hear a full set by Balshazzars Feast. (I was right at the back of their set in Bristol 2011, and came in at the end in Frome this year.) They are rather brilliant. Paul Sartin is the one from Bellowhead who isn't Spires or Boden.  He sings and plays the fiddle. Paul Hutchinson plays the accordion. At no time do either of them put chickens on their heads, but if music could ever be "funny", this is funny music. It drifts from folk to music hall to light classical and back, so you are not quite sure how you got from a grim traditional one about being careful of picking your wife because most women are no good to "Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside". They get laughs merely by bobbing up and down in tune to the music. Inevitably, we finish with "...and we jolly sailors were lying up aloft while the landsman were lying down below below below..." with traditional folk actions. ("You look quite stupid" Paul tells the audience.)

By the time Spiers and Boden (the ones from Bellowhead who aren't Paul Sartin) arrive, the road into the festival has actually flooded. "Thank you for inviting us to the Venice of the West" says John Spiers. They have clearly taken to heart my comments about needing to vary their set, adding a Farewell Lovely Nancy which I don't think I've heard them do before, and a brand new take on the Seven Yellow Gipseys, slowing the tempo right down and adding a chorus to emphasize that it's actually a sad story about marital breakdown. (Expect it to be a fixture of their concerts all next year, and on the Bellowhead album after that.)   This doesn't mean they don't do the obligatory Bold Sir Rylas and the even more obligatory New York Girls, of course.

After concert. Returned to camp site. To my astonishment, my tent was still standing, and, indeed, almost completely dry on the inside. The ropes with the tent pegs attached to them had moved, but I stuck them back in and went to bend. Either I stayed up all night listening to the rain, or else I woke up every time it started to rain. Time passes at strange speeds under canvas.

Emerged from tent on Sunday morning. It was not actually raining. The ropes with the tent pegs attached to them had moved in the night; I stuck them in again, and proceeded straight to the New Inn and consumed Full English and coffee, followed by a coffee and a coffee, and then, not being quite ready to face the rain again,  sat in on a Sing Around during which an old man was so moved by a Steeleye Span song that he was unable to complete it. 

Thence up the hill to the village hall where Wil Kaufman was doing his astonishing live documentary about Woody Guthrie. This one-hour festival version concentrates on Woody's life story and skips over a lot of the background about the depression. Kaufman is a gripping story teller with well practiced audience pleasing gags. ("Has anyone read, or is anyone planning to read, Bound For Glory?...If you haven't, make sure you have your bullshit detectors on. If you's too late.") He sings a mix of Woody songs (Do Ray Me, So Long Its Been Good To Know Ya); sub-Woody songs (The Unwelcome Guest) and related contemporary numbers (The Preacher and the Slave, Brother Can You Spare a Dime). He winds up with his literally jaw-dropping reconstruction of This Land Is My Land based on Woody's original notes (he has a photo of himself in the Guthrie archive with Nora) when the refrain was going to be "God Blessed America For Me" and "This is land is my land..." was going to be the eviscerating final verse. He encores with Steve Earl's Christmas in Washington. Stunning. The longest and warmest ovation of the whole weekend, and an early front runner for next year's Takes Out An Onion award. 

(The Plan had been to proceed from the village hall to the church to hear Three Cane Whale, but as a great man might have said, the church was full and the church was packed, so I went back to the field and listened to the overly bluesy afternoon concert instead.)

Two big musical discoveries  on Saturday night – were The Young 'Uns, a three man outfit doing a mix of close harmony traditionalish (they kicked off with the cheery "Every day you're in this place you're two days nearer death..") and self written industrial ballads with names like "Love In a Northern Town" and "Waving Good Bye To Stockton". The other was the gently marvellous Colum Sands who sings sparkly witty humorous songs which just stop short of caricature Irish whimsy. He offers songs about the daft things people say at wakes and songs about the daft things people say when you try to ask them for directions and serious reflective ones about carrying water from the well with his aunty, and ones that are half way in between, like the quite mad "Whatever you say, say nothing" which clearly arises from growing up during the Troubles. ("If an Irish village is called Kil-something it means there is a church there. Actually, most villages have two churches, one for us and one for them. Some have a third one, for the others.")

