by Ian Mann
March 01, 2009
Now in it?s fourth year the Big Session Festival continues to go from strength. The quality of the music offered this year was characteristically high
The Big Session Festival 13/14/15 June 2008
De Montfort Hall and Gardens, Leicester
Now in it?s fourth year the Big Session Festival continues to go from strength. The quality of the music offered this year was characteristically high and straddled the genres of folk/roots, rock, blues, pop, country and several points in between. Not everything was to everybody?s taste but the compact nature of the festival site ensured that it was easy to dip in out of gigs. I?m sure everybody must have found something to enjoy in this musical pick and mix.
Misgivings have been voiced in certain quarters about the seeming lack of involvement this year of the festival?s founders and curators Oysterband. Whilst it was strange that the band didn?t close the festival as in previous years they still played three sets, all of them significantly different, and also conducted a signing session on Sunday afternoon so they can hardly be accused of slacking.
For myself I was just determined to catch as much of the music as possible. I started on Friday evening at the Marquee stage for Hey Negrita. The first thing that struck me was the big top itself, much larger than in previous years and with a wooden dance floor and a much improved lighting system. If it lacked the relaxed, airy quality of previous years the darkness certainly focussed one?s attention on the performances.
Hey Negrita are a London based band, presumably taking their name from the Rolling Stones song. Proteges of Alabama 3, they combined indie jingle jangle with country and Americana influences. Leader Felix handled rhythm guitar and lead vocals, his voice often dovetailing with the harmonies provided by lead guitarist Matt Ord. Suit clad double bassist Paul Sandy cut a distinctive figure and the whole was anchored by the sturdy backbeat of drummer Neil Findlay. Harmonica player Will Greener aka Captain Bliss was conspicuous by his absence.
Their material covered both the humorous and the macabre and included “Room Service” and the current single “Rope” which also appears in an Alabama 3 remix version. “Coming Down” was a taster for the band?s new album, due in September and “Lay Me Down” featured some searing bottleneck guitar from Ord. The guitarist also featured strongly on “9 to 5” before “Devil In My Shoes” brought the set to a powerful close.
It had been an enjoyable enough performance, if a little pedestrian at times. Hey Negrita are a decent band but lack the Alabama?s inspired wackiness. Nevertheless a solid and enjoyable start to the festival weekend.
Across the lawn in the De Montfort Hall itself the Anglo/Scottish folk trio Lau gave an inspired performance. This young band have been widely acclaimed in the specialist press and beyond for the quality of their live shows and on this evidence it was easy to see why.
The group mixed fiery instrumentals with the brooding songs of guitarist/vocalist Kris Drever in a well-paced show that made excellent use of dynamics. Drever and his colleagues Aidan O? Rourke (fiddle) and Martin Green (piano accordion) made judicious use of amplification and produced a surprisingly full on sound for this combination of instruments.
However it was not all sound and fury, jaunty jigs and rocking reels. Lau are also capable of moments of great subtlety and beauty.
Their approach was superbly demonstrated on “Stewarts” which opened with the controlled beauty of the air “Auld Stewart” before shifting gear into the fast and furious “Young Stewart”. Here O?Rourke?s fiddle swooped and soared over Drever?s breakneck rhythm guitar. Green meanwhile conjured sounds from his instrument that made you realise that if there?s ever going to be a Hendrix of the accordion it?s got to be him.
The group?s tunes are self penned but are rooted in the tradition. A set of reels under the collective title “Dog and Rabbit” was full of dazzling precision playing executed with an enormous sense of fun.
Drever?s song “Banks Of Marble” with lyrics by Les Rice darkened the mood again and added political comment to the proceedings.
The closing “Hinba” offered more instrumental pyrotechnics. These guys are quite simply brilliant players and for a band that remained seated throughout the performance they summoned up an amazing amount of energy. Besides their astonishing musical skills they are also highly personable interlocutors between songs.
I always find that the Big Session throws up at least one significant musical discovery every year. Following Julie Fowlis in 2006 and the Danish group Instinkt last year this time it was Lau?s turn.
Their recent album “Lau Live” was recorded in Edinburgh and includes many of the tunes featured at the Big Session. Highly recommended.
Over at the marquee I caught the second half of Cara Dillon?s set with her band. The Irish singer was one of the young musicians who featured on the very first Big Session tour in 2001, which sowed the seeds for the festival. It was therefore highly appropriate that she should be here.
Since those days Dillon?s career has really taken off and she now has three successful solo albums behind her. She is a far more confident stage performer these days and also features her whistle and fiddle playing in her set. Her main strength however is her chillingly beautiful voice, which lends an ethereal quality to her interpretations of traditional narrative songs.
Dillon?s band included Sam Lakeman on keyboards and guitar (the whole dynasty were here this weekend), John Smith also on guitar and a special guest in the form of former Oysterband collaborator James O?Grady on fiddle, whistles and uillean pipes.
I?ve always been a big fan of O?Grady and the set really took off after his arrival.
Highlights that I caught included a duet where Dillon shared the vocal duties with guitarist John Smith. This showed off the stunning purity of her voice to it?s full advantage.
The closing set of tunes, which paired Dillon?s fiddle with O?Grady?s pipes, was a delightful way to round things off.
Back in the main hall and continuing the Irish theme Dublin band Kila delivered a typically rousing set and for many were the discoveries of the weekend. Personally I?ve seen Kila a couple of times before so I knew what to expect. I first encountered them on the same bill as the Oysters at Sesiwn Fawr (it means Big Session appropriately enough) in Dolgellau in 1999 and then again at Trowbridge a couple of years later.
