Various Artists, Saddleworth Folk Festival, Uppermill, Lancashire, England, 15-17 July 2005

The English summer season is filled with folk music festivals. For anyone thus inclined it is possible to spend the whole summer doing at least one festival every weekend. And each weekend you will have a hard time choosing which one to go to. The Saddleworth Folk Festival is a relative newcomer, with this being its eighth year. But it is doing well, with a selection of national and local performers, with the odd international group thrown in for good measure.

As with all these festivals, it is impossible to attend everything. There is music everywhere; pubs, civic halls, streets and parks, and not all of what is happening is in the official programme. On the Saturday alone, Saddleworth presented 26 different programmes, from a short official opening ceremony to the main evening concert of about four hours. There were six different things to choose from starting 7:30 or 8:00 p.m.

So this is a brief overview of some of the things I went to. I have chosen only to mention the groups and singers I liked, so I will not mention the bagpiper who spent numerous hours playing in the park without ever getting in tune . . . The emphasis is on what happened on the Saturday, since Friday only had three concerts, of which I attended one, and I left at lunch time on Sunday.

There are always some big stars to pull the crowds to the festival. Saddleworth does not have an abundance of stars. It seems like the organizers are confident the event itself will lure people into coming, and they are quite right in this.

The main star for me was Bob Fox. Since what you might call his reintroduction to the folk world with the Fairport Winter tour in 2000, he has gone from strength to strength, making three good albums and getting to headline festivals. And he deserves all of this. He is an extraordinary live performer, with a lovely soft voice and blistering attacks on the guitar. At the main concert on Saturday evening he performed a selection of songs from his albums in the usual assured manner. And the Sunday morning "Meet the Singer" session with him was a delight. In a relaxed atmosphere, he played requests and talked about his background and influences.

Another big name is John Tams, who seems to have been in the limelight for at least a quarter of century. He appeared with Barry Coope, a lovely singer and keyboard player. Their set revolved around the softer songs of John's repertoire, mostly the ones from his own hand. The best were the starter, "Lay Me Low", "Harry Stone", and the closing "Rolling Home". But the real highlight was John's recollections of funny signs he and Barry have come across while touring. What about "Good homemade sausages, 75 yards left". Or the one he encountered in the hospital, "Family planning. Use rear entrance."

You may go to a festival for the big names, but the main purpose for me is to get to hear acts I have not heard before. Saddleworth broadened my list of favourite performers quite a bit. A selection of my new favourites:

Colcannon are from Australia (and are not to be confused with a North American group by the same name). Three women and two men of various ages play their own and other people's songs. Their harmony singing is wonderful and young Emma Luker on the fiddle has a lovely warm and rich tone in her playing. They have made a number of records. I bought their two latest CDs and will probably write more about them in the future.

There is a widespread brass band tradition in North England. The local Boarshurst Brass Band has been around since 1849 and has won many competitions. The band gave a wonderful concert in the Civic Hall, with a young (were are talking a 5- or 6-year-old) percussionist playing the cymbals and charming everyone. But even without him they are outstanding, with a broad repertoire (among it a James Bond medley and "Singing in the Rain") played superbly.

Dangerous Curves are something completely different. Three middle aged women singing harmonies and blending serious songs with hilarious lyrics about not wanting G-string knickers for Christmas or the advantages of getting rid of your husband. And for the men in the audience they confessed in "Women's Wicked Ways". Not strictly folk, but we're open minded, aren't we?

Grace Notes is another female trio. They are more traditional in their approach, doing real folk songs and contemporary songs by writers like Steve Tilston. Each of the members has a long history and many of you will be familiar with the names: Maggie Boyle, Lynda Hardcastle and Helen Hockenhull. A group I would not mind going to a folk club to get a full programme from.

And last, but not least, Kerfuffle. Remember that name and where you read it first. They may soon hit the big time. Four teenagers playing powerful, and I really mean powerful, folk music with conviction, enthusiasm and skill. They go mainly for the instrumental and play with the same confidence as people who have played for years and years. They gave me the same kick as groups like Dervish and Danu. Whatever will become of them when they grow up?

So, Saddleworth is a festival well worth considering for anyone. Do not be put off by the fact that they do not boast that many stars. It is well run, and the Saddleworth area alone (a lovely area east of Manchester/Oldham) is well worth a visit, even when there is no festival to attend.


[Lars Nilsson