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Tuesday, 27 December 2011

The Mediaeval Baebes geek out

Standing outside St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in the City last week, the crowd seemed a bit unusual - or rather there was a greater concentration of unusual-ness in one place than is strictly normal. There was a man with a plait in his beard, another wearing a fur coat. There were Goth girls and girls in corsetry-as-daywear. Some fellas wore one-of-a-kind hats, others had dyed eyebrows. Many of the women had unusually intensely coloured hair. They had a quality that made me imagine a Neil Gaiman book-signing, although it took a while to figure out why. I felt faintly nervous, enjoyed the spectacle, listened to the conversation going on around me. Then I relaxed. This crowd I recognised: the geeks were out and they were out in force for The Mediaeval Baebes.

I reckon that if there had been time to ask, a straw poll of audience members would have revealed an above-average number of smart phones, days spent working with technology or applying it creatively, people with hobbies about which they were passionate and a higher-than-usual collective IQ.

This is a hunch.

For my world is increasingly populated by geeks, which is something welcome. The same dynamic that means that single women acquire gay friends because of the bond of childlessness, leads me as I get older increasingly to enjoy sincere enthusiasts (aka geeks) and to appreciate the side-effects of enthusiasm in any given area of life, which include success and fun. And this is despite having originally been encouraged by a society that celebrates effortless superiority to believe that there was something suspicious about enthusiasm.

These days I see geekdom as a cast of mind involving intelligence and a lack of excitement about the mainstream - but beyond that it takes many forms. (My companion at the Christmas Mediaeval Baebes gig - the last of their 2011 tour - pointed out that a straightforward early music crowd looks very similar, though perhaps a bit less S&M-y.) The unifying characteristics of geekdom might be described as a lack of inhibition about liking the things that one likes - gaming, role-playing, perhaps one's job or musical pursuits, the period of history (or whatever) you like to fantasise about, politics - and a level of concentration on and knowledge about this stuff that can easily tip over into creativity, obsession or both. I've sometimes wondered whether there is an area of the autism spectrum that might account for it - a point at which empathy is mainly restricted to those with whom you share your enthusiasms - but between Christmas and New Year is a bad time to try and get hold of the professionals who'd be able to discuss that theory knowledgeably. Maybe later...

I am also developing a theory that geeks, in fact, rule the world.

Anyway. Here is a picture of the band that brought together that audience and this train of thought.

Although, to be  honest this is not exactly the band that I saw last week. I believe someone's joined the group since the pic was taken and since The Mediaeval Baebes started between 15 and 20 years ago there have, according to Wikipedia, been 27 members in total, swapping in and out. What I like about this image, though, is the fact that it's air-brushed, as if the band exists in theory - perhaps inside a fantasy computer game or a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley - as well as in reality, as six or seven people with independent, relatively normal lives.

I know they have independent lives because one of them was Bev Lee Harling, who supported The Destroyers the other night at Wilton's Music Hall. She works hard, that girl.

The gig started with Bev, decked out as a vestal virgin with flowers in her hair, walking down the aisle of the beautiful church - St Sepulchre is the musicians' church in the City in the same way that St Bride's is the journalists' church - which was decorated for Christmas, carrying her fiddle and singing She Moved Through the Fair. She was eventually joined by six other maidens - though I use the term advisedly - with long hair and costumes fastened under the bust a la popular representations of Morgan Le Fay. And though it never got that folky again the scene was set for a certain level of theatricality.

What followed was a kind of theme park whirl around musical genres - with the emphasis on early music - that was a bit Hammer Horror camp, a bit Robin of Sherwood and a bit Witches of Eastwick. But retro. Crucially, though, it also managed to pull off the clever trick of becoming its own genre by throwing in a slightly shy wink to soft porn in which every smiling glance between Baebes appeared to be a meaningful glance and every pipe placed between the lips was apparently laden with significance. Tonguing: oh yes. It was knowing entertainment, medieval stylee mediated by Cadfael, Ridley Scott and anyone who ever wrote a song, gave an interview or performed an entertainment about women labelled "witches" for being bewitching (although if witches really existed, as with criminals, surely only those bad at witchcraft would get caught?) It was none the worse for that, just derivative in a highly unusual and therefore enjoyable way.

The American lady in the next seat spent some of the interval expounding on the complexity of the time signatures in which they were singing their songs in Latin and early English - I hadn't recognised any of them, though they were pretty - and telling me how successful The Mediaeval Baebes are at something she described as "RenFair" in the US. This turned out to be a kind of transatlantic battle re-enactment scene ("renaissence fairs") for people who enjoy dressing up and pretending, but don't much like violence. Think Kentwell Hall but with fairies and dodgy accents.

On this occasion, I don't think it was the often a capella music that had packed the church out, although it was delightfully produced and packaged, but the way in which the show appeals to people who like their entertainment reassuringly niche. It made me wonder whether this was the target area at which John Dagnall of Park Records was vaguely aiming when he made Moonshee.

Whereas the first half was all about floaty maidens with circlets, beautiful hair and slender arms picked out attractively by backlighting, the second half briefly became The Middle Eastern Baebes, which reminded me a bit of the incidental music of Gladiator and probably produced a collective belly dancing fantasy in the audience. It then returned to a nice bit of chanting about the circle of life in time to send us out to the pub feeling all winter solstice-y.

I discovered afterwards that there is a Mediaeval Baebes musical all tee'd up and ready to go, which has been put together by a German actor called Micha Bergese, who is probably most famous for playing the dashing werewolf (below, right) in A Company of Wolves.

They're looking for some financial backing, which is proving an uphill struggle at the moment. But there may well be some geeks/enthusiasts out there who'd jump at the opportunity to be involved and I suspect anyway that if the thing were done right it could turn out to be a money-spinner, since musical theatre is - I'm theorising again - geekdom at its broadest.

If you're interested to find out more you could contact the show's producer, Julia Hannan. Otherwise I believe they'll be touring again in the New Year. Get in touch with your inner geek...

* If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in this, about Dylan Carson, who was Kurt Cobain's best friend.

