Review: Folk Weekend Oxford 2015

The Folk Weekend Oxford 2015 was a whirlwind three days of gigs, sessions and workshops, as well as coinciding with the Oxford Fête and huge numbers of Morris sides performing all over the city. This review necessarily only covers a selection of the amazing groups and sessions, but aims to give a flavour of the event as a whole, which was a pleasure to attend from the opening Friday night ceilidh in the gorgeous St Barnabas church, Jericho, with the Oxford University Ceilidh Band called by Gordon Potts, to the haphazardly humourous finale of Chris Wood in the Wesley Memorial Church on Sunday night.

Saturday morning saw a performance by the Rheingans sisters Rowan and Anna, who have recently been splitting their time between Toulouse and Britain, as well as various other groups and solo work. Their great voices and various instruments provided a beautifully mellow tone to traditional music from all over Europe, including some arresting Scandinavian tunes.

Following them was the new Folk Weekend patron and squeezebox expert John Spiers, with some great original and traditional Morris tunes on the melodeon. He was later joined by special guest Jon Boden, the two of them no longer performing as a duo but very active both with solo careers and raising hell as founding members of their fantastic 11-piece band Bellowhead (who were also playing in Oxford on Saturday night, although not as part of the Folk Weekend). Although claiming to be a bit rusty after a year apart, they had the audience dancing in the aisles with plenty of old favourites, finishing with a rousing ‘Prickle Eye Bush’.

The Old Museum (formerly Museum of Oxford), housed lots of the weekend’s events, including a session of ‘Troubadours and Trobairitz,’, showcasing singer songwriters following loosely in this tradition. Sam Twigg Johnson, Sam Taplin, and Haula Nakakembo all performed their own music brilliantly. Sam Taplin’s humourous songs about ‘imaginary’ tigers and losing out had everyone chuckling, while Haula Nakakembo wowed with her powerfully emotional songs and fantastic voice. The gig was rounded off by the inimitable The Half Moon All Stars, doing traditional music in their own energetic, enthusiastic, foot-tapping-and-silly-actions way.

The Wesley Memorial Church housed a slot in the afternoon by Ninebarrow, a Dorset-based duo of guys performing original, thoughtfully-written songs in lovely close harmonies. Their music was well-executed and earnest.

They were followed by the headline Saturday night concert, Lady Maisery – Hannah James, Hazel Askew and Rowan Rheingans, combining soaring harmonies with a plethora of exciting instruments including harp and bansitar (a homemade cross between a banjo and a sitar, yielding an unearthly and striking sound). The gig included beautiful songs, like Leon Rosselson’s Palaces of Gold, written for the Aberfan mining disaster, with tune-singing or ‘diddling’, a tradition found across Europe and the British Isles, but fallen out of fashion in England.

Beginning at 10am was the Big Sunday Sing at the Old Museum, featuring local singer Mike Gibson, Steve Turner, Man Choir, The Skeptics, and the Petrels (Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood). The performers took turns singing, with plenty of well-known shanties and chorus songs for the audience to join in with, creating a buzzing atmosphere and even making time for a couple of audience slots.

Staying at the Old Museum, the Petrels (Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood, with bassist Pete Thomas) did a slot, pairing great voices, fiddle, double bass and guitar with original songs and even a Paul McCartney cover. The two singer made a lovely sound together, so here’s hoping they perform more in the future.

Following them, trio Dave Malkin, Henry Webster, and Ben Corrigan as Tandem performed their last ever gig. Their music has been defined by its indefinability, but could possibly be described as folk electronica. Often beginning with a fiddle tune from Henry Webster, the group used synthesized keyboards and guitars to weave an ethereal vibe around and riffing on the original tune. They produced a really unusual, refreshing sound and they thanked Cat Kelly, the organiser of the Folk Weekend, for her continued courage in inviting them each year. It’s a  shame that they are now going their separate ways, but their album From Good Stock is available to stream and download for free.

Back at the Wes Mem were Benjamin Folke Thomas, a Swedish band playing American-style rock-country tunes and having a great time doing so.  Their second album, Rogue State of Mind, will be released in May. One of the less ‘folky’ bands of the weekend, they nevertheless had the audience (or at least the stewards) dancing in the aisles and their tight, powerful sound seems likely to promise them a successful future.

Next up was a group that takes folk music right back to (some of) its roots. Boldwood, led by Becky Price on accordion, or in this case piano due to a back injury, is a quartet of classically trained musicians who find early examples of folk music from 17th– and 18th-century manuscripts (like the Playford dance tunes), arranging them, and playing them brilliantly. The three violinists (with Matthew Coatsworth also playing concertina at times) and Becky on piano performed tunes illustrating the way that folk music, classical music, and dance music all historically blended together, and the standard of playing was incredibly high. They were extremely enjoyable to watch and listen to, as well as being academically fascinating to anyone interested in the history of folk.

The Folk Weekend Oxford 2015 could not have happened without the tireless work of the organisers, director Cat Kelly, patrons Jackie Oates and John Spiers, and the many, many volunteer stewards who helped out at all the events.  The venues were great, particularly St Barnabas church for the ceilidhs, and the sound team worked very hard to ensure every performance was as good as it could be. This was a fantastic event for Oxford and I can’t wait for next year!

K. Steiner

More information about Folk Weekend Oxford can be found on their website. Our interview with director Cat Kelly can be found here.

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