Kila mix traditional Irish music with world music elements to create an exotic and highly danceable cocktail. Their live performances are dominated by the hugely extrovert personality of front man, vocalist and bodhran player Ronan O? Snodaigh.
This one-man rhythm machine and force of nature is an extraordinary bodhran player and expends a phenomenal amount of energy over the course of a gig.
The rest of the seven strong band, who all seemed to be named either O? Snodaigh or Hogan offered excellent support on a wide variety of instruments. Flutes, guitars, uillean pipes, fiddles and bass all featured along side various items of percussion and a conventional drum kit that several members took a turn at. It certainly brought a new meaning to the phrase “doubling (or should that be Dublin) on”-the whole band seemed to be comprised of multi instrumentalists.
Ronan sang in Gaelic but with lyrics that seemed to be based around rhythmic phrases rather than the narrative song form. This coupled with the energy of his performance quickly rendered any worries for an English speaking audience about “losing things in translation” pretty superfluous.
Alongside traditional Irish reels Kila add a distinctive African flavour to their music. The vocal set piece “Leanfaidh Me” in which all the band sang saw Kila coming on like an Irish version of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“Tog E Go Bog E”, the title track of the band?s most successful album was a tour de force for Ronan with some seriously virtuoso bodhran playing. The man with the goatskin certainly drives the band.
Speaking briefly to Ronan afterwards about the African influences he told me that he had made a short excursion to Morocco to jam with some lute (I presume he meant oud) players and that was it. He didn?t really enjoy the experience all that much. Everything else they?ve picked up from records or from the streets of Dublin where they started out busking many years ago. Dublin is of course a highly cosmopolitan city these days.
Kila are less convincing on record than in person but they are a great live act. If you missed them at Leicester try to catch them at least once elsewhere.
I passed on Johnny Flynn to make sure I got a place at the front for the main event of the evening, Oysterband. It was unfortunate that they were scheduled against the Blockheads but such is the nature of festivals that you have to make choices. I?ve always been a bit wary as to quite what the Blockheads would be like without Ian Dury, in some ways it seems a bit sacrilegious for them to carry on. However if you can get over that I?m sure there?s still some great music to be heard especially with quality jazz players like Gilad Atzmon and Dylan Howe augmenting the line up. Checking them out will have to wait for another day.
As for the Oysters this promised to be a very special gig at their own festival in their 30th anniversary year. John Jones and Chopper certainly thought so, both appearing in neatly tailored jackets. Young prot?g? Dan Donnelly augmented the band on a variety of instruments (bass, mandolin, guitar) and as if to emphasise his youth in comparison to the rest of them appeared to be dressed as a schoolboy. Angus Young goes folk.
The now familiar opener “Over The Water” kicked things off swiftly followed by “If You Can?t Be Good”.
Alan Prosser?s tune “Walking Down The Road With You” has proved itself to be a crowd favourite and went down a storm. “Where The World Divides”, evoked the atmosphere of a spaghetti western with it?s apocalyptic lyrics and the ominous backing vocals of Prosser and Chopper-very Ennio Morricone.
The romance of “Street Of Dreams” was next and as Ian Telfer?s violin took flight I half expected James O? Grady to stride out from the wings to join him for a violin summit. Sadly it wasn?t to be, but with O?Grady present on site I couldn?t help feeling that this was an opportunity missed.
“Here Comes The Flood” brought back memories of the mudfest that was the Big Session 2007. “Not this year” said JJ before the band launched into the song. JJ and Chopper decided to stay on stage this time. Dan Donnelly and Alan Prosser were “getting down” on mandolin and guitar and seemed to be enjoying it immensely. The band threw in a false ending (intentionally I think) to catch us all out.
The set of Polkas is a staple of the Oysters live set and a reminder of the band?s ceilidh roots, of which more tomorrow. Tonight as ever it proved to be a mosh pit favourite.
The magnificent “Bury Me Standing” made a welcome return to the set, a stirring and evocative hymn for the dispossessed. That the Oysterband can produce material of this quality after thirty years together is a tribute to their outstanding creativity and high level of quality control.
At this point JJ made mention of the 30th anniversary which drew a chorus of “Happy Birthday You Old Bastards” from the crowd. It was the sort of affectionate piss taking you could only get between a band and it?s audience where there is a genuine two-way respect. The Oysters are definitely a band of the people, mingling with fans on site throughout the weekend in addition to an official signing session. We were to see another example of this on Sunday- of which more later.
JJ?s announcement led the way into a new acoustic arrangement of one of Oysterband?s oldest songs “The Oxford Girl”. Drummer Dil Davies went off for a well-earned rest and Ian Telfer picked up the concertina. Paced by a twin acoustic guitar arrangement and with harmony vocals by Chopper and Alan Prosser this new version of an old favourite was attentively and ultimately rapturously received by the Oyster faithful.
After that it was time to crank up the volume again. Alan Prosser slammed out the guitar fanfare to “Bells Of Rhymney” with particular relish as a shadowy figure scurried on to the stage amongst the flashing lights. The road crew whipped a dustsheet away to reveal a second drum kit seated behind which was former Oyster drummer Lee Partis. With two drummers bashing away and with Donnelly?s bass augmenting Chopper?s cello this was one of the heaviest “Bells” ever. Great stuff.
