Monday, 20 June 2022

Gig Diary: Beardy Folk Festival - Hopton Wafers, Shropshire. Friday 17th to Sunday 19th June 2022

Beardy circles will forever be in the folklore of this festival. However it was refreshing not to see a single one in sight as the future arrived in terms of stepping three years back. 2022 became 2019 for Beardy Folk Festival in one sense, but for the band of devotees it was the perfect reward for defying the odds twice with socially distanced stagings. This perfectly formed small event kept the flame of field gatherings flickering in September 2020 and June 2021 when all around was dictatorially hibernating. Now in a blaze of mingling, dancing and sitting where you like (not confined to Beardy circles), the hills of south Shropshire were once again cavorting to the many asides of what is loosely constructed as folk music. 

Beardy Folk, the inspiration of one man supported by an incredible team, is a comprehensive three day event pivoting around thirty-six sets that tempt the dedicated listener to savouring each one up close and personal. There are the usual peripheral attractions affiliated to folk festivals across the land including those who just chill with the camaraderie. For music lovers, expect a continual stream of diverse performers proving that any budget can conjure up polished and unpolished gems. 

The Magpie Arc
From the gently strummed chords of Calum Gilligan opening the returning raised Garden stage on Friday morning to the loud and enthralling electrified folk rock of The Magpie Arc closing things with Monday morning encroaching, a string of artists passed through the listening sphere of the discerning festival goer leaving calling cards of all shapes, sizes and peculiar mementoes. Personal favourites were exactly that and tended to swing between the known and those itching to be added to your discovery list. 

The hilly extremes of western England in the early summer month of mid-June are always going to tease the weather watchers. In a mischievous way, the weather gods decided to toy with folks this year, delivering hot sunshine alongside a halving of the temperature in a rain fuelled follow up that tested the resolve. On a brighter note better weather is always just around the corner and things cleared up to resume focus back on the positives.  

Katie Spencer

Folk styles came in many forms across the weekend. Traditional and contemporary; tunes and song; instrumental and unaccompanied; original and cover; sub-genre and no idea what genre; seriously political and down right comedic, all rubbed shoulders from a guest list likely emanating from four corners of the British Isles. Pioneering solo performers followed those preferring a band accompaniment without a smidgeon of ego in sight. Egalitarianism reigns supreme, both in the artist and audience fraternity. Some will no doubt just make a fleeting visit to Hopton Wafers, others heed the call to return, not unknown to be more than once. The same goes for the audience as no doubt seasoned five-year regulars provide a solid base for those who flit in or out on an annual basis. One significant pulling point for Beardy Folk is that its timed staging is outside the high summer festival scrum.

So where do we start with what artists floated the personal boat? The temptation is to give every one seen a glowing review as they all excelled in their own way. Practically it is easier to prĂ©cis and offer some subjective assessment on a selection reverberating around the familiar and the newly discovered. 

Gaz Brookfield

Confession time has arrived and circumstances dictated an early Saturday departure leaving four sets unseen. Insight on The Young Uns, The Trials of Cato, Gary Stewart's Graceland and Bonfire Radicals will have to be sought elsewhere. It is only the last one that has eluded me over the years. The day will arrive soon and maybe that is Moseley Folk in September. Let's not dwell too long on the unseen when thirty-two artists played their hearts out in front of my eyes and ears.

On the highly familiar front, Katie Spencer gets better every time seen, and basking to her music in glorious sunshine was a blissful experience. At the other end of the career scale, Martin Simpson never loses the fire in his belly and aptitude for pickin' fine songs. Services to UK Americana should nestle alongside his folk music credentials. Will Pound slimmed his stage presence down to a duo format with Jenn Butterworth since Shrewsbury last year, a positive in a sense that we get more of one of Scotland's finest guitarists. Dan Webster's music ascends a notch in full band territory and his performance impressed mightily. Another Dan, this time Midlands-based musician Dan Whitehouse, has been on my periphery for years without really exploring. His innovative electro infused set sparked an intent to seek out more. Rachel Newton battled the elements, but the beauty of her harp is good enough to fend off adversity. 

