Tag Archives: music

Caledonia Dreaming: Banbury Folk & Hobby Horse Festival 2017

I had only been to  Banbury Folk Festival (6-8 October 2017) once before, as a volunteer steward a few years ago and had very much enjoyed spending a weekend in this historic Oxfordshire town with its canal boats and lots of friendly pubs with live music. It is a mostly volunteer-run community festival, which cherishes the folk club tradition and is never really that much about well-known artists, but about getting together with a pint around tables and listening – and often singing along – to talented musicians you will most likely not have heard of (yet). As this year was the 18th and last year for festival organisers Mary and Derek Droscher, it was definitely time for another visit and I certainly didn’t regret my decision!

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Last weekend was a great example why I love volunteering at folk festivals and why they are such a nice weekend getaway, particularly as a solo traveller. From the moment you check in for your shifts (usually jobs like taking tickets, doing reception for stewards or artists, helping with the café, setting up venues, cleaning up after gigs, helping with the parade etc.) you’re part of the team and often run into people you met at similar events (like one of my favs, Shrewsbury Folk Festival). It’s always a good idea to be cheerful and helpful, especially as a newcomer. Offering to make cups of tea or carry things from A to B are always appreciated. So is flexibility about shift times. Helping out with stewards’ reception on Friday afternoon was a nice and busy start as a lot of people were arriving around that time. I also met a guy who must have had the best volunteer role I’ve ever seen at any festival: Hobby Horse Liaison. Just brilliant!

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After a quick dinner on the go and dropping in on the main venue, Banbury Town Hall, for the start of the evening concert, I had to make my way over to the Banbury Cross pub where I was doing the door for the club room at the back were a couple of traditional singers were on until late. I’m glad I stayed on for a set by the energetic Granny’s Attic in the front bar of the pub and it made up for missing most of the Irish concert over at the town hall.

As October isn’t the best time to pitch your tent anywhere in England, the festival offers the option of ‘indoor camping’ upstairs in the Methodist Hall, the second largest venue. Sleepovers in a room above a church are a bit like being on a school trip decades after you’ve left that part of your life behind. People just bring their sleeping bags and there are tea making facilities and bathrooms available. Basic, but it makes for a nice atmosphere among your fellow volunteers (just make sure you don’t forget your ear plugs!) and Dave the Hat (see pic below) made sure we were all happy campers.

Gisela & Dave the Hat

After a lazy breakfast in the local Wetherspoons just around the corner, I was ready to explore Banbury’s charity shops for some second-hand book finds and the UK’s oldest working inland waterway boatyard, Tooley’s, which happened to have an open weekend with narrow boat trips and historic engine displays.

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At 11am it was time for the Hobby Horse Procession and some Morris sides to parade through the middle of town. There were so many great handmade costumes, mostly horses, of course, but also a unicorn, sheep, boar and a bear. Luckily the weather played along nicely, too, most of the weekend.

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This year’s headliner was award-winning Scottish songwriter (including an OBE) Dougie MacLean and as the festival organisers anticipated a lot of demand for his two appearances, they had come up with a pre-queueing system for tickets (free for festival pass holders), which required people to line up separately for his afternoon and evening events. I would have quite liked to see some other bands as well, but the timings were so tricky that I ended up doing a shift organising the first queue and doing audience mic for Dougie’s ‘Meet the Artist’ session at the Methodist Hall and then queued again for his evening concert in the Town Hall. It reminded me a bit of volunteering at Toronto Film Festival a few years back, where queueing had such a capital Q that it ended up being quite an entertaining experience.

As it turned out, it was well worth making it to both events though. I had never seen Dougie live before, but once he started singing, I realised I knew most of the songs from the cover versions of Irish sisters Mary and Frances Black, who I saw live many times when I was living in Ireland in the past. The ‘Meet the Artist’ session was a great format, an hour of audience questions interspersed with songs, just him and his guitar and that lovely, subtle voice. It was easy to see why he has so many fans around the world. His songwriting is a winning combination of memorable, often fairly melancholy melodies and thoughtful lyrics, which seem to resonate with many people.