If the unveiling of Lee hadn?t been a particularly convincing piece of theatre it was still good to see him back. However Dil Davies, now a veteran of some fifty plus Oyster gigs has made the drum stool his own. A different character to the ebullient Lee (who I always see as a frustrated front man) Davies is happy to lay down the beat from the back and does it with such skill that the changeover has been virtually seamless.
Prosser started to slam out the chords to “Another Quiet Night In England” but JJ physically stopped him saying, “I?ve always wanted to do that”. Lee was then formally announced to the crowd and was featured adding drums and his distinctive backing vocal to “By Northern Light”.
Only then was it time for “Another Quiet Night?” an early Oyster classic and a welcome inclusion here especially with the twin drummers. Excellent.
They trawled even deeper into the back catalogue for “Early Days Of A Better Nation” from “Wide Blue Yonder”. Even JJ couldn?t remember which album it first appeared on. The new arrangement featured Chopper on mbira and subsequently bass. Lee came to the front playing shakers and singing and wearing THAT skirt. I bet he doesn?t go to the day job dressed like that. And I can?t see Dil taking up his predecessor?s sartorial tendencies for that matter.
For “Dancing As Fast As I Can” Lee switched to snare drum. No choir this year but very fine for all that.
“Road To Santiago” saw JJ take up his squeezebox with Lee still front of stage on snare and tambourine. It?s a great song but never quite seems to work without the whistles of the original arrangement. Cue Mr O? Grady? Sadly not.
A rollicking “On The Edge” incorporated a brief cameo from Mr. Telfer in the role of lead vocalist, something not seen since the days when they sang “The Old Triangle” as an encore. Predictably this little piece of Oyster history was greeted with surprised and appreciative applause.
A storming “Granite Years” powered by twin drums brought the set to a close, but of course we weren?t going to let them get away that easily.
“Blackwaterside” was the first of the encores and featured only the core five piece. Despite the intensity of John Jones? almost operatic vocal delivery this song really needs pipes to give it full dramatic effect. Here was the last chance to introduce James O?Grady to the proceedings but he still remained conspicuous by his absence.
I can?t help feeling the Oysters missed a trick here. The set had included three set pieces where O?Grady could have made an enormous contribution. Hell the guy was almost a “sixth Oyster” at one time.
Lee and Dan Donnelly were back for a raging “World Turned Upside Down” with the now familiar “Give Peace A Chance” coda and suitably pointed comment about Afghanistan and Iraq. Anti war sentiments were a feature of the weekend and lets face it, here we are six years on and they?re as pertinent as ever. There was something of a battle here as well with Lee and Dil slugging it out in invigorating fashion.
“Everywhere I Go” may be a huge crowd pleaser with it?s mighty chorus but the sense of political alienation expressed in the lyrics remains undiminished and is, if anything, more relevant. Everyone in the hall belted out the song as if their lives depended on it. Brilliant- and with a new cod reggae arrangement to keep everyone on their toes.
Finally came the acoustic arrangement of “Put Out The Lights” where the band advanced to the edge of the stage to deliver the song without amps or mics. I?d seen them do this at Clun but a village hall in Shropshire is a far cry from the cavernous De Montfort. JJ called for quiet and the faithful dutifully obeyed. It worked brilliantly, I?m told that even those in the balcony could hear every word. Eventually when JJ encouraged the audience to sing they nearly lifted the roof off the place. A tremendous set piece to bow out, but a bit of a risky one I suspect. In any event it was a triumph.
No two Oysterband gigs are exactly alike and the twin drums format made this one unique. This was a show the faithful will treasure for a long time.
What a night of music. And it?s still only Friday.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny. The marvellous weather was a big plus for this year?s festival. No mud and comfortable temperatures unlike the scorching 2006. I can still smell the fetid stench of caked on sweat and stale beer at the Oysters closing set in the DMH that year.
LEE?S SATURDAY SESSIONS
Lee was certainly right back in the Big Session spirit hosting his annual sessions on the marquee stage. His jokes are just as cringe making as ever even if he doesn?t actually read them out of a book these days. Yes, it was great to see him back and so obviously enjoying himself.
I only caught the very end of the bizarrely clad Kriss Foster?s set. His quirky songs referencing such loathsome aspects of popular culture as stalkers, supermarkets and Dale Winton were very well received and reminded me of an acoustic Half Man, Half Biscuit.
Glyn Collinson was an altogether more serious singer/songwriter. He started a little shakily and seemed a bit too eager to please but his set quickly grew in authority and ultimately he too was given an excellent ovation by the crowd. He was accompanied by a female guitarist and occasional harmony vocalist whose name I didn?t catch, sorry. Many of Collinson?s songs drew on nautical imagery such as “Turn The Tide” and “Shifting Sands”.
“Princess” meanwhile touched on Britain?s lost railway heritage. The beautiful “Another Sunrise” provoked calls for an encore and this was a real bonus with Lee joining in on shakers and backing vocals for Collinson?s rendition of the Oyster classic “By Northern Light”. Collinson concluded proceedings with his own “Drift Away”.
And yes he really does have a day job as a space scientist. Check out his website.
To end Lee introduced the duo Howdenjones who live on a barge in the same Lancashire village that Lee now calls home. Paul Jones and Kate Howden are talented singer/songwriters who accompanied themselves on acoustic guitars with Howden sometimes taking up the bodhran. They are sometimes augmented by fiddler Sarah Cheffens.
They proved to be excellent writers, assured vocalists and talented instrumentalists who already have a number of albums under their belts . Highlights included “Silver Waters” and “McAlpine?s Feast” with Howden?s warm tones a particular delight. They also produced some engaging repartee between songs.