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Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Steeleye Span goes wassailing at The Barbican

There they went a-wassailing. Steeleye Span were, indeed, six at the Barbican on Monday - except when they were joined on stage by John Spiers and Martin Carthy. Dodgy picture alert (Maddy Prior was at the back trying to look inconspicuous during an instrumental and the battery on my camera ran out before I had a chance to take anything with the zoom. Sorry 'bout that.)

They played the whole of Now we are Six, starting with 700 Elves, dedicated Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Professor Brian Cox because "there's a lot he could learn from this song" and then introduced the "and friends" part of the evening...

At that point things got temporarily a little less festive - though there were three people in the front row wearing tinsel halos who may well have disagreed. The Strawbs sang something with a chorus that repeated "May you rot" over and over again, which seemed a bit bah humbug under the circumstances. They also used a line that I've heard referred to (by Peter Knight at a Gigspanner gig) as the Broughton/Dempsey disclaimer - after Joe Broughton and Kevin Dempsey - offering the audience the opportunity to return their CD by post if they didn't like it "and we'll send you one that we don't like". Ordinarily I find it funny but on this occasion it mainly made me wonder about its provenance. I first heard it from Joe Broughton at an Urban Folk Quartet gig and, sure enough, he laid claim to it later by email, adding that he sometimes had to stop using lines when they became too widely passed around. However he couldn't recall specific examples, as he was "very hungover on an Austrian tour". Prost... I guess jokes are like songs and the folk process also applies.

The second half was great, especially for the delicate The Two Constant Lovers, in beautiful five or six part harmony, with a bathetic intro by Knight describing the lovely woman on the cliff edge looking out to sea as if she were about to leap. "Then in the fourth verse she does."

John Spiers and Martin Carthy joined the band on stage for the Padstow Mayday song recalling, for me from my days as a baby reporter, the controversy that singing that song on any day apart from Mayday causes in the town. John Buckingham of the Padstow museum said, though, that these days they feel benevolent towards the Steeleye version, partly on account of it almost having become a tradition in its own right. "As long as Steeleye Span don't produce an 'obby 'oss and start dancing around the stage they'll be safe," he said. Mind you, they like a bit of controversy in Padstow. This is the place, after all, that celebrates Darkie Day while often claiming that its origins lie in a shipwreck involving a slaver on the shore nearby.

Then there was Bedlam Boys - what an odd song that is, lyrically - and The Lark in the Morning before Carthy and Spiers trooped off - even though Rick Kemp said it might have been more appropriate for Carthy to have remained as it was he who'd brought them Cold Haily Windy Night in the first place.

Later on, when Spiers - a good 25 years younger than everyone else on the stage - returned with Carthy for the finale he looked so electrified by being that close to Maddy Prior while she was singing All Around My Hat (followed by a seasonal Gaudete) that he almost forgot to come in.

And that's the thing about Steeleye Span. They've been around for over four decades now and watching them recalls nearly a lifetime of memories for most of their audience: an entire lifetime for the younger members. It's hard to disentangle what's theirs and what's your own. It just ended up feeling like ours and I can't think of anything more apposite at this bittersweet time of year.

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Monday, 12 December 2011

Freedom of Information request for names of folk awards judges denied

I received a letter from Rachel Hallett in the BBC's Freedom of Information department late on Friday. This attachment came with it (it's in four pieces).

In reply I sent this.

A few minutes later I received this from Rachel Hallett.

So, in essence, the list of the names of the judges is a secret and this is not the first attempt that has been made to retrieve it from the BBC, Smooth Operations and UBC Media. Also someone somewhere believes (1) that the way Smooth Operations organises the awards legally qualifies as "art" and (2) that not releasing the names of the judges serves the best interests of someone.

I would like to know who that is please?

This secrecy does nothing to enhance confidence in either the process or the outcome of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards. In fact, it does the opposite. It also appears to be the opposite of how the BBC's own rules say an awards ceremony paid for by the licence fee and taxpayers' money should be conducted.

What on earth is going on?

I ask John Leonard at Smooth Operations, Fergus Dudley, whose responsibility it is to make sure that the awards are properly conducted, and the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, whether this is the correct use of the Freedom of Information act?

So far John Leonard has said that releasing the names of the judges may result in the judges wrongly using their positions to get free CDs. To which I ask: how does marketing usually work in his experience? Is he saying that Mike Harding pays for every CD he plays on his Radio Two folk show, which is produced by Smooth Operations? And has no one at Smooth Operations heard of Sound Cloud?

His second point was that releasing the names of the judges would make them subject to lobbying by "big business".

The two companies he went on to mention in this context were Topic and Proper. But nine out of thirteen of last year's winners work for one or the other, so how's that working out?

When I originally asked for a list of the judges of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards it was because I thought it might make an interesting blog post and that lovers of folk music might be curious to see something from backstage at the most powerful marketing tool on the folk scene at the moment.

However, the intransigence of all concerned is making me wonder whether there may, after all, be more here than meets the eye? It always struck me that there's a lot of moaning about them by people you'd expect to be enthusiastic about a folk fest. And now I begin to understand why...

After all, the thirty per cent correlation - I got around to counting - between Alan Bearman's client list and this year's nominees doesn't look good.

I would have thought that for the integrity of his awards ceremony John Leonard would like to prove that it's all above board by giving us more clues about how these decisions are made and perhaps opening it up to people who don't know any of the judges personally by publishing their names? This would allow bands who don't have a manager or PR with friends among the folk awards judges - and let's face it, since the judges' identities are a secret, knowing who they are would properly make you an insider - to send a free download to someone who might be interested? The awards would almost certainly become of wider interest as a result.

Releasing the names of the folk awards judges would be doing folk music a service.

I will, of course, submit the request to the information commissioner.

But in the mean time, over to you John Leonard.

