When someone says the ‘F word’, it’s still difficult to remove one’s mind from the images of grey beards, socks and sandals and finger-in-the- ear singers. However, Saturday’s ‘twisted folk’ festival at the arts depot in Noth Finchley proved that there is a new wave sweeping over this genre.
To call it the beginning of a new folk revival might be na?Øve, but to see the freshness of the acts on display here was certainly reviving.
To my own detriment, I arrived at the venue itself a bit too fashionably late (North Finchley is a long way) and only caught the last two songs from opening act ‘Horses Brawl’. However, even this brief show impressed and kicked off the night perfectly. I heard a dazzling rendition of a Romanian folk tune, then a French Gavotte made familiar by the monoliths of instrumental folk Carthy and Swarbrick. There was an air of those two greats about ‘Horses Brawl’. Laura Cannell’s virtuoso violin and recorder playing was matched and accompanied skilfully by Adrian Lever’s Carthy-esque guitar.
Moving swiftly to the ‘main stage’, I was just in time to see the opening song of ‘Barbarossa’s’ set. If there are two things guaranteed to make me blush compliments, then it’s bizarre, wind powered keyboards and four part harmonies. The crowd, constantly flowing in and out, were treated to both. The band embellished the delicate, heart-felt songs of James Mathe with vocals honed to perfection.
I was now in a determined mood to see as many bands as possible and tore myself away to see ‘Hush the Many’ on the studio stage. The six piece band (guitar, drums, acoustic guitar, cello, bass and violin) started slowly almost inaudibly as lead singer and guitarist Ruban whispering his way through a few numbers with little help from the band. I even heard the ‘forbidden rhyme’ of ‘fire/desire’. However, as the band became more involved they eased themselves into a cracking set of gentle lows and raucous highs. They had apparently never practised together as a full band but, as the simple riffs were expanded over the six instruments, the music swelled into a wall of stringed sound, the band sounded like a well oiled machine. There was more of the sound of ‘Boards of Canada’ and ‘Mogwai’ to this band than there was trad. Folk, but this only emphasised the diversity of the genre on show here.
I was so impressed with the band that I forgot to move from my seat and stayed to watch the next act Katy Carr. Unfortunately her keyboard had broken and so half the gig was spent listening to her whilst watching two sound engineers desperately trying to fix it. The idea of getting the thing to work was aborted after two or three songs, leaving Carr to complete a competent set of beautifully sung folk songs with only accordion for accompaniment. Although I haven’t heard Katy’s piano playing, I don’t think too much was lost as the simplicity of the musical accompaniment was weighted perfectly against the vocals. The subject matter was crows and fairy tales, highway robbers and witches — my kind of folk — and the dramatic emphasis Carr gave them really brought them to life.
Next up on the main stage were Tunng — the moment everyone had been waiting for (some at home it would appear as the audience they commanded seemed to have grown hugely from that at the previous acts). They had not waited in vain. Tunng were, as expected, magnificent, deftly combining acoustic instruments with samples and their trademark glitches and blips. As folk goes, this is as ‘twisted’ and ‘leftfield’ as it gets, thus they fitted the bill perfectly. It was great to see a band of such notoriety (well, within this field) lending their support to such a worthy event. Each song was met with a huge cheer by the newly enlarged audience and it was once again difficult to tear myself away to watch the final act on the studio stage.
However, I was glad that I did, for Martha Tilston took to the stage, accompanied by a veritable orchestra of violin and mandolin, cello, flute, Peruvian box, bassoon, bouzouki, bass and guitar – this was going to be orchestral folk. Martha’s songs provided a lovely mix of kitchen sink drama and fantasy tales – it was equal parts hating the day job and little red riding hood — and it worked. Admittedly, the songs were helped by the lush accompaniment afforded by such a range of talented musicians, but the core songs themselves were there and Martha’s voice – -powerful and emotional — was perfect for transmitting them. Unfortunately I had to leave before the end (like I said North Finchley is a long way) but I took the bus back with a smile.
So, is folk on its way back to the fore front of British music? Will England’s green and pleasant lands once more ring out with the sound of Morris Dancer’s bells and crowds singing “with a hey down derry derry” or some similar nonsense? Well probably not. But this gig, in a hidden gem of a venue tucked away in a corner of London, proves that folk music doesn’t need big revivals and authoritarian custodians. Because when you have great musicians and dedicated promoters – both of which were present with twisted folk – the music can’t die.
–Photo of Tunng by Damian Rafferty–