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Butlins – Great British Folk Festival

Nov 13, 2015

Hello campers. Hope this finds you well. I’ve just had a fun weekend in Skegness. At Butlins. Hang on, I’ll run that by you again. I’ve just had a fun weekend in Skegness. At Butlins. And that’s not something I thought I’d ever have cause to say since 1973. Come to think of it, though, there was that strange festival at Bognor Regis in the 1980s when Butlins had the bright idea of invigorating a quiet winter weekend with joint festivals of folk music, drum majorettes, country and western and junior disco dancing. It wasn’t pretty…

In fact, it was downright ugly as the four marginalised counter cultures collided in excruciating fashion and, escaping from a chalet compound still bearing the worrying hallmarks of Stalag 17, you found yourself sharing breakfast with an ageing pistol-toting Johnny Cash wannabe in full cowboy regalia, a family with identical twin daughters playing with their pom-poms and disgustingly pushy mums applied odious amounts of lipstick and parental pressure on a scarily precocious bunch of pre-teens mouthing the words to Duran Duran or Nik Kershaw or somesuch as they rehearsed their worryingly provocative bumping’n’grinding dance routines.  If you thought folkies were weird, then try hanging out on the drum majorette and junior disco dancing scenes for a day or two…

Anyway, after two decades of therapy, I was ready to answer the call of the Great British Folk Festival – don’t you just love that title? – in Skegness. I was meant to be going last year but the country was enveloped in snow at the time and I bailed out, imagining the event would either be cancelled or prove such an unmitigated disaster, it wouldn’t be repeated.

I was wrong. Boy, was I wrong! No snow this year, though the Skegness climate is still very challenging (never mind bracing, we’re talking brass monkeys, here, brass monkeys…) Driving past the endless cabbage patches into a wall of fish’n’chip shops that dominate this eastern front of Lincolnshire and, try as you might to ignore it, there’s an overwhelming temptation to conjure up clichéd old images of prison camps as you enter the gates of Butlins, with the redcoats as finger-popping, laugh-a-minute guards.

“Let’s face it,” says Richard Digance during his enjoyably irreverent set on Saturday afternoon while taking pot shots at the sound crew, “none of us thought we’d ever thought we’d ever be coming to a folk festival at Butlins…” It gets even more surreal later that night as Kanda Bongo Man’s warm-up act, the dynamic singer/dancer Mimitah suddenly whips off the rather unflattering multi-coloured bath robe she wears on stage to reveal…well, to reveal not very much underneath it…and shouts “Good evening Butlins!” at us. Not quite as surreal as ol’ Kanda Bongo Man himself, of course, shuffling around in his white shell suit as the soukous grooves kicked in, half the audience rising as one to dance along with the great man while the other half thought somebody must have slipped magic mushrooms into their soup and fled for their beds.

Yet there aren’t many places in Britain you could successfully hold a folk festival in December and in many ways Butlins is the perfect venue. Everything you could possibly need can be found within the prison…sorry, holiday camp walls…especially if you like riding the flumes in the swimming pool and ten-pin bowling, as surely all right-thinking folkies do. Food, apartments and two big venues for the music and, at relatively modest prices…and the place was rammed all weekend.

Admittedly, it was geared squarely towards the more elderly end of the folk spectrum – the Wurzels? – and there are plenty of anomalies, not least in the interminable queues for most of the main events, especially the Digance and “Fairport Connections” shows which were curiously the only programmed afternoon events. If you didn’t have a beard when you started queuing, you certainly did by the time you got in…and that was just the women.

To the little-disguised disgruntlement of several of the artists, the sound quality sometimes left much to be desired; and, to have a real festival atmosphere, it needs more going on to supplement the headline events on the concert stages and perhaps a third focal point to diffuse the crowds gathering in one place and provide an opportunity for a more diverse and, dare I say it, younger cast list. Cutting edge, this wasn’t.

And yet…and yet…determinedly conservative as the booking policy may have been, they managed to fill Butlins in December with a folk festival that will have introduced some of the lesser known acts to a whole new audience. BBC Folk Award nominee Emily Smith for one, Balkan-Latino hybrid party band Alejandro and the Magic Tombolinos for another, not to mention Bristol-based singer songwriter Jane Taylor and progressive Irish fiddle player Joe O’Donnell.

“Hmmm, I’m only here for Seth Lakeman,” said the woman from Preston sitting next to me with her daughter, trying to stay awake through a desultory set by Matthews Southern Comfort, now reinvented by Iain Matthews with a line-up of Dutch musicians. Anxious not to be considered purely nostalgia, Iain filled us in on what he’d been up to for the last 40 years since Southern Comfort were previously around and even played the “hit” – Woodstock – as an encore, though it took a while for most people to recognise it in its new gospel/soul tinted arrangement.

And for all its faults Butlins was mostly immensely enjoyable. One of the great old-stagers Ralph McTell played a masterful set on Friday night, managing to fit in a lively arrangement of Anji in tribute to his dear, departed old friend Bert Jansch and it was good to see Merry Hell – the Wigan band built around the Kettle family who’ve risen powerfully from the long-forgotten ashes of The Tansads – to fly the much-abused and bruised flag for folk-rock with such panache and conviction. Up The Shirkers, they sang, and Butlins shook appreciatively.

Dances with 3 Daft Monkeys, sing-alongs with Chumbawamba, skanking to Peatbog Faeries…and my, my, such was the mood of benign content late on the first night, I even found myself lending a kindly ear to Quill, an accomplished and faithful covers band who saw us home with everything from Fisherman’s Blues to The Devil Came Down To Georgia. But then I always had a thing about long-haired fiddle players in gypsy skirts…

The strong Fairportian element to the proceedings which overtook much of Sunday (Dave Pegg’s Fairport Connections including Gerry Conway, Anna Ryer, PJ Wright, Steve Tilston and – racing up the motorway from his stint in War Horse – Bob Fox), Jacqui McShee’s Pentangle and The Dylan Project created the firm impression of Cropredy on sea and, Wurzels or not, no harm in that.

Driving out of those gates on Sunday you felt a sense of ‘did I really just spend a December weekend at Butlins in Skegness?’ and laughed like a drain. Or maybe that’s just me.

Book me in for next year…


Colin Irwin

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