Folk Weekend Oxford

Folk festival in the centre of Oxford. Music, workshops, fete and family events.
The Old Fire Station, 40 George Street, Oxford OX1 2AQ, Fri 25 April - Sun 27 April 2014

April 28, 2014
Spotlight review: The Skeptics and Man Choir

These two singing sessions forever changed my assumption that all male a cappella groups sounded like your staid Welsh male voice choirs.

The Skeptics were a real laugh, but with genuine singing talent behind them. You haven’t heard singing until you’ve heard a folk version of Louie Louie by three guys in Hawaiian shirts. Brilliant.

Then came Man Choir. They packed out the small gallery and more – people were straining from all corners to hear them, and with good reason. With a repertoire ranging from American spirituals to Radiohead (they had to do something local for the Folk Weekend Oxford!) and The Sweetest Kick in the Heart, written by a friend of the choir leader, Philip Read, they hit every chord.

Their harmonies were just beautiful: they swept me and everyone else away. You wouldn’t expect something so delicate from a male voice choir, but they carried it off perfectly, punctuating emotional songs with just the right level of depth and strength. They were a great way to round out my weekend at the festival.

April 28, 2014
Spotlight review: James Bell's Troubadours and Trobairitz, St Columba's Church, Saturday 6pm

A standout event from the Folk Weekend Oxford, this musical parade tripped out some real, heartfelt warmth.

Matt Chanarin had a great gritty, beachy feel, reminiscent of Paul Simon and Jack Johnson. It was perfectly suited to the small acoustic setting and had everyone enthralled. And while Shack Days had me grinning, dreaming of sunny summer afternoons of days gone by, No Man is an Island tapped straight into the real and lonely struggles everyone carries, but rarely shares.

Small and Gold, the second surprise find of the session, are a band of four sisters from Oxford. Writing songs in a similar vein to Chanarin, they employ slightly more traditional folk harmonies and beats as you find in Mumford and Sons (who they name as an influence). There was something really genuine and personal about their songs of family, travel and heartache that was just indefinably lovely.

The whole session has me wishing for more, and despite some songs of sorrow, both Chanarin and Small and Gold delivered their lyrics with a melody of hope that was undeniably uplifting.

April 28, 2014

Singing, fiddling, dancing, fair maidens, saucy blacksmiths and much more. Summing up Folk Weekend Oxford in a single review is near impossible. Despite hopping from venue to venue over the weekend, there was so much going on that I inevitably missed out on a few events and workshops.

Being quite new to the world of folk, I was amazed to see so many people, so much enthusiasm and so much knowledge. There’s a real shared sense of engagement and history that ran through the whole weekend. While some references and riffs may have passed me by, there was still plenty of accessible entertainment for the average attendee.

The free gigs in the Gallery of the Old Fire Station, which focused on local talent, were great. From a cappella male singing from The Skeptics, to chilling fireside folk from Sue Brown and Lorraine Irwing, through to a haunting cover of Hotel California from Rebecca Cullen, almost all the artists seemed to pack out the tiny, but lovely, little space.

The bigger concerts covered a range of folk traditions and styles. James Bell kicked off with some energetic but historic numbers on Friday night, including a fabulously lewd tale of a blacksmith and his hot rod!

Saturday then went from the very dark and genuinely (and intentionally) depressing Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, on to the playful and insistently cheerful David Gibb and Elly Lucas. Not to mention James Bell’s Troubadours and Trobairitz, which were so fabulous that they earned their own spotlight review.

Of course, since there was such a range of talents at the festival, I found some more favourable than others. Blackbeard’s Tea Party, who led the ceilidh on Friday and the dance party on Saturday, was just a little too weird. They seemed to be the result of the Red Hot Chili Peppers being smushed together with a Cornish pasty. Each instrumentalist was talented, definitely, but together they made a most inconsistent sound. That said, plenty of people were up and dancing, so fun was still had.

Also worth mentioning is the atmosphere all through the centre of Oxford, with Morris dancers popping up and jingling their bells to such dances as ‘The Magic Fairy’, and haunting tales of the Queen’s Soldier drifting through The Ashmolean. Local pubs, like Far from the Madding Crowd, had the drifting rhythms of fiddles and pipes all day, and of course Gloucester Green served as a great centre for the village fête (despite the odd downpour!).

The organisation appeared seamless and the Old Fire Station was a great HQ, with the theatre providing some lovely warm acoustics. All in all, an impressive and appropriately exhausting weekend of musical traditions, new and old.

April 25, 2014

Folk Weekend Oxford kicks off tonight with a whole series of not-to-be missed events. Sadly while James Bell and Police Dog Hogan is already sold out, there is still what is promising to be a lively romp at the Ceilidh with Blackbeard's Tea Party and Lisbee Stainton Duo at St Michael at the Northgate. And then there's the rest of the weekend, which is genuinely packed with all sorts of musical and family-friendly folk goings-on.

For me the weekend started this afternoon at The Story Museum with the launch of the ‘Back to the Quarry' project. Led by Cat Kelly, the Festival Director, the project aims to gather, preserve and actively pass on the history of the Kimber family of Headington Quarry. The recent grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund allows the project to go ahead with building an interactive website. The idea is to collate letters, histories and traditions around the folk and Morris scene that the Kimber family, and William Kimber in particular, was vital in keeping alive. Alongside that they'll be running workshops at the local schools to keep the Morris tradition alive and dancing through the generations.

But back to the main event. This is the third year of Folk Weekend Oxford in its current incarnation, run by Cat Kelly. There is a strong focus on community and local new talent throughout the weekend, with most of the daytime events designed specifically to be family friendly. The family ceilidh at the Wesley Memorial Church Hall at 2pm on Saturday, for example, is designed to allow children to join in and dance, without too much overwhelming stomping or noise, but still in the traditional ceilidh spirit.

Keeping it local, the Gallery at the Old Fire Station on George Street (the HQ of the festival) is hosting a parade of local, less-known talent to help you discover some new gems. Emily and the Tunesmiths and Wednesday Wolves in particular are tipped to be on the rise.

Personally, over the weekend I'm looking forward to James Bell, Telling the Bees, Megan Henwood and Man Choir. And of course, discovering many new artists and stories. Definitely worth a trip down to the centre of Oxford and having a gander around all the locations and events, even if it does keep raining.

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