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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

When Roots loses its charm

I was talking to an independent film-maker called Nigel Buck (see his showreel here - warning, it may make you feel you've chosen the wrong career) earlier this week about something else when he drew my attention to this pilot, put together last year, for a documentary that never got made.

The documentary was to have been called Folk the BNP and the pilot features a brief roundup, for television commissioning editors who hadn't followed the story, of what the BNP was attempting to do on the folk scene.

Buck cut the promo for two other film-makers called Andrew Graham-Brown, who owns a production company called AGB Films, and Evie Wright, who was the moving force behind the idea. They showed it around, thinking that it could have been timely for the general election, but as is often the way in the creative industries it failed to find a taker at the time.

"We thought of it for Cutting Edge on Channel Four," said Graham-Brown. "And we heard back from them eventually. But it was one of those stories that had to be done there and then really. And the BBC looked at it but said it was quite like a Storyville they'd made about the goings-on in Barking and Dagenham."

Wright still seems committed to making something in the subject area - describing the project as "dormant but not over" as far as she's concerned. "I've got some footage of Nick Griffin talking about folk immediately after he came off stage after losing the election in Barking and Dagenham," she said.

Graham-Brown mused out loud about the relative merits of attempting to get a three-part series about folk music made, incorporating this story as one  of its elements. "Wierdly, the promo went on YouTube and it got 80,000 hits in a really short space of time - I've got no idea who was watching it. We thought that might impress the commissioning editors. But it hasn't yet." Watch this space...

This made me wonder about the song that kicked some of this hoo-hah off. I've seen Show of Hands several times this summer at festivals and a recurring theme was encores during which the audience muttered appreciatively: "They're not finished yet. They haven't done Roots." Only to find at the end that it hadn't been on the play list.

"I suppose I should sing it more," said Steve Knightley. "Everyone expects. It's just hard work committing to it vocally and morally night after night. It was starting to feel slightly charmless. It's like Arrogance Ignorance and Greed and Country Life: it demands conviction and sometimes my energy flags."

It struck me watching the promo that he must have spent a great deal of time talking about that one song, justifying it, explaining it.

"We have been playing it on occasion - we did it at the last gig. But it's been feeling as if one's forcing oneself to emote or convey anger or indignation long after the original energy of the song brought them naturally. Imagine being in a three year West End run of Look Back in Anger.

"It's nothing about the merits of the song, just the demands of the performance."

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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

John Tams to Bellowhead: what are your politics?

John Tams was fresh from his set with Home Service on Thursday at Cropredy, including a stand-out moment from The Lark Ascending played on the flute. I said that I'd especially liked their brass section.

"Ah yes. We were the only ones doing that when we started out. And now there's Bellowhead..." Suddenly he looked a bit mischievous.

"You know, I'd really like to see them get more political. It seems a shame to be as big and successful as they are and not to use their platform. I'm a great fan - I live just down the road from some of them, I know them pretty well. And I've known Benji's dad for decades.

"But I can't help feeling that it's all a bit of a waste if they don't do the political stuff."

But there's hundreds of them! (See above if you don't believe me.) What are they supposed to do: form their own parliament in order to decide what line they're going to take? All those songs about prostitutes, it's probably not women's rights they're interested in, is it? And anyway, isn't Jon Boden's dad a stockbroker or something?

"You should stir it up between us. The Home Service and Bellowhead. It could be a bit like Blur and Oasis: I always thought that must have been a manufactured grievance. And instead of Britpop we could call it Britfolk.

"Tell Bellowhead I'm calling them out about their politics." Him and his mates.

And with that he belted off for the stage, where he was supposed to be saying goodnight to UB40...

I took this all in the puckish spirit in which it was intended... But a few hours after I originally posted this blog, I got an email from Mark Whyles, Bellowhead's manager, saying: "It's very easy for one man to have political opinions. It's much harder for eleven people to agree entirely about anything so important and as such it's almost impossible for Bellowhead to take a political standpoint."

He included this statement from Jon Boden: "Since you ask (and speaking for myself, not the band) I'm a card carrying member of the Labour party, who prefers traditional music to 'political song writing' (aka preaching to the converted...)"

