Thursday, 25 August 2016

Folk East 2016 - A Volunteer's Tale

I'd never been to a folk festival before. There, I admitted it. Mind you, until 2008 I'd not been to any music festival of any description - the late Mrs A had a pathological fear of using toilets in a field. This meant that, although we were both avid and regular gig-goers, our musical forays always ended with us tucked up in a proper bed, either back home or in a local hotel.

Since 2008, I haven't missed a Latitude and, since giving up work two and a half years ago I have got into the habit of volunteering for all sorts of music and arts festivals, as well as becoming part of the volunteer front of house team at the local arts centre. So this year I thought it really was time to spread my wings and offer myself to one of this region's biggest folk festivals, Folk East.

I had always enjoyed folk acts, and remember seeing the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in the seventies whilst still at high school. Then came my pharmacy degree course at Chelsea College that started in 1976, just as punk was kicking off in the Kings Road, and it kind of changed my musical direction somewhat.

Latterly I have started to appreciate folk music again, probably as a result of the fantastic range of acoustic acts that have played the Norwich venues, a combination of local acts as well as those from further afield, and those from across the pond that tend to get labelled as 'Americana'. One of the regular promoters of 'folk' gigs at Norwich Arts Centre were John and Becky Marshall-Potter, who I first met at one of their Folk East nights almost two years ago. This year, I finally got to sign up as a volunteer for this year's festival in the grounds of Glemham Hall in Suffolk. This is the story of my weekend.

Glemham Hall is an Elizabethan stately home owned by the Cobbold brewing family since 1923. Situated on the A12, just a few miles south of the turn off for Aldburgh and Snape Maltings, the hall has hosted Folk East within its 300 acres of grounds since 2012. I needed to arrive in time for a volunteer briefing at 12 noon on the Thursday, and was told that I could arrive to pitch my tent any time after the campsite opened at 10am.

On-Duty. The Lowdown

The Volunteers - A complete mixture - singles and couples, students and retired folk. Some had already worked at several festivals this summer, some had not even been to a music festival before, ever! By the end of the weekend we were like one big happy family.

Volunteer camping - Volunteers could camp either in the main public camping (if wanting to be with ticket holding friends and family), or in the artist and crew campsite close to the backstage area. There are a larger number of showers and Portaloo toilets in the main campsite, though the number in crew camping were more than adequate for the number using them. A separate camping area known as 'Morris Town', adjacent to crew camping, was provided for the large influx of morris dancers. In addition to those sleeping under canvas, there were a large number of trailer caravans and motorhomes in all camping areas, and chemical toilet emptying points were provided, along with drinking water standpipes, and the full range of recycling, composting and landfill bins.

Catering - There were a wide range of reasonably priced food outlets in the main festival site (my favourite was the Billy Burgers, made from 100% goat meat), but volunteers are provided with breakfast each day, and a free meal for every four-hour shift completed. This was provided by the lovely Anglia Catering Services, whose bacon and egg rolls were the most welcome start to each day. Lunch was usually a help-yourself filled baguette with ham, cheeses and salads to choose from, and a hot meal was provided in the evenings. Tea and coffee was also available.

Volunteer Shifts - our volunteer coordinator bent over backwards to make sure that our shifts did not clash with any acts that we particularly wanted to see, and tried to allocate duties according to preference and experience. As well as traffic duties on the external gates, volunteers were also needed on internal gates between the different parts of the site, as well as stewards for each of the six stages, help with recycling, assisting with accessible camping, and manning information points. No volunteer shifts started before 9am, and none ended after 11.30pm. Shifts lasted a maximum of four hours, though these could be split into 2 x 2hr if preferred. Most of us did one shift per day, although some did extra, simply because we are nice like that. Over the five days from arrival on Thursday to leaving on Monday, I did four shifts on external gates, one stewarding the indoor Broad Roots Stage, and one backstage at the Soapbox Stage. I was well lucky. Most of my gate duties were in the morning, starting at 9am, meaning that I hardly missed any of the music programme.

