L2F - Lichfield, Staffordshire - 18-20 October 2019
“Super Saturday” was how many right-wing rags referred to the sitting of Parliament on Saturday 19th October. Alas for them the “cunning plan” of their hero in No 10 and his Baldrick-like adviser came to nowt. Meanwhile 132 miles to the north, in Lichfield, a truly Super Saturday was unfolding. Ah, but I rush… first of all there was Fabulous Friday, made absolutely fabulous by a supercharged reformed Home Service. Even before then - two days before in fact - the scene was being set on board the Folk Train. This rolled out of Lichfield at 7.58pm, picking up folkies from throughout the region for a mobile session on board, and picking up momentum as sessioneers joined at stations along the way, eventually decamping at a session pub in Sutton Coldfield where they continued until tumbling on to the last train homeward. A head of anticipatory steam(!) had thus begun to build throughout Lichfield before the festival had officially kicked off.
I saw Home Service a few years ago and thought they were good. This time they were sensational, dispensing with any fears I may have had about band reunions; too often tired old folk, pop or rock warhorses stumble back into the spotlight motivated by a lack of cash, a need to relive the glory days, or whatever, and proceed to blow precious reputations and fond memories to smithereens. Any such fears were quickly dispelled, and early in the show's second half it struck me that they weren't just as good as they'd ever been, but better, and were in fact right now actually at the height of their powers. Their “reunion” wasn't strictly just a reassembly, as newish boy John Kirkpatrick now fronts the nine-piece ensemble, physically placed between the brass and guitar/percussion sections, whilst local legend (and festival patron) John Tams wanders the stage at will. That brass section is one of the tightest, most soulfully precise outfits I've ever witnessed, and elevates what they do miles above any “folk rock” cliché, whilst across stage the incisive guitar work of Graeme Taylor could strip paint… tastefully.
Some highlights came from the Alright Jack album, but there were glimpses back to The Mysteries, Lark Rise and even a slice of shared musical history between Tams and Kirkpatrick from their Umps And Dumps days. I was greatly taken with Home Service sans vocalists on Poppa Jack's Polka, which they picked up in Cologne, and the band's two encores, Snow Falls and Battle Of The Somme, brought the night to a glorious emotional crescendo.
Whether by accident or design, the juxtaposition of a group of veterans to end Friday, with a bunch of youngsters (who may be a future Home Service in years to come) to open Saturday's concert, worked well. Wildfire Folk was formed as a youth ensemble by Lichfield Arts as part of a Folk Arts Project. Starting as a one-off project, its popularity ensured that it quickly developed into a band in its own right, tucking festivals and other appearances from Chester Folk Festival to the Acoustic Festival of Great Britain under its collective belt. Members come and go, forming something of a floating population, although there is a core of some 20 members aged between 12 and 25 learning to arrange, write and perform. Their repertoire on this occasion was 30% original compositions with the remainder being traditional tunes and idiosyncratic blends e.g. their Polka Face being a blend of Donal Lunny's Tolka Polka threaded with Lady Gaga's Poker Face. Whilst their stagecraft was, as yet, rudimentary, with hurried slightly mumbled introductions from some shyer members, this was more endearing than anything else. They have their priorities right and the more polished bits of stagecraft will come, whilst, at present, their raucous brass riffs set against lively flutes, fiddles, accordion and percussion left few in doubt of their musical strengths.
The organisational approach at Lichfield is an unusual one. Whilst there are no individual event tickets for either the Saturday or Sunday concerts and purchase of a whole day ticket is necessary (which on Saturday bought access to 10 separate acts over a period of 10 hours in the Guildhall main venue) running alongside those events are a whole series of free, more specialised events. Dan McKinnon, for example, talked and played on the theme of Songs From Atlantic Canada alongside other such contributors in venues such as the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (yep that very same Johnson who declared that patriotism was “the last refuge of a scoundrel”). Other themed free events took place on Sunday, and streets and squares were filled with dance teams from 10.15am to 3pm on Saturday, the October weather (for once) laying its golden mantle over everything. For my money, the standout deal would have to be the full festival three-day ticket, which came in for about the same price as a tank of fuel at £57.
Sunday was a little quieter (which is maybe as well as I'm running out of superlatives). People will probably have seen acts such as Rachael McShane or Merry Hell and already have their own opinions which are likely to be unmoved by mine, so I don't see the point of painstakingly describing each. So far, I've focused on the reformed Home Service which many won't have seen yet, and the newcomers Wildfire Folk (ditto). I'll stick to this format by ending with a band neither I nor the group of seasoned folkies I was with had heard of – Ranagri - a four-piece playing a mix of Irish and English music on guitars, flutes, whistles, bodhrán and electric harp. They are just that bit different without being at all outlandish or gimmicky. Quite the reverse, in fact, and I found them to be nuanced and subtle without any of the bombast that too many folk bands seem to find necessary. They can zip through a tune that demands it, but I took away an impression of a band that respects the integrity of its music, with a fine singer who is appropriately restrained when needed. If I was still in a festival organiser's role, this is the band whose phone number I'd be looking for - they're worth a watch.
“Worth a watch” also seems to be the opinion of an increasing amount of people making the pilgrimage to L2F, and I recognised faces I associate more with Fylde and Sidmouth festivals; the word is obviously out that this event is a “must” if you want to grab a late season piece of magic before the nights really start drawing in.