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Costa Del Folk, Portugal

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Over years of attendance, you get used to the sights, sounds and smells of the average folk festival. Naturally these change according to location, but rarely do they change so dramatically as they do at Costa Del Folk events. Billed as the festivals that “put a smile on your face, a song in your heart and the sun on your back”, these are a new breed of festival, quite different from others on the calendar and, judging by the success of this year’s October event, it is a wonder that no-one has thought to do this before.

Having successfully run several other music-based holidays, this is the third of Enjoy Travel’s folk festivals, the first two being in Benalmadena in Spain in March of 2014 and 2015. The company has enlisted the help of some key figures to help them – Geoff Sargieson continues in his role as programme director and the irrepressible Mike Harding returns as the principal compere. Alongside a small and somewhat hard-working team of Enjoy Travel staff and volunteers, they put on a festival that was thoroughly enjoyable on all sorts of levels.

So, the basic idea is simple – take a typically English folk festival and transport it to a nice hotel in the sunshine, which is completely taken over for the purpose. Festival goers can enjoy the relative luxury of the hotel facilities (there’s no camping here!) whilst enjoying the music, all of which happens in the hotel grounds; outside when the weather permits or inside if not.

This time, the hotel was in Carvoeiro in southern Portugal. The 4* Tivoli Hotel was located in the most beautiful spot, overlooking the dramatic Algarve coastline with its rocky cliffs, secluded beaches, beguiling caves and rugged paths and walkways. A 10 minute stroll took you into the centre of the town where you could experience a bit of local Portuguese life, but otherwise everything happened in the hotel, where most of the 600 or so attendees were staying for the duration of the festival. Several attendees had been to some, or all, of the previous Costa Del Folk events, creating a hub of people who were familiar with the set-up and each other and this added to the very friendly feel of the occasion.

The programme was full each day, with concerts, a folk club, more informal ‘chance to meet’ events, ceilidhs, workshops, bar sessions and singarounds, yet there was only ever one thing on at a time, so you didn’t feel the pressure of trying to be in two or three different places at once. This helped to create a relaxed atmosphere, and I certainly didn’t miss the frantic run across town to get to the next concert that you sometimes have to contend with at a festival. Typically, artists were flown in for a couple of days and would do two or three spots during that time, in different settings, so there was ample opportunity to see everyone. The line-up gradually changed through the week, so the concerts were always fresh and interesting and if there was an act you didn’t really like, or had seen enough of already, you could always use the time to relax in the pool or the bar, or to sit on your room balcony and bask in the Portuguese sunshine (from where you could usually hear the music anyway!).

On day one, as I lay on my sun-lounger in the shade of a palm tree with a cold beer in my hand watching The Demon Barbers XL, Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston and Seth Lakeman during the opening afternoon concert, there was something that seemed a bit incongruous about the whole thing. And seeing piles of folkies wandering around a nice hotel (when they would normally be seen in a field or a tent somewhere) took a bit of getting used to. But once I got my head round the change of location, and the change of pace, I soon saw what a great idea this set-up is.

Although it was possible to buy individual tickets, the vast majority of people at the festival took advantage of the very reasonably priced full package on offer – airport transfers (not flights), bed, breakfast, evening meals and full festival pass – which meant that there was very little to think about apart from enjoying the music. Add to this the bonus of the whole thing being organised by a travel company who care about the detail, so you get the benefit of the stress being taken out of everything, from the moment you book until the moment you leave for home again.

The food in the hotel was excellent, of the buffet variety, with plenty of choice. The bar prices were pretty steep though, with a local Portuguese beer being nearly three times the price it was in the local bars down the road. Possibly due to the lack of family-style or ‘budget’ accommodation and also due to the timing (outside of the school holidays), the festival wasn’t really geared towards families, more towards those who perhaps have grown up kids and a bit of extra cash – though this mightn’t suit some, the organisers know exactly who their target market is and cater for them perfectly.

The guest list in Portugal was impressive and several of the artists were making return trips, having gone down well at previous festivals. One possible drawback of this could be that returning festival-goers might feel that the line-up was a bit too similar and perhaps a bit more variation would be advantageous. But it is hard to change a winning formula and there were also many new acts this time around to keep things varied.

In a programme filled with fine musicians and many highlights, some stood out for me as exceptional.

