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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Is Bellowhead a no-bread circus?

Rely on a musician to express himself tangentially. When Pete Flood, Bellowhead's percussionist, guest-curated a mix for Folk Radio UK he called it, rather wittily, No-Bread Circuses. It was billed as a "celebration of bands who, in defiance of all common sense, put their ability to make a big fat racket before other more practical considerations, such as wage and logistical ease". 

The bluntness caused me to spray toast crumbs all over my computer keyboard: Bellowhead has eleven members. Go on, Pete. Say what you mean...

"When you play in a large band the money is a bit hard to come by," he confirmed on the phone, still recovering from Glastonbury. "I wouldn't like to give the impression that Bellowhead is suffering, or that we are in extraordinary poverty. But we're never going to get rich as a result of this band.

"What we get is a lot of knock-on work. Lots of people want to do projects with us because of Bellowhead. There are commissions and other shows to be played, the residency at the South Bank Centre has helped a lot with that. And since the inception many of us have been working with duos and trios, with which you can earn four times what you get for one of Bellowhead's gigs." Spiers & Boden, The Remnant Kings, Belshazzar's Feast, Faustus and The Rachel McShane Band spring to mind. "Bellowhead gets more publicity. But if we were all paying mortgages and Bellowhead were our only source of income..."

The implication being that they'd be stuffed. Now on the one hand this is not news: the rich musician is not one of history's most conspicuous tropes. On the other, Bellowhead is already very successful by folk standards - and 12 out of 20 of the festivals they're playing this summer are mainstream, suggesting that there's more to come. But then, even if they did become as big as, say, The Pogues - there were eight of them on the cover of If I should fall from Grace With God - how many mainstream bands have eleven members? It's kind of fascinating to wonder exactly how successful they'd have to be in order to become properly, rock-star minted?

"As Bellowhead's become more popular it's become increasingly apparent that the smaller groupings have been benefiting too: they're also more in demand. But it's very hard work," said Flood. There's the mental energy involved in changing gears between bands, the touring and coming up with new material. "We played two gigs on Sunday at Glastonbury - one in terrible heat. And, though we're used to sweaty venues, it's hard to play two gigs a day.

"But still," and I swear I heard him smile down the phone, as if the sun had come out over Glastonbury again, "it feels really good to be in Bellowhead at the moment. It feels as if a big weight has been lifted from our backs. We've always been scrabbling for recognition, individually as well as collectively. And we've got to the point at which the hard work is starting to pay off.

"We're getting on really well together as a band. There are none of the little rivalries that you might expect. Jon [Boden] is seen as the figurehead - and in many ways he is a brilliant band leader. But it is a little strange to read the millionth article describing us as 'Jon Boden's raggle-taggle band of merry men', and to be thinking 'Well, hang on. We're really a collective.' And I know that Jon has always thought of it as one too."

It sounds as if they are taking precautionary steps to avoid the standard pitfalls of being in a band that makes money: what's the point of retelling ancient tales for a living if you don't learn something every once in a while? "Well, there is a conundrum when there are so many of us, which is how to divide up the proceeds," explains Flood. "There are so many terrible stories about bands that split up and then sue each other over royalties and we don't want to be in that position.

"Personally, I don't really buy into the idea of a composer coming up with a work of earth-shattering brilliance, which is what the PRS (Performing Rights Society) is all about because it deals with intellectual property." This is unexpected, since Flood has done several of Bellowhead's most memorable arrangements - Across the Line and Cholera Camp, for instance - and his background includes a composition qualification from Goldsmith's college.

"We're all about traditional music, so our stuff is more likely to be about arranging than composition. But once you've done the arrangement you rely heavily on the musicians involved to breathe life into the thing.

"So the conundrum is to reward creativity if an arranger arranges a piece, but also to reward the musicianship that goes into making the finished product. It's something we've been talking about for a long time and there are various ideas kicking around about how to do it.

"We're talking to some music business lawyers about them and working out how feasible they are. I should emphasise, this is not because there is conflict within the band but because we're talking to a lawyer about a whole bunch of admin things and we've only recently started making the kind of money that allows us to talk to lawyers about anything."

I've long been told by members of my family who are old enough to know, that part of the secret of a successful relationship is getting the finances on a satisfactory long-term footing (there was other stuff too - but, ahem, not for this blog). So I say long live Bellowhead and its sensible-sounding accountancy concerns. More for them, more for us.