* Previous blogs on this subject, with the first one at the top

* Read the next post about the folk awards

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Monday, 5 December 2011

The Destroyers do something constructive at Wilton's Music Hall

Wilton's Music Hall, just off Cable Street in Wapping, is the only venue I've ever known that makes its audience seem cooler and more attractive by association. There's something about the combination of falling-down plasterwork, expensively restored moulding and thousands of twinkling fairy lights that glamour the eye and makes one think it would almost be a shame if the place were ever brought up to surburban standards of rectitude, as various funding bodies have been talking about doing for over a decade now. It's more bohemian than the Czech Republic.

Also there, on Friday, were The Destroyers who emanate from Birmingham - at least half of the fifteen-strong, inter-generational band have a connection with the Birmingham Conservatoire - and the show was sold out.

As the audience milled around, drinking mulled cider, Bev Harling and the Kitchen Sink struck up. They're a four-piece (the line-up has changed since the video above) containing Frank Moon, of The Urban Folk Quartet (another band from the conservatoire) and his missus, Bev, who started by playing the fiddle and singing, mesmerisingly, from the floor among the audience. The whole set had a burlesque-y quality entirely in keeping with the venue: she made the playing of various domestic accoutrements - glasses of water, a wok, an electric drill - seem rather a fruity undertaking, making one think that, all things considered, Frank's a lucky man...

There was a brief pause for theatrical faffing by the sound crew - everything that takes place in that building seems theatrical - before the gradual arrival on stage of various Destroyers, jamming softly away as if they were the background for a piece of Parisian street theatre. As their numbers swelled so did the noise level, until finally...

there were fourteen of them on stage, awaiting only their front man, Paul Murphy, for the full chaotic effect. And what an effect it was...

From the off, the sixty-something's growling vocals created a sense of occasion that matched the venue. You want theatrical? We can give you theatrical...

The energy levels were phenomenal - the only band I've seen to match it are Bellowhead - and the audience seemed to have come along to exploit that, moshing, whooping and crowd-surfing to the balkanised, mariachi folk with its capacious brass section and lyrics full of portent and calamity, as if they had no intention of seeing another dawn.

The subject matter for the songs was diverse, with many of them written by Murphy. There's a Hole in the Universe, made me fear for the safety of the part of it directly above Wilton's; Methusalah Mouse is about a genetic experiment gone wrong; and they finished up with an instrumental version of Tam Lin, which they coupled with Music for a Found Harmonium.

The Destroyers have been around for eight years, building a following, gathering terrific reviews - especially for their live performances. And yet somehow they've never made a dent on the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards. How can that be when they sound like folk, they call themselves folk and the folk like them?

"I manage the band," said Louis Robinson, the tallest man on the stage, one of two fiddle players: the one wearing the velvet tam-o-shanter and a pair of low-slung Indian trousers. "I suppose that's the difference between being managed and having 'management'. I should really have got in touch with someone involved in that whole scene."

And yet what is the point of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards having upwards of 150 judges if not that they can get around and find stuff for themselves? Perhaps if their names were known they might even receive invitations to gigs from people they didn't know?

The Destroyers come very highly recommended. Just don't expect to be able to remain seated...

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Friday, 2 December 2011

Jamie Smith's Mabon hits the road in style

On Wednesday night Jamie Smith's Mabon blazed through The Old Queen's Head in Islington and rather a lot of people packed into a warm room with each other's germs and some splendiferous chandeliers made out of gramophone horns to see them.

They were ably supported by Maia, who write a lot of songs about large objects hurtling through space, and whom I'd definitely also travel to see: it was quite an evening. So here's the Mabon playing a tune called The Gordano Ranter, which came with a hilarious passive-aggressive intro about how it's named after someone unpleasant they met, who was ranting at the Gordano service station. "And now we have a bit of a rant about him every time we play it," Smith nodded.

They're a seriously classy live act, though not exactly a dance band because many of their tunes are a bit too rhythmically complex for that to work out: they say they're as happy playing a sit-down arts centre or a theatre auditorium as a pub. Oli Wilson-Dixon supplies some soulful, gypsy-style fiddle and harmonic seagull-sounding noises, as well as reeling meanly in tandem with Mr Smith himself, on accordian.

Memorably, an audience member shouted "Easy on the fucking reels, you bastards" toward the end and for a long moment it was impossible to tell whether it was a suggestion for the final encore - things were getting a bit sweaty - or the best heckle ever at a folk gig. Both, as it turned out because the last tune was called Easy on the Reels.

However, it wouldn't be right to discuss their present UK tour, which is drawing to a close, without mentioning their transport, which has been causing a bit of a stir. Iolo Whelan, on drums (though not while I was talking to him), explained that it had started at breakfast the morning after the first gig, when the subject of their tour bus was under discussion and Adam Rhodes - bouzouki -  got his hands on a copy of photoshop, with which he is apparently a bit of a whiz. Well, judge for yourself...

It was posted online, to a few well-deserved gasps of awe. "But the response was also a bit mixed. I think a few people couldn't decide whether it was for real or not."

So when their tour took them to the Isle of Man, with which the band seems to have an implausibly large number of connections considering the small number of people who actually live there, they employed something a bit like a heli-cam to produce this.

However, due to some confusion about which of their two Facebook pages - the result of Facebook's faffing around, not theirs - this one was supposed to be gracing, the response was more muted than before, which a neutral observer might put down to the widespread knowledge that the Isle of Man is a very welcoming place that likes to roll out the red carpet for its visitors. Especially visitors with so many local connections.

So, to clear up any remaining confusion, this appeared shortly afterwards.

... which would come in handy for all those European celtic festivals they play. Just don't ask them how they manage to pack all their gear into such a small plane...

... because you might make them cry.

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Friday, 25 November 2011

The BBC folk awards and a freedom of information request

The story so far...

After the announcement of the nominees for next year's folk awards, I was wondering why the identities of the judges are not publicly known and wrote a blog post about it.

I thought there might be some interest in this - everyone loves a mystery - but wasn't really prepared for how much.

The level of curiosity from folkies was especially thought-provoking because everyone involved in running the awards said that the names of the judges are not in any way intended to be a secret.

So I asked for a list.

