Thursday, 30 August 2012

Every Name That Begins with a 'K'... and some more

Inside Main Stage 1 at Shrewsbury Folk Festival
So, what's all this, then?

I've always wondered what it would be like going to a music festival, taking a long holiday weekend, and roughing it under canvass! More's the point, doing the one thing we always objectively avoid, the very habit of many that fills me with abject horror: going out and driving any distance on the roads of Britain on a Bank Holiday weekend! Well I should cry out loud: never say die, because we did all of these things last weekend!

The Wee Tent
The Shrewsbury Folk Festival did live up to my expectations, but there are a couple of exceptions: (i) a minor one really, but the only two toilet 'wagons' on Campsite 2, where we pitched our tent, broke down for twelve hours, although, when they were operational, they were still kept remarkably clean throughout, which must be as much of a tribute to those of us who used them as to those who maintained them!  (ii) More of a major issue, I'm afraid; there is a notable tendency for some sound engineers to think that folk musicians, like rock musicians, need to rattle the brains of their audiences by Richter scale booming drum and base beats - those that we would not expect this from, namely Kate Rusby and Karine Polwart, in particular, did manage to avoid this sin to keep the sound pure, so that each instrument, the voices and every word were clear and audible, so as to prove that it can be done and still leave their audience in awe. This tendency leaves me in no doubt that the greater the 'noise', the lesser the quality, not just of the sound itself, but of the performers, at least that is the clear statement it makes. Performers themselves do have control over this and, if they don't, then they should focus their resources on getting control, because it is really an unacceptable and sometimes intolerable assault on the hearing; many people whom we spoke with about this were in strong agreement. So, please, Shrewsbury Folk Festival people, will you take note for next year? 

There was a third exception that slightly marred our enjoyment of the weekend, that my wife's back 'went' just before the weekend, so she was suffering a bit. However, she soldiered on through the whole festival very 'womanfully', for which effort I am very grateful. 

DADGAD Workshop
This was a very enjoyable weekend, not least because of the simple arrangements of camping and eating on site, seeing many additional aspects of folk, including a veritable jamboree of country dance and many related activities in the so-called 'Village Square' of the festival's site. We saw all the musicians we came to see, sadly save one, K T Tunstall, who suffered a bereavement and had to cancel, and we became newly aware of several more musicians and bands worthy of note. Musical workshops abounded everywhere, all very well attended. Watching a DADGAD guitar workshop reminded me I should have remembered to take my own guitar, but also how useful a D-tuning this is. Although some purists would say it's a cheat, because chord fingering is 'easier', it actually enables a different tonal quality from the guitar by leaving more strings open. 

Weird Morris costume
I also went to a 'Singaround' workshop, run by Winter Wilson, a very impressive singing / songwriting duo, whom we had seen in concert last year. Uncertain what to expect, I was pretty unprepared for what happened. Sitting in the inevitable circle, each of us were called upon to sing a song, accompanied or unaccompanied. There were a lot of traditional, some funny and some moving songs sung by the others, many of whom were clearly seasoned 'folkies', and many of which we were able to join in the chorus, sometimes very effectively in harmonies. So when it came to my turn, the only song I could just about remember the words to was "The Irish Ballad" by Tom Lehrer; it's dark comic satire seemed to go down well. Anyway, before the end of the two hour session, it came round to me again. I was without any lyrics for another song, or the prop of my own guitar, so I dug out one of my poems! Winter Wilson had just sung one of their own songs 'Storm Around Tumbledown', which had already been covered by none other than John Tams on his album, 'Persona Grata', and which was a moving account of that battle towards the end of the Falklands War. I still found it difficult to read 'Twenty Nine' without choking, but managed nonetheless and I was surprised to be complimented by Dave Wilson; "very well read" he said. I'll happily take that from a songwriter.

Over the past three or more years, I have been trying to learn how to write 'proper' poetry. You know, the flow of words that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, that flood the lacrymal ducts, choke the throat and give you one of those moments, when so much suddenly comes into focus, all at once. It is poetry that enables a way of communicating that sometimes rarely sees the light in our everyday lives; that seeks out feelings, emotions; addresses fears, uncertainties, nay even hangups; brings to the consciousness of many who read it the ability to see another perspective on this sometimes astonishingly complex thing in life, which we call the human condition.

So, as my learning journey continues, I have become more acutely aware of the power of words, the power of that simple turn of phrase to make us feel the passion of the writer. If you then combine these with a tune, a melody, particularly one with more than the obligatory three chords, more even than a C, Am, F, G combination, which we all learn when we pick up a guitar or open the keyboard cover of a piano, the heartstrings are plucked, the soul is seared or the spirit elevated, or maybe all three at the same time.

