under the trad/arr of folk and acoustic music
June 12, 2012 by markdishman

No Direction Home Festival, Welbeck Estate, 8-10 June 2012

I’m not usually a full-on festivalgoer; the prospect of camping in a wet field doesn’t really do it for me, so I tend to restrict myself to day trips to Sidmouth, which is conveniently close to a warm bed at my folks’ house.

A Fox

A trendy fox hovers above the stage

I was intrigued, however, by No Direction Home. Organised by the same people as the popular End of the Road fest, it seemed to offer a mix of ‘folk’ and ‘folky’, with plenty of trad stuff mixed in with the banjo-and-moustache brigade and some noisy rock music thrown in for good measure. So it seemed worth checking out…

FRIDAY: We arrive at a pleasant, compact campsite, pleasingly close to both the car park and the main site – a bit muddy, but passable. A good start! I’m not so sure about the trendy sculptures of owls, foxes and badgers, though. They evoke self-conscious vodka adverts more than the ‘back to nature’ ideal they’re intended for, somehow.

Settled in and with cynicism set aside, we catch the end of a tuneful, cinematic set from Lanterns on the Lake and an energetic one from Django Django. Dirty Three provide the highlight of the evening, with Warren Ellis standing out (and, quite often, lying down) as one of the most distinctive fiddle players in town, both physically and musically. He shreds his way through some towering, rambling and mesmeric instrumentals, including the excellent Rain Song, with scratchy guitar from Mick Turner and classy, inventive drumming from Jim White.

Brilliantly loud, Ellis and co make main stage headliners The Low Anthem sound a bit wimpy by comparison. An “indie folk band” from Rhode Island (thanks Wikipedia), TLA’s five multi-instrumentalists offer plenty of variety, and their song Charlie Darwin is rather charming, but I can’t help getting distracted by singer Ben Knox Miller’s vocal similarity to relatively late-era Bob Dylan… And then thinking about how Dylan is just more interesting.

SATURDAY: Brighton-based Laish kick off day two on the main stage with a passionate, lyrical set. Singer Danny comes over as a very giving, warm frontman, and the band’s accordion and clarinet echo this friendliness, particularly in the lovely Moving to Lewes.

Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson

Martin Simpson provides the weekend’s first truly traddy turn, with his whirling, portentous slide guitar giving way to a strident, confident Sir Patrick Spens. I’d wondered whether ‘the kids’ would take to the innocuous-looking Simpson, but a cracking version of Brother Can You Spare a Dime helps him pull a good crowd to the main stage, where a jolly Little Liza Jane and a movingly introduced and big-hearted Never Any Good may well elicit a sob or two.

Not that there is much time for that. The Electric Dustbowl (a big circus tent) is hosting The Cornshed Sisters, a quartet of very strong singers who perform a mixture of original, traditional and cover material with acoustic instruments and verve. She’ll be tired of people mentioning it by now, but guitarist Marie Nixon first found fame playing with brilliantly trashy indie-rockers Kenickie. As someone who first got into music jumping around my bedroom to songs like Punka in 1996, learning that another indie kid (and one I so admired) had also discovered folk was strangely delighting. Their set is a success, as is their follow-up session in the Rough Trade tent, where they perform a beautiful a capella version of The Two Sisters, titled Wind and Rain.

Marie (left) and Jennie from The Cornshed Sisters

The rest of the day is a busy one, with Gruff Rhys and Beth Jeans Houghton and her superbly dressed band The Hooves of Destiny particular favourites, demonstrating a sense of humour alongside some brilliant, catchy pop tunes. There is much looping of guitars and dry wit from the likes of Woodpigeon and David Thomas Broughton, too.

SUNDAY: Day three starts with a bang, as the excellent Trembling Bells burst into the strident Goathland with aplomb and startling volume. A great example of a modern folk-rock band, they are blessed with the brilliantly named, Rapunzelesque lead singer Lavinia Blackwall. Her very powerful voice is not only capable of cutting through the band’s pleasing wall of noise, but more surprisingly it proves a neat foil for drummer Alex Neilson on a sweet two-part harmony song.

Serafina Steer

Serafina Steer

Far quieter is harpist and singer Serafina Steer. She seems a bit nervous, frequently interrupting herself to confess mistakes before starting the phrase again. She’s so need to be so edgy – her harp playing is pretty and inventive, and it’s teamed with some original, thoughtful lyrics about everything from “fancying someone” to alien invasions. She’s not sure whether she should play a final song, but fortunately an appreciative audience persuades her.

Martin Carthy attracts a great deal of reverence from other acts, who namecheck him during their sets and head to the front for his performance. In typically cheerful mood, Carthy begins with a spiky Jim Jones in Botany Bay, before treating the crowd to their second Sir Patrick Spens of the festival. Some drift away during lengthy instrumental The Downfall of Paris, but they’re unfortunate to miss an amazing a capella rendition of Oor Hamlet, as well as a slow, deliberate and rousing version of Bill Norrie. It’s thrilling to think of the new audience hearing some of the traditional stuff performed so beautifully – Carthy seems to enjoy himself, too, pretending to shoot down a plane with his guitar during the intro to his good-humoured finale, The Devil and the Feathery Wife.

Martin Carthy

Final folkies to play are The Unthanks, accompanied by The Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band. Initally I miss the strings, but this arrangement works well for a special festival set, with the band providing a sonorous backdrop to Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk and an upbeat, deliberately schmaltzy setting for Chris Price’s Broadway-style Queen of Hearts. They even pull off a joyous Floral Dance to round things off.

Richard Hawley rounds off the night, then it’s off to the cinema tent for cake, a comfy bed and Woodpigeon again, this time helping craft an emotional, beautiful live soundtrack to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. We don’t quite manage to stay awake.

It’s a lovely ending to a festival that really won me over: it’s just the right size, the atmosphere was inclusive, the food was good and even the loos weren’t so bad! I loved the mix of artists – something similar next year would probably lure me back. Over to you, End of the Road people…

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