Dan Webster

The most anticipated artist seeing for the first time was Jenny Colquitt. Tip offs put me in her direction last year and the debut album backed up that advice. Live, she brought a singer-songwriter ray of sunshine to the Garden stage on Beardy Sunday. Her conventional style of dual delivery on guitar and keys was not overdone across the weekend, but her performance flew the flag and signalled a bright future ahead starting at Glastonbury this week.

A quick change of mid-review philosophy with every artist seen now getting a mention! 

Seby Ntege

We started a few paragraphs back with top sets that opened and closed the festival. On a similar theme of opening and closing, Anna Renae played first on Saturday morning with a beguiling static classic folk style made popular by many artists over the years. Preceding Anna in the running order was folk reggae outfit Edward II who joyously headlined Friday night bringing a raft of dancers to the front of the Meadow stage ensuring social distancing, Beardy circles and 'pandemic festivals' were consigned to history (or at least 2020 and 2021). 

Beardy Folk has a smattering of outpost acts each year. London-based Ugandan Seby Ntege added a world music flavour with some eye catching instruments and plenty of rhythmic shuffling. On a similar front, Mishra played an Indian fusion blend of folk music and kept a late Sunday evening Meadow crowd warmed up in the festival's penultimate slot. Katy Hurt bounded onto stage with a slice of upfront country pop to successfully tempt a folk audience out of their camp chairs. Festival comedy veterans The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican had the audience in stitches with their repertoire which ensures Chris de Burgh and Greggs are never seen in the same light again. 

Jenny Colquitt

A trio of known names to me were Reg Meuross, Gaz Brookfield and The People Versus. The former had two sets across the weekend. One entirely on his own and another appearing with folk duo Harbottle and Jonas. Dave and Freya were happy to play the supporting role on stage, but together the trio have crafted a new album conducive to the talents each has to offer. Although the other two acts were seen for the first time, it is sensed that it won't be the last. Gaz Brookfield is a stalwart of the indie-troubadour touring scene and his fiery volleys were both engaging and hugely entertaining. The indie-folky vibes to The People Versus are set to grace many a festival stage during 2022 and they have been immediately added to the must see list at Moseley Folk. 

Although Beardy Folk doesn't seek overseas touring artists, there was an American tinge to Our Atlantic Roots where one half of this Cornish-based duo hailed from North Carolina. Likewise Lawrence County don't shy away from displaying their country and Americana credentials, and will always prove a festival pull. Mark Harrison clearly draws his inspiration from the blues and blended in a wry sense of humour to his act. Two facets that go together well. 

Katy Hurt

Straight up traditional folk is well served as you would imagine. Atlas Bridge opened things on Sunday morning and were later joined by two acts clearly displaying an adherence to folk convention. Greenman Rising was the most visually distinctive act roaming the site and stages, while Wet The Tea weaved some inspiring stories of migration into their musical virtuosity. For a good ole singalong in the shanty style, Sound Tradition sung impeccable four part harmonies on Friday lunchtime.

There was a Magpies link between two artists playing separate sets. Bella Gaffney - one third of the York-based trio - focussed on her solo material, while Holly Brandon teamed up with her brother George to play as Painted Sky. A trait of the folk world is many collaborations, spin offs and projects with festivals being the perfect platform to meet up and share with fans. 

Greenman Rising

A further two duo names announcing their arrival were Good Habits and Thorpe and Morrison. The former are an eclectic combo definitely putting the alt into alt-folk. They won the cover prize for folking up The Stone Roses and twisting vocal renditions of Mary Hopkins and Gloria Gaynor. Alongside their original material, of course. Sean Morrison was equal to many fine fiddle players gracing the festival stages over the weekend, and this included the acclaimed ex-Bellowhead member Rachael McShane who appeared with her band The Cartographers. Jigs and reels are staple to any folk festival and Beardy Folk was no exception. 

