Southwest Folk Scene

We have a very vibrant folk scene here in South Devon. We’re blessed with a lot of talented performers and songwriters, many of whom turn up to support our local folk clubs. It’s always fun to walk into a folk club session and look around the room, spotting faces. Of course, it helps that the enthusiastic people who run the clubs have been involved in folk music for years, have a substantial network of connections, and have earned the respect of many performers. One of the joys of folk is that performers stay in touch with their roots and are happy to talk music/songs/singers/instruments with other enthusiasts.

Our Brixham club is run by Steve and Anne Gill who (in addition to their day-to-day jobs) somehow also find time to run the annual Teignmouth Folk Festival (20th-22nd June), play in a ceilidh band and have a hand in the Totnes folk club.

Jim looking very young on thie cover of his 2005 album, 'Fruits of the Earth'.

Jim looking very young on thie cover of his 2005 album, ‘Fruits of the Earth’.

At our last gathering I was delighted to spot Jim Causley, an icon of Westcountry folk who has headlined concerts at festivals throughout the country. I expect he would have been happy to sit, drink, listen and sing along with the other performers, but he was prevailed upon to sing three songs. He really is very entertaining and is having a busy year. In addition to the usual circuit of folk festivals and concerts, he is touring with guitarist Lukas Drinkwater performing a programme of poems by Jim’s relation, Charles Causley CBE, FRSL, that Jim has set to music.

At a recent Totnes club gathering, Nic Jones and Geoff Lakeman were sitting together. Nic now lives in South Devon. It’s so good to see him out and about after his long, painful recovery from that devastating car crash. I saw him perform at a very emotional come-back concert at Sidmouth. His Penguin Eggs album is still one of my all-time favourites. The guitar playing is eggstraordinary (sorry!).

Nic Jones also looking young - but it was back in 1980.

Nic Jones also looking young – but it was back in 1980.

Geoff is the head of the Lakeman music dynasty. His sons, Seth, Sean and Sam are all internationally known folk musicians. I confess that I prefer Geoff’s music, possibly because he’s the same age as me. He’s certainly versatile, playing in a folk trio (Unstrung Heroes) and in a jazz combo (Speakeasy), but I like him best when he’s on his own. When he perches on a stool, seemingly totally relaxed, sings his songs and plays his old concertina his warmth and humour shine through. Not that all his material is humorous – he still writes angry protest songs when injustice stirs him.

LAKEMAN FAMILY BAND ABOUT 1990Geoff’s wife, Jill, also used to play. It used to be a treat to find the whole family playing in a Dartmoor pub, but I haven’t seen Jill perform for years. Maybe, as a local magistrate, she feels that singing anti-establishment protest songs down the local would no longer be inappropriate. Young fiddler Seth is readily recognisable in this old photo of the family in action. I was delighted to find that Geoff has been booked to appear in concert at Brixham theatre on 21st August.

One interesting, non-musical fact about the Lakemans – all three of Geoff’s daughters-in-law have given birth to twins.

The cover of their double album 'Born to Rottenrow'

The cover of their double album ‘Born to Rottenrow’

Last week we Brixham folkies enjoyed an excellent evening. Maggie Duffy, one of our very talented singer-songwriters, was in contact with an old friend, Ian Bruce, and found that he was touring the Westcountry with Ian Walker. She promptly arranged an extra gig which took place in a small room in the newly-refurbished Smuggler’s Story on Brixham quay. About 50 of us squeezed in – and what a good night we had! Maggie and Mike Weed kicked off with a 45-minute slot that, as usual, got us all singing, then the two Ians took over. I hadn’t come across either of these Scottish folkies before and that is clearly my loss.

They have played together, on and off, for 40 years. Most of their material is self-penned and most of the songs have easily-learned choruses, which always goes down well at folk gatherings. They string the songs together with a nice flow of banter and mix up the songs well, giving the moving ones more impact. I’ve bought their double album Born to Rottenrow (a cd plus a dvd of a live performance) and I’ve been playing it almost non-stop.

One of their moving songs is called The Shawl. I didn’t know this, but for many years groups of ladies attached to various hospitals have knitted shawls in which stillborn babies have been buried. This song expresses the appreciation of a still born baby for the love shown by someone they’d never had the chance to meet. The chorus goes:

If…I could have caught the breeze

I could have flown, I could have grown

But life…it’s not so easy

Not that easy…to own.

Beautiful stuff. Tears were shed that night – but there were plenty of laughs, too. Catch up with this pair if you can.

We’re now well into the folk festival season. Although it’s lovely to see the surge in the interest in folk music, and the big crowds that the festivals attract, the popularity has brought a problem – it’s practically impossible to book nearby accommodation during a festival. We hope we’ve solved that problem by buying a campervan. Like me, it’s old, but serviceable.

Keep singing!



Phil Beer: Brixham Theatre 10th January

Phil BeerPhil Beer must be about 60. For as long as I can remember he has been a leading figure in the British folk scene. These days I suppose he is best known for being half of Show of Hands (the other half being Steve Knightley), a duo with THREE sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in their track record, but there is much more to this incredibly talented musician who plays seven or eight instruments and has a strong singing voice.

Thirty years ago he was a member of the hugely popular Albion Band and he has demonstrated his versatility by recording with the Rolling Stones and Steve Harley, and touring with Mike Oldfield. When not touring with Show of Hands he tours with Feast of Fiddles, his own Phil Beer Band and as a solo performer. He’s a busy man, but he somehow finds time to help other musicians by recording their work in his own studio.