In particular I asked for a list from John Leonard at Smooth Operations and from Fergus Dudley at the BBC, whose job it is to oversee the contracted-in services of Smooth Operations, which is part of UBC Media. And I was surprised at how complicated the request appeared to be to those most directly concerned. The implication was that instead of shining a light on the awards it would open a can of worms.

Interesting, eh?

So I wrote something else, inviting folkies - or anyone really - to make a practical contribution to the inquiry if they wanted to, reasoning that it would be useful to demonstrate to the BBC and Smooth Operations that I wasn't some lone online lunatic hell-bent on, you know, finding stuff out. Thanks to everyone who bothered to email Fergus Dudley, among others, to let him know you were watching and interested. He's at if you'd still like to get in touch.

So far I haven't managed to find the whole list of names, although there's been a steady trickle of people ringing and emailing to say that they're judges, wondering whether I'd like to talk to them about it and being encouraging.

In fact, it's been a brilliant week from that point of view. The 15-20 people who got in touch directly all suggested that there were a great many more who'd be interested in the outcome. Phil Widdows over at Folkcast wrote a great open email on the subject to Mike Harding, who presents Smooth Operations' folk show, which I urge you to read. And in response Harding started his own blog, which can only be a good thing.

So, what to do next?

I know, I know... If only there were some way of getting hold of information that everyone says is intended to be in the public domain but isn't. Some mechanism intended to hold institutions paid for by public money to account.


Fortunately, the Freedom of Information Act 2000 exists exactly for situations like this. So this morning I asked the Freedom of Information department at the BBC whether it would be able to tell me who the judges of the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards are by supplying a list.

While I was writing this post about it I received a formulaic reply from the BBC

So there you go. With any luck there'll be an answer within 20 working days, which is four weeks. It's no big deal, the world will not end: the BBC actually has a department for this.

So I ask Fergus Dudley, John Leonard and everyone else who's been weirdly fearful about what happens next: what's the big deal?

This is how it's supposed to work.

* Next post about the folk awards

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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The folk awards, a couple of things

The response to my posts yesterday and the day before about the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards has been quite astonishing... It looks as if I put my finger on something that had been troubling a lot of people for a while.

If anyone is interested in getting their voice heard on the subject, they could email the man at the BBC who is supposed to be responsible for making sure that the folk awards and Smooth Operations comply with the BBC's rules about transparency. A good place to start would be to ask him to make sure that the list of judges is made public.

His name is Fergus Dudley and his email address is He's on Twitter as @FergusDudley, though he appears not to have tweeted for quite some time.

You could also email Smooth Operations to let them know how you feel. I don't have an email address for John Leonard - anyone? - but there is a general one, which is

And the second thing is that a couple of people have contacted me to say that they are judges for the folk awards and were very happy to see my blog posts. So I was thinking that if there are any other judges out there who'd like to "out" themselves in the name of transparency - since the BBC and Smooth Operations agree that there has never been anything preventing them from doing this - you could email me here and if there is a decent sized handful I could write a separate post about what the folk awards look like from that point of view.

* Read the next post about the BBC folk awards here

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Monday, 21 November 2011

Smooth Operations and the BBC defend the folk awards

I had a phone call from John Leonard (below), who runs Smooth Operations and therefore the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards, about yesterday's blog.

His starting point was that he didn't want the names of the judges to be public. "I'm very aware about the better off record companies being able to lobby people on the panel," he said.

Which ones, I asked? I know Seth Lakeman was with EMI but isn't any more as he's struck out on his own. So which large record companies have a foot in the folk scene at the moment?

"I couldn't possibly say which ones," he replied, before mentioning Topic and Proper. However, he later changed his mind about these companies, suggesting that I was putting words into his mouth. I had raised the way in which Topic and Proper seem already to do quite well out of the folk awards, and asked how their influence would increase if the names of the judges were on the record? He wasn't sure but seemed very certain that the forces of capital would do something bad to the judges if their names were to be made public.

He added that another downside of judges making themselves known would be that they might use their position to get free CDs.

There is a list, he explained, of new music sent out to all the judges every year, based on what's been played on the Mike Harding Show (which is also produced by Smooth Operations). I mentioned a comment that was posted under yesterday's blog, from Marjory Carlisle, about two friends of hers who are judges for the folk awards but who, as far as Marjory could see, don't seem to get out and about much. "If they listen to the Mike Harding Show they will hear most things," he said. Then he changed his mind, saying within seconds that "the Mike Harding Show scratches the surface of the folk scene". He also explained that in order to have one's position as a judge rescinded one has to have not filled in the form the previous year.

Discussing the extent to which the relationships between the judges and the nominees are transparent, he emphasised the form that has to be signed every year by the judges, saying that they will not vote for musicians with whom they have a working relationship. But wouldn't it be better, I asked, if the judges - perhaps a different group of people less well-connected in the folk scene - could simply vote for the best contenders?

"I used to think that," he said. "But I was persuaded that I was wrong," adding that this was related to BBC compliance.

In terms of how one is to make a name for oneself on the folk scene, he says that he started out on the folk club circuit when he was 19 and thought it should probably still be done the same way. "I just went around all of these clubs. It's up to a you to get to know all the folk journalists but the first job of a young band is to get themselves a promoter." He named Alan Bearman and Adastra as possibles, adding that "there's one in Scotland".

He also said that he doubted that a young band was entitled to consideration on its merits until it has paid its dues. "If a band is just starting out do you think they are seriously eligible for a folk award?" he asked. Not unless they're really good, I replied. But it would also be good if the structure of the industry and its marketing were transparent enough for them to be able to make their way. Especially since the internet has turned the music industry on its head.

We returned to the idea that only someone wealthy would be able to lobby 170 people, as if it would be expensive. I thought (a) he may not have heard of burning CDs or sound cloud and (b) if your career is at stake you invest in it. This may be a thought that only someone who's had to pay back student loans would take seriously though.

I asked whether he'd heard of a terrific live folk band called The Destroyers. "Why haven't they sent us their album?" he asked. I was really quite surprised. "Perhaps they didn't know who to send it to?" I offered.

