Me and my blog

Follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Monday, 2 May 2011

The Bristol folk festival at Colston Hall

Not knowing Bristol, I'd imagined a red brick stately home built by a prosperous slave trader back in the day. In fact Colston Hall is a glass-fronted building with a municipal feel, built high into the air in a part of town full of squats, financial services outlets and fast food joints. But it was easily identifiable as folk central from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening by the morris men and rapper dancers making the most of the sunshine out the front. These included Nonesuch Morris - Best in Class for leaping - and the Silver Flame Rapper girls, who were exciting because of the worried look they habitually wore with their purple sashes, giving the impression - nearly entirely erroneously, as it turned out - that something could go wrong at any minute. Always a concern with jiggling flesh in close proximity to swords.

Being indoors this early in the year had theoretical advantages, although sunshine and light breezes in the end gave the two dark, main venues the feel of places to which you regretfully retreated when compelled indoors by the need to hear some music. The walk through the foyer was brightened by an on-trend novelty pedicure station, involving hundreds of little fish nibbling at your hard skin for a tenner.

There were squeals from it on Friday because it tickled (apparently). But by the end of the three days the poor little fishies had taken to laying low in the bottom of their tanks, bloated, torpid and probably a bit cheesed off with the formerly be-sandalled feet of hundreds of folkies. Definitely rather them than me. Several friends who were indoor camping in a nearby church hall ("but where do you put the tent pegs?") with just a sink for washing were considering treating themselves and the fish to a full body immersion by Sunday though, so perhaps the fishies got off lightly.

Kathryn Roberts and her partner Sean Lakeman played a lovely set of sad tunes early on Friday afternoon. "Do we ever play anything else?" asked Roberts at one point. She later explained their musical choices to me in a way that reminded me that I sometimes used to meet Sean's dad, Geoff, on jobs when I was a cub reporter in Cornwall and he was the Daily Mirror's man in the west country. "So much of folk music is the news of the time when it was written - songs about events with a newsworthy sensation. As a result they are very often sad. I suppose we celebrate the joyous things but don't necessarily write songs about them. And I live such a happy life that it's a kind of therapy to get out and do something else."

But with Lakeman being an ace rhythm guitarist, could there be a missed opportunity for upbeat, rabble-rousing numbers? "Sean does a lot of rhythm guitar with Seth (Lakeman, his brother) but he's primarily an excellent accompanist. It's just a different style for him."

In the innumerate tradition of Fun Boy Three, the first thing you noticed about 3 Daft Monkeys was that there were four of them, or five if you included Athene Roberts' amazing, steam punk corsetry (see above). They almost magically lifted the mood and caused the first sighting of punters galloping up and down the aisles in each others' arms. When Roberts said "You're a lovely audience, yes you are" it was as if a pixie were tickling us under our collective chins.

The evening continued with Ruarri Joseph, who was funny as well as good and had a memorable line about an unlucky man whose dog had been "snagged by a train and was ten miles east". And then Seth Lakeman, who raised the audience to such a pitch that one of my companions was moved to observe that it was almost certainly the excess of female hormones in the air that was making his fiddle strings go out of tune.

However, in the interest of balance I would like to point out that despite the legend that Lakeman is "making folk sexy" I thought I observed an equal reaction to Fay Hield on Sunday afternoon, something that struck me as I failed to see through the forest of burly admirers crowding the front of her auditorium. She got a supportive yet faintly yearning audience response to her suggestion that, since she'd failed to bag Prince William after all, she wouldn't mind if "that Mr Boden" asked for her hand now...

Friday evening was also when I realised that there was behaviour around the bar that was, in my experience, unique to folk gatherings. Never in my life, apart from at Bristol this weekend and the South Bank Centre once for a folk show, have I seen people spontaneously form a number of queues for the bar equal to the number of bar staff. This was instead of the more traditional scrum. While I can see that there is something irritatingly fair about this, it also takes much of the romance out of the situation, which is - let's face it - something that most of us have been in training for all of our lives. It negates the possibility of small acts of kindness, the idea that someone might be thirstier than someone else and takes all of the risk out of a situation that most of us have absolutely no problem with in the first place. It then replaces this tiny risk of unfairness with the kind of irritation more usually experienced in a post office when one queue appears to be moving faster than another. Plus it takes up much more space. Gah... I can feel a backlash coming on.