The Demon Barbers XL (and the Portuguese sun) was exactly what was needed to get this crowd warmed up on the first afternoon. Full of vibrant energy and fun, their mix of traditional music and song, clog, sword, Morris, hip-hop and breakdancing was a hit. Over the course of their appearances they performed music from Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Grateful Dead – you know, the usual stuff – and included material from their recent Disco At The Tavern album. The ballad of The Two Brothers, sung beautifully by Damien Barber and Bryony Griffith with an expressive modern dance interpretation and sensitive piano backing, is not something I would have expected to rave about, but it really worked. Bryony’s discoed up Bonny Labouring Boy was fantastic. And a set that included Will Hampson doing some Cotswold Morris alongside the modern dancers was strangely emotional. It is hard to describe an act like this, and words certainly cannot explain the way their sets moved me - very different, but magnificent stuff.

Ewan McLennan seemed entirely at ease during his appearances and won himself many more admirers I am sure. His warm nature pervaded his sets, which included traditional songs, some learned from the Scottish Travellers and some of his own as well. I love his own songs – they are full of accessible storytelling in the traditional vein, new yet familiar tunes and are never self-indulgent or too introspective. And his guitar playing is immense.

The Young’uns are firm favourites on the scene at the moment and it is easy to see why. They have good songs, they sing them exceptionally well and their entirely natural, witty banter on stage is worth a show in itself. Shortly after arriving in Portugal, they announced that they were going to hold a singing session the next day in the pool and that everyone should either come into the pool and sing with them, or sing along from the amphitheatre created by all the surrounding balconies. They were joined by several enthusiastic participants, including members of Lady Maisery (who were also on top form this week), and needless to say it was great fun. Amongst lots of jokes about it all going “swimmingly”, there was also some great singing – the echoing sound of Roll The Old Chariots Along was probably heard with much curiosity down in the town.

I had never experienced the New Rope String Band before, so I was thrilled to get the chance before they packed up their instrument cases and boxes of tricks at the end of October. They were incredible. One of the most lasting images in my mind after my return home was the look on Enjoy Travel’s head honcho, Gerry Flynn’s face while watching them on the last evening of the festival. I don’t think he could quite believe what he was seeing, and neither could I. Excellent musicianship with an off-the-scale fun factor.

Talking of off-the-scale stuff, Tim Edey was his usual spellbinding self. A first timer to Costa Del Folk, I would bet my last Tivoli dinner ticket that it won’t be his last time. More often seen as part of a duo, this was a chance for him to shine solo, and shine he did. He had the audience eating out of his hand in the first five minutes with his virtuoso guitar and melodeon playing, and he even threw in a few well chosen chorus songs to the delight of the crowd, who were eager to join in. He held a particularly well attended ‘chance to meet’ session which overran considerably due to people’s eagerness to hear more about the man and his music. Many found it quite emotional as Tim was very open and honest about how anxiety and OCD have affected him as a musician and how he has worked to overcome this. His positivity was infectious, as was his cheeky grin. Mike Harding seemed to sum everyone’s thoughts up by saying that “everyone should have a bit of Tim in their lives, every day”. Absolutely!

However, if I had a bit of Tim and a bit of Dave Burland every day, that would be even better. Dave’s relaxed, effortless singing was another highlight of the week. He just keeps getting better. Show Of Hands was playing to an audience of fans and attracted the biggest crowds of the festival. They pleased us with many of their big songs and went down a treat. And The Mighty Doonans added a bit of showbiz to the proceedings and finished off the week in style with a great set.

The dancing workshops and ceilidhs were well attended and looked like great fun. What was billed as a singaround each evening turned out to be more of an open-mic session, where people could put their names down to give those gathered in the bar a song. This was ably co-ordinated by Rosie Clegg and Karin Grandal-Park, who gave us some good songs of their own too. There was more informal singing and tune-playing in the bar late in the evenings, although the hotel staff didn’t quite get the nature of late night sessions (i.e. the bar needs to stay open late!). This was noted by organisers and will no doubt be addressed when the festival returns to this venue next year.

The daily folk-quiz was a new addition to the programme in Portugal and was a resounding success. Our very own Nigel Schofield was the quiz-master and each morning it was great fun to take part, make new friends and get the brain working after the night before – a lovely way to start the day (and one day we even won!).

This really was a fantastic festival. There wasn’t much Portuguese about it, so don’t book expecting that. But if you are looking for a relaxing and friendly English folk festival in the sunshine, with some great music, then Costa Del Folk is well worth looking into. Next year’s April festival is already planned for Mallorca, with a Rhine Cruise with Show Of Hands in May and a return to Portugal in the offing too.

Who says folkies can’t do civilised??

by Fiona Heywood

Published in Issue 111 of The Living Tradition

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