Leaving thoughts on Orkney Folk Festival

On the MV Hamnavoe, sailing back from Orkney to Scrabster, surrounded by performers and sessioneers, some unreasonably lively considering their sleepless night (yes you Jeana Leslie), others slumped and dozing (The Hot Seats). A most excellent send-off, with a pair of pipers on the dock, a blue sky over sunny Stromness, cheers and waves all around.

Orkney Folk Festival is an EVENT… something magical about the combination of deep-rooted Orkney musicians, a select few visiting performers who commit to the event for the whole long-weekend, and a welcoming local community. The sessions seem great; many – like our Glaswegian hostel-mates – don’t bother with ticketed events at all, just drink and play and wish (granted) for a chance to play a few tunes with Sharon Shannon on the pier outside the Ferry Inn. If I have one personal regret about this marvellous weekend, it’s that being a non musician puts one in a passive role. Far better to be in the gang of musicians.

Brown’s hostel is just steps from the Town Hall and the pub sessions, and having a nice comfy room and kitchen made for a lovely stay.

The Gathering at OFF 2014

(c) Sean Purser 2014

Personal highlight was The Gathering, an afternoon concert by a massed Orkney all-star band led by the admirable Douglas Montgomery of saltfishforty. Apart from the thrill of hearing twenty fiddles burning into some gorgeous Orcadian tunes, there’s the implicit bond between the generations, from the elders like ‘Moothie player’ Billy Jolly through the mature stalwarts of The Chair and saltfishforty, to the young generation who have upped and gone away to take advantage of the folk degree course in Glasgow, but return home for the festival and are welcomed back into the community.  In folk there’s a lot of talk about The Tradition but here the tunes and techniques are genuinely passed between generations. You might think that would lead to stagnation, but there is no apparent resistance to innovation in harmony and rhythm.

But maybe I’m romanticising. So thought the charming young barman at the Stromness Hotel, who gave me a that’s-what-you-think look when I expressed admiration for the Orkney community.

I could have done without big name visitor Seth Lakeman, but it was great to hear Sharon Shannon. Findlay Napier from Glasgow writes and sings great songs, very much in his own voice. And he took our snoozing at the first night song session in good humour. Fara, the Kirkwall Grammar girls gone to Glasgow, are bursting with energy and enthusiasm and skill in playing and arranging. The Nordic Fiddlers Bloc have some stunning settings of Shetland, Norwegian and Swedish tunes and original compositions.

As you can tell, we love spending time in Orkney and hope to return soon.


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JM’s Best Album of the Noughties

Picking the Jordan-Maynard Organisation’s favourite album of the decade has not been easy. After attempting a vote which was longer and more complicated than the Afghan elections, I have decided that it would be easier if everyone just picked a few of their own personal favourites. Hopefully everyone will do so over the next few weeks.

So here is the longlist, in no particular order:

The Lark Descending (Chris Wood)
Rough Music (Eliza Carthy)
Bellow (Spiers & Boden)
Vagabond (Spiers & Boden)
Krulle Bol (This is the Kit)
White Chalk (PJ Harvey)
Back to Black (Amy Winehouse)
Graduation (Kanye West)
Mind Body Soul (Joss Stone)
The Seldom Seen Kid (Elbow)
19 (Adele)
Hope (Foy Vance)
Begin to Hope (Regina Spektor)
KC Rules OK (King Creosote)
Black Water (Kris Drever)
Bari (Ojos de Brujo)
A Tale of Two Cities (Mr Hudson & the Library)
Tired of Hanging Around (The Zutons)
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not ( The Arctic Monkeys)
Arc Light (Lau)
Night Falls Over Kortedala (Jens Lekman)
Eye to the Telescope (KT Tunstall)
Farrar (Duncan Chisholm)
Keep Your Silver Shined (Devon Sproule)
The Bairns (Rachael Unthank & The Winterset)
Sunny Side Up (Paolo Nutini)
Franz Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand)
O (Damien Rice)

It should also be noted that Flook’ ‘Flatfish’ narrowly missed out on a place as it was released in 1999.

