Images courtesy of Rich Etteridge
Friday started with jigs and fiddles. A fiddling workshop to be exact – which is not I hasten to add, quite as dodgy as it sounds. It was quite a heart-warming sight in fact, to see a tent full of people, old and young, learning the ropes (or should I say strings) from Bellowhead violinist extraordinaire Sam Sweeney. It’s the likes of Sweeney that have helped lead to a resurgence in the learning of traditional folk instruments, there was certainly an impressive amount of younger musicians playing over the weekend, and as a result it looks as though the folk scene over here is in a fairly healthy condition.
So while the UK seems be in pretty good nick, my knowledge of the Spanish folk scene was pretty much non-existent, until we saw Korrontzi. OK, so I still only know one Spanish folk band, but if this lot are anything to go by then our Flamenco dancing amigos can’t be too far behind. Opening the main stage for the weekend the Basque group turned in a vastly impressive set, using traditional Spanish instruments such as the Alboka and classical guitars. Accordions wheezed out Mediterranean melodies with flair, while thumping beats made sure there was no one sneaking in a siesta in the early afternoon sun.
Up at The Den we found Luke Jackson, a singer-songwriter from Kent who sung quiet, delicate songs of real life and small town living, before we were greeted by the next act with possibly the strangest stage entrance I’ll ever see, and I’ve been to a Ping-Pong show in Bangkok. Appearing from behind the outside of the tent, the Dead Rat Orchestra waded through the crowd outside while field hollering, a form of song used to converse across the swamp lands of North Carolina. The innovation didn’t stop there either – after a song about Gugas (that’s an adolescent Gannet, on the off chance you didn’t know), the band stepped out into the audience with axes and sung again, this time while chopping wood as their percussion. Full marks for ingenuity.
If the afternoon wasn’t hot enough already, the Monster Ceilidh Band arrived on Stage 2 and proceeded to direct a soon panting crowd through a number of traditional dances. Spurring them along at a frantic pace you could just about make out the audience’s grins through the dust clouds, and while they gave everyone a much need break between sets, we nipped off to see Amadou and Mariam on the main stage. This was possibly the most intriguing act of the weekend for me – labelled as ‘the blind couple from Mali’ and having worked with some of the biggest bands in the world – it was a definite must see. And what followed was a joy to behold – soulful music set against pounding drums made for a wonderfully exciting sound – and as the duo played their increasingly lively Afro-Blues through to the end of their set, the audience roared their approval.
With the crowd already in high spirits, the remaining two main stage bands were never likely to calm things down. The Levellers were first. Champions of the festival circuit and a good time guaranteed, they certainly didn’t disappoint. Set opener ‘Beautiful Day’ set the tone and from there on, it was bedlam. As a boisterous middle aged mosh pit opened up close to the front, lead singer Mark Chadwick led the band through a cracking set which proved that The Levellers are still one of the finest UK bands around. With the much celebrated didgeridoo making an appearance mid-set, as well as old favourites such as ‘Far From Home’ and ‘One Way’, the crowd were then treated to one of the best encores I’ve ever seen, as Bellowhead took to the stage to join them for a rendition of ‘The Recruiting Sergent’. Speaking to bassist Jeremy Cunningham earlier that day, he’d stated that “The Levellers are a festival band…and like to have a good time” – I’m certainly not going to argue with that on this showing.
Folk Festival favourites Bellowhead weren’t off stage for long. “It’s us again’ grinned frontman Jon Boden as the eleven piece trooped back out, before steaming straight into ‘Yarmouth Town” which had the crowd bouncing from the off. They’ve played here a number of times, and as they moved gleefully through their back catalogue it was clear to see why they were repeatedly being invited back. As a live show, they’re stunning. With Boden looking resplendent in his pink suit jacket and waistcoat, the band ploughed through songs old and new – ‘London Town’ and ‘Betsy Baker’ came and went – while instruments flew around stage with gusto. They closed the set by dedicating a song to a couple who’d both met and married at the festival that weekend, opting for ‘New York Girls’ because in their words “It’s a song about a prostitute”. How romantic. An encore of ‘Frogs Legs and Dragons Teeth’ brought the house down and in doing so, they closed Friday with jigs and fiddles, just how it’d started.