Saturday at Gate To Southwell was something of a magical mystery tour, starting at lunchtime in Ottawa with the brilliant Jessica Pearson & The East Wind – their set included love songs to Canada, Trevor Lubin’s cool banjo on ‘Applejack’ and a moving a capella song about the last man to be hanged in Mountjoy Dublin in 1954 - and ending in the early hours of Sunday with madly enjoyable dance sessions led by York’s Blackbeard’s Tea Party and the infectious bluegrass-meets-Irish-meets Americana CeltGrass of JigJam*. The Tea Party look like they’ve burgled the ‘70s Glam Rock section of the costume department (spandex, headbands, silver hot pants etc) but definitely know how to get a 21st Century festival audience going, particularly on songs like ‘Landlord’ and ‘Chicken On A Raft’. Meanwhile JigJam from County Offaly proved exactly why they’re already stars on the Irish American circuit. (Special mention should go to the Kirrage family and friends for whirling like dervishes under extremely intoxicating musical influences.)
Along the way there was Calan, the young four-piece Welsh band, who combine accordion, bagpipes, harp and guitar to mix traditional sounds with modern day folk tales; subject matter included the man who decided to remain single because he found Welsh women scary and the time friends of the band were arrested and deported from the USA. I guess it made a nice change from murder ballads. More quiet, but equally affecting, the thoughtful folk songs of Nancy Kerr warmed the afternoon (a brand new track ‘Fatima’s Lady Macbeth’ about diversity and inclusivity, suggesting “the hero of Stratford would surely approve”, sounded special) and the sweet harmonies of Bird In The Belly featuring Hickory Signals brought appreciative applause from more sedentary audiences.
It was great to have the sharp-suited Gordie ‘Crazy Legs’ MacKeeman & His Rhythm Boys back in Southwell, complete with his trademark pork pie hat and his locker full of tap-dancing-while-fiddling-behind-back trickery. Always great visual entertainers, this four piece from Prince Edward Island Canada - who mix up downhome country with rockabilly, Cajun rock and bluegrass - provoked admiration and rapturous clap-alongs on both the Folk Stage and in the Big Top, mainly performing songs from the strong new ‘Dreamland’ album.
Big Top headliners Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys (featuring the ubiquitous Ciaran Algar) shape up like a boy band but prove through their musicianship, songwriting, humour and showmanship why they’ve grown into major stars on the festival circuit. Kelly himself had already delivered a beautiful duet set with Nottingham’s Ruth Notman, largely drawn from this year’s highly-acclaimed ‘Changeable Heart’ collection. With the Lost Boys, he showcased songs from the ‘Pretty Peggy’ album (including ‘The Shining Ship’) plus tracks from his outstanding solo debut such as ‘Jolly Waggoners’. He’s got that rare ability to make folk music sound cool and relevant, while reclaiming other genres of music (eg. ‘Sultans of Swing’) as folk songs.
Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar have become Southwell festival favourites over the years and once again they revealed themselves as a highly entertaining and extremely versatile double act on the Folk Stage and later in the Big Top. (Last year’s ‘Utopia & Wasteland’ collection remains once of the best young folk releases in recent years.) In fact, Greg was also one of many highlights in the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival celebration in the afternoon. In front of a top quality house band, the part-time BBC Radio Sheffield DJ paid tribute to one of the city’s finest sons, Joe Cocker with ‘A Little Help From My Friends’. Equally impressive was Amy Kakoura’s powerful vocal take on Janis Joplin and SYA from Holland’s beautiful version of Crosby Stills & Nash’s ‘Helplessly Hoping’, while the ever-excellent Joshua Cook stole the show as Jimi Hendrix with ‘Star Spangled Banner’ and ‘Purple Haze’. Peace, love and great music. Yes, far out man.
Len Brown 2019