A few weeks back I was idly flicking through the festival listings for 2016. It’s something I do every year with the same level of conviction and optimism as my nine-year old self would leaf through travel brochures back in the day. Some initial curiosity maybe, but far too little time, money (have you seen the ticket prices for some of those?), opportunity and for that matter inclination. When all said and done it’ll be PZYK fest again this year (or a week in Weston-Super-Mare if we’re keeping with the childhood analogy).
It was while trawling through a depressing morass of often corporately sponsored events, sometimes three of four to a weekend (and they invariably are weekend to enable you to work for the Man and then play under “his” watchful patronage) that I became a bit bored of seeing the same names and even tired of playing “stone me, are they still going/alive and if so why?”.
Yes, I started looking at the jazz and folk listings.
Now in among the folky fests, some of them a lot more interesting looking than the endless rehash of mainstream Sleep In The Park and End Of The Tether or whatever, that I spied Sidmouth Folk Week. Now this not only caught but kept my eye for some reason. Ah yes Sidmouth, the stories I could tell (and one day might). It’s archetypally – makes a change from quintessentially, don’t you think – English and the sort of place you might expect to see hosting some low-budget 1920s period whodunit (more Dorothy Sayers than Agatha Christie perhaps). It’s also “a folk week”. Not a “no-access to site before Friday morning and be gone by 10 a.m. Monday” job. It also sounds alluringly civilised for someone who’s been around the block more times than a live chicken chased by a cleaver.
There’s been a festival there during the first week of August every year since 1955. Back then it was run by the English Folk Dance and Song Society and one perhaps shudders to imagine what it must have been like. It gradually expanded to include ceilidh and other such hooliganism and branching into ever more diverse folk-related activity, crafts as well as dance and song. Over the years it has changed name and reinvented itself albeit on a reassuringly incremental basis, keeping itself relevant and appealing whilst avoiding the perilous pitfall of aspic-preserved heritage hell. There was a wobble back in the early noughties when the festival began to lose money (not helped by variable summer weather and withdrawal of council funding). Disaster was averted and the festival reincarnated in its current form as the Sidmouth Folk Week and appears to be as strong and diverse as at any time over the past 62 years. Whilst also terribly respectable (patron: one Martin Carthy MBE) it retains its rascally glint with a host of diverse acts and any number of venues from big tents to parks, pubs and street.
Initial impressions looking at the line-up for 2016, though, were not that promising, I must say. I never got Show Of Hands and find Seth Lakeman a little too fragrant and anti-septic for my tastes, while Steeleye Span slipped seamlessly into that “are they still going?” category. And whereas it was nice to see the likes of Pam Ayers (Pam Fucking Ayers, man) and John Kirkpatrick listed, at first glance it all seemed at once altogether too musty and soap scented. “Bet Folk on 2 will be” there I muttered to myself. Fucking Beeb always ruin a good scene.
Ah but wait. Delve beyond the headline veneer and the lights begin to glow from amidst the bushel. There are venerable old hands like Wizz Jones (see the Terrascope's interview with Wizz here) – this must be almost a local event for him – Barry Dransfield (who we not only featured in issues 1, 4 and 5, he even worked as a reviewer for us for a while!) and maverick fiddler Tymon Dogg, all of whom we know appeal to a certain Terrascopic demographic, as well as daftly named combos designed to loosen your limbs after a jar or two such as the fabulous Shooglenifty and Whapweasel. There are also a host of arguably more interesting left-field acts which for a large, mainstream festival, is both rare and commendable particularly in such number. Too many probably to go into much depth here so here are just a few of the very different but quite essential acts to check out if you’re tempted to "head" there.
Londoners Stick In The Wheel, the very name infers awkwardness, have the great strapline “we play the music of our people. We sing in our own accents. We record in our kitchens and living rooms. This is our culture, our tradition”. Right on. They are vibrant, often abrasive mixing self-penned songs charting the underbelly of everyday life which they intersperse with exuberant takes on traditional fare such as “Hard Times Of Old England”. Judging by the reception they received from a large daytime crowd at Sin Eater festival recently and the trade in band t-shirts they are rapidly becoming the new darlings of the folk scene. Their debut album From Here released in 2015 was critically lauded and justifiably so, to the extent that you wonder how they manage to move under the weight of awards. The vocal component (Nicola Kearey and Rachel Davies) have also appeared live and on record with Terrascope favourites Wolf People (including acclaimed album Fain).
Stick In The Wheel
At the other end of the spectrum are the Dead Rat Orchestra, one of the UK's most innovative ensembles. They’ve toured and performed internationally as both Duo and Trio with acts as revered and diverse as Martin Carthy (him of the MBE), Godspeed You Black Emperor, Pere Ubu, Silver Mount Zion, Eric Chenaux, Silver Apples, Baby Dee and, most recently, the wonderful C Joynes. Last year they toured Tybernia, a “celebration” of 700 years of the infamous site of execution in that-there London for which they also recorded a soundtrack album. They have also composed works for performance by the London Contemporary Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia and the Ukranian Conservertoire, and collaborated with The Pitt Rivers Museum.
The Rats (as they are probably not known to anyone) combine what we might terms “folk” with improvisation, painting a bewildering palette of raucous, haunting and occasionally violent soundscapes about as far from ‘All Around My Hat’ as might be imagined. They have been known to leave the stage to sing and holler among the audience. So the next time you are tempted to have a few jars and sing along in your own individual style with whoever is playing on stage, just say that you are Daniel/Nathaniel/Robin from the Dead Rat Orchestra (note to female Terrascopeans – plan ahead and don’t exfoliate for a while). It’s worth a try, surely.
The last act in this brief guide to the more alternative strain of Sidmouth – can’t call it a fringe because they have one of those too, and these are not it – are Three Cane Whale, a multi-instrumental acoustic trio based in Bristol, UK, featuring members of Spiro, Get The Blessing (whose latest album we reviewed on Terrascope some a while back) and Scottish Dance Theatre. Their eponymous debut album was chosen by Cerys Matthews as one of her Top Five Modern Folk Albums (but please don’t let that put you off) while their follow-up Holts And Hovers also won a host of accolades including fRoots Editor’s Choice Album of 2013. The band’s new album, Palimpsest, recorded at Real World Studios and produced by Portishead’s Adrian Utley has garnered several five star reviews and seems set for automatic inclusion when listmania strikes in the run up to Christmas.
Three Cane Whale
Add to these the Bengali fusionistas Khyio, Dublin folk rapscallions Lynched and Folk Awards winners Rheingans Sisters and it’s heartening to see that Sidmouth supporting rising stars and diverse, contemporary sounds when it would be all too easy to just fall back on selling tickets. Speaking of which if there are some still available and should time allow then it might just be tempting to point the car south.
Sidmouth, 62 years young and still dancing in the streets. Get it on!