Thursday, 1 September 2011

Shrewsbury Folk Festival - The Open Mic Highlights

One of the real highlights of the Shrewsbury Folk Festival this year for me was the superb open mic competition. I thought that it was unlikely to be as good as last year's final, which featured BarlowCree winning after defeating Kaleidoscope, Tri, and the Bailey Sisters - but how wrong can you get?!

Many people there saw Rosie Hood perform a stunning set prior to the C# Project on Sunday evening - fantatic scheduling by the way, guaranteeing her a well-deserved full house - but not so many saw the two excellent performances she gave to get there, or the wonderful artists she was competing against. For those who didn't see her at all, you missed a real treat - her unaccompanied singing of English folk classics such as The Lover's Ghost (also known the Holland Handkerchief) and Maids When You're Young Never Marry An Old Man were sheer bliss. We were warned by the MC when she went on stage for the winners' spot that she was rather nervous; indeed she said later on in the set that she'd never sung to more than about 50 people before - but you'd never have known in, as she settled in incredibly well. Astonishingly, this was apparently her first ever open mic competition - some debut! I was lucky enough to pick up the 5-track CD she's released in the Roots Records tent after the performance but sadly it doesn't appear to be available anywhere online that I can see. If you go to a festival and see it anywhere, buy it - you won't be disappointed if you like beautiful songs sung wonderfully!

I only caught a brief part of the first session, seeing CBA (Cliff's Barmy Army), a septet of talented young musicians. While more organised bloggers would have taken notes and stuff like that, I was bemoaning the lack of a pencil or paper to jot things down and hadn't quite realised that actually, you can do that on an iPod Touch which I had in my pocket, so am going from memory. I THINK there were 3 violinists, 2 guitarists, a bass player and a percussionist, but if anyone else saw them and can correct me am very happy for them to do so. Regardless of the exact make-up of the group, they showed excellent musicianship and a real stage presence; I'd love to hear more from them but sadly can't find anything online.

The one session which I caught all of was the second on Saturday. In a word, this was outstanding! The first half was very good, with the undoubted highlight being David Gibb and Elly Lucas, who I've been waiting ages to see, and the finalists from this year's Young Folk Awards didn't disappoint. Being completely honest, I was expecting that they would win this one at a canter after their brilliant performance of the charming Jerusalem Cuckoo, which had the audience singing along with gusto to the "Shout boys hurrah, my troubles they are few" refrain. (I should explain Jerusalem Cuckoo is about a donkey; I've just realised the 'canter' pun probably fails if you don't know this!) This Derby duo have an album coming in February and if the quality is this high for the entire CD, I'm ready to pre-order now.

It was the second half of the session, though, which positively dripped with talent. In addition to the already-mentioned previous winner Rosie Hood, we got local youngster Seamus O'Boyle, a singer-songwriter playing guitar, who performed two of his own songs - including Save Our Stiperstones, which he informed us was written as part of a successful campaign to keep his old primary school from being closed - and a cover of Todd Snider's Ballad of the Kingsmen, a largely spoken word track. Showing amazing stage presence for someone of his age, Seamus had the crowd getting really into his act and is certainly a prospect to watch out for in the future.

We then got Lichfield quartet the Offbeat - Facebook page here for those of you on FB, Youtube page here for everyone - a combination of 2 violins, a guitar, percussion, and absolutely gorgeous vocals. Playing their own instrumental Lev's Dance and singing the self-penned Half Past Nine, they also gave us a cover of Razorlight's Before I Fall To Pieces which was simply breathtaking, working so well that you would have sworn that Andy Burrows and Johnny Borrell had intended it to be a folk song when they wrote it. I have a feeling we'll hear rather a lot from this talented quartet over the next few years.

To close the session we were treated to the Bailey Sisters, unlucky not to win that incredibly close final last year - and possibly even more unlucky here, as they were if anything even better than 12 months ago. Their sweet harmonies made their acapella singing lovely to listen to, with a special mention for the beautiful Bells of Tallinn, written by Karen of the group, about the bells in the Estonian capital being hidden during the war to stop the metal in them being used for weapons. This was a breathtaking rendition of a stunning song, which I'd heard just once before, 12 months ago at the previous year's final, but could still remember most of the lyrics to it - a sure sign of a really well-written song.

