With a superb concert from Tom Russell filling the main hall just a few days before this invigorating festival and much more in a similar vein to follow (including the brilliant Sam Baker on November 1), Bury Met is showing absolutely no signs of surrendering its place as the premier venue in the North for music of the rootsy persuasion.
Now in its fourth year, Homegrown is the public-facing (i.e. you can actually buy tickets) aspect of the English Folk Expo, a music industry event designed to allow delegates from all over the world to experience the finest English folk. Thus, it finds itself somewhere rather interesting in between a bunch of showcase gigs and a folk festival without the rain.
With ten concerts and 30 or so bands or solo performers, probably the best approach is to look on it as a snapshot of the current state of contemporary and traditional English folk, roots and acoustic music. On this showing, it’s in rude health with more established artists like Seth Lakeman, The Unthanks and Eliza Carthy continuing to make profoundly committed music, while the likes of Bella Hardy, Maz O’Connor and Sam Carter are snapping furiously at their heels. I say ‘furiously’ but the folk scene is, for the most part, a very convivial place and anyone who spent much time at all at the gigs over the weekend will surely have spotted the likes of Sam Sweeney lending skills to more than one ensemble.
For the first time this year, Homegrown also had an international partner, with Folk Spot Denmark bringing three Danish bands to the party. Apologies to Rannok who I missed entirely but heard good things about (come on, it’s a packed schedule) but string band Basco intrigued and excited many people at their Friday night slot supporting the brilliantly dark Kings Of The South Seas and a dauntingly energetic Eliza Carthy with her new Wayward Band. An all-star line-up that, inevitably, included Sam Sweeney as well as Lucy Farrell (who would do sterling service the following day helping out an ailing Emily Portman), they seemed to me a mite too eager to fill that Bellowhead-shaped hole that’s looming on the circuit.
Meanwhile, over the road in the Castle Armoury Hall, the other Danish guests Habadekuk were proving their mettle by valiantly entertaining the hordes who’d been attracted in from Bury’s Light Night celebrations primarily by the fact that this particular concert was free. Disproportionately pramchair-pushing and not particularly folk-friendly, the crowd were nonetheless soon energetically prancing to this terrific live act, as they subsequently did to our very own Edward II, showcasing much of their Manchester’s Improving Daily project alongside their crowd-pleasing blend of Caribbean rhythms and British traditional songs.
The previous evening Habadekuk had been on surer ground on the same stage, between festival opener Bella Hardy (who delivered a splendid set based around her recent With The Dawn collection of original, highly personal songs) and the ever-popular West Country singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Seth Lakeman. Over in the Met itself meanwhile, both Maz O’Connor and Sam Carter proved why they’ve both become staples in any list of award nominations, while song-collector Sam Lee was as energetic and ever-so-slightly eccentric as his devoted, and ever-growing, audience have come to expect. Upstairs, Oysters3 couldn’t exactly be counted as new blood, consisting as they do of John Jones, Alan Prosser and Ian Telfer, founder members of folk-rock legends Oysterband. On the other hand, they were performing one of their first-ever gigs in this combination, which proved to be an engaging acoustic affair, liberally laced with judiciously-edited tales from their own past.
Poor old Emily Portman, as previously noted, was distinctly hampered
on Sunday afternoon by a lack of both her voice and her foil, Rachel Newton. But she bravely soldiered on and was rewarded for her efforts by a generous crowd – or at least the ones who hadn’t already, annoyingly, chattered through a muscular set from Fay Hield and the Hurricane Party, uncompromisingly built around a yet-to-be released new album from them. You’d really expect folk promoters to know better…
And so to the highlight of the weekend, The Unthanks, although it would be remiss of me not to point out that Gren Bartley did a sterling job of promoting his really rather good new album Magnificent Creatures and is well worth catching whenever you might get the chance, as are the warm, funny and obviously talented Andy May Trio.
The Unthanks, though, have fearlessly transformed themselves into probably the most daring group in folk music over the last few years. Their willingness to experiment and collaborate has resulted in some magnificent albums and shows, but none more exciting than their most recent collection Mount The Air. Apparently owing at least as much to Miles Davis as it does to the folk tradition, it’s majestic and rewarding, but I’d never really expected them to so invigoratingly embrace it live – unless I’d already seen them do so at this year’s Cambridge Folk Festival. That’s my favourite live show of the year, although in any other circumstances this Homegrown headliner might have taken top spot.
Unthank sisters Rachel and Becky, along with Rachel’s husband Adrian McNally, have suggested that they simply can’t afford to continue to tour with the expanded line-up they require to o do justice to their new material and re-imagined older stuff. But so adept are they at inspired re-invention, that I can’t wait to see what they might come up with next.
Nor can I wait for next year’s Homegrown, now one of the UK’s must-see events and one we’re privileged to have on our doorstep.
Images by Mike Ainscoe