Monday, 5 September 2016

Moseley Folk Festival - Moseley Park, Birmingham. Friday 2nd to Sunday 4th September 2016

Moseley Folk Festival, an idyllic delight within gritty inner suburbia. A place where with one swivel of the head you can digest a near continual diet of eclectic music over the course of thirty hours. A festival with a difference, reaching out across a broad range of clientele. It attracts the dedicated, the casual, the young and the seasoned, but most all it provides a fitting festival finale for the folks of Birmingham and beyond on the first weekend of September.

The 2016 offering retained the blueprint precedent ensuring a spritely mix of the popular, the frivolous, the moving and the influential. It would be a tough ask to buy into the whole package, but that is likely not the organiser’s ideal. It is often wondered whether the high profile headliners are essential for festival viability and perhaps that notion will remain eternally unanswered. Anyhow the true spirit of Moseley Folk Festival from a personal perspective lies within a band of bookings threaded by an intense bout of devoted observation. Artists that reward a listener digging a little deeper.

Laura Gibson 
Without venturing too far into the negative void of critical territory, the final thoughts of comparing The Proclaimers with The Jayhawks, Laura Gibson and the Sam Beam/Jesca Hoop duet went a long way down the route of personal summation. These four artists were among the Sunday twin stage showcase. A day where the weather settled into an acceptable September groove after the damp start to the previous day. This was also a day where the above three bracketed acts were seen live for the first time and created a mind indent of sunken treasure. The odd one out of the trio was Laura Gibson who only flashed across my horizon in the midst of this festival booking. With everything to gain from a blank canvas, and the heavy expectation of the heady new album EMPIRE BUILDER, Laura’s vocals and sound floated around Moseley Park like a celestial haze. Once again the comparison with Johanna and Klara of First Aid Kit is undeniable. When the dust settles on the year’s festival season and memories re-organise themselves, this half hour set will find its rightful place.

Before we continue to reflect on the music that matters, a quick mention for the three headliners. Preceding The Proclaimers by a day was The Coral with their slightly more youthful attraction and fairly newbie status as a retro act. A band at their peak when my mind was musically diverted elsewhere, they were given an open intriguing listen and probably peaked with the more indulgent new material. If The Proclaimers are the eighties, The Coral are the noughties, then the early nineties saw The Levellers at their commercial peak. Their brand of high octane folk/indie/punk rolled back the years on Friday night, mosh pit et al.

Sam Lee 
The word ‘folk’ has just been used and Moseley does intermittently indulge the purists. Sam Lee thrives as the quintessential oxymoron. A staunch contemporary traditionalist steeped in the art of reviving song, forever mining the communities of England. A sun drenched Friday afternoon was the perfect setting for Sam who improvised in the festival’s opportune moment of continuing his set in the audience after the strict curfew was reached. It has to be said at this point that the impeccable timing of the sets is a credit to the guys behind the scene at this festival, who maximise the absolute potential of the twin stage opportunity. Two iconic folk artists featured on Sunday afternoon with Steve Tilston marking the ‘one man and his guitar plus a bucketful of fine songs card’ and Jacqui McShee leading her 2016 version of Pentangle defined by some sultry sax drifting across the park and coaxing a slither of sunshine to briefly appear.

Let’s go back to The Jayhawks and enter the world of classic Americana alt-country rock which is welcome at any folk festival. Well fellow American band Dawes did state at a festival last year that ‘strip away all the amplification and what is left is just a simple folk song’. What The Jayhawks did remind everybody this year is the sheer magic of their three pronged cultured guitar attack with acoustic and pedal steel periodically mixing it with the omnipresent electric and bass. This was also a timely reminder of their status as a pioneering band of alt-country rock with Gary Louris leading this 2016 re-incarnation as slick as you would expect. Twenty four hours earlier another Americana rock band adorned the main stage with Phosphorescent raising the tempo in an alluring concoction of rousing guitar, keys and an impeccable beat. Matthew Houck continues to create a rock ‘n’ roll furrow for the music of his moniker to flourish and his dedicated fans lapped up every song, riff and effect from the sixty minute set. Before we leave this style, a quick mention for London based Treetop Flyers who returned to Moseley and headlined the smaller neighbouring Lunar Stage on Saturday evening. These boys continue to prosper as one of the UK’s leading alt-country rock Americana bands and seriously impress with a marvellous melange of guitar, keyboards and great songs; many found on their imposing new album PALOMINO.

