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BROMYARD FOLK FESTIVAL - 8-10 September

“It’s hard to believe the festival that started out in the swinging sixties as a ceilidh in a shed is now one of the longest-running and well-regarded folk events in the country.” So states the programme of this, Bromyard’s 50th Folk Festival. From a ceilidh in a shed to a comprehensive programme of events over several venues in a well-established site at the town’s football club, the festival at Bromyard has certainly come a long way.

I hadn’t realised how beautiful Herefordshire is, and although there is some evidence of a town that has struggled (closed pubs etc) this is a lovely part of the world to spend some time in. The festival is important to the town, and funny men in green trousers and larger-than-life floral hats, along with other folkies of all ages and dress codes, are warmly welcomed (albeit in a slightly ‘quirky’ fashion in places like The Falcon – you have been warned!).

With a stated focus on traditional music, song and dance (though with some fairly radical departures), there was a full and varied programme taking place in different spaces around the site and in the town. Not all the spaces were big, and I liked the diverse atmospheres that this created. The Song House, for example, was a tiny tent holding about 50 people, with no PA, and was the venue for some lovely intimate and informal performances – a good alternative to the bigger main stage concerts for those who like their music with more of a folk club feel. We saw Peter & Barbara Snape, Dave Webber & Anni Fentiman, JIB and Jeff Warner here, all of whom impressed with their easy repartee with the audience and top notch singing.

The Ceilidh House was the setting for much dancing and different workshops, and we caught part of a Tuneworks Ceilidh Tunes workshop here, where lots of participants with all sorts of instruments were learning about the importance of knowing how to distinguish the different tune types, how long each needs to be for dancing, and all sorts of other dancing related matters. The tunes used for this and other Tuneworks workshops were available for participants to download from their website, with written notation and handy MP3s to listen to – a great idea.

The Club Stage was a marquee, smaller than the main stage but big enough to get a decent crowd in. It had good sound, the chance for some rapport with the audience, and was the perfect place for some great concerts. Rowan Piggott particularly impressed here in a set with guitarist Felix Miller – his warm way with an audience and natural fiddle and singing style making him instantly likeable. Rowan was last year’s winner of Bromyard’s Future Of Young Folk award, and I am sure we haven’t seen the last of him. The Club Stage was also the venue for one of my favourite gigs of the weekend – the Final Song. Now with something of a legendary status, this informal concert found Jim Mageean, Graeme Knights, Dave & Anni, JIB and Cohen Braithewaite-Kilcoyne lined up on stage taking turns to lead the audience in some great, join-in-able singing. It was great; it just didn’t last long enough!

The Wye Valley Brewery Stage was the venue for the bigger concerts and we saw a great array of artists here: Georgia Lewis, Jamie Smith’s Mabon, Daoiri Farrell, Jimmy Aldridge & Sid Goldsmith, Patterson Alden Dashwood, Le Vent Du Nord, Northern Company, Cosmotheka, Ímar, The Mighty Doonans – the list was long and impressive. In such a full programme of artists, it is often difficult to pick highlights, but for me this year, it wasn’t. Three acts stood out as exceptional.

Les Barker was his inimitable self and went down a storm, as ever. Whenever Les was about to perform you could see the crowd swelling in numbers substantially. He did a couple of spots over the weekend and thrilled the audiences with his ‘unique’ poems such as Cosmo The Fairly Accurate Knifethrower, Nobody Hugs A Hedgehog, Déjà Vu, My Bag For Life Has just Died and, of course, his iconic Have You Got Any News Of The Iceberg? He is one of only a few people who has the audience in the palm of his hand before he even says a word – an enviable place to be, and he deserves every bit of it.

Another act who could lay claim to this trait is Granny’s Attic. Everyone loves them, everyone is talking about them, and it feels like the hopes of previous generations of English traditional musicians and singers are pinned on them for the future. I lost count of how many times over the weekend people referred to them as “the new generation” or “the future” and, having seen them, I can see why. They play good, solid traditional tunes and songs, and play them well. They have two strong lead singers with an ear for good songs. And they can communicate with the audience in a way that many younger performers struggle to do. What’s not to like?

And perhaps worth travelling all the way to Herefordshire to see was Crows! The reformed and slightly altered line-up of Mick Ryan, James Patterson, Dave Bordewey and Paul Downes has been making something of a come-back in recent months, and I was eager to see them. After an opening set from an act that was, to these ears, a bit out of place with their flashy stage set and rocked up instrumentation, the boys came on stage and Mick said: “Let’s play some folk music then, shall we.” Music to my ears! And they did. They played song after excellent song, with harmonies to die for and sensitive and appropriate accompaniment - The Factory Girl, a version of The Creel, You Rambling Boys Of Pleasure, Bold Wolfe, and the absolutely fantastic Charlotte Town (Goodbye Liza Jane).

Their second set was on Sunday morning. There are not many acts that can get me out of bed in time for an 11am concert, but I wasn’t going to miss a bit of this. What makes them really special is the blending of Mick and James’ voices up front; you would go a long, long way to find two better. Dave’s harmonies are superb and he adds fiddle and mandola. And Paul Downes is an absolute magician of a musician who, although not part of Crows until recently, blends in perfectly. In a recent interview with The Living Tradition, Mick said: “We don’t expect to rival the bright young things of today...” I think they do. This is proper music by four masters of the folk scene. If you can, go see them.

One person who you are not going to get the chance to see though is Dr Sunshine (AKA Dave Hunt). After over 40 years entertaining children (including myself) at festivals all over the country, he has decided that Bromyard this year will be his last festival with Sunshine Arts. (He has been booked for every Bromyard for the last 40 years – not many artists can lay claim to that!) I found it strangely emotional seeing him work his magic with the children for the last time. It was particularly fun watching him teach a group of kids some Border Morris – not everyone would be brave enough to give kids a pile of sticks and tell them to hit each other with them! He will be difficult to replace, impossible probably, and many of us owe him a huge debt of gratitude for introducing us to the folk arts at an early age.

At a festival like Bromyard, there is always going to be things in the programme you don’t like. I would question the choice of some of the artists who were booked to perform over the weekend; some that perhaps stretch the definition of ‘folk’ a bit too far. But in general, Bromyard is one of the festivals that sticks to the more traditional end of things and, for me, that is one of its major attractions. It is big enough to give lots of variation and choice; small enough to feel intimate and friendly; folky enough to be a proper folk festival; daring enough to try new things. They’ve had 50 years to get a formula that works, and it does. Bring on the next 50!