Once again they were well received by an appreciative, listening audience. I suspect that an appearance at the Big Session is a great boost to many of these artists who probably all too often have to suffer poorly paid gigs in pubs playing to people who aren?t even listening. This aspect of the festival is another excellent example of the Oysters “putting something back” into the folk scene and encouraging the tradition.
Over in the hall The Wallbirds played a blistering set and in comparison to the acoustic sessions I?d just witnessed they were bloody loud! This sparky young trio from Doncaster played a series of short, sharp, catchy little songs that drew on the rockabilly spirit but still managed to sound very contemporary. Vocalist/guitarist/harpist Walt was very much the main man in the band with solid support coming from gyrating bassist Lucas and pounding drummer Chris.
They soon won over the audience and it would be easy to imagine one of their songs taking off and becoming a surprise hit. You could just see fans of the Fratellis picking up on some of the Wallbirds tunes. At one point they invited a young lad playing air guitar in the mosh pit to join them onstage. Take a bow, Ewan
I enjoyed them so much I forgot to take any notes, so the fact that I haven?t named any of the tunes is a compliment guys, okay?
Granted an encore they leapt off the stage and led a sing along in the crowd, with Chris stamping out the beat. The tune was “Leadbelly?s “Have A Whiff On Me” and everybody gathered round the band singing and clapping. John Jones was spotted standing in the wings beaming approval. Maybe he was looking for tips as to how to get back onstage again unassisted.
I really enjoyed The Wallbirds, unpretentious, good time music played with energy, charm and no little skill. I?m sure we?ll hear a lot more of them.
McDERMOTT?S TWO HOURS
I contrived to miss Paul Curreri due to a clash with The Wallbirds and Ruth Notman wasn?t really to my taste. Electric piano and folk song didn?t work for me so I took a detour via the beer tent finally ending up at the marquee for the McDermotts.
My initial impression of this band were that they were in much the same mould as the Levellers but it transpires that McDermotts were an influence on the Levs rather than the other way round.
Mcdermott?s leader Nick Burbridge has Anglo Irish roots and is a published author and poet as well as a songwriter and political activist. In both vocal delivery and physical appearance he bears a marked resemblance to the Levellers? Mark Chadwick.
Burbridge handled guitar and vocals with support coming from bassist Matt Goorney and fiddler Ben Paley. Stylistically Paley?s playing was immediately reminiscent of the Levs? Jon Sevink and seemed to deploy many of the same licks. The Oysters? own Dil Davies drove the band forward in characteristic fashion.
Burbridge?s politically charged songs included “Prisoner” and “Fox On The Run”. His most famous song is probably “Dirty Davey” which was covered by the Levellers and still features in their sets. Here it was saved till last and proved to be a big crowd pleaser.
The Mcdermotts may be a bit rough around the edges and lack the polish of the Levs or the Oysters but nevertheless this was an energetic and enjoyable set shot through with political comment. Good stuff.
Back at the main stage another young band were making their Big Session debut. These young scallies from the North West have been mentioned in the same breath as the La?s , The Coral and The Zutons and with their obvious love of sixties pop and soaring vocal harmonies it?s easy to see why.
Fresh from a support slot with Paul Weller the band despatched their new single “I?m Not Superstitious” early on in the set. With a strong tune and a backbeat reminiscent of Spencer Davis? “Keep On Running” it should do well.
“Deep Devotion” with it?s chiming vocals and simple but memorable chorus is also potential single material.
With their chippy scouse demeanour they seemed to be competing with The Wallbirds in the cheeky, chirpy chappie stakes. However a broken guitar string caused a spat between front man Mark Frith and his guitarist and took the wind out of their sails. After a long and embarrassed pause while the band decided what to do next Frith and the rhythm section eventually tackled the next tune as a three piece and made a fair fist of it. Whether this exaggerated Harry Enfield style scouse stroppiness was genuine or a part of the act I wouldn?t like to say.
The Troubadours still include cover versions in their act and chose well with the Stones (“The Last Time”) and The Who (“My Generation”), the latter given a reggae twist.
Like The Wallbirds these guys clearly have a lot of potential but in this particular battle of the bands the Doncaster boys won out on the day. I liked them both, keep an eye out for these talented young bands.
TWO DAFT MONKEYS
There are normally three of them, as you probably know but these two were drafted in at short notice. The Monkeys have clearly acquired something of a cult following but this brief glimpse of them didn?t quite grab me. They are certainly eclectic and off beat with a wide range of influences.
I only caught a couple of songs “Let ‘Em In” and the appropriately sinister “Paranoid Big Brother” both from the new album “Social Vertigo”. Note to self-must check them out again, preferably when they have a full troupe.
Steve Earle?s other half was something of a controversial choice for the BSF line up (as was Earle himself) but I thought her set was excellent.
Moorer has a gorgeous alto voice that suits her chosen material well. Her 2008 album “Mockingbird” is comprised entirely of songs written by female songwriters, including the self penned title track.
Moorer covers a wide range of American music taking in country, blues, folk and gospel elements. Like our own Christine Collister she isn?t afraid to cross genre boundaries and like Collister her selection of material is impeccable. In short Moorer covers some classic songs and stamps her own identity on them.
With her understated acoustic guitar playing supporting her pure, country tinged voice Moorer?s singing was spellbinding. We could have done with a bit more information between songs though. Highlights included “Mockingbird” itself, Jessi Colter?s beautiful “I?m Looking For Blue Eyes” and the gospel tinged “Orphan Train”.