* If you're interested in Bellowhead you may also like this interview with John Spiers, Bellowhead's squeezebox player.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog automatically in your Facebook news feed, you could *like* its Facebook page. Or you could follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Friday, 24 June 2011

Folk music and sexism

There's a thread on Mumsnet, which began posting a week ago, asking if folk music's sexist? Click on the link to have a look. It's produced a thoughtful discussion, full of links to songs in which women have the upper hand as well as fair few in which they don't. The question was raised because of the number of songs in which pretty fair maids are taken advantage of.

IntergalacticHussy, who started the thread, slightly spoilt her post by writing "I know virtually no one listens to this music," which made me want to invite her to one of the 250 or so annual UK folk festivals for a rethink.

However, putting that carefully to one side... Worrying that folk music might be discriminatory is a bit like blaming Elvis Presley because young people have sex with each other, or trying to ban fairy stories because wolves exist. The songs are a medium, used for entertainment, for telling stories, for passing on information. Condemning them, or wondering whether you should, is classic shoot-the-messenger behaviour.

When someone sings a song about a soldier taking advantage of a young girl and then buggering off to a war, the bad behaviour is the fictional soldier's. Obviously such things happen in real life and to a woman who's had a similar experience the song might be a comfort - oh good, I'm not the only idiot who fell for that - or to a girl about to have a similar experience it could be a cautionary tale (though I doubt even the wisdom of Chris Wood, pic above - I'm thinking Cold Haily Rainy Night - could drown out the raging hormones of a teenage girl). But in the same way that you're not responsible for the actions of someone when you overhear their crime discussed in a newsagent's queue, you're not perpetuating callous behaviour by listening to a song about it.

What I find interesting, though, is when bands return to similar material again and again, betraying their preoccupations. I first thought about it when I started blogging about folk and Show of Hands had discovered that their song Roots was being used without their permission by the BNP. This was before Folk Against Fascism started up and I love that song.

I love it because it's powerful marketing on behalf of folk music and I believe Steve Knightley knew the controversy he was courting when he wrote it: it was a reaction to something stupid said by a government minister. But I'd contend that Roots was one of many songs by that band that are about the alienation of ordinary people from their own land and the fragile bonds that tie us to our place of origin. They do a lot of emigration, exile and sailing songs.

Similarly Seth Lakeman sings straightforward stuff about girls and manly preoccupations - war, lifeboats - and Bellowhead sing about getting ripped off by prostitutes. Not all the time, obviously. And some of the time it's the prostitutes who are getting ripped off.

I guess if a band did a lot of songs about women having a hard time then one might begin to suspect them of not liking women very much because they enjoy the subject matter. But I can't think of any examples.

Why is that?

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Monday, 20 June 2011

The London Feis, Finsbury Park

This festival had a split personality. It was called the London Feis when everyone knew it was still the Fleadh. The name had changed because the organiser, Vince Power, sold the rights to the word Fleadh, in what looks now like a slight of hand akin to the apocryphal selling of London Bridge to an American who thought he was getting Tower Bridge.

Then there was the line-up, which was amazing. Bob Dylan, The Waterboys, Christy Moore, Thin Lizzy and Van Morrison all on the same bill. But there was also a lack of consideration for ticket-holders that started with a very long queue to get in (late) on Saturday, continued with an absence of big screens - meaning that I couldn't really tell which one of the two blokes in a hat on stage was Bob Dylan - and ended in a public health disaster that evening. The tiny number of toilets meant that many - including women - gave up the painful attempt to queue and the entire perimeter fence became a giant urinal, something I haven't seen since the 1980s. (When the sun had baked the ground dry the next day some people were sitting propped against the fence, making me want to explain why they probably shouldn't be doing that. But the pervasive smell of vinegar should have been a give-away #pissinginthewind)

The most puzzling thing was that, although I've heard there is a shortage of portable toilets and fencing as a result of there being so many festivals these days, the feis's organisers must have strings they could pull to get the facilities they needed after all these years in the business. This made me think that the outcome was probably a calculated decision to save money: they needed about four times as many toilets as they had on Saturday. It was squalid and made my previous concerns about taking children to festivals seem laughably understated. There was a moment when I saw a female child frolicking in a puddle near a wall where eight men were urinating. Very unpleasant.

And finally - vis a vis split personality - Saturday and the Sunday seemed like two different festivals because birthday boy Bob Dylan's only scheduled UK performance this year drew, I'd estimate, nearly twice as many people on Saturday as there were the following day.

