Published on August 13th, 2018 | by Gareth Allen0
Underneath the Stars Festival – Cawthorne near Barnsley, South Yorkshire (Part Two)
Its day two of the festival, and Sheffield based Melrose Quartet on their second number in, sing unaccompanied the song ‘Wedding Bells’, with the four voices rising and falling with the lovely melody, and weaving one of the most moving musical moments of the festival.
‘Lucy is Two’ showcases the instrumental depth of the quartet, with the accordion, fiddle and guitar, creating a fabulous almost orchestral soundscape, that garnered a very appreciative response from the audience.
‘The Ballad of Davy Cross’ is a sad traditional song about the distinctive jumper (the ganzie), knitted by a mother for her fisherman son, so that if lost at sea he might be identified. He is lost…and the line “It was the ganzie that his mother made that brought young Davy home”, touched the hearts of everyone in the Little Lights tent.
‘Anthem of a Working Mum’ with its post punk vocals and rhythms, is a driving anthem, to the challenges of maintaining the dual roles of a mother and working. A set of fast paced rousing instrumentals, written by friend Simon Heywood, bring the set to a great finish.
Andy Kershaw, is simply magnificent! Even suffering with a cold, his warmth, generosity of spirit, and affection for the people he has worked with comes across. A journalist at heart, his curiosity for the world, is completely engaging.
In the democratic spirit of the festival, he invites the audience to call out from photos on the screen, the anecdotes and stories they would like to hear. Ranging across his experiences with the Old Grey Whistle Test, booking bands for Leeds University, and as a radio one presenter, working with the late great John Peel and John Walters, and much more, Andy absolutely charmed.
Damien O’Kane and Nashville’s Ron Block unleash some formidable banjo playing, accompanied by flute and whistles, guitar and double bass. ‘Trip to Portugal’ from the new album has a wonderful floating and swirling musicality, where the tempo is increased gently, until it literally charges at the audience.
‘Potato anxiety’, is introduced with a charming story about a neighbour of Damien’s. On seeing the potatoes from his allotment, she pronounced that without potatoes in the house she suffered from “potato anxiety’. It is a very pretty lilting tune, that coveys a very pastoral atmosphere of summer days, before Damien, Ron and the band, launch into another frenetic passage.
On ‘The Banjo Strikes Back’, Ron picks some pinpoint solo playing, that really catches the ear. Throughout, Michael McGoldrick’s flute and whistle playing, introduces a top layer of wistful and shimmering sounds, perfectly complementing the angular banjo playing.
‘No harm done’ with its staccato banjos, really ‘rocks out’, as the bass drum punctuates the rhythm, and the musicians all smile at each other at the end of the tune.
Midnight Skyracer on the Little Lights stage play a very jaunty and authentic bluegrass. ‘Working Girl Blues’ combines some great picking and harmony vocals, and ‘Hangman’s Reel’ brings together some really cool trading of musical phrases, between the guitar, mandolin, banjo and fiddle.
‘A little luck’ has an excellent jazz swing, demonstrating the versatile range of the band, with some infectious solo double bass playing, that receives a great round of applause.
‘High and Dry’, is a great train song, that really lets Leanne Thorose’s vocals shine. A fabulous band!
Introduced quite rightly as the “mighty Lau”, Lau played in front of a banner, which as ever, speaks to a band that wears its heart on its sleeve, and we love them for it. It reads simply “Save the NHS”. The band celebrated 10 years together last year.
During ‘Sea’ the band completely take off, with the emotional connection between the instruments, almost a tangible physical thing, as the electronic accordion, fiddle and guitar meld as one.
The band then launched into some wonderful electronics, involving vocals and sounds, courtesy of the audience named on stage sonic system ‘Morag’. Providing the backdrop for doom laden keyboards and plucked fiddle and guitar, segueing via some gentle vocals, into a magnificent instrumental section, that takes Lau into the realms of post-rock.
The beautiful ‘Ghosts’ felt incredibly moving, and the audience responded accordingly. An early number from their back catalogue sounds like it could be a house music sound track, and sees Lau pushing hard at the boundaries of what folk can deliver. Incredibly the music then gives birth to a traditional reel sound. Lau embrace surfing the musical wave….they are musicians of courage and passion!
