When: 30th August – 1st September 2019
Where: Moseley Park and Pool, Birmingham, England
To enter Moseley Park and Pool from the busy Salisbury Road you go under the park’s wrought-iron sign and down a narrow alleyway that is located somewhat incongruously between a local estate agents and a Pizza Express restaurant. But just like stepping Through the Looking Glass nothing is quite as it seems once you have gone beyond this rather unprepossessing starting point.
You suddenly find yourself transported into another green world, 11 acres of beautiful landscaped parkland, featuring meadows, trees, wildlife and a most enchanting lake. The park itself has remained virtually unaltered for more than a century and offers a delightful oasis of calm from the freneticism of the world outside. It is also the home of the annual Moseley Folk & Arts Festival. And together park and festival combine to provide us with what is an immersive and magical experience.
The festival site is set out in such a way as to take full advantage of Moseley Park and Pool’s natural features. The two main music stages sit cheek-by-jowl at the bottom of a gentle slope, allowing the crowd sat on the bank to have a completely unobstructed view of all the principal live action. The acts alternate, seamlessly, between both stages so if you choose to do so you can stay put in the one spot and not miss a single thing.
A third music stage, the Kitchen Garden Stage, is a short walk away round the edge of the lake and hosts Folk on the Slope. And as it’s name clearly suggests those watching from here do so from a similarly inclined and advantageous position.
But it’s not all about music, though, as the expansion of the festival’s name this year to Moseley Folk & Arts will tell you. There is also an incredibly rich programme of Arts & Crafts, Comedy & Cabaret, Poetry & Literature on offer as well as a number of excellent Talks & Debate, one of the highlights of which is best-selling author and BBC 6 Music presenter Stuart Maconie giving a highly entertaining and informative talk on Sunday afternoon about his recent book The Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now.
But 14 years into its long and established history, music does remain Moseley Folk & Arts’ staple fare and this particular festival journey begins in the glorious sunshine of Friday afternoon with You Tell Me before ending some 55 hours later sat under the moonlit skies of Sunday evening listening to Don McLean. It turns out to be a fantastic experiential trip, multi-sensory in design and invested in great communal joy.
You Tell Me is the recent collaboration between Peter Brewis (Field Music) and Sarah Hayes (Admiral Fallow) and evidences much of the sonic exploration and charm of those two bands. They end their set with a cover of the eccentric Glaswegian poet, singer, songwriter and storyteller Ivor Cutler’s ‘I Worn My Elbows’ accompanied by a Bo Diddley beat, a version of which characterises the festival’s inner spirit of innovation and independence.
‘I had a stroke, you know’, Edwyn Collins tells us. ‘In fact, I had two. Poor, poor me’. A smile comes across his face as he speaks these words. Collins is not a man who deals in self-pity. He much prefers the currency of self-determination and he uses this to good effect as he leads his six-piece band through 13 stirring, life-affirming songs; three are taken from his latest album Badbea (he opens with the powerful post-punk energy of ‘Outside’); there is a handful of Orange Juice tunes (‘Rip It Up’ and ‘Don’t Shilly Shally’ are both really quite immense); and he also plays some earlier solo material to boot. With his walking stick waving high in the air, Edwyn Collins exits to a standing ovation amidst a tumultuous ‘A Girl Like You’. He has just turned 60, you know, and seems indestructible.
Similarly enduring are The Zutons. Back after a lengthy hiatus to commemorate the 15th anniversary of their debut album ‘Who killed…… The Zutons?’ they are hellbent on making up for lost time. It is high-octane, dynamic stuff. ‘Valerie’ is finally reclaimed from the X-Factor contestants’ graveyard and once more realised as a bone-fide pop classic before the band disappear off into the Birmingham night with a feral blast of ‘You Will You Won’t’.
In amongst all of this excitement, and lest we should somehow forget, J. Willgoose Esq. of Friday night’s headliners Public Service Broadcasting helpfully reminds us that “all music is folk music”. The triple fusillade encore of ‘All Out’, ‘Gagarin’ and a euphoric ‘Everest’ may well test the veracity of this statement but is an absolutely incredible fusion of sound and vision nonetheless.
Whilst the folk flag was flown the previous evening by Simply Dylan (their interpretations of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ and ‘Señor’ were unerringly true) and Saint Alto, not to mention County Line Runner having made an excellent fist of Bob Dylan‘s ‘Love Sick’, the natural folk order is not fully restored until early Saturday afternoon. Wizz Jones is one of the great survivors of the British folk revival scene of the 1960s. He is now 80 years old but age has not withered him as his richly deserved encore of ‘You’ve Changed’ firmly attests.
With the rain showers having dissipated Saturday gets firmly into the groove, its narrative splendidly and ever-so-amusingly described by the two chaps who are perched up in the commentary box. Wearing their respective sheepskin and camel-haired coats and with their binoculars, headphones and microphones poised they assume all the visual characteristics of those great sports commentators of the ‘70s, John Motson, Peter O’Sullivan and Eddie Waring.
By way of Edinburgh, the Isle of Eigg and Paris, the New York-based folkie Hannah Read’s songs reflect her life and heritage. ‘Moorland Bare’ is set to a poem by the Scots novelist and travel writer, Robert Louis Stevenson; a cover of American folk singer John Hartford’s ‘In Tall Buildings’ speaks of life in the big city; and the love song ‘Boots’ sees happiness emerge out of melancholy.