But ah... the music. Saturday's showers meant that the tent drew a grateful crowd and an early assertion of the festival's personality. Irish voices were to be heard all around and when The Fureys sang Sweet Sixteen and The Green Fields of France it seemed that everyone knew the words. The band did indeed play the fife flowly and the pipes played the flowers of the forest *blubs quietly*

Outside, the Waterboys then proceeded to rock. They played a song from the forthcoming album An Appointment with Mr Yeats with the lyric of the Yeats poem September 1913, which we were told "is as well known in Ireland as the Hamlet soliloquy is in the UK". Now there's an idea for a song... However, a more general flavour of the day was provided when a drunk twenty-something girl next to me shouted "Play something we know!" while a stage full of Waterboys played Dylan's You're a Big Girl Now. What came on next was Bang on the Ear, which under the circumstances seemed about right.

Nanci Griffith reminded me how much I like hearing her do From a Distance, right up to the point at which she sang God is watching us, God is watching us, which seemed a little paranoid, even in a tent full of Catholics.

Then Shane MacGowan came on stage and made it clear that this was the gig that he was born to play. Doubtless many were drawn by the same morbid curiosity that had been vocalised a thousand times in the run up to this weekend: "Bob Dylan's playing, he's taken a lot of drugs and just turned 70. This might be my last chance to see him..." But with MacGowan there's an accompanying incredulity that he's been with us for the last ten years at all.

"Ang you erry much," he said to the moshing, crowd-surfing, middle-aged yet copiously tattooed crowd in front of him, many of whom seemed intent on reliving a moment they'd had in Kilburn circa 1986. He's got a laugh like a football rattle, talk-like-a-pirate day could have been invented to acclimatise him to the 21st century and there was a lingering suspicion that when he spoke he was saying something rude about Nanci Griffith. I've never been more grateful for the international language of music because, to be frank, I couldn't understand a word. But a string of Pogues songs - Rainy Night in Soho, London Girl - went down like an ice pack on the ripped a*** of a Soho rentboy and when Dirty Old Town started someone threw their entire plastic pint of lager in the air with joy. Come to think of it, it probably wasn't lager but I'm done writing about that kind of thing for one festival...

Afro Celt Sound System was a revelation, although having heard what Simon Emmerson came up with when he was invited to write some music for a spa I really shouldn't be surprised any more. At one point there was some kind of a fight between a boran, a sikh drum and a bongo, in which I thought the boran came out on top. And one of my favourite sounds in the world, trance bagpipes, also made a guest appearance. "It's great to be at the fleadh!" Emmerson said, putting his finger on it.

Then it was out to the main stage for an encounter with Bob Dylan. My first impression was that the singer in the band sounded like a cross between Bob Dylan and Scooby Doo. Then I got disorientated when I heard a bunch of words that I thought I knew from another Dylan song - blues/shoes/side of the road -  and thought "cuh! The great man's obviously reached the limit of his songwriting genius" before realising that he was actually playing Tangled up in Blue but to an entirely different tune to the one on Blood on the Tracks.

And this was how it went: it was as if he were riffing on the theme of himself. If anyone else had done to those songs what he did to them on Saturday, you'd probably say that they'd massacred them. But, since the emperor had a lovely new outfit to wear and it was his birthday, no one would dream of it. So it must have been my fault that I lost interest. My legs and feet hurt from standing up all day, I couldn't see the stage properly and I'd been upset by, among other things, dark thoughts about contracting trench foot from the rivulets flowing into the tent. I used to care, but things have changed sang Dylan, as if he were his own shadow on the back of the stage. I didn't find it hard to believe: he didn't want to talk to us between songs. I felt properly guilty but I'm afraid I left before the end, feeling uninvolved. If he keeps taking the vitamins I may yet catch him for his 80th.

Right. Sunday was sunnier from the outset, which put a gentler complexion on things. The Hothouse Flowers on the main stage sounded much mellower, jazzier and more like world music than I remember. Then the talent-show-winning Mulkerrin Brothers from Aran, the youngest of whom looked about ten, belted out standards from the third stage and went down a storm.

Little Sean did a dance with a broom, which coupled with the fact that they were the only band to have been scheduled to play three times during the festival, left the door wide open for jokes about the usefulness of youngsters in relation to chimneys. Obviously I'm not going to go there... Let's hope they were being paid properly.

Jimmy Cliff did reggae on the main stage but made a fool of himself, in my opinion, by including Libya, Syria and Jerusalem in his lazy list of places in which he thought it was important to "stop the war". And Teddy Thompson, son of Richard and Linda, did a thoughtful indoor set including a song about looking for a girlfriend who drinks, smokes, takes drugs and enjoys sex. Wikipedia says he lives in New York but I was sure I heard him say Leicester. Either way, it could be time for a move.