Alcohol and Smoking - Smoking is not permitted whilst on duty, and neither is alcohol. Whilst you were allowed to have a drink before going on duty it goes without saying that anyone turning up the worse for wear would not have been allowed to commence their shift. You are allowed to have your mobile phone with you for urgent use only.

Radios, High-Vis Vests and Lanyards - For all shifts, we were required to report to the Production Tent fifteen minutes before the start of a shift, and were issued with high-vis vests, our ID lanyards and, if appropriate, a short wave radio handset. All these needed to be returned at the end of each shift.

Off-Duty - The Lowdown

The Festival Site - This is a small, friendly festival, and you soon find your way around the site, and regularly bump into fellow volunteers as well as people that you have previously stood next to at a stage or met in the bar, or that you helped onto site earlier in the day. Do not be surprised to find yourself standing next to one of the artists that you saw on stage only a few hours previously. A lot of them are here for the whole weekend.

The Bars - There are two main ones, the appropriately named 'Cobbold Arms' (next to the food tent), and the smaller 'Hop Inn', in the Broadwalk. Both operate a deposit system, which I did not initially crack. The beer was priced at an incredibly reasonable £3 a pint, although if you needed a plastic glass there was a 10p refundable deposit. I must have chucked about a dozen of these away before finally buying a £2 souvenir glass and subsequently finding that the price of a pint had dropped from £3.10 to £3.00. The range of 16 real ales was impressive, although I followed my time-honoured habit of sticking with Adnams simply because it would invariably be the first to run out. I was not wrong, although by the end of Sunday evening a concerted effort by the Morris Dancers and hardened Folkeys meant that every one of the Suffolk real ales on offer had been finished off.

Both bars were always a magnet for anyone wanting to join in with a song, or to play along with an instrument (Almost everybody seemed to be a musician - I felt so inadequate in comparison!)

The Stages -  Whilst the Sunset Stage was the focal point of the set, and home to headliners Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band, Blowzabella and Usher's Island, there were five other stages - two within the Broad Roots tent, a Dance Tent featuring tea dances and ceilidhs, a special 'Garden Stage' on the Sunday and, my favourite, the wonderful Soapbox Stage curated by Amy Wragg, a little paradise in the woods with its own bar, and that hosted some of the most exciting sets of the entire weekend. And it was all powered by the Solar Decker, a bus equipped with an array of solar panels.

The Sunset Stage

The Broad Roots Stage

The Soapbox Stage

Power for the Soapbox Stage from the Solar Decker

Best Bits (Music)

 Despite my claims of not being a folk-music aficionado (I've already seen Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band, Blowzabella, and Honey & The Bear in the past twelve months, as well as Norwich acts The Georgia Shackleton Trio, and Alden, Patterson & Dashwood), I do seem to have quite a bit in my CD collection. These are some of my personal highlights from the weekend :-

Grace Petrie - folk singer, songwriter and activist from Leicester. Performing on the Soapbox Stage just after the 9 o'clock watershed on Saturday night, Petrie is just the rocket that Jeremy Corbyn needs to cement and reunite the Labour Party. If she could win me over (a lapsed middle class property-owning socialist with savings in the bank), she could sort out anyone with her uncompromisingly direct, yet personable and well-humoured assault on our consciences. If she can win over Folk East she can win over the whole country.Love her.

Grace Petrie

Fishclaw - a five piece from Colchester who worked the Soapbox crowd into a sweat on Saturday night. Call it prog-folk if you must.

Band of Fools - European 'gypsies' from Wivenhoe who know how to party , and push the boundaries of folk music. Did you know that Boney M's 'Rasputin' was actually a folk tune? No, neither did I!

The King Driscolls -  A wonderfully entertaining folk band who played the Sunset Arena on the Friday, then turned up again on the Sunday on the Soapbox Stage. Despite problems with a guitar with a neck about to snap, and a singer with a lower back about to snap, these guys were the best.

