The Beverly and East Riding Folk Festival, Beverly, South Yorkshire, UK, June 20-22, 2003
Beverley is a small town in South Yorkshire, UK, with medieval roots. To the historian it is probably best known for its minster. The town boasts that York and Beverly are the only places in the UK with minsters.
To folkies, however, Beverley is known for its festival, this year held for the 20th time. It would have been the 21st had not last year's event been skipped due to financial difficulties. Despite being held in late June each year, it is an indoors festival, with two main venues. The Picture Playhouse just by the Market Square holds about 300 people and is used for concerts. Or should I say was used, since this was probably the last time the Playhouse was host to live music -- the building is being sold off and will be used for other purposes.
In the Leisure Centre, on the outskirts of the town, the main hall, usually a sports hall, is used for the big concert. Smaller rooms are used for more intimate performances and workshops. The grounds around the Leisure Centre are used for campers, and there are marquees with craft stands and food. At the Beverly and East Riding Folk Festival you have to make choices. Concerts start simultaneously at different places, and since one of the pleasures of festivals is the chance to get acquainted with new names, you sometimes have to guess with concert you will get out the most from.
Here are the choices my wife and I made over the weekend:
There were three opening concerts Friday evening. We chose the one in the Picture Playhouse. The opener was Sarah Hayes, a girl not yet 20, who has already won quite a reputation on the folk circuit. Hayes is a good singer with a warm and comforting voice, a brilliant flute player, and she sometimes accompanies her singing with piano playing that tells of a classical training on the instrument. She is by no means just a chord banger.
Hayes sticks to traditional material, always telling about where she found the songs. She makes no effort to modernize the songs, just carrying the tradition. She still has a few rough edges to cut off, but Hayes could certainly be a new leading light in the making. A pity, though, that very few of her own age were in the audience.
Alcaysha followed, two sisters and a male from Southern England, heavily influenced by American music. Very nice harmonies, some good guitar work, but otherwise they did not make me rush out for CDs.
Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham were introduced as virtuosos, and they are. The lovely tone of Bain's fiddle, always spot on, and the many ways Cunningham uses his accordion show them to be true masters of the respective instruments. We are talking real professionals. They gave us an hour and a half of wonderful instrumentals, ranging from the slower-than-slow airs to loud and boisterous reels, when Cunningham's right hand moved at such a speed over the accordion keyboard that it is a wonder he hit any keys at all.
And then there were the introductions. In spite of the superb playing, I think we got treated to more laughs than music. They always have a story to tell, or a nice one-liner, like "we are not as young as we were, nor as we would like to be, and it's not getting any better." Full marks for everything. Do not miss them.
Early Saturday afternoon in the Playhouse, Martin Simpson remarked that lunchtime concerts feel like a continuation of the night before. He started with songs from his brilliant Bramble Briar album. They showed Simpson to be to the guitar what Bain and Cunningham are to their instruments, a true master. Whether backing his own singing or playing instrumentals, there is a remarkable fluency about his playing, always adding small details.
The second half of his performance was devoted to American music, some from his forthcoming album. There was an unaccompanied song about a jazz funeral in New Orleans, some slide blues and a song by his wife about growing up in Chicago. Good, but to my mind nothing beat his performances of "Polly on the Shore," Cyril Tawney's "Sam's Bar" and the slowed down version of "One More Day."
Barachois opened the afternoon concert in the Playhouse. They are a quartet from Prince Edward Island, Canada, on their farewell tour. They sing mostly in French and are more of a show band than a regular folk group, very enjoyable on stage. One of their features is the ability to combine tap dancing with fiddle playing. More about them later.
Jim Moray belongs to the same generation as Sarah Hayes. He has a good voice, some jazzy piano chords and an interesting approach on how to use the electrical guitar to back traditional songs. During his 40 minutes on stage, he did one of his own songs and then stuck to traditional songs. It is nice to see young people re-discover the songs my generation discovered 30 years ago. They bring a freshness to the music that we have lost. There is certainly hope for traditional music. And I must say Moray's version of "Lord Bateman" is the best I have heard.
Danu, a young Irish group, have expanded to a septet, adding a female singer/flute player to their ranks. She has a dark and rather clouded voice, a bit different from what you are used to hearing in Irish music. Danu work from the standard Irish-group formula, fast and furious instrumental sets and slow songs. But they do it superbly. They build a wall of sound and keep a pace that makes it hard for the listener to stay in the seat. Highly recommended.
Comedy has always been an integral part of British folk music. Some people have started their careers as folk singers, then turning into full time comedians. Billy Connally is but one example of this. It was therefore most appropriate for the festival to have a comedy club on Saturday evening. And was it popular? Well, more than 200 people crowded into a room with 150 seats. And yes, there were lots of younger people there as well.