Sunday's semi-finals were, by necessity, sessions I just dropped into - clashes with BarlowCree and Lucy Ward prevented me from staying as long as I'd have liked to. Still, some real talent here as well, although I've been less successful tracking down some online and am not quite sure if I copied one name down correctly (if anyone can spot mistakes and wants to leave a correction in the comments, that would be brilliant!)

The only act I saw in the first Sunday session was country singer Joanna Byrne. With superb guitar playing, two very good original songs, and a phenomenal Janis Joplin-esque cover of Kris Kristofferson's wonderful Me and Bobby McGee, I was really hoping to see her again in the final - sadly that wasn't to be. Still, a great talent well worth looking out for!

The last session before Sunday afternoon's final saw a young lady called Alice Brentford (I think, this is the name I'm not sure of) perform 4 pop covers. She had a really sweet voice and her interpretations of the quartet, particularly Coldplay's Viva La Vida and Maroon 5's She Will Be Loved, fitted in with the rest of the folk festival surprisingly well.

However, the deserved winner of the session was the excellent Rosie Hodgson - a singer-songwriter whose guitar playing, lyrics and vocals were all fabulous. Her particular standout track, for me, was the fantastic Liverpool Lullaby,  a composition of her own (NOT the Stan Kelly song), which will be there or thereabouts when I post my ten favourite songs of the weekend up.

I'm seriously glad I didn't have to judge the final as would have found it incredibly hard to pick between the talents of CBA, Rosie Hood, Hedgepig and Rosie Hodgson - but am very pleased I was able to catch so much great music by lesser-known performers over the weekend. I hope you check at least one of them out and enjoy them.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2011 - The Highlights

Well, back from Shrewsbury Folk Festival, which was fantastic as always - despite the lack of Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts, my favourite act of last year, I think this year's was ever so slightly better all round. I missed a fair bit of some acts due to clashes and other reasons, so am not even attempting to do a proper review, but thought I'd share my favourites.

I've tried to link to official websites/Youtube videos etc if you want to check stuff out. The Youtube vids aren't of the festival - although I may edit once some get put up - but are of the same songs, to at least give you a taste. Note to artists or representatives; if there's anything I've linked to and you want me to remove the link just leave a comment and will do so ASAP.

The big highlight for me was Lucy Ward - as good as she was 12 months ago, she's significantly better now AND I'm more familiar with her songs thanks to her Adelphi Has To Fly CD spending a lot of time in my laptop. She seems a completely natural performer, extremely at home on the stage and with an infectious warmth which the audience found irresistible. Her two solo sets were two of the best three of the weekend for me, mixing traditional songs such as Maids When You're Young Never Marry An Old Man and The Blacksmith (done in a brilliant blues style) with her self-penned work like Adelphi and the beautiful Bricks and Love, along with some amazing covers, notably Pulp's Common People and Blur's Tender. Lucy, if you're reading this, I would pay serious money for a Lucy Sings Britpop album! Although I'd pay fairly good money for a Lucy Sings... anything album, thinking about it. Her two standing ovations at the end of her last set today were well-deserved and having had the chance to speak to her she's just as nice in person as she is when on stage. If you haven't seen her yet, try and do so as soon as possible! (She's on at Derby Folk Festival 7th - 9th October, which I'm aiming to get to, along with Show of Hands, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, John Tams and Home Service, Calan, The Demon Barbers, and David Gibb and Elly Lucas. Looks like a fantastic line-up for sixty quid.)

Speaking of Show of Hands, saw them live for the fourth time on Saturday evening. The first time I found them a little bit hit and miss, the second and third times I enjoyed them more and more, and by now they're becoming one of my favourite groups - they'd be the other one, along with Lucy's 2 sets, in my 3 best of the festival. Difficult to pick a highlight from so many wonderful songs, but the closing trio of Boys of Summer, Galway Farmer and Cousin Jack takes some beating.

