Review: Bristol Folk Festival 2012

8 05 2012

Real ale, beards on men, flowers on women, all three if you’re a Morris dancer. The Bristol Folk Festival returned to the Colston Hall for the second year in a row after a lengthy absence, and it was a treat from start to finish. There was Peter Lord, sadly not dressed as a pirate captain nor a Morris dancer. There was a stall selling hand-woven jumpers from Peru. There was music everywhere, you just had to follow your ears.


Ahab may have been missing their fourth in number but they made up for it with their friendly and casual vibe that didn’t seem to suffer as a three-part harmony instead. A twinge of country with the dulcet sounds of three men who could pass as young lumberjacks in a Nirvana tribute band.

At the Isambard’s Kingdom Stage, Sarana Berlin provided the heavier bit of rough sound of the day in front of the terrace bar where the music is free. The band have a slowed down country and western style with some twinkling sounds occasionally shared over the heavy guitar. An acquired taste perhaps but good enough for the crowd gathered around and sitting on the floor.

Ewan McLennan‘s soft Scottish brogue filled Hall 2 with various styles of chorus, night visiting and more traditional folk songs which even had the crowd joining in with choruses such as “I’m a rover, seldom sober”. This was a sweet and unpretentious session which included a version of Auld Lang Syne and McLennan’s interpretation of Bob Dylan which he recorded for a BBC tribute. He provided a graceful, witty and funny performance which even brought a tear to the eye with a song about needing to change in a world of war and fighting.

Rodney Branigan is billed as impressive but it’s not until his skills on two guitars simultaneously are actually heard that the realisation strikes home. The rhythmic and fast paced playing is certainly impressive even without the curiosity of how his deft hands manage to pluck and strum at the same time. He doesn’t need a gimmick though because his first song By Your Name has the lyrical depth of Ryan Adams and the Country and Western charisma of Garth Brooks. He is brilliantly vibrant live and is accompanied by the funky bass of Miranda Sykes, who later performs with headliners Show of Hands.

Late in the evening, Hall 2 featured a terrific solo on a handheld drum from one-third of the Rua McMillan Trio, before it was time for Show of Hands, veterans of the folk scene whose songs have taken on added potency in the current economic climate, in particularly Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed about our politicians and bankers. A hen do with a banner proclaiming their love for Steve Knightly almost stole the show, but not quite, as the trio showed why they remain one of the best live bands in the UK, finishing with a rousing rendition of Are We Alright.


As the main stage takes a brief hiatus between 5.30 and 7.30, the spotlight turns to lesser known bands in Hall 2. Gemma Clark, with the casual appearance of someone who has gone out for milk and finds herself in front of an audience, surrounded by a backing band, does what she can with her set and sings a few covers and a couple of her own songs. Clark provided a sweet act but failed to live up to the promise of her predecessors on more than one occasion.

Clark was followed by Ben & Alfie with an eclectic mix of songs from this young duo who look like they are yet to graduate and sound like they believe that poems should have lines that always end on a rhyme. The fast and frolicky pace of the violin and the funky jazz sounds of the double bass provide a bizarre journey from pizzicato pluckings to a monologue and even to a tribute to Senegalese taxis.

After the active effort in suspending disbelief in Hall 2, the recommencement of music in the main hall was a welcome relief and perhaps Ruarri Joseph was greeted with more enthusiasm than he deserved as he couldn’t fare worse by comparison. This Cornish singer-songwriter may be one to watch but his understated and beautiful songs soon blend into the same repetitive which soon becomes predictable. There is much to praise about the comforting tones that fill a packed out hall, however.

Sunday evening’s headline act Cara Dillon joked that she had been joined by her B-team for this performance. In reality, that meant some of folk’s finest names: Donal Lunny, Máirtín O’Connor and Michael McGoldrick. Winner of every award going in a career which has seen her provide vocal duties to Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells III, Dillon is a performer of real class, with a mesmerising voice whose beauty was only enhanced by her cohort of musicians with her on the Colston Hall stage. One of these musicians was her husband Sam Lakeman on guitar, who briefly took to the microphone to inform us of one of their children’s exceptional vomiting skills the previous evening. Hopefully the pair of them got a better night’s sleep after this gig.


There’s nothing like a good cover, and the The James Froud Band surprised with Boys of Summer. Two notable things from this set in Hall 2 was that the male singer was outdone by his female backing singer, and the guitarist who played slide guitar with the guitar held horizontally in front of him.

Duotone, dressed in matching white shirts, black waistcoats and bowler hats, were at their quietest like Kings of Convenience with added strings and effects pedal, and at their loudest very cinematic, with cello playing so vigorous that the bow was in bits by the end of their set.

