Wickham Festival 2022 …last year the Somme, this year more like El Alamein, our intrepid man in a sleeping bag finds it all well at Wickham. So…no change there!
Swill Odgers (The Men They Couldn’t Hang) summed it up best. A veteran of this rightly celebrated South Coast festival, attending and performing many times over the years, he wondered, from the stage, what might come next. From last years deluge to this years’ desert like drought, snow maybe? But the cheers and whoops that met his comments showed how this audience was made of sturdy stuff. Were we downhearted? Not a chance. Indeed, in a glorious weekend of ceaseless sunshine, it seems churlish to even mention Mother Nature’s vicissitudes, but this is England and this what we do.
A case of unavoidable meant I had to skip the first day and half of the festival, meaning a miss for Oysterband and Paul Young’s Los Pacaminos on the Thursday, and only arriving in time to catch the final strains, as I put up my tent, of Yves Lambert’s Quebecois hurley. That sounded enticing enough for me to get some extra welly in my mallet. A swift lurch over the sun-baked field and I was there to catch the introductions for Steve Wickham. Thanking the promoter’s for naming the festival after him, he was in good mood and on good form. Billed to appear with Joe Chester, illness had meant the last minute stepping in of one Adam Masterson instead, to act as his foil and accompanist.
A more than competent guitarist, his acoustic strumming was the perfect backdrop to Wickham’s soaring fiddle. They shared songs, though, his being a tad less vital than when Wickham entertained our ears to his gruff baritone growl through an assorted bevy of covers and trad. A good start, and sufficient to give me the legs for a wander and an explore.
The contrast from the year before could not be more pronounced across the same field, this year parched rather than the waterlogged trench of last year. Two big tops, aka 1 and 2, tugged the top of the hill, the scatter of food concessions and hippie gear purveyors hugging both the edges and a central market street. Toward the bottom of the slope, and nearer the entrance, were the smaller stages: acoustic, local talent etc, and some weirder and wackier options. Plus a lot of stuff for kids to to and take part in, more than many a festival. And a fair few bars, real ale and cider the main vittles available, with the Moose Inn resplendent at the top of the hill, a quasi-alpine (Canadian rockies??) hostelry, for those in search of something stronger. Or lager.
Back to the music, I caught a snatch of Johnny Kalsi’s DJ set: as patron of the festival, he was a ubiquitous figure, popping up all over the shop over the weekend. But that was on my way over to the estimable delights of Slim Chance, Ronnie Lane’s erstwhile band. Now given the ex-Face departed this earth in 1997, this stretches somewhat the time space continuum, but, in search of a good time, the core of Slim Chance have intermittently reconvened over the decades, together with like minded reprobates, largely members of the ranks of itinerant session men of renown. So alongside originals, Charlie Hart, Steve Bingham and Steve Simpson, the six piece here included Geraint Watkins, a one-time musical director and keyboards man for Van Morrison. Fiddles and accordions to the fore, this is good time music with a swagger in the gait. Best summed up, perhaps, by the old Face’s song, Debris, written by Lane and played this day, with a rumbustious and ramshackle beauty.
My spirit well and truly lifted, it was back to the other tent for Skinny Lister. New to me, this lot were promised as the next generation down of the Oyster/Leveller/F. Dog family tree. Certainly the youngest players yet seen, the presence of melodeon, mandolin and double bass within the instrumental line up could augur nothing but ear candy to me. Active since 2009, how could I have missed them, and they kicked off as they continued, in a high octane pandemonium of flailing limbs and enthusiasm. With Lorna Thomas acting as a central focus, dolly dancing in mad abandonment, the boys thrashed through their folk-punk with relish, and I hope the merch tent had sufficient supplies for demand. A tremendous show for early evening, they gave the oldies in attendance due warning.