The King Driscolls

Alaska Hart - Previously seen in 'Wildlife' at this year's Norfolk and Norwich Festival, Alaska's delicate voice and gentle guitar charmed the Soapbox stage as part of Access to Music's contribution to the weekend.

Alaska Hart

BROADS / Alex Carson Trio - two Norwich acts with very different styles premiering a soundtrack to material from the East Anglian Film Archive. Neither can be described as 'folk' per se, but the nature of the material made a spellbindingly relevant contribution to Sunday evening.

Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band - a whirlwind of a performance from Eliza and her band that never fell short of expectations. Even a sudden loss of light and power to the main stage half way through their set failed to knock them off balance. Perfect.

Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band

Blowzabella - Musical maestros with a set that that included a virtuoso solo by Gregory Jolivet on the vielle à roue (that's a type of hurdy gurdy to you and me), and a selection of instruments including saxophones, accordions and bagpipes. Another spellbinding headliner on the Sunset Arena.


Gilmore & Roberts - Thwarted by strong winds that forced the Sunset Stage to close for a time on Saturday afternoon, Gilmore & Roberts simply de-camped to the food tent and performed their set there instead. Beautiful and intimate for those lucky enough to get in.

Gilmore & Roberts

Honey and The Bear - Jon and Lucy always charm every audience they play to, and Friday teatime's slot on the Broad Roots Stage was no exception. And a pleasure to see 'Bertha' the double bass again, as well.

Honey & The Bear

Peter Knight and John Spiers - Two superstars of folk making it look 'oh so easy' in the Broad Roots Stage on Friday. Pure class.

Peter Knight (Steeleye Span) and John Spiers (Bellowhead)

Georgia Shackleton Trio - Georgia, Noel and Nic looking really comfortable on the main Sunset Stage on Sunday. A Norfolk personal favourite of mine.

Georgia Shackleton

Alden, Patterson and Dashwood - Noel Dashwood pops up again on the Soapbox Stage as part of this Norwich trio. Always a pleasure.

Alden, Patterson & Dashwood (but not necessarily in that order)

Dingus Khan - a bit of a wildcat act to close the Soapbox Stage late on Sunday night before Ben Ward takes his other band, Superglu, off to Reading and Leeds to headline the BBC Introducing Stage. Wonderfully shambolic unplugged set that ended a memorable weekend.

Ben Ward from Dingus Khan

Best Bits (Non-Music)

The Giant Jackaloupe - crafted out of straw the jackaloupe dominated the main arena, and the antlered hare also provided the logo for this year's festival.

The Morris Dancers and The Mummers - Not since I went to the Rochester Sweeps Festival ten years ago have I seen so many Morris Dancers in one location. Not only did they have their own camping area, but they had TWO stages on which to perform. The Mummer plays were performed on these stages and at various points around the site. Amazing to watch, and also to experience the friendly rivalry between troupes and marvel at the costumes.

Dwile Flonking - created in the 1960s as a pub game inspired by Michael Bentine's Potty Time, this, as we were constantly reminded, is NOT a drinking game, even though contestants may be forced to drink large quantities of ale out of a 'guzunder' by way of a penalty. Ably demonstrated by members of The Cobble Inn.

Dwile Flonking

Pigeon Plucking Competition - A contest open to anyone brave enough to handle a dead pigeon, and with a proper trophy for the winner presented by Philip Hope Cobbold of Glemham Hall, the resulting sea of feathers turned the outside of the food tent into looking like the scene of a massacre. Do not fear. Wood pigeons are classified as vermin, and their numbers have to be controlled by shooting in agricultural areas. They were not shot just for fun.

The Broadwalk - Home to the 'Hop Inn', as well as a bewildering array of musical instrument manufacturers and more food stalls. I would often stop to listen to musicians trying out a new instrument, or taking part in a musical workshop.


I have to say that this was probably the best festival that I have attended in years, either as a volunteer or customer. Everybody was so friendly that it was a pleasure to work my shifts, as well as enjoy my down time. Nearly everybody vowed to be back in 2017, and I will definitely be there. The weather did, at times, cause some problems with the strong winds, although luckily most of the rain fell overnight.

