Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Moseley Folk Festival Friday 2nd September – Sunday 4th September 2011

Mo Fo Fo and a bottle of rum! There aren’t many festivals where you’re greeted by a bunch of pirates offering you ship’s biscuits (with added weevils...nice touch) or a 'spray' of graffiti artists but then again in the six years since it began Moseley Folk Festival’s grown into something pretty special. The organisers have pulled together some pretty impressive bills, but this one’s the best. Hands down. No diggity. It’s not just the obvious treats though – Gruff Rhys, Tinariwen, Billy Bragg – nestled in amongst the big names were plenty of other gems too, all served up in the rather magical surroundings of Moseley Park (seriously, it’s like another world in there...I could swear I saw a hobbit or two...that may have been the Festival Cider though).

Friday kicked off in the sun...yes...I know...SUN...where’ve you been this year fella... with 9 Bach (sadly we missed the heavenly voiced Vijay Kishore...bit of a queue getting in...) who, in between songs about hangings, informed us that there’s no Welsh word for greenhouse. There’s a fact to wow ‘em down at the local tonight. Yes, 9Bach, in case you were wondering, sing purely in Welsh, a beautiful lyrical language, well suited to traditional tales of suicides, death, murder, a bit more death...and some added death for good measure. Somehow some of it sounds surprisingly upbeat, due in part to the lead vocalist’s ‘clear as a Welsh mountain stream’s’ voice.

The Mariner’s Children were next and you had to feel for them. Due to a serious of unfortunate incidents (dog ate my homework, an overturned lorry load of treacle on the M5 etc) they’d arrived late and only had time to play three songs, which was a real shame judging by their lively alt folk feel. Have ‘em back next year eh?

Next up a bit of a festival exclusive from one of this summer’s big success stories, Anglo/Spanish collective Crystal Fighters. Today was their first ever fully acoustic show.

Despite being bereft of their techno techno techno pulse they still managed to encourage a huge number of the crowd to get up and dance and the stripped back set up actually gave more room for the lyrics to breathe (can lyrics breathe? Balls...they can now). Champion Sound worked particularly well, encouraging two wasps to ‘get it on’ on the lead singer’s mic. There you go then, Crystal Fighters, Viagra for wasps.

After a quick toddle over to the Bohemian Jukebox tent caught Ben Calvert’s solo set, including a fine version of Jackson C Browne’s underground gem The Blues Run The Game. Ben’s own stuff’s every bit as good and Flee (delivered, once more, at “a fair old pace”) remains a firm favourite. There’s a new album out (Festive Road) too, which you can buy on a stress ball. Seriously. It comes with a download code. Now that’s creative. More Ben (with his band, The Swifts, later...).

Winner of an Ivor Novello award for Becoming A Jackal Conor J O’Brien and his Villagers continued their mission to tingle spines (not an easy trick on a warm afternoon). Conor’s dark lyrics and eyes wide shut delivery made for one of the most emotive sets of the weekend. When this dude sings I Saw The Dead you actually believe him...

Are Malpas signed yet? If not, why not? No, I don’t think they are. Good grief, what’s the world coming to? They’ve still got that magical slightly twisted fairy tale quality to their music but there’s a harder edge creeping in, maybe even more of a pop sensibility. They just seemed to have more oomph than ever before today, with one or two tracks hitting the kind of groove that folk rarely gets anywhere near.

Right. Abandon your marbles. Take off your shoes and socks and prepare to leave planet earth for a bit. It’s time for the greatest living Welsh man (Sorry Tom), Gruff Rhys. Sure, he’s a random as a bluebottle in a tumble dryer, but that’s all part of the charm. In amongst the meandering intros (including details of his 8 hour journey to the festival) there were some of the most magical pop tunes of the last twenty years.

Even the motorik Welsh language track Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru (that’s Welsh for Driving Driving Driving) is as catchy as hell. After a number of solo projects he’s got loads of this stuff and he’s one of the few artists who genuinely seems to be getting getting getting better better better. If you’re in any doubt just have a listen to today’s set highlight, the mariachi tinged Sensations In The Dark from his latest offering Hotel Shampoo. Genius.

A bit of a new name next. Well, new to me. Tom Martin’s been performing for over 40 years and it shows. Combing the grizzled majesty of Van Morrison with a little Bob Dylan in the mix and some fine guitar playing he played an intimate set in the Bohemian Jukebox tent. One track in particular, Visiting Time, about those we’ve loved and lost deserved to be heard right up there on the big stage.

Speaking of which you got the feeling that tonight’s headliner, Badly Drawn Boy, kind of feels like he shouldn’t be up there. “I hate this song” acted as the introduction to arguably one of his best loved tracks About A Boy, whilst later on he revealed that “I hate writing songs” and that he was “sick of talking about my wife”. Cheer up chap, it may never happen. He makes Morrissey seem like a bundle of joy. Of course Damon’s always been a bit of contrary bugger, I seem to remember him sitting eating a banana instead of playing songs at Glasto a while back, then calling him mum for a chat.