Following Lucy on Sunday would have been a very hard task for most groups, given how well she'd gone down with the audience. I honestly believe the majority of people would have struggled to make an impact - but knew The Young'Uns would have no problems. Again, I've seen this trio about six times now, and every time they are supremely entertaining - at one point during the banter between songs I was nearly falling off my seat I was laughing so much. (I won't repeat it in case there are youngsters reading; for anyone who was there it was during the instructions to react when hands were raised.) When talking about them, I always rave about the group's wit, humour and likeability but sometimes forget to point out they're also genuinely gifted vocalists whose voices blend together wonderfully. Highlights for me were Stockton Town, One December Morn, and the song we all whooped along to, whose name I've forgotten.

Unfortunately as Lucy Ward clashed with part of the C# Project I didn't see it all - having watched it earlier in the year I would have picked it ahead of NEARLY anything else, but Lucy was one of the few exceptions. I made it over to stand outside a packed tent at the end though, and it was clearly just as fabulous as it had been when I saw it first. I loved Maud and Cecil, and the encore (which I won't spoil for those yet to see it) was outstanding. Like the Darwin Song Project previously at Shrewsbury, it was great to see so many talented musicians coming together. Worth noting that when talking to people today this was getting huge amounts of praise; I think I was the only person I know who was there but wasn't watching all of it!

Another highlight for me was the triumphant return of last year's open mic winners BarlowCree, who won what I thought was a staggeringly good final in 2010, beating Tri, the Bailey Sisters, and a young group called Kaleidoscope who I've never found online but absolutely loved. This year's open mic - which will get its own separate post in a few days time - was, if anything, even more outstanding, but BC had graduated to the festival itself and from the two sets of theirs I saw were clearly fitting right in. They played the majority of their Holystone album, which I will definitely be buying come payday, and it went down very well. I saw part of their set on Friday and all of the one in the Bird in the Hand yesterday; I loved The Quay - their song about a love lost at sea - last year and it was just as good as I remembered, while I think I have a new favourite in Mallt-Y-Nos, about a noblewoman who chooses hunting over the church. (and given my shaky grasp of Welsh spelling it's a godsend that they have lyrics on their website.) Or maybe my favourite is The Devil and The Cobbler, a tale of a clever Welsh cobbler outwitting Old Nick. Or Newfoundland, their adaptation of the sea song. Basically, if you're interested in fine songwriting, great acoustic guitar playing, and wonderful lyrics, you'd be doing yourself a massive disservice not to check this pair out.

One set that I enjoyed far more than I expected to was Jim Moray's. I saw Jim twice when I was at university and absolutely loved him both times, back when he was singing mainly the traditional songs from his Sweet England album. Since he's moved slightly away from that kind of music, I've caught him twice more and not enjoyed it quite as much. There's no question that he's an immensely talented musician playing a style far removed from nearly anything else on the folk scene today, it's just not my type of music. However, I gave him a try on Saturday and was very, very glad I did so - he was awesome, playing brilliant versions of Lord Bateman and Sweet England, my two favourites from that album, and using Skype to team up with Hannah Peel for a superb Jenny of the Moor.

Finally, Martyn Joseph - I went into this one with high expectations after the rest of my family saw him at Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod earlier this summer and raved about him, but have somehow never found the time to listen to him. I wish I had, I think I would have liked it even more if I was familiar with his songs - but despite this I found it a great set and will definitely be buying a CD or two and eagerly keeping an eye out for his next appearance somewhere around this area. Just really, really good singing and guitar playing and a consistently high standard of song.

Finally, a special thanks to organisers Alan and Sandra Surtees for organising such a fantastic festival with a brilliant atmosphere and so many wonderful acts, and also to everyone who works and volunteers there. Definitely one of the highlights of the year for me and I already can't wait for 2012!

