High & Lonesome is the very latest addition to the UK festival circuit. Created as a grand celebration of the influence of Americana on modern music, it is the vision of Nick Simcock of the Leeds independent label Dead Young Records and locally-based singer-songwriter Harry Ridgway. The one day event is taking place across three of Leeds’ top independent venues – Belgrave Music Hall, Holy Trinity Church and Oporto – with a series of additional fringe events being held in the top bar of Whitelock’s, the city’s oldest public house.
Proceedings get under way at lunchtime in Oporto – a vibrant bar in the city centre of Leeds and home to the long standing and truly excellent Monday night Gaslight Club – and by mid-afternoon a sizeable crowd has gathered there to enjoy the impressive orchestral folk of local quintet Hunting Bears, three of whose number are shortly back on stage in the absence through illness of Boss Caine. Reece Jacob, alongside Alice Phelps and Mary-Jane Walker on their respective upright bass and violin perform a delightful little set which heralds the release of Jacob’s EP Ladybird in February and captures the true essence of modern Americana by embracing the core elements of country, folk and bluegrass.
A short walk across town to the city’s Northern quarter takes you to the Belgrave Music Hall and Canteen. Having opened just over a year ago, the former recreation hall and nursery school and now independent music, art, film and food venue is a wonderful location in which to experience live music. Farewell J.R – the Cambridge-based band of that name – comes stripped-back courtesy of their frontman Nick Rayner. Looking and sounding as if he could have just stepped off the cover of The Band’s eponymous second album, Rayner’s music appears as a beautiful, ghostly apparition of forgotten times.
Another collective to perform in its most singular form is Ajimal. Newcastle’s collaborative project is also represented here by their leader, Fran O’Hanlon. Alternating between guitar and keys his is a powerful study in childhood and maturity; a stunning evocation of thoughts and feelings brought to a musical life that draws positive comparisons with Jeff Buckley.
The High & Lonesome evening is split evenly between Belgrave Music Hall and Holy Trinity Church with three of the event’s headliners appearing in the glorious, ethereal surroundings of the Grade 1 listed Georgian church that also serves as a community arts centre. The first of those acts, Ellen and the Escapades never fail to impress. Appearing tonight as an unplugged quartet, the spiritual environment seems to further catalyse their music, transforming relatively newer songs ‘I Just Can’t Love You Any More’ and ‘Nowhere Man’ into soul-gospel jewels and infusing their parting shot, ‘Coming Back Home’ with a most divine passion.
Just turned 23, the Highlands’ songstress Rachel Sermanni has a talent that defies mere age.Her songs straddle the divide between innocence and experience, balancing her natural tender romanticism with a wider world view. She is joined by Thomas Terrell – with whom she had also performed earlier in the day at Belgrave – for an exquisite, gentle lullaby before fittingly signing-off with ‘Song For A Fox’, the very last song on her debut album Under Mountains.
Patrick Wolf tells us he has a lot on his mind. He volunteers this information at the end of an occasionally very uncomfortable hour and a half spent in his company and this goes some way to explaining the wildly erratic nature of his performance. He alternates between a Danemann upright piano, violin and an electric guitar – which at his own admission he has not yet fully mastered – yet, strangely, does not even touch the harp which sits lifeless centre stage for the duration of his set. And it is perhaps the instrument changes by this supremely talented musician (‘Teignmouth’ and a truly stunning ‘Theseus’ are firm testament to this ) yet clearly troubled individual that appear to accurately reflect the vagaries of his emotional well-being on the night.
Yet for all of the dramatic vicissitudes in Wolf’s emotional and artistic fortune tonight, this does not detract remotely from the fact that High & Lonesome has been a wonderful experience. Owing much to a lovely, relaxed atmosphere throughout and the bold ambition and careful planning of the event’s organisers – and no little to the wonderfully diverse array of musical talent on display – High & Lonesome’s inaugural year has to go down as an unqualified success.
Some more photos from High & Lonesome can be found here