There followed an impromptu set in Hall 2 by festival volunteer coordinator Beth Fouracre, with delicate plucking and a deep and resonant voice.

Her yellow jacket was a brilliant contrast to the blue hair of Lucy Ward, and also what one girl with a guitar can achieve. The thing about Ward is that she spends much of her time not playing her guitar at all, preferring to tell stories and show us some things that have tickled her, such as a copy of Boyfriend magazine from 1965, excerpts of which she read out to much mirth. Maids When You’re Young was the highlight of a set which featured many self-penned songs so good that they could be centuries old.

Upstairs at the Isambard stage, Taunton’s The Temporary Trio featured a delightful combination of guitar, banjo and spoons; Appalachian mountain songs mixing with old time vaudeville. Headlining this stage, high above the rest of the action but still within earshot of the Morris dancers downstairs, were Holika, featuring a female singer backed by three boys on guitar. Theirs was hip-hop stylings with folk undertones featuring a bit of fiddle action. It was another winning combination.

Due to other commitments, festival patron Seth Lakeman was unfortunately unable to play this year, so it was left to his regular right-hand man, as well as a member of Bellowhead, Benji Kirkpatrick, to showcase his own precocious plucking.

The final evening’s headliners were Afro Celt Sound System, fusing the traditional music of Western Africa and Ireland, and quite a coup for Bristol as this is their only UK festival date this year. It wasn’t just Afro and Celt either, with a Bhangra drummer whipping the crowd up with even the help of some drum and bass. It was a riot of colour, noise and cross-continental sounds. Like a child making a sandwich of ridiculous ingredients, jam, cheese and chocolate and then proclaiming that it tastes delicious, so is Afro Celt Sound System a bonkers but delicious combination of world music flavours which somehow works. It was a rollicking way to end three days of festival fun.

See you next year.



3 responses

10 05 2012
Alan Doyle

Name: Alan Doyle
Comment: I am more than concerned about the heartlessness of the ‘nameless’ person who reviewed the Bristol Folk Festival. Is it his wish to destroy the confidence of young people by verbally tearing them apart for all and sundry to see. Maybe he would like to see all young people sitting at home playing computer games, watching telly or getting hammered down the pub, rather than having the balls to get a set of songs together, getting up off their backsides and putting some effort into entertaining people. I have spoken in general terms but the comments I refer to specifically relate to his review of Gemma Clark. Maybe he didn’t think it worthwhile to do any research but was he aware that Gemma was asked to perform just a week before the festival, was he aware that during that week her aunt had a cardiac arrest, whilst giving birth to twins, finished up in an induced coma and was on the critical list for several days. Was he aware that Gemma was working tirelessly during the weeks before, helping to organize the festival. Was he aware that Gemma, who is twenty years old, has received huge amounts of praise for the trojan work she did, on a volunteer basis, for the festival. Apart from some rough edges down to inexperience, everyone complimented her on her voice and song choice. I cannot abide guys like this who get a kick out of slagging people off for the sake of it and looking for the negative. Talking in public is one thing, singing in public is a totally different animal. Can this guy sing???????? When he comes to the Folk Festival next year, as he promised, he has my name, I hope he introduces himself!!!!!!!!!!!!

10 05 2012

Gemma was reviewed by me, on her performance on the day. She was reviewed as a peer to Rodney Branigan, Lucy Ward, Cara Dillon and some of the finest folk in music. I hope her hurt feelings don’t let her lose sight of what an achievement that is all on its own.

13 05 2012
Alan Doyle

It just seemed unfair that Gemma was the ONLY one out of the whole list of acts that you picked on for special critisizm. As already mentioned, everyone commented on how lovely her voice was, a point that you obviously considered to be irrelevant and not worth a mention. I have always encouraged people to “be nice”. “IT’S NICE TO BE NICE” and it doesn’t cost anything. Also, there is no need to hurt others unless they hurt, or try to hurt you. You can justify your comments as much as you like, especially when you sign yourself ‘Joanna’ and nobody knows who you are but comments like yours can destroy confidence that, incidentally, takes a very long time to build, in someone who is just starting on the entertainment road and needs to be encouraged. Luckily, Gemma is a strong enough person to realise how insignificant your comments are but I know others who may very well have given up singing in public as a result of what you said. I have a suspicion that you don’t perform yourself, as such, your lack of understanding of the seriousness of what you have done is easier to accept. THINK before you commit to print. If you have a bad day and need to bitch about someone, do it about someone who deserves it.

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