Clannad kicked off 20 minutes late, although the string section was on stage at the right time, suggesting that they're on contract. The delay gave an opportunity to reflect that Moya (previously Maire) Brennan's harp looked like a guerilla advert for Guinness, sitting there all golden against the black backdrop: I'd be interested to know whether there was a bump in sales.

They did a medley of songs from their Robin of Sherwood album that didn't do too well in competition with a loud backstage generator but they were a very welcome change of pace and cast a noticeable spell over the mid-afternoon beer buzz. Then - oh joy - Liam O Maonla from the Hothouse Flowers added to the gaiety of the proceedings by turning up to sing the Bono part of In a Lifetime without having learnt the words or the tune and with his flies undone. I know it's kind of wrong to laugh but surely you'd mention it to someone if you knew they were going on stage. Wouldn't you?

Then it was back to the tent to catch the tail-end of Mary Coughlan, who was filling the place with her torch-song sensibility, accompanied by a band who looked frankly delighted to be there. She's got a way with men, she growled, and she's just got away with mine. Then it was Eddi Reader, who could have been the lady from Mary Coughlan's song and whom I'm pretty sure tweeted that she was on her sick bed earlier in the week.

I'm glad she got up, not least for the story about two elderly relatives of hers, Molly and James, to whom she dedicated the song Dragonflies, written by Boo Hewardine on guitar. They wound up in an old folks' home together, only for it to become apparent that Molly had deducted ten years from her age many decades earlier and was therefore 96 when James shuffled off this mortal coil, but with a fantastic collection of shoes. Eddi Reader has a lightness and joy about her that goes with her wonderful voice in such a way that she lifts you up. I could have had an entire evening of that...

Or so I thought, until Van Morrison came on. What a dude, with his gold microphone stand bearing his initials and his collection of unanswerable bluesy hits. As the late afternoon sunshine suffused the crowd with a sense of well-being and a swallow swooped overhead, the two very tall men to my left decided it might be fun to sit on each other's shoulders, which gave them a combined height of around 11 feet and a strong risk of imminent collapse. The temporary distraction of a copy of Private Eye sticking out of the back pocket of the one underneath (best chance of a free copy all week) abated when Moondance started up and Christopher Ecclestone arrived in the crowd nearby during a storm of unrelated applause. He'll always be Dr Woo-Hoo! to me now...

I mainly missed Thin Lizzy because I went to see Camille O'Sullivan do her burlesque/rock mashup and found myself unexpectedly unable to leave. It could have been the thrilling possibility that her clothes might come off completely while she sang The Port of Amsterdam (the little red dress really didn't sit very comfortably on top of what was clearly *important underwear* of a corseted nature), the mugging for the audience, or the kitten and puppy noises that she kept making and encouraging the audience to join in with. A lady behind me said to her partner "I'm finding this a bit annoying" at one stage, but interestingly they didn't leave. Then throughout the second half of the set an enormous green balloon appeared from nowhere, to be batted around between the audience, the stage and its security, almost exactly as if one of the Wicked Witch of the West's breasts had escaped - a la Woody Allan - and was intent on doing a cabaret spot of its own.

By the time Ms O'Sullivan relinquished us there was only time for me to notice that Thin Lizzy had aged quite well and that their audience appeared to be howling like dogs without being prompted from the stage, before the whole thing was over.

I wonder whether Vince Power was actually there?

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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

ahab in a perfect storm

Seeing ahab on stage at the Wychwood festival the other weekend was a bit like watching the taper on a firework being lit. A really big firework.

Driving home, the CD on the car stereo was their EP, called kmvt. "Rumour has it that stands for 'kill my valour tonight'," said Cal Adamson, who plays 12-string guitar and bass. "Or it could be 'kiss me vile troubadour'." Ha ha. "Or kill my vintage tiger."

I couldn't decide by this stage whether he was being playful or irritating (because he was irritated with me). There had been an ambiguity during the interview because I'd learnt, while poking around on the net, that his father was the late Stuart Adamson, of Big Country, something that stunned me, because of his untimely death and because I own four Big Country albums, saw them play god knows how many times and know most of the words. 

But despite some fairly heavy handed prompting Cal had said nothing to address this. (Me: "You father's a musician then? Anyone I would have heard of?" Him: "No.") Awkward. On the one hand, why should he? ahab's four-part harmonies and Lyle Lovetty song-writing had hooked me without the back story, which I didn't discover until I'd already decided to write about them. But Nashville, where he spent time after his father moved there, is pivotal to the band's history, as well as their Americana sound, and my professional twitchiness and fear of seeming to have over-looked something important meant I couldn't not mention it. So: his dad was Stuart Adamson and he has a sister, who's also a musician. That's all. I'm sure he has his reasons for not wanting to talk about it.

