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Monday, 25 July 2011

Folk by the Oak drink all the beer

Hatfield House is half an hour from King's Cross by rail and it was a beautiful Sunday, so a one-day folk festival - the fourth of its name - surrounded by classic English landscaping should have been quite a lure. Around 4,500 were there, though surprisingly few - around 100 - bought tickets on the gate.  I wonder how many Londoners knew how close it was? It's called

(love the art nouveau logo, by the way) because Hatfield House is where Elizabeth Tudor spent much of her childhood and heard of her half-sister Mary's death under one of its vast oaks, meaning that she'd be queen. For the literal-minded there were a bewildering number of candidates for *the* oak about.

That one was rather lovely, to the right of the arena entrance, though this one

was closer to the stage. I made a few inquiries, however, and understand that the tree in question is far more likely to have been this one

because it all happened in 1558, the tree must have been mature back then and the lifespan of an oak is 600 years at the outside. Still, Ade Edmondson and the Bad Shepherds have been playing the same set for nearly that long, so it's in good company.

Scoping out the stalls, I overheard Sean Lakeman having a conversation with the lady behind the main CD counter that went something like: "So would it be OK if you sold it for a tenner and took two off the top?" which seemed like an insight into how these things are run, especially when, if I continued around the arena I soon discovered that Show of Hands, ever well-organised, had their own tent and two dedicated CD sellers.

First up, Tyde were nice - and I use the term advisedly, having been told the same thing about that word by my primary school teacher as everyone else - as I have to admit I was still feeling delighted to have hooked up with some friends and we talked most of the way through the set. Kathryn Roberts' voice, when she appeared with the aforementioned Sean Lakeman, was rather lovely but nearly entirely in the service of downbeat songs. Every once in a while there would be an exciting guitar lick that caused a meer cat-style diversion of our attention and I really like Cassie Love, which is a domestic take on the miners' strike. But it would have been good to have lifted the mood a bit, not least because then I could stop repressing the delinquent desire to shout "Cheer up, love" like an idiot.

By the time The Bad Shepherds appeared we'd discussed all the good jokes they'd done on previous occasions. My favourites are the one about how bad they are - "no sheep" - and their punk version of All Around My Hat, which is a song with a great punchline. However, they didn't do that one - complaint from Steeleye Span? - there wasn't much talking between songs - which you would have thought would be one of the advantages of having a comedian as a front man - and I'm pretty sure there was no new material since the last time I saw them, two years ago. They're musically accomplished but I'd love to see them with a rhythm section, allowing them to really rock out every once in a while. It might make them more than a novelty cover band.

Bella Hardy dedicated a song about herring girls to me, on account of having asked whether there was anyone in from Great Yarmouth and me being from somewhere about those parts, as conveyed by waving my arms in the air. But hers was another downbeat set and by this time I was realising that the landscape, the weather and the company were mainly why Oaky Folk had been fun so far.

Then, rather brilliantly, Show of Hands came on and did one of the most relaxed turns I've seen from them. Phil Beer looked fabulously happy, Steve Knightley had a tan and Miranda Sykes shimmered enigmatically. The show included a snort-inducing joke with an extended set-up involving Phil Beer's family having a beach hut called The Ponderosa that went up in flames, and a 100-year-old lady observing that they'd "never had so much violence during the war". They play music, they tell jokes. What more could you want?

In particular they did two covers - Don Henley's Boys of Summer and Springsteen's Youngstown - that made me wonder whether there's something transatlantic afoot for them. I heard that they're having Richard Shindell to support them on a tour starting in October (he made what has, for some years now, been my favourite album, Courier). He's an American guitarist who lives in Argentina, he has a similar approach to song-writing to Steve Knightley and plays some pretty large venues in the States, judging by his live recordings. So he's akin to Show of Hands with their Albert Hall adventures. I guess that if the British tour goes well there's a possibility he'd return the favour... which would be one answer to the question of what to do next when you don't fit the Jools Holland mould.

However, light hearted stuff aside, at some point during Show of Hands' set the real ale tent ran out of beer and shut its tent flaps, which was an epic folky fail: the kind of acoustic-music-related trauma that could easily drive one to, you know, drink lager. Obviously it was a hot day and people were thirsty, but this really threw down the gauntlet to other festivals. It was all gone by 6pm.

Heidi Talbot, John McCusker, Roddy Woomble and Kris Drever did something fine, if slightly disjointed, in the sense that everything went well but it felt like they were getting together to play songs they'd ordinarily do separately. Kris Drever's Shady Grove went down a storm, John McCusker can really play the whistle and Roddy Woomble has some memorable tunes, even if My secret is my silence prompted the thought that it was a bit of a crap secret really, especially now he'd told us all about it quite loudly.

Seth Lakeman was headlining, which had my friend Rosie racing to the front of the stage and her partner, Doug, lying down, the better to feign nonchalance. There was a kind of squealing noise when Lakeman was introduced, to which he responded "thanks, guys", in a bizarre moment that reminded me of the bit in Life of Brian when the women put on moustaches so they can throw rocks.

By song three, King and Country, Doug was on his feet looking pleasantly surprised (he hadn't heard Lakeman before), and we all found our eyes torn from the stage momentarily when something that appeared from our perspective as a near-miss between two medium-sized aircraft happened directly overhead.

That weirdness past... With phenomenal energy Lakeman did the one about the man who shoots his girlfriend under the mistaken impression that she's a swan, which can happen to anyone. During The Riflemen of War a woman started twirling fluorescent ropes with lights on them in the gloom to one side of the stage, which seemed a more appropriately grandiose response than the usual clapping and whooping. And the almost unbearably tense Kitty Jay cast a powerful spell as a finale, transfixing one between an urge to dance wildly and to stop completely still, in the forlorn hope that if you stare hard enough at him you may understand how he does it.

And to finish, there were fireworks. Really big ones.

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  1. Nice review. I believe it's Kris Drever, not Chris :-)

  2. Excellent review, Emma. Love the comments about Bad Shepherds, a band about whom I have reservations - great players, and covers are part of the folk tradition, and yet... somehow the joke wears thin pretty quick. I feel the same thing about the likes of the Ukulele Orchestra of GB.

    Shame about the audience figures. Any idea how it compares to previous years, or to expectations? They've been advertising relentlessly for months.

    Incidentally, I can see no reason to want to subscribe to your "bog" via Facebook... ;-)

  3. According to the lady who was doing press the audience was slightly up on last year?! Who knows. I was a bit shocked to hear that this thing with the beer has happened before though - according to Annie Dunn - possibly involving the same local brewery.

    Btw extra L inserted in the bog :-)

  4. To run out of beer once is an accident, to do it twice is numptyism. As you say, it's a folkie fail...


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