Billy Bragg 
Another act returning to Moseley Folk Festival after a few years break was Billy Bragg. Last time he was the Sunday headliner and appeared solo. This year there was a slight downgrading in stage time with a Friday early evening slot, but absolutely no diminishing of the fire, fury and assault on the now post-Brexit fear of cynicism. This was also the year where Billy’s Americana influence takes on a more sound and vision stance, dressed in cowboy shirt and joined by one of the UK’s leading pedal steel guitarists, CJ Hillman. The structure, rhetoric and song selection remains intact, as does the Woody Guthrie appreciation, total fan adulation and the verse dedicated to Kirsty MacColl. No American railroad songs this evening, those will come in November. 'New England', 'The Mikman of Human Kindness' and 'Sexuality' have been festival favourites for years and their audience appeal shows no sign receding, just as the need for artistic political fight. 

There will always be a local flavour to the Moseley Folk Festival and 2016 was no different. Prominent Birmingham singer-songwriter Dan Whitehouse was awarded a main stage slot on Friday afternoon and used the set to share some songs from his freshly released album. Sunday afternoon saw a tribute to the late and extremely popular Birmingham musician Paul Murphy with some of the artists who had worked with him curating a tribute on the Lunar Stage. These included singer-songwriter Katie Bennett and architect of an excellent new album this year, Abi Budgen who played a solo set on the same stage last year and Amit Dattani, a regular on the Birmingham music scene with his band Mellow Peaches.

As we head towards the final detailed festival mentions, it’s full respect to every artist, musician, songwriter and performer who appeared across the weekend. Each playing the part of keeping the spirit of live music alive and having the creative intent to share their work with an audience, of which many will find their niche.

Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop 
Four artists left to digest and let’s first return to one mentioned earlier. Sam Beam in his Iron and Wine guise will need little introduction to fans of folk Americana rock, but a different side to him was introduced this year as his acclaimed duet act with fellow American songwriter Jesca Hoop emerged as a late festival booking. The broadsheet equivalent of the music press heralded the release of the duo’s first album earlier this year and LOVE LETTER FOR FIRE formed an integral part of their hour-long Sunday teatime set. Identifying the synchronicity of their voices appears an easy find having now witnessed the duo perform from a near distance. The music was a triumph of collaboration, tantalising the ear buds of serious song listeners and emanating an aura of compatible marvel. ‘Islands in the Stream’ and ‘Love is a Stranger’ will never sound the same again, but the beautiful original music of Sam Beam and Jesca Hoop has an endless potential to prosper, other projects permitting. However it is entirely relevant in the present.

This is the Kit 
Oysterband, Dawn Landes and This is the Kit represents three entirely different strands of the Moseley Folk Festival presentation and each stand the test of their merit. Not a trio you will likely see linked again and they merely independently exist as an entity to highlight the favourite moments of the festival. Oysterband should not be overly displeased with the tag ‘stalwart’ after countless years on the folk circuit. Their simplistic approach to good time festival music eliminates any need for implicit detection and ‘getting’ this band from an hour long set is entirely possible. This is the Kit, the alias of British musician Kate Stables, is a much more intriguing observation and listen. The music takes you into a wonderful mesmerising world of indie-folk, delicate in its perception and endearing with a wave of emotion. Occasionally, the ethereal sound is injected with an electric explosion just to keep folk on their toes. In contrast to the other two home grown acts, Dawn Landes is a Kentucky based country folk singer who flew an isolated flag for this style of music over the weekend. Dawn has been a regular visitor to our shores over the last few years and her band of followers was no doubt enhanced after her Saturday afternoon set on the Lunar Stage.

The time as arrived to draw the curtain on the 2016 Moseley Folk Festival and close the artist reflection book. On the surface, this late summer/early autumn gathering looks set to progress and continue to provide a contrasting rural-urban musical feast. Maybe it will always gamble the weather, logistics restricting the marquee route, and balance the line up with a steady mix of the familiar and those artists that will be by the end of the Sunday evening. The festival will continue to reach out and maintain its inclusive remit. Music fans of Birmingham,and its hinterlands, should treasure its existence.

Dan Whitehouse
Dawn Landes
Katie Bennett 
Treetop Flyers

The Jayhawks

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