Tonight there was none of that and, despite playing down his talents, the set was (perhaps despite of his best efforts) a celebration of one of Brit Pop’s (god, I bet he hates hearing that phrase too) golden boys. After a bit of a lull of late he seems to be back writing again and one of his newbies (still helpfully untitled) is right up there with classic Gough. Although I guess he’d probably disagree with that as well...

Day Two – Saturday 3rd September 2011

Day two and, shrugging off a scrumpy head, managed to make it on site in time for Ben Calvert and The Swifts (or should that be the larks?) indecently early set (11.10 am...). Despite being breakfast time there was a decent crowd in attendance though, brave souls. Those that made it were treated to Ben and the band’s Nick Drake meets Morrissey meets Syd Barrett vignettes of modern life including the delightfully named Popstar Sits Alone At Home Crying Eating Hob Nobs (inspired by a Peter Andre inspired tabloid headline). Lovely stuff.

Any lingering hangovers were given a bit of kicking courtesy of Oh Ruin’s Doors-ish sludgefests (that’s a good thing by the way). Slow, dirty blues workouts lull you into a false sense of insecurity before the band explodes into some stomach rumbling kick in the gut rock outs.

There’s something lovely about starting your set with a track called A Nice Cup Of Tea, happily things got even better from there on in for the Bonfire Radicals, a hugely talented 8 piece that cleverly weave middle eastern and Jewish Klezmer influences into more traditional English folk. Not sure of the lead singer’s name but her voice was astonishing, particularly on the acapella number I Wish. The ability to play two recorders at the same time was pretty impressive too. Go on, you try it. Not easy eh?

Remember Nizlopi? A few years ago their track JCB song hit the number one spot and shifted half a million copies or so. Well after 17 years together the band split up last year and singer Luke Concannon upped sticks to Galway then went on a bit of a walkabout around Palestine. As you do. Like Sunday night’s headliner, Billy Bragg, Luke’s one of the life’s good guys. Someone who genuinely believes that the world could...and should...be a better place for all of us. Joined onstage by Birmingham’s own MC Jimmy Davis this manifesto’s best captured in Change The World, a rousing call to...well... you get the idea. A touching tribute to his nan, I just Want a Cup Of Tea, revealed the kind of heart of the sleeve emotions that a lot of songwriters struggle to pull off.

The set ended on a high with the big hit and Luke jumping off the stage to wander around the crowd, barefoot, singing away. So happily lost in the music was he that I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still out there somewhere...

A bit of a scheduling clash sadly restricted the time we spent with the legendary Michael Chapman but some fine guitar picking on Memphis In Winter captured the essence of a dude that produced one of John Peel’s favourite albums, 1970’s Survivor. Now that’s a real guitar hero there. Well worth investigating. Dust Motes were calling though and after a memorable performance at their Hare and Hounds gig (supporting Patrick Duff) last year I was determined to catch a second helping. Richey Edwards had to carve 4 Real into his arm before people would believe he was genuine, all Dave (the Motes singer) has to do is open his mouth. Fragile folk with a dark melancholy heart Dave’s lyrics and soft, almost haunted delivery can be devastatingly powerful. Take Smash Yourself To Pieces “I don’t know why these brittle arms can’t hold you” line for instance. Ain’t that a beautiful lyric?

Pinned to our seats (not literally...oh you got that...good) The Cribbler (aka Jim from meat loving mentalists Mills and Boon) amused with some fine story based songs including the unusually titled Long Nail and Big Toe about an eventful camping trip. There’s not enough story based songs around these days. Good work Mr Cribbler. Not a mention of meat neither...

Willy Mason arrived a little late so he ended up on the smaller stage but it didn’t make a jot of difference. Despite still only being 12 years old (oh alright, he’s 26) he sounds like he’s lived at least a dozen lives and his slo mo (fo) twangy blues n’country kept 2000 or so people entranced. Even the once ubiquitous Oxygen (which, let’s face it, was played to death when it came out) seemed a little fresher today. Previous festival headliner Jose Gonzalez was back for more as part of his new band Junip, fleshing out the sparse but effective sound that made him the intelligent pop lover’s wet dream. It’s actually better than a lot of his solo stuff for that very reason. There’s more going on in there, a Krautrock / Canned Heat feel on the sets key track Far Away for instance.

Fancy spending some time in heaven but aren’t so keen on the whole dying business? Just listen to The Staves. They’re three sisters and rarely have a trio of voices harmonised so perfectly. Wow. Just wow. They’re out on tour with Willy Mason soon so you can judge for yourself but trust me on this one. Possibly the best female vocal trio in the world right now? Could be.