‘Far From Portland’ for this reviewer is their signature tune, and just about sums up all the great elements, of tradition, melody, heartfelt emotions, and radical musical sounds, that make them so great. Huddled around an acoustic mike at the front of the stage, with their instruments unplugged, for the song’s final coda, is an utterly spine-tingling moment.
George Hinchliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are close to being the most fun you can have at a festival. That doesn’t take away in any sense from the excellent musicianship and fine singing they also exhibit on stage. The ukulele, contrary to what you might think, is a very adaptable and entrancing instrument.
Their choice of songs to give their own unique interpretation on, is both eclectic and inspired. An early take in the set, of Talking Head’s Psycho Killer, brilliantly conveys the gleeful menace inherent in the song.
Grace Jone’s ‘Slave to the Rhythm’ is given a respectful reading, that lets the song stand on its own, and show how good a composition it is.
The Dexy’s ‘Geno’ is just fabulous, and introduces a rapt audience to the innovation of the ‘face trumpet’.
Then there is the killer one/two of Ennio Morricone’s ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’, and David Bowie’s majestic ‘Heroes’. In turns we affectionately laugh out loud at the cheeky treatment of ‘The Good, The Bad and the Ugly’, and are moved by the poignant version of ‘Heroes’. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are very worthy Saturday headliners.
Sunday begins in style with Joanne Harris and the Story-time Band. They are a revelation, in the way storytelling is skilfully combined with music. Joanne introduced her stories and music, with the lovely opening phrase, “There is a story the bees used to tell, that makes it hard to disagree”.
A “nasty” story is described as a warning to all women, that have “even for a fleeting moment“ considered changing themselves for a man, and to any man that has wanted to change a woman for himself. It is a chilling story of a toy maker remaking his wife, in the way he has made his toys. The story is told from the toy makers point of view, and the accompanying song as if sung by the wife. It is a modern patriarchal horror story, as the toy maker throws away his wife’s broken heart.
‘A pocketful of crows’ opens with an instrumental section that crosses Jethro Tull with Snow Goose era Camel, with Joanne playing flute over swelling atmospheric keyboards. The accompanying story is about the travelling girl, who can inhabit any living creature’s body, but very rarely is herself. In the story and music, the young man she gets close to in human form, asks her name, and she says “A named thing is a tamed thing”. He gives her a name and she can no longer inhabit different forms as she once did.
In love, but also yearning for the freedom she once had, she is forsaken by the young man, with the music giving life to her sorrow. The only way she can take back her freedom is to silence the young man, and dance on his grave nine times in the moonlight. The musical coda, powerfully sung by Joanne, speaks to freedom and creativity taken back by the travelling girl. As she sings “I give to you a pocketful of crows” Joanne quite magically scatters purple confetti from her raised hands.
Joanne and the Story-time Band had only played this piece three times, including this performance, and the overwhelming audience response seemed to give Joanne real pleasure….and as she says very endearingly, the opportunity to take a drink of water.
A suite of songs inspired by writer Ray Bradbury a lifelong hero she met in his nineties, closes a magnificent set. As Joanne says in her introduction, it is strange how the orbits of our lives intersect when they do.
L-R a duo from Asturias in North West of Spain, employing Gretsch guitar and Asturian percussion, are warm and welcoming musicians, and play music for the body and spirit. From ethereal and bluesy to joyful and dance orientated.
A love song with a cool walking blues beat, starts of a round of rhythmic clapping from the audience. It also introduces some trademark breathtaking guitar flourishes from Rubén Bada.
Vocalist Leticia Gonzalez has a voice that feels both spiritual and from the land and elements, and just envelops the air around you as you listen.
A lovely dance followed, with steps that seemed modelled on the Viennese Waltz, with people connected by the simple action of holding each other’s pinky finger. A lovely festival moment.
Stables, also in the Little Lights tent, set people dancing with an Everly Brothers cover, with great harmony vocals and driving guitar and percussion.
With the title track from their new album, the vocals take another step up, with the two voices sounding gorgeous together. The next song ‘We will never know’ with its gentle guitar chords and glockenspiel and sad refrain of “I guess we will never know”, felt a very touching performance.
