“Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight.”
When Billy Butlin opened his first holiday camp in 1936 on this self-same site in Skegness, he commandeered the above line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and used it as his new company’s advertising slogan.
More than 80 years later you can find those very words embedded into the walkway just outside of the entrance to Reds – one of the two main music venues here in Skegness – and it is clearly a maxim that the Butlin’s organisation still holds dear.
The Live Music Weekend may be a much more recent phenomenon in Butlin’s long tradition of providing entertainment for the masses, but it still adheres to its founder’s grand vision of wanting to give every single visiting holidaymaker the most fun and enjoyable shared experience imaginable. And towards that end, The Great British Folk Festival – but one of several specialist themed events that take place throughout the year at the Bognor Regis, Minehead and Skegness seaside resorts – is absolutely no exception.
For three days and three nights at Skegness Holiday Park, you can enjoy some tremendous musical contributions from many of the finest British and Irish folk artists that are around today in a most relaxed and convivial environment, one for which the Butlin’s staff should be given the greatest of credit. Their consistently warm, friendly and welcoming presence contributes greatly to the general inclusivity of the all-round Butlin’s experience.
Reds and Centre Stage (with their respective 1500 and 1200 person capacities) share the heavy load for the weekend’s principal acts, but the Skyline Pavilion’s Introducing Stage and Jaks nightclub both provide admirable support for some of the lesser well-known performers.
Friday night begins in earnest on Centre Stage with Winter Wilson, who in the time-honoured tradition are elevated into one of the bigger rooms having been a winning act on last year’s Introducing Stage. And the duo of Kip Winter (vocals, guitar and accordion) and Dave Wilson (vocals and guitar) take full advantage of their promotion, putting in a quite delightful shift of harmonic folk and blues, interlaced with genial self-deprecating humour. They encore with ‘Common Form’, a wonderful acapella inspired by an anti-war poem of Rudyard Kipling.
When he was last here two years ago, Chris Simpson – the founding member and mainstay of hardy prog-folk perennials Magna Carta – had the look of a man who had just lost a small fortune in one of the holiday camp’s amusement arcades. Tonight, though, and backed by an entirely different band – one featuring Albion Band and Steeleye Span guitarist and alumnus Ken Nicol – he is all smiles and his sunnier disposition percolates its way through to a most joyful and uplifting sound.
Eddi Reader exudes a similar positivity. Backed by a cracking five-piece band that includes the critically acclaimed singer-songwriter and her longtime cohort Boo Hewerdine, the Scots chanteuse is the most consummate of performers. She shifts effortlessly through the musical gears, with traditional folk (‘Charlie Is My Darling’), pop (‘Perfect’) and R&B/soul (an absolutely magnificent version of Amy Winehouse’s ‘Love Is A Losing Game’) all falling easily within her grasp.
Backed by an all-Dutch band and reflecting the fact that he has lived in Holland for the past 17 years, it is left to Ian Matthews to draw the veil on Friday night. Can it really be 47 years since Matthews’ Southern Comfort sat on top of the UK chart with their cover version of Joni Mitchell‘s ‘Woodstock’? He does play the song, of course he does, though reworks it for a wholly different generation.
The British just love to queue. And over the course of the weekend The Great British Folk Festival provides us with many fine examples of this most peculiar of pastimes, be it guests standing in line for food at one of the site’s restaurants or their waiting patiently – sometimes for as long as 90 minutes beforehand – for the doors to both Centre Stage and Reds to open so that they can bag the best possible seating in these rooms.
Through these eyes this may all look decidedly odd, but it also illustrates the perfect order, routine, conformity and absolute precision with which the entire weekend operates. The Great British Folk Festival has become a slick and well-oiled machine and it runs like absolute clockwork.
Saturday afternoon commences at a leisurely pace courtesy of Reg Meuross. The Somerset singer-songwriter is easy on the ear, combining his great love of two of his heroes – Dylan Thomas and Hank Williams – on ‘Leaving Alabama’ in eloquent words and song. Over on the Centre Stage with his trio, Ric Sanders limbers up for his performance there later on tonight with the mothership Fairport Convention by bringing a touch of Jimi Hendrix to proceedings when he plays his violin with his teeth. Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley and Lonnie Donegan also all feature in a set that combines the blues, skiffle and jazz virtuosity in equal and impressive measure.
