Live at Commercial (Cleckheaton) on Friday, 1st July 2005
There aren't many indications Cleckheaton is the place to be. Five minutes from Leeds on the westbound M62, the town sits unsignposted beside junction 26, where the distant Bronte zone and none-too-close Salt's Mill are announced. Those attractions may be fine for other times, but not the first weekend in July : that's for Cleckheaton, where Friday evening saw the start of the18th annual Folk Festival.
Folk Music, eh? The world of folk doesn't miss many tricks when it comes to making things harder for itself, and in a town without a railway station (festival towns Otley and Holmfirth don't have one either) we got compelling entertainment from bands so unspellable or unsayable that MC and performer John Prentice at the Commercial Inn couldn't resist linking a couple in his patter at the Friday night concert - despite promoting a rather bigger venue, the Town Hall, by doing so. But if you put Uiscedwr and Birkenschawe in the same programme, even people who've heard of both bands find they've got to comment.
If that audience in the Commercial had known trouble with the sound had delayed events across the road, many more would have stayed for the conclusion of a fine set from Terry Armitage, Neil Benton and Sarah Pinney. Performing under the name Birkenschawe (as in nearby Birkenshaw, but seen through the ripples of history) these skilled local musicians put part of their talent into thoughtful arrangements of interesting stuff, much of which is written by Terry or Neil. One way they did it tonight was with their version of a Gordon Lightfoot number, combining Terry's octave bouzouki and Sarah's cello to accompany Neil's singing and intermittent harmonica. Sarah also plays flute and a bit of concertina plus normally doing rather more vocal work than tonight when tonsillitis was affecting her. Nevertheless, the set's opening song - quite a long one performed acapella by all three precisely harmonising voices - had listeners enthralled. Their own material is delivered with evident feeling, and some of it tends to set the past favourably against the present, while not drifting into the full Spenlandic melancholy with which the late Keith Marsden could so winningly evoke the feelgood factor from the bad old days. Will Birkenschawe come up with a song telling how there was no internet in the Old West Riding, and how they are dedicated to upholding the tradition by googledodging both as a band and as individuals?
Whether to drive out melancholy or to indulge merriment, take an occasional dose of Uiscedwr, a vigorously hard-working trio which began in 2001. Headline act of this year's festival, with a reputation ever broader and stronger since their breakthrough as winner of the BBC Young Folk Award 2002, their shows offer high quality with intense activity. Anna Esslemont, who is also lead singer, has played violin through the decade and a half since she was six, and is unquestionably getting the hang of it. The instrument likes it so much that it now almost plays her at times, in an output that calls for rhythm almost more than for melody, and feeding a repertoire that bears witness to the music of Ireland, eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The excellent Kevin Dempsey on guitar probably has more years behind him as a music pro than the others have in all their learning and performing time put together, and he too is kept busy with huge amounts of rhythm work, in pieces often built on percussionist Cormac Byrne's astounding amplified bodhran, where in addition to his total command of a conventional array of sounds, Cormac gets vivid results out of the rim of the woodwork. This band's name can't just be Celtic for 'water' : it must be something to do with whizz-kid-awe.
All the band-members mentioned now live in Yorkshire and are getting plenty of bookings. So look out for them, but remember - only one of the bands has a website to help you find them in the modern world.