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Thursday, 08 May 2014

Review: Oxford Folk Weekend


As a tourist visiting Oxford during the festival, you would have been forgiven for thinking that you had travelled backwards in time, packed as the city was with roving troupes of Morris Men doing battle on the cobbles, and the distant strains of melodies and music.


But of course Oxford is not trapped in such a time-bubble on a regular basis, these sights and sounds mean only one thing; that the increasingly successful Folk Weekend had returned to Oxford for the third year running.
Three days of diverse and beautiful folk music of the highest calibre, intertwined with traditional dancing (Ceilidh! Morris!), workshops, storytelling and a thriving village fete. Folk Weekend Oxford has expanded and developed since its humble beginnings back in 2012, and its success is testament to the growing revival of folk music and traditional pastimes that have been sweeping the country in recent years. Oxford, of course, has always jealously protected its rural and musical heritage, playing home as it does to some of the liveliest folk clubs and pub sessions in the country. Having produced a number of outstanding artists of its own over the past few decades, this makes it the perfect host for such an event. Oxford oozes folk heritage.

As a relative new-comer to this great city, moving here myself three years ago, I have to admit to having never attended the Folk Weekend before. As such I was not sure what to expect from the weekend, folk events in particular tend very much to have their own flavour and personality - would Folk Weekend Oxford have found its identity yet, I wondered?

In short, not quite, but in a strange way this was one of the strengths of the event. 'Folk' is a very large, umbrella term that covers a multitude of genres, instruments and tastes, and whilst one may arrive at a Folk Club expecting traditional, lilting harmonies and at a Bellowhead gig expecting a raucous, multi-instrument experience, part of the beauty of Folk Weekend Oxford was its diversity, both in content and atmosphere.

Paul and Liz Davenport
After a morning spent cheering on Morris Men and perusing stalls at the Village Fete, Saturday started musically for me at St Columba's Church, a lovely venue tucked just off the high street. The first act of the afternoon being Paul and Liz Davenport, a well-known duo, whose voices, accompanied periodically by Paul's duet concertina, paint a picture of life in the heart of the Humberside across the centuries. It was a lovely, intimate gig, highlighting both the strengths of the venue (its historic atmosphere) and the weaknesses (the thumping of the drum from the act next door marring the sound on occasion). As the noise from next door died down, I found myself transported to a world of Unions and fishing ships sadly now passed. For me this stuff is at the very heart of folk music and it was delightful to hear it sung along to and lifted by a small but enthusiastic audience. The rousing Unionist chant "Bring Out the Banners" and the haunting, steely "The Price of Cod" proving particular highlights.

Sue and Lorraine Irwing
Next it was on to Sue Brown and Lorraine Irwing, a duo I was previously unfamiliar with, but who swiftly proved to be one of the highpoints of the festival, enchanting the audience with their crystal clear, captivating sound. They started smoothly enough, with lovely renditions of classics such as "Scarborough Fair" and "Betsy Bell and Mary Gray", but it was during their haunting version of a tune they refer to as "Jealous Woman" that my hairs began to stand on end and I felt I was listening to something truly special. Although both Sue and Lorraine admit that they like their folk 'dreary', there was certainly nothing miserable about the set (aside, of course, from the actual content of some of the tunes!) and they kept us all entertained with reflections on the major themes of traditional music; "death, sheep and bonking", along with cautionary tales, such as "The Whirly Whorl". I left disappointed that the set had come to an end and reflecting on the extraordinary power of harmony to move and inspire. They play at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August and I highly recommend attempting to catch them there.

Lester Simpson
The final act at St Columba's was the eternally amusing and talented Lester Simpson, best known as part of the a cappella trio 'Coope, Boyes and Simpson', whose enthusiasm and joie de vivre brightened the room, whilst he coaxed his melodeon into producing a beautiful version of "10,000 Miles Away" and strummed heartily on his collection of ukuleles. Sporting a wonderful colour-coordinated outfit of blue (designed to match his blue artist's wristband he assured us) he finished his set to calls for an encore and produced, for a pleasantly surprised audience, a truly extraordinary acoustic version of Chumbawumba's satirical masterpiece "Add Me".
So far, so traditional, but it was here that the evening took a turn that propelled me swiftly through a more diverse range of acts.

