Beardy Folk Festival 2021

Last September, in the middle of lockdown, Beardy Folk Festival still managed, against all the odds, to happen. It was cold, and there were circles painted on the grass to keep us socially distanced, but we still managed to listen to live music for three days.

This June...there is some light at the end of the tunnel. A cut down Sidmouth is happening; Cropedy isn't definitely not happening. And here we are again, in Cleobury Mortimer, sitting on camp chairs in painted Beardy Folk Festival. It is very cold. You forget just how cold England can be in June until you are walking back to a tent at midnight. The clouds are grey and but the rain stays mostly away. Thirty six bands pass across two stages, and each one says how marvellous it is to be playing in front of a live audience again; how this is the first time they have seen their band mates in eighteen months; how zoom concerts aren't the same. A young lad called Callum Ingram ("are you cool with me playing some blues? I hope you dig it") wins the festival by breaking down and crying because he's back on the stage.

Beardy is frankly hardcore. There are two stages; a big one and a little one, and acts alternate -- sound check on the Meadow Stage while music is playing on the Garden Stage; performance on the Garden while set up is happening on the Meadow. There are a few people selling T-shirts and banjos and leather goods, a tent where kids can blow bubbles and learn the diabolo, and even a couple of workshops. If there is a fringe I didn't find it. So from 11am until midnight we yo yo between the two stages, listening to music. Live music. With musicians who are delighted to be there and audiences who are delighted to be there.

Everyone in folk music is so nice. People respect the social distancing; no-one stands up and blocks each other's views. We are told that we are not supposed to dance in the "mosh" so no-one does.

I am still on a diet. I have beer and one ice-cream and one pancake, but stay away from fish and chips and pizza and burgers and cakes. The only stand selling coffee does a roaring trade. There is a stand selling veggie curries and a stand selling polish goulash and hunters stew and pierogi.

I bought a new tent. My last tent blew away at Sidmouth 2019. It took me a while to get my head around the new one. It's the kind where you erect the flysheet and hang the tent inside. It survives the weather and is big enough for me to kneel up in. One day I will be too old to camp, but it is not this day. I listen to Quote Unquote on my Iphone which sends me infallibly to sleep. The quiet camping area remains quiet.

Jon Wilkes sings traditional and music-hall songs from Birmingham with the exact right mix of folk-collector geekiness and irreverence, and also a very decent Incredible String Band cover. Green Matthews sing Sovay, an excerpt from a song-cycle about Wind in the Willows, and use the word "codicle". Steve Tilston radiates the confidence of a man who has been at it for half a century: he fails to sing anything about highwaymen or slip-jigs, but The Fisher Lad of Whitby never fails to weave its spell. Hope and Social step into the breach left by the incapacitated Track Dogs: it must be fairly hard to perform to a socially distanced festival if you are used to people moshing; but they did a nice line in good natured reverse heckling. ("Does that dog not like us?" they ask, further noticing that the canine visitor is barking in time and in the key.)

Merry Hell are rapidly becoming the go-to festival headline band: middle-aged, bohemian, socially conscious without being too in-your-face; every song a sing-a-long party number. ("I think you’re looking for a little, sweet, shrinking violet" sings Virginia Kettle to an imaginary lover who is mansplaining military history at her "Just like Shakespeare reclaimed, some shrews cannot be tamed.") Come On England ("your heart can't be held in a flag or a crown") is a never failing singalong addition to the burgeoning list of Folkie Alternative National Anthems; but the anthems to solidarity ("we need each other now") and anti-materialism ("bury me naked") also deserve places in the Little Liberal Song Book.

I head Mark Radcliff doing his cod sea-shanty act at Trowbridge a few years ago, and obviously I know his voice and his patter from the Folk Show. There are not too many people with funny stories about that time they introduced David Bowie. But I was very pleasantly surprised to find out what a very decent songwriter the guy is; a stream of funny and slightly poignant patter songs about middle aged nostaligia and the lost pubs of Manchester.

Belshazzar's Feast are always good value, even when you already know that Music For A Found Harmonium is going to morph into Remember You're a Womble. They are the only band I know who can make instrumental music funny. But their act is so rambling and expansive that a forty five minute festival set doesn't feel much more than a taster. Paul Sartin pops up again on the main stage with the ludicrously excellent Faustus; probably the best thing in not-too-avant-garde traditional music running at the moment. Kit Hawes and Aaron Catlow also impressed me a lot, pretty much just singing traditional songs and making them fresh and direct. The Last Inklings, with their references to the Journey of the Hero and Gaiman-ish tales about unwise wagers with crows coul have been designed specially to push all my buttons. Their close harmony and strings doesn't quite sound like anyone else.

Very possibly the highlight of the weekend was Lunatraktors who opened up the small stage on Saturday morning. There is something of Stick in the Wheel in their no-nonsense stage attitude; something of Lankum in their arrangements; and something of Solarfearance in the way they respectfully muck about withtraditional material. I loved the way they chanted "Jim Jones, Jim Jones" over the first lines of the venerable convict ballad, and they way the narrator, the convict and the judge all had distinct voices within the song. And why has it not occurred to anyone else to rewrite Rigs of the Time ("honesty is all out of fashion") so that it is about our present political leaders ("using facebook to sell propaganda to us / and a ten foot high lie on the side of a bus"). These songs are as old as the hills, but I felt I was in the presence of something new, different and important.


Bands I heard:

The Meadows * John Wilks * Green Matthews * The Haar * Virginia Kettle * Honey and the Bear * Roswell * Steve Tilston * Tim Edey * Hope and Social * Lauren Housley * Merry Hell * Lunatraktars * Inlay * Phoebe Rees * Jacob and Drinkwater * Mark Radcliffe * Edwina Hayes * Last Inklings * Fine Lines * Fire in Her Eyes * Benji Kirkpatrick * Sm Brookes * Holy Moly and the Crackers * Lizzy Hardringham * Katie Kittemaster * Wildwood Jack * Brother Sea * Belshazzar's Feast * Kit Hawes and Aaron Catlow * Calum Ingram * Faustus * Finn Colinson * Solana * The Salts * The John Martyn Project


Things I learned this year :

* Take more socks than you think you need.

* Take less t-shirts than you think you need.

* Take scissors and spare shoelaces to deal with footware malfunctions

* Take a torch, because you will need a torch

* Pack more jumpers than you think you need even if it was hot when you started out.

* Drink water. You will not feel good after a weekend drinking only coffee and beer.

* Do not drink beer until, say, 6PM


Final Scores:

Highwaymen - 2 (Sovay and something I didn't recognise about a farmer's daughter)

Dylan Covers - 4 (Dark Eyes, Seven Curses, She Belongs To Me, Don't Think Twice, It's All Right)

Who Knows Where the Time Goes - 1

Sea Shanties - 4+ (Old Maui, Hogseye Man, a skit by Mark Radcliff and a whole shanty set by the Salts)

People transported to America - 1 (Jim Jones in Botany Bay)

Women dressing as men to join the army - 1 (William Taylor)

Lusty blacksmiths - nil

Woody Guthrie covers - nil

Apologies for folk songs being too miserable - 5

Pints of Beer - 9

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