Bellowhead were also instrumental in organising a Folk Against Fascism gig at the South Bank Centre, where they performed for free.

And breath... At least no one brought up John Tams' involvement with Help for Heroes.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page. That's all from Cropredy this year, but there should be something later in the week about the BBC and its music policy.

* My other Cropredy blogs were

John Tams on Steven Spielberg and Richard Curtis

Fairport's line on The FLK hardens, a bit

ahab's Four Weddings and a Funeral moment

The Urban Folk Quartet's secret weapon

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Urban Folk Quartet's secret weapon

Slightly over a year ago I stood in an upstairs room of a crumbling old printworks in Dalston and watched a large number of people jump up and down in a tiny space to a band I'd never seen before. They were fabulous but I really thought the building might fall down.

The band was The Urban Folk Quartet.

Perhaps I'm biased. It was a heady first experience, then due to the magic of Facebook (I was contacted by the band when they saw I was coincidentally in Asturias at the same time as them) I also saw them in Spain, a few months later while I was on holiday. They played in the small hours of the morning with the moonlit Mediterranean behind them and that kind of thing can turn a girl's head.

They were my top musical pick at Cropredy this year by a long way. I also really liked Lau, Moore Moss and Rutter and The Travelling Band. But The UFQ's sense of performance was more finely honed than anything else I've seen for a very long time and the joy that blasted from the stage while they were occupying it was pandemic-ly infectious.

For they have a secret weapon.

Paloma Trigas's smile. She was subsequently referred to as Paloma Smiley Face in my neck of the field whenever the subject came up.

Joe Broughton, who is her partner as well as her fellow fiddler on stage, has a sense of humour that is dry almost to the point of sarcasm. "You know what the best thing about that smile is?" he asked. "It's already on her face when she wakes up at 6am in the morning. Try and imagine what that's like."

Here's a taste. They launched their second album on Friday.

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My other Cropredy posts are

Sunday, 14 August 2011

ahab's Four Weddings and a Funeral moment

Fuck, fuckety fuck fuck fuck... 

Last year at the Cropredy festival ahab got their big break. Jamie Smith's Mabon had insuperable transport difficulties and ahab replaced them at short notice on the main stage: they'd been scheduled to play at The Brasenose Inn, a fringe venue in the village.

Bob Harris saw them and got them in for a session on Radio Two. And, as I wrote a couple of months back, they acquired a management team in the form of Gareth Williams and Stevie Horton, who also manage the festival. 

It's been a big year for them and there's an Australian tour in the pipeline. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given who their management are, they were booked to play at Cropredy again this time, at The Brasenose, noon on Saturday.

But with a beer garden packed full of increasingly excited teenage girls - and some of their mums - Dave Burn (second from right, above) stepped up to the microphone with 15 minutes to go to say that they were two men down and the set would start at 1.30 instead.

It did. Much whooping and hollering from the audience later Callum Adamson (on the left in the picture) told me what had kept him and Seebs Llewellyn (other end of the row) - when the rest of the band had come up a day early.

"I overslept," he said, with surprising frankness. "I really wanted to spend a night at home because we've been away a lot recently and I was supposed to be getting from my place in west London to Seebs's house for a lift. I hadn't had a big night on Friday, honest - just a curry and bed. But when it became clear I'd messed up and there wouldn't be time for my journey across London and the trip by car, we came up separately. He drove and I came up by taxi."

And how much was that? "£270," said Adamson without blushing.

After a pause to digest this information, I realised the money involved was in proportion to how much was at stake - the appearance of ingratitude on the anniversary of their big day would be a hard one to shake off. 

"Yes," nodded Adamson, looking a tiny bit sorry for himself. "Stress city. I'm just glad I made it and I'm hoping to be forgiven."

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Other Cropredy posts are

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Fairport's line on The FLK hardens, a bit

A while back I wrote about some chancers calling themselves The FLK, who appeared at Cecil Sharp House one evening, pursuing some kind of marketing campaign on their own behalf that involved dressing up in cows' heads and not saying who they were.

Later there was a video on the web of them burning some copies of Fairport Convention's Liege and Lief, a reference to a band called The KLF who claim to have burnt a million quid in the early 90s.