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After a well-deserved coffee break, I joined a few others for the next queue at the Town Hall, which was a little chaotic and actually quite fun as we met lots of other festivalgoers. After all the wait, we scored first row seats – success. While we were passing the time chatting with other folkies, Pat Smith and Ned Clamp, who had run a beginners’ ‘spoons’ workshop earlier that day, began handing out pairs of spoons, which was followed by instructions on how to behave during our ‘performance’. Yep, we had just been volunteered to join the ‘Spoons Orchestra’ and were basically warming up the audience for the other (real) acts to come. Defo time for a drink or two!

After appearances by Granny’s Attic as well as local band Scarecrow, the wait was eventually over and Dougie performed his main set, which included harmonica playing AND didgeridoo. But seriously, who could be envious of the talent of such a humorous and soft-spoken man? I was just grateful he not only sang some songs from his latest album ‘New Tomorrow’ (the title track being a very moving one for his grandsons), but also a lot of my favourites including ‘Broken Wings’, ‘Talking to My Father’, ‘Caledonia’ (probably for the 3578th time in his life…) and the best encore ever, ‘This Love Will Carry Me’. Sigh. Singing along en masse to beautiful folk songs just makes you feel all warm and fuzzy (me anyway) no matter whether the majority of the audience hit the right notes or not. This concert certainly did! The very low-key ‘after show party’ (as it would be called in London) was held at the Cricket Club where we did more singing along to mostly shanties and traditional folk songs and got to chat with Dougie over a pint about his musical adventures around the world before getting herded onto the shuttle bus for a transfer back to our church home for the weekend.

Sunday was basically a recovery day following two fairly late nights. In the morning, what felt more like the middle of the night to me, I caught a lift with the festival shuttle back to the Cricket Club for a ‘singing breakfast’. It wasn’t the greatest start to the day if you were vegetarian like myself, but the atmosphere totally made up for it. Seasoned and entertaining performers Pete, John and Andy of Alhambra led the singalong and then we went around the various tables with people contributing songs or tributes to Mary and Derek, who had some great stories from 18 years of making Banbury Folk Festival history. Back in town, I caught one more singer-songwriter, Irishwoman Paula Ryan, at the Banbury Cross Pub before my last shift of the weekend back at the Town Hall.

Banbury Paula Ryan

This was supposed to be a ticket checking shift, but as they were short of a hobby horse handler (lol), I got volunteered for the second time this weekend for something I had no qualifications for. It reminded me of dressing up for carnival as a child back home and my horse with no name was actually a beautiful specimen handmade from papermache. So I trotted into the town hall following a cow, with a furry brown bear hot on my heels. Can you think of a more hilarious way to spend a Sunday afternoon?

After all this excitement, it was time for Keith Donnelly’s and Anna Ryder’s (she also has a pretty cool website about moths!) humorous set and Anthony John Clarke closed the festival including a tribute to Vin Garbutt, who sadly passed away in the summer. Mary and Derek deserve to be very proud of their achievement in the past (nearly) two decades, what a lovely festival with so many friendly people.

Hobby Horse Farewell

Like every last festival day, the post festival blues hit me soon after leaving Banbury, but the good news is: the folk festival will most likely continue in the future and I found out that Dougie and his wife Jenny (who looks after all his merch at gigs and is a very talented artist in her own right) have been running their very own festival called Perthshire Amber each November (taking a break this year). So it took a weekend in the wilds of Oxfordshire to serve as an unexpected reminder that I need to spend more time in Scotland. I’ll hopefully also make it to a few of the island festivals in 2018, watch this space…

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Meet the Music Makers: Belle Roscoe

One of my favourite live music discoveries of 2016 has been Belle Roscoe, an Australian sibling duo who have recently settled in London (at least for now!). I’ve been wanting to interview Julia and Matt ever since I’ve been at a few of their fantastic live shows earlier this year and we finally got around to it. One of the most likeable bands I’ve come across in a long time, they shared some of their experiences playing gigs, recording and touring in the UK and further afield, so read on to find out more about what makes this exciting band tick.

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Life is a Festival: I’m so glad you guys are based in the UK now and looks like moving to London was an excellent decision. Having grown up in Melbourne and lived in Paris for a while, why did you pick London and what do you love about it so far?