Because ahab is interesting enough without the ghoulishness. It started with Adamson (left) and Dave Burn (second from right), when they were in their early 20s, five years ago. "I heard Dave open for the band I was with one night soon after I arrived in London and it was a case of 'he's great, my band's not'. Not a hard decision."

They came up with the name during an evening in an unfortunate hotel in Winchester. "Dave and I had gone away to write some songs. We got drunk, messed up a hotel room and re-enacted the scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in which Johnny Depp brandishes a curtain rail, saying 'Don't fuck with me now, man. I am Ahab.' There was £380 worth of damage."

Multi-instrumentalists Luke Price and Seebs Llewellyn joined when Adamson and Burn received an invitation from Nashville in 2009 to play at a festival. "We didn't want to be a quiet little folk duo - we wanted to make some noise. We spent two weeks over there and had a blast." 

Then when they got back they started busking on Brick Lane, soon getting into trouble with the police for drawing the kind of crowds that upset the local market traders' business. Then a video - possibly the one linked in the previous sentence - found its way to the organisers of the Cropredy festival, someone dropped out and they ended up playing to 17,000 people on the main stage last summer.

Bob Harris heard them and booked them to do a session on Radio Two. John Leckie, who was there to see Bellowhead, heard them and invited them to record with him, telling Navigator records that he had a band for them and they wouldn't be cheap for long. They also acquired a manager - Gareth Williams, who is Cropredy's festival director - a record label and a top-notch PR and agent - Stevie Horton at Iconic Media - as a result.

So now they're  surprisingly well tooled up, professionally speaking, for a band that has only had people paying to see them for around six months. Seventeen more festivals this summer should sort that out.  

Adamson says that the songs are a joint effort. "Someone brings a pick-up or a verse and then we all work on it. We're a very democratic bunch." If their drummer, Griz (or Graham, more prosaically), seems slightly semi-detached that might be because he has outstanding work commitments with Bonnie Tyler (!) 

They sing three-minute twangling Americana as if their lives depended on it, which in an understated sort of a way they do. Seeing them play the Scolt Head in Dalston last week - to check I hadn't imagined the whole thing - was odd because the audience was split between drunk youngsters shouting through the music and the slack-jawed and spellbound, who couldn't quite believe what they were hearing on a week night in a back room.

That's the point they're at. The fuse has been lit. But it has to be said that the odds are stacking up very substantially in their favour...

* Here's a post about ahab from the Cropredy festival in August.

* And another about borderline obsessive fandom from the Bristol festival in 2012.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Naturist morris dancers on bicycles?

Just a quicky. Peruse this picture at your leisure...

It was taken by me this afternoon at around 5.15pm at the junction between Charing Cross Road and St Martin's Lane in central London. It's got something - everything - to do with World Naked Bike Ride, which seems to do pretty much what it says on the tin.

There are lots of questions that arise from this photograph. Yes, yes. I know. Double entendre a-go-go. And yet the one that keeps insisting itself to me concerns the gentleman on the right. If you need to see the picture in greater scale to understand what I'm getting at, try here.

You can see quite clearly that he's wearing a morris dancer's hat. So the part of me that possesses a social sciences degree is demanding to know: what kind of a crossover is there between morris dancing and naturism?

That's all. The world needs to be told. Or at least to be given the opportunity to worry about it...

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Wychwood festival at Cheltenham

Approaching the Wychwood music festival for the first time is a slightly bizarre experience. It's in the beautiful grounds of Cheltenham race course, which has a really imposing stand, producing the sensation that one should be wearing a big hat and preparing to shout "move yer blooming arse" at the top of one's voice, rather than trying to figure out which way is upwind from the chemical toilets.

It turns out that the festival is not, after all, named after a beer but after a forest that used to cover much of the area. And what an area it is. When the sun shone - which it did on Friday evening and a little on Saturday - the scenery was breathtaking. The racetrack's on a gentle slope so you can see for many miles in several directions and was set off by hundreds of standards and pennants fluttering briskly over the campsite, like medieval bunting.

The music was, at first glance, rather long on fellas from the 1970s and up-and-coming acts. 3 Daft Monkeys had already been and gone by the time the tent was pitched and Cornershop were pointing out that everybody needs a bosom for a pillow, which under the circumstances sounded like a missed opportunity for a novelty camping device...

