Saturday 17th October. It should have been the weekend of the Manchester Folk Festival / English Folk Expo. HOME and the surrounding music venues remain eerily quiet.
Passing by the likes of the Apollo, the Academies, the Deaf Institute, Dancehouse, the Ritz, Gorilla – the list goes on – where there should be queues of excited gig-going punters and yellow-jacketed security men searching bags and bantering, there are empty pavements with the occasional couple out for a quiet night.
However, there’s something going on in Theatre 1 at HOME. Superhero. local guy and BBC Radio Folk Show host Mark Radcliffe has come to help save the day. He’s the front for a team that are launching the official Folk album chart in a live streamed extravaganza.
Folk music and album charts sound like two strange bedfellows. There may have been the days when some of the folk fraternity made forays into the albums and singles charts – Steeleye Span on Top Of The Pops spring to mind – but there’s an article somewhere in there.
Recent times have seen charts almost abandoned. Does anyone really care? It shows later that the artists do get a buzz from being ‘in the charts’. Figureheads from David Agnew, Artistic Director, Manchester Folk Festival to musicians Kate Rusby and Frank Turner have spoken:
“In folk music the album is still an occasion, a work of art and a moment to be celebrated”
“A genre that quite often doesn’t get the props it deserves from the powers that be and from the mainstream music industry”
“This will give hundreds of incredible musicians across the UK and Ireland the recognition they deserve”
Launched in partnership with English Folk Expo’s Manchester Folk Festival and supported by Showcase Scotland Expo, the first chart was revealed on 17 October 2020. And we were there!
After an introduction from David Agnes, the live music began with multi award-winning Welsh chamber-folk trio Vri. Singing in their native tongue and playfully delivering a piece once considered for the Welsh national anthem – actually an ode to being gently drunk – it was a stately opening to proceedings.
Further live performances came from Manchester duo, The Breath featuring Folk Singer Of The Year Ríoghnach Connolly and Stuart McCallum and Fay Hield and her band. A return to being annoyed at tuning is how Ríoghnach Connolly characterised playing live again. Folk music (or alt-folk, one of those many branches) with attitude if standing poised warrior-like with the instrument on her hip is anything to go by. “A unique and special atmosphere,” is how Mark Radcliffe described their mini-set.
Fay Hield and her regular pals, Sam Sweeney, Rob Harbron and Ben Nicholls, closed the evening with three songs from the excellent Wrackline. Setting Mark Radcliffe straight on the wrackline being the point where the tide deposits its residue and the space of no-mans land between that and the water and how it translates to her album of ghostly and spiritual storytelling, tales from the twilight zone, it was a perfect taster for anyone who’s not heard the #6 album.
In between the performances we had a rundown of the chart positions, in time-honoured fashion from 40-21, 20-11 and the top ten. It emphasised how folk music is broad in its scope with appearances from the stalwarts Show Of Hands, The Unthanks, Richard Thompson and two entries from Kate Rusby and reissues of work by Davy Graham and Christy Moore to the more contemporary and younger singer-songwriters. Accompanied by some gentle Celtic folk soundtrack (no Yellow Pearl or Alan Freeman style quips) we got to a top five that included Stick In The Wheel’s superb Hold Fast, some electric folk-rock from The Levellers, Kate Rusby’s lockdown album of covers, Laura Marling’s A Song For Our Daughters and the people’s poet (I thought that was Rik from The Young Ones?) Jamie Webster’s We Get By
It was pretty much a catch-all of 2020 with some albums originally released back in March – a point not lost on Sam Sweeney who talked of his delight in fetauring in a chart with an album which was his indulgence in traditional English music.
It will be interesting to see who features in the ongoing month’s charts with excellent releases coming from the likes of Jenny Sturgeon, The Rheingans Sisters, Merry Hell and other young guns such as Joshua Burnell. And Kris Drever too who sent in a two-song performance and with his Where The World Is Thin album just released. For the record, although there’s a band on his album, he played solo – a form which IMHO and like Richard Thompson, is what he does best.
There were also a couple of online link ups with chart contenders. Shirley Collins talked about her Heart’s Ease album and the frustrations of not being able to play and in particular sympathising with the younger musicians who need to be out and gigging. Her won resurgence is very much at the heart of an awakened interest in folk music and her joy at being an active musician again was a joy to behold.
Joshua Burnside also called in from his East Belfast studio. One of several artists who self release their work (its the new way) he paid tribute to his backroom team and is further proof (of a model than rock band Marillion set into motion many years ago) that it is possible to make music and not be governed by a label.
We also linked up with the musician who has the current #1 (and #7) album in the charts, Jamie Webster from his Liverpool home. In traditional Scouse style, he confessed to being “absolutely made up” as well as owing a debt to Bob Dylan and his experiences of working for ten years on a building site that is surely a good grounding for documenting and telling the tales of working people.
“Right, pack up and go home, we have to be out of here by ten” – where not even a bar would be open…