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ROOTS 66 - Theatre By The Lake, Keswick - 5-7 February 2016

You know Route 66, the fabled American highway. But do you know the A66 going through Keswick, the home of Theatre By The Lake, to Workington, the home of Fellside Records? Two fine Cumbrian institutions took a punt with a February folk festival, mainly to celebrate Fellside’s 40 years of recording and releasing albums and nurturing talent (272 releases on the folk label alone). Over three well-attended evening concerts and two afternoon showcases there were many warm words and rounds of applause for Fellside’s Paul and Linda Adams. There’s more about the label in LT112.

Friday night was a double bill. We see Chris While and Julie Matthews quite often in Cumbria, and it was a pleasure to welcome them back. They included two songs from a new album they were due to record: Are We Human, about the Calais refugees, and Pride, about the thumbs up on social media to legalisation of same-sex marriage in Ireland. It was good to hear Julie’s introduction to Shaky Town linking Kiwi resilience after the Christchurch earthquake to Cumbrian resilience after the recent flood: Rise up like a phoenix, rise up. Next up, with his Bad Pennies, was Jez Lowe, whose first six albums were with Fellside. He sang The Honest Working Way from the 1985 debut album, Galloways. Chronicling the North’s heavy industry and the damage inflicted on it was a recurring theme, not just in Jez’s songs (Taking On Men, Black Trade, Coal Town Days, etc) but throughout the festival. The scars heal slowly. My standout song in a hot set was The Lazarus Dance from his latest album.

Hurrying to Saturday afternoon’s showcase, I passed a busker performing Hey Joe beautifully. Didn’t stop, didn’t give money, felt bad afterwards. Oh well. The showcase (MC Mike Harding) was for current Fellside artists, and first up were Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith. Having reviewed their debut album, I knew their repertoire of banjo-led American and British folk songs and tunes, but a great performance of The White Dove (Ewan MacColl’s adaptation of The Cuckoo) quickly underlined their strong stage presence. East Anglia met Appalachia in a fine version of Let The Wind Blow High Or Low from the singing of Walter Pardon. Brian Peters recorded his debut with Fellside in 1985, and from it he sang The Miners’ Lockout. And what a joy to hear him sing Hind Horn again! Nobody sings a big Child ballad better than Brian - for me, the best song of the festival. Wendy Weatherby (appearing with Fiona Cuthill and Stevie Lawrence) is another veteran Fellsider in great voice. Not long after Burns Night, she gave us A Red, Red Rose and tunes on her cello inspired by Tam O’Shanter. Pete Morton has recorded his last three albums for Fellside. He sang his mix of political and personal songs with great warmth and confidence. I was moved by Land Of Time (for his son) and The Luckiest Man (for his parents). The Shores Of Italy is from a few years back but more topical than ever as the refugee crisis goes on.

The Mighty Doonans owned Saturday night - powerful singing, three saxophones, Northumbrian pipes, fiddle, electric and acoustic guitars, bass and drums, plus energetic stepping from Frances Doonan. Shock and awe. Stu Luckley’s arrangements bolster a tried and tested set of songs and tunes. There was Star Of The County Down surviving from Doonan Family Band days; Silver Dagger, beautifully sung by Rosie; Mick Doonan’s impassioned House Of The Rising Sun; a cracking Orange Blossom Special from Kevin Doonan, Phil Murray and Stu; and Phil’s ribald discourse on folk thongs; and those scars again, with two Ed Pickford songs: Ee Aye Aa Cud Hew (the bass at the end like a failing heartbeat) and Johnny Miner to finish. Maybe the band could develop more self-written songs, but it was knockout entertainment.

To borrow from Twelfth Night, hey ho, the wind and the rain. Keswick was lashed and soaked through the weekend, so the theatre’s comforts were doubly welcome. Sunday afternoon saw another Fellside showcase, with a solid set from Bram Taylor to get us going. He’s stayed with the label since 1984. Come All You Weary Factory Girls was dedicated to his mum who worked in a Lancashire cotton mill. The Hut People (Sam Pirt on accordion and Gary Hammond on all manner of percussive paraphernalia) were good festival fun. Clever tunes, but I didn’t hear much depth. Joe Topping delivered an excellent set of soulful singing and slide guitar, a clutch of new songs showed off his songwriting skills. The Ballad Of William Burke was a mighty piece about the Edinburgh killer, while Eyes Wide Open banished festival fatigue to get me thinking about our earthly span and the afterlife. Blimey! Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar are current Fellside stars. Both are witty, with a touch of charisma which is partly down to their youth and promise. Ciaran is a fiery fiddler, and his bow was the most frayed I’ve ever seen (maybe it’s a superstition thing, like ex England wicket keeper Jack Russell’s floppy hat). Greg’s voice has plenty of attack too. I enjoyed Brisk Young Man from the forthcoming album. He found it when Paul Adams gave him The New Penguin Book Of English Folk Songs, then put a new tune to it. The modern folk process in action.

I had to miss the closing concert with Gordie MacKeeman and his Rhythm Boys. As always, there was a concurrent festival which I didn’t see. In the Studio, there were young artists booked for Ireby Festival in May. There were workshops for Lakeland fiddle, ukulele, step dance, choir and percussion. And there was free music in the theatre café which I mostly missed. I went home thanking Fellside and Theatre By The Lake for a great weekend. Well done also to rivers Derwent and Greta for not quite flooding again.

Paul Adams gave me his reflections on the festival. “It was a first venture in February in Keswick. I'm sure people thought it was a mad idea. Some people thought Keswick wasn't even open following the floods. It was open, people did turn up, were subjected to a feast of music and seemed to have a splendid time. The Theatre By The Lake deserves a big vote of thanks for taking a gamble on it. Fellside hitched a ride on the event to help celebrate our 40 year anniversary. All the artists gave of their best – Ewan McLennan went down with 'flu-like symptoms and Brian Peters stepped superbly into the breach – and a number of friends and artists from the 40 years turned up to help us celebrate. We hope that the theatre is encouraged enough to give it another go next year.”

Tony Hendry