Belle Roscoe: Haha we’re not really sure where home is anymore!! We moved to London in March due to the great reaction and support we received from some shows we played in 2015. It felt right to be based here for the next stages for Belle Roscoe. The music industry feels strong and healthy and the energy of the city is intoxicating… We just hope we can survive it, gees it’s expensive!!

Life is a Festival: You seem to have a really good relationship with your manager Megan, how did you find each other and how has it helped shaping your musical career here in the UK and further afield?

Belle Roscoe: We met at one of our first shows in London in September 2014 … Funny enough it was a gig that we weren’t very keen to play! She was in the audience, we started talking post show and we quickly became very good friends. Meg is also an Aussie and is carving out an amazing career as a film producer in London. Quite organically, Meg started introducing us to music industry people in London… We then developed into a great team and Meg took on role as manager, though she prefers to be referred to as a facilitator! Since her involvement, she has created amazing opportunities for Belle Roscoe around the world. We’ve toured and played in Nashville & Memphis, Sweden, Croatia, Germany & all around the UK… In fact we’ve played over 100 shows since March and had an absolute ball doing it. We are super lucky to have met Meg both on a personal and business level.

Life is a Festival: Sounds just perfect! Let’s talk about your music. You’ve got a pretty unique, genre-defying sound, you’re both versatile musicians and your voices harmonise beautifully. What I’m always enjoying most at your live shows is the infectious, positive energy the whole band seems to have, it’s really inspiring! Tell me a little bit about makes you tick as a band and about the band members you’ve worked with since getting to the UK.

Belle Roscoe: Music is something quite innate in us as siblings. We have not been musically trained in any traditional way… We are self taught and as a result we just feel what we play. Sometimes not understanding every nuance of technique allows you more freedom, which in turn lets you feel and enjoy it more, rather than analysing it. We have worked on our performance over time and naturally a live performance improves if you are playing a lot. The performance energy comes from a combination of things. Family upbringing, life’s joys & struggles with the industry and personally and now it also stems from the appreciation of support we now have behind the band. Support and encouragement always helps a band lift. We hate letting anyone down, so that’s probably why get out on stage and try to give it everything we’ve got. The band is also quite international and has a unique chemistry as a consequence. We have a french drummer, an Australian guitarist and an English bass player… Touring together is bloody hilarious!

Life is a Festival: What I love about your music is that there is such a balanced focus on both intelligent lyrics and memorable melodies, which is no small feat to achieve. How do your songs come about, who writes them and how do you go from the initial idea to the final version?

Belle Roscoe: That’s a good compliment. Thank you! We labour over the lyrics so it’s nice when people notice them. The melodies come from our upbringing, we’ve been very influenced by our parents records and great musical taste. We had an intro into the best of the 50s/60s/70s… Dusting off a record and placing the needle always seemed like such an amazing experience! By osmosis we were drawn to bands that offered strong melodies both instrumentally and vocally. As far as the creation of our songs go… Sometimes we don’t even know. We just draw on our own experiences and emotions and find time to write about it. We are both song-writers and often individually come up with a melody and or chord progression and work it from there. We are very honest with one another and have learnt to trust in each other’s feedback and know when a song is working or not. When it does work, we both feel it and we finish the song no matter what… One of our songs, Mary Mary took 3 years to finish!

Life is a Festival: You’ve just been in the studio recording some new material following the release of your limited edition EP ‘Belle Roscoe’ in this country last year and are about to hit the road for your first German tour as well as some very exciting shows in Cuba. Tell me more about what’s planned for the next couple of months.

Belle Roscoe: We recently hit a couple of London studios and are tracking 3 new tracks. It feels great to be back in a studio and creating new songs. Getting in the studio and trying to create what you hear in your head is always a good experience, difficult sometimes. Only the other day we were in the studio, struggling to get a take, everyone was tired and falling apart. We pushed through and the magic happened! Germany is going to be a lot of fun. We are hitting the road with a good friend Jaimi Faulkner – hanging out with him and his band is going o be a lot of fun. We are playing 20 acoustic shows throughout Germany between the 6th and the 24th October 2016. And yes, it’s out first time to Germany! Cuba, how bloody cool is that!! It is going to be such a great way to end the year. We’ve never been there so we are going to dive in head first! Other than the gigs we have booked we plan to also write and record while we are there. We are actually running a very very cool competition for our fans to win the chance to join us in Cuba.  All they have to do is buy some merch from our website and they could win a trip of a lifetime for 2 people! They will come and hang out with Belle Roscoe – watch some shows, smoke cigars and drink rum!! Check out our website and social media for more details: www.belleroscoe.com

Thanks to Julia & Matt for taking the time to answer these questions! Keep an eye out on social media for when and where you can catch Belle Roscoe live in the near future. I highly recommend giving them a listen!

