Phoebe Cross and Catherine Tarrant spent the first week of August at the 60th Sidmouth FolkWeek festival in East Devon. A folk music and dance festival initiated by The English Folk Dance and Song Society that Catherine has been going to her whole life, this year Phoebe (punk junkie and FolkWeek virgin) went along for the glorious folky ride.
A lot may have changed since the festival first started in 1955, but certainly a bustling and friendly atmosphere is brought to the Regency seaside town on a yearly basis. Music purveys the air, reels from fiddles flowing from every pub, there are performers and buskers everywhere; the festival certainly embraces the entirety of Sidmouth. Seeing an average of three performances a day at the big marquees and dozens more at every pub (we frequented quite a few!), we list the top picks and things we loved about the festival this year in no particular order:
The family and friendly element. This really is a festival you’ll enjoy no matter what your age. Children are the folk musicians of the future, so with this in mind there was a dedicated children’s music area at Blackmore Gardens which also included Ceilidh workshops. Here, families can relax, listen to young and specialist performers and even watch a bit of Punch and Judy whilst eating fudge and drinking lemonade (okay, so that’s what we did…!). Everyone around you is so welcoming; unlike other big music festivals (naming no names) people are genuinely here for a love of the folk, one second you can be chatting to… whoever is next to you and the next you are chatting to big names such as Eliza Carthy.
The Bulverton Marquee. At the top of a rather steep hill lies the best unkept secret in Sidmouth. This was the place to be in the evenings, with a pizza tent and, of course, a bar featuring local ales and beer. Highlights included Will Lang’s 60s themed Silent Disco, which featured guest DJs Eliza Carthy, Sandra Kerr and Tom Wright; not just a disco but also a musical battle. This eventually lead to DJs whipping out the classic Disney and Britpop tunes to win over the crowd: it may be in the name, but it’s not all about folk you know! A good night all round. Another night featured Danish eight man power-folk band Habadekuk, with support from CoCo and the Butterfields (more on the latter band below!). Habadekuk blasted out some energetic numbers, livened up all the more by the addition of brass, not traditional instruments on the folk scene. As their website states, they certainly do “catapult folk music well into the 21st century”. We also danced at a Ceilidh with music courtesy of Oysterband as well as some lovely Morris Dancing displays.
CoCo and the Butterfields. We happened to befriend the banjo player and beatboxer (wait, beatboxer? Are you intrigued already?) from CoCo and the Butterfields one night at The Bulverton and promised to attend their gig the next day having missed their first show, come rain or shine. Boy, did it rain. But the fact that whilst watching this band outside (in a pub aptly named ‘The Anchor’), there was a torrential downpour yet no one ventured inside speaks for itself on the quality of this band. The band had a very devout following and despite the rain, no one’s spirits were dampened and the crowd shouted, sang and danced; with such incredibly fun music, bringing a smile to every drowned rat of a folk fan there, who could blame them? Based in Canterbury, they describe themselves as ‘Fip Folk – a fusion of Folk, Hip Hop and Pop’, they were an exciting and unique band to watch perform, made all the more vibrant and fun with the addition of beatboxer Jamie. How many bands have you seen with a reel on the fiddle and a beatboxer? They had an almost ska element, not dissimilar to The Cat Empire and their offbeat rhythms and trumpet/saxophone backing really added to the tone. The music makes you jump around like an incredibly happy idiot. Personal favourites included songs ‘Astronaut’ and ‘Scarecrow’ but their covers were also magnificent: ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain, ‘Cupid’s Chokehold’ by Gym Class Heroes and a very special cover of the Game of Thrones theme that they’d only learnt that day.
