BARNSLEY ACOUSTIC ROOTS FESTIVAL
Kingstone School, Barnsley
Fri 6th – Sun8th April 2012
Now in its third year since re-launching as the Acoustic Roots Festival at The Civic and Kingstone School in 2010; this year’s line-up is the festivals best yet. The biggest names on the bill here are Brass Monkey and Acoustic Gathering; both bands featuring some of the biggest names from British folk from the past fifty years. The re-launch saw a change of name for the folk festival; opening it up to a variety of different kinds of music including jazz, blues, rockabilly and skiffle from acts from both here and across the pond and although the forthcoming closure of Kingstone school potentially threatens the 2013 festival, the organisers have done a great job yet again of securing the venue and some great talent.
It was a busy Easter weekend in Barnsley; with not only the ‘Roots Festival but also the Barnsley History Day on Saturday and also many like music events around as per usual. Still, we got a see a plethora of great and diverse acts.
Friday evening opened with a relatively small but captivated audience being told by the compare that he was pretty sure he knew each one them by name. I’m not sure about you but to me, that shows not only a close knit community but also a festival that isn’t advertising itself outside of its own, which is a shame. With acts that would blatantly appeal to music lovers of all types and ages, it explains its small audience. When nearly forty teenagers turn up to see local folk singer Steph Shaw play an acoustic night on Easter Sunday, on a busy bank holiday in a bar where drinks are a hefty £4, it proves there is a dedicated young following out there.
Opening with a wonderful young folk musician in FRAN SMITH; this is the kind of person the festival should be advertising their selves to. Regardless, Wakefield’s Fran Smith delivers.
Apparently she has a Master’s Degree in song writing. Described as having influences such as Kate Bush and Patti Smith; for me, the opening song We Will Have No More marriages takes in elements of modern folk revival like Rusby and Robertson and fuses it with contemporary chamber pop artists such as Regina Spektor and Ben Folds and 1,035 Days is Tori Amos’ Marianne sung by Bella Hardy.
Her cover of Tim Buckley’s Song to the Siren is serene and heartfelt.
These are traditional folk songs written by a lovelorn young woman in a modern world. Fran Smith is definitely a name to look out for.
Tennessee’s husband and wife duo STACEY EARLE AND MARK STUART are fantastic; making numerous appearances over the weekend. From the off, it is obvious of the pair’s talents as guitarists; utilising harmonics and using the low-end strings as bass like percussion, the instrumentation is innovative and refreshing. The pair’s set seem to be split into two kinds of song; each type focusing on either Mark or Stacey’s strengths; and with each, the other never overshadows and compliments subtly. When Mark takes lead vocal, the tunes are tinged with Neil Young or CSNY melodies and vocals or sometimes hints of Dylan’s nasal tones. When Stacey takes lead, the songs take more of a jazz or swing direction and she has a little Stevie Nicks rasp to her voice. Spread Your Wings is a highlight for me and Mark compliments by slapping out what sound like a double bass riff on his acoustic guitar.
Taking in elements of all kinds of North American folk, blues and jazz music, Stacey and Mark are the perfect, captivating package with stories and songs to match.
THE ACOUSTIC GATHERING comprises of folk rock legends Ray Jackson (Lindisfarne), Jerry Donahue (Fairport Convention, Fotheringay) and Doug Morter (Albion band, Magna Carta). This set is all about classic song writing and storytelling rather than anything innovative. As you can imagine, the set is split into three different territories. Ray Jackson takes lead on numerous Lindisfarne songs such as Together Forever and Wake Up Little Sister which is classic folk rock with a 60’s pop sensibility. However, the band is at their best when Morter takes the lead. For me, he is the steely heart of the group, with timeless songs with political resonance such as Rifleman Henry and False Hands Across the table and at their worst when Donahue takes lead on songs such as First Encounter; with its overlong instrumentation in which his Knopfler/Marvin guitar (not roots) sound is way too long and loud in the mix, over shadowing the sounds of Jackson and Morter.
