Monday, 25 June 2018

GIG REVIEW: Beardy Folk Festival (Saturday Only) - Hopton Wafers, Shropshire. Saturday 23rd June 2018

From small acorns, the saying goes, but playing a small part at the outset of what could prove a fruitful journey is a decent place to be. Hopton Wafers is a sleepy location on the Shropshire/Worcestershire border and now can add the location of the Beardy Folk Festival to its claim to fame. A gently sloping walled garden rectangular amphitheatre provides the natural landscape to house a smart diversity of UK acts representing a broad range of folk music styles. Whether the organisers have opted for a touch of irony, or an attempt at stereotypical reclamation in naming their operation, tapping into a winning formula suggests that more has gone right than wrong in treading the tricky waters of festival promotion.

The caveat to such an analysis stems from only attending the Saturday of this three-day event, but adopting a ‘speak as you find’ approach reaches a favourable conclusion. A slick operation presented nearly twelve hours of continuous music from thirteen scheduled performers. This was utilised from a slightly elevated main stage at the base of the arena and a small acoustic stage sensibly located within the beer tent. A gorgeous June day did not present a test of the British summer frailties, allowing a concentrated full focus on the music – give or take the odd break for refreshments of the body and mind. The artists featuring on the Saturday ranged from the very familiar to the soon to become familiar, albeit from a highly personal perspective. Prospective styles included finely tuned interpretations of both Scottish and English folk rock, a bi-partisan approach to the traditional and contemporary outlook, and a transatlantic nod to the realms of alt-country and bluegrass. All artists were bound by integrity and a desire to perfect their chosen craft.

The very familiar came in the guise of Kim Lowings and the Greenwood making a twenty- mile trek from the edge of the West Midlands. Kim has been watched in a host of local venues over the last few years and now a festival main stage can be added to the list. There was an element of equality in the presentation of all main stage acts getting an hour-long set, so none of this thirty to forty minute lunchtime slots to make way for the headliner egos. Kim used her time to highlight a fair spread of recorded material and a selection of songs saved solely for the stage. Song accompaniment included the trademark Appalachian mountain dulcimer, more recent leaning to the acoustic guitar and the ever-impressive vocal solo. Set peak choices came from ‘The Littlest Birds’, ‘Bold Riley’, ‘Away Ye Merry Lasses’...- ok no need to name every song! They’re all good. Kim was the only artist to be afforded slots on both stages, and used her half hour set in the beer tent to strip back a different set of songs and test a couple of new ones out on the audience. Interestingly, these were both delivered from the acoustic guitar and saw her writing take a socially conscious path. No doubt, more will surface on the extent of this direction in good time.

From the highly familiar to the totally new (to me anyhow) and a few thoughts on the Joshua Burnell performance as the increasingly powerful sun beat down on the lunchtime drinkers. Assisted by a six-piece full backing band and taking more than a leaf out of the sixties/seventies folk rock pioneers  blueprint, Joshua served up an impressive selection of mainly traditional tunes. A striking look blended in well with the blissful tones of the Hammond organ in full flow, and a set to linger long in the memory unraveled. An enthusiastic and innovative fan base fanned the flames long after the set finished and ensured that this artist made the largest leap on the day from the unknown.

Joshua Burnell Band
Back to the familiar and a first opportunity to catch UK alt-country rockers Orphan Colours live since giving their debut album a glowing review earlier in the year. A six-strong combo led by Steve Llewelyn and Dave Burn, previously from acclaimed band ahab, powered through a riveting set as the sun finally began to sink and injected a major degree of energy into the event at an opportune moment. Sporadic sax akin to the E-Street band in full flow mixed with the widely used three part harmonies as a barrage of impressive songs such as ‘Goodnight California’, ‘High Hopes’ and ‘Start of Something’ successfully made the journey from the record to stage.

The biggest surprise on the day was north-west based folk and bluegrass band Jaywalkers springing from a known name not heard to the architects of a set that fought ferociously to be considered the best of the day. They contributed to the moment when the entire chill out vibes were in place. The trio of Mike (mandolin), Lucy (upright bass) and Jay (fiddle) played a sublime mix of old time inspired tunes interspersed with notable originals and a few diverse covers including giving ‘Big River’ and ‘Tainted Love’ a bluegrass makeover. No longer do this band remain just a name on a listings page; the perfect example of good music finding the right ear over time.