It was annoying because of the nature of the marketing: no one likes to feel as if they're being played. Still, it was mildly intriguing as well as irritating.

Simon Nicol, Fairport's front man, said at the time that he'd been thinking about it but the point was lost on him.

Running into him at Cropredy, his position seems to have shifted slightly. I'd been wondering whether burning copies of someone's musical output was similar to burning books? Someone thoughtful on a message board made a good point when they said that the reason the burning of books is totemic is that for so many years - before printing presses - books were hand made so they represented hundreds of hours of labour, whereas records and CDs can be printed in a moment.

"It's not really in me to get too wound up about it," said Nicol. "Partly because that's clearly what they want, but also because I really don't think that whatever they're up to is going to make any difference to us in the long run."

According to someone who went to the Cambridge folk festival there were CDs for sale there by The FLK, but they didn't appear to be flying off the shelves and there doesn't seem to be any trace of it online. Is it  a slow month in the FLK's marketing department (which I imagine as an office full of people wearing badger and pig masks, listening to slightly downbeat techno)?

"I'll look forward to setting fire to that then," said Nicol. "Though in the interests of fairness I might give it a listen. Then set fire to it."

* 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

Other Cropredy posts

John Tams on Steven Spielberg and Richard Curtis

Friday, 12 August 2011

John Tams at Cropredy on Steven Spielberg and Richard Curtis

Pennants flutter, heavy looking clouds jostle overhead and the fields near Banbury are bristling with wild-haired men (and sometimes - oh yes - their ladies) wearing tankards on their belts. It must be Cropredy...

John Tams was emceeing yesterday as well as fronting The Home Service and in between whiles took a moment to talk about the making of War Horse in Hollywood, with which he's been involved. He was one of the originators of the music for the award-winning play, which transferred from the National Theatre in London to the West End to Broadway and which Steven Spielberg is currently transforming into a film.

"There was a moment when I had a four-way conference call with Spielberg, John Williams [the composer] and Kathy Kennedy, one of Spielberg's producers. The biggest thing with the music has been trying to prevent the over-celticisation of it. I love celtic music but the story has Devon as its hinterland and after Titanic celtic music became a Hollywood cliche, a trap waiting to be fallen into. We'll have to wait and see how it turns out.

"I was down at Castle Combe about three months ago for the filming. They had 12 different drays playing Joey (the eponymous war horse) and a whole trailer for horse makeup. They painted them red and even put a little yak-hair wig on each of them before they 'became' Joey.

"Richard Curtis wrote the screenplay and I was joking with him that they should have called it War, Actually... but he didn't seem to find that very funny." Tams, who's had more than his share of on-screen war as he played Rifleman Daniel Hagman in Sharpe - wiggled his moustache at the memory.

"One day there was a scene in which they had an Irish Catholic man playing a high Anglican priest, emerging from a church singing a non-conformist song. And I asked Richard Curtis whether he thought that was a good idea? He looked at me and said "Do you want to see your f------ song in the film or not?"


* 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

Other Cropredy posts

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

How squeezy is John Spiers?

The sun shone on Sunday afternoon at the Warwick Folk Festival. Paul Sartin had wandered off looking grumpy, Jon Boden was soliciting praise for his first attempt at cutting his son's hair - it was pretty good - and Dr Fay Hield was saying something about how festival crowds were getting better-looking as her gaze played in the general direction of ahab, who were standing near the No Bones Jones food stall.

I'd recently been told that squeeze boxes were what give English music its distinctive sound and thought I'd try that theory out on John Spiers - of headliners Spiers and Boden, also Bellowhead - who was obligingly forthcoming.

"The piano accordian was the first squeeze box I had: I was 18 and I'd only played the piano before. The right hand is like a sideways piano and it's got the dynamic of bellows, which I love because you can swell a note - obviously you can't do that with a piano.

"The swelling of a single note is one of the essences of English dance music, the noise that sounds like some other kind of music going backwards. It makes people spring their legs and jump off the ground. There's a lot of jumping in English dancing," he mused, as my shorthand picked up speed and my beer buzz burned off rapidly. I hadn't been expecting to have this talk. "Only certain instruments encourage that and percussive instruments can't do it at all. I don't have that accordian any more. I sold it to a gypsy."