After a warm sunset and a cold beer, the conversation revolved around the programming that put Rook & the Ravens on at the same time as their older, more famous fellow Mancunians, The Charlatans; and whether the squaddy who was upsetting everyone with his alleged stand-up comedy in the BBC tent (eventually getting booed off) would ever be any good? Nothing like a good scrap to raise the interest level.

Wedged in a tent later - the car was parked elsewhere so everything we needed had been decanted - it raised a smile when we figured out that the shouting in the style of Bohemian Rhapsody coming from the other end of the site was the silent disco. Then excitingly - sorry about this, but I couldn't not mention it - in the morning we awoke to discover that a crime against camping had been committed.

The down sleeping bag my friend Sheridan had brought, and which had last seen service in the Australian outback, had burst during the night, turning the inside of the already overstuffed tent into a kind of anaphylactic snowdome. A new one was procured for a tenner locally but I was still looking unusually fluffy several hours later.

Brushing distractedly at my clothing, there was just time to appreciate the sunlit view of a nearby wold with a tree on top shaped like a shark's fin, before the weather started to deteriorate. Welcome distractions from this included a terrific young ukelele band called The Ukelles (above) busking on site instead of revising for their GCSE maths at nearby Bournside school on Monday. Good luck to Sarah White, Francesca Fiorentini and Leah Collins with their fun fun fun. Perhaps someone will give them a stage and a microphone next time?

The first amplified treat of the day was the Eliza Carthy Band, during which Ms Carthy swooped and waltzed around the stage with her fiddle in stately fashion, rhymed vicar with knickers in a song called Wings and caused me to dwell on the lyrics of the epic party song Blood on my Boots. At the risk of getting a wickedly aimed swipe from her bow, I was left puzzled by how the blood gets on the boots?  Why would cocaine in your champagne make your nose bleed? Suggestions on an email...**

Then - oh joy! - there was Sarah Savoy, the self-style Cajun queen of white trash, and her Francadians, who appeared to be ruled by her with a rod of iron. She claimed to be six foot two in her floral housecoat and when she sang Folsom Prison Blues it didn't seem entirely implausible that she had once shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die. We set out to validate her height claims (see above) by measuring her against a benchmark (Sheridan, right) but I'm scared to post the results. Far safer to say that I was sorry to have missed the cookery demonstration that sometimes accompanies her gigs. You can catch that in Bristol at the beginning of July and possibly at Cecil Sharp House in London on July 1.

I had to stop watching Robyn Hitchcock because his stylised meanderings about what he described as "all this shamanistic stuff" stirred in me a strong desire to punch him in the face. But I expect he gets that a lot. For my lights, he was right up there with the man who spent the weekend shouting about biscuits on a microphone (selling Oreos) as contender for most annoying feature of the festival. Perhaps if he hadn't spoken between songs?

Interesting tidbits of gossip from an unnamed festival source included that the man operating the bouncy slide had turned up with three of the contraptions instead of the one that had been agreed and attempted to bring a small army of people with him, which hadn't gone down very well with the festival organisers and led to threats involving the application of a stanley knife to rubber. Also, I heard that some of the festival staff were staying in accommodation inside the racing stand but that it's designed for jockeys, making it hard to doze off with one's lower legs hanging over the end of the bunks. I was told later - by a reliable source in the queue for the showers - that jockeys' accommodation usually comes with a sauna for last-minute weight loss, so swings and roundabouts.

Saturday evening drew on and I realised that I like Elfynn more every time I see them, and really didn't understand why they weren't on the main stage. And then there was Urusen, over in the BBC Introducing tent, who I first wrote about a couple of years ago and who have recently been recording an album at Peter Gabriel's Real World Studios. They generated some real excitement and quite right too: their songs sound as if they are perpetually on the cusp of breaking out into Mumford-style stompers but only get there often enough to leave you wanting more. They were transcendent.

Seeing The Waterboys was also a *significant musical experience* for me. I've owned three of their albums over the years, all of which have been nicked. And as a youngster I read a review of The Whole of the Moon in Melody Maker, by a journalist called Chris Roberts, which made such an impression on me that I thought for the first time that writing for a newspaper might be a good way to earn a living. I can't find a copy of that review anywhere, despite having spent quite some time looking.

So forget Robyn Hitchcock: for shamanistic endeavour Steve Wickham would win hands down. The Waterboys' fiddler looks as if he knows stuff about music, an impression that was enhanced by, as far as I can remember, his saying nothing at all. When they played that song a little knot in my gut undid itself and I might as well have floated off into the night sky. Thank you and a very good night to you too.

