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Saturday, 28 July 2012

Forbes Legato takes Cambridge

It's been a long year since I had the honour of meeting Forbes Legato at the 2011 Warwick folk festival. At least it has for me - he seemed remarkably untouched by the passing of time, cocooned perhaps by his legendary misanthropy.

There he is, nose in the air.

If you remember, Legato has several recording credits to his name - honestly, he does, I'm not joking, look at the CD covers - most recently arising from his association with Pilgrim's Way.

When I ran into Forbes's business associates, Jon and Gill Loomes, at The Music Room instrument shop at the Cambridge folk festival, I seized the opportunity to ask how he'd been?

"Drinking heavily," said the long-suffering Jon, who's given up trying to conceal Forbes's alcoholism - he's over-partial to tequila - and was avoiding looking towards the nearby shelf on which the crabby cat was perched.

"He's also been swearing a lot and generally giving us a hard time.

"But there's a new Pilgrim's Way album on the way - 'the ginger gits' as Forbes calls them. The tunes are all ready to go and Forbes has cleared some studio time for it in September."

Pilgrim's Way are playing at Cambridge this evening in the Club Tent.

Just don't ask about Legato's recent visit to Catford. Loomes says Legato had a narrow escape coming across the Isle of Dogs and he's been extra antisocial ever since. The cat's back.

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Thursday, 19 July 2012

Spirit of Play's tribute to the (probable) discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle

Here's a singularity.

Spirit of Play were at The Old Queen's Head in Islington last week, where I saw them for - I think - the third time. A good friend, Keith, works for the Times Literary Supplement, and this lot are sub-editors there (everyone needs to unwind somehow). Spelling, grammar, punctuation, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. These are meat and drink to them.

They're geekily, unabashedly academic.

"In the week they discovered the Higgs-Boson particle," said Lucy Dallas, Spirit of Play's lead singer,  "the least we can do is sing a song about it. This is about someone who can't make up their mind."

The fish finger sandwich I was eating nearly reemerged via my nose, so sudden was my urge to laugh.

The question posed, you see, is whether the entity at the heart of the song is a wave or a particle? This is the uncertainty principle but, frankly, who hasn't been there? "Don't sweat the small stuff - or maybe you should" runs the caffeine-induced-anxiety lyric, hedging your bets for you, so you don't have to.

Here's a crammer.

The song, Wave or Particle, has appeared on a podcast by Nature magazine, which can evidently spot a good tune without peer review.

And as befits a band that subtitles itself "The most fun you can have in your mortarboard" several of their tongue-in-cheek songs have a higher education theme. Dictaphone Don contains the line "Take your eyes off that librarian, Let's do something Baudelarian," which alone was worth the two and a half mile walk to the pub. It may confirm your prejudices about academics if I say that they're also rather absent minded, in the sense that their website needs updating. Tsk.

They're wry, funny, perhaps a little prim: unlike anything else you'll stumble across at a festival this summer and well worth a look.

* More geekiness, of The Mediaeval Baebes variety here.

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Monday, 16 July 2012

British folk music gets its own satellite

Ladies and gentlemen, in the blue corner I give you Rupert Murdoch, the owner of Sky TV, among many other media outlets. And in the red corner we have Charles and Heather Denscombe, a pair of retired teachers who have built their own outside broadcast van and will be streaming the Shrewsbury folk festival over the internet to tens of thousands of people in more than 35 countries later on this summer - if last year was anything to go by - free at the point of use.

This is a story of old media versus new.

Before I elaborate, here's a picture of Britain's first folk music satellite.

OK. Not so much a picture as an artist's impression of Hylas 1, which is owned by Hughes and rents enough capacity to Mr and Mrs Denscombe all year round, via a company called Avanti, for an unlimited number of people to watch their webcast at any given time. And what the Denscombes use it for, 98 per cent of the time, is streaming high definition images of folk music from festivals. It's a folk music satellite.