Mutating out of the original Doonan Family Band, The Mighty Doonans have now been an integral part of the British folk scene for nigh on 40 years. Built around the nucleus of brothers Mick and Kevin Doonan the outfit also features various other family members, all coming together to play a fantastic range of traditional dance tunes, sea shanties, not to mention excellent covers of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home To Me’ and Joan Baez’s ‘Silver Dagger’, the latter showcasing a great vocal delivery from Rosie Doonan.
It is little wonder that Joshua Burnell goes on to win the day’s Introducing Stage competition, thus ensuring like Winter Wilson before him an appearance on one of the feature stages next year. The progressive folk-rock songwriter from York and his band survive an extended power cut half-way through their set to soldier on heroically, culminating with a blistering rendition of the 19th-century Northumbrian folk song ‘Blackleg Miner’ (a different version of which had already been played a couple of hours earlier by The Mighty Doonans).
The most enthusiastic audience response of the entire weekend, though, is reserved for Martyn Joseph who puts in an exceptional performance that bubbles over with fire and passion. ‘Please Sir’ is electrifying; ‘Her Name Is Rose’ (written for his mother) is beautiful; a thoroughly deserved encore of ‘Sunday’s Coming’ is rousing. These are invigorating songs, imbued with love, hope and inspiration.
Logistics dictate that the two festival headliners Hothouse Flowers and Fairport Convention perform at the same time on different stages. It is one of the unfortunate consequences of having limited capacity venues, the adverse impact of which is felt even more acutely when the “Full House” sign promptly goes up outside of Centre Stage where the Fairports are playing, thus preventing anyone from alternating easily between the two.
It is Fairport Convention’s final show of 2017 in what is their 50th year of existence. Maybe time is finally catching up with them, as they do feel a little flat tonight though we do get ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes?’ – complete with Simon Nicol’s fond reminiscences of Sandy Denny – a poignant ‘John Condon’ about the Waterford-born 14 year old who was the youngest person to die in uniform in World War 1, and a valedictory blast of ‘Matty Groves’ and ‘Meet On The Ledge’.
For their part, Hothouse Flowers also take their time getting into stride but great covers of Johnny Nash’s ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ and the 19th-century seaport song ‘See-Line Woman’ get several people up on their feet and soon the dance floor at the front of the stage is a seething mass of joyful humanity. Whether this unbridled pleasure is shared by those who remain seated and had queued for ages to secure their prime berths in Reds is a question that is probably still open to debate.
Sunday starts serenely with St Agnes Fountain, playing the second date on what is their 15th consecutive sell-out Christmas tour. Their interpretations of seasonal tunes are all imbued with heart, humour and humility, no more so than on Jackson Browne’s ‘The Rebel Jesus’. Peter Knight and John Spiers (of Steeleye Span and Bellowhead fame, respectively) are also great respecters of tradition, with their fiddle and melodeon combining to stunning effect on a series of mesmerising 17th-century dance tunes and more modern creations.
In closing out the festival, Derbyshire’s Bella Hardy puts in a bravura performance, mixing material from her latest album Hey Sammy – of which the ballad ‘Queen Carter’s Bar’ is a particular highlight – with earlier songs (the concluding ‘Walk It With You’ is exceptional), but this particular Sabbath belongs almost entirely to Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman. The Dartmoor-based couple improve with each passing year, the skill and scope of their supreme talent extending to an intoxicating range of murder ballads, ghost stories, Sandy Denny’s ‘Solo’, and a quite majestic ‘Rusalka’ all of which serve to make folk music more accessible to people of all ages.
And so the seventh Great British Folk Festival comes to an end. It would be no exaggeration to say that this has been the best one yet. It has become an event that remains true to a tried and tested formula – a broad range of first-class folk music played in the most clean, convivial and welcoming of surroundings – and in so doing it continues to produce a most impressive holiday camp festival that is a model of consistency and creation.
The Great British Folk Festival 2017 was held at Butlin’s, Skegness between the 1st and 4th of December.
Additional reporting: Claire Eggleston
Photos: Simon Godley and Claire Eggleston
More photos from this festival can be found HERE