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Shrewsbury Folk Festival Preview - Ten Top Artists

Well, with around a month to go until Shrewsbury Folk Festival, ALL tickets are sold! For those of you not lucky enough to be going, though, don't despair - the main stage will be broadcast live on the festival website, while there's also the opportunity to catch some of the acts in the town of Shrewsbury itself as they play various pubs. (From memory, the Bird in the Hand, the Britannia, and at least two others which I've completely blanked out on had festival acts on last year, while other pubs joined in the spirit by having other acts or singarounds.)

Here are 10 of the acts I'm really looking forward to seeing.

BarlowCree (Sunday/Monday) - Last year's open mic winners - having won a quite frankly incredible contest which saw them beat Tri, Kaleidoscope, and the Bailey Sisters in a competition I was very glad I didn't have to judge. They took the prize of a set in the Boxfresh Marquee and came close to stealing the show from a lot of established acts I saw with a combination of wonderful originals and an excellent cover of Show of Hands' Cousin Jack.

Bellowhead (Friday) - I've somehow never seen Bellowhead live despite having been to two festivals where they were playing. This year is the one that will change that for me - barring mishaps! - and am really looking forward to it.
Cecil Sharp Project (Sunday) - I was lucky enough to see the first performance of this in Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury earlier this year - WOW! Similar to the Darwin Song Project 2 years ago at SFF, some very talented musicians got together to write some songs and tunes inspired by Cecil Sharp, and create their own versions of some of the songs that he collected. The line-up is stellar - Steve Knightley of Show of Hands, Patsy Reid from Brebach, Jackie Oates, Jim Moray, Kathryn Roberts, Andy Cutting, Caroline Herring and Leonard Podolak - and the group had an incredible chemistry considering just how quickly they'd put everything together. I went to the show in Theatre Severn thinking that it would free up some time at SFF for the inevitable clash with another act but will almost certainly end up watching this again, I loved it so much.

Demon Barber Roadshow (Friday) - Another act with a red hot reputation as superb live performers who I haven't managed to see yet. I have a horrible feeling they'll clash with Bellowhead - fingers crossed I get to see them both!

Martyn Joseph (Saturday) - Have heard relatively little of MJ but the rest of my family saw him at Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod a couple of weeks ago and have been raving about him ever since. Not intending on missing him this time around!

Jim Moray (Saturday) - I'm a bigger fan of Jim Moray's first album than his more recent ones but there's no doubt that he's a breath of fresh air on the folk scene today. Great music and a wonderful voice. 

Oysterband + Special Guests (Monday) - I have no idea who the special guests are, but with former member Chris Wood and past collaborators Jim Moray and Show of Hands amongst the artists appearing at
the festival there's potential for some amazing combinations here to give us an incredible finale.

Show of Hands (Saturday) - I've seen SoH three or four times live now and they just get better and better.

I've always loved certain tracks - Cousin Jack, Roots, Undertow and The Blue Cockade being probably my favourite four from earlier albums - but Arrogance Ignorance and Greed blew me away with virtually every song being amazing. Complete speculation from me - given Jackie Oates has toured and recorded with Show of Hands, will definitely be in Shrewsbury the following day for the Cecil Sharp Project, and is guesting with them at Sidmouth, could we be lucky enough to see her in this set as well? We can always hope!

Lucy Ward (Sunday/Monday) - Lucy is one of my very favourite folk singers currently around, and has only gone up in my estimation since releasing a superb debut album (which I reviewed last week.) Her two sets last year, at the festival itself and theBird in t he Hand, were two of my personal highlights of SFF and I'm sure we'll get more of the same this time around. 

The Younguns (Sunday/Monday) - I bought the Younguns album last year on the strength of superb performances at Warwick and Shrewsbury and it's kept popping up as something to listen to occasionally, but to be honest, nothing can match seeing this trio in person. Combining superb acapella vocals with brilliant stage presence and great banter with the crowd  they're a must-see live act. Again, they were superb at the festival last year but arguably even better in an absolutely crammed full Bird in the Hand..