This big thing had a small beginning. Neil Pearson, one of the three directors of the Shrewsbury festival, explained that the people at the back of the tent couldn't see very well.

"Our main stage is in a big tent that holds about three and a half thousand people and the view at the back is from some distance. So we decided we needed to put up screens either side of the stage. [The Denscombes] supplied footage for those screens with a five camera shoot the first time. That was 2008.

"Everything that was filmed was also recorded, purely for on-site reasons. Then the next year we thought 'Well, we can do this. So what else can we do with this technology?' We'd had some feedback and comments and some people said that they would have loved to have seen the main stage at certain points of the day - especially in the evening - but were back at their tent looking after their kids. So we thought about putting wifi around the site.

"The guy who was doing the filming - Charles Denscombe - is a real technology guy, who's interested in working on the margins of what's possible. So we got a wifi network installed around the site and in 2009 everything that was on the screens at the side of the stage was also available on the Shrewsbury festival wifi network.

"Then we looked at the costs and we had this big satellite dish on site, connecting us with broadband via a satellite. This gave us enough capacity to broadcast out as well.

"We needed the satellite for the free wifi - which allowed people to tweet and Facebook about the festival - but in 2010 we were able to webcast the festival and last year 14,500 people in 35 countries watched it."

I first became aware of live webcasting as a result of the buzz around the American festival Bonnaroo this year, which webcast Radiohead's headlining show among others. The buzz among my friends was unavoidable. I knew it was happening because I read them talking about it on Facebook and Twitter beforehand and then I read about it afterwards on Facebook, eventually tuning in to have a look for myself. I caught a replay.

Charles provided the same service for Shrewsbury last year and believes that he's doing something for the first time. "We think of ourselves as the UK's first micro-broadcaster. No one can compete with us because by comparison with traditional outside broadcasting - involving cameramen, cranes swinging around and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of equipment - we could almost turn up for free.

"We're two retired teachers and an eight year old transit van. But we run a system that produces broadcast quality, high definition, high volume television, which we can produce with no intrusion to the paying audience."

This is possible because of a network of static cameras placed around the stage, operated remotely and robotically by one person in the transit. This is usually Heather, who does the vision mixing, although they have an enthusiastic crew of around 12.

"Also we're able to give the performers a DVD of their performance 20 minutes after it's over, to take away and use as they wish. What we often find is that they come back to us and ask for a small amount of re-editing and for us to help them put it up on YouTube."

This year's Shrewsbury tickets, which went on sale in December, were sold out by April, and I wonder whether this might be partly because of Shrewsbury's presence on YouTube. From the point of view of this blog, when I'm looking for video footage to embed in a post to illustrate what a musician does - which, when you think about it, is absolutely central to successfully conveying what I'm on about - I have chosen Shrewsbury footage over and over again because it's high definition and professionally edited, making it miles better than nearly everything else. I was a fan of Charles' and Heather's work before I even knew they existed.

When I spoke to someone from the Cambridge festival - broadcast by Sky - a couple of weeks ago they were only 92 per cent sold out and it's hard to see what else the difference could be? Sky Arts - where Cambridge will be shown this year - is only available to those with a Sky subscription and then only when Sky chooses to broadcast it, whereas Shrewsbury is available for free 24 hours a day, all year round. Ask yourself: which is the better marketing proposal?

Webcasting the festival and then making the footage available is, for practical purposes, exactly the same model as hearing music on the radio several times before deciding to buy a CD. Watching footage from Bonnaroo made me want to go there as well as appreciate the musicians. Obviously, a strong web presence also enhances a festival's appeal to advertisers. 

It's as if someone has pulled all the cabling out of the back of the old model of how to market music and festivals, and is rewiring it for the digital age.  

"I've come to see that there are two types of performers," Mr Denscombe said. "One, who is usually American - let's call them the Thompsons - question what we're up to when they see there are cameras and want to know what their cut is. These guys are used to being filmed for television. But then there are the folk singers who haven't two beans to rub together - which is most of them - who are absolutely delighted with our services because if they had to pay for them in totality they probably couldn't afford them."

