The first week of August can only mean one thing: Sidmouth Folk Festival. Whilst I'm still a relative newbie to the folk'ing delights on offer, Alison and her family are very much regulars, having attended almost every year since she can remember. That makes it a fairly permanent fixture in our diaries (which I've mentioned before), as well as a prime opportunity to visit friends and relatives in the South West; the fact we get to do so whilst indulging in some of Britain's best traditions (read: real ale, folk sessions, festival food stalls and artisan crafts) is just an added bonus.
Last year, though, we missed out on the festival due to our fantastic trip to South Africa for my Gran's 90th. As a result, it felt fair and fitting to do folk week properly in 2019, setting aside a decent block of time and going to a bunch of different gigs. Whilst we didn't end up booking a huge number of tickets, the fact each one comes with at least one support act (that are often worth the fee themselves) means that I feel we achieved that goal quite well. Plus, the discovery of the much newer (and extremely well run) Sidmouth Fringe Festival one village over – which specialises in more modern music with a twist of folk on the side – is definitely one I'll keep an eye on in the future.
All of which being said, here's a full list and mini reviews of each of the artists that we had the pleasure of seeing. Those in bold were headliners, the rest were support acts, but they were all absolutely terrific. A really great mix of old and new, instrumental and vocal, styles and nationalities; in other words, a proper Sidmouth experience.
The Gigs, Jigs and Reels of 2019
Hannah Rarity: A wonderful Scots singer, mainly covering old traditional lowland (and some highland) songs. She's got a beautiful voice and a great stage presence, plus it's a rare treat to hear Scots language on a stage; as an English speaker (especially one familiar with at least some Scots words and phrases), it meant I could follow the gist of the lyrics pretty well but still benefit from the lyrical nature of the Gaelic tongues to some degree. Alison was particularly taken so she became the first of many CD purchases throughout the week.
The Spooky Men's Chorale: Something of a Sidmouth institution at this point, there are few bands whose merchandise is as routinely found throughout the many pubs, food stands and side streets during Folk Week. As a result, we found ourselves alongside Alison's parents and a couple of their friends in an entirely sold out Ham marquee; no mean feat, even for a Saturday headliner! Whilst I had very little idea what to expect, apart from very technically competent male harmonies, I can happily say the Spookies fully delivered. A frankly gigantic ensemble of around 12-15 men, plus the "Spookie Meister" (half conductor, half MC) himself, all Australian and all with a wicked sense of wit and comedic timing, created a set of equal parts Minchin-meets-Monty-Python skits with musical comedy and incredibly beautiful, sonorous melodies from all manner of international folk traditions. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at clouds or hear of taekwondo in the same way again, and fully accept that no evening out will ever feel quite complete without a Georgian section! Superbly sharp and soulful.
The Young' Uns: Not your average gig, even for a folk festival, the singularly titled Ballad of Johnny Longstaff is a show that I would urge anyone to try and see whilst it completes a national tour. Alison has been a fan of the north-eastern trio since they appeared on a BBC Folk Show album a few years ago, so they were a quick lock-in when we were scanning through this year's lineup. As a band, the Young'uns have a habit of finding modern stories and putting them to folk tunes, which makes their albums a real delight to listen to, with each song as likely to tell a tale of the 21st century as they are the 14th. Their latest album, though, is a little more unusual, in that it attempts to chronicle the early years of a single individual (also from the north-east) who led a particularly incredible life. The titular Johnny Longstaff died in 2000, several years before the band first heard of him, but had already inspired two songs on their previous album and the group have been working on the full ballad for quite some time, using archival recordings from the Imperial War Museum as well as interviews with his relatives and direct family.
All of that put together creates a fascinating show that intermixes folk ballads – performed by the three men in harmony with the occasional instrumental accompaniment – with short musical skits, spoken historical narratives, and audio clips from Johnny himself telling his story in his own words. These are complimented with a fully designed set and video projection displaying newspaper articles, short documentary clips, and various other images and film segments. Combined, these tell the tale of a man who took part in the Hunger Marches, fought homegrown fascism at Cable Street, helped promote union movements and Young Labour in London between the Wars, and who volunteered (illegally) to fight against Franco in Spain as part of the International Brigade. Johnny even met Churchill mere months before Britain declared war on Germany, and (of course) signed up himself, fighting in El Alamein and Italy during WW2 (and surviving the lot). With that much history, you can easily see how a story about a stranger's father can turn into a full album and stage show!
The songs themselves were beautiful, though hearing the awful conditions Johnny and his friends had to endure during the Spanish Civil War, and even back at home in a pre-War Britain that I feel is so often romanticised, did leave me driven to rage and tears in equal parts throughout. If nothing else, the show feels far too timely when compared with the current newspaper headlines, which makes it just that much more important that it is heard. Again, if you have a chance (even the smallest one) of seeing The Ballad of Johnny Longstaff I'd urge you to take it, but if not I believe the album can be found in most places online.