The Doghouse Skiffle Group, a three piece from Hull playing tea chest bass, washboard and guitar opened. Good singers all of them, they delivered songs from the 1950s and 1960s in a modernized skiffle style. And when the washboard nearly fell apart they reckoned it was not such a good idea to play on the night of the release of the new Harry Potter book. A most enjoyable group.
Barachois performed a completely different set from the afternoon, concentrating on the comedy side of the group. Good singers, dancers and musicians, they included French horn playing, some operatic singing and hilarious send ups of Mick Jagger and the BeeGees that had the audience in tears of laughter. They completely brought the house down and were persuaded to do two encores. My favourite quote was from the male fiddler. "I am not old. I have not even got all my hair yet."
Old Rope String Band got the almost impossible task to follow, but they rose to the occasion. Being more comedians than musicians, they did not play one single serious song during the set. They included a unicycle, a vacuum cleaner, accordions falling to pieces and a silent movie in their performance. Closing with the three of them playing six instruments, two each, they went down well, but could not really match their Canadian friends.
An integral part of the folk festival are the workshops. I went to see Martin Simpson talk about guitar styles Sunday at lunchtime. From the start it was question time, and Simpson showed no hesitation when it came to revealing secrets of his style. On the contrary, his true aim seemed to give us all the opportunity to play as well as him. Most of the workshop revolved around open tunings. Simpson often starts from open D or G major or DADGAD, but he has a few other tunings up his sleeve as well. He sees the tuning as a way to make playing as easy as possible. He said the thought of block chords, pressing down all the strings at once, was horrible. Simpson recommends that you get as good a guitar as you can afford. If you have a good guitar you enjoy your playing. So you play more and you get better. Then you enjoy it even more, play even more and get even better.
The afternoon concert at the Playhouse may well have been the last concert ever in that lovely hall, a point that was stressed a few times. Alcaysha and Jim Moray repeated what they had done earlier on during the festival. Martin Simpson added a superb version of "Geordie" and finished with a powerful version of Richard Thompson's "Strange Affair." Headlining was the rather new Eliza Carthy Band. Eliza is the new superstar of English folk, a position she has earned from her competence rather than being somebody's daughter, though she admits that her father has rather a big collection of music and that she has learned a song or two from both him and her mother.
She started with an a capella version of "The Golden Vanity." Then on came the band, at the moment nameless. They augmented Carthy's own fiddle with two more fiddles and a melodeon. I like Eliza Carthy very much but I was totally unprepared for this. The mere suggestion of forming a band with three fiddles and a squeezebox might seem quite ridiculous, but it works. Sometimes they were more powerful than rock bands with heaps of amplifiers, yet at other times they played so beautifully you could not but be moved. And all this with a completely traditional repertoire. I could say I have seen the future of British folk, but I would be lying. The Eliza Carthy Band are here and now, the present at its best.
The final concert in the main hall was very different affair. A large stage, with a starry backdrop, it gave more a feeling of showbiz than of folk music, and, well...
Opening was Sam's Band, a music project involving a primary school. About 40 very young students performed a few tunes, led by their music teacher. Then on came Darrell Scott, an American songwriter, guitarist and singer. A strong voice, expert guitar playing, but I have the disadvantage of being totally unfamiliar with any of his work, so I am not going to pass any judgement. I know many people spoke very well of his contributions over the weekend.
Then it was the Eliza Carthy Band again. Same line up, but mostly new songs, including one penned by the lady herself. Eliza played what looked like a mini four stringed guitar for two songs. The performance only confirmed my feelings from earlier. This is a major new act, doing their own thing and doing it brilliantly. May there be an album soon.
To close the festival, Lindisfarne took the stage. Like a few other groups I started listening to in my youth, they have carried on and perfected their art. Nowadays they are a great rock band, combining classics like "Fog on the Tyne" and "Lady Eleanor" with new songs. Had it been a rock festival I would have greeted them warmly, but to me they broke the spirit of the weekend. But I was clearly in very small minority.
I like the Beverley and East Riding Folk Festival. It has a charming, informal feeling to it, with loads of good music, Morris dancing in the streets and a number of good pubs with both both great food and great beer. And it does not wreck your finances neither. I paid 46 pounds for my weekend ticket, including all concerts and workshops, and there are plenty of pubs and bars where you can get a meal and a pint for less than ten pounds. And charging just a pound for the programmes, eight pounds for the t-shirts and two pounds for a pint of beer in the concert venues shows that this is not organized to rip people off. See you there next year maybe?