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Talking animals, class war and noisy electric folk at Cecil Sharp House’s one day February festival

Andrew Curry writes: There’s something immediately appealing about the idea of a one day indoor folk festival in February. Even if it’s cold and wet outside, it’s warm and dry inside. It’s at that point in the year when you need a bit of metaphorical sunshine. And, thank heavens, you don’t have to worry about camping.

So kudos, in the first place, to Magpie Arc for putting the event together for the second year, and to Cecil Sharp House for putting it on, and for a reasonable ticket price.

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The line up was interesting enough: some younger or newer performers, an interview with two of British folk music’s most influential backroomers, the side project “supergroup” that is Magpie Arc, and Tom Robinson. For older readers, that Tom Robinson. The event was compered by Matthew Bannister of the Folk on Foot podcast.

The Anglo-Scottish duo Jon Doran and Janice Burns opened the event with a selection of well-known English, Scottish and Irish songs, mostly versions of the traditional repertoire.

The interplay of their voices and instruments bring a freshness to these—him mostly playing guitar or bouzouki, her on mandolin or guitar.

One of the features of the set was songs that featured talking animals—The Greenmore Hare and Georgie, which has a talking horse. Another was several songs in Scots that Janice Burns sang. They coupled Corncrake and Up and Awa’, and also sang The Fish Gutters’ Song, written in dialect by Ewan MacColl for one of the original Radio Ballads. Burns said that it’s the only song in the ‘50s and ‘60s Ballads that is about women’s work.

 

These days The Trials of Cato is a three-piece Welsh-English band made up of co-founders Rob Jones and Tomos Williams, and Polly Boulton. They’ve been described as the Sex Pistols of folk music, although it’s not clear why, since famously Glen Matlock was the only member of the Pistols who could play his instrument, and the members of The Trials of Cato can certainly play.

It’s a big sound for a three piece—mostly Jones’ banjo, Boulton’s electric mandolin, and Williams’s guitar, with occasional added keyboards and drum effects. And they also play fast, with a lot of energy.

Boulton is also a charismatic presence in the centre of the stage, standing out in a cerise suit, and persuading the audience to get involved.

Their exhilarating set here consisted of a mix of songs from their first two records, some self-written in the folk tradition, and some sets of tunes. Stand-outs from the set included a re-working of the nursery rhyme Ring of Roses, written during the pandemic, a danceable number called Kerkhonksen Stomp, and a new song, which I think is called Antigonish, which closed with a nod to Led Zeppelin. 

 

 

If Jon Doran and Janice Burns closed with back to back songs about birds, The Rosie Hood Band opened with two songs about birds. The band was the most traditional sounding of the day, with two fiddles (Nicola Beazley and Rosie Butler-Hall), a melodeon(Robyn Wallace), and Hood on lead vocals and sometimes guitar.

Their set included several songs that Hood had written about Wiltshire, where she grew up. Malmesbury Abbey, for example, was the setting for two of these songs—one, A Furlong of Flight, about about a monk who tried to fly from the top of the Abbey Tower, and lived to tell the tale, and another about the first tiger mauling fatality in the UK, in 1703, whose victim is buried in the Abbey grounds.

There were a couple of more obviously political songs thrown into the mix as well—Bread and Roses, by Si Kahn, and Jenny Reid’s song Les Tricoteuses. Hood’s voice works well for this repertoire—it’s a classic clear folk voice with a pure tone.

 

 

Obviously Tom Robinson isn’t a folk singer, and he’s best known for what he called, self-deprecatingly, his 15 minutes of fame with the Tom Robinson Band in the late 1970s. He’s more visible these days as a 6Music DJ. He’s not the best guitarist, but voice is holding up well.

But—to my surprise, to be honest—he was a terrific performer, telling some stories around a set that included some newer stuff—cleverly set up with a review of Shakin’ Stevens not playing Green Door at Glastonbury—and some of his hits.

War Baby was introduced with a priceless story about Eddy Grant that I’ll share on the Facebook group if there are requests. The audience loved him.

The highlight of his set among several was probably a story about an appearance at an Eton College morning assembly (yes, that Eton College) where he played Jacques Brel’s Le Bourgeois, freely translated as Yuppy Scum.

 

Magpie Arc is an electric-folk group that comprises Martin Simpson and Findlay Napier on guitars, Nancy Kerr on violin, Alex Hunter on bass, and Tom A. Wright on drums. They are all, obviously, stellar musicians, and the band is well-rehearsed and has a tight sound. They are also very loud—perhaps too loud for the space in Cecil Sharp House.

I like electric rock—it was records like Unhalfbricking and Babbacombe Lee that helped me towards folk music in the first place. There was a driving version of Si Kahn’s What You Do With What You’ve Got—which Simpson’s late father-in-law Roy Bailey used as his set opener—that showed off the strengths of the band.

But there were times during the Magpie Arc set where I felt a bit like Pete Seeger at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Not the legend about him trying find an axe to cut the cables, but the actual version where he wants them to turn down the level on the instruments so that he can hear the words.

Because, being folk musicians at heart, they were telling us the stories behind the songs before they played them. But then, with a few exceptions, we couldn’t hear the stories in the songs. I wanted to like the band more, and the musicians are clearly having a blast, but as I’m writing this on the way home my ears are still ringing. Maybe next time.

 

It was a well-organised event with decent breaks between the sets to stretch your legs and refuel in the cafe or the bar. The sequencing of the acts was spot-on. And in the middle of all of this, Matthew Bannister interviewed the producer Joe Boyd and the engineer/producer John Wood about their history with Fairport, Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and others in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. We’ll be covering that here shortly.

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