This was the first Bedale Acoustic Music Festival - BAMfest - which took over the picturesquely compact town of Bedale in North Yorkshire. Against all the odds, the festival was blessed with warm sunny weather, which meant that walking between the campsite, the town centre and the festival venues was a pleasant stroll. The two main venues were the wonderfully ornate, overtly patrician 18th century Bedale Hall at one end of the town and The Riverside Club at the railway station end. The very different atmosphere and acoustics in the two venues complemented each other perfectly. Three town pubs: The Green Dragon, The Three Coopers and The White Bear, were less formal venues where there were free concert events and sessions and a marquee at Big Sheep, Little Cow Farm, the location of the well-appointed campsite, provided an additional venue for sessions and a ceilidh.
Arriving early Friday evening and leaving on Sunday afternoon, my lasting impressions of this new festival are that it had been very well-organised and thought through by a team of dedicated lovers of acoustic music. The venues were attended by welcoming, helpful volunteers and the programme in the two main venues ran like clockwork. Artists stuck to the time they had been allotted and did only short encores if demanded by enthusiastic audiences and permitted by organisers. The professional PA set-up in both venues was excellent, partly at least because a reasonable length of time was allowed between acts. There was a well-designed and easy-to-follow festival programme. In addition to the concerts there were a number of workshops: song-writing, vocal harmonies, banjo, cajon, blues guitar, guitar and shanties. BAMfest had been advertised as a “family-friendly festival”, and it certainly was that: somehow the organisers succeeded in attracting very respectable-sized audiences from a broad age range.
Obviously one person can see only a limited number of acts even at a small festival like this, and I am very aware that I was only able to sample what was on offer. The first thing to say is that for someone from the south of England, BAMfest felt very northern. What do I mean by that? Well for a start everyone, without exception, was friendly and welcoming. Most, if not all the artists performing were from the north of England and were keen to support this new venture. All were determined to give the enthusiastic audiences a good time and in their turn, the audiences were appreciative and keen to participate. This meant they joined in with choruses and clapped along whenever the opportunity arose. The other very important point to make is that this was an acoustic music festival, not a folk festival. There were recognised folk artists, including Bob Fox, Blackbeard’s Tea Party and the Young’uns, but there were also performers from different genres including Blues Band guitarist and singer Dave Kelly, singer-songwriter Henry Priestman from 1980s pop group The Christians, Geordie-French singer Flossie Malavialle, and local indie folk-rock band The Conspirators.
I have to say that the standard of all the performances I saw was uniformly high, but for my taste there was an over-preponderance of guitar-based music and energetic songs with choruses; for some reason, many of these were shanties or similar. The flavour of the music took me back to the early days of my involvement with folk music – reminding me of The Spinners, The Clancy Brothers and early Watersons. (Blackbeard’s Tea Party’s version of Whip Jamboree instantly transported me back at least 40 years to a Spinners’ TV show!) There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but I feel there could have been a little more light and shade both in the programming as a whole as well as in some individual performances. There was virtually no instrumental music that I was aware of, although Blackbeard’s Tea Party did include some of their ceilidh band repertoire in song sets. Also, there seemed to be little recognition of the influence of music from other European countries, Africa or Asia that has permeated the British music scene in the last thirty or so years. I recognise that one of the perks of organising a festival is that hard-working volunteers can get to see acts they like themselves, but for me there could have been a wider breadth of music on offer. It is clear from the programme that there were also other performances at BAMfest that sadly I didn’t get to see. In addition to the free concert spots in the pubs there were two youth events, a song-writing competition (great idea!), and “music train” journeys on the Wensleydale Railway.
Personally, I was very impressed by the energy and quality of the performances by six-piece Blackbeard’s Tea Party and Teesside trio The Young’uns - who, in response to their growing popularity, announced during one of their concerts their decision to turn professional. Henry Priestman, with his three-piece band, did an excellent top-of-the-bill performance on the Saturday evening at the Riverside Centre. But I have to say, slightly to my own surprise, that I found the performance by the young Bedale-based band, The Conspirators the most engaging and original I saw. They performed their own compositions, sung in the main by the excellent Genevieve Gillies, backed by a tight line-up of acoustic guitar, cajon and bass. The song lyrics, written mainly by John Gillies, were fresh and often funny. The singer made great contact with the audience but was never patronising.
All in all, this was an excellent weekend, packed with great acts and set in the wonderful North Yorkshire Dales. They’ve already announced that they’re going to be doing it again next year and I’d certainly recommend you consider going. I’d respectfully suggest that the organisers are a little more daring in their choice of acts, but wish them well after what has clearly been a successful first festival.
The programme describes BAMfest as “North Yorkshire’s best kept secret!” Not any more it isn’t!