They may have done, as far as I know, but they play mainly in cities - not folk clubs - and there is no sign of any kind of management on their website, so they may not be on his radar even though they've been around for five years.

Earlier in the day I'd been sent a link to this page on the BBC website relating to compliance when running BBC awards ceremonies. It makes interesting reading, especially the parts about transparency (near the top) and, section three, about the judging: "The judging system should normally be clearly explained to the audience and must be explained to entrants via on-air/online announcement and the terms and conditions."

There is also a mention of a senior editorial figure who is responsible for making sure that these rules are applied. In the case of the BBC Radio two Folk Awards, this is Fergus Dudley.

If you double click on that it should become legible. I heard from John Leonard first, who said he'd heard from Dudley that I'd been in touch with him too. So I tried again.

* Read the next post about the BBC folk awards

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Sunday, 20 November 2011

The BBC folk awards, raising the blood pressure of folkies everywhere

So the nominations for the BBC Radio Two folk awards 2012 were announced on Wednesday and there's already been a scrap about it.

I was especially interested in all this as I recently discovered that a good friend is a judge for them and asked him to do an interview on the subject.

While being generally helpful, my friend's main concern was that he was under the impression that he wasn't supposed to tell anyone that he was one of the judges, having signed a piece of paper seven or eight years ago when first invited to take part, agreeing not to nominate anyone with whom he has a business relationship and also not - he thought - to broadcast the fact that he's on the panel.

"I think there are somewhere between 150 and 180 of us from all over the music business: PRs, festival organisers, that kind of thing," he said, once we'd agreed that I wouldn't use his name.

"I think I probably know about 100 of them. If you go to the folk awards and look around you can make an educated guess about who they are. There are two levels: the general level and the people who are behind the major awards like the lifetime achievement award. That's up to the company - Smooth Operations", which is contracted by the BBC to produce some radio shows, including Mike Harding's, as well as the folk awards.

"I get a form asking me to nominate up to three artists in each category, from which the company takes the four most nominated for the shortlist. Then we get to vote again for the winner.

"In terms of how I make my nominations, I just keep my ears open. I buy a load of stuff and I get a load of stuff given to me during the course of the year. I suppose the thing the judges have in common is that we're in a position to find out what's out there by going to festivals and listening to music in general. In some ways I wish the list of judges was public because it might save me some of the money I spend buying CDs.

"I think there are probably a lot of women on the panel because those are the people who work in the industry. And as with any sort of award you are going to get a lot of griping by people whose taste doesn't match the judges'. Folkies have a great sense of ownership over the scene."

I wondered why my friend was not supposed to let on about being a judge? I'd think that must be counterproductive, since it makes it much harder for musicians with no real knowledge of the folk scene to get their stuff heard by people with influence. And this in turn would create a bit of a ghetto-ish vibe.

The sort of vibe that, for instance, might lead you to wonder when you compared the list of nominees with the list of this man's clients, whether there was some kind of a stitch up going on? By my reckoning there's about a 50 per cent correlation between those two lists (though interestingly it's the newcomers and the best live act nominees - the two sections with the least opportunity for middle-man input - that most noticeably buck the trend).

In a small scene there are several possible explanations for this, since causation could go either way. By this I mean that it's possible Alan Bearman is such an amazing and powerful agent that he is most folk musicians' first choice.  Or that it's such a small scene that he's the only agent some folkies have heard of when they're looking around for representation. Weirdly, though, in the three or four years since I've been writing about folk I don't think I've ever met or heard from him.

So I asked Mike Harding - the BBC's best known folk DJ and the presenter of the awards - why the names of the judges are secret? And, um, he said that they aren't. In fact, he suggested that I get in touch with BBC compliance department to get hold of the list.

It was the work of a minute to get through to Julian Grundy in compliance, who was helpfulness itself and pointed me back to Smooth Operations, who are responsible for the running of the awards. I went through to a Viv Atkinson there, who told me that Kellie While was my woman.

I've lopped the bottom off this email because it had her mobile phone number on it.

Things went a bit quiet for a day or so and in the mean time I went off to Salisbury to interview Richard Shindell. Then...

In case you can't read that last one (I can't), it says

Hi Kellie,

Some points about the status quo.

(1) If you think the judges aren't susceptible to the fact that the bigger record companies get their stuff circulated better than smaller ones (or artists with no label), I think you are mistaken. They are exactly as susceptible as everyone else. By not printing their names you make it impossible for unsigned artists and smaller bands with little marketing and PR to attract their attention at all because no one knows who they are. A list would mean they would know where to send their stuff. This keeps the playing field as uneven as it always was. I would argue more so, because big labels aren't signing anyone much these days, they're all in such trouble. The internet has flattened the market place, giving an advantage to those signed to small labels known to be folky already. This creates the cabal we've been talking about. 

(2) On the other hand, if the BBC's position is that the judges are susceptible to this kind of lobbying, I hope it wouldn't be impolite to suggest that it might consider choosing its judges more carefully.

(3) Secrecy is inherently wrong. It makes the judges feel as if they've "made it" but it's not appropriate in the present political climate (see my earlier point about MPs and journalists), let alone in a democratic country. Let alone for some folk awards run in association with the BBC, which is partly funded by the taxpayer.

(4) You can't argue that the internet has made everything available to everyone in the folk world. I've never come across a group of people less plugged in to the internet. Many of the top bands and artists aren't on Twitter, many of the PRs don't know how it works, and there's someone involved in managing both Bellowhead and Seth Lakeman who doesn't even have his phone number on his website! 

(5) There is such secrecy surrounding the folk awards that I know a judge who is convinced that he is supposed to be keeping his identity a secret - even though you say there is no such clause in the contract! 

I think it's the BBC Folk Awards's job to draw attention to the best of British folk, which means throwing itself open to all comers.  I can see that you're giving it some thought but isn't it time the awards made some concessions to the 21st century? It might also have the knock-on effect of making the outcome of the awards less predictable and making the entire scene more interesting to non-folkies. Surely the point of it is to market folk, not preach to the converted?  


