Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Moseley Folk Festival, Friday 31st August – Sunday 2nd September


It’s strange how some festivals seem to be blessed with good weather and others...well...seem to be doomed to suffer plagues of frogs. Barring the odd shower every single Moseley Folk has been reliably dry and pleasant. Given the fact that this year’s been the most relentlessly grim since Noah took up boatbuilding you’d have been forgiven for packing a lifejacket or two...but no...MoFo was pretty much a rain free zone again, with...yes...some sunshine. Maybe the good lord’s a folk fan eh? That beard’s a dead giveaway, I hear he’s often at the Prince Of Wales necking the real ale too.

Early arrivers on day one were treated to the wild haired Abigail Washburn and more soberly coiferred Kai Welch’s hybrid of Tennessee / Chinese folk (Abigail studied in China for four years and speaks the language like a native). It’s a subtly neat twist on what you’d expect, familiar and yet a little exotic. 

As is traditional at MoFo the good people at Oxjam (the bit of Oxfam that organises gigs n’stuff to raise money) had taken over the wooden pavilion and transferred it into a secret gig venue for lucky winners of its raffle draws. This relies on the generosity of the artists performing at the festival to pop along and do an extra set but an impressive line up were happy to pitch in including every girl’s dream (certainly several of the ladies in attendance seemed most enamoured with him) The Guillemots’ Fyfe Dangerfield. Fyfe’s a local (born just behind the venue, Moseley Park) and he seemed wonderfully at ease on home turf. Playing a 20 minute acoustic set in front of just a handful of lucky punters he dipped into his rich back catalogue emerging with (amongst others) Vermillion, Faster Than the Setting Sun and a heart melting (and I’m a bloke) version of Made Up Love Song # 43. He dropped in a dreamy version of Nick Lowe’s I Read A Lot too, along with a couple of new songs including Nowhere In The World that won’t do his reputation as one of the finest writers of love songs in the world right now any harm at all. It really was a privilege to have been there.

Daubed in what looked like magic marker Beth Jeans Houghton and her Hooves of Destiny (who were variously dressed as extras from a Clockwork Orange and Dad’s Army) were one of the poppier bands on the bill with recent single and set opener Atlas becoming a fixture on 6 Music’s playlist earlier this year. Although a much more mellow beast (at first) new single Dodecahedron looks set to repeat this success, showcasing Houghton’s endearing brand of Northern kookiness and poperatic warblings. One of the best things to come out of Newcastle since Byker Grove.

A slimmed down The Young Runaways just made it to the church on time...well the Bohemian Jukebox tent...for a high speed whip through their greatest hits (in a better world they would be). Closer’s one of those songs that superglues itself to your brain and refuses to shift and even in its stripped back form it remains a powerful piece. Picking up the bpm a little seemed to suit some of the tracks and a fast n’furious cover of the Wonderstuff’s Here Comes Everyone capped an all too short set off nicely. Staying in the Boho Jukebox the leader of the pack Ben Calvert married the laconic wit and wisdom of Morrissey with the gentle charm of Nick Drake. In amongst his self penned gems (and Everyone Loves Lucy and Flee are both 24 carat diamonds) he dropped in an intriguing cover version too. Girls Aloud’s Call The Shots. This might be akin to Steeleye Span covering N’Dubz but it worked really well. I feel a collaboration coming on...Cheryl could do with a leg up. Oh...loved the Ben Calvert condom with a digital download code on it too. Fixing his daughter squarely in the eye he gently murmured the immortal words “It makes you not happen”. Entertaining and educational...I’m pretty sure he’s available for kids’ parties.

Due to clashing with Calvert the Destroyers were almost done when we got back down to the main stage but there was just time to witness the usual madness with There’s a Hole In The Universe. If you’ve not seen them before sell a kidney and get on it. A demented frenzy of Balkan beats spinning wildly around the sorcerer of song Mr Paul Murphy it’s the musical equivalent of an out of control fairground waltzer...you can scream if you want to go faster but your head would probably fly off.

