Review: Bristol Folk Festival 2011

2 05 2011

Follow the music. That was what thousands of folk fans did at the Colston Hall over the course of this latest long weekend as the Bristol Folk Festival made a hugely welcome return to the city after a break of 32 years. Look over there, that’s festival patron Seth Lakeman trying out a fiddle at the market; and downstairs in the foyer the sound of laughter as weary feet are nibbled by tiny fish.

Music was happening everywhere during the festival’s three days. The main hall played host to some of the biggest names, while Hall 2 had been named the Fred Wedlock Stage as a tribute to the prolific songwriter and proud Bristolian who died last year and hosted a variety of divergent acts.

Upstairs, the terrace bar was another performance space, morris dancers performed both inside and out, and Lakeman was not the only guest trying out the many weird and wonderful instruments for sale at the market stalls, with musicians plucking, blowing, hitting and strumming to their hearts’ content.

The de rigueur look for festival-goers – some of who from further afield camped overnight in St Mary-on-the-Quay church – was a string of flowers in the hair. Even the Colston Hall staff, including some of the hulking bald security staff, got into the spirit of the event and sported this distinctive folky look.

Seth Lakeman, one of the biggest names in the folk firmament, was patron of the festival. His headline show on Friday night showed why he has achieved an unmatched level of success for a fiddler from Devon. The lights didn’t go out either, unlike during his most recent visit to Bristol last year.

Friday was a Lakeman family affair, with his brother and partner, Sean Lakeman and Kathryn Roberts, opening the main stage which Seth later closed. Sandwiched between them was Under the Driftwood Tree, the inaugural winners of the Bristol Folk Festival’s Isambard Nu-Folk Award, which gave them the chance to perform at the festival.

Friday’s music began earlier than originally planned because of the unexpected Royal Wedding. It was apt then that on Saturday on the main stage, Elfynn closed their set with The Newly Wed’s Waltz. Elfynn lead singer Louisa Davies gave a couple of bones workshops during the festival, just two out of many workshops and masterclasses over the weekend.

Luke Concannon was one of the artists who gave a songwriting workshop, and his own set on Saturday afternoon was a festival highlight. He began and finished playing his guitar barefoot among the crowd, many of who had drifted away during his idiosyncratic performance, perhaps put off by a man who behaves like a child who has eaten too many sweets. His enthusiasm was infectious, however, and his onstage antics were for the most part endearing, from running on the spot to encouraging the sound of orgasms – loudly taken up by one especially enthusiastic woman near the front. He proudly told us that most of his songs were written on a recent hitch-hiking trip to Palestine, and protest and changing the world was a regular theme. He finished in the middle of a circle of his new fans with JCB, a Christmas number two from 2005 with his band Nizlopi. Where do one-hit wonders go? Now we know. This was a completely bonkers but completely heart-felt half-hour.

Most folk songs have stories behind them, and one of the festival’s best came from the fantastic Irish fiddle and guitar duo of Dave Garner and Alan Doyle, about a boat on the way to a wedding in Ireland which sank after a goat put his hoof through the hull.

Show of Hands finished off the middle day of the festival with their own mostly pessimistic take on life today, though with the majestic musicianship and sparkling wit of Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and their guest double bassist and vocalist Miranda Sykes. Although Country Life brought a few couples dancing out of their seats, the lyrics are a paeon to a lost way of life: “No trains, no jobs, no shops, no pubs; what went wrong?” Another song, Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed has been adopted as the unofficial anthem against the banking crisis, with the band recently invited onto philanderer Andrew Marr’s Sunday AM television show to perform in front of William Hague. During their encore, Show of Hands were joined on stage first by Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends for a traditional Cornish ditty, before Dervish also returned for a memorable end to Saturday’s proceedings.

Sunday’s theme was dancing, with a day-long dance-fest on the main stage performed by traditional Morris troops as well as Chinese dancing and belly dancing. Music for a traditional ceilidh was provided by Bellowhead’s John Spiers and Jon Boden, featuring dancing from Nonesuch Morris with guest Bristol caller Phil Bassingdale.

Bristol was well-represented on Sunday, with The Bristol Poets led by the Bard of Windmill Hill, Trevor Carter, on the Fred Wedlock Stage and magician Kieron the Mighty, former resident magician at Illusions Magic Bar on Queen’s Road, performing in the terrace bar. Kieron told us this was a work-in-progress show, and it was a bit hit-and-miss. There were certainly gasps when he walked barefoot on broken glass kindly laid out by a man dressed as Death, while his office stapler Russian roulette routine wasn’t quite as dangerous as one infamously performed live on Channel Four by another Bristol magician whose likeness is painted on the side of Illusions, but he still lived to tell the tale and St John Ambulance volunteers didn’t have to prise any staples from his forehead.

Bristol’s musical representatives on the main stage on the last day were Sheelanagig and damn good they were too. They were certainly one of the most exuberant acts of the festival and at the end of their time had to be ushered off the stage like an Oscar-winner whose speech has overrun. “Please don’t encourage their silliness,” our host joked, for this is one of the best things about Sheelanagig, Bristol’s own version of Gogol Bordello, whether they are sprawled on the floor singing about sleep deprivation, or performing a number called Where’s Ralph? about a German harmonica player who didn’t turn up for the recording of their last album.

Talking of last albums, Sunday’s main headliners Bellowhead were awarded their prize for the fRoots magazine critics’ best album of 2010 on the Colston Hall stage before they returned for their encore. It was a fitting tribute for Hedonism, the album from which most of this typically scintillating set was drawn, starting with album closer Yarmouth Town and finishing with London Town, passing through New York on the way for one of their best songs, New York Girls. Unlike when they played last year at the Old Vic, this time the 11-piece band were joined by Benji Kirkpatrick, sometime Seth Lakeman collaborator and player of what looked like a different guitar-type instrument for each song. For one, he took a dive off a speaker stack, fortunately landing on his feet. He was still only a constituent part, however, in a brilliant band and one of the best live acts in the UK today who brought the festival to a close in a shower of confetti.

Bellowhead were a thrilling end to the festival, which was a huge success in its return to Bristol after three decades away. “See you next year,” I overheard somebody say to a friend as they left through the foyer’s doors for the last time. The Bristol Folk Festival 2012 is already in the planning. It will have a tough task beating these last three days.


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