I hate wasps. The little buggers were out in force on Saturday. No good to man nor beast. Bees on the other hand are lovely. Both the furry little critters and the...well...furry big critters from the Isle of Wight. Now ten years into their career their mashup of 60’s psychedelia, folk, soul, ska...you name it... is like a huge blast of sunshine through the ears.

Perhaps best known for two big covers A Minha Menina and Chicken Payback they’ve contributed more than their fair share of classics too, with Wash In The Rain, Listening Man and I Really Need Love all going down a storm tonight. Winners of the biggest cheers of the weekend competition.

After catching a tiny snatch of Pram’s twisted 60’s soundtracks for films never made the second day culminated in the mesmerising desert blues of Tinariwen which, for an hour and half, transformed a tiny corner of a darkening Moseley Park into the shimmering expanse of the Sahara.

Day Three – Sunday 4th September 2011

Day three and another early kick off with Bellevue Rendezvous playing a rather splendid hangover clearing selection of traditional folk tunes from Sweden, Norway, France, England...Mars...probably.

They certainly had a distinctly alien looking instrument in the form of the Nyckelharpa, a bizarre looking fiddle thing with keys. Elfyn impressed next with a beautiful cover of US folk tune May Blooming Fields before Sam Lee provided what was, for many early birds, one of the highlights of the festival. Sam’s a rising star of the traditional folk scene with a voice that’s folky enough to appeal to the real ale beard strokers but with a bit of modern feel too. He’s one of the few really traditional folk artists (by which I mean someone who sings traditional songs set the odd century or two before today) that you could imagine crossing over into whatever the mainstream is these days. This is a big deal. Whilst younger folk bands are big news these days there aren’t that many interpreters of ancient songs...the stuff that tells the history of this country...played on the radio or telly...or bigged up by Zane Lowe. It’s a bit of a shame. There can be more sex, death and violence in the average traditional folk song than a Biggie Smalls and 2Pac duet. Anyway, it seems that Sam’s been spending some time with the old skool traveller community (nothing to do with big fat gypsy weddings thankfully), learning some of the songs that they’ve kept alive from generation to generation. Sam and the band (again featuring one or two curious instruments) shared some of these (probably the first time most of them have been heard outside the traveller community I’m guessing) in an all too brief set that left me wanting to hitch up a wagon and dig in to some of this stuff for myself. The real gem of the set came when the power went off for a moment or two though. This happens at gigs and festivals from time to time and different artists handle it different ways. Some go off for a fag and a hand job, others embrace the opportunity to sing as nature intended (no...not naked...perverts). Sam and co fell into the latter camp. It’s not easy to sing to hundreds of people, unplugged, but he gathered them round the stage and sang like as clearly and crisply as you’re ever likely to hear, communicating the warmth of the human voice that electronic amplification blots out.

It was...cliché ahoy...a magical moment. But it really was. After the power came back on the crowd stayed glued to the stage for a rousing rendition of The Ballad Of George Collins...a charming ditty about catching the clap off a water sprite. Whilst that’s not something you want to catch, Sam Lee certainly is.

Over the weekend Oxfam were selling raffle tickets to see some of the performers play intimate gigs in a shed. What a lovely idea. Happily we won and were treated to an up close and personal show from the equally lovely Jim Moray.

Like Sam, Jim’s passionate about bringing traditional folk tunes back to life and he sang one of the best of these (unplugged again), rather beautifully too, Lord Douglas. Some beautiful lyrics in there, all about death...naturally...this is folk after all...and how a rose and briar grew together out of the graves of two doomed lovers.

Back over to the Boho Jukebox stage for Ebenezer Pentweazle’s delightfully ramshackle and low key set. “None of these songs have titles” he explained, fiddling with an out of tune borrowed guitar. That may be the case but I reckon there’s more to Eb than meets the ear. Like much of Daniel Johnston’s output it sounds a bit haphazard at first but there were some real gems in there.

Ian Campbell memorably played his last gig at Mo Fo a few years back and today one of his sons, David, kept the family’s folk flame alive with some of his dad’s songs (originals and covers) including a poignant (particularly given the economic hell that’s about to be unleashed on us all) Brother can You Spare A Time and a cover made famous by his old man, D Day Dodgers. Back over to the Boho tent for one of the most original band’s of the whole weekend, Village Well. A little like a mini Imagined Village they pop some Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Indian influences into the melting pop, stir it up and bit and serve nice and hot. Set highlight Kurdistan almost achieved a kind of lo tech ravey vibe whilst the Redemption Song / One Love mash up was one of the more adventurous covers I’ve heard for a while. Ain’t music wonderful eh?

