The Brighton & Hove Folk Festival, The Brunswick, Hove: September 11 2021

What a joy it was to see some live, in-the-flesh folk music again. This was the first time Folk Witness had felt brave enough to venture to a (partially) indoor gig for some time, and we were rewarded with a day of high-quality music across three stages, with short and sweet sets providing something of a digest of Folkroom organiser Stephen Rötzsch Thomas’s current favourites.

Fortunately, as he told us in one of many introductions over the course of the day, he has great taste. Our (and the festival’s) first show was the sugar-rush pop-folk of The People Versus (main pic), who are blessed with irresistible, synth-fun tunes and an infectiously confident stage manner. I loved their song Again & Again, which I can imagine enjoying, repeatedly, in a more summery setting than The Brunswick’s cellar.

We ventured outside to catch some of the ambient, improvised banjo playing of Jacken Elswyth, where we also heard some beautiful close harmonies from Chloe Overton & Laura Hockenhull – though at this early point the volume was a little low. Back inside, at the venue’s largest stage, we listened to the Americana-inflected, beautiful singing of Emily Mae Winters (check out her charming Come Live in My Heart & Pay No Rent, below), who was accompanied by the other 50% of Folkroom, guitarist Ben Walker. Walker also popped up to play alongside Kirsty Merryn, with whom he has collaborated on a new EP, and played a solo set of his own later on. I loved Merryn’s dramatic, piano-led folk, particularly her opening two-hander of Twilight and a version of the Banks of the Sweet Primroses.

The main stage had the additional advantage of an overhead projector and the live drawing of artist Chris Riddell, who also designed the festival’s poster, above. It was thrilling to see him at work, magicking up something special with a few strokes of the pencil – and making decisions in real time, pulling out different elements of the songs to add depth to the performances, without ever pulling focus from the musicians. Over the course of a full day, he must have done this about, what, 50 times? Impressive stuff, and a real (plus) point of difference for the festival.

The music continued while we popped out for a pizza, but we were glad to be back in the basement to check out the engaging songwriting of Jasmine Rodgers, who swapped between guitars and ukulele to deliver a friendly, occasionally menacing set: check out her songs Flies and Blood Red Sun. The stage was closed by talented young rockers Duskhouse, so we ventured back outside for some sweet acoustics from March, and back to the main stage for a closing set from Chris Wood. Wood delivered a typically weighty performance, at one point noting “I’m beginning to remember why I do this” as he got into the groove, wrangling smooth, jazzy accompaniments from his gorgeous Epiphone guitar. I’m excited to hear recorded versions of his new material, some of which addresses the disappointments and resentments of Brexit with his trademark intelligence and eloquence. Just as affecting, somehow, is a song about an old sofa.

A substantial end to a successful festival, then. The Brunswick made a perfect venue for it – the number of stages meaning we could have enjoyed as good a day with several other acts. The place felt reassuringly ventilated, with enough room for everyone, and the atmosphere was one of joy to be back. And we’ll hopefully be back for more next year.

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