It’s been a sad but undeniable fact for a long time that Manchester seemed unable to support a mid-size venue where roots performers too big for the folk clubs or the bars, but not yet likely to fill the Bridgewater Hall, could play and not lose the promoter’s shirt for them.
The likes of Liverpool and Newcastle, on the other hand, seem to have no such problem. When Dave and Phil Alvin played at Newcastle’s Jumpin’ Hot Club recently, for instance, the place was packed to the rafters, whereas when they’d played at the Ruby Lounge a week earlier, the turnout was merely respectable even though this was the first time the Alvin brothers had played together on UK soil since the glory days of The Blasters back in the 80s (full marks, incidentally, to promoter Phil Jones for keeping the faith all that time).
But more recently, both The Met in Bury and the Royal Northern College of Music have emerged as very viable venues, where the likes of Spiers and Boden or even Mike Nesmith can reach ‘their’ audiences in comfort (let’s face it, the demographic is more likely to have kids than be youthful themselves).
In fact, The Met’s head honcho David Agnew looks like turning The Met into something of a ground zero for roots music in the North West. Tellingly, it was recently the venue for the English Folk Dance and Song Society’s English Folk Expo, aimed at promoting ‘export ready’ folk and roots acts to international bookers and other interested parties, for the third time.
Running alongside (and presenting the public face of) that valuable event was The Met’s own Homegrown, which has, ahem, grown over the last few years into one of the most important live showcases of contemporary and traditional English folk, roots and acoustic music in this country, if not all of Europe.
Boasting appearances over a packed weekend from a couple of dozen bands and performers at a baker’s dozen shows, it ranged thrillingly from the well-established likes of Show Of Hands and Fisherman’s Friends to a one-off collaboration between Lucy Ward and the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Pretty much the only problem, even with the venues within a stone’s throw of each other, in fact, was simply not being able to physically experience all of the multitude of goodies on offer, at least if you ever wanted to eat or sleep. I was so entranced by the Melrose Quartet, comprising multiple Folk Award winners Nancy Kerr and James Fagan teamed with Sheffield duo Richard and Jess Arrowsmith, for instance, that I missed a rare chance to see Tom Robinson performing live just downstairs. Not entirely, though, arriving just in time to experience a hilarious intro to Glad To Be Gay which largely consisted of Tom imitating the late, great and slightly intimidating Alex Harvey (of Sensational Alex Harvey Band fame) telling a young and timorous but chart-bothering Tom a long and scabrous tale involving seafaring cooks, buggery and “a bloody big shovel”.
The ever-delightful Fisherman’s Friends at the Castle Armoury Drill Hall just over the road foreswore such consenting-adult capers but were predictably entertaining, nonetheless, topping a Friday night bill that also included the raucously engaging The Hut People and The Will Pound Band.
Saturday headliners Show Of Hands (whose song Cousin Jack had coincidentally been covered by Fisherman’s Friends just the night before) proved a safe pair of hands at the same venue but, from a personal point of view, BBC Folk Award-winning duo Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin were a revelation, with their inventive songs and compelling delivery.
Another duo Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, augmented by a string section for their elegant tales of love and loss, had also hit the sweet spot on Thursday evening, supporting the reformed Spiro.
But perhaps the most triumphantly compelling performance of all came mid-Saturday afternoon. After braving a shut-down Metrolink and hordes of shoppers, it was purely a joy to hear the mellifluous Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band joined by Lucy Ward for a similar venture to last year’s teaming up of the brass band with The Unthanks. It was probably a one-off but maybe not, if the crowd reaction and subsequent bar chatter was anything to go by.
The date for the next Homegrown has already been tentatively set for October 15-17, 2015, but in the meantime The Met continues to host a top line-up of rootsy talent, including an evening with Sam Baker (November 16), Police Dog Hogan (November 27) and Le Vent du Nord (January 24, 2015). They’re also hosting one of the terrific Mr Kite benefit shows in a couple of weeks, featuring Nancy Kerr’s ‘other’ band, The Sweet Visitor Band (November 18), in aid of the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.
The impossibly hard-working Ms Kerr was also to be found at the RNCM recently as part of her other ‘other’ band, The Full English. Featuring a veritable who’s who of contemporary English folk, including Fay Hield, Martin Simpson, Seth Lakeman, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and Ben Nicholls along with Kerr, they were originally formed to help bring to life the world’s largest online collection of English folk manuscripts at the EFDSS.
No less a voice than Lee Hall, the playwright and screenwriter behind Billy Elliot, The Pitmen Painters, War Horse and others, has been moved to describe The Full English as “possibly the most exciting and significant thing to happen to British folk music in at least a generation”. At the RNCM, though, a full auditorium was more than happy just to hear them convincingly confirm that their BBC Folk Award-winning album works even better live. Hield and the others engagingly described the whole process from transcription to interpretation to performance, complete with the manuscripts themselves and portraits of both the collectors and their informants displayed on screen – but there was never any hint of this being any sort of lecture. Instead, from comic songs and broadsides to tragic ballads and dance tunes, these tunes were given a fresh new life as music of the people and for the people.
By Kevin Bourke
Photos by Michael Ainscoe