It’s a wet and cold Easter Saturday and, despite having taken a week off from work, I’m finding it difficult, for various reasons, to fit in doing things with the family. The girls aren’t normally into music (at least not to the extent that I am) so I thought my suggestion that they accompany me to the Black Swan to attend the latest acoustic and folk mini-fest put on by York’s Little Festival Of Live Music (the little-ist festival the the biggest name) would be met by scorn and the usual, “you can go” response. Instead we all headed off to the bus stop for an appointment with six and a half hours of the finest music that festival director Ellen could put together. And I really do mean “finest”. I make no secret that I try to support this festival whenever I can (sadly, not as much as I used to be able to for the main event in September), partly because of the charity aspect of it – this one was raising funds for The Island, a mentoring service for young people in York – but also because Ellen, through sheer hard work, determination and mainly self-publicity, has built this award-winning festival up so much that the calibre of musicians who want to appear is generally second to none for this level of event. And that seemed borne out today by the fact that, despite initial worries that only a handful of people would turn up, throughout the day the Black Swan’s beautiful events room was full to the brim, with people standing outside the door and queuing up the stairs for some time waiting for space to become available. Indeed, by the final act, we were being asked to shuffle our chairs around so that a standing area could be generated at the back of the room. It wasn’t just the numbers attending that helped made the day a success, though. It was the fact that the audience were both attentive – at times you could almost hear a pin drop in the room – and willing to participate in the sing-alongs that cropped up through the various acts.
As per my last posted write-up, I wasn’t planning to do this (I’m supposed to be retired from music writing, remember…) so I made no notes during the day and am relying on memory. You aren’t going to get a blow-by-blow account of every song played and story told but I hope what follows gives some idea of just how good an afternoon and evening was had. I hope that whatever “facts” I have remembered, I have remembered correctly.
The afternoon started with a short set from Scarlett Gordon who showed a musical maturity beyond her years. Kicking things off with a cover of Bowie’s Starman, she initially seemed a little nervous (but who, at just ten years old, wouldn’t?) and wasn’t quite able to cover up the few mistakes she made. The next song, also a cover but whose title and original artist I forget, was simpler in style and really allowed Scarlett’s vocals to come through and, with that, her nervousness seemed to evaporate. But it was her own, self-penned tracks that really impressed – 3 am and Hole In My Paper, while short, were delightfully written, played and sung with growing confidence. There’s musical pedigree here as mum is Angela, of Mostly Autumn and Odin Dragonfly (among others) fame and it will be interesting to watch Scarlett grow as an artist.
Multi-instrumentalist Angela is also on quarter of the line-up of Leather’O, who took to the stage next and provided a set of mostly instrumental tracks featuring guitar, mandolin, flute and a variety of whistles, with the occasional accordion thrown in. The set was a mixture of their own self-penned material – including a track inspired by a tourist on Skye asking, in a pub just opposite the Talisker distillery, where they could buy some gin – and arrangements of other musicians’ tunes (none of whose names I can remember, I’m afraid). As usual with this band the music was lively, foot-tapping stuff with hints of Celtic and gypsy influences and was brought to life by the various introductions telling the stories of where the tracks came from or what their inspirations were. Their opening track seemed to generate some humour on stage and it was only at the end that guitarist Bob explained that, during rehearsal, they had decided to shorten it but, on stage, half the band had forgotten that fact and there required some musical shepherding to pull everybody back together. It’s testament to the musicianship that, as he remarked, I don’t think anybody would have noticed if he hadn’t mentioned it. I certainly didn’t. The band also joked that they were prone to outbreaks of spontaneous democracy while on stage and this seemed to happen for their last track, which might have started out being planned to be one thing until Angela could be heard asking if they were not doing something else, getting agreement from the rest and inviting Scarlett back to the stage as second guitarist.
Somebody had to be my least favourite act of the day and, with the greatest respect, I’m sorry to say that it was Toni Bunnell, another local multi-instrumentalist and folk singer. However, with a line-up this good, being least favourite doesn’t necessarily mean that there was anything too wrong with her set. Personally, I thought the song about the Grenfell Tower disaster, while sympathetic, was perhaps too soon and, in a strange way, too close to home. While folk songs have a tradition of telling stories including those of human disasters, this one just didn’t seem to fit. (Although, thinking about the lyrics, in hindsight I may have misunderstood the song’s message.) Much better was the song Toni had been asked to write about Stroma, the now-abandoned island off Northern Scotland. More poignant was the fact that the person who had asked her to write it was the last person to be born on the island. I’m afraid I don’t remember much more about the songs from her set, except for the wonderful array of instruments she seemed to have squirrelled away across the front of the room – as well as guitar, Toni also played what think was a bouzouki, dulcimer and hurdy gurdy, the latter two of which I had never come across live before.
