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GATE TO SOUTHWELL FESTIVAL - 7-10 June 2018

Until recently, this was an old-school English folk festival: shanty men, singer-songwriters, Morris dancers, a bit of fiddle and melodeon, all very traditional and rural and appealing to a folk club audience. But folk clubs are not the places they once were, and their audiences are generally getting older, so this year the festival really branched out to embrace overseas acts, Americana, jazz and punk influences, and other more esoteric art forms such as poetry and yoga. It certainly attracted a younger crowd, and filled the five stages with a broad spectrum of music and dance.

Gate to Southwell is a long weekend, and I was only able to catch two days, but I did manage to attend workshops, sessions and numerous concerts, as well as browsing the wide range of stalls providing fine Thai food and chip shop fare, varied musical instruments and accoutrements, and clothing of all types and hues. The site is large, but not so large that you can get lost, with camping facilities adjoining the huge tented stages, and a separate large area for social dancing. The pretty village of Southwell is about two miles away, and some events take place there, but I confined myself to the main site on Southwell racecourse so as not to waste time shuttling back and forth. The only real disappointment was the lack of instrumental sessions, perhaps related to the low number of Celtic or other instrumental acts at the festival: I struggled to find a suitable space for sessions, and many others had the same problem.

The quality of the performers was certainly not disappointing. As I arrived, Dallahan were escaping their enthusiastic fans under cover of daylight. The first performance I saw was by the Nottingham tribal belly-dancers: shake, rattle and roll Robin Hood style. Barn dance band, Tautas Roks, impressed on melodeon and rhythm, and Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar played a powerful set of new songs and old tunes. Anglo-Irish rockers, Ranagri, were a revelation, very talented and engaging, underpinned by superb electroharp. Folk fringe harpist and singer Ellie Ford was exceptional, angelic singing, and demonic dancing later on: she brought her own contingent of Brighton belles who were ready to party all night. The Boxcar Boys seemed to be everywhere playing their brand of early jazz and Klezmer and oldtime: not all of them are boys, and none of them are boxcars, but streetcars named Laura and Kelsey would be very pleasant to listen to, and John Williams was astonishing on clarinet, harmonica and jaw harp.

The people I'd really come to see were the excellent Fitzgeralds, the amazing Habadekuk, and the multi-talented Outside Track. Julie, Kerry and Tom Fitzgerald all play fiddle and all dance in the Ottawa Valley style: their solos and group routines were simply awesome, and people flocked to their step-dance workshop. Habadekuk are a party band combining the beauty of old Danish tunes with the thrill of a three-piece brass section, and they filled the dance floor in two separate packed concerts. The Outside Track combines Irish folk songs, fiddle and accordion music from the Scottish tradition, and Cape Breton step-dance, with another stunning harpist topping and tailing their sound. I expected these bands to be the highlight of the festival for me, and so they were, but there was much more to enjoy at Southwell.

Mairi Rankin of The Outside Track gave a great fiddle workshop, teaching strathspeys and reels to people who had never even heard of Cape Breton Island. The very accomplished English ceilidh band, Banter, led a brief instrumental session in one of the bars, dismantling a piano in the process. Country balladeers, Truckstop Honeymoon, were another group who got everywhere: I didn't catch them on stage, but I joined in an American session with them with singer-trombonist Rory McLeod plus most of The Shackleton Trio. Snippets of button box legend Luke Daniels, oldtime duo Vivian Leva & Riley Calcagno, and The Furrow Collective; more Morris sides than you can shake a bladder at; a whole social dance strand including Cajun and Contra bands; too many singers to mention; plenty for the kids, including a donkey, and an Anglo-Nubian goat with her own kids to care for; Southwell 2018 had a lot to offer folkies and followers of acoustic music and, with a few tweaks, it could be even more interesting for lovers of instrumental music.

southwellfolkfestival.org.uk

Alex Monaghan