Telling the Bees
First amongst them were Oxford favourites "Telling the Bees" over at the Old Fire Station, which was reprising its role as the centre-point of the festival. Here I have to admit I was a little disappointed; unfamiliar with the band prior to the weekend, I was left a little cold at the beginning of the set as they droned through a number of uninspiring songs which did little to excite and enthuse me. The crowd were, however, clearly firm fans and as the set progressed, things picked up with a couple of livelier tunes from the new album, due to be released in 2015, which received an enthusiastic welcome. A case in point as to the diversity and range of tastes involved in the world of folk music!


Ceilidh with the Gloworms and Hannah Bright
A ceilidh with the Gloworms and Hannah Bright was next on the agenda, and despite being a hesitant dancer I was immediately adopted by some more experienced souls, whose expert tuition (hollered at me, in true ceilidh style, across the dance floor), soon had me spinning around the church hall like a seasoned professional. When approached with real enthusiasm it is hard to find a more exhilarating and joyous event than a ceilidh, and this sceptic was certainly swept away for an hour or so, thanks in the main to the glorious accompaniment provided by the Gloworms.

Threepenny Bit and Blackbeard's Tea Party
Finally, to finish the evening, it was over to the Old Fire Station once again, to an evening of dance of a less-organised variety. Threepenny Bit and Blackbeard's Tea Party providing those with the endurance to stay until midnight, with an evening of revelry of the kind only folk music can produce. Threepenny Bit inspired the crowd with heaving instrumentals of the traditional variety, after which Blackbeard's Tea Party took the evening in another direction, with their electric guitars and rock-and-roll drumming adding zap and zip to tunes such as "Bulgine (Eliza Lee)" and "Chicken on a Raft". This reporter danced until the doors closed.

Chris Sarjeant and Jackie Oates
Sunday kicked off with an absolutely sublime set by Chris Sarjeant , and Jackie Oates, the festival patron. Chris's guitar playing and warm, rich vocals add a depth of emotion to traditional songs which cannot fail to touch the listener, whilst Jackie Oates' beautiful voice and equally moving fiddle playing, lend an ethereal edge to some of their pieces.

Finished with the Old Fire Station for the weekend, it was time to head over to the ballroom of the Randolph Hotel to round off the festival in style. Perhaps a strange venue choice for a folk festival, one got the feeling that the ballroom had not heard the like of some of the more traditional tunes on offer before, but the setting proved to be perfect as a large audience sat back under the chandeliers with a cider in hand to soak up the work of the first act; fiddle-player Henry Webster.


Henry Webster
Henry was another highlight of the festival for me, his impeccable and note-perfect pieces capturing the heart and soul of an instrument at the centre of the folk tradition. Whilst Henry is exceedingly technically skilled at his instrument (you could expect nothing else from last year's winner of the London Fiddle Convention competition) it is the depth of feeling that is apparent in his work, that truly captivated the audience. The room was almost completely silent during his pieces, aside from the tapping of fingers and toes, as the instrument and melodies cast their spell over an appreciative crowd.

Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar
Henry's set was followed by the wonderful Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, winners of last year's prestigious BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award. Playing a multitude of different instruments and covering a vast range of different tunes, from traditional numbers across the world to newer pieces of their own creation, their set absolutely flew by with the moving "Missouri Waters" proving a particular favourite.

O'Hooley and Tidow
The final act of the festival were O'Hooley and Tidow, nominated last year for 'Best Duo' at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Watching O'Hooley and Tidow perform is always a frustrating event for this reporter, as I alternate between being held spell-bound by their exquisite voices and lovely renditions of tunes such as "Two Mothers" (written as part of Jackie Oates' 'Lullabies' project) and "She Lived Beside the Anner", and being completely disengaged by pieces such as "The Hum", which leaves a slightly bitter and almost preachy tone reverberating in the listener's ear. Described by my friend as sounding a little like "R.E. teachers leading an unorthodox lesson", I can't help but hope every time I watch them that they will leave the keyboard to one side and concentrate on the beautiful harmonies and acoustic pieces that their voices are so well suited to.

So. All in all, a wonderful weekend, full of diverse and entertaining acts. I wasn't without my quibbles: Why no Hobgoblin on sale when the event is apparently sponsored by Hobgoblin Music? Why the grouping of certain acts together into sets unsuited to the folk lover's desire to hop between venues? But ultimately my biggest issue with the weekend was the difficulty I had in deciding what to see when there were so many rich and wonderful delicacies on offer. For any lover of folk music, and, I must say, live music in general, this weekend was a veritable feast. See you next year, at the fourth Folk Weekend Oxford? Can't wait!

category: Interesting Articles

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