Jun 23, 2016   //   by Michael Stevenson   //   News  //  No Comments

HARD RAIN’S A-GONNA FALL – Saturday review by Len Brown

There have been many great moments at the Gate To Southwell Festival over the years but surely Saturday’s all-star teatime 75th birthday tribute to Bob Dylan was up there with the very best. With a top notch house band organized by Jim Moray of False Lights, most of the key players over the weekend took the stage to pay tribute to the Mozart of the Twentieth Century. Among them were Phil Beer and Steve Knightley of Show Of Hands (who contributed a fine version of ‘Senor’ from ‘Street Legal’) plus Meaghan Blanchard, The Henry Girls, Mick Ryan & Paul Downes, The Ooks Of Hazzard and Jackie Oates on classic tracks such as ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ and ‘Blowing In The Wind’. A definite highlight was the Pete Morton-led ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, which galvanized festival goers into a suitably gruff, grizzled yet uplifting Bobcat singalong.

If Friday night had been a Southwell-style string-driven showcase of North American musicianship and showmanship (starring Blanchard, Ooks and Hayseed Dixies), Saturday seemed to be much more of a traditionally rain-soaked English love affair with roots music. Fresh from supporting the dearly departed Bellowhead, and proudly promoting their upcoming ‘The Ties That Bind’ collection, Mawkin remain one of the most talented live acts on the Brit Folk scene. Led by brothers Jamie and David Delarre, they warmed the damp crowd in the early evening Big Top with an upbeat mix of medieval music and gypsy jazz through to their entertaining 21st century celebration of inebriation, ‘Jolly Well Drunk’.

Formerly of the Unthanks and The Imagined Village, Jackie Oates last played Southwell back in 2009. So there was a really warm welcome for her, particularly following motherhood, her various BBC Folk Awards successes and the universal acclaim for her beautiful ‘The Spyglass & The Herringbone’ CD. Ten years on from her first solo album, she has onstage warmth and an easy presence, plus the rare ability to unite staunch traditional and more contemporary folk audiences with her perfect spring and summer vocals and fiddle playing.

Headlining the Big Top, Show Of Hands followed on perfectly from the Jackie Oates Trio, confirming their position as the most important English acoustic band on the festival circuit. With their latest ‘The Long Way Home’ recording and tracks like ‘The Gamekeeper’ they’ve returned to classic themes of love and loss, of war and exile, and their commemoration of the centenary of the Battle Of The Somme seemed poetically appropriate while the rain fell hard and the mud grew deep. While Steve Knightly remains one of the strongest front men and most affecting vocalists on the roots music scene, it increasingly feels as if Phil Beer should now be protected as a national treasure. Mourning Dave Swarbrick’s recent death, Beer is surely the finest fiddler South of the Scottish border.

Former Cornish buskers Flats & Sharps won many new fans with their good-looking brand of banjo-driven Bluegrass, fine vocals, and sharp Western gamblers-style suits and haircuts. Their ‘King Of My Mind’ CD is among the best of 2016 so far and ‘My Life’ perfectly represents their harmonic charms. But the musical finery on display stretched well beyond the main stage, with Northumbrian rising stars Gilded Thieves – who’ve been described as “a bespoke banquet of alt-folk” – beautifully led by vocalist Laura Alexa Jackets. Their biblical country song ‘Oh Sinner’ was one of the festival highlights.

Added to all this, on the outside dancefloor in the afternoon there was an incredibly diverse mix of dance sides such as the Koyuki Tribal Belly Dancers, the Convoy Irish Dance Company and the Kitchen Taps Appalachians, not to mention the other dozen or so colourful rappers and morrismen and women who’d graced the streets and pubs of Southwell en route to the festival.

Honorable musical mentions too for Isembard’s Wheel from Sheffield, one of the hits of the Barleycorn Stage, who looked remarkably clean-shaven for roots musicians and delivered poetic lyrics and contemporary folk sounds with the sartorial elegance of jolly highwaymen. And then there was Echo Town, arguably the most inventive and experimental double act appearing at Gate To Southwell 2016. Two brothers from Cornwall, they create a mesmerizing rhythmic soundscape in which folk and roots meet rock blues and reggae, often played on intense percussion, slide guitar and didgeridoos. In fact, one of the most memorable sights of Gate To Southwell 2016 was of several inebriated off-duty Morris dancers improvising like crazy to the late night Echo Town sound.

Never mind the weather, with so many workshops, great food, drink and craft stalls, plus fantastic kids entertainment from Dan The Hat, Johnny & The Raindrops and the ubiquitously funny Keith Donnelly, it often felt like there was too much going in this most eclectic circus.

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