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TRAD RECLAIMED: WOMEN IN FOLK MUSIC - Kings Place, London - 15-17 March 2019

It all started when Rachel Newton, who became Musician of the Year in the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2017, wrote a Facebook post about the lack of women in folk music in 2016, citing as an example the experience of the seven members of the all-woman group, The Shee, including herself, when they were turned down for a festival as the organisers had already booked their quota of one 'girl' act for the year. The response online was overwhelming, and there followed a panel discussion at Celtic Connections in 2017.

There then followed an invitation from promoter Alan Bearman to Rachel to curate a weekend of music by women. Thus, this amazing three-day event at Kings Place in London came about. Titled Trad Reclaimed: Women In Folk Music, the line-up focused particularly on women instrumentalists, more than singers who play, but the three evenings and two afternoons featured a wide gamut of female performers, solo and in bands, singing and playing - and not totally excluding men.

Friday night's concert provided a contrast between solo and band, with Hannah James opening proceedings with a delightful display of her unique combination of accordion playing and clog dancing. The Big Band version of The Shee - expanding from the established seven to eleven members – followed, giving their first full concert performance. The additional members included Jenn Butterworth on guitar, Mairearad Green on accordion, Lori Watson on fiddle, Heather Downie on harp and Signy Jakobsdottir on percussion, the latter remaining with The Shee for their later spring tour. The total ensemble of two harps, three fiddles, two accordions, guitar, mandolin, flute and percussion produced an explosive set with a variety ranging from scintillating fast tunes to more calming songs in English and Gaelic from Olivia Ross, Laura-Beth Salter and Rachel. The performance felt soaked with a sense of enjoyment from all the musicians - particularly notable was the empathy between Laura-Beth on mandolin and Jenn on guitar. They also perform as a duo and as part of the Kinnaris Quintet. With Signy providing driving percussion, the augmented Shee delivered a mighty start to Rachel's weekend.

Saturday afternoon started with the sad news that due to an accident at home (hopefully not too serious) Shirley Collins was unable to partake in a talk that had been scheduled with Emily Portman. Emily was able to join the other afternoon event - a discussion panel on Women In Folk, chaired by Rachel. As well as Emily, the panel consisted of Jo Frost, editor of Songlines, Sarah Coxon, formerly writer for Folk Roots and now working for Alan Bearman Music, and Sarah Jones from the English Folk Song and Dance Society. This proved a very illuminating hour or so, subjects raised ranging from the booking of women singers, musicians and groups to festivals, to facilities (or lack of them) in venues for mothers travelling with children - this being more of a problem with licensed premises.

I hadn't been as full of anticipation for the Saturday night show as for the opening and closing concerts but, in fact, the theatrical and musical celebration of legendary Irish singer, Margaret Barry, proved a perfect choice for the Saturday of St. Patrick's weekend. She Moved Through The Fair is a musical drama written by Colin Irwin, the music journalist, and Irish singer Mary McPartlan. Mary sang many of the songs that Margaret was well known for, aided by other singers, Rioghnach Connolly and Lisa Knapp, and backing musicians including Lisa's multi-instrumentalist husband, Gerry Diver. Through the dialogue from the performing actors, one learned a lot about this legend of Irish traditional music - apparently Margaret was a favourite singer of Bob Dylan! Certainly, Saturday's show lived up to the reputation garnered from its previous performances.

Sunday afternoon was spent in the small St Pancras Room in the Kings Place complex listening to two musicians who know each other very well. Firstly, Emily Portman gave a fascinating talk entitled Now She's Fairly Altered Her Meaning, on gender in British traditional song, illustrated by songs and accompanied by Rachel Newton on some. Later in the afternoon as a break from her role as curator, Rachel gave an intimate solo recital in the packed St Pancras Room.

These gentle afternoon sessions in the small room were quite a contrast to what was awaiting in the main hall later in the evening - an appearance of Kathryn Tickell's latest group, The Darkening, who brought the weekend to a thunderous climax. Opening Kathryn's concert were the Rheingans Sisters, Rowan and Anna, innovative fiddler/singers and multi-instrumentalists, and they gave an exquisite performance of their own material written in a traditional style with influences from time spent in Sweden and Norway.

Kathryn's new band featured three men, Kieran Szifris on octave mandolin, Joe Truswell on drums, and the phenomenal Cormac Byrne on bodhrán, providing a backing of rock-like, almost funky intensity to the frontline of Amy Thatcher on accordion, Kate Young on fiddle and, of course, Kathryn on Northumbrian pipes and fiddle. Vocals were shared by Kathryn, Amy and, outstandingly, Kate, who also shines on the new album, on which most of the pieces performed during the concert appear. And, of course, there was clog dancing from Amy, who had also danced as part of The Shee's opening concert. Outstanding among the songs was O-U-T Spells Out, based on an old children's game from Northumbria. Kathryn said that the original date scheduled for the release of the album was 29 March, and she was horrified to find out that it was the original date for Brexit! The Darkening's album, Hollowbone, is mainly inspired by legends and customs from the history and landscape of Northumberland and Durham, and among pieces played in the concert were a rather funky Holy Island Jig and a remarkable Nemesis, based on research Kathryn undertook on the music which would have been made at the time soldiers from many countries were stationed on Hadrian's Wall, concentrating on a particular Cretan, Mesomedes, who apparently was Hadrian's favourite musician. In contrast, there was a little anonymous verse on the pretty town of Darlington! Quite an extraordinary mixture! The rousing music emanating from Kathryn's band provided a storming end to a successful mini-festival of women's music. Credit and thanks must go to Rachel Newton for all the hard work involved with curating this weekend as well as performing herself.

Neil Hedgeland