Ending the set though with songs about Newcastle Brown Ale and Kings Cross Blues, they more than make up for it and confirm why they are names that will always be mentioned at these festivals.
They also gave me new phrases for my vocabulary in ‘advanced refreshment’ and ‘socially confused.’
TARRAS on the other hand do the whole Seth Lakeman Mumford and Sons thing that is so popular right now. While not a good as either act, you cannot argue that Lou, Michael and Liam on violin, bass and percussion are solid, well studied and a real back bone to the band. There is a definate ‘indie’ influence underneath everything that they play, whether it is in the structure of the piano based songs or in the pure energy of the band and while I think that Ben Murray’s lead vocal is not that original, don’t let that take anything from how good this band are. They are a perfect band to end a day of acts on this or any stage. Tarras have a clear ability to craft great folk rock and with highlights being their original interpretations of traditional songs.
While the LONDON PHILHARMONIC SKIFFLE ORCHESTRA play perfectly good skiffle, it is undermined by the fact that their act is stooped in a baffling mix of music hall and Goons type comedy. The act, involving constipated dogs, chicken masks and bad wigs comes across as dated and nowhere near as funny as they think they are. While there are and have been many amazing comedy/music acts, LPSO aren’t one of them.
For every attempt at a decent rockabilly or skiffle number (albeit underpinned by a bad joke), they knock that on the head by leaning towards 70’s tinged, Smokie-esque numbers.
They might have appealed to some of the older members of the audience but it isn’t a great way to promote the festival to a younger audience.
It’s the Midland via Tennessee for THE TOY HEARTS. While the two Jackson sisters look like they are just about to hit the streets for a Saturday night out, their sound tells their naysayers something else altogether. Hannah on mandolin and lead vocals and Sophie on guitar are excellent musicians; especially Sophie who I think is a real backbone to the band and a fantastic guitar player.
Backed by Stewart Johnson, the girl’s dad on laptop steel and Al Gare (Imelda May) on upright bass, The Toy Hearts launch into a tirade of songs about being girls in a man’s world and drinking like the best of them; each one being perfectly crafted and played.
The first half of the set is more traditional bluesgrass fair; Tequila and Heels and Pass the Jack being highlights.
The set gets a shot in the arm when they swap instruments, plug in and play a set of full on rockabilly, with as much sass and energy as Wanda Jackson; Stutter Blues shows a real knack for penning a tune. Catch these whenever you can on their very extensive UK tour.
I had to leave the best until last. The undoubted highlight of the weekend for me was the amazing PHILLIP HENRY & HANNAH MARRTIN. Opening with the more traditional folk song, albeit it with a Celtic beat and Eastern tinged melody on the fiddle, it was only when you got to the second song you realised just how special these guys are. Every song from this point of was an understated gem.
On Death and the Lady, Phillip showcases his harmonica skills. Using a series of specially adapted harmonicas (a couple of octaves lower) and his ability to beat-box; the sounds coming from Phillip’s throat and harmonica give the impression of a full band. How one man can sound like a sampled electronic bass is beyond me and as the song speeds up for its finish, what would have already been a perfectly good folk song becomes the sound of a deathy train approaching and Hannah’s mournful violin is nearly as beautiful as The Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis.
On The Painter, the subtle off-beats of her banjo suggest a dark American gothic under a ballad of an artist killed in air raids.
On a tribute to American blues, Phillip pulls out all the stops with yelps, a blues vocal and a stream roller percussion all coming out of just his throat and when he embeds that already deep sounding harmonica into the back of his mouth, he literally spits out something that only the genius of Tom Waits would come up with. Magic.
The final closing songs Queen Gwendolen and The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn are equally epic and cinematic in tone and galloping energy reminding me of Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
They call it acoustic trance. I don’t know what to call it but it was astounding. Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin are essential.