A quirky version of the Police’s ‘Message in a Bottle’ brings up another set of dancers at the front of the stage, and their treatment of the song lets it really take flight. Fabulous!
Looking around the audience, as Stables played ‘Safe House’ near the end of the set, the connection between audience and musicians, was a joy to behold.
Maya Youssef shares with us, that at nine years old, she was told only men played the qanun (a traditional Middle Eastern stringed instrument), but was having none of it! In the spirit of this wonderful defiance, on one composition, she merges jazz and Arabic scales, with the rhythmic pattern played out on cymbal and tea chest. This provides some intriguing melodies, and sheets of sound from the qanun, that cascade and magically evoke the spirit of John Coltrane.
Damascus, Maya tells us, was built in alignment with seven planets to bring peace and prosperity to the city. ‘The seven gates of Damascus’ is an adventurous musical introduction to the city. The first gate is languid, with the cello in mournful mood, with lots of space around the notes being plucked.
A later part of the suite in an exciting contrast, weaves an increased intensity of playing, around an undulating rhythm involving the cello and percussion. There are tremendous rise and fall moments across the sequential parts of the suite.
‘Bombs turn into roses’ arose from a dream of Maya’s, of bombs dropping slowly and turning into white rose petals, before hitting the ground. With the lights on the stage backdrop initially turned blue, a sense of danger is conveyed; while through the music, a transformation into safety and peace is evoked, particularly as the counterpoints of the cello and qanun combine.
Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards from the American West Coast, with Laura now based in Gent in Belgium, feature double bass, fiddles, banjo and cello. ‘Place Your Bet’ features the four voices in harmony on the chorus, and it’s utterly beguiling.
‘Skipping stone’ a tale of yearning for lost love, has a lovely plucked melody, played on the two fiddles and cello. The back story being of a family tradition of skinny dipping, and a video made to the song by synchronised swimmers…it’s absolutely true!
Laura from the stage, says that it is good to travel and communicate across cultures, with empathy and connection, and that in the current circumstances in the world, it is more important than ever. This leads into the beautifully sung song, ‘If you can hear me’.
Finishing with an Appalachian fiddle song about…..well that’s best left with those of us that were there, and privileged to enjoy this great set.
The well drilled Frumptarn Guggen Band, with a great mix of brass and percussion, and looking splendid in their colourful outfits, play between the Little Lights and Planets stages, and delight us with a high octane version of the Proclaimers ‘500 miles’.
Kate Rusby and a band of fabulous musicians brought the festival to a close on the Planets Stage, with a transcendent set. ‘We Will Sing’ featured some great whistle playing from Michael McGoldrick, with the audience joining in the uplifting words.
‘Hunter Moon’ reflecting Kate’s love of the stars, is a song about the moon being in love with the sun, but never catching up with her to let her know. It shows Kate’s voice off, with its full emotional range, accompanied by gentle ringing chords, and the most exquisite of accordion playing.
Jason Manford (the talented comedian) sung the musical standard ‘Falling Slowly’ with Kate, their two voices working together beautifully, with the flute and accordion enhancing the delicate nature of the melody.
‘Bitter Boy’, a song about Kate’s Uncle Stanley, a Yorkshire miner, was born from ‘sorrow and sleepiness nights’, and somehow and magically, authentically translates the unbearable pain of loss, into a beautiful song.
Kate leaves the stage to the band, and this fantastic line up play some great tunes, that feels like being at a full on barn dance, including an excerpt from Inspector Gadget!
‘Big Brave Bill’, is a song about an ex miner “super hero”, “who drinks Yorkshire tea all the time”. With the audience singing along with clenched fists….its a special reminder of all that was lost, with the wanton destruction of the mining communities. Of course, and a big surprise to Kate, the character of Big Brave Bill appears!
Finishing as she did on Friday, Kate sings with the audience ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, and too soon we are reaching the conclusion of this truly great festival. Please consider being there next year, to support this magical festival. You won’t regret it!
With thanks to Anne Robertson for her thoughtful and perceptive musical commentary, which has greatly informed this review.