I've since put in a couple of calls asking whose decision it is not to publish the list of judges, as in "we have discussed this issue at great length", but after three days have heard nothing. I suppose my last email was a bit ranty.

If I hear anything from Smooth Operations I'll let you know.

* Read the next post about the BBC folk awards

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Friday, 18 November 2011

Richard Shindell on zen and the art of being lucky

Richard Shindell is in the UK supporting Show of Hands for three weeks. They kicked off on Tuesday in Salisbury and I found myself pushing through the glass doors of the City Hall, where I was greeted in the rather odd-smelling foyer by Shindell, who was concerned about the sound-check.

I first heard his music over ten years ago while staying in the tall, grey stone Edinburgh home of a retired admiral from the British navy and his wife. The admiral played it over breakfast - he was probably the poshest folky I've ever met - and he had great taste in music. "I did a session on a Scottish radio station in 1998. He probably heard that," mused Shindell.

The two things that you always read about this American singer/songwriter are (1) that he lives in Argentina with his family and (2) he spent time living in a Zen Buddhist monastery and then a seminary in Manhattan, making him one of life's questing souls. His songs are illustrious thumbnail sketches, historical snapshots populated by vivid characters with serious internal lives, and wry, sometimes hilarious commentary on relationships - in one case, with a donkey called Clara. His live album, Courier, which I first heard over toast thirteen years ago, remains top of my personal pops: something I tried to avoid embarrassing him by saying but didn't entirely succeed with.

However, I asked him some stuff too. For instance, why Zen Buddhism? Was it just a phase he went through? "I still consider myself to be a Buddhist, though I was brought up Episcopalian," he said, making a conversational excursion to explain the origins of the Episcopalian church in the US when I looked a bit blank.

"I moved away from Christianity and went to the Buddhist monastery in upstate New York after graduating from college. My introduction to it was that I'd been taken there on a weekend trip by a professor of religion and it was a very powerful experience. But because of the way I was raised I still had a soft spot for my original faith - hence the return to the seminary later.

"There'd been many good things about the church. For instance, I learnt to sing there and in particular I learnt to sing harmony: I enjoyed that part of it. But from an intellectual point of view I moved away. We are not raising our children as Christians - we're raising them in an a-religious household.

"Sometimes, though, I wish that my children could have some of the experiences of being in church that were worthwhile. By that I mean the community of people gathering every Sunday, everyone facing in the same direction, praying to something they don't understand."

Very Zen...

He seemed surprised to be asked whether he'd known any other Buddhists at the time he made the change and had to think about it for a while before admitting that, no, he didn't think he had - which seems bold. "But I studied religion in college and before I was 18 I was reading DT Suzuki and Alan Watts. Then I studied philosophy - Thomas Merton, who wrote a book called Zen and the Birds of Appetite - and came to appreciate the practice of meditating, of trying to stop the inner chatter and the ego that comes with it."

The form of Buddhism he gravitated towards was Soto, which he described as "a little bit more fuzzy" than the more regimented Rinzai school "which is where the bad-assed Zen Buddhists go". But what the Zen and Episcopalian parts of his life have shared is a liberality that he described as "ecumenical".

He has a serious way with words.

So how's Argentina doing these days? I read a really good book by an FT journalist called Jimmy Burns about the Falklands War from an Argentine perspective and got an inkling of the battering it's had. Shindell lives there because it's where his wife's from.

"Argentina's better than it was ten years ago," he nodded, " as far as the economy's recovered in some ways from the debacle of 2001, when there was a kind of economic landslide.

"It's interesting. What happened was analogous to what's happening in Greece right now, because one of the things that provoked the trouble was that they had an economic system in place in which one peso was worth one dollar and the two currencies didn't float.

"Pegging the peso to the dollar had the effect of making anything you produced in Argentina very expensive to export. The people who had money had incredible purchasing power as a result - it is known now as the era of 'deme dos' or 'give me two' because they had dollars to spend, loads of them. But it had a horrible effect on internal pricing.

"It was unsustainable and when the currencies were finally unpegged the peso went from being worth one dollar to only twenty five cents. Then the mudslide happened.

"Before that everybody was making money in pesos. But every time you bought something big you'd do it in dollars. Then all of a sudden you were making a quarter of what you'd been making before, but the mortgage was still in dollars - everyone was going to lose their houses.

"So what happened was that the government decided to denominate all of these loans in pesos... " which helped home-owning Argentinians. But Shindell makes his living, on the whole, by touring the States - which obviously earns him dollars. "It was incredible for us because in one day our mortgage was cut to a quarter of its previous value and we were able to pay it off!"

It is often said that fortune favours the brave: in this instance, those brave enough to move to a foreign country.

Indeed, an abiding impression of Shindell is that he's a magnet for good fortune - "I've not had to strive very hard" he said at one point, though that probably says more about his attitude to work than anything else - whose luck is generated partly by a talent that draws people to him. For instance, when a week's worth of UK tour was cancelled last year he found himself seeking a bolt hole and was introduced to Steve Knightley, of Show of Hands. Knightley knew his work and invited him to Devon for the week, which is how they became friends.

I was trying to avoid asking him questions about his songs, as it was clear from reading previous interviews that he doesn't much appreciate scrutiny of his motives. I think this is fair enough: what's the point of going to all the trouble of crafting something beautiful only to have some idiot come along, wanting to dismantle it in public? For similar reasons I'm not often moved to try and describe music in words: what's the point when you can insert a clip from YouTube?

However, he wrote a gripping song about a child soldier in the Confederate army - called Arrowhead (below) - that usually makes me cry when I hear it.

"I'm sorry," he said, unnecessarily, before sitting forward in his seat as if something important had occurred to him. "I'm afraid I have some bad news about that song though."


"Have you heard of GE Smith? He plays with Bob Dylan's band? He's done a version of it, but he wrote an extra verse for the end. And he has a rather acute sense of military justice."

No! He didn't!