Next up was an act that initially appeared to be a novelty act and yet turned out to be the revelation of the day. Earlier I had seen a couple of people in the pub dressed as what seemed to be Norse villagers. Let’s face it, that’s not unusual in York but perhaps not as prevalent as during the Viking Festival, which had been and gone. Heading downstairs to replenish my group’s liquid refreshment, I was passed by these people as they hauled a variety of instruments up the stairs. It turned out that this was Bruni, a four piece who perform their own interpretations of Norse folk songs. With a mixture of tracks, including some putting the band’s musical arrangements around traditional poetry and others written completely – in Old Norse no less – by the band, the foursome beguiled the audience with some stunning music and beautifully haunting vocal melodies. Harps, violin, hurdy gurdy (yes, another one – you wait nearly fifty two years to hear an instrument and then two come along at once…), a variety of wind instruments – including both the biggest and smallest recorder-like instruments I think I have ever seen – and a selection of percussion were used to fill the room with harmonies the likes I have never heard before. From the first track they reminded me of Clannad at their most traditional – a mix of the music they produced for the Robin of Sherwood and Harry’s Game TV series – but they were better. Like most of the acts today, the origins of the music was explained, bringing it even further to life. Musically, the Norse seem to have a fascination with death, but even that couldn’t detract from the beauty of what we heard from this band. I have no idea what sort of venues or events Bruni normally play at but I really hope that I come across them again soon.
The gentle and infrequent between songs humour from Bruni – reduced to Dylan explaining that a track’s musical arrangement was created by, “Sarah on the harp” didn’t give the audience much of a clue when the three girls all had harps in front of them – was worlds apart from the garrulousness (and I mean that in the nicest possible definition of the word) of David Ward Maclean, whose stories seemed to take up half the time allocated to his set. Not that that matters – I could happily listen to him tell stories for hours, although his songs, another mix of covers and originals, were equally entertaining. While this festival brings together artists from different backgrounds and genres, it is testament to the local (and not so local) music scene that most of them know and interact with each other, so it is little surprise that David has a rambling story about headliner Edwina Hayes and an old jacket of his that, while bearing no relevance to whatever song came next, delighted the audience with its telling. It’s also testament that people in the audience were willing to travel from Bradford – OK, it’s not exactly the other side of the country, but this is for a small event – to see the man play. Some vocals are described as “whisky-soaked”, in David’s case this is literally true. As I pass him on the stairs before his set, he is explaining to Ellen that he’s just going to get a whisky and “have a fag” and said whisky is almost part of his act, in much the same way that it used to be for comedian Dave Allen, until it is replaced by something “twice as beautiful” – a double, provided by those Bradfordians. David’s set was brought to a close by a duet with Edwina Hayes on a song that they have been singing together for, I think they said, ten years – a lovely number about York’s Holy Trinity Church and a bench in its grounds dedicated to a warden who “loved this place”, prompting another story about a future churchyard, filled with benches dedicated to people who also loved it.
I have seen Nick Hall before, but always as half of Plumhall and not for a fair bit of time. With wife Michelle (literally the other half) off touring Europe he’s flying solo tonight, but still performing songs from their Thundercloud album, including the title track, as well as new songs from an upcoming album and a handful of covers, including Sinaloa Cowboys, a Springsteen song that I failed to recognise (probably because it’s on my least favourite Springsteen album) and the ubiquitous-at-these-sort-of-events Bob Dylan cover – don’t ask me which it was but you can guarantee that I would have preferred it to the original… Again there are humorous interludes – jokes about not being further away and not trying to be Ed Sheeran when he switched to tenor guitar and a story about writing a song about how much he missed Michelle while on tour with Magna Carta leading to a punchline about how he is still waiting for her to write a song about missing him. Another story inadvertently sets up an ending in Edwina Hayes’ set. But the humour never detracts from the power of his songs, particularly in the likes of the brilliant Remember My Name, a track about slavery. It was Nick’s set that brought out the singers in the audience, even if his choruses were sometimes so long that he told us it would be OK if we just sang the last word. Superb stuff and I’m looking forward to the new album.
Last year I finally got to see Edwina Hayes live, after trying and failing a number of times previously. Now, in the space of a week, I have seen her twice more, albeit one of those times was performing as part of the Boss Caine band during last week’s album launch. Tonight she’s the headline act on a bill full of headliners and, while much of her set is the same songs as that first time I saw her, it is no less entertaining. There’s an unavoidable and lovely sweetness to Edwina, both in her between song interludes (that speaking voice…) and her vocals, which you can’t help but like. Even her self-deprecating humour – Nick wrote a song in a truckstop in the desert, I learned this one outside services on the M62 (sic) – is lovable. Given that, it’s shameful that I can’t remember most of the songs from a set that included solo work, songs she had written for and performed with other acts and the odd cover. The only one I can remember with any certainty is Waiting For The Guy To Die – a cover that I have a history with (Edwina dedicated the song to me (!) that first time I saw her) and which reduced my teenage, K-Pop-loving daughter to a mess of shaking shoulders as she giggled her way through the very funny lyrics. It definitely wasn’t all jokes, though, as Edwina invited us to sing along to the chorus of a beautiful song inspired by a family member. Another highlight occurred when Edwina invited her friend Stevie to take her place – and guitar – on stage for a great rendition of Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler. This set, and the evening, was brought to a close by another duet, this time with Nick Hall back on the stage for a slightly more rockier (for want of a better word) song. Six and a half hours had flown by.