Caught Jim Moray for the second time in one day, this time he’d moved from the 1880’s to the 1980’s with an awesome version of XTC’s All You Pretty Girls. That dude must have a fascinating iPod. Cut A Shine’s hoedown disappeared in a haze of hay leaving the stage set for local boy made good Scott Matthews. New song Walking Home In The Rain invoked a bit of the spirt of Jeff Buckley, The Man Who Had Everything embraced country twang and Dylan harmonica but it was Ballerina Lake, a real slow burner of a track that suddenly burst into a bit of a 60’s blues/beat rock out before dying away again like the last embers of Summer that impressed the most. A vastly underrated talent.

How many bands do you know with 4 PhD’s? No, me neither. I do now though. Yes, Stornaway have brains by the bucket load and they were intent on sharing some of this wisdom with the crowd. Did you know that you can make diesel from a lamb? I prefer a nice roast myself but it seems that you can get about 10 miles to the...ahem...lamb-on. In amongst the facts and random stories of renegade cows on the run was a fine set of indie folk with newbie The Bigger Picture sticking out as one of the best. Still reading? Wow. Bless you. Right...onwards...nearly there...

Does John Presley gargle razor blades and Jack Daniels? I reckon he does, that’s the only explanation for that extraordinary voice of his. It’s the perfect weapon for delivering his scuzzed up version of the garage blues though, the kind of stuff you’d expect to hear in a divebar somewhere way off Route 66.

Other people attempt to do this kind of stuff but JP’s amongst the best of the bunch. Can’t help feeling that Jack White would cream himself silly over every single one of his tracks. A new signing for his Third Man Records label perhaps?

Okay, last but by no means least, Mr Billy Bragg, the bard of barking...or Dorset now apparently. I love Billy Bragg. Perhaps he’s not the best songwriter or singer around...some of his lyrics are downright ridiculous (and he knows it) but he’s written more than his fair share of modern classics and...and this is an important point...he’s one of the few artists who’s had the balls to keep politics and social issues in his material. Granted he had the benefit of coming up through the ranks during Herr Thatcher’s reign of terror but he’s stuck with it over the years. Tonight’s set, as ever, combined some of these early classics (Levi Stubbs Tears, Greetings To The New Brunette, To Have And To Have Not) with plenty of raging against the machine, some newbies and a couple of covers (including Woody Guthrie’s I Ain’t Got A Home In This Land Anymore”). He was on fine form too, perhaps because, after years of labour rule, the ‘other lot’ are in. Whatever the reason the fire’s clearly still there in the belly and a particular pet peeve right now seems to be our in built cynicism, the subject of new track Tomorrow’s Gonna Be A Better Day. Billy (bless him) wants us to, as Gandhi put it, be the change we want to see. I’m normally a cynical sod but for a few moments in Moseley Park it actually felt like a practical suggestion. It wasn’t all serious haranguing though. He found time to take the piss out of Mick Hucknall’s claim to have slept with 1000 women...and to apologise for to the three women he slept with over the same period. Bless him. The obligatory encore included Power In The Union and rousing singalong version of A New England (replete with a verse dedicated to the late, great Kirsty MacColl). Here’s hoping we can all make one eh?

There we go, three days, more fine acts than you can shake a pint of scrumpy at and the kind of late summer weather that Moseley Folk seems mystically destined to bask in every year. Remarkable. Congratulations to all involved in the organisation, everyone who played and the ruddy lovely crowd too. What a folking great festival.

PS: Mo Fo's as big as it’s going to get now (short of annexing Kings Heath) and routinely sells out so early booking for 2012’s a must...


Russ L said...

Myself, I'm prepared to say that Billy Bragg actually is one of the best songwriters around.

The Baron said...

He certainly can be but I reckon he's written a few iffy ones too...."I look like Robert De Nero. I drive a Mitsubishi Zero" being a prime example. There aren't many people who would have the balls to come up with that one. Then again he has written some stunning lyrics, I'll grant you that. That's actually what I love about him, he writes honestly and from the heart and if that sometimes makes you smirk it's not a bad thing.

Russ L said...

I like those lines! Given that they come straight after the "Stop playing with yourself" bit, I've always taken them to be inventive ways of saying "wanker" - y'know, the flash type.

Are you familiar with Damien Dempsey, at all? You might well like him, since "he writes honestly and from the heart and if that sometimes makes you smirk it's not a bad thing" applies perfectly. Some of his lines are amongst absolutely jaw-dropping/heart-breaking, but there are others where you can tell that he was definitely searching for something (anythng!) that rhymed. I love him nevertheless.

They should definitely get Damo Dempsey on the bill at a future MoFo, now that I think about it.

The Baron said...

Don't get me wrong, I like 'em too! And as for Billy himself he's one of my favourite performers (and human beings) of all time. But you've hit the nail on the head when you say you get the feeling that sometimes you can tell when an artist is just looking for something that rhymes!

I'm not overly familiar with Mr Dempsey. I'll give him a spin.