So, talking of oldies, who were waiting and watching in the wings but Tuam’s finest? Their only UK festival appearance this summer, The Saw Doctors were here to do what they do. And they did, cracking through an hour and a half of singalong favourites. Much the same line-up that last toured, pre-COVID, it was a joy to see ex-Waterboy, Anto Thisthlewaite, still in the fold, toting his battered looking saxophone. Infectiously roustabout, if there were any new songs, they still all sounded like old faithful’s.
Quieter moments came with personal favourites, Same Oul’ Town and Clare Island, where the vocals of Davy Carton were a soothing balm, but when he and Leo Moran cranked up into the more rousing anthems, the audience went full on choral unison with them. It rounded things off to a T as fellow ex-Waterboy, Steve Wickham, who just happened to be backstage, came on to add his fiddle to a glorious finale. (Hopeful looks bat about the audience, thinking of the potential for Sunday’s closing act on this same stage??) To bed.
Mindful and rueful of having missed both Martha Wainwright and Rumer the night before, my memo for the Saturday was to be more inclusive, but, heck, it is difficult when so many favourites are playing at the same time. So, good and early, I got me showered and caffeined, and up onto the field. The Marching SKAletons were opening proceedings. Pretty much a one trick pony, a marching ska band, dressed as, well, you’re ahead of me, it is a rare old one trick, and I commend them. But more pleasure, I guess, was to be made from their processional around the arena than their subsequent showcase on stage. A chance encounter then with Brighton’s samba mavericks, Town Of Cats, who made up for a slight lack of tunes with a relentless frenetic energy, and the finest brass section encountered in a very long time. Saxes times three, alto, tenor and baritone, along with trumpet, and another when the singer had enough puff also to parp. Totally bonkers and wasted on an early afternoon, however much their partisan followers tried to make believe it midnight at Ipanema on acid.
I confess then to have been a little uncertain about the FOS Brothers, seemingly festival veterans all over, if never here, grizzled troubadours able to catch any an audience in their sweet spot. Here they found mine by bringing on Phil Beer, to guest on fiddle. They were fun, considering I had gone early to catch Swill, that Swill from the first paragraph, doing a solo set. Unfortunately he was stuck in traffic and would not arrive in time, which meant a workaday slot back at the other stage, provided by ex-Blues Band stalwart, Gary Fletcher and his band. As solid as you would expect, it somehow lacked that little something, however excellent, and he was, were the harmonica calisthenics of Mark Feltham. As was the surprisingly authentic southern blues style of fiddler Tom Leary, a fixture of the yearly Feast of Fiddles outings, where the cream of UK fiddle players convene and play together, from Phil Beer to Peter Knight and a whole lot more. But still, what could provide that missing extra lift?
It turned out Little Jimmy Reed could. Billed the last of the original Louisiana bluesmen, as the stage was being set, it made for some intrigue. His band seemed to be an elderly white couple, a scholarly looking white haired, white bearded and bespectacled dude on keyboards, in a glittery silver jacket. Alongside, the spit of anyone’s kindly nan, if also dressed in sparkles, was a little old lady touting a bass ukulele. A fella on drums looked more the part. The trainspotter I am had me wondering whether the first two were the fabled UK bluesologists, Bob Hall and Hilary Blythe, with some quick redress to the iPhone confirming that suspicion. (Who they? Look em’ up and pay respect.) A stick thin rake of a man, with well nigh full grey/white afro then tottered on, looking neither hale nor hearty.
Perching on a stool, with a big shiny electric guitar, he peered out, turned his head toward his cohorts, flashing a gold toothed grin, and they were off. Could he play, could he sing? Hell, yeah, perfect phrasing through a rack of blues standards, peeling off consummate licks and blowing glorious harp. A masterclass in the blues, played by experts, all steeped in the tradition. A phenomenal hour rushed by, he even taking a wander off stage into the audience, playing all the while. Wow, wow and wow. Leon Atkins, Reed’s name to his mother, could well have been the highlight of the whole weekend, and, at this point, was certainly in pole position. Me, I needed a lie-down.