My advice to anyone thinking of volunteering for next year's Folk East is to follow their Facebook page, and check out their website in the Spring of next year. In the meantime, watch out for any Folk East events happening near you through the Autumn and Winter.

Thank you to John and Becky, and all the Folk East staff, for making the whole weekend such a pleasure, and a resounding success.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Sonic Youths Celebrate Their 2nd Birthday at Norwich Arts Centre

Have you ever wondered why Norwich now has such a lively music scene, and why there seem to be so many talented local acts playing regularly across the city's venues? Well some of it is organic - there are bands like Magoo that led the way more than twenty years ago that are still playing today. Guitarist Owen Turner now runs a recording studio in Norfolk where young artists can take advantage of the facilities as well as picking up tips and advice. 

There is a network of artists who seem to hang out at each other's gigs, and many have a loyal fanbase that turn out to each and every show, as well as downloading or buying any recorded material. Once you start frequenting pubs and bars like The Plasterers, The Murderers, The Birdcage, and Gonzo's it is not long before you start recognising familiar faces, both in the audience and on the stage. You also rapidly become aware that edges blur as the folk scene overlaps with the indie scene, which merges into rock, metal, rap and eventually comes full circle into jazz and blues.

Promoters like Barefoot Records, Odd Box, and Ian Hudson (who books acts for The Bicycle Shop as well as Eaton Park Café) act as catalysts, putting artists in touch with the venues, and ensuring that we have a constant stream of events to attend.

And then, of course, we have a fantastic network of individuals and organisations that actively seek out and encourage the next generation of up and coming musicians. No-one can ignore the importance and the help from the likes of  BBC Introducing, but on a local scale we also have Access to Music, Culture Works East, The Garage, Young Norfolk Arts Trust, The Tilting Sky, and, of course, Norwich Arts Centre's Sonic Youths, a regular showcase for 14-19 year olds curated by the legendary Annie Catwoman.

Usually held on a Saturday lunchtime in the Café Bar of the Norwich Art Centre, but having recently ventured to The Chantry for this year's Lord Mayor's Celebrations, and as far as the Inbetweeners Stage at Latitude and making an appearance at this year's Worsted Festival, Sonic Youths provides a showcase for any local young musicians between the ages of 14 and 19. Held roughly every three months, call outs for demos normally appear via the Art Centre, but also on their own Facebook page at . Any genre of music is welcomed, and a typical showcase can include a post-punk band playing alongside a singer-songwriter, an experimental jazz and electronic fusion duo and a hip-hop act. Like Forrest Gump would say, 'You never know what you're gonna get'.

It is hard to believe that Sonic Youths has only been in existence for two years, but, true enough, this month saw them celebrate their second birthday with an evening show at Norwich Arts Centre, bringing together five acts that have graced the Café Bar over the past two years. Having last week felt guilt-tripped into volunteering to man the front desk and ticket office for the event, it was a lovely surprise to turn up at the venue on Tuesday only to find that another volunteer had also turned up and was happy to do the shift. Result! I will get to watch all five acts after all!

The evening started off with Mullally, a young man with an incredible voice who first appeared at the March 2015 showcase, but has since gone on to massive success with the song Troubled Love, which has clocked up almost 1.4 million listens on Spotify. The recorded version comes with electronic samples and beats, but when he played it at the Sonic Youths showcase last year it was just him and an acoustic guitar. Tonight's set is a loose, free-flowing affair with a free-styling acoustic accompaniment, but it is a neo-soulful voice that is so unforgettable, whichever way you hear it. Now a graduate of Norwich's Access to Music, Mullally is playing gigs around London, so we were really pleased to have him back in Norwich for this opening set. 