On Sunday morning the first thing I really noticed was a man dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow buying coffee, closely followed by a woman dressed as a banana holding hands with a child dressed as a child. There was a 24-hour cafe on the campsite called In the Night Garden, which coupled with the "family friendly" nature of Wychwood and the fact that it's not noticeably any different from any other festival I've been to - just more munchkins - made me wonder whether there is something about festivals that addresses the changing position of children in British society?

I mean, I know it's good for adults and children to enjoy things together but is it right to take children camping in an environment where there is so much drinking going on? And aren't parents making a rod for their own backs by taking their kids somewhere with so much potential for pester power? Every child there, although they were a well-behaved lot, appeared to be in some kind of pricey-looking festival outfit. And what will they do as teenagers to distinguish themselves socially if they've already done the festival circuit with their mums and dads? I just ask the questions...

Roddy Woomble was, I think, mistakenly introduced as Roddy Womble (relating to the above). I had to get closer to the stage to realise that Woomble was the one sitting unassumingly to the side and not, as I'd prejudged, in the middle. His bass player had a lovely Aran waistcoat and when they played a song about Scotland they made it rain. I liked them so much I bought a CD.

Segue of the afternoon was from Woombles to Wurzels. But sadly I missed them doing I've got a brand new combine harvester because I was in the big top tent mesmerised by Chapelier Fou, one of two French acts sent on a grant to show us how it's done over there. He sampled his own fiddle playing, mixed it with electronica and topped it off with perfect English grammar. "I am French. But do not worry: I will not be singing. Please may I have fewer lights?" Carla Bruni would have been proud of the ambassadorial qualities that he and Moussu T et les Jovants - the second French act - displayed. Women appeared involuntarily to gravitate, fascinated, toward Chapelier Fou's brand of uninhibited geekiness, until there was a sizeable crescent of them gathered around the front of the stage.

I tore myself away in time to catch The Wurzels' brilliant version of Ruby (originally by The Kaiser Chiefs), which had a chorus that went Ruby Ruby Ruby Ruby, ooh-ah ooh-ah ooh-ah. Laugh? I nearly burst my smocking.

Eddi Reader had told me earlier that she became a musician out of loneliness. "I relied on singing to keep myself company when I was very small. That and the guitar I acquired when I was ten became my lifelong solace and companion through the vagaries of dealing with the human race."

But she's obviously had some practice with people since, for one of her audience was clamouring for her attention so loudly that she told him to take off his fright wig before she did it for him and stuck it up his a*** At that point the wig was tossed on stage, where Reader put it on and then did a passable impression of Susan Boyle singing Memory from Cats. The frightfully drunk owner of the wig was twice seen being escorted form the grounds by security but had clearly dug a tunnel in preparation for this eventuality, as he was back again for the finale.

Transglobal Underground were very exciting. But the last big noise of the weekend for me was ahab, a five-piece country-and-western-style boy band from Hackney and thereabouts - not to be confused with a German "doom metal" outfit of the same name - who were invited to play their first festival at Cropredy last year. Someone had dropped out and a video they'd submitted of themselves busking on Brick Lane was unearthed. Wychwood was only their second festival but they and their plaid shirts stormed the big top and one can very easily imagine a future in which they get taken to the bosom of Nashville. They sing important-sounding songs about girls, do four-part harmony as if they were born to it and come highly recommended by The Glamour Cave.

For them, I should think it was the second of a million festivals.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

** This just in from Eliza Carthy on Twitter: "The blood gets there after the rufie in your drink causes you to fall on your nose. As if my nose needed further squashing."

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

How to get yourself on Later With Jools Holland

At the moment there's one dedicated music programme on British terrestrial television with more credibility than any other and it arrives in series, with lengthy gaps between them. The folk bands that have made it to Later With Jools Holland are extremely thin on the ground, which is a shame, particularly because it's a taste-former.

This makes it exciting - not everyone who appears on it has a record deal or label - but also, in these days of infinite internet variety, a kind of promised land. So how does one appear on Later?

Harriet Simms, of Glass Ceiling PR, does press and marketing for Bellowhead, who've hit BBC Two's sunlit musical plateau three times, including one new year's appearance on Hootenanny. "There are two people whose opinions count more than anyone else's on that programme and they are the producers, Mark Cooper and Alison Howe. But there's no set way to get their attention," she said.

"The way it worked for Bellowhead was that I sent a CD and then followed it up with press information and an invitation asking whether they'd like to come to a gig. But the producers of Later are very difficult to plug in the conventional sense because they're very aware musically and already know what they like. I was quite fortunate that Bellowhead struck a chord, so to speak.

