The well-established and highly successful Southwell Folk Festival took advantage of the extended Bank Holiday to run for four days this year. Record crowds attended, and the number of artists appearing hit a new high, writes Graeme Stephens.
The festival site, off Normanton Road, was just part of the story: Seven pubs in the town – The Bramley Apple, The Hearty Goodfellow, The Final Whistle, The Old Coach House, The Admiral Rodney and The Crown – hosted events throughout the Bank Holiday, and many of the stars from the main programme dropped in to add their contribution to the celebrations. Morris Dancers paraded in the streets of the town, and a lively and exuberant atmosphere pervaded every corner of Southwell.
The proceedings on the main site were started off on the Friday night by the legendary Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, in a marquee that must have been twice the size of the one used in previous years. Festival-goers are used to acts starting late, but Jules did things differently – he started almost half an hour early! Even then, there were few empty seats in the ‘Big Tent’, and the enthusiastic crowd was treated to a rip-roaring succession of typical ‘Jools numbers’, performed with gusto by the man himself and his accompanying band of world-class musicians.
After his performance, Jules left the site in a bit of a rush, almost – but not quite – enabling some of his fans to boast, “I was run over by Jules Holland!”
Saturday started with clear skies, a talking point in itself as festivals and rain seem to go together in the UK. Not this time though. The record-breaking crowd were treated to a breathtaking range of music and entertainment, both inside the tents and outside too. Music was taking place not only in the main marquee, but also in the slightly smaller tent, the bar tent, and in three Mongolian Yurts set up in the woods – an innovation for 2012. Speaking of tents, many of those attending chose to bring their own, and the camp site across the road from the main site was a sea of canvas and barbeques – when the weather allowed – see later.
Perhaps the highlight of the day was the evening appearance in the main tent of Dougie Mclean, the Scottish singer-songwriter and composer. He is also a fine guitarist and fiddle player, and kept a huge crowd on the edges of their seats with his poetic lyrics and melodic playing.
Normal service was resumed on Sunday, with rain throughout most of the day. However, this did not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds, or the performers. With so many venues to choose from, most people found it easy to dodge the showers and dart in and out of pubs and marquees to enjoy the wide variety of music available – music to suit all tastes.
Everyone attending had the option not just of sitting watching others play, but also attending a wide range of workshops and activities, including singing harmonies, playing percussion, song writing, Irish music, etc.
Every year, there is an Open Mic competition, always good to watch, and the winner is invited back to the following year’s Festival as a main site artist. Last year’s winner was the delightful Fay Brotherhood, and she performed two excellent sets during the Festival. The 2012 competition will be a close-run thing, as the amount of talent on display was astonishing. The winner is unknown at the time of writing, but I am looking forward to their performance in 2013, whoever it is!
When not involved in watching or playing, Festival-goers could wander around the site, where a wide variety of vendors were displaying their wares – clothing, musical instruments, food of every variety, etc. Students and Staff from the Newark Violin and Guitar schools were displaying their work and their skills, and were even happy for the public to try out their precious instruments. Children were catered for in a special tent, where some of the parents seemed to be enjoying the fun as much as their offspring.
One of the most popular events was the Ceilidh, where a record-breaking number of dancers whooped and whirled to the music of groups, including the astonishing Glorystrokes.
Day Three. Sunday. That’s better – the true Festival experience: rain, a cold wind and mud, glorious mud. Many people had clearly stayed away, but your intrepid reporter braved the elements to bring you, dear reader, a first-hand report of the day.
The most memorable event of the first hour was holding a mug of hot tomato and chilli soup from one of the many catering tents. Bliss! Around the site, one could see the stallholders peering out at the few potential customers slipping and sliding their way between the music venues. One could only feel sorry for them.
As the day progressed, more and more people appeared on the site, although the rain did not relent. The plucky ones were able to enjoy the full range of events, workshops and pub sessions and the typical wartime spirit of the British was evident, the ‘war’ being the atrocious weather!
And the show went on. The Butler Family, familiar to many Newark pub-goers, gave a barnstorming performance. Elayne Forster on lead vocals was in terrific voice, connecting well with the packed crowd.
Later, the legendary Martin Carthy gave a solo set. Martin’s career covers more than 40 years, and his name is always linked with Steeleye Span, and Dave Swarbrick, amongst others. Martin appeared on stage, clearly uncomfortable with the cold, and was faced with a packed audience similarly afflicted. But he has seen and faced it all in his long career, and with a blend of storytelling and virtuoso musicianship, gradually coaxed the audience to forget about the cold and enjoy themselves. And enjoy themselves they did!
Then the final day, Monday, dawned bright and sunny. So we all drove to Southwell in our sunshiny clothes. Mistake! Approaching the site, small droplets, then bigger droplets, then proper big droplets, then even bigger droplets, attached themselves ominously to our windscreen.
Temperatures were higher than Sunday, so the mud was warmer. Your intrepid reporter decided to spend most of his time in Music Workshops in the safety of the Yurts, rather than tramping between venues through the mud.
In truth, the workshops are what many people come for. Sitting in a huge tent, peering through the darkness at a far distant superstar of the music world is a magical experience, but after a while it becomes a bit like watching television. Participation in the workshops is, to many, a slightly different way of spending a day. Available Workshops included singing, playing a variety of instruments, writing songs, musical theory, etc. etc.
So, I spent most of the day in small intimate groups, where people were playing countless instruments in the company of like-minded souls of all sizes, shapes, ages, genders and abilities. To be sitting in the rain-soaked woods in a Mongolian Yurt with thirty strangers, all playing in harmony and on time, to a piece that none of us had tried before is a novel experience – try it next year and you will see what I mean.
After that, I tried a few samples of the CAMRA-approved selection of proper beers in the small, intimate Bar Tent, while listening, for example, to the amazing Lucy Ward, a local lass from Derby, with a voice that still sends shivers down my spine. Lucy was followed on the small stage by a young group called Tri, one of whom had tried to teach me the Irish Whistle a year ago. She had improved since then, but I hadn’t.
Leaving the site late evening (my logistics supervisor had dreams of a warm bath at home) I heard the sound of the amazing Karine Polwart singing one of her own songs in the big tent, live, from the stage!! It was a beautiful song that I have heard many people sing, but never before had I heard it sung by the composer herself. What a way to finish.
Musicians from all over the world contributed to the success of the Festival. Countries represented are too numerous to mention, but included Australia, Canada, USA, Ukraine, New Zealand, as well as a strong showing from the Home nations and Ireland. All performers seemed to be incredibly talented – I counted one person playing ten different instruments during his group’s session (although not all at the same time, obviously).
Mike Kirrage and his team have pulled it off once again. Despite the weather, people were leaving the Festival on the Monday night with huge smiles on their faces. An amazing event, and I cannot wait to see what happens next year. It just keeps getting better and better.
Jools Holland pic by Mary McCartney