Meet the Festival Makers: Cat Kelly of Folk Weekend Oxford

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Oxford is one of my favourite cities in the UK (see my blog post with tips for live music, charity shops, museums, cafes and more) and every April it hosts a lovely, volunteer-run music festival called Oxford Folk Weekend. Its director, Cat Kelly, agreed to speak to us about her experience running a vibrant community festival.

Life is a Festival: Tell me a little bit about the relatively recent yet rather successful history of Oxford Folk Weekend. Has it always been run by a volunteer committee and what was your reason for starting it?

Cat: Yes FW has always been run by volunteers. It started back in 2011 when the Oxford Folk Festival cancelled suddenly, but it was quite an informal (and impromtu!) event, and our first ‘proper’ festival was in 2012. I’d had a phone call from the director of Oxford Folk Festival confirming that they weren’t going to run another event, and asking me whether I’d like to take over. I’ve been performing at festivals since my early 20s, as well as having been involved in Oxford Folk Festival for a few years, so I like to think I’ve got a fair idea of what’s needed to organise a festival from both sides of it!

Life is a Festival: People often ask me why I am so passionate about festivals and what makes them different from simply attending once-off events or concerts. In your opinion, what makes FWO unique in terms of programming and atmosphere and what role does the city of Oxford play as its very attractive “backdrop”? I personally always really enjoy the variety of ages and backgrounds, local and visiting musicians, non-musicians, morris dancers etc.

Cat: I think the difference about a festival is the atmosphere of the whole community coming together for the weekend – a festival is a big and diverse thing, so everyone can be doing their own thing, and finding the bits they they like, whilst still all feeling like you’re there together for one purpose. When we started FW we wanted to make a festival which really reflected and celebrated the place where it was held, and the city of Oxford is a big part of that. We involve the local community in a variety of different ways (e.g. crafts people, school children, volunteers, charities & good causes at the village fete, local artists, local community music groups etc) and we use interesting and different venues within Oxford. Over the years we have staged gigs in the punishment cells of Oxford Castle (and on top of the Mound!), in the central library, in the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museums, and this year we are putting on a series of concerts in Blackwells Bookshop.

Life is a Festival: Which brings us to the volunteers, including the organising committee, of course. I believe a festival is only ever as good as its volunteer crew and staff and (besides the line-up) it is often their friendliness and professional attitude which makes or breaks a festival. Do you agree?

Cat: Yes I do. The whole ethos of FW is welcoming and inclusive, and we really rely on our volunteers to be living that on the front line – they are often the first experience that someone has of the festival, and it’s a big responsibility to make sure that their first impression is a good one.

Life is a Festival: What were your favourite festivals moments (just pick a few!) in past years and what are you particularly looking forward to in 2015?

Cat: The gig on top of the Castle Mound in 2013 is one that has stuck in my mind – not least because I was taking 5 minutes out from being festival director and was sat with my daughter (who was 5 at the time) listening to the music in the sunshine. In fact, her involvement in the festival over the years has been one of my absolute favourite things about it – although it takes me away from her a lot of the time (particularly at this time of year!), she loves the festival and has usually planned out what she will be doing right throughout the weekend! This year she’s wanted to get involved in more of the organising, and spent Easter Saturday helping me to laminate backstage passes! What I’m really looking forward to about 2015 is once the festival has got going and all the organisational side of things is ticking along, I get to wander round town soaking up the atmosphere, meeting people who have come to the festival, and seeing what a great time everyone is having. I love it!

Thanks a mil to Cat Kelly for the interview and don’t miss Oxford Folk Weekend which is taking place from 17-19 April 2015.