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Review: Opening of Southwell Folk Festival 2014

9 June 14 words: Frank Chester
An opera set in England during WWI on the eve of the 70th anniversary of D-Day landings sets the tone for an incredible weekend
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Right from the very first act of the festival – the duo of Sandra Walster and Nick Thorpe in their first outing together – The Gate to Southwell Folk Festival once again marked itself out as something completely different.

Sandra, a music teacher and singer songwriter from Tuxford, Notts, wore period costume to deliver an hour of Victorian and Edwardian parlour songs.

Walster has a fine contralto voice, and whether you consider this to be folk music or not, she and the audience at the bar certainly raised the roof, and ended with a version of Rule Britannia that would have done credit to the Last Night of the Proms. Nick, her pianist, is the conductor of Southwell Choral Society, and both have long associations with major local choirs.

The main event of the evening was the premiere of the latest version of A Day’s Work, a folk opera written by Mick Ryan, and it was fitting that it should take place on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

The opera was named in honour of the dying words of a soldier to the Duke of Wellington, after the Battle of Boxtel, in 1794. He is said to have told the General: “Don’t worry, sir. It’s all in a day’s work.” His name was Thomas Atkins.

The opera is set in England during WWI and in the trenches of Flanders. The performance was powerful, and expertly delivered by Ryan, Paul Downes, Matt Quinn, Greg Russell, Pete Morton, Heather Bradford and Maggie Boyle.

With an uncanny timing, the first call-up papers went out to men of service age just a few months before the Battle of the Somme, and the first part of the play concerns the reactions of the lads in an English village.

It continues in Flanders, and contains the usual characters – ploughboy turned soldier, his father, officer, soldier’s mother, conscientious objector, and the tragedies that befell them. In short, this was not so much Oh, What A Lovely War, as A Shropshire Lad set to music.

Friday saw the start of music in serious volumes, with 24 separate performances on the festival site and around the town. Whether your taste is the classically folky English sound of Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, the transatlantic sounds of Polly and the Billets Doux and the Beau Bow Belles, or the electric sound of the 12-strong Celtic folk rock band The Treacherous Orchestra, there was something here for everyone.

Certainly, The Treacherous Orchestra packed in the crowds, with their twin Highland bagpipes, twin fiddles and just about everything else they could get on stage, but the honours went to Welshman Martyn Joseph, who gave an hour and a half of his own music.

He had earlier wowed the second marquee with a selection from his album Tires Rushing By In The Rain, an album of songs by his personal hero, Bruce Springsteen, who he described as a thoroughly modern poet of commitment.

The album was made after an appearance on East Street Radio – Bruce’s own station – and includes 17 of his songs. There was Brilliant Disguise and Thunder Road, but it consisted in the main of lesser-known songs, including Blood Brothers, which Martyn had sung to great effect at a Palestinian refugee camp last year.

Somehow, between the performances, he and Sleaford’s Dave Wilson found the time to conduct a songwriter’s workshop in another tent.

Southwell Folk Festival 2014 ran from 5 - 8 June 2014. See the website for more information 

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