So the Denscombes' way of doing things works really well for individual performers, raising their profiles, as well as promoting the genre as a whole.

The Denscombes, who began their business filming nativity plays and weddings, are pushing at the limits of what's technologically possible, using their wits and the technical and engineering skills they learnt partly while they were helping people to pass their GCSE technology. Mrs Denscombe describes her husband as "a bit of an inventor".

They have used the money they got when they retired from teaching to build their outside broadcast van and now they're looking for more work.

* If you run a music festival that's looking to shore up its position in the festival calendar, or know a band with a tour planned that wants to build some momentum, you could reach Charles and Heather here.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook news feed, you could make it so by *liking* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

Friday, 13 July 2012

A musical love letter to Dolly and Emmylou

Dear First Ladies of Country,

I grew up listening to you and number you among my hearth goddesses.

For some reason or other, as well as having music from the folk revival in their collection, my mum and dad are very fond of country and bluegrass. It's probably to do with it being acoustic and preoccupied with love and loss - the staples. My mum and dad are both sentimental old things.

As a result you became part of my musical hinterland, irretrievably embedded in my life, and I love you both for it.

Dolly, I remember when I was barely big enough to see out of the windows, sliding around on the leather back seat of my uncle's Jaguar with my sister and cousin as he went round corners at speed to amuse us, while playing Jolene at enormous volume on his stereo. Not something I'd ever do at the wheel myself these days (they've changed the law on seat belts over here for a start) but it was great fun and we were in a part of the world - Norfolk, UK - where there wasn't much traffic.

And Emmylou, I remember seeing your beautiful face on Bob Harris's Old Grey Whistle Test and thinking, childishly, that you looked like the Queen of America. I later went on to study politics at college, so now realise what was wrong with that particular construction. But if there were any justice I still maintain that you would be.

This post is my tribute to you. More impressively, it contains Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker's tribute to you - Homemade Heartache. This summer in the UK has been a bit of a washout, which is British understatement. But before the skies opened there was a brief blaze of brilliance on Clerkenwell Green in central London, when these two played in the sunshine on an early May evening and said that they'd written this delicately wrought thing for you.

I thought I'd pass it along, in the hope that you'd like it, and also because Josienne and Ben are among the best and hardest working musicians I know and could, frankly, do with some luck. It's a country song made in London, which is probably not unique but does make it at least a little bit special.

I hope you like it as much as I do.

All my love

* If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy this, which is an interview with The Civil Wars.

* If you'd like posts from this blog delivered directly into your Facebook news feed, you could make it so by *liking* its Facebook page. Or follow me @emma1hartley

Monday, 9 July 2012

Steve Knightley on Abbotsbury wash-out

The skies over east Devon and Dorset disgorged an entire month's worth of water on to Abbotsbury and the surrounding area on Friday night, throwing plans for Show of Hands' annual one-day festival at the town's subtropical gardens the next day into chaos. Word went out early on Saturday that the show had been cancelled. Perhaps the Isle of Wight's problems this year had made an impression?

"We'd already invested in the infrastructure - everything was built," said Knightley, Show of Hands' front man. "But we've had a very kind offer from the Wickham festival to let anyone with an Abbotsbury ticket in at no extra cost for Saturday August 4. The show also includes Bellowhead and the Home Service, so it's a good deal. We're hoping that will offset some of our losses.

"The production costs last year came to a bit less than £5,000. That was the crew, the PA and the other stuff we had to put in place - and the crew did their full two days' work for us. But we weren't insured - I don't think there's a company that will cover outdoor music events during the English summer. The extent of the loss depends partly on the musicians. I mean, we wouldn't hit anyone for a fee if we hadn't actually played, but I guess it's up to them if they want to charge us." There's also ticket returns to take into account...

Initially there'd been fighting talk from Knightley, who'd texted over the weekend "Police closed the roads. We were ready to rock!" But as damp reality set in he became more sanguine.

