“Fabulous music”, “beautiful location”, “amazing festival”… Just a few of the brief feedback responses to the 15th Gate To Southwell Festival held in tropical Kirklington, Nottinghamshire last weekend.
With well over 50 acts performing across four stages, for four days of high quality folk roots and acoustic music plus excellent kids and family entertainment, folk dancing, craft tents, tasty food, community spirit in abundance and plenty of fresh water, cider, beer and much-needed ice cream. “It’s definitely been one of our best yet,” declared Festival Director Mike Kirrage. “Amazing performers, great support from festival goers from Nottinghamshire and far beyond, and such brilliant weather. Lots of Kirklington people came along and enjoyed the fun. Seeing people appreciate the music and everything else on offer makes it all worthwhile.
“A tremendous amount of hard work throughout the year culminates in a successful event like this. We’d like to thank all our stewards, site crew, traders, contractors, first aid and security as well as so many talented artists. And particularly our landowners and our main sponsors Lowdhams. We’re already looking forward to the 16th festival in July 2023.
"We do though have to apologise to the many people left for too long in the heat on Saturday afternoon, when our shuttle bus driver got lost. We'll be improving things to make sure we sort out things off-site much more quickly next year".
The action started last Thursday with a well-attended Blues Night which saw star British guitarist Ian Siegal perform alongside the powerful and impressive Manchester blues vocalist Kyla Brox and the highly-entertaining boogie woogie maestro Daniel Smith & His Blues Band. (Siegal also played an excellent gospel folk blues set on Friday afternoon – arguably his cover of Stephen Foster’s 1854 parlour song ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ was among the best pieces of cultural commentary aired during the festival - while Daniel Smith wowed the crowds with boogie woogie bar-room piano sessions and workshops across the weekend.)
Thursday also presented an inspiring local artists’ showcase featuring singer-songwriter Robby Singh, fine guitar skills from Ollerton teenager Liam Johnson, well-crafted songs from Malc Slater & Rhydian Hapgood, the charismatic tradfolk-meets-political-punk of Paul Carbuncle, strong country music by The Dolby Gang, blues-meets-soul-meets-indie cover versions by The Boutones. a stunning American roots folk and blues performance from Phil Ashmore & The Unit Five and much much more. Plenty of remarkable talent from the festival’s surrounding villages and towns.
As the temperature kept rising, Friday provided wild entertainment with Hebridean headliners Peat & Diesel bringing their rousing, Celtic, sell-out guitar, drums and accordion stage show to Southwell. Cracking live versions of ‘Western Isles’, ‘Brandy In The Airidh’ and their cover of ‘Dirty Old Town’ - not forgetting Bodie’s gravelly and bizarre cover versions of ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight’) and ‘Here Comes The Rain’ - inspired much manic dancing in the folk moshpit.
Another Friday highlight was The Trials of Cato, one of the most original and vital trios on the UK circuit; ‘Tom Paine’s Bones’, ‘Gloria’ and ‘Bedlam Boys” are fine examples of their clever and harmonious talents . But I’m not sure their nickname ‘The Sex Pistols of Folk” really does them justice. Perhaps it should have been applied to the rousing folk punk of Black Water County, the Bournemouth collective who are clearly going from strength to strength. Their 2020 ‘Comedies & Tragedies’ is a fine follow-up to ‘Taking Chances’. Also worth mentioning were the jumping jive of Louis Louis Louis, the beautiful Nick Drake overtones of Chris Brain and the lovely at-one-with-nature songs and shruti box playing of Lauren South.
There was a glorious mix of acoustic music on Friday’s Folk Stage starting with Helian from Leeds University, who celebrated their festival appearance with a lovely lunchtime performance followed by the news they’d all just graduated. They were followed by the addictive Americana of Fellow Pynins, an award-winning duo who deliver harmonious vocals, songs anchored in the balladry tradition over banjo, bouzouki, mandolin and banjo, and stories about their Oregon backwood origins. But star of the folk show had to be the sweet-voiced singer-songwriter Katherine Priddy, recently described by the great Richard Thompson as “The best thing I’ve heard all year.” Performing songs from her acclaimed debut album ‘The Eternal Rocks Beneath’, she treads in the hallowed English footsteps of female singer-songwriters from Laura Marling back to Sandy Denny.
Southwell’s favourite Canadians, Quebec folk heroes Le Vent Du Nord went down an absolute storm headlining on Saturday night; their joyous third return celebrated their 20th anniversary by delivering bouncy dance tunes, five-part vocals and boundless joie de vivre. Their recent album ’20 Printemps’ is a Quebecois classic. Also high on Saturday’s bill were those riotous and inclusive eight-piece folk rockers, Merry Hell, who seemed to bring along a mighty squadron of fans and camp followers to do the necessary Hellish actions (particularly for ‘Come On England!’). The infectiously danceable top ceilidh band Blackbeard’s Tea Party also got everyone and anyone dancing at the late Saturday night ceilidh while earlier there was the innovative folk-electronica from India Electric Company, two guys who produced brilliant and complex sounds. Also deserving attention were the classy female singer-songwriting duo While & Matthews; over 25 years they’ve played 2500 gigs and appeared on 100 albums. Respect.