No sooner had Mullally finished his set and Annie Catwoman and her megaphone are ushering us from the main auditorium and into the Café Bar for tonight's youngest performer, 16 year old Sadie Nencini. Sadie played her first ever public set here just five months ago, and it is lovely to see her back. One thing she will learn about Sonic Youths is that once Annie has you under her wing you will be nurtured and followed every step of the way with a keen interest. Sadie writes her own songs, and has a delicate, almost fragile, voice that combines some heartfelt lyrics with sensitive guitar work. She still has a way to go in terms of confidence, but the fact that she is happy to play in front of so many people at such an auspicious occasion deserves full credit.

Sadie Nencini

Abigail Blake played the first ever Sonic Youths showcase back in August 2014 (you see, Sadie, I did warn you that once Annie gets her claws into you, you will never escape!) and back then she, too, was singing and playing an acoustic guitar over a Saturday lunchtime in the Café Bar. Now, two years later she is back, playing the main stage as a 21 year old alumini of Sonic Youths.

Abigail has been causing quite a flutter around Norwich, with people talking about this exciting female singer who plays harp and loops it into electronic music from a laptop. I was lucky enough to see her supporting Avec Sans at The Waterfront Studio a few months back, and can vouch that everything you've heard is almost certainly true. A former student who went off to study audio production at college, Abigail is now back in Norwich and playing gigs again. Together with Clare (the harp) and an I-Mac (who may or may not have a name?), the result is a captivating exercise in combining a traditional instrument and harnessing its sound with modern electronic sampling and loop work. Add to that a captivating voice and some lovely songs, and you have a unique performer with contemporary appeal. Oh, and a model bracheosaurus. But that's another story.

Abigail Blake

We are ushered again into the bar where the duo of Dominic Trevor and Alex Guy, otherwise known as Jaztec, are set up and ready to go. Dominic is also plays tenor saxophone with Lobster, a local  jazz-funk collective of nine youngsters (plus or minus a few depending on the night) whose infectious rhythms were also featured at that very first Sonic Youths showcase. Jaztec is a new venture in which Dominic's saxophone mixes with electronic soundscapes created on laptops and keyboards by Alex. The resulting blend was premiered in March this year (again, at a Sonic Youths showcase), and has also created quite a stir locally. There seems to be a real appetite for this use of traditional instruments alongside electronic music, and when the technology works correctly it is a joy to hear live.

Tonight all seems to go well, and the set gets a great reception. It must be Dominic's furry squirrel ears that did the trick, or just the karma that comes with wearing your Sonic Youths t-shirt to your performance.


And so to the night's final (for 'headlining' would perhaps be against the spirit of Sonic Youths) act, the awesome post-punk trio led by guitarist and vocalist Jess Page Jarrett, backed up with purposeful bass player Zachary Nunns and energetic drummer Michael Trayhurn. Together they are Midnight Zoo, a band that I have had the pleasure to see play several times over the last twelve months, and leave me breathless with admiration each and every time. 

Tonight's set, with their name emblazoned across the back of the stage amidst mountain scenery, was probably the best I have seen, even if Jess lost his momentum momentarily when a string appeared to break on his guitar. These three guys give so much in their music, and have extraordinary stage presence. People have compared them with Joy Division, which I have always claimed is rather unfair, as it carries the stigma of the poisoned chalice, but I can see what they mean. However, songs like Reproduction, Ride The Tide and An Ode really mark these boys out as a band to watch grow (although Jess certainly does not need to grow any more in height). One of my favourite local bands, for sure.

Midnight Zoo

And so that was it. The first two years, but hopefully many more talent-packed showcases to come. With Craig Hill's Tilting Sky on Saturday, and Tuesday's Sonic Youths showcase at the Arts Centre, I had seen 16 up-and-coming local acts in the space of four days, and whilst it was somewhat of a sacrifice to give up two sunny August evenings in one week, it was a labour of love that I certainly do not regret. I just feel so proud of all the artists that are making my home city's music scene the most exciting that it has been in years. Seek out and support them all, and buy their albums, EPs and singles when you get the chance. It is your patronage that they will initially depend on for their continued success.