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FOLK ON THE TYNE - Sage Gateshead - 28 July 2018

Throughout the summer of 2018 on Tyneside, there was held a celebration of the north of England under the name of the Great Exhibition Of The North, based in art galleries, museums and other cultural centres, and including a wide range of music. Several of the musical events took place at the Sage in Gateshead. Prominent among these was a day's feast of folk music from the North East of England entitled Folk On The Tyne.

As well as the two afternoon concerts in the Sage's smaller hall and a major concert in the evening in the main concert hall featuring The Wilson Family, The Young’uns and The Unthanks, free events were scheduled all afternoon outside on the terrace and on an indoor stage. Unfortunately, after the long hot summer the weather had changed suddenly with forecasts of storms and rain, so events scheduled for outside were held on the indoor stage in addition to those already scheduled for that stage, resulting in rather a crush. When I arrived to this scene, a performance by students of the Folkworks Summer School was in full flow.

The first concert of the afternoon continued the celebration of 30 years of the Folkworks Summer School, with Alistair Anderson presenting a showcase of musicians who had all been associated with the school at some point. These included Nancy Kerr on fiddle and vocals, Amy Thatcher on accordion and clog dancing and Andy May on Northumbrian pipes, alongside the convivial host Alistair on concertina - the hour flying by with ease with such an ensemble.

The second afternoon show saw the premiere of Backbone Of The Land, a Folkworks commission of new music and words led by Peter Brewis and Degna Stone and involving Bella Hardy, Sarah Hayes and others. This provided a compelling and thought-provoking prelude to the night's main concert.

The Wilsons opened the evening showcase of the best music emanating from the North East folk scene in fine style. The Wilson Family have been legends in the region for decades. The current line-up of Mike, Tom, Chris and Steve maintained the standard of vocal excellence the family has been known for and whose performances have influenced both the evening's other performing groups, as they freely admitted. Having just guested on a new album of songs by Ed Pickford sung by North East Singers called The Hooky Mat Project, their set concentrated mainly on mining songs. As well as Ed Pickford's I Am Coal, they impressed with Graeme Miles's Sea Coal and Alex Glasgow's Close The Coalhouse Door; their unaccompanied singing making a striking beginning to the proceedings.

More stunning vocals, both together and solo, followed from The Young'uns. Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes have gained a reputation over the last few years for writing thoughtful songs about real individual people resulting in two Best Group awards in the BBC Radio2 Folk Awards. This year their latest album, Strangers, won Best Album, from which came one of the emotional highlights of their performance - Be The Man - which had also won a Best Original Song nomination in the same awards. Another of their songs about real people which stood out in an all too short set was These Hands. Explanations behind the songs and the group's natural banter made the necessarily short time go too quickly - a situation arising when there are three outstanding acts in a concert with a limited time schedule.

The Unthanks provided a fitting climax to the evening's concert and to the day devoted to music from the North East of England. They have done as much as anybody to bring the music of the region to the mainstream, still keeping true to their roots, whilst branching out with unique projects. Tonight the pure, distinctly Northumbrian vocals of Rachel and Becky, accompanied sympathetically by Adrian McNally on keyboards, were augmented by a string quartet, particularly impressive on three tracks from their recent album, Mount The Air, especially the title track. Also appealing was their rendition of Dave Sudbury's King Of Rome about the famous racing pigeon. Also touched upon were some of the extracurricular projects they have been involved with, including Molly Drake's What Can A Song Do For You. A forthcoming set of CDs of verse set to music, entitled Lines, was introduced, featuring pieces from A Time And A Place: Musical Meditations On The First World War (a touring project the Unthanks did with Sam Lee) and music from Maxine Peake's play, The Last Testament Of Lilian Bilocca, in which they performed in Hull.

After this exhilarating concert, a late-night ceilidh led by the Monster Ceilidh Band was beginning in the foyer. I had to leave after a brief taster to catch the last metro train, but for those who had been at the Sage since the start of the day's events, it would have been a fine finale to 12 hours of music, song and dance - a true celebration of folk music on Tyneside and Northumbria in general.

Neil Hedgeland