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I think this probably makes the entire thing pointless, although it could be partly because Tom and I have become more interested in music over the past decade.


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Go Down Easy, John Martyn

John Martyn created a music that was all his own: fitting his personality like a pair of worn-in shoes; slavishly-imitated but never matched. In the ramshackle recent years his physical deterioration was sad to watch but the passion in his music never dimmed. Tonight, I’ll remember when, with Danny Thompson, he transfixed us in a tent in a rainy field in Cambridge, and most of all this glorious clip. Stick with it for the last ten seconds. Sheer joy in music-making.


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Appearing Now at the Underachievers Stage

KC rules OKThe WOMUD festival this year featured a new ‘Under a Tree’ stage. With my innate ability to mis-hear public announcements (does anyone else hear that message in Sainsbury’s: “cleaner to aisle 8 for a wet spinach”) this filtered through to me as the ‘Underachievers Stage’. This would make such a perfect venue for many of the great pleasures of our musical lives, we have mentally been booking artists ever since.

First to sign were Pooka, a storm at WOMAD 1993 in Carlyon Bay (a perfect beachside location now sadly lost to development), they signed a big record deal with WEA but never made any waves and folded a few years back. Their masterpiece second album Spinning is mostly available in Amazon’s ‘used and new’ listings.

We are keeping a slot open for Katell Keineg, also with a big WEA album under her belt, the wonderful Jet, and still plugging away but willfully reclusive now. Look out for occasional appearances in tiny London venues such as the 12 Bar Club.

Negotiations are underway for a surprise Friday headliner slot. I can’t say too much, but babysitters have been arranged for Harriett Wheeler and David Gavurin.

But I feel we have found our Saturday night headliner for the Underachievers Stage. We spent Friday night auditioning him at the Joiners in Southampton, and I don’t think we could ever hope to find a better fit for the ethos we are cultivating: sheer talent held back by unwillingness to conform. For almost twenty years he has been home-producing CDs from a base in the little seaside town of Anstruther, Fife, at the same time nurturing an enviable roster of local artists; the Fence Collective. As befits the monarch of Fence, he is King Creosote. Like a shy hedgehog coming out of cover for a plate of food, he is getting out a little more these days. In 2005 he cut KC Rules OK a kind of Greatest Hits album of songs from his notebook, better recorded and better promoted, it’s gorgeous. There are sad songs and very sad songs and some with a modest hint of optimism, all sung in his warbly, tenor, honest, beautiful Fife accent. My favourite is an unrequited ditty that goes like this:

i invested it all; you threw in a dime. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
i ran half marathons and you ran a mile. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
you gave up on easter for your vegan chums. it’s not good enough.
you gave up on cigars and still you smoke like a lum. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
i gave up on my liver trying to keep up. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.
i gave up half of my heart and you gave a half-hearted shrug. it’s not good enough. it’s not good enough.

King Creosote’s new album Bombshell came out last week, and it promises to be a breakthrough of sorts. As the boys boasted on Friday, it entered the charts at number 71. I’m eagerly awaiting my copy, having obsessed over KC Rules OK for the whole weekend. I wish KC every success in the world, while hoping that he doesn’t get too big for the Underachievers. His song 6-7-8 could be our anthem:

no i never was going to be first out of the stalls
no i never was going to be 6-7-8 feet tall
no i never was going to be signed up big
no i never was going to be dressing up slick
but at the back of my mind i was always hoping i might just get by.