Steve Earle made a brief appearance, joining his wife for two duets. Both of these reflected their shared political beliefs. Pete Seeger?s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” is simple, effective and thought provoking and with the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan still altogether too relevant. “A Change Is Gonna Come” only served to emphasise the point.
I enjoyed Moorer?s set a great deal and would be interested to here more from her.
With a pedal steel guitar in her band Devon Sproule seemed more overtly country than Moorer. I only caught a couple of songs namely “Julie” and “Well Dressed Son” but wasn?t really gripped. Besides I had a more pressing engagement, the indoor stage gig by Seth Lakeman.
I must confess I?ve always felt rather proprietorial about Seth having discovered him on the now legendary trio tour with John Jones and Benji Kirkpatrick back in 2004.
I remember chatting with Seth after the show in Hereford and purchasing both “The Punchbowl” and “Kitty Jay”. I?m sure this tour helped to give Seth a leg up but I?m sure that not even he could have envisaged then the way his career would take off.
The Mercury Music Prize nomination in 2005 presented him with an enormous opportunity and Seth grabbed it with both hands. These days he?s almost mainstream. I spoke to people at the festival who had never even heard of Oysterband, they were there because of Seth.
Lakeman has achieved this success without in any way compromising his music and through the sheer quality of his live performances. Mercury Prize nominations are soon forgotten, a Seth Lakeman gig is not and tonight we had a typically energetic and full on performance from the man and his band.
Seth?s band has grown with him. Brother Sean on guitar and double bassist Ben Nicholls have been with him from the beginning. Newcomer Andy Tween now occupies the drum chair.
Seth opened with what he described as “a drinking song”. This was “How Much” from “The Punchbowl”. This rather neglected album did much to establish Seth?s signature sound, subsequently developed to such stunning effect on “Kitty Jay”.” The Punchbowl” is however a fine record in it?s own right and should not be overlooked.
“How Much” saw Seth starting out on tenor guitar before switching to fiddle. He stuck with the latter for “The Storm” (from “Kitty Jay”) and for “The Harlot” a tale from Bodmin Moor that will feature on the forthcoming album “Poor Man?s Heaven”.
“The Harlot” featured the drum tattoos of Andy Tween. “King and Country” saw him switch to the cajon.
Two tracks from the impending album were next, “Blood Red Sky” and “Solomon Brown”, a song about the Penlee lifeboat disaster in 1981. The launch of Lakeman?s new album is due to take place in Perranporth, Cornwall with all proceeds going to the RNLI.
“Riflemen Of War” and “Lady Of The Sea” kept up the intensity levels despite Seth?s ongoing problems with a rogue stomp box and roadies crawling around the stage with gaffa tape.
“Green and Gold” featured Nicholls on bowed bass. The mountainous Nicholls is a brooding presence. You wouldn?t want to meet him down a dark alley, especially with that scary looking chain dangling from his belt.
Seth has collaborated with fellow West Countryman Steve Knightley of Show Of Hands on a couple of the songs that will feature on “Poor Man?s Heaven”. One of these “Haunt You” was up next, swiftly followed by “Take No Rogues” and the crowd pleasing “The Colliers” with it?s “Hold Your Fire” refrain.
“Poor Man?s Heaven” itself initially featured Seth on banjo prior to him picking up the fiddle. Nicholls? rich double bass groove powered the song in conjunction with Tween playing kit drums.
Seth?s solo fiddle/vocal feature “Kitty Jay” remains a staple of the show. More than anything else this encapsulates the intensity of Lakeman?s performance. He sweats buckets during the course of a set and this astonishing display of passion and dexterity is quintessential Lakeman.
Lakeman? success has seen him fall foul of the “folk police”. Certainly his band plays at rock volume levels these days but I don?t have a problem with that. Any commercial concessions he may arguably have made have done nothing to diminish the integrity and intensity of the music. A Seth Lakeman gig remains a life affirming experience.
Another complaint made against Lakeman is that he?s a “one trick pony” and that his songs all sound the same. Certainly there is some basis of truth here, his songs are all rhythmically based and both his shows and his records are one big adrenaline rush. But if he is a one trick pony it?s one helluva of a fucking trick.
My notes get a bit hazy here as I was enjoying the gig too much to bother scribbling. The final number was another “drinking song” which Seth dedicated to his one time mentor John Jones. Seth is a very assured performer these days and you can?t help but think he learnt a bit of his stage craft from JJ, a man who really knows how to work a crowd.
Such was Lakeman?s impact that he was one of the few acts granted an encore. For the life of me I can?t remember what it was but I do recall Ben Nicholls playing Jew?s harp on it.
And that was it. Probably the highlight of the festival so far, alongside the Oysters themselves of course. Unfortunately Seth didn?t have any copies of the new album with him so we?ll all have to wait for another couple of weeks before it comes out officially.
Everybody should catch this man live at least once. You?ll probably be amazed and you certainly won?t regret it.
OYSTER CEILIDH BAND
While Seth was wowing everybody in the main hall the Oysterband were going back to their ceilidh roots in the marquee. Now that rather splendid dance floor really came into it?s own with dozens of dancers gallivanting about the place under the guidance of caller Gordon Potts.
The Oysters (and Lee) who were clearly having a good time had expanded their ranks with the addition of producer Al Scott on bass plus returning ex member Ian Kearey on a variety of guitar based instruments.