With his Ray-Ban aviator shades, long hair and beard, Israel Nash looks a lot like Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. He is a major American dude and brings as much mystery and menace to the stage as did The Coen Brothers’ masterpiece to the silver screen. He also taps into one of folk music’s abiding principles, that of the protest song. ‘Down In The Country’ takes aim at his country’s President, whilst his closing cover of Neil Young’s ‘Ohio’ may be a powerful response to the killings at Kent State University half a century ago but feels just as relevant today.
And Israel Nash isn’t finished there, returning an hour-and-a-half later to join his fellow countryman E. B. The Younger – who between deciding whether to opt for either falafels or squid from the top-notch festival food stalls had along with fellow Midlake sideman Jesse Chandler and Field Division’s guitarist Nicholas Frampton put in a sterling shift of his own – for a glorious duet on Dylan’s ‘I Shall Be Released’ in what is one of the biggest highlights of the entire weekend.
In between times the wonderful light and shade of Moseley Folk & Arts Festival is captured perfectly when the supremely gifted York singer-songwriter Rachel Croft sings about a small yellow flower on ‘Celandine’ on the Kitchen Garden stage while less than 100 yards away on the Lunar Stage the former Trembling Bells’ drummer and songwriter Alex Neilson in his guise as Alex Rex is telling us all about a Rottweiler.
Nick Harper takes us back to the late ‘60s to the living room of a little flat in West Hampstead. He had lived there as a small boy with his parents and given that his father was (and still is) Roy Harper the flat was regularly frequented by many legendary musicians who had played at Les Cousins folk and blues club in Soho around that time. Nick Harper pays homage to a number of these men and women, including Davy Graham (‘Anji’), Bert Jansch (‘Blackwaterside’), John Renbourn (‘The Earle of Salisbury’) and Sandy Denny (‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’) with a performance imbued in deep respect and sublime dexterity.
Fast forward almost 50 years and a couple of generations and Saturday night’s headliner also knows a thing or two about folk, blues, country and skiffle, albeit of the pint-sized pop variety. The biggest cheers of the weekend are reserved for Jake Bugg and the young man from 50-odd miles away in Nottingham doesn’t disappoint.
As the previous two days had proved beyond any reasonable doubt, folk music comes in many colours, embracing a wonderfully wide range of styles and sounds. But in what turns out to be a beautifully balanced piece of scheduling it is perhaps Sunday that proves to be what is the most consistent and, dare you say, conventional expression of the genre.
And who better to begin that long goodbye to Moseley Folk & Arts Festival 2019 than Peggy Seeger, the legendary American folk singer, songwriter, feminist and activist, an individual who has rightly become one of the most powerful women in folk music. With one of her sons, Calum MacColl, by her side she illustrates perfectly through her heartfelt words and music the festival’s heightened sense of inclusivity and community spirit.
Alex Garden (fiddle, vocals) and Ford Collier (guitar, tin whistle, vocals) are The Drystones and together the two men inject traditional folk music with modern rhythm, plenty of sunshine and no little measure of joy. They sign off with ‘Nonesuch’, describing the song accurately as “16th century techno”. This is certainly the life.
Dublin’s Daoirí Farrell is another man who knows a thing or two about tradition. He opens with ‘The Creggan White Hare’ – a song that can be found on the 10-track compilation CD that came gratis with the festival programme; another nice touch from the organisers – before being joined by his two accompanists on their respective uilleann pipes and bodhrán. The three men proceed to kick up a veritable storm with some audacious and spirited playing.
Richard Thompson remains as cool and as polished as ever. Has he ever played a bad show? If so, I have yet to see it. Now 70 years of age but still looking absurdly young in his trademark black beret and sawn-off denim jacket, he simply rolls back the years. The concluding quartet of songs – ‘Persuasion’, ‘Beeswing’, ‘I Feel So Good’ and the apt finale of ‘Dimming of the Day’ are damn near perfect.
Newcastle’s Kathryn Williams is someone who manages to make us very happy in a melancholy sort of way with a clutch of great songs that bristle with rebellion, love and fierce desire. Williams never once lapses into sentimentality and presents as someone with a refreshing absence of any ego. She plays ‘Heart Shaped Stone’ (one of Paul Weller’s favourite songs, apparently) and turns out the lights on what has been a most inspired Kitchen Garden stage with a passionate take on Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire’.
All that then remains is for Don McLean to weave his inexorable way towards “that long song, the one that Madonna had a hit with”. In truth, though, it is a couple of lesser-known songs that he plays much earlier in his set from that very same 1971 album of his that highlight the man’s talent far more effectively. ‘Winterwood’ and ‘Crossroads’ show he still has the ability to fuse popular songs with good old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll and folk music.
The 14th edition of the Moseley Folk & Arts Festival has been an absolute blast, an unequivocal success. The planning, the preparation, the setting, the people and the music have all been undeniably splendid. The event is clean, tidy, ever-so-warm and welcoming and raises that often overblown concept of festival friendliness to hitherto unseen skyscraper levels. Mark it down as being compulsory.
Additional reporting: Claire Eggleston
Photos: Simon Godley