He did an additional, informal set with Rory McLeod in the pub on Sunday morning. It has to be said that much as I like groups of skilled musicians going diddly-diddly-dee on the stage while the audience get more and more excited ("If some of you would like to get up and dance in your wellies" says either McCusker, McGoldrick or Doyle "That would give us a good laugh") it's these informal, intimate moments which is what I go to festivals for. Rory McLeod was a revelation. I enjoyed his Saturday night set with his band – harp, double bass, lord knows what else – but I think his talent is shown off to much better effect when he's just singing. There's something of the white rapper or at any rate the performance poet about him: rambling songs, obsessed with rhymes, that get caught up in their own metaphors. The one about the old man who took a job in the old fruit and vegetable market for a week and stayed there for 50 years seems to go on and on forever without being too long.

The final Sunday afternoon included Phillip Henry (mouth organ genius) and Hannah Martin (fiddle and banjo  person) who I am starting to feel that I have heard the requisite number of times this year. (They've been opening for Show of Hands.) They are actually very good. Phillip demonstrates that by taking a mouth organ apart and combining it with "beatboxing" you can make it sound a lot like a melodian; and they wind up with a really very special blue grass shoe gaze trance version of the Lazy Farmer Who Wouldn't Hoe Corn. I don't know what that means either; but it was mournful and bluesy with lots of twangy bits round the edges. Heidi Talbot sang a song about a grey starling that is flying over the sea, trying to find the light at the edge of the land. It was only after five verses that I realised that it was the same  grey starling that lived in a lighthouse and rescued sailors from storms. Mabon wound the festival up by making practically everybody dance. The Sunday concert was massively improved by MC Tony Slinger (he's always around at these things doing ceilidh calling) who did a marvellous job of revving the audience up before and after each act. In fact, I am pretty sure that he told each act to wind up their set five minutes early so they could do an encore. It somehow feels like a downer for an act to go off stage with the audience stomping for more and the compère to have to say "I'm sorry but we're out of time."

So: having put the tent up successfully and pulled the tent down successfully, and not fallen on my arse in the mud even once, I felt that I had avoid all the pitfalls, literall and metaphorical of the weekend, and headed back to the Queen Victoria pub (where lots of people were still playing spontaneous sessions), ordered a beer and a burger, and asked if the landlord wouldn't mind pointing me in the direction of a taxi firm to take me back to Wells in time for the last bus to Bristol.

It appears that "Priddy" is the West Country equivilent of going South of the River. I felt, I do not mind telling you, like a bit of plonker. I could have phoned for a taxi at 5 o clock when the music finished, or at 6 o clock when I had demolished my tent. "Oh no" quod I "It is only 6 miles up the road, and I do not want to be struck stranded waiting on Wells bus station a desolate place full of lost luggage and lost souls for two hours!" I could, in fact, have set out after the music finished, and comfortably have walked to Wells in time for the last bus. Oh no, said the taxi people, we can't come all that way at this time of night. Not for hours.

The pub was presided over by one of those country landlords that they don't make them like any more. I strongly suspect he spent his spare time organising pilgrimages to Canterbury and forgetting about important letters to Hobbits. He appeared to know everybody, even the people he didn't know, to maintain a funny banter with them, and not to mind if lots of people who couldn't quite remember all the words to Matty Groves were in his pub provided they kept on buying his beer. Unflappably, he said "Just walk down to the sign post, follow the sign to Wells; there's a bus stop three miles up the road; if you start now you'll be able to have a pint at the Hunters Lodge and still catch the last bus". (You see, all the Landlords know each other: the pubs are connected by leylines, I shouldn't wonder.) This I did.

I am going to claim now, as a mean of winding up the story amusingly, that having reached the age of 100 (*) without ever having hitch-hiked, that as I rambled down that long dusty road with a back pack on my back I stuck out a thumb, was picked up by a passing motorist, and the weekend ended with bonhommie and chat about the relative merits of Show of Hands and Bellowhead. In fact, it didn't even occur to me to stick my thumb out. A nice man who had taken up the fiddle late in life saw me with my backpack and stopped without asking and took me all the way back to Bristol.

Because most people are nice. There were a thousand people at the festival, I guess, and lots of beer being served, but I didn't see one single police officer. They could have been disguised as morris dancers, I suppose. There were some of the mad violent kind who black their faces up before hitting each other with sticks. (Morrismen, I mean, not police officers.) But honestly, when was the last time you heard of a folk music riot?

(*) No, sorry, that's Woody Guthrie.

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