You're making this up now, aren't you?

"No. Honestly. Whoever sold it to me didn't know what a good instrument it was. I bought it for £40 and sold it for £100. But it was very heavy and when I was 19 someone suggested that because I was mainly playing morris music it was difficult to make it sound right on an accordian and I should get a melodeon instead.

"By this time I'd gone to study genetics at King's in Cambridge, which is a musical college but mainly for its choir. It's a bit snooty. But the head tutor there was a wonderful man called Rob Walloch. I got robbed in the college bar one evening, which was awful. They'd got my coat and my wallet and so many of my things needed replacing anyway.

"But when I'd first started there he'd made a speech about how if there was anything you needed you shouldn't be afraid to ask because the college was so old and there were so many bursaries available for this and that. He said he'd look for loopholes for us. I think there's a bursary for the sweetest smelling boy from Faversham."

It's unclear from my notes whether this is the bursary that John was awarded.

"So I'd been saving up anyway and my jacket was worth about the same as the melodeon I wanted. It was a cheap melodeon.

"I'd been warned about how different they were to play but when I got it back to my room it sounded lovely: much sharper and stronger. I couldn't play it at all because I was used to an instrument whose note stayed the same when you changed the direction of the bellows and the melodeon is diatonic. It's got the action of a harmonica and changes a whole tone: if you're playing a C and you change direction it produces a D.

"It's a very physical instrument: if you want to do a fast run of notes you need to put your back into it. It's the most regular exercise I get but it's nice because you're half dancing while you play. The English melodeon makes you play with a choppy rhythm that's almost impossible to overcome: you have to work within that style.

"The Irish melodeon, on the other hand, has a row of buttons that are the white notes and another that are the black notes - and you don't have to work the bellows in and out so much. When you hear someone like Sharon Shannon playing you get something that is phrased in a very solid and modern way and played to the taste of the musician rather than the action of the instrument."

John also plays the bandoneon (above), which he says was invented to sound a bit like a church organ and exported to Latin America by sailors, where it was taken up by missionaries, then into brothels (not necessarily in that order) eventually becoming the sound of the tango.

And then there's the concertina, which is disconcertingly expensive for such a small instrument. "The average price of a concertina you would hope to get good on is about £2,500. I don't know any young person who can afford one."

I heard later, from someone else, that there's a supply and demand issue: that very few are made these days and there's someone out there who buys them up to drive up the price. I don't know what to make of this.

"I eventually sold that melodeon to my dad - the one Rob Walloch helped me buy. My dad was a morris dancer (with The Ancient Men and the Abingdon Traditional Morris Men) and he'd taken note of the fact that I was playing the squeeze box. I'd been doing lots of busking in the streets of Oxfordshire and playing for ceilidh bands, and I think he'd secretly always wanted to do it. He used to sneak into my bedroom when I wasn't there during university holidays and have a go. Then one day he took it up and I taught him.

"I've also learnt how to fix them. The first time I ever noticed something had gone wrong was when a note just carried on after I'd stopped playing. I was playing all the time and couldn't send it to London to get fixed, so my mending was trial and error. When I found the offending spring I managed to flick another one out of the bay window and into a hedge by accident. I mended the broken spring with a rubber band and a drawing pin and then it took me about an hour and a half of feeling every bit of leaf under the hedge to find the one I'd lost. It was about one and a half inches and made of thin black wire.

"I learnt much more about my craft when I went to work at The Music Room - an instrument shop - after university. I was forced to leave the job in the end because I'd been being playing with Jon (Boden) and we went on tour to Australia for three weeks. In those five years I think I had a  go on every single model and sold about 1,000 squeeze boxes to people, many of whom I still see on the folk scene. I also started a website called which is still going."

I probably should have asked him what he did for a coat if he spent the money on a melodeon...

* If you like Bellowhead you may also be interested in this interview with Pete Flood, Bellowhead's percussionist.

* If you'd like to buy a copy of Spiers and Boden's ten year anniversary compilation album The Works there are links to lots of places you can compare prices here.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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