Kim Lowings and the Greenwood
You can now detect the rotating nature to this review as we switch focus to the Saturday headliners Skerryvore with an air of recent familiarity. This Scottish folk rock band with a fervent outlook have been operating for well over a decade outside my periphery, but this changed when challenged to review their latest album EVO. Having bought in to an exceedingly good array of heady folk rock anthems and feisty fiddle, pipe and whistle tunes, an early opportunity to catch their high-octane live show was relished. The only blip to the smooth running of the main stage saw a fifteen minute delay to the band strutting their stuff, but to be fair sound checking an eight-piece band in a limited time is a challenge. Nobody cared that it was 10:45 when they bound onto stage. Thus illuminating an arena that had been generally passive all day soaking up the good music alongside the rays. Afforded not a minute more than Urban Folk Quartet almost eleven hours ago, the guys wasted little time in delivering a pulsating interactive set, spearheaded by the pair of striking anthems leading the way off the new album in ‘Live Forever’ and ‘At The End of the Line’. Skerryvore delivered without dispute what it says on their tin and everything about the way they concluded the day was first class.

A quick jump back to a name new off the page on the Beardy Folk line up and the performance of Sinnober on the acoustic stage just as another pint of the local Hobsons brew beckoned. However, you did not need a drink to appreciate this duo that travelled up from Frome in Somerset to play a neatly packaged bunch of original songs decked out in a contemporary lilt. What marked out this pairing of Sebastian and Natalie Brice on acoustic and electric bass guitar respectively was the highly crafted nature to their songs, strongly rinsed in an air of instant familiarity. In contrast, they were an absolute new name to me and the epitome to how the off-piste locations at a festival can often lead to a fruitful discovery. A new album is in the works and it is certainly something to check out in the future.

The previously mentioned Urban Folk Quartet kicked off the Saturday programme on the mainstage as the clock struck noon. They were unfamiliar to the extent that I have never seen them live or heard their music before, but one quarter of this musical alliance is the very familiar Dan Walsh, seen, heard and reviewed on numerous occasions. This was no meek introduction to the day, as these four noted musicians know how to work a festival crowd and spill out a spritely set of instrumentally fueled folk and roots music. Banjo, fiddle, mandolin and other assorted stringed instruments dominated here and set the agenda for a continual streak right through the day.

A conundrum exists whether to place Richard Digance in the familiar or unfamiliar category. The latter prevailed based on not previously seeing this veteran entertainer play a festival set. The mid-afternoon slot proved ideal, as a placid audience were content to just sit back and enjoy various shades of humour alongside a selection of instantly appealing songs. Anecdotes, quips and poignant reflection liberally interspersed the music as this specifically generation-focussed set held its own among the more progressive and youthful elements. Yet Richard Digance has a story to tell, takes pride in a lifelong love for folk music and smoothly created yet another distinctive mark on a festival.

Orphan Colours
Inevitably, moments arise during a twelve-hour festival day when normality takes hold and the mind needs re-energising. While a breather was had, the crime of casually watching Jim Moray perform from a distance led to not getting the best out of the performance. Having seen him play on numerous occasions, the music is best enjoyed in an absorbing state, but it was a case of next time, which you know with Jim Moray, would not be too long. Eric Sedge has been touring with Richard Digance, and his acoustic stage set got a hefty recommendation from his colleague. Casually dipping into it revealed a highly capable singer-songwriter. Likewise, duo Fly Yeti Fly held your attention for a brief stint in the shade without any plugging and particularly caught the ear with an engaging story of a mermaid and merman. It would not be a folk festival without at least one! Johnny Walters and the Savoy and Tom Malachowski completed the acoustic stage offering, but a little socialising and some fine food won the moment during their appearances.

Obviously, a perception of success can only be expressed from an outsider’s viewpoint without any insight to the books. Hopefully, Beardy Folk can achieve a renewal in future years and continue to grow an audience to ensure a healthy balance exists between customer experience and event viability. The summer festival scene is a crowded place, but get it right and success will come. Long may this corner of the Midlands countryside be a staging post for that fascinating joy of exploring the familiar and unfamiliar in a serenely located multi-artist gathering.