This last weekend, at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, as we became immersed for a time in the music and the culture, I felt this most especially. This is not least because we saw a couple of our favourite class acts, Kate Rusby and Karine Polwart, who, for me, are proof, if proof were needed, that a pure voice combined with great lyrics, a soulful tune, a class arrangement and proper delivery of the song can elevate your spirit, sear your soul and pluck your heartstrings like no other art form. But more of the eulogising in a bit.

I should point out that, whilst there, we also saw performances by Vin Garbutt (a very funny entertainer and talented songwriter), Lau, with the talented and distinctive voice of Chris Drever, whose music I could describe as symphonic folk; Show of Hands, comprising of the incomparable Phil Beer, Steve Knightley and singer / double-bass player extraordinaire, Miranda Sykes. We also experienced Plainsong for the first time, sadly on their farewell tour after forty years together; with the rich tones of country music combined with super musicianship and four part harmonies, this band was comprised of Ian Matthews and Andy Roberts (founder members of Plainsong, Ian Matthews himself previously a member of Fairport Convention with Richard Thompson et al), Julian Dawson and Mark Griffiths. Then that Demi-God, Mr. Richard Thompson OBE, himself, who headlined on Sunday night. With just one acoustic guitar and no gismo's to assist him, he graced the stage with a solo performance of many of his great songs. And what a truly remarkable guitarist and songwriter he is - "Vincent Black Lightning 1952", "Persuasion", "Beeswing" and no doubt hundreds more. I am a fan of this man. Such is his virtuosity with the guitar, as if to prove his musicianship, he can be found occasionally to cross over to Jazz amongst several other genres of music, evidence his album '1000 Years of Popular Music' released in 2003.

Kate Rusby
Kate Rusby has the purest of folk voices on the scene, certainly amongst English singers, and is almost certainly back to her best with her new line up of musicians, including her partner and the father of her two children ( so she tells him ;) ) a fine guitarist and seemingly the arranger, Damian O'Kane.

However, in spite of her relatively low billing (first of three acts on Main Stage 1, Sunday evening) it is Karine Polwart who ticks all the right boxes for me, not just from her two performances at Shrewsbury, both of which we watched this weekend, and for both of which she sang different sets of songs, but for all her performances; I've not seen a bad 'un yet. In all, I have bought, and listened to over and over again, well over fifty of her songs and there isn't one of them that doesn't move me in some way; I cannot think of any other singer / songwriters for whom I can say that and, even when she sings what might be described as an 'ordinary' folk song, the tone of her voice and her vocal delivery, giving as she does full value to every word and vowel sound, as well as her cadence, makes her very special to me; and, as a member of a mixed voice choir, I guess I should know a good cadence, when I hear one and how to get my tongue and voice box round a vowel! Add to all of this her musicality, the melodies she composies and the musicianship and vocals of her brother, Steven Polwart and the inimitable Inge Thompson, who provides so much colour to the orchestration and arrangement of Karine's songs, it is almost perfect in every way. I hope this great combination never changes and I have no doubt, at the next opportunity, I shall buy tickets again to see her perform. She will soon catch up with our Kate Rusby in the number of times we have seen her perform.

Karine Polwart
Being at Shrewsbury Folk Festival has brought me in a full circle, because it was three years ago that I first came across Karine Polwart for myself. I bought some tickets and persuaded some friends to come with us to Buxton in Derbyshire to see her in concert. There was one particular song that truly plucked the heartstrings that night, more than most. Karine had composed it as part of the Darwin Song Project at the 2009 Shrewsbury Folk Festival to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, which became one track on an album that included many devoted to remembering Charles Darwin, not all for his contributions to the theories of evolution and life science. I first heard 'We're All Leaving' at that very first concert three years ago and bought a signed copy of Karine's 'Build Your Own Cathedral' EP, which tells the story of how Darwin might have come to terms with his 10-year old daughter's death. It featured in poet, Kona Macphee's blog post 'Music for Mewling'. She sang it again at both sets she performed at Shrewsbury on Sunday afternoon and evening, only out of respect for the fact that it was spawned at Shrewsbury. It has to be said that I much prefer the first version of this song. The latest version that appears in her latest album, 'Traces', has perhaps a little too much orchestration. For me, this song can stand alone without woodwind and brass, in it's beautifully simple original acoustic version. Goodness me, I'm sorry, KP, but that almost sounds like a criticism! It isn't, honest. I just love the first one too much. (By the way, your new album, 'Traces', is superb; I love it all and I do like the extra orchestrations in all the other songs. So glad you included your 'Trump card', "Cover Your Eyes", it's such a beautiful song).

However famous or otherwise Karine Polwart may become, having met her on Sunday to sign our copy of her new album, I judge her to be an earth mother, someone with her feet on the ground, who does not seek fame for its own sake, but she does merit recognition for her astonishing ability to write lyrics that are poetry in all but name; and music that is so creative, authentic, colourful, spine tingling and a joy to the ears. It is the combination of her poetry and musical composition that will, without question, endure.