I must confess that I?m not overly keen on the Oysters in this incarnation. I?m not a dancer myself and the whole thing seemed to drag on interminably as Potts organised everybody .I suspect that most of the Oyster?s regular fans are no experts either even though many were prepared to have a go at it. “Hold hands IN your lines,” barked Potts desperately at one point.
Many of the Oysters songs have clear ceilidh roots and it was a bit of a bonus when John Jones stepped up to the mic to sing “Here’s To You.” I gather that later on Potts suggested that they sing a few more songs, which was an unexpected bonus for those that had stuck it out .I spoke to some of them at the end of the evening. They all looked completely knackered.
I crept away to see Steve Earle in the main hall. Hopefully I will get the chance to see the Oysters do their ceilidh thing again in this 30th anniversary year. Rare visits by American musicians are something not to be missed and although I?m not particularly familiar with Mr Earle?s work I was keen to check him out.
Earle is an experienced performer with his own fan base and many were here specifically to see him. A talented songwriter and an outstanding lyricist he has a distinguished back catalogue and is also a published author. As a political activist he has done much to ruffle the feathers of the Bush administration.
Earle has been touring the UK in support of his album “Washington Square Serenade”. This was essentially a one-man show with Earle accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, banjo and harmonica. There was, predictably a duet with wife Allison Moorer.
Less expected was the addition of a DJ after the first two numbers bringing an increased rhythmic impetus and adding an urban patina to Earle?s signature country rock based sound. This worked surprisingly well and left one in no doubt as to the New York genesis of Earle?s latest batch of songs.
Starting solo he opened with “Devil?s Right H and” and “My Old Friend The Blues”.
“Can?t Remember If We Said Goodbye” featured the surreal combination of DJ decks and banjo.
The beautiful love song “Sparkle and Shine” was inspired by Allison Moorer who joined Earle to add her honeyed vocal harmonies to “Down Here Below”. Her voice was the silk to the steel of Earle?s semi spoken Lou Reed style delivery.
“City Of Immigrants”, another strong song from “Washington Square Serenade” continued the New York theme before Earle picked out “The Galway Girl” on mandolin. It was probably inevitable that he would play this bearing in mind the way the song has seeped into the UK consciousness courtesy of the presence of Sharon Shannon?s version on the Magner?s cider advert. The solo version with it?s melancholy twist was quite a contrast to the jauntiness of Shannon?s cover. But I couldn?t help but wonder what such a champion of the left was doing letting his songs be used in an advert. Especially for overpriced fizzy crap like Magners.
Mind you both Earle and Moorer seemed a bit “up themselves” what with her on stage carpet and his request for “no flash photography”. Maybe that?s just Americans for you. It didn?t detract from some fine music but you didn?t find them communing with the fans in the beer tent. We could have shown Steve what real cider tastes like.
Meanwhile back to the music and a fine rendition of “Steve?s Hammer”, a tribute to Pete Seeger, clearly an enduring influence on Earle?s work.
“Satellite Radio” made full use of the decks and Earle closed with a version of Tom Waits? brilliant “Down In The Hole” played on a distinctive national guitar.
Called back for a deserved encore he treated his longstanding fans with versions of two of his established classics “Jerusalem” and “Copperhead Road”.
I was impressed, and despite that little rant in the middle there intend to check out more of Mr Earle?s work. I?m already familiar with “Washington Square Serenade”, a strong collection of material, especially this far into his career.
Earle is much more than a “country rocker”. He touches on most elements of contemporary American song based music. As a songwriter and lyricist there is a literacy and an epic vision that invites comparisons with Dylan, Springsteen, Waits etc.
The news that fans were disappointed that the Oysters weren?t closing their own festival had clearly filtered back to the band. John Jones had already hinted that the band would be involved in some capacity in Sunday?s music making. I thought they may be planning to sit in with others in the spirit of the first Big Session tour thereby showing yet another facet of the band after their electric and ceilidh incarnations.
What they actually did was perform an extra show in the humble confines of the beer tent at the early hour of twelve noon. Clearly the secret had got out and the tent was completely rammed. Unfortunately getting to the bar for a pint was out of the question. The ever helpful DMH staff rolled the sides of the tent up so more people could squeeze their way in.
This was a kind of Oysterband semi unplugged. Alan Prosser was on acoustic guitar throughout but the band deployed some modest amplification. After the end of the ceilidh set the previous night the band had quite clearly enjoyed a few bevies.
This was the most ragged I have ever seen the Oysters, fumbled guitar chords, forgotten lyrics, toppling mic stands and JJ?s voice cracking up. Only Chopper, who added distinctive harmony vocals seemed to be bright eyed and bushy tailed. I was surprised he didn?t tackle Neil Young?s “Rockin? In the Free World” if only to save JJ?s ailing voice. The band was augmented by a Blue Bloke (Lu Edmonds I think) but he was so far in the wings I couldn?t actually see him from my vantage point.
The band decided to send themselves up and make a feature of the mistakes, JJ nearly cracking up laughing on the line “I thought my voice would freeze”. “Whose idea was this anyway?” he enquired at one point. The pointing fingers of his band mates made it quite clear just whose idea it was.
In a short thirty-five minute set they played seven songs kicking off with “All That Way For This” followed by “Uncommercial Song”. Next up were “Just One Life” and “Be My Luck”.
At this point Dil handed the drum kit over to Lee (it looked like Lee?s set anyway), which I?m sure, was pre planned not hangover induced. We then got a rare outing of “Lady Of The Bottles” which was rather appropriate and a treat to hear again after a long absence from the repertoire.