"I was setting off from Exmouth on the Saturday morning and the traffic was extremely difficult. Phil (Beer) was having the same trouble coming in a different direction and we just had to take a view. Then the police shut the Abbotsbury road along the seafront after there was a landslip nearby and reluctantly we had to cancel. It was the right decision, though, because it carried on getting worse.

"It's worrying times because the summer is usually our big earner and all these things have knock-on effects on each other. We're doing a two-day residential workshop at Herstmanceaux castle in east Sussex on July 24/25 with Martyn Joseph guesting. There are 70 spaces but we tend to sell the most tickets for it at Abbotsbury because I mention it on stage and explain about the workshops. There are also sessions but it doesn't have to be participatory." He sounded glum.

"Next weekend we're supposed to be playing at Ely and that's on a floodplain. I just hope it's going to be OK."

So how did he actually spend the weekend? "I sat in the rain and watched the tennis. I also took the kids swimming at the Exeter Golf and Country Club. I should have been on a main stage being a folk god and instead I was being a bedraggled dad."

Here's a song recorded at Herstmonceaux that's (partly) in a major key as a pick-me-up.

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Monday, 2 July 2012

Is the Cambridge folk festival a victim of BBC capriciousness?

It looks as if the Cambridge folk festival will be taking place without a headline sponsor
this time around, which is a shame. Its association with the Co-op came to an end last year with professions of admiration all roundthere are media sponsors and a handful of grants. But I guess the recession's taking its toll.

I've been curious for a while about Cambridge's change from the BBC to Sky Arts for its TV coverage since someone pointed out some Co-op banners to me and commented that the BBC would effectively be advertising the Co-op if it happened to include any banners in its TV coverage - though its charter theoretically prevented that.

Elaine Midgley, the arts and events manager at Cambridge City Council, told me: "The festival used to have headline sponsorship from BBC Radio Two. But they changed their policy recently and don't pay cash money for the branding of events any more, though they do still provide services in kind. So they switched in 2008 from being a sponsor to being a media partner.

"Sky is a sponsor and a media partner, in the sense that they are covering the event and paying for the branding benefits that its association brings. The BBC will be doing highlights programmes and live coverage but Sky has got exclusive rights to TV, whereas the BBC's will be on national radio.

"Sky started two years ago - in 2010 - and I think they're pleased with the results. Apparently Cambridge was the third most watched event of their festival programming last year.

"The BBC has strict guidelines about the terms of what it can and can't cover: the BBC will never be our sponsor again."

I wonder whether the BBC's decision to swap from sponsor to media partner was really provoked by adherence to its own guidelines, or whether it was about saving money? After all, I can think of at least one other part of the BBC's involvement with folk music where the rules have gone out of the window.

The BBC Radio Two Folk Awards has around 170 un-named judges, many of whom have close ties to a relatively small number of bands on the folk scene - and this despite crystal clear BBC guidelines about transparency for awards. It strikes me that the Cambridge folk festival may simply have been unlucky: a victim of capriciousness on the part of a large, powerful organisation with poor internal regulation. The BBC seems to pick and choose when it sticks to its own rules, depending on what suits it at the time.

Midgley said: "Not having a headline sponsor has knocked a big hole in the festival's finances and we'll have to rectify it by finding sponsorship soon. The festival's run on a not-for-profit basis and this makes it hard to invest. We hope that the budget shortfall won't be evident at the front end of the festival - most of the cuts have been behind the scenes, in personnel."

An article in Metro last week suggested that folk festivals are bucking the downward trend in ticket sales. Wouldn't it be great if a new sponsor for Cambridge could be found before this year's event?

* See this year's line-up and buy tickets for Cambridge here. It was 92 per cent sold out when I spoke to Elaine last week. And here's a page about why you might like to sponsor the Cambridge folk fest.

* If you'd like to receive posts from this blog directly into your Facebook newsfeed, you could *like* its Facebook page. Or follow me on Twitter @emma1hartley

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