Pete Coe is a great reminder of what one man can do with the tradition. He ambles on to the stage wearing his finest “flash suit” and, surrounded by instruments, simply begins to play.
A simple, rather mournful version of Byker Hill gets the crowd singing along, and they never really stop, thanks in part to Coe’s entreatments, but mainly because of the relaxed, gigantic-folk-club atmosphere. He nonchalantly switches between bouzouki, melodeon and dulcimer, and just as easily changes gears from ‘serious’ to rather more tongue-in-cheek songs.
A version of Across the Western Ocean and another beautiful traditional track (I didn’t catch the title, but it cost Pete £500 in books to locate the tune, he tells us) illustrate his sympathetic, pure approach. But the crowd particularly enjoy some of the wittier, sillier offerings, notably a version of Vic Gammon’s unsubtle-but-effective Kings and Queens of England (chorus: Rule Britannia / Britannia waives the rules / Kings, Queens, jacks and knaves and tyrants / Cheats and fools). A ridiculous song about melodeon snobbery, set to the tune of Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence, manages to amuse even those without much knowledge of the instrument.
Coe builds a rapport with the audience easily, entertaining between songs with his dry, sarcastic humour, and kicking off a running joke by suggesting that headliners Spiers & Boden have nicked his setlist – or vice versa. When he leaves the stage, it is to thunderous applause, and the poor MC has to rather sheepishly decline requests for an encore.
Indeed, it isn’t long before the headline duo takes to the stage, kicking off with a thumping Tom Padget. Jon Boden takes to the wooden square with which he stamps out the pair’s percussive beats and… dances! Nothing spectacular, but an extra leg has definitively been added to his usual stomp. “Pete Coe taught me how to do that”, he explains. “Well, I say taught – I mean he took the piss out of me for not being able to do it…”
Boden and his melodeon-playing accomplice John Spiers have been working together for more than ten years, and their complete musical understanding is evident. Boden picks up the guitar for a lovely, contemplative version of The Birth of Robin Hood, while the addition of a fourth tune to Vagabond’s frantic Three Tunes shows off his talent for plucking, as well as bowing, his fiddle. Spiers, meanwhile, is fabulously dextrous, adding peeping concertina to the sinister-sounding Horn Fair and thunderous bass tones to the duo’s weightier numbers, for example on an excellent Brown Adam, learned from Martin Carthy.
The duo’s talent for tunes and singing isn’t in question, but it’s their propensity for loudness that marks them out as the most rock and roll pairing at Sidmouth. During the raucous Bold Sir Rylas, for example, they ask the crowd for a “football chant” singalong, as opposed to delicate harmonies. “Just a series of vowel sounds will do”, adds a grinning Boden. The response, needless to say, adds a deafening note to the song, a strange, knockabout tale of pig-killing, otherwise played with nimble delicacy.
And it’s the same with the encore of New York Girls, which startlingly doesn’t sound that much quieter than the full-on Bellowhead treatment. Earlier, Spiers spoke of the duo’s nervousness at supporting Brass Monkey in the same tent back in 2002. Ten years later, they were one of the week’s highlights.
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