“Deserters” and “We Could Leave Right Now” completed the set. When the time came for JJ to say “you sing” and “help us out on this one” I don?t think he?s ever n meant it quite so sincerely as today. I?ve described the Oysters as a “well oiled machine” in the past. Today the phrase “well oiled” seemed to take on an entirely different meaning.
The fans loved it of course and laughed along with them. Few bands can have played so badly and still got such a standing ovation- one based on a genuine affection and admiration but today with a soupcon of indulgence. We were prepared to forgive them anything for all the great albums and gigs we?ve enjoyed over the years. Ragged but good-natured sums it up rather nicely.
Mind you it was the first time I?ve ever seen them when I?ve been sober. Oh my god do they always sound like that?
There was no encore despite the clamour of the crowd. Our heroes were quite clearly knackered and went off in search of dinner (or maybe breakfast) before tackling that signing session.
This had been a most welcome bonus and perversely will probably be talked about by the faithful for years to come, long after other more “professional” shows have been long forgotten. Definitely an “I was there” moment.
I subsequently found out that JJ was genuinely ill with some kind of lung infection so my apologies for maligning him and thinking it was all to do with the booze!I don’t know what Mr. Prosser’s excuse was though.
These clashed with the Oysterband?s signing session so we were spared Lee?s jokes today.
The young Australian singer/songwriter Emily Barker was first to take to the stage accompanied by Red Clay Halo, an all female band playing violin (Anna Jenkins), cello (Jo Silverston) and accordion (Gill Sandell) alongside Barker?s acoustic guitar, harmonica and vocals. Now London based, Barker?s reflective, delicate, country tinged songs had a kind of “chamber folk” feel to them, an impression in part formed by the unusual instrumentation.
This was pleasant fare and very in keeping with the spirit of the times. There are a lot of talented young female folk singers out there. Barker?s music arguably needs a little more “oomph” if she aspires to be something other than “just another chick with a guitar”. That said the crystalline quality of the band?s playing makes them the sort of act likely to get radio play on “Late Junction” and other specialist programmes.
With his clear, deceptively powerful voice and hypnotic, circling acoustic guitar Leeds based Paul Marshall evokes the spirit of the late Nick Drake or perhaps a less unhinged John Martyn. Unsettling songs such as “A Place On The Map” and “Crossed Stitch Lips” were a feature of the set, the former drawn from his debut album “Vultures”.
Marshall?s music has been described as a mixture of “summer melodies and winter words”. On reading this I was reminded of nobody so much as Oysterband themselves.
The Oyster?s sometime collaborator Dan Donnelly aka Sonovagun wowed the crowd in this slot in both 2006 and 2007. This year he was back to complete his hat trick. I contrived to miss most of this year?s set as I dipped into The Blue Blokes 3 and spoke to the Oysters at the signing.
I caught the very end of Dan?s set as he played “Shine” which duly morphed into Fleetwood Mac?s “The Chain”. Rapturous applause meant that he had triumphed again and the fans were clearly disgruntled that he wasn?t allowed an encore. However the timetable in the marquee had overrun considerably so this wasn?t really a surprise.
For a one man performer Donnelly makes an impressively large sound, using the soundbox of his guitar to create rhythms that he punches into loops via his pedalboard. The practice is becoming increasingly common but Donnelly is a particularly convincing practioner of the art.
Originally from Northern Ireland Donnelly is now based in New York City and is quite clearly making it there. His solo sets at the Big session are always entertaining and his album “Bootleg” stands up very well too and still forms the basis of much of his live act. A new album “Yearning A Living” (he likes his puns) is now available and should also be worthy of investigation.
THE HANDSOME FAMILY
The decidedly bizarre Handsome Family made a big impression when they appeared on the Big Session tour of 2004. They subsequently appeared on the Big Session album itself contributing three songs to the most eclectic album to appear under the Oysterband banner.
The Handsome Family are in fact husband and wife team Brett and Rennie Sparks from New Mexico. Their music is a kind of skewed alt country with dark unsettling lyrics penned by Rennie and delivered by Brett in a deep baritone that evokes Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Brad Roberts of the band Crash Test Dummies.
Rennie?s lyrics may be full of dark, apocalyptic imagery but a sense of humour is never far away and the band sometimes seem to have their tongue firmly in their cheek. Rennie?s take on Americana strikes me as being the musical equivalent of Annie Proulx?s writing.
Indeed Rennie has had a book of short stories published herself. I?ve not read it but it would seem that “Evil” is a mirror to the songs as it takes a wry look at the dark underbelly of the American Dream.
Rennie?s surreal ramblings between tunes are as much a part of the Handsome Family show as the tunes themselves. Frequently they are very funny in a vaguely unsettling way and no doubt vary from gig to gig. Wildlife seemed to be a bit of a running theme with Rennie fulminating about wolves, kittens and snakes.
As for the music itself the duo were augmented by Jason Todd on drums and an unannounced bassist doubling on fiddle.
Renee played melodica on a couple of songs as well as picking a banjo. Her eerie wail provided backing vocals on a number of tunes and she even took the lead on one (unannounced) item.
As for Brett he was content to provide the musical backbone of the group on guitar and add his signature trademark gravely vocals. At times he would trade banter with Rennie just like an old married couple, which come to think of it is exactly what they are.
The material included “Arlene” which plundered their back catalogue and the macabre but somehow comic “After We Shot The Grizzly”. The best known items for Oysterband fans were “When That Helicopter Comes” and “Whitehaven” which both appear on the “Big Session” album.
