Take a small inheritance from an elderly aunt, add a challenge from an ex-PA and sprinkle in a dozen pleas from festival goers and stewards... and what do you get? The inaugural Saddleworth Folk Weekend, with Ali O’Brien directing operations. Ali is no stranger to this role as she was director of the original Saddleworth Folk Festival which sadly ceased to exist a few years ago. In the intervening years, many requests to bring it back fell on deaf ears as there was no funding or financial support. Then, good old Aunty Elsie died and left a small inheritance. The unselfish Ali decided to put on a Folk Weekend, smaller than its predecessors and with a cosier atmosphere. This warmer ‘feel’ came through during the entire weekend and many were heard to echo through the hills and valleys around that they were “glad it’s back”, “really missed it” etc.
I bought my first Shirley Collins’ record, The Banks Of The Sweet Primroses, in 1968, and was instantly entranced by her voice and her songs. I went to see the The Albion Dance Band in 1976 and to the National Theatre production of Larkrise in 1979, in the hope and expectation of hearing Shirley singing. On neither occasion was she part of the band. It was soon after this that Shirley stopped singing for reasons she explains in her book, America Over The Water. It was only at Cecil Sharp House on this Saturday afternoon that I realised that I had, in fact, never seen Shirley sing live.
Last year I reviewed the first Cylch Canu in glowing terms. It was so successful that it may become an annual event. I do hope so, as we were once again treated to a delightful evening of tunes, song and dance.
The Blas Festival, held every September at various locations throughout the Highlands, regularly culminates in a grand finale concert at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness. This year’s concert was extra special, being a Gaelic star-studded show paying homage to the music of Runrig and sold out faster than the proverbial hot cakes. The singers and musicians ranging through generations and performing to a packed audience, equally wide-ranging age-wise, featured Cathy-Ann McPhee, Julie Fowlis and Mànran. A lengthy programme covered both the earlier and later stages of Runrig's long recording career including interpretations of some English as well as Gaelic songs from the Macdonald brothers' vast repertoire.
If one way of judging the success of an event is to leave the audience begging for more, then this gathering of singers and musicians certainly met that criteria. The evening began with Geordie and Alison singing Inveroran, penned by Geordie. This song, in praise of the Highlands of Argyll, had a short refrain which was picked up immediately by the audience, setting the scene for the rest of the night.
Leveret is a relatively new trio of well known English musicians Andy Cutting (melodeon), Sam Sweeney (fiddles) and Rob Harbron (English concertina). This gig was the start of a mini English tour to promote their recent album New Anything, and intriguingly to also trail their next album which is already recorded. Leveret buck the trend in many ways. Firstly, they are a purely instrumental band - apparently Sam used to sing but has thought better of it, and all three members prefer playing tunes to accompanying singers. Secondly, their repertoire is mainly old music, much of it by unknown composers - the innovation comes in their interpretations of tunes, and in some of their own compositions in the old English style, both of which can be quite surprising even to an audience of folkies. Thirdly, they don't really rehearse - they share tunes and learn them, or find material they all already know, and then they play around with the tunes to tease out new aspects and harmonies, but every performance is essentially improvised. And - based on only one performance I admit - they are brilliant.
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.
What a good four days this was. For many, it marks the end of the summer and that dreaded return to work, but for an increasing number of us retired folk, it can be enjoyed without that feeling. And it is enjoyed by all because there is something here for everyone. In fact, when I look at those acts I didn't see, I realise that there is more than enough for everyone.
So - the 60th Sidmouth Folk Week. Let's see how they celebrate this momentous occasion. What? Last year? Ah. So - the 61st Sidmouth Folk Week. Well then, let's see what it's like on a normal year without any big anniversaries...
Big Names in the Borders
Dougie MacLean, Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain. Karen Matheson, Andy M Stewart and Eddi Reader. Barbara Dickson, Archie Fisher, Siobhan Miller and Jeana Leslie. Julie Fowlis, Skipinnish, Rod Paterson, Martin and Eliza Carthy. Battlefield Band, Old Blind Dogs, Boys Of The Lough and Mànran. The Incredible String Band, Jock Tamson’s Bairns, Kris Drever and Jez Lowe. Lau, Paul McKenna Band, The Wrigley Sisters, The Shee and The Friel Sisters.