Philip Henry and Hannah Martin. A large events room in The Bedford Hotel and bar was taken over by Sidmouth FolkWeek and had brilliant performances every morning, the shining moment of one of these gigs was seeing Philip Henry and Hannah Martin perform. Both multi-instrumentalists, the pair take traditional folk tunes from around the country, turn it on its head, and add a little stomp and harmonica in for good measure. They have performed all over the country, including The Royal Albert Hall. Martin wielding a banjo or five string violin weaves beautiful melodies and sings with an ethereal quality while Henry stamps on his stomp box and reaps havoc with a harmonica. Our favourite number is ‘The Nailmakers’ Strike Pt II’. The song is a modern adaption of an industrial song surrounding a nailmakers’ strike in Bromsgrove 1862. Henry and Martin took the original tune and lyrics and added a chorus (featuring Henry’s impressive singing/beatbox/harmonica skills) inspired by a modern protest song from Abyssinia. Their attention to detail in history and process gives their music such gravitas, the music alone is beautiful and astoundingly creative, this thorough creation process gives the music such value.
Playing in pubs and busking. Particularly in pubs such as The Bedford and The Swan, you can rock up with your instrument of choice and join in pub jams (Catherine’s Dad Rick Tarrant was always found with his guitar in a pub); often free jugs of ale are provided. It’s a really good way of meeting lovely people and if you don’t play anything, you’re still chilling in a pub by the seaside, drinking and listening to music. Ace. Busking along the seafront amongst the market stalls ain’t bad either – we even got free hair braids out of it! When you’re not in a pub or having a look at all the crafts and other nice things for sale, you can always go on a boat ride to learn about the Jurassic Coast, the UK’s only World Heritage Site, or take a trip to the Donkey Sanctuary as we did. The fun never ends (we’re still a bit sad it’s all over and it has, in fact, ended!)
The Ham Marquee. A really lovely seated venue where you still have grass under your feet, the likes of Cara Dillon, Yves Lambert Trio, The Copper Family, Roy Bailey, Martin Carthy and The Carrivick Sisters graced the stage. Canadian-French Yves Lambert Trio gave the place a nice transatlantic feel, with strong rhythms and fast paced fun reels, along with an accordion reminiscent of kid’s TV shows but with more punch. Calling all round happy guy Yves Lambert the best person in the world doesn’t even feel like an exaggeration! The Carrivick Sisters, a Bluegrass duo from South Devon performed an impressive set, which was their first at Sidmouth Folkweek; though young, they are seasoned performers, with a fantastic stage presence and chatter a-plenty.
The Drystones. Two multi-instrumentalist friends Ford Collier and Alex Garden make up folk two-piece The Drystones and cropped up a good few times time at the festival, always delivering animated and energetic sets. As part of EFDSS‘ Rising Folk Series they performed at The Bedford, and we really enjoyed listening to their original compositions such as ‘Hemp Jig’, ‘Fly and the Spiders’ and ‘Nailed It’. With Alex’s vivacious violin playing and Ford’s double penny-whistle skills, their songs were foot tappingly fun. They clearly thrived off audience participation too, with everyone jumping at the opportunity to clap along. They have clearly had an epic summer of playing, recently appearing at this year’s Glastonbury too!
The food and drink. It’s safe to say we didn’t have one bad meal. There’s local pasty shops a plenty, freshly squeezed lemonade carts, fudge stalls, delicious ice-cream, the smallest curry house we’ve ever been in, the best fish and chips, scrumptious cream teas, falafel burgers and of course pubs are full of local ales and ciders to wash it all down. We had a tasty fry up most days at the local sailing club too! We’re telling ourselves we’ve walked it all off…
Festival Director John Braithwaite said of this year’s festival:
“We set the bar high for this year…and this is a positive challenge to embrace for our 2015 plans. We have learned a lot from the successes, and are sure to revisit some of those ideas in future, to take some of that experience forward.”
Sarah Coxson from Alan Bearman Music said to us:
“With 60 years under our belt, the future of the festival seems in very safe hands with a wealth of young performers and participants (and also organisers!) making their welcome presence felt this year. We saw a rise in the number of young people taking part – dancing, listening, watching, playing – at festival events throughout the week.”
As excited as we are about next year? Keep an eye out on the Sidmouth FolkWeek page for tickets to go on sale.