So, given all that I was delighted to find that one of the dates on his solo tour was an appearance at our local Brixham Theatre. The place was packed – and what a good night we had!

Local folkies Maggie Duffy and Mike Weed started us off with a set entirely made up of songs written by Maggie. Her voice sounds so like Joan Baez it’s uncanny. She writes beautiful songs, nearly all with a Westcountry theme. Tonight’s set included a new composition, ‘Song for Plymouth’ which celebrates the history of that maritime city, and old favourite, ‘Squeezee Belly Alley’, which is hilarious and always gets the crowd going.

Mike has played with a number of bands over the years. When he’s with Maggie he plays bass guitar and provides hauntingly beautiful accompaniment to her singing on a variety of whistles.

Phil Beer was excellent. He is such a complete performer. At times his instrument playing borders on the unbelievable. He gave us a rich and varied programme, pausing along the way to recount funny stories of how he and Steve pass the many hours travelling between gigs, such as phoning M& S customer services to pose tricky questions – ‘I’ve just bought a pack of your boxer shorts, but the instructions seem to be missing.’ We had tales of his days as a student at Teignmouth Grammar School and some gently humorous exploits of his elderly father. I particularly enjoyed his jokey dissertation on the history of the ukelele and how it was the forerunner of all stringed instruments; the harp, for instance, being invented when someone stuck two ukeleles together back-to-back.

If he’s playing at a venue anywhere near you, treat yourself to a great night out.

New Year’s Eve: Bellowhead

This year our children conspired to ensure that their Christmas presents for us would guarantee that their ancient parents were not tucked up in bed when the old year slipped away – not that there was ever much chance of that. John bought us tickets for the Bellowhead New Year’s Eve party at Colston Hall in Bristol; Claire booked us into the Bristol Thistle Grand, just a short walk from the venue. So, unusually for us, we were playing away from home on NYE – and what fun we had!

Colston Hall2Colston Hall is huge. The main concert auditorium has a capacity of over 2,000. The original Victorian theatre is called The Lantern and has a capacity of 600. Those two venues are linked by a vast galleried space that houses two bars and an open foyer performance area. All of which makes it a perfect location for an enormous NYE party with a range of entertainment on offer.

This NYE The Lantern operated as a nightclub providing cabaret entertainment throughout the evening; two bands (Spiro and Brass Roots) played in the foyer area and Bellowhead played two sets in the main concert hall.

Spiro is a group of very talented instrumental musicians based in the Bristol area. They’ve been playing together for 20 years and got our evening off to an excellent start.

Brass Roots are a ska band from London and really had the place jumping.

Bellowhead, of course, are perfect for a NYE party. Their 11-piece, high-energy line-up produces a great atmosphere. Their second set ran over midnight. They appeared in fancy dress, were hugely entertaining and orchestrated the loudest rendering of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ I’ve ever heard.

It was a delightful way to see in the New Year and, miraculously, I never queued for more than a couple of minutes to get a drink!

birds eye view of Brass Roots in action

birds eye view of Brass Roots in action

Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin: album launch party 12th September 2013

When we were invited to Phillip and Hannah’s concert at the South Devon Arts Centre in Totnes it was described as a ‘launch party’ and the event really had a party atmosphere. The venue was packed with friends, relatives and fans, generating a very warm and supportive feel.

These two young people are rather extraordinary musicians. Phillip plays guitar, slide guitar and harmonica, and makes good use of a beatbox. He re-built his harmonica to increase the range of chords. He uses a Dobro for slide guitar work. Dobros have been around since the 1920s. They are acoustic guitars with a large metal disc under the bridge to increase resonance. They are usually played sitting down with the guitar flat across the knees, but Phillip contrives to play his while standing.

Hannah plays fiddle, viola and banjo, and writes the songs. They both have strong voices that project Hannah’s moving lyrics.

Phillip has studied in India under the guidance of one of India’s most famous musicians and they have both spent time in the States.

an image of the cover of their last cd.

Their career is moving quickly. They have taken mainstage slots at the major folk festivals and toured with Show of Hands, culminating in a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. In 2012 alone they made 33 festival appearances and were awarded an Arts Council funded tour.  This year the public voted them ‘Best Duo’ at the national Spiral Awards. In addition to bookings around the UK they have bookings in four European countries.

Tracks from their last album, ‘Singing the Bones’, were played on national radio with folk stalwart, Mike Harding, a big fan.

Image of their new cd cover

However, I think their new album, ‘Mynd’ is better – in fact, it’s absolutely stunning. All of their influences (folk, country, blues, jazz, Indian) make themselves obvious. It’s a really rich mixture of their interpretations of some traditional songs, new songs written by Hannah, plus a version of the James Taylor song ‘Close your eyes’.

I particularly like ‘Song for Caroline Herschel’  that commemorates the life of the German woman who overcame sadness and adversity to become the first woman to receive a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, and ‘Last Broadcast’, dedicated to the memory of journalist Marie Colvin, killed in Syria during 2012.

One of the songs tells the story of Miss Ellen Willmott, an Edwardian lady who was a keen gardener. When she visited friends if she spotted a gap in their flower borders she would secretly sprinkle seeds of her favourite plant in the hope that, long after her visit, the seeds would germinate and her friends would be reminded of her. As a nice touch our copy of the new cd was accompanied by some of Miss Willmott’s seeds in a plain white packet. I’ve planted the seeds and so far managed to resist the temptation of using the internet to tell me what to expect, so whatever plant the lady liked, it will be a surprise and remind me of her and this excellent album.

In case you are wondering, mynd is an Old English word meaning memories.