Apologies to the Undertones and Val Doonican’s Barsteward Sons, they each passed me by, but I couldn’t bring myself to ignore Show Of Hands two years running. Sure, seen ’em loads and love ’em, but having assured Mrs Knightley in the morning, go me, as the SoH singer strolled, with his wife, in the arena that the morning, that I would catch them this year, I did. Handily arriving also to catch Johnny Kalsi joining them for a song or two, I felt I had done my duty. (Of course they were good.) However the pressing appointment with Ferocious Dog was looming large.
These guys I have also also seen before, but the against the odds renaissance and revitalisation of the new line-up, as demonstrated by last year’s The Hope, made them an essential watch. And no disappointment given, either, as Ken Bonsall grinned his way through an exemplary set, all dialled up to eleven of energy. The Mohican of old now gone, a flat cap now in perma-placement on his head, he and the band were on top form. Especial mention for fiddle player, Dan Booth, the only other original member, and Dan Wood, handy on just about everything. Concentrating on the punkier agit-folk of their repertoire, the audience were moshing like no tomorrow as they clattered away on stage to the delight of all. The Levellers, next on stage, and headlining, may well have been quaking just a little.
Reader, I didn’t find out. Again, trying to resist the familiar with the new, I took a counter-intuitive turn away, to catch Breabach. I like me a bagpipe and some Gaelic. A lot. This band are amongst the finest in a large field of Hibernian highland and island talent, and threw a blinder of a set. The energy here was all in the playing, the calibre of musicianship astounding. Between the pipes and whistles of Calum McCrimmon and Conal McDonagh, the fiddle of Megan Henderson, and the guitar of Ewan Robertson, there is wealth enough, but add the underpinning of the Scottish double bass champion, James Lindsay and it is perfection. Henderson can also sing like a lark, as well as tap out a mean step dance. This was all present and correct, in spades, and the sizeable audience, eschewing the rammed throng of the Levellers, were more than satisfied. A fantastic digestif to end a terrific day.
Sunday summertime, and the living remained easy, the sun blazing in the sky. A slower start than the day before had nothing leaping out the bill. With apparent high hopes for local favourites, the Bullet Catchers, and knowing nowt about them, I set off in search. Another illness no show, and meant a last minute quick fix from the organisers, with Miranda Sykes conveniently on hand to step in at a moments notice: she was running a stall in the arena, Sea Glass, glass work fashioned in honour of a deceased friend.
On leave from Show of Hands, she put on a superb performance, flitting between sensitive folk songs and feisty jazz, showing herself as adept on guitars as on her trusty stand up bass, a natty new electric bit of kit getting shown off this morning. Lovely stuff, and a prompter for a day of folk, as next up, five minutes away were Luke Daniel’s Cobhers. Taking the lead from Daniel’s melodeon playing, his band included Michael Biggins on keyboards, so well remembered from his appearance with Duncan Chisholm last year. They, as well as playing superbly evocative original folk tunes, also threw in a bevy of unexpected covers, translated and transduced convincingly into their own idiom, the likes of Staying Alive and Pick Up The Pieces. That can be gimmicky and fatuous if done badly, but they rose above pastiche or parody and gave convincing interpretations to these 70s disco classics. Excellent.
With barely a break it was Naomi Bedford and her Ramshackle band, which included her partner, Paul Simmonds, of The Men They Couldn’t Hang. Another cracking set, with a distinct Appalachian acoustic Americana feel given to songs served, often, from the UK tradition. Plus a fair few originals and the odd cover: Dylan’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune a prime example. Perhaps the highlight, however, was a stunning version of Jolene, where Bedford’s elegant transatlantic warble was joined by the flyaway soul drenched harmony vocals of a second female singer, name unknown, a tiny woman with a gigantic voice. (If anyone got her name, let me know!)
