If your idea of Folk music includes the stereotypes of bearded tree-huggers singing songs containing the “lyric” Hey nonny nonny, perhaps while wearing a Fair Isle sweater and having one finger stuck in an ear, you could do a lot worse than check out one of the Black Swan’s annual weekend folk festival, which showcases acts – local and not-so – who encompass many facets of, and even go beyond the boundaries of, the genre.
Stretching over a night and two days, and taking over two rooms of the pub as well as a marquee in the car park, it would take a team of people to review it all and I could only make it down to the late afternoon/evening session on the Saturday, but I still saw a decent variety of acts.
When I arrived in – or, more accurately, just outside – the marquee, The A-Rhythmics had just started their set of traditional folk songs, such as sea shanties The Banks Of Newfoundland and Rolling Down The River, Adieu To Old England and the more robust song warning to young maidens to stay away from randy sailors. The five piece, wielding banjo, guitar and fiddle, actually made more use of vocal harmonies than the instruments, with at least two members always holding pints of beer, which came in handy as props during Good Ale and When Jones’s Ale Was New – not the rude version, much to the disappointment of the audience.
As some of the crowd took advantage of the change of acts to visit the bar I managed to meet up with my two gig-buddies and we moved to the front row of seats, close enough to the stage to be able to see David Ward Maclean’s guitar strings vibrate. In a self-admitted “lazy” mood, the Scot guided us through a humour-peppered set of mostly covers that he “really likes to play”, including Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and Tomorrow Is A Long Time, John Martyn’s May You Never, during which you could have heard a pin drop in the audience, and Waterloo Sunset, that traditional folk song by Ray Davies which drew backing vocals from the audience. But it was the two originals that stood head and shoulders above these covers. Marianas was Blues-like, its theme of hitting the rock bottom lightened by the interruption of a phone going off… Mclean’s own, rather than one in the audience and, after discarding the call he managed to carry on as though nothing had happened. Hunger Hill, the title track of an album he hopes to get round to recording, was simply lovely. Much like the previous act, the audience were left slightly disappointed when we were told that there were too many children around for his version of Hallelujah, only for them to provide more backing vocals as he ended his arguably more-Americana-than-Folk set with You’ve Got A Friend.
Next up was harpist Sarah Dean, who provided a set of ethereal beauty from both instrument and vocals. She opened with Yorkshire Bound, a song of her own inspired by walking the streets of York at night and seeing the buildings change through the years, then moved on to I Am A Farming Man, which had more of a traditional folk feel to it but during which the audience, for some reason, declined to join in the chorus. Stealing Time was followed by Beautiful World, which somehow managed to combine a science lesson and an ecological warning into one song, albeit with a humorous tone. In fact, with these three acts you could have been forgiven for thinking that between songs humour was another staple of Folk, as Sarah joked about air-harping, bringing out the hard rock classics later in her set and delightedly pointing out that her old head-mistress’s office was now a bar. Discarding (or, rather, gently putting to one side) the harp, Sarah introduced us to a shruti box for her final song, explaining that by pumping the bellows and moving things that bore a resemblance to keyhole covers you could produce a “drone” and that she, “loves a drone,” before using it to play The Plough-Boy’s Dream, a track that she first heard on Midnight Mushrooms, the 1974 album by Prog-rockers Gryphon. (See, even reviewing a Folk weekend, I can get a Prog reference in…)
The next act on stage were actually off the stage and outside the marquee. We took advantage of the arrival of Ebor Morris – yes, they were Morris Dancers – to have a wander to see what was happening inside. (There is such a thing as “too” Folk, especially for our little band of more usually rock gig attendees.) Unfortunately, the main room was pretty packed out so we retreated to the bar for a few minutes to warm up. As one act said later on, “perhaps they should move this weekend to November when it has a chance of being a bit warmer.” You honestly wouldn’t have known it was June.
With one of our trio being Belfast born, we headed back outside to see Róisín Bán who, as the named suggested, were introduced as an “Irish band”. Perhaps more accurately they were a band from Yorkshire – the name translates as White Rose – who played Celtic music, opening with a couple of jigs before moving on to drinking song Tipping It Up To Nancy and then a haunting instrumental about some islands whose names I can’t remember. The comic Mrs Gilhooley’s Party (or, elsewhere, Hole In The Piper’s Bag) led to an “impromptu” dance from the band’s frontman, Paddy Hefferon, the flexible stage moving so much after one particularly heavy stamp that his microphone cable became detached, much to the amusement of the audience. A brace of Scottish reels and a couple of Breton tunes (from Brittany) bookended guitarist Steve Lacey singing Lord Franklin, a “proper” folk song and the set was brought to a close with Worcester City – “all our songs have death in them…” – and the lively Barn Dancing (I think) which had the crowd clapping along in lively fashion. I admit, even my foot was tapping to that one.
A short trip inside meant that I missed the start of Dan Webster’s set, although I heard him introduced as playing “Folky Americana”. As I returned to my seat he was midway through Fishing, one of the songs based on the life of his own relative. Accompanied, as usual, by Rachel Brown on cello, he followed the nostalgia of Number 17 with his “break-up” song (Caroline?) which brought to mind Joshua Kadison and then the traditional Navy song Spanish Ladies, which he segued into a full-bodied snippet of When Johnny Comes Marching Home. After One To Remember Dan gave the audience a choice of Elvis or Haul Away for his final song. “One is a bitter sweet love song with a nautical twist, the other is about a really sh*t gig.” And thus we were left with probably the least Folk-y of Webster’s songs as he sang, in lively style, about not wanting to play Elvis covers.
The last act in the marquee was The Durbervilles, featuring a familiar face from other York gigs in the form of Ruth Wilde (Barcode Zebra) on bass. Again, this was a humour-peppered set which stretched the definition of Folk music. The opening instrumental, featuring accordion, mandolin and twelve-string guitar was followed by a track punctuated by percussion played on the body of that accordion while the band sang Battleship Chains, originally performed by The Georgia Satellites and tonight performed as a round. Next up was a “traditional whaling song, written by us,” and then a track made light and lively by the addition of a banjo. Raining Down, “one of our weather songs” could have been described as Folk-pop, while The Queen’s Train was livelier still and yet was nothing compared to the Folk-rock of Randall Avenue, with its nice electric guitar line and the pure Rock ‘n’ Roll of The Doge Song. By this time one of our group was properly dancing along. A cover of Donovan’s To Try For The Sun brought the set, despite shouts for more, and the evening to a close.
Being honest, I hadn’t known what to expect. The Saturday line-up didn’t contain many acts I knew much about and only two that I had seen before. I have to say, though, that despite the cold and the wind (which, at times, sounded like it was trying to blow the marquee away) this was a thoroughly entertaining evening.