Clearly the Handsomes association with the Oysters has done them no harm at all. The tent was full and the predominately Oyster fixated audience gave them a great reception. The Handsome family may be an acquired taste but it is one that many Oysterband fans seem to enjoy. Certainly the alliance has expanded the Handsomes fan base, it would be interesting to know if it?s a two way process.
I met the Handsomes briefly after a gig on the 2004 Big Session tour. For all the surrealism and doom and gloom imagery I found them refreshingly down to earth so I guess I shouldn?t tar all Americans with the same brush.
In the absence of the Oysters themselves the festival couldn?t have found a better closing act than the ebullient Bellowhead.
This eleven-piece group can only be described as a folk big band with a four-man brass section (trumpet, trombone, saxophone and most improbably of all sousaphone) augmenting the more traditional folk instruments of fiddles, melodeons, guitars etc.
Seemingly the vision of fiddler and lead vocalist Jon Bowden, Bellowhead have a unique sound. Live they play at rock volume and with an anarchic sense of fun. Bowden fronts the band with his knowing, archly theatrical vocals veering towards the camp.
Blimey, it sounds like I?m describing Morrissey here!
In another surreal twist they reminded me of the 1980?s jazz big band Loose Tubes. There was the same blend of virtuosity and fun and the sharing of the announcements to emphasise the democratic nature of the band. However like the Tubes Bellowhead has so many individual talents you get the impression it won?t last forever. Therefore for me it was a treat to see them live at last.
For all the trappings Bellowhead?s material has it?s roots firmly in traditional English folk song and dance. The detailed notes to the “Burlesque” leave one in no doubt as to Bellowhead?s love of their source material despite the liberties they take with it.
Bellowhead had the crowd in the palm of their collective hand from the off, “Jack Robinson” and the Norfolk song “Fakenham Fair” setting the tone for the set.
Bowden encouraged the audience to sing along on “London Town” and “Fire Marengo”, both familiar from their inclusion on the “Burlesque” album. The latter was described by Bowden as a “disco sea shanty” and included some remarkable sousaphone playing from talented “dep” Alex Kidson.
“Flash Company” featured bluesy after hours jazz from the horns and vocals from Boden that sounded positively debauched.
“Jordan” is arguably the band?s best known song after they featured it on Jools Holland?s Later. Fiddler/cellist Rachel Mcshane shared the vocal with Boden on this one.
“Unscheduled Nocturnal Manuscript Crisis”, an arrangement by Benji Kirkpatrick and trumpeter Andy Mellon featured some amazing wah wah bouzouki from Kirkpatrick. I?d only ever seen him as a solo performer before or as an occasional guest with the Oysterband. He was clearly having the time of his life here, providing a driving rhythm, enjoying plenty of solo space and generally having a ball. This was a different side to Benji Kirkapatrick to the one he normally presents in the back room of The Dukes Arms in Presteigne, especially the Pete Townshend style leap off the drum riser at the very end of the gig.
“Rolling Down The Road To Juliana” and the dance set “Frog?s Legs/Dragon?s Teeth” brought the show to a thrilling climax all blazing fiddles, snorting horns and thunderous rhythms courtesy of Pete Flood who towered over the band behind a veritable wall of drums and exotic percussion instruments. He was brilliant throughout.
Who haven?t I mentioned? There are so bloody many of them. Saul Rose did a fine job of standing in for John Spiers on melodeon, Spiers normally being Boden?s right hand man. Justin Thurger rasped effectively on trombone, Brendan Kelly blew some fine saxophone lines particularly on his distinctive curved soprano. Sam Sweeney added to the feast of fiddles, at one time four were blazing at once- Boden, McShane, Sweeney and multi instrumentalist Paul Sartin who also added decorous oboe and not so decorous bagpipes.
It had been a rip roaring set, full of brilliant instrumental set pieces, all members of the band got the chance to shine, and the musician?s infectious enthusiasm quickly transmitted itself to the crowd. Bellowhead have built up quite a cult following and it?s easy to see why. Their live shows are great fun, but they are far more than just a novelty act. “Burlesque” has a unique sound and stands up as a serious piece of work in it?s own right.
What a way to close the Big Session 2008. Catch them if you can.
There may have been the occasional gripes but for me the Big Session 2008 was at least as good if not better than those that have gone before. With almost perfect weather and some great gigs (Lau, Oysters, Lakeman, Bellowhead with Kila, Moorer and Earle not far behind and Wallbirds, Mcdermotts and the Handsomes showing up well) it had been one hell of a weekend.
The beer supply held up better than in previous years and every pint I tried was in top nick so this was definitely the best year for beer even if ?2.70 seemed a little steep. Mind it?s the best part of ?2.50 in some of the pubs round our way so maybe the price wasn?t so unreasonable after all.
The food stalls I felt actually offered better variety and value than in previous years so no complaints there.
The standard of cleanliness on the festival site was outstanding with nearly everybody getting the environmental message. Anything not put in the recycling bins by the customers was quickly dealt with by the efficient DMH staff. I found the hall staff relaxed and courteous throughout the festival, they just let you get on with having a good time unlike at some other festivals and venues that I won?t mention. Occasionally running to a tight schedule is going to disappoint a few people but that?s part of festival life.
I?m told that the campsite was well organised and the children?s area with it?s pirate theme excellent.
The Oyster website reports that nearly all feedback has been positive. I?m not surprised; this was a lovely, friendly festival with some great music. Roll on 2009 and at least we?ve got the Oyster?s anniversary shows to keep us going over the winter.
Ian Mannblog comments powered by Disqus