West Midlands folk gathering’s heady new brew – of music and beer


Folk music enthusiasts from all over the West Midlands met to explore how grassroots small venues can develop new audiences and had a special brew of beer for the day.

The Folk 21 West Midlands event at the Newhampton Arts Centre, Dunkley Street, Wolverhampton, on Saturday May 11 also had a special beer brewed by city brewer Andy Brough for the occasion.

In 2011 Black Country singer/songwriter John Richards wrote a blog about the fate of small venues on a folk website and the movement took off from there encouraging and assisting small venues (folk clubs, village halls, arts centres, music cafes etc) which book guests and present small scale concerts.

John Richards

John Richards

It is led by a committee of organisers, artists, agents and audience members working together to help sustain and strengthen the artist-booking folk scene in the UK, now and for the future.

On May 11 there was a full afternoon of discussion at the arts centre, which hosts regular folk music evenings, followed by an evening showcase of acts from other areas who want to work in the West Midlands.

Those that took part thought that quite a few useful ideas came up in the two sessions of discussion and some suggested that a forum should be kept going until the next opportunity for a Folk21 gathering in the West Midlands.

Phil Preen and Julie Palmer, from The Poppy Folk Club, Nottingham, led a discussion on how to attract new audiences and retain existing ones.

Both spoke off the back of starting up a folk club in their area and some of the initiatives they used were noted by others – for example having their own Poppy Club beermats in the pub where they meet. Some thought you should get rid of the title folk club – and its apparent beards and sandals image – and find something broader. Roots?, traditional? Bluegrass? Acoustic? All terms which could be applied to some of the music in clubs.

Pam Bishop and Graham Langley from the West Midlands’ Folk Monthly and Traditional Arts Team spoke about how relevant good quality graphics, posters, leaflets and publicity material was in the wider community and within the existing folk network.

Jim Barrow - the Burslembandit - speaking at the Folk21 West Midlands event at the Newhampton Arts Centre , Wolverhampton

Jim Barrow – Burslembandit – pictured by David Derricott at Folk21

I – Jim Barrow, aka Burslembandit, emphasised the power of the spoken word and one-to-one communication with club organisers, artists and members acting as ‘permanent persudaders’ in the community. Not boring the pants off people constantly but still inviting them along to enjoy music and song in a social setting.

I emphasised that millions still read newspapers and magazines (despite falling circulations and ad revenue) and that it was important to keep sending in media releases, picture opportunities and any newsy material you could lay your hands on – as well as getting to know journalists and trying to temp them out of their comfort zones in the big arenas with apparent superstars old and new.

The same goes for local radio, TV and increasingly internet radio and TV. Social media like this is increasingly important as younger people tend to consume this more often than anything in print – or even on mainstream TV.

However, once the talking and eating (very nice teas in Jesters Cafe at the Newhampton Arts Centre – but I would say that being a paper shuffler on the board there) were over it was time for the stuff all the talking was about.

First up at the showcase was a  Long Lankin, a female three part harmony group from London using guitar, mandolin and fiddle with a freshness and zest that typified all the showcase acts. A sample of their style comes with their version of their namesake’s antics. Listen here to Long Lankin 

They told us they were in the process of recording their first EP in the week following the concert.

A little more established is Alun Parry a singer/songwriter from Liverpool who brought back memories of my time on Merseyside in the early seventies when the dockers were still fighting their corner all the way with his take on life on Liverpool’s waterfront and can be best heard by clicking on this version of If Harry Don’t Go

He pays homage to US legendary folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie with Woody’s song and his set was shot through with an upbeat scouse tilt on Irish-American folk and he also unashamedly champions the people at the bottom and those still prepared to fight for them.

Harp and a Monkey, described as an ‘Incredible String Band’ for the now, from Manchester came over with a very different sound – harp and banjo driven electro-folk storytelling – as they say themselves.

The sounds produced by Martin Purdy (vocals/ glockenspiel/ electronica/ accordion), Andy Smith (banjo/ guitar/ melodica/ electronica) and Simon Jones (harp/ guitar/ strings/ electronica) come from, they say, influences including World War One history, sound and visual art, electronic and video technology, as well as “bacon butties and beats”.

What came out sometimes seemed almost reminiscent of those that my former Liverpool Post & Echo colleague Tony Wilson helped bring to the world in his ‘Madchester’ days at Factory Records and  The Hacienda.

Formed in 2008, the band are apparently content to have been described as “Elbow for seafarers and ramblers” and the “bastard sons of the Oldham Tinkers locked in the BBC Radiophonic Workship with only the British Film Institute back catalogue and a handful of scratchy folk LPs from the early seventies for company.”

They were hugely entertaining and had a very professional promotional pack – a precursor for a new album out this year. They have also played the festival in another of my favourites from Lancashire – Ramsbottom. Here they are with Katy’s Twinkly Band.

Roger Davies, a singer/songwriter from West Yorkshire came over as a sort of Yorkie John Denver with a wicked sense of humour.

He is well established with albums Northern Trash, The Busker, Live in Concert Vol One and Songs in Plain English as well as his new single Stephanie. He wrote a very local take on the Olympics and Yorkshire called Carry That Fire

The Raven, a guitar/flute/concertina duo from London had a store of folk miserablism delivered in fine style – although they also do upbeat stomping sea shanties as well.

They have a new album out in the autumn and are well worth a listen as with this version of Black is The Colour (of My True Love’s Hair)

Singer and songwriter Jez Lowe, who has taken his songs of life in his native North East England to audiences around the world headlined after the other acts.

 Jez Lowe pictured by Alan Reynolds
Jez Lowe pictured by Alan Reynolds

The arts centre website said of him – “His latest album, his fifteenth, entitled “Wotcheor!”, has once more thrust him into the spotlight, with a successful series of stage shows, and a fistful of outstanding reviews, and a renewed interest in his brand of pointed, poignant and powerful musical epistles from the North, that have brought him a nomination for Folksinger of the Year in the BBC Folk Awards, an “album of the year” award in the US-based Inde-Acoustic Awards, and a Sony Radio Award for his contribution to the prestigious Radio Ballads series for the BBC, over the last five years alone.

As well as his own performances and tours around the globe, featuring Jez accompanying himself on guitar, cittern, mandolin and harmonica, Jez’s songs also travel independently, thanks to cover versions by the likes of Fairport Convention, The Dubliners, Cherish The Ladies, The Tannahill Weavers, The McCalmans, Bob Fox, The Black Family, The Clancys and scores more folk acts around the world.

2011/12 included tours of the USA, Canada, Germany, Holland, Australia and New Zealand, plus a slew of UK gigs including a special one-man show based on his own Radio Ballads songs, and festival appearances at Sidmouth, Broadstairs, Grove, Chester, Bromyard, Moira, and Wath in the UK, and Albany NY, New Bedford MA , Middlebury VT, the California World Festival and Calgary AB in North America.

‘Jez Lowe is one of our finest songwriters.’ says BBC Radio 2 and here he is 

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