A quick head count leaves just one act to mention. Man The Lifeboats were one of many artists introduced to me during lockdown as part of the Virtual Green Note twice weekly stream. During those dark days artists yearned of playing in person once again. For this London-based act, the fields of Beardy Folk compensated for those hours playing in living rooms in front of cameras, computers et al. You can't beat playing in front of real people.

Dan Whitehouse
This brings us nicely to the concluding part of a whistle stop Beardy Folk Festival 2022 review. There has never been so much gratitude as to this event magically organising a brace of restricted festivals. Now with the shackles off, it was full steam ahead and a wonderful feast of folk music delivered to those in the know. Other festivals - big and small - are available, but Beardy Folk will live long in the hearts and minds of those who have embraced what it has to offer. Five festivals  old and it is still standing. Who know what the future holds, but this event has come through it all. The edge of the West Midlands conurbation is a mere twenty miles from the famed walled garden of Hopton Wafers and its imposing surrounding hills. However for one weekend in June, this near outpost thrives with a folk wave of mega proportions. It is a privilege to pay a visit each year and write some positive reflections to preserve the memory bank.

Friday, 17 June 2022

Album Review: Meredith Lazowski - Other Way Home

An utterly gorgeous vibe akin to the most gentle summer breeze greets you in the opening bars of an intoxicating release that traps you in an ethereal haze. This is a record to get lost in and allow it to sonically massage your senses. Meredith Lazowski hits the spot big time curating a signature album to re-create mood-driven seductive Americana. A bubbling pot of steel, assorted strings and hypnotic beats guides through a blissful forty-two minutes of satisfying music. OTHER WAY HOME is a slice of creative heaven evoking so many feelings and nuances. 

From the husky vocals to a backdrop slipping between cool electric and subtle roots, ten tracks blend into a sublime record that accumulates the capacity to make Meredith Lazowski a talent to transcend far from her inner circle. There are similarities in the way Caroline Spence expends her sound and that artistic journey has worked out well across the spectrum. All ten tracks are solo writes with the overall project benefiting from the production touch of Justin Rutledge. He is one Canadian wrapped in far reaching appeal and Meredith Lazowski has all the hallmarks of being another.

Picking a track to summarise the album is a tough task as each time you attempt it the lure of the complete play wins. Not something to argue against such is the effect. If you buy into the notion that the lead off track is critical in setting the tone then 'Prairie' is job done for Lazowski and her team. Floating steel dominates this number and it was a wise choice for promotional purposes as well. The title track 'Other Way Home' was another syphoned off for promo and its gentle tones anchor the early stages of the second half. 'The Other Side' and 'Aint Too Late' complete the quartet that surfaced ahead of the June 17th release date and all play a part in creating the textual feel to the record. 

The creative industry in a more commercial form has been her landing post in the past and this move into something surely more exciting and enthralling to share with an audience reaps rewards. Such does the album gather momentum that 'Running Circles' and 'Navigator' in track positions 8 & 9 ultimately make the strongest case for being the album's crowning moments. Lyrically, the latter of the this duo anoints those who lead on a journey and this album is certainly one vibrant expedition. The track before is a poignant love song pained with so much honesty. After much deliberation 'Running Circles' is the piece from OTHER WAY HOME that's going away with me.

Surveying the remainder, 'December' frames and dates the perfect memory, while 'No Reason' is full of redemption. Once you've been wrapped in the hypnotic blanket of the sound, diving deep into Lazowski's lyrics is the perfect accompaniment. 'Old Friend' dares to up the tempo right at the heart of the record. Mind you it's enacted subtly and in time with the gentle flow of the record. 

A philosophy on the record is less is more and that applies to the conservative word approach in the lyrics. The album closer wastes little effort in this quarter and 'Bring Back Time' leaves interpretation in the hands of the listener. We also end with some more delectable steel that completes the circle from the glorious opener. 

OTHER WAY HOME ensures the creative musical talents of Meredith Lazowski are geared towards making a record that others will absolutely lap up. She succeeds perfectly in owning a corner of your mind for each play and takes the learner on a most serene of journey.