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The Perfumed Garden

I’ve alluded previously to my great debt to John Peel. For several years in my teens I listened with religious devotion to Peel’s show. Finger poised on the pause button of my reel-to-reel, I recorded anything that piqued my interest. These were the days when brilliant new singles from likes of The Cure, Buzzcocks, Jam, Undertones and Specials seemed to emerge each week. Typically though, it was the mavericks who inspired me. Obsessions with Captain Beefheart, Ry Cooder, Van Morrison, Loudon Wainwright, Black Uhuru and Misty in Roots were initiated by Peel’s shows. I was infected with Peel’s affection for great soul singers: Millie Jackson, Bettye Lavette, and ‘Starting All Over Again’ by Mel & Tim, which JP played on his 40th birthday show. I was first exposed to African music, via Pablo’s ‘Bo M’banda'; in our ignorance we were satisfied with the generic description, African, years before we learned the subtleties of Malian, Zimbabwean or, in this case, Zairean pop.

Now I find a contingent of Peel obsessives are blogging the praises of the great man. The John Peel Tape & File Project, and right place, right time, wrong speed are both publishing whole shows from private collections. The Perfumed Garden runs a complete Peel session each week.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off the reel-to-reel.


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Make Music! with Chris Redmond

Every year during the half-term holidays about this time I go to the Tower Arts Centre to do a workshop. Sometimes it has been art and crafts, drama or singing but this year and two years ago (2004) I went to the Make Music! workshop with Chris Redmond. The aim is to write and record or perform a song. But, with so many different ideas and styles our songs always end up a little strange. In 2004 we made a song called No Driving Tonight and this year we made a song about evil hamsters trying to take over the world.

It is the classic story of evil hamsters trying to invade but we fight back by spraying white power on monkeys’ heads to make them fly and the monkeys round up the hamsters. The hamsters think they will be made to suffer but instead the monkeys take them to a rock concert where our band plays and the hamsters realise that Earth isn’t so bad after all because it has rock music and hamsters and humans live in peace together.

There isn’t really a storyline to ‘No Driving’ but it is almost as strange.

Hear them here:

No Driving Tonight

Evil Hamsters


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Beautiful Days – like festivals used to be’

Beautiful Days photosThis year our summer tour took in Beautiful Days for the first time. This festival has been widely described as “like festivals used to be”. I think that phrase is meant to distinguish Beautiful Days from the sort of festival that’s sponsored by makers of lager and mobile ‘phone networks, but it must have been created by a twenty-something marketing director. I remember how festivals used to be, and they weren’t like this.

If you’ve ever seen the film of Woodstock, the archetype for later festivals, you’ll remember no food, no toilets, no information, a sea of mud, bands turning up a day late or not at all, playing on a single stage with terrible PA, interminable waits between acts, and some nasty thuggery. Contrast this with Beautiful Days:

  • delicious food

    In the festivals of my youth, you could either stand in an endless queue to be fleeced by the chicken ‘n’ chips vendor or the same for the hot dog vendor. At Beautiful Days there was a choice of tasty wholesome meals from some of the best festival caterers.

  • ample clean toilets

    The Beatiful Days toilet fairies were constantly doing the rounds, keeping the facilities clean, fresh and well-stocked with paper.

  • child-friendly

    At the festivals of old there were no children. Beautiful Days had a happy and mostly-free area dedicated to making sure the children had a good time too.

  • more music

    As a paid-up old fogey, I couldn’t allow that the music now is better. But there is just so much more of it. Beautiful Days offered two main stages and a dance tent, all of which ran more or less to time, and the turnarounds between the acts were effectively managed. And we did see some great performances, my highlights being Bellowhead, the Eliza Carthy Band, Billy Bragg with the acoustic Blokes (thanks for Levi Stubbs’ Tears), and my first experience of Jill Sobule.The nightly showing of Freeborn John, which allowed members of The Levellers to dress up as cavaliers, and involved the English Civil War Society in the gratuitous firing of muskets, was a “concept”, and thus unquestionably ’70s. And what a glorious show it was, too. Apparently a recording is promised. More throwbacks like this, please.

Beautiful Days photosBut yes, there were some reminders of how festivals used to be:

  • traffic jams

    Although Glastonbury now knows how to get 120,000 people onto the site in the manner of a military landing, a mere 10,000 of us spent two hours stationary in a traffic queue waiting to reach the Beautiful Days gate. Very nostalgic.