"Yes. I'm afraid he killed the boy. His final verse has my underage Confederate deserter sitting on a white horse with a noose around his neck before someone slaps the horse from behind."

I am oddly devastated by this, as I've spent a great deal of time empathising not only with the child in the song - "for god's sake, someone give that kid a gun!" - but also with his mother, to whom he's speaking in the lyric.

"I'm all in favour of the folk process... It's all fair. But I wrote to GE Smith, and asked him 'What were you thinking?' And he wrote back 'I just thought that boy had to die'." Shindell said this in a deep drawl, as if Smith were speaking through him.

He let this thought percolate for a while.

"So I sang it that way myself just once, to see how it felt. But it felt wrong... I'm happy that Smith liked the song deeply enough to get into the nuts and bolts of it though."

His songs have been covered by Joan Baez, for whom he wrote the heartbreaking Reunion Hill, and this was also recently reworked by Fairport Convention. I asked whether he was thinking of collaborating on anything with Show of Hands while he's here and he explained that he's in the middle of writing a song over the internet with Mary Gauthier, with whom he toured earlier in the year. It has a working title of Black Eyed Susan's Facing Back. "I've always been very insecure about working with other people, in case they come up with loads of ideas and I have nothing. This is my first time."

But the question also provoked a sudden rush of enthusiasm for The Cecil Sharp Project, which Knightley had apparently been playing him in the car on the way to the venue. This may have been by way of a consolation of some kind, as an attempt by Knightley to impress him with an excursion to a Knights Templar-related church went awry when it turned out to be shut.

"I'm not a very committed tourist - especially when I'm supposed to be working. I get into a rut of going from gig to gig and the surroundings become secondary. I had a day off in Florence, Italy, in early January 2009 and the strangest thing happened..." he said, as if he'd learnt his lesson with this taking-the-day-off thing.

"I decided to spend the day walking and as I set off in the morning I got 50 yards up this alley with a steep incline, heading for the hills, and found it barred by police tape. Ahead there was a tarpaulin with something lumpy underneath it and a foot sticking out. Someone had fallen down dead in that alley and I had to go around." That'll teach him.

Although, in fact, he's about to take a year off. "I'll stay in Argentina for most of it, study Spanish and Spanish guitar in a more deliberate way and attempt to challenge myself creatively. The reason, though, is that I have two teenagers and I feel like I need to be more on the case. They're getting older and aren't going to be in the house for that much longer."

And this time it was his kids who seemed lucky.

* If you enjoyed this, you may also enjoy this more recent post about Richard Shindell.

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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Folk Boy's tales from the sea

When Jim Causley left Mawkin:Causley last year, he probably didn't expect that his decision would lead David Delarre - whose Twitter handle is Folk Boy (second from right, below) - to run away to sea, inadvertently placing his virtue in mortal danger.

"We split up in August and had to cancel a tour that was due to start in October. The money from that would have seen me through to the spring... but I had an overdraft and credit card debts and I was offered this three and a half month gig on a cruise ship." He was telling me this over the telephone, a few weeks after it was over and he'd had time to recover his land-legs.

Well how was it? He laughed, perhaps a little too jovially. "Oh. You know. It was an eye-opener."

Er. Righty-o. How d'you mean? "Well, it was a tiny, tiny little boat, full of the uber rich. I think they'd paid between $2,500 and $25,000 each to be there for a week: the difference was all about what kind of cabin you wanted and how much 'free' champagne you thought you could drink. And it was just mental."

At this point I should say that I'm not going to mention the name of the cruise line, as I got the impression he hadn't quite decided whether he'd like to work for it again...

"I mean," he went on. "I'm a working class boy without a penny to my name and it was a real insight into how the ten per cent live. I was doing four shows a week of flamenco guitar to start off with and I had a few other duties: I was the assistant entertainment manager. The money was good but they worked us so hard.

"The policy of the company was 'social hosting', which means that it's your job to talk to people, make them feel comfortable and try and get them to invite you to dinner. I was also encouraged to host dinners for up to ten people at a time. You got free booze and there was six star food from a celebrity chef. But on the other hand, I got touched up by grannies quite a lot."

Good grief. I'm shocked, I said, trying to keep a straight face. "It wasn't cool. There was this one woman who was about 77, which is older than my granny. And she asked for a private concert in her room." Uh-oh. "And I had to because there was no such word as no, when it came to the guests.

"So I turned up to do my gig and when I walked in she just grabbed my a*** and hugged me and said 'Thank you, thank you for coming.' And then when I finished the gig and she said 'Come and sit down'. And then she fed me oysters and spent ten minutes grabbing my thighs. It was terrifying." And it was clear from the tone of his voice that he was undergoing some kind of post-traumatic experience.

"You get fired if you sleep with them. But you're supposed to make them feel as if they are the most special thing ever. It's really, unbelievably frightening."

Still, I expect you got the hang of it eventually and at least you got to see the Med a bit? "Yes, I've been in Venice sixteen times. It's gorgeous. We went up and down the Adriatic from the east coast of Italy and took in Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro. But I never got tired of Venice. It's absolutely amazing."

And has it been hard coming back to normality? "The sleeping style was hard to adjust back to because I got used to being in a tiny little cabin with some rocking - it was quite a small boat. So I couldn't sleep for about a week. And the quantity of alcohol was a bit intense on board. I mean, it was like being at a constant party for three and a half months, except you're not really a part of it because you're paid to be there. And everyone's pissed the whole time."

So what happened with Mawkin:Causley? "Well, we didn't want Jim to leave but he did. Our melodeon player, Goldsmith, announced in an email that he wanted to leave, because he had a girlfriend and wanted a more normal life. He's doing painting and decorating now. And then within two weeks of Jim reading the email he decided that he was going too.

"There had been a few alcohol-related problems. But we thought that on the whole it really worked. We're not looking for another singer because Jim might want to come back at some point and we thought that if we found someone else it might discourage him.