Gate To Southwell Festival has always had a reputation for promoting youthful roots and acoustic talent and some of the acts on Saturday definitely delivered the goods. Birmingham’s Filkin’s Ensemble were totally excellent in various formations across the weekend – they include the Seth Bye Trio, Thorpe & Morrison and Filkin’s Drift! - starring on both the folk stage then the main stage, and also running an inspirational workshop and starring at The Final Whistle pub. And they danced their socks off during the ceilidhs, as did Helian.
Fritillaries (the duo formerly known as Rainy Day Woman) were incredibly well received on the Folk Stage and also The Hearty Goodfellow pub in Southwell; a fine blend of English folk and Appalachian Americana, their eponymous debut album confirms the special talents they have. And Honey And The Bear well deserve a mention for their dynamic performances. Steeped in Suffolk folklore, Jon and Lucy Hart’s songwriting is the perfect platform for their beautiful blend of relevant songs and emotional harmonies.
Elsewhere on Saturday, GTSF welcomed back that fine British troubadour Pete Morton, showcasing cracking songs from his six solo albums and work with Urban Folk; so uplifting to have him performing songs from his acclaimed 2020 ‘Golden Thread’ album.
Perhaps the festival would now seem incomplete without the distinctive nomadic and comedic appearance of Mike and Katie West aka Truckstop Honeymoon. Weirdly warm and great entertainers, they remain a force of middle American nature delivering unique songs such as ‘She Wants To Be French’, ‘Waffle House Booth’ and their powerfully political anti-gun anthem ‘Got No Use’. Moving, funny and simply brilliant.
And Saturday also witnessed fine performances from “Southwell’s own Truckstop Honeymoon”, Huson-Whyte – ‘Straw Bale Stand-off’ perfectly summed up the perils of festival parenting – and also the multi-talented Greg Russell, both solo and in tandem with Danny Pedler performing ‘Field & Dyke’. Special mention too for festival favourites Winter Wilson – let’s hope Kip and Dave’s ‘The Passing Of The Storm’ LP proves timely and true for us all – and the always “inventive and thrilling” (RnR magazine) Jacob & Drinkwater. (So great to see Lukas Drinkwater’s post Southwell Festival verdict: “A life-affirming long weekend in a field…feeling like a molten blob of joy right now.”)
It’s well over a decade since the mighty John Martyn died but thankfully his spirit lives on in many young contemporary folk singer-songwriters. Indeed Martyn’s ‘Sunshine’s Better’ would have been the perfect soundtrack to the festival. Although GTSF 2022 was denied the presence of one of Martyn’s fellow travellers due to Covid, the brilliant singer-songwriter John Smith, his last -minute replacement Rory Butler did a great job filling Smith’s shoes. An Edinburgh lad who’s been compared to both Jackson Browne and Nick Drake too, he showcased his new ‘Carefree’ EP, paid respect to John Smith and also did a beautiful tribute to Martyn. As did the singer-songwriter guitarist Katie Spencer from Hull, clearly inspired by Joni Mitchell, her recently-deceased mentor Michael Chapman and also James Taylor too. Alongside songs from her ‘The Edge of the Land’ album she played a wonderful jazzy version of John Martyn’s ‘Small Hours’ as an encore.
Following the upbeat, colourful and fiesta-filled activities of Saturday - with morris sides dancing and processing on the streets of Southwell, well-received pub gigs, top comedy from the likes of The Young’uns David Eagle and Andrew Bird, interactive storytelling from Mark Frazer and top-quality kids entertainment from James The Jester (from Chester), Paul Carbuncle and Keith Donnelly - Sunday felt like a much more laid back day at the festival site. As the temperatures rose and the crowds gathered again, audiences were treated to the eclectic and diverse sounds of Dervish, Jez Lowe & Steve Tilston, Brighton’s Noble Jacks, Southwell’s own songstress Becky Syson and the Hayseed Dixie-style revivalist Americana bluegrass of Big Red & The Grinners.
Irish legends Dervish showcased some of the classic traditional songs from their ‘Great Irish Songbook’ with Cathy Jordan again proving an entertaining and powerful frontwoman. Together the united front of Jez Lowe & Steve Tilston felt like a special treat. They both played beautifully solo over the weekend but there’s a special chemistry to their combined creations as was revealed on 2016’s ‘The Janus Game’. Meanwhile Noble Jacks are rising stars of the indie folk world, a fiddle-fuelled alt-pop act who’ve already graced bigger stages at Glastonbury and the Isle of Wight and here had even the most reluctant GTSF punters up and shaking tail feathers. Special mention too for the highly entertaining Nottingham Youth Jazz Orchestra who got the Sunday party started with an uplifting set on the main stage.
Nearly last but definitely not least The Spooky Men’s Chorale must be one of the most extraordinary acts to visit Southwell during the festival’s 15 year long history. Their funny and moving performance stretched from the totally ridiculous Queen cover ‘Rhapsody in Bluegrass’ through to beautiful renditions of Tom Waits’ ‘Picture In A Frame’ and Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Crossing The Bar’ followed by some incredibly moving and timely Ukrainian folk songs such as ‘Plyve Kacha’. There’s no one like them; they definitely are the men.
And so Gate To Southwell came to a fitting conclusion. The sun set over the festival fields and preparations will soon begin again for the 16th festival in early July 2023. We can hardly wait.
Photo credits: Alan Beastall, Phil Richards & Jim Connolly Photography.