"They seem keen on every show having a sort of rhythm or theme, which I don't think always makes sense to the viewers. But there is method there.

"It's hard for folk musicians to get on because not many of them are on the kind of labels that have dedicated TV pluggers and are competing against bands that do." I was momentarily thrown by that, but Harriet said yes, TV plugger is a real job, made possible by the large amounts of money that a band can generate with the exposure that results from appearing on TV (the kind of tautology that could drive a struggling musician to drink). "Being on Later can make a huge difference in terms of profile, CD sales and gig attendance. I know that Bellowhead's sales rocketed after their first appearance, even more so after the second.

"It's more likely that a band with control over its own destiny would dabble in having a dedicated TV plugger to see whether it's worth the money. I think Seth Lakeman had one for a while - but it's very time consuming to get artists noticed.

"If you've been on Later once, though, and proved you can work a room I think there's a strong chance you'll get invited back. It seems to me that folk artists have an edge there, since they generally know their instruments and are used to playing live. So in that respect the show works well for them."

Others who have appeared include The Unthanks, Eliza Carthy and The Imagined Village - which is interesting because Simon Emmerson recently told me that their first album didn't make much, suggesting that Later is, for all its promise, no magic wand.

During the course of our conversation Simms indicated that it might be worth trying to catch up with a woman called Karen Williams, who owns an agency called Big Sister, to get a perspective from farther uphill. "She's usually to be seen in the studio audience when you watch the show because she's a dedicated TV plugger who has someone on nearly every week. She has the reputation of being the very best."

"Ha! I'm usually hiding from people round the corner in makeup," said Williams, when after several days pestering I finally got hold of her. I was aware - because I'd been told - that the reason she was elusive was because she'd had meetings about the Arctic Monkeys and Kaiser Chiefs. She, like Simms, emphasised the suzerainty of Mark Cooper and Alison Howe at Later.

It was Williams who represented Seth Lakeman for a while. "I'm not sure that Seth did Later though... he did the Mercury Prize and it was that which turned people's heads. But I was brought in by Relentless, which is part of Virgin - although I believe he brought the Mercury nominated record out himself, didn't he? I think Relentless thought of me because I'd done KT Tunstall, which was as close as I'd been to anything folky then."

Talking to Williams was illuminating as much for what she didn't say as what she did. There was an evasion in her answers that, as a younger person, I used to mistake for an arrogance towards the press that sometimes comes with success. But these days it's clearer that succeeding in highly competitive fields - such as the one that in which Williams is a big fish - is largely about the quality of the relationships you form. That being the case, expressing strong opinions about your work environment is usually unwise. Shark infested waters.

"It's a ridiculous way to make a living, isn't it?" she laughed. "I think I at least know of all the people in the country who do my job. I got here through the secretarial route - though I don't know whether someone could do that any more. I worked at RCA as a secretary and went to the marketing department, where I started to help out with television. I've done it now for 20 years at various different companies, before setting up on my own.

"The television landscape has changed a lot in that time. Later is the one that all the musicians want to be on. But there used to be Saturday morning kids' shows [that featured bands]. They've all gone now. And they've been replaced by Alan Carr and Graham Norton.

"The demise of Top of the Pops was a great shame from my point of view. But there's still a chart, which you can hear on Radio One. It's just come to be dominated by Simon Cowell." Ever pragmatic, she refused to be drawn much on the subject. "If Ollie Murs is what gets a 14-year-old girl into music these days, then her tastes will probably evolve as she grows older," she demurred.

She made all the expected noises about how lucky she is to work with so many talented musicians and how she needs to feel passionate about a band in order to work with them. But the real questions are how lucky and how passionate? After all, everyone has to make a living. I found myself wondering whether she'd take someone on just because she liked them? "It would be foolish for me to suggest that spending money on a TV plugger, and on me in particular, wouldn't be money well spent, wouldn't I?" she said, truncating the possibility of that conversation.

So then, what'll get you on Later with Jools Holland is money and luck: nothing much to knock your socks off there. I could have asked Williams how much she charges, but she was very good at marking her territory - I'd already got it in the neck once for my persistence in getting hold of her - and I doubt very much that she would have answered me. It felt like a case of if you have to ask you can't afford her... Power has its own logic.

* If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in How Seth Lakeman's music ended up on Coast

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page and then use the drop-down menu to indicate that it's one of your "interests". This will enhance the possibility that you'll get them. You could also follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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