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Review: Adelphi Has To Fly by Lucy Ward

Lucy Ward's debut album, Adelphi Has To Fly, has been eagerly awaited by me since it was first announced after she blew me away with 2 incredible sets of virtually completely different songs at Shrewsbury Folk Festival last year. Thankfully, this CD certainly didn't disappoint! It's bookended by the two best tracks - a simply gorgeous version of Samuel Lover's Fairy Boy which starts off acappella and picks up a few notes on piano from Belinda O'Hooley, whose playing sets off Lucy's voice beautifully, and the self-penned Bricks and Love, featuring the chorus of the Eriskay Love Lilt. However while this pair are my favourite songs, that's certainly not to say there's any lack of quality in between them - her tune to the old Tudor song Death (Rock Me To Sleep), possibly written by Anne Boleyn (depending on who you listen to) is superb, and the other songs she wrote herself are all impressive, with a welcome reappearance of the song she wrote for the excellent Derbyshire music Mills and Chimneys project, Alice in the Bacon Box.

A special mention to Stu Hanna's production, which never fails to highlight just how beautiful Lucy's voice is, and avoids overshadowing it at any points, and to the excellent standard of musicianship - which is to be expected, given the people playing on the album include Hanna himself and his wife Debbie, better known as the duo Megson, and another superb pairing in O'Hooley and Tidow.

For the chance to sample Lucy's exquisite voice for yourself, check out her Myspace which included clips of Fairy Boy, Alice in the Bacon Box, and Adelphi, as well as a wide selection of covers ranging from Blur's Tender to Dolly Parton's Jolene by way of the Nine Inch Nails classic Hurt - which she puts her own spin on, successfully making it really different from both the original and the acclaimed Johnny Cash version.

Full track listing

1. The Fairy Boy
2. Alice In The Bacon Box
3. Maids When You’re Young
4. Death (Rock Me To Sleep)
5. The Unfortunate Lass
6. Julia
7. The Two Sisters
8. Adelphi
9. F For Love
10. A Stitch In Time
11. Bricks & Love

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Live Review: 4Square Saturday 9th July

After spending weeks contemplating starting a folk music blog, I've finally been pushed into it so I can kick things off with a review of the fabulous 4Square at Llangollen's International Musical Eisteddfod on Saturday 9th July. Having seen them twice at Warwick last year - following up a great performance at the folk festival itself with an even better one in the town square as part of the festival - they'd quickly become one of my favourite live acts on the folk scene and I'd recommended them to several people when I'd heard they were playing so close to me. Thankfully, I wasn't disappointed - except for an aborted first set as they were stopped from playing due to complaints that the drum was disturbing the competitions in the main marquee! - and they performed a set packed full of great tunes with their usual excellent playing and fantastic stage presence.

As those of us lucky enough to have attended their sets before now, 4Square shows tend to be heavy on the audience participation and they were keen to get the crowd here involved. I have to say that even with Jim Molyneux's easy charisma and encouragement of them to join in on numbers like 'Egypt' and 'Latin' this seemed to be a bit too much for many visitors to the Eisteddfod to cope with and there wasn't as much enthusiasm as I was hoping for from the seats during the previous two numbers - but the crowd definitely redeemed themselves with some superb pirate noises during a loud and infectious performance of 'Beatrice', probably my favourite of the group's many instrumentals.

The true highlight of the day for me, though, was an absolutely exceptional performance of Pete Scrowther's gorgeous 'Lily of Barbary', definitely my favourite track from their two albums so far. The harmonies in this one are always sheer bliss and Scrowther's wonderful lyrics captured the imagination of the audience (although I could swear I could see people puzzled by the lack of a tragic ending given that it's a folk song!)

Musically, as always, the quartet were superb all the way through and Nicola Lyons's clog dancing was also brilliant. High recommendation as one of my absolute favourite live acts - and thankfully the people I'd said this to before Saturday all loved them as well!

For more from this talented group of youngsters check out their website or drummer Dan Day's Youtube channel. (If nothing else, at least take a look at James Meadows and his incredible hair!)