Back for his second gig of the day Fyfe and his Guillemots kicked off with a nice wine glass solo. Yep, normal instruments are little too passé, why not fill three wine glasses with water and do that thing with your fingers round the rim where you make the glass ring eh? Must’ve been a nightmare to get the sound right for that one, which could explain the technical difficulties that marred the start of the set (it’s a minor gripe but the main stage did seem to suffer from a few sound issues this year). After seeing the songs stripped back in an incredibly intimate setting just a few hours before it would’ve been impossible for this set to compete (the band were missing the divine Aristazabal too) but Fyfe and co still managed to wow the crowd. As a band they’re at their best when they’re...well...rocking out...with Fyfe pounding the keys like Elton on speed. With two albums released in just over a year and the songs still seemingly spilling out of him (there were rumours that the band were planning to release FOUR albums in 2012...one for each season) it’s a particularly good time to be a Guillemots fan.

Day one’s headline act got one of the oddest introductions of the festival with compere Janice Long dragging her son on stage. Poor bloke. There was a link though. Echo and the Bunnymen’s lead singer, Ian McCulloch used to babysit Long jr. back in the day. How rock n’roll eh? I wonder if he read him bedtime stories? Or sang him to sleep? Hmmm...not sure the Killing Moon counts as a lullaby. Anyway, Mac the Mouth was on fine form tonight. He had a particular bone to pick with the beleaguered lighting tech “Who’s on lights here...David Blunkett?” 

The fact that his shades remained glued to his face throughout the set made all this moaning all the more bizarre but we can forgive him when he gives the capacity crowd what they wanted. The Hits.  It’s no secret that Mac would’ve loved to have been Jim Morrison (minus all the bloating and drowning in a bathtub bit you’d imagine) and opening number Rescue bears all the hallmarks of the lizard king himself. It’s an impressive opener from Mac and the lads. Unsurprisingly he wasn’t happy though, moaning about the “Chad Valley reverb” or some such nonsense. Seven Seas, Bring On The Dancing Horses, The Killing Moon and the Middle Eastern indie anthem so beloved of those 80s compilation CDs The Cutter (or the cutttttahhhhh as Mac sang it tonight) were all dished out to the 40 somethings reliving their youth. Janice Long led the chant for an encore with the admission “I was like a pig in SHIT!” and an acoustic take on Walk On The Wildside then full band version of Lips Like Sugar were the rewards. He may be a grumpy bastard a times but you can’t knock the tunes.


Day Two and after a little light drizzle on Friday night the clouds gave way to a bright orange thing in the sky. Aggghhhh...it burns, it burns. The Terrapins gently eased the hangovers with a pleasing country rock set, Ellen and the Escapades lived up to their Q Magazine’s Emerging Talent award with some heart warming ballads and a couple of organ driven ass shakers before Revere stole the show with their soul saving chamber pop. A bit like the Miserable Rich Revere’s blend of soaring strings and emotionally raw vocals hit the spot few bands manage these days. There’s a touch of Elbow in there too, especially on tracks like The Escape Artist and it doesn’t take much to imagine them making the same leap that Garvey and co made.

Local hero Mickey Greaney’s seemingly been through the mill a bit, what with a battle against the bottle, ME, the loss of his father, writer’s block...good grief. Happily he seems to have come through it all with the battle scars needed to produce some stunningly compelling songs like set highlight The Last Word which scaled the kind of heights that Jeff Buckley reached shortly before his ill advised dip in the Mississippi. It’s not always easy to tell whether an artist is merely performing their songs or actually living them but Greaney’s tears during that last track left no one in any doubt. “Sorry I cried...” he admitted as he left the stage. No apology needed. I can’t imagine he was the only one.

Little Sister’s mix of klezmer, folk and reggae, sometimes all in the same track...yes, seriously...is always huge fun and as with last year’s set they were one of the festival’s highlights. It’s bonkers in places (how many other bands use kazoos these days eh?) but they carry it off well and they’re a fine bunch of musicians. Pick of the set was a beautiful song called Golden though. Composed for one of the girl’s grandparents to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary it has some simple but touching lyrics “the pictures may be black and white but the years have been golden”. Lovely stuff.