With my stomach calling out noisily for food, I had to attend to that before anything else, missing out on the English Fiddle Orchestra, so as to be back, match ready, for Banter. These guys i couldn’t miss, the band centred around E11 melodeon king, Simon Care and pianist/singer Nina Zella. The third member of what was once a trio is the now Mr Zella, the drummer and trumpet player, Tim Walker, no mean singer either. Trumpet and drums? Yup, often at the same time. With a new additional presence, Mark Jolley on bass and guitars, the foursome blew off the top of the marquee. A mix of humongous box arrangements, solid yeoman true type folk songs, sung by Walker, and almost jazzy melodies from Zella’s pristine voice and piano, I was enthralled.
With an intense thirst instilled in me, I could only catch the strains of The Trouble Notes, who allegedly went down a treat with the crowd, as I dashed for some Pompey Royal. Manic gypsy jazz violin sparring with astonishing percussion that begs further investigation. Thirst duly quenched it was to find a place near the front for, at last, The Men They Couldn’t Hang. I have never seen them with added Bobby Valentino, so it was a rare treat to know he was with them tonight, his tall lugubrious presence cutting an odd contrast to the rest of the band. I wonder how many watchers wondered quite who the old bloke in a blue shirt was, prowling the stage beforehand, as he made up his rolly, tucking it behind an ear for later.
But, the minute Swill, Simmonds and the rest rolled on, and in he plugged his fiddle, it was clear how integral his addition is to the group sound and why they value him so highly. South coast Hampshire boys, this was a bit of homecoming for them, all the more poignant since the untimely death of Stefan Cush, alongside Swill, their joint front man. His absence cast a long shadow, if you will, his guitar still centre stage, the many references to him clearly still raw with emotion. A version of Flowers Of The Forest, Cush’s favourite song, and the band’s debut release, had Swill in tears as he sang. Tom Spencer has bravely picked up some of the songs Cush had made his own, his slightly frailer and huskier tone adding to the atmosphere of both loss and celebration. A mix of old and new, often avoiding the obvious, this was a triumphant demonstration of the power of this lasting institution.
Closing the festival came the choice of the ever evolving Waterboys and the prejudice dissolving Gilbert O’Sullivan. (OK, I lie, all prejudice intact, I didn’t and couldn’t face the Get Down hitmaker, but I am told he played a scorcher).
What then of Mike Scott and his current troupe?
For a start the tent was now impenetrable, such the crowd and expectation, leaving me and my tired legs seated outside, gazing at a low res giant TV screen. Was Sharon Shannon, on earlier and another clash in my programme, going to appear?
Well Glastonbury Song came and went without her, Scott having crashed her early 90’s set at Glastonbury to play it back then. How about Messrs Wickham and Thistlethewaite, the former so recently a member and the latter supposedly on hand for some of their summer shows later this year, and each at the festival the day before? We waited. And waited. With a bit of new and a lot of old, it felt as if Spiddal and Findhorn were both way behind and ahead of him, this band with feet decidedly in the southern US states, a rockist swagger of some competence and substance, Scott high kicking his way back to the arena shows his Big Music was taking him last century, before so abruptly changing tack towards folkier tropes.
Burly bassist Aongus Ralston strutted about like a maverick biker, with Brother Paul swooshing all over his vintage hammond. The journeyman veteran, James Hallawell, here tonight, on second keyboards, electric piano in the main, gave a further feel of Muscle Shoals influence to the whole, he giving a sense of balance where it may have gone otherwise off the dial. A polished and choregraphed ninety minutes, and by the time the unmistakeable intro to Fisherman’s Blues chimed up, the main set was at an end. Off, applause and a return for the inevitable Whole Of The Moon and the less expected, and so all the more delightful, How Long Will I Love You sent the crowd back to the tents happy.
Goodnight, Waterboys and goodnight Wickham Festival 2022. See you next year.
Once again, organiser and booker Peter Chegwyn has done this Hampshire village proud.
You can buy early bird tickets for Wickham Festival 2022 here.
Categories: Live Reviews