  • security thugs

    We’d already half-erected our tent when a short bald muscly man in uniform with walkie-talkie zoomed up self-importantly on a quad-bike and told us in the choicest language to move on, because our chosen spot was reserved for the security team. Not a very nice man, but I suspect he might have been worse if I hadn’t managed to suppress the urge to giggle at his pompousness.


The rest of our Beautiful Days photos are here.


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Festival Food Awards 2005

It’s not only the music that takes us out on the festival circuit every summer; we also go for the food. Here are some of our favourites:

  1. Leon Lewis
    Leon LewisLeon is peerless as a festival caterer, and has been top of our list since we first encoutered him at WOMAD in 1991. Every time I sit down to eat a meal from Leon’s, someone will come up and ask for directions to the stall where I bought it. A former Maths teacher, Leon is nearly always on the stall in person, earnestly explaining each of the dishes. At Leon’s you get a substantial meal of gourmet veggie food, made from high-quality ingredients and prepared with skill and attention to detail. His signature dish is the Leonese Plateful, a meze platter of tasty Lebanese delicacies.

The only concessions to outside catering on this stall are the disposable plates and cutlery, but never the food. Actually Leon has been known to go one step further towards the environmental goal and serve the food on edible (potato) plates.

Leon has tried a few sites at Glastonbury, but seems to have settled on the north side of the Jazz-World field, echoing his position to the side of the open-air stage at WOMAD Rivermead. Apparently he also has a devout following at Cropredy.

  • Queen Delilah
    Queen Delilah serves excellent and good-value salads. They have tasty black-eye bean burgers too, but the salads are so good they make a nice lunch on their own. Queen Delilah is a regular at Glastonbury on the east side of main route which divides the Avalon and Greenpeace fields, next door to the Manic Organic. I don’t know anything about them, but they have nice friendly women serving up the food.

 

Manic Organic (photo by Martin Lucas-Smith)

 

  • Manic Organic
    The Manics are a festival institution. A scarily large-scale organisation, a cast of what seems to be hundreds of well-drilled Antipodeans work in and behind their bedouin-style tent, and can process a queue like a military operation. The food is consistently good, a hearty plateful of Vegetable Daal or Chana and Potato Curry being just the thing on a cool evening.

 

Manic Organic have an established site on the main path through the green fields, as it passes between the Avalon and Greenpeace fields. Also to be found at WOMAD, Beautiful Days, Big Green Gathering, …

  • Pizza Tabun
    Pizza TabunJust as you thought festival pizza was always going to be unpleasant greasy stuff best ignored, along comes the Pizza Tabun. Not a stall to visit in a hurry, because each pizza is rolled from fresh dough, topped to your specification and cooked to order in their special pizza oven. But the tent is a charming place to wait, with its comfy cushions and low tables. Unlike the previous entries, this one is also loved by the junior festival-goers, both for the pizza and the chocolate brownies. And the proprietor is a lovely man, whose manners belie his Steven Berkoff lookalike appearance.

 

We first tried Pizza Tabun at the Larmer Tree festival. We’ve also found them at Glastonbury (in the Avalon field just round the corner from the Tiny Tea Tent), Beautiful Days, and the Big Green Gathering.

  • Yeo Valley
    The Yeo Valley stall sells the same stuff you can buy in your local supermarket; delicious organic yoghurts from a Somerset dairy farm. But while most producers hike up the price for the captive audience, Yeo Valley sell big pots of yoghurt at a discount price of ‘1, which makes them one of Glastonbury’s best bargains. They do frozen yoghurt too.The stall is down in Babylon in the F market area; you’ll pass it as you walk between the Pyramid and the Other Stage.