Saturday morning brought a young, male trio called Wildflowers, who were two fiddles and a Spanish-flavoured guitar with a combined age of about 40. They were very, very good for their ages, putting the wild into wildflower. I was intending to make a series of observations about them, starting with the idea that they would be a perfect match for Joe Broughton's violin masterclasses at the Birmingham Conservatoire or the Guildhall school because of the style in which they play (similar to his with the Urban Folk Quartet but less practised by about 20 years). But I've decided to stop there because someone saw me jotting notes and came over, asking who I was writing for and mentioning that he was father to one of them. And I know when I'm licked.

Jane Taylor was brilliant and gave me my first "got to buy a CD" moment, but I'm going to write about her separately. And she was followed, with a sense of the occasion having picked up some strong momentum, by Pilgrims' Way - "we're the only band who won't try and sell you something this weekend because our first CD's not printed until next week", count me in - and then Jamie Smith's Mabon. While "mabon" produces nothing from my dictionary, wikipedia says that it's the autumnal equinox in the Wiccan tradition, when you can traditionally balance an egg on its end. Not sure what to make of that, but they also got my vote with a CD.

Elfynn reminded me a lot of Little Johnny England with a female singer. Then there was the Fisherman's Friends, who said that they'd landed the "old farts novelty slot" at Glastonbury this year but left me, as usual, with the feeling that I always had after meeting Cornish lifeboat crews (more cub reporter anecdotes): that somehow I'd had the wool pulled over my eyes by someone more canny than me. 

One-time Irish Eurovision contenders Dervish were hilarious but made Boots of Spanish Leather sound like incidental music from Titanic. And then Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes did their impressive thing, made me blub to Cousin Jack and then sent us off to the silent disco over the way, where we discovered all over again that Jim Moray is a genius. On this occasion it was because he mashed up Billy Jean by Michael Jackson with Seth Lakeman's Kitty Jay in such a way that it was clear they should have met sooner and will undoubtedly spend the rest of their lives together, curled up in some kind of funky Bristolian love nest.

My Sunday got off to a slow start because I was talked into getting up at 5am to go and watch several troupes of suprisingly alert morris dancers dance the sun up by Cabot tower for May Day, and then had to go back to bed again with exhaustion (me - probably not them), grateful that someone had the situation in hand.

However, memorable parts of the day eventually included being asked to judge a poetry folk slam, a role I believe I was born for; seeing a magician rightly called Kieran the Mighty produce pre-marked playing cards from the inside of a mobile phone in the terrace bar and shocked expressions on the faces of his audience; and deciding that there must have been something wrong with Sheelanagig's sound desk because their set was SO LOUD it made me quite scared, to the point at which I broke out in a sweat and had to leave the auditorium. Their flute sounded like nothing except feedback and the amplification meant I couldn't understand a word spoken between songs, which just made me feel old. But they had to contend with a gigantic banner picture of Bellowhead louching around behind them, so perhaps I should cut them some slack.

When Bellowhead finally arrived they were phenomenal. A pleasantly unhinged Jon Boden bashed his tambourine against his chest, giving the impression that he was only a very short trip from banging it on his forehead. There was a song enigmatically introduced by Paul Sartin as being about "wizard copulation"; they did Across the Line, which they don't always play but is my personal favourite; and when Cholera Camp came around complete f****** chaos broke out. Pete Flood was running around the stage apparently looking for his snare drum and either found it just in time, or made it look as if he had. Boden threw his jacket in the air, which after all the songs about whoring gave the impression he might be about to take the rest off it off too, and at the end of the set there were cannons shooting what looked like glitter in the air, at which point even the band looked amazed. There was a short debate afterwards about whether any of us really enjoyed Little Sally Racket as much as Boden clearly enjoyed singing it. But hey, I shouldn't think they care after a performance like that.

Folky Bristolian youngsters carried on singing, playing and dancing in the bar afterwards until the staff threw everyone out. I think it would be fair to say that a good time was had by all, with the possible exception of the nibbling fishes.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

No comments:

Post a Comment

Emma Hartley blog logo

24hourlondon logo

Did David Hasselhoff End the Cold War?