"So I've been doing singing lessons and I'm really enjoying that and getting into it a bit more. And then we're releasing a new record and going on tour next April. It's mainly an instrumental album but there are three songs on it too. It looks like I'll be doing two of them and we've got our fingers crossed that a couple of other people who've said they might be interested will join us as guest vocalists. They're both well known but I don't want them to read about it before they've definitely agreed."

Watch this space.

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Friday, 28 October 2011

Hello Rodney Branigan, guitar geek

Just a short one. I went to the BBC Club on Tuesday to watch a showcase by Manilla PR and was lucky enough to catch Circus Envy doing their thing.

Before their second set of three songs, Mick (playing - and sitting on - the box) thanked the PR company insincerely for putting Circus Envy on after Rodney Branigan, a young American now living in south London, who had made us all blink by starting his set with a number that involved playing two guitars simultaneously.

As the afternoon progressed it became clear that although the two guitars thing is impressive in a man-with-two-heads kind of a way, Branigan would be a bit of a star even without the geekery.

He's undeniably very talented - doing the best version of Come Together I've ever heard, including by The Beatles - but it was his humour I especially liked. And the fact that he, um, has no trouble clenching a guitar firmly between his knees for many minutes at a time (see slightly underexposed picture below). He mentioned at one point that he'd been in prison in Mexico and then, when there was a bit of tooth-sucking and muttering about how you shouldn't say that from the front row, he introduced his next song as being about spanking children.

Since it was a tune - albeit one played by using the guitar as a percussion instrument as much as a guitar -  the chances of it originally having been about any such thing were pretty remote.

It turned out that the spell in prison was for alleged drug smuggling, but since it was only for three days he clearly wasn't guilty. I hope I haven't buggered up his immigration status by mentioning this as it would be great to see him play a whole set.

I see Show of Hands feels the same way.

Also check out the tunes on this website, including The Plagiarism Song, for which it helps if you have a passing familiarity with American children's entertainment.

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Thursday, 27 October 2011

Manufactured Moonshee rising

I went to a rather odd event at Cecil Sharp House the other night. It was an album launch for a band called Moonshee and it came with some enticing bells and whistles.

The first half of the gig had Ashley Hutchings and his son, Blair Dunlop, steadfastly refusing to admit that they were related to each other, while Dunlop demonstrated convincingly that he's got the musical wherewithall to make it in the industry no matter who his dad is. A couple of years more stagecraft under his belt and he'll be flying, I reckon. It's a bit weird that he's already played Cropredy, though, as I only heard his voice this year (didn't see him) and assumed he was an established singer-songwriter. But it turns out he's 19.

Then there was Ruth Angell, who appeared to be a friend of Dunlop's, and has a beautiful voice and a way with magical realism. She introduced one of her own songs by describing how she'd been sitting in a cafe in Paris when she'd noticed that there was a tea chest with metal edges on the pavement nearby. Instead of calling the bomb squad, she watched as a little man - "very small indeed" - climbed out of a panel in the side, chopped up some bread for the birds on a bread board, fed them and then crawled back into his tea chest. She said all this with a completely straight face, which suggests talent.

The messing with reality was good practice for what happened next, though.

The second half was all Moonshee, who'd been hanging around in the foyer looking simultaneously slightly overdressed and underdressed. There are four beautiful girls - two blonde, two brunette - and two cheeky looking, older, Asian guys, who play traditional Asian instruments.  

The British/Asian folk fusion was well-judged if a bit samey, in terms of tone and tempo. It was folky enough for my taste and I'd quite happily listen to it in the car: it created an ambience.  But there was also something odd about it, that I couldn't put my finger on at first.

The band wasn't really looking at each other and appeared to be concentrating very hard: the girls at least. The guy on percussion was enjoying himself and kept looking around for some eye contact with his fellow band members, but eye-contact was there none.

Plus there was no banter and what talking there was, was weirdly stilted. Then the singer, who had a northern Irish lilt, introduced their eponymous song by saying: "Apparently a Moonshee is a storyteller, someone who removes barriers between cultures. So quite a fitting name for this band." And the penny dropped.

No sense of ownership of their own band name, the appearance of being worried about forgetting something they'd rehearsed over and over, very little on-stage chemistry.

Manufactured band!

"This band is the brain-child of John Dagnell," the singer admitted at the end, inviting a round of applause from the slightly disconcerted audience. Dagnell works at Park Records, which mainly does Steeleye Span. And sure enough, it turned out that the musicians had auditioned to be in the band, except the guys, who were session musicians. And the songs - largely traditional - were arranged by Paul Gibbon, who's been around the block a few times. I've got Jethro Tull written next to his name in my notebook.

Speaking to the two blonde, female band members afterwards they were charmingly enthusiastic but they described Cecil Sharp House as a "folk club", which isn't exactly untrue but it's untrue enough to suggest an unfamiliarity with what it does.

Dagnell said he'd been working on the project for ten years - which means that some of the band would barely have been out of junior school when he started - and that the difference between Moonshee and The Imagined Village was that Moonshee "are more commercial".

I wouldn't argue with that. I suppose the most surprising thing about this project is that no one's tried it sooner (*braces self for slew of emails explaining that someone has*) What I'm wondering, though, is whether Park Records has the money and the social media marketing skills to launch a commercial, manufactured band? One of the things Peter Knight said when I interviewed him the other week was that Park Records may not have a proper website but there's always a human being on the end of the phone when you call. And frankly, if they'd got a handle on the social media side of things I would have expected a much bigger turn out for the album launch.

Dagnell also seemed uncertain whether it was OK to admit that Moonshee was put together by him, insisting at one point that the Australian lady guitarist, who was using a music stand, was one of the moving musical forces behind the band, before appearing to change his mind about that. He also denied that he had any ambition to be the Simon Cowell of the folk world. Had to ask.

Having said all this, it's a very commercial sounding album and kind of lovely with it: a million miles better than anything you'd get on The X Factor. And I expect the live experience will gel as they get more practice with audiences and, you know, enjoying themselves. So I wish them all the best and would like to see them play at a festival next summer, after they've had a chance to get used to being together (it was only their second gig). I'll be very curious to see what happens next.

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