A bit of a clash meant missing a large chunk of Devon Sproule’s set but the woozy bluesy meditation of If I Can Do This and the road trip down memory lane of The Evening Ghost Crab hit the post lunchtime spot. The draw away from Devon were the hotly tipped Cannon Street (sisters Nadi and Rukaiyah Qazi). 

Last year they were working as stewards at the festival this year they were playing it. They couldn’t believe their luck but with the kind of beautiful harmonies that only siblings can dream of hitting they deserved to be there. It’s still early days of course and the last thing they need is hype poured upon them but with tunes like You Never Doubted Me and Fortune Cookie (both deceptively simple but instantly loveable folk tracks) already under their belts the future could be as sweet as their giggles that peppered the set.

Goodnight Lenin have been busy boys this year, playing a whole bunch of festivals and recording their debut album with none other than legendary producer John Wood (the knob twiddler behind Nick Drake’s albums, he’s also worked with Pink Floyd, John Martyn, Squeeze, Sandy Denny, Nico...). It’s a marriage made in folk heaven...a band with a bulging sack full of classic sounding tracks and a dude who can sprinkle on the fairy dust. It’s not out until next year so you’ll have to wait to hear the results, for now we still have performances like this to enjoy. Like his musical hero the band’s chief lyricist John Fell has a knack for capturing the passing of time that belies his tender years. Songs like Edward Colby and Old Cold Hands (which rocked like a mother fucker today) nail the fragility of the human condition in a way that lesser poets would struggle to achieve in a lifetime. It’s the dynamic of the band that continues to win fans though and although there was a little less banter today the tightness that came with living together in the legendary House Of Lenin and playing gig after gig shone through as bright as the autumnal sunshine. A new song (still untitled but it contains a reference to “heart of gold” in there) was perhaps more piano led than previous material but lyrically just as strong. As is traditional the set closed with a rousing Glory Be, a great galloping beast of a track, rich with Dylan-ish harmonica and a gloriously messy climax. If sex was folk this would be the big O.
A quick dash up to the Boho Jukebox tent saw Anna Palmer (aka Little Palm and an ex-Tantrum) unveil her new project Anushka. With drummer Seb adding some jazzy beats it’s a more upbeat Anna but she retains that beautiful voice of hers (part Regina Spector, part Carmel) and perfectly paced piano playing. She’ll be recording a track (Let It Slide) with Birmingham’s very own noise monsters God Damn shortly. Now that’s going to worth hearing.

What can you say about Julian Cope? Anything you want really...he wouldn’t care. He’s in a world of his own...a world of ancient monuments, spaceships, giant paper mache headed aliens...right now he’s leading some kind of army / political unit called The Black Sheep. On the surface Cope seems like a bit of a nut, he plays up to this too. But if you’ve read any of his books or listened to him speak for a while you realise that he’s a...well...floored genius. Take set opener, a delightful ditty entitled I’m Living In The Room They Found Saddam In, not the most obvious song title in the world but in Cope’s hands it’s sounds like a pop hit. In fact pretty much everything he sang today sounded like it should be a hit because, despite his best efforts, Cope’s a natural pop star with an almost effortless knack of putting together catchy tracks from the most unlikeliest of material. Don’t believe me? Try Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland with its singalong chorus “This is a folk song, a what the FUCK song”. Okay, admittedly the swear words might not make it onto Radio One but damn...that’s some catchy shit. He’s a natural on stage too, a born raconteur who’s happiest spinning off on a tangent. His one man MC5 argument (replete with voices) was hilarious. In amongst the new stuff he happily revisited old favourites too. No, nothing from Teardrop Explodes sadly, nor a World Shut Your Mouth, but we did get Autogeddon Blues, Double Vegetation, Sunspots and Robert Mitchum along with a wibbly analogue synth backed Pristine. “I don’t do this much anymore” the Archdrude admitted as the crowd bayed for more “I’m just going to bask for a moment”. He stood soaking up the applause for a good minute or two then vanished back into his own little world again, an all too rare sighting of one of the UK’s finest musical mavericks.