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2005 Music Awards

With two four-hour drives a week during the latter part of this year, I’ve had plenty of time to listen to music. 5 am at Sutton Scotney can be a surprisingly evocative time and place, and some of the most engrossing listens have with been older material that seems to suit the dark, early mornings. Laura Nyro’s 1970 Christmas and the Beads of Sweat springs to mind (Caroline doesn’t allow me to listen to that one in the house) and lately some vintage Van Morrison live recordings courtesy of EzTorrent. But, to ward off accusations of old fart-dom, it seems more appropriate to restrict the annual recommendations to music from the present millennium.


Eliza Carthy Rough Music.

On a first listen this is less attention-grabbing than Eliza’s previous release, Anglicana. But having seen several of The Ratcatcher’s flabbergasting virtuoso live performances this year, you realise that it captures a band at the peak of ensemble playing. Eliza, Jon Boden and Ben Ivitsky’s fiddles combine in almost Bach-like counterpoint at times. And Maid On The Shore has been the J-M.org car journey singalong anthem of 2005.

Rough Music

Nick Cave Abbatoir Blues / The Lyre of Orpheus.

Nick released this prodigious double in 2004, but I only discovered it early this year. Abbatoir Blues is a triumph of full-blooded rock’n’poetry, with Cave haranguing about Nabokov, Larkin and Johnny Thunders on There She Goes, My Beautiful World to a backing of guitars, drums and electric bouzouki. Channel 4 showed a late-night excerpt from his show at Brixton Academy, where he was equal parts menace and sex, striding the stage while the girls in the front row slavered. The Lyre of Orpheus is quieter and marginally less interesting, but still makes up a quality double set.

Abbatoir Blues

Chris Wood The Lark Descending.

Many enjoyable albums emerged this year, but a single great one. Chris Wood is dour, weighty and morose, with a warm heart, slowly yielded. In other words perfectly English. The eight songs — a mix of trad. and original — are expertly crafted, yet at the same time, seem to emerge from nature, like fine sculpted oak. One In A Million is a modern-day folk song that could last as long as Lord Bateman. “She was shapely as a mermaid and her lips were red and wet, and her eyes as bright as herrings flashing in the net.”

The Lark Ascending

Thione Seck Orientation.

Thione Seck is the Senegalese former vocalist of Orchestra Baobab, and has always stood in the shadow of his immensely more successful compatriot Youssou N’dour. The fates seemed to conspire against him again, when this masterful tribute to Sufism — a branch of Islam that celebrates music and love, rather than subjugation and ordeal — sat, unreleased, on the shelf for three years while Youssou released the very similar Egypt. I’m delighted that this one is now receiving the acclaim it deserves, with a nomination for the Radio 3 World Music Album of the Year. It’s elaborately arranged by Frenchman, Fran’ois Br’ant (who produced Salif Keita’s breakthrough Soro), with copious strings and occasional vocal guests, to fuse the best of Bollywood, Egypt and West Africa.

Orientation

Chango Spasiuk Tarafero De Mis Pagos.

You’d not be wrong to suspect I enjoy recommending obscurities, so this Argentinian accordionist with a Ukranian Jewish heritage is right up my street! Late one evening at WOMAD this year, tired and engaged in conversation with friends, his performance gradually seeped into my consciousness and drew me in. Checking out this CD, I found it delightful. Not the tango you might expect, but a more fruity laid-back jazzy klezmer feel.

Tarafero De Mis Pagos

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They hae slain the Earl o' Moray and Lady Mondegreen

The mondegreen was named for this mishearing of the Scottish ballad, “They hae slain the Earl o’ Moray and layd him on the green“. Everyone has their favourite mondegreens, the gems of innocent misunderstanding which stand out from the contrived or merely smutty. The confusions of my own childhood began at school with “forgive us our Christmasses”, and progressed to Hendrix’s classic “‘Scuse me, while I kiss this guy”.

How much more fruitful for the modern child, whose parents listen to music in languages that I hadn’t even heard of at their age. The imagination can run wild when the lyrics are not in poorly enunciated English, but in Tamashek. Tinariwen’s “Got ash on my knees in Aldershot” is a car singalong favourite.


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