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The Big Session Festival, De Montfort Hall, Leicester, June 18th-20th 2010 (Part 1)

June 26, 2010

We’ve been going to The Big Session Festival as a family for a few years now. It’s usually our first festival of the ‘season’ and it’s a gentle re-introduction to the world of damp feet and dodgy bogs, as it’s held in the grounds (and hall) of De Montfort Hall in Leicester. Not only does that mean decent facilities, but it also means we wimp out of camping and stay at the Premier Inn or the Travelodge in the city centre, a mere 15 minutes away on foot.

The Big Session is hosted by the Oysterband, one of England’s best-loved folk-rock bands, whose loyal followers treat this as their highlight of the year. The band finish off the weekend on Sunday night, but usually crop up in various combinations through the weekend too. I’m not their biggest fan – sometimes the clenched-fist radical stuff is a bit too anthemic and simplistic for my tastes – but they do put together a great festival comprising the rockier end of folk.

After checking into the hotel, we wandered up to De Montfort Hall, got ourselves wristbanded and headed for the real ale tent. We said ‘hi’ to Jeremy from AmericanaUK and ordered our first pint of the weekend. The selection of beers was excellent and we kicked off with a classic, Castle Rock’s award-winning Harvest Pale from nearby Nottingham. There are three stages at Big Session – the big indoor hall, the big-top tent and the smaller stage in the real ale tent. We went into the hall for our first taste of the weekend’s music, Julian Gaskell and the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a splendid name for a band specialising in a sort of Balkan-klezmer-tinged silliness with a radical Cornish twist. Julian himself is quite an engaging ranter and a very good accordionist. There’s something punky and attractively Beefheartian about the band, but much of the drollery is a bit too rich for my tastes.

Back in the big-top tent, we saw the Oysterband’s venerable bass-player and cellist Ray ‘Chopper’ Cooper front his own folk-rock band, which was definitely toe-tapping but sometimes too declamatory. The driving rhythms and stirring choruses can begin to overwhelm, though ‘Chopper’ is a genial host and fine musician. After another trip to the beer tent, it was back to the tent to see John Smith – for the third time this year. Happily, this was a much better experience than when we last saw him play with a band. Despite his latest album straying away from folk to some thing more mainstream, this was a much looser and interesting set than I perhaps expected. He has the excellent Jon Thorne on upright bass and the music felt earthier and more personal than last time we heard them. Just a correction though, John – the song The Time Has Come was written by Anne Briggs, not Sandy Denny, despite the fact that Sandy was the first to record it. A simple and simply great song:
   Oh, my babe, don’t you know,
   The time has come for me to go.

   Tomorrow comes like yesterday,

   The autumn fades our love away.

And talking of fading away, we then had the dubious pleasure of watching England’s tedious and alarmingly poor 0-0 draw against Algeria in the Word Cup finals, but immediately after the game I was cheered up by Emily Barker and the Red Clay Halo (left), who were playing in the beer tent. Aussie Emily has lived on these shores for a number of years and plays a very engaging country-folk style. Opening number Little Deaths was followed by a Neil Young cover, Look Out For My Love, then Blackbird and Ropes from their upcoming album, which is currently being ‘fan-funded’ at the excellent Pledge Music website. It’s a fine idea and one that many small bands could surely benefit from. Emily and the band finished with Nostalgia, which has become popular as the theme song to the BBC TV series Wallander and one little lad at the front started dancing energetically, which was sweet.

I missed the chance to see headliners The Proclaimers in order to witness The Rockingbirds in the big tent. Alan Tyler and the boys put on a great Friday night show of Gram-inspired Byrdsian country rock. We’d seen them re-form for the Edwyn Collins Heavenly gig the other year, and they were fab. After a rocking Love Has Gone And Made A Mess Of Me, we got lots of cracking oldies, including Further Down The Line, the Richman-inspired Jonathan, Jonathan and the John Hartford song Tall Buildings. It was a pleasure to see and hear them again.

We nipped inside to see the last two minutes of The Proclaimers in the big hall, then had one last pint and headed back to the hotel. Roll on Saturday…

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