Lisa O'Neill: An "up and coming" Irish folk singer/songwriter with a very unique sound. She performed a mixture of old songs and her own, modern folk tunes, with accompaniment for most. Her voice is certainly powerful and quite enthralling to listen to, and some of her traditional songs were stunning (particularly one she learnt from a famous traveller woman), but her own stuff felt only part finished. The lyrics could be clever, but frequently repeated and rarely seemed to lead anywhere; it was like each track was the start of a story which drew you in, only to abruptly end 🤷
Flook: Our only fully instrumental band (which surprises me to write, actually), Flook have been around for a bit and I can fully understand why. A guitarist, an utterly incredible percussionist playing the Irish bodhrán (mind blowingly well), a flutist who occasionally picked up the accordion, and the best tin whistle player I think I've ever seen; basically a very talented lot. Music is fast, lots of jigs and reels, quickly switching between tunes without missing a beat and completely fluid as a result; I'll definitely be listening to the new album (Ancora) a fair bit at work, though failed to pick it up at the gig, which I definitely regret.
Alice Jones: She had her own main gig earlier in the week, so it was fun to see her supporting at another time; she's also clearly a Sidmouth stalwart, both performing at the festival and helping steward behind the scenes, which meant for a lot of fun practical jokes and gags between her and the tech crew. Her actual performance was good fun and a pleasant warm up; she's got a great voice and tended to accompany herself on piano, which worked well but did give it a more pop-folk vibe at times. Oh, and her catsuit choices are on point *chef kiss*.
Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys: My main pick of the true folk festival but probably the least inspiring of the gigs we went to. Sam Kelly and co. were a perfectly competent pop-folk group in the vein of Mumford and Sons, but with clearer true-folk roots. The fact that half the band first met whilst forming a Cornish language folk group is testimony to that last point enough, as is their particular choice of lyric/melody composition, but they were at their best when digging deep into more traditional reels and letting the clearly incredibly talented fiddle and accordion players loose. At those moments, the band shone, but these were rarities rather than mainstays, which was a shame. It was also fun trying to guess what one band member was going to play next, as he jumped between a range of fiddles, violas, guitars, bouzoukis, and more. Decent but could be amazing if they choose to veer back towards the dancey rhythm that makes folk really go off and away from the more easy listening pop-folk sounds they seem to prefer.
Gypsy Kings (Wed): These were the first of three effectively "warm up" acts for our only evening at Sidmouth Fringe and I can't say we paid them all that much attention, instead preferring to explore the new venue and chill on the hay bales outside in the evening warmth. They certainly sounded pleasant enough, and they were the only band the whole week who had vinyl for sale (beautifully designed too), but otherwise can't really pass judgement.
Young Waters (Wed): By band two we'd recovered from the walk up from Sidmouth along the coast path and decided to head into the bar/barn where they were actually performing, which turned out to be a fantastic decision. Young Waters call themselves "nu-folk"; I'd call them indie, but in the sense of late 90s bands like Belle & Sebastien rather than the mid-00s "revival" like The Kooks or Razorlight. They definitely have a fair bit of alt-j mixed in there too, and from what we could tell their second album could be something special. They performed a really tight, interesting set, playing off the joint (and equally quirky) male/female lead vocalists with a mixture of more traditional fiddle, viola and double bass alongside modern guitar and synth/drum machine hooks. I loved it and made our third trip to the merch tent as soon as their set was done to pick up their first album; having played that in the car since I definitely feel like their newer stuff (which is most of what they played) is much stronger, but it's still a fun listen. One to definitely watch.
Charli White (Wed): A rock group with very competent vocals (especially considering her age) and a super talented guitar player that were a little let down by a mildly irritating stage persona ("I don't think there's really anything to say about this song, so I'm just going to play it. Well, we're just going to play it. laughs inanely into mic.") and a fairly by-the-numbers set list. Far from awful and definitely got a lot of love from the crowd, but ultimately not really our kind of music, so we ducked out after a couple of tracks to catch the sunset.
The Undercover Hippy (Wed): The main event for my Sidmouth picks and the Fringe event itself, and I'd say quite a steal for them to get to perform considering the relatively tiny venue and almost non-existent marketing. I've been a fan since Spotify recommended a track of his several years ago, but he's one of those artists who consistently picks the worst dates for us to get to, so despite playing near both Taunton and London quite regularly we've never been able to go to a gig. As a result, when we found out he was playing at Sidmouth whilst we were down, and at only £3 entry price, it was a no-brainer. Luckily, they completely lived up to expectations and I now definitely want to 1) listen to their new album on repeat for a week or so, and 2) see them at a full-fat gig in London at some point.
The music was a little more reggae than I was anticipating (probably due to downsizing the band to fit the venue) but lively, energetic and made the whole room bounce. Lyrics are the main strong point, with a lot of politically-charged messaging, and live the vocal quality was superb but the main singer (the Hippy himself) also managed to bring a great level of humour and personality to the set. New songs were catchy and clever, older ones were fantastic to hear live, and being stood less than two metres from the band ensured a cracking vibe. Loved it, and a real shame that we had to run to catch a cab just as the encore started (but that's a story for another post).