Jonathan Wilson’s chilled out 70s country rock was the perfect accompaniment to the gently setting sun. With musical touchstones including Neil Young and America (the band...and the country I suppose) it’s a classic sound, evoking dusty highways, sleepy towns and campfires under the stars. As one fan put in on a recent You Tube comment “a transcendental experience”.

Up at the Boho tent Red Shoes played a beautiful set of original tunes including one specially written for the great Dave Swarbrick called Sunday Afternoon. It turns out they’re going to record it with him soon on their new album. A poignant musing on the fragility of life and the yearning for just one more Sunday afternoon as we near the end it’s right up there with Roy Harper’s When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease...speaking of which...

Harper’s a legend. I don’t profess to be an expert but his influence on other musicians is undeniable. If Led Zeppelin write a song about you (Hats Off to (Roy) Harper) you’ve got to be something special. He’s perhaps not the most obvious choice for a headline act on a Saturday night though and his own words “Most of you will be bored out of your brains by the time I’m finished” proved prophetic with a significant number of the audience sloping off before the end. It’s a shame, once you get into his world there’s plenty to enjoy but the frequent ramblings, an altercation with an overly chatty member of the audience and the odd spot of bug swallowing clearly alienated some. If you stayed your patience was well rewarded though with One Man Rock and Roll Band giving him chance to show off his truly amazing guitar playing skills and When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease tugging at the heart strings.


Sunday and the gloom quickly melted to give another sunny day. Continuing the slew of incredibly talented youngsters Sunjay Brayne’s folky blues or bluesy folk was an early treat. Buy his CDs and his dad says he can go to uni...buy lots of them and as he put it “I won’t need to”.

Sunday’s always the more traditionally folky of the three days and Emily Portman’s voice and musical accompaniment – a fiddle and a harp – were a folkies dream. Loved Stick Stock, a nightmarish fairy tale track about being baked into a pie by your stepmother. Tim Burton could make a decent movie out of that. Speaking of films if anyone fancies making Rural England – The Movie! Spiro would be a shoe in for the soundtrack. A fine instrumental four piece with music as rich as a well hung pheasant the undeniable star of the show was Jane Harbour on violin, one of the few folk fiddlers around who could give poster boy Seth Lakeman a run for his money.   

Fancying a bit of a change we caught (almost literally) the delightfully homespun Kawa Circus, a travelling troupe from Rajasthan. Their show’s a kind of a love story with a couple of suitors trying to prove their affections by performing a series of tricks, tightrope walking, balancing spinning bicycles wheels on various parts of their anatomy and...most spectacular of all...flying around like a helicopter blade on top of a bamboo pole stuffed into the pants of a magnificently moustachioed man some 20ft or so in the air. In these days of health and safety gone mad it’s refreshing to see such reckless endangerment of life and limb. Hurrah!
Back over at the main stage Jackie Oates – one of our finest young folk vocalists - and band pulled together an impressive set of original and traditional tunes, including the obligatory murder ballad (Young Johnson from her fourth album Saturnine)...you can’t have a folk festival without the odd murder ballad eh? It’s a belter too, a tale of two blokes going out with each other’s sister. One suggests that he’ll marry the other guy’s sister if he reciprocates. The other dude says “no way mate, I’ll keep poking the fire but I won’t marry it” or something like that. Suffice to say dude number one ain’t happy so he stabs him to death. Sounds like something from the Jeremy Kyle Show. Who says Folk ain’t relevant eh?

