“Today’s our tenth bedding anniversary”, says Fay Hield, mischievously, motioning towards a slightly embarrassed guitarist, fiddler and “beloved” Jon Boden. “We met at Sidmouth so I’ve got a warm feeling being back here.”
That warm feeling (well, perhaps not that warm feeling) is shared around the Ham Marquee. Hield and the Hurricane Party are in great form, as you might expect from a band so loaded with talent, and on such intimate terms. Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron are, of course, long-term Boden collaborators, while Andy Cutting is almost as ubiquitous (in a good way) as he is talented.
At the centre of it all, of course, is Hield. And she’s more than a match for the band, with her lusty, Yorkshire-accented voice and easy command of the stage. As you’d expect, the group mostly concentrate on Orfeo, with a rendition of its 26-verse title track a particular highlight for the knowledgeable Sidmouth crowd.
Their instrumental talents aside, the Hurricane Party make excellent vocal foils, too. Pretty Nancy is performed beautifully, with delicate, original harmonies. And a tilt at Tom Waits’ The Briar and the Rose – an oblique ‘version’ of Barbara Allen – is astonishing: delicate, romantic and sad. Here, Hield and Boden’s vocals are perfectly balanced.
As well as her admirable singing technique, Hield truly gets under the skin of her songs, getting into the saucy spirit of the daughter in Tarry Trousers and inhabiting the character of the beleaguered worker in The Old ‘Arris Mill. It’s a remarkable set, and it’s very easy to forget this is the ‘support’ slot.
Quite an act to follow, then, though Brass Monkey have 30 years’ worth of experience to call on. Opening with a salutary tribute to former member Howard Evans, the six-piece line-up (featuring Shane Brennan on trumpet alongside Paul Archibald) delight the crowd, maintaining the happy atmosphere as well as the high musical standard.
Here is a band that truly makes the most of its talent. John Kirkpatrick leads an exciting performance of his own sheep-drama song George’s Son, based on chapter five of Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd (“look it up”, he insists), and a tense reading of Jolly Bold Robber, given spice by Martin Carthy’s mandolin plucks.
Carthy seems to relish the group dynamic, and responds good-naturedly to Kirkpatrick’s teasing over the amount of time he takes to tune up. His guitar adds depth and warmth to the band’s tune sets, while his vocals add an authoritative tone, as usual. He introduces Maid of Australia as “a love song” and, given the mischievous feel to the afternoon, it’s easy to believe he’s being cute – the song is usually a more bawdy, “I entered the bush” sort of affair. But his heartfelt reading, combined with a celestial, dreamy brass arrangement led by Brennan and Archibald, lifts it above mere smuttiness. As he sings, Carthy sounds truly besotted – it’s all rather moving.
The band use their considerable volume to good effect. Roger Williams is a wizard, making good on Kirkpatrick’s promises that “you’ll never see a trombone slide move so quickly”. Martin Brinsford, meanwhile, adds a funky clatter, despite his minimal drum kit, and reveals himself to be a masterful harmonica player too.
After a finale of The Maid and the Palmer, the band are welcomed back for an exultant encore trio of tunes. There’ll be a DVD out soon, Kirkpatrick endeavours to remind us, but it’s worth getting the full experience if you can – 30 years of playing has made Brass Monkey into quite a force.