September 3, 2016
Cecil Sharp House, London
“Folk is rising again”
Fittingly, London Folk Festival took place at London’s home of folk music research and practice, Cecil Sharp House. Performances took place throughout the afternoon and evening on two stages. There were also music and dancing workshops and rousing singalongs in the bar.
“My adopted musical heritage is mostly Bulgarian”
Like so many throughout the day, Long Lankin imbued their performance with a sense of place. A Georgian folk tune adapted with a sea shanty was followed by an a capella Durham traditional. The multi-instrumentalists combined homeland influences – including English, Irish, Scottish and Swedish – and ended the set with a four part harmony version of Bonnie Ship The Diamond.
“It was particularly popular with the Scouts and Guides of Canada in the ’50s”
Before they played the German round that made a comeback with Canuck kids, The Foxglove Trio playfully explained the etiquette of round singing: “you can sing along with any of us, it’s not a popularity contest!”
The set focused on traditionals with a dark twist; all giants and battles, highwaymen and hangings. There was modernity, too, as they blended a Glen Hansard stanza with a folk standard.
Still, they stayed firmly in the present, approaching modern themes with a traditional sensibility. A bursary for songs from the news was clearly money well spent, resulting in a searing song highlighting the plight of child carers as well as the haunting track By The Tides, inspired by the drowning of Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi and his brother.
Indeed, the set was awash with sea and death songs, salutatory lessons and family tragedies. Drinkwater’s backing vocals lent a particularly mournful air to the duo’s version of The Trees They Do Grow High.
The multi-instrumentalist talents and a loop pedal ensured the performance remained rich and warm. They left the crowd on a thigh-slapping high, wanting more. And more they shall get from Hardy & Drinkwater down the road at The Green Note on October 17.
“It just gradually sank on a sunny day in sight of land”
Steph West also told stories of drownings. Her pure vocals and warm smile lifted through the tragedy of 11 couples that set out to have their marriage banns read but ended up buried in their wedding clothes.
West first performed solo with harp and bow, spoken word and song, and then later accompanied flautist Jacquelyn Harris. She also gave harp workshops for beginners.
“Ethno camps have really shaped the way I think about music and about life”
Hannah James demonstrated the influences she has taken from collaborating with folk performers from around the world. The waltz from Eastern Europe seemed familiar until the dissonant silences started, resulting in an arresting accordion performance. Like Ange Hardy had, James spoke of the interplay between historical and modern concerns over borders and populations, before performing An English Refugee.
James’ interest in the kindness of strangers, freedom of movement and the traveller’s life was encouraged closer to home. She spoke with glee about finding out that her great great grandfather, Walter Andrews, was a performer. He was not quite a dancer or a singer like his descendent, though. He turned out to have been a grotesque comedian and contortionist; a review revealed “they particularly enjoyed the part where he walked off stage with his feet in her trouser pockets!”
“Has anyone seen us before? It’s gonna be exactly the bloody same!”
Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar’s banter was refreshingly direct; their set was part music and part stand-up comedy. They joked about how they had hoped audience members would dance to their waltz until, one day, a couple did… “and it was absolutely shite!”
They also laughed about finding out Donald Trump’s new motto was the name of their new album, The Silent Majority. Russell’s response to Trump’s political outreach? “Bollocks.”
For all the jokes, the lyrics were serious and hard-hitting and the performance was loud and engaging, combining a fiddle, a guitar and a Gaelic growl.
“They were all really into murder back then”
Laura Smyth and Ted Kemp entertained with ghoulish tales, murder ballads and traditionals. There was much laughter and storytelling, before they led the crowd in a rendition of Wild Rover.
“It took me moving to London then going to Devon to find out about my own history”
Stew Simpson‘s set was hastily relocated from the gardens as rain threatened to stop play. He recounted how he learned the songs of his North East homelands, and how to sing in his Geordie accent rather than a generic transatlantic drawl.
Simpson, of Hadrian’s Union, held the room with belting mining songs, stories and unplugged acoustic originals with surprisingly delicate picking.
“You get banter like this all the time in Glasgow”
Despite strong strains of the belting folk singalong from the room next door, Anna MacDonald more than held her own with sweet songs and stories of Scotland. Even when talking of hard times or when accidentally knocking a wall sculpture, her sweet smile survived.
MacDonald’s broad smile turned to laughter as her set was inadvertently interrupted by Tower Ravens Rapper, London’s premier (and only!) all-female rapper sword dance troupe.
MacDonald will be back around these parts – with that smile and a full-sized harp, without the flash mob (!) – on October 10 at The Green Note.
It’s not nicey-nicey folk. It’s raw and damn good. Think strong accents and Misfits tattoos. Stick In The Wheel delivered powerful songs of perseverance, guile and fury with hand claps and dry wit.
Standout tracks included The Blacksmith, the London Riots confessional Me ‘n’ Becky, and the stirring a capella singalong Poor Old Horse.
“Thank you very much. We are selling these mugs as well…”
“The tunes are quite samey, they’re all a bit crap”
Having taken inspiration from the archives, Faustus playfully mocked Mary Ann Haynes’ for documenting half-remembered traditional songs 50 years after hearing them. Despite Stick in the Wheel’s self-effacing comment that “there’ll be a proper folk band on in a minute,” Faustus turned out to be right there with them on the irreverent edge of the genre.
They took worker’s history seriously, though. Whereas Stick In The Wheel sung about how enclosures attacked common rights, Faustus chanted words taken from a Chartists’ journal, later resurrected by the Soviets: “Men of England, you are slaves.”
Despite the ‘bloke folk’ epithet, the striking trio put their accordion, fiddle and electro-acoustic guitar to the same use as their fellow Folk Festival performers; traditionally-inspired songs of death, defiance and destinations.
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