After The Long Notes soundtracked the now traditional MoFo haydown (basically an excuse to chuck straw all over each other thinly disguised as a ceilidh) local hero Simon Fowler (yes, him from Ocean Colour Scene) unveiled his new project Merrymouth. OCS got swept along with the whole Britpop thing and found fame with their more riff driven material but clearly Simon’s a bit of an old folkie at heart. It’s a path that his musical hero Paul Weller has already gone down but it actually seems to suit Fowler’s voice far better. There’s a gentle quality to his vocal that the Modfather just hasn’t got and pick of the set Blink Of An Eye sounds like the sort of track John Lewis would pay gazillions to use in one of their schmaltzy TV ads. Naturally there was time to revisit some old OCS favourites too, including a movingly stripped to the bones version of The Circle.

From something old back to the Boho Tent for something new. Very new. At just 17 years old Katherine Priddy wasn’t even a gleam in her dad’s eye when Ocean Colour Scene were in their prime but she’s already been shortlisted for the 2012 PRS Songwriting & Composition Award and played at the O2 Arena. There’s a touch of wood sprite about her, with flowers in her hair she could be spotted wandering barefoot through the festival all weekend and even before knowing she was a performer she just looked different somehow to most of the audience. Continuing this ethereal theme her songs have a fairytale quality too, in fact she revealed that the first song she ever wrote was a tale of a man who fell in love with the moon. The word hypnotic is overused in reviews but hell...she was.

Staying in the Boho tent Wooden Horse delivered another one of the standout sets of the weekend with some fine stompin’ and a testifyin’ blues. When he’s in full flow vocalist Jamie Knight’s as powerful as a hurricane whilst fellow Horse Ben Church is one of the finest finger pickin’ bottle neck melting guitarists this side of the Mississippi Delta. As with all the best sets it just got better and better climaxing with a furious number that threatened to blow the roof off.

Penultimate act of the weekend were the marvellous Village Well, a three piece with the kind of line up that makes the UN look unrepresentative. There’s an Iraqi Kurd, a Chilean and an Indian who, together, produce a truly unique mash up and gypsy jazz, folk, tabla and possibly some genres not yet discovered by scientists. They got one of the best reactions of the festival with Zirak (the group’s lead singer) managing to draw an unusually enthusiastic participation from the crowd. Oh...and is Pritam Singh the fastest tabla player in the world? Could be. An awesome display, his fingers must be made from asbestos.

Ask the average man / woman / undecided in the street to sing a folk song the chances are that they’ll stick one finger in their ear and come out with “Aaalllllllllllllll around my hat”. It’s arguably THE definitive folk song. Shorthand for a whole genre in the same way that Hound Dog sums up rock n’roll, Tainted Love synth pop and Smoke On The Water metal. Given this the song’s most famous interpreters Steeleye Span are pretty much the perfect band to close a folk festival. They were too. Picking tracks from some of their classic albums (notably Now We Are Six) the Span rocked the folk out of the place. As originators of the folk rock sound they deserve more credit than perhaps they receive these days and arguably (as fellow reviewer John Kennedy noted) they perhaps had an influence on the developing prog scene too. Certainly tracks like Thomas The Rhymer have a distinct proggy feel in places. 

She may be a pensioner but Maddy Prior’s voice remains every bit as powerful as it was back in the day and the whole band were as tight as a milkmaid's grip. Unsurprisingly they saved the big guns until the end with a lusty All Around My Hat getting the more energetic members of the audience spinning around wildly. The climax was a truly hair raising Gaudete though. “This is risky” admitted Maddy before pulling off a note perfect rendition of Alan Partridge’s favourite song. What a voice. A truly beautiful end to yet another beautiful MoFo.     


Jez said...

During Steeleye Span's opening Seven Hundred Elves, I had a sudden vision of Iron Maiden. Tell me you can't see Bruce with one foot up on the monitors singing

"Seven hundred elves from out the wood, Foul and grim they were"

Russ L said...

They were pretty metal indeed for the first few songs of their set. I had vague flashbacks to Jethro Tull a few years ago.

The Baron said...

Yes, quite surprising really. A lot more ooooomph than I was expecting. I'd love to hear Bruce do All Around My Hat...

Yep, bit of a Tull vibe too. Call me an old fool but I loved Gaudete. Been humming it annoyingly ever since.