Bristol Folk Festival is back once more! And, if last year's version was the new and improved, 2012 was the super deluxe. Now, using every inch of the Colston Hall's golden megadome extension, punters were free to wander in and experience roots music's incredible ability to unite and captivate. Those who did buy in to the full experience will be talking about this one for quite some time.
Miranda Sykes's three hours of stage time starts early afternoon with Rex Preston. Surgical removal of the mandolin may be required in later life for Rex, but first, with Miranda's double bass and pure voice, numbers from their eponymous debut, Patti Griffin, and Imogen Heap, spring to life on the main stage. It's all burnished bluegrass and toasty warmth. The floor is then cleared of the cabaret style table setting for Rua MacMillan Trio to bring on an impassioned, and very well attended, ceilidh...scream if you want to go faster!
Meanwhile, the Fred Wedlock stage, in hall two, is a conveyer belt of delights. The young Luke Jackson already posesses some finely honed abilities; with guitar hitched high, and a sumptuous voice at his disposal, he regales us with stories of childhood from a forthcoming release and handles Martyn Joseph's 'Please Sir' and trad numbers like a seasoned pro. Trevor The Bard's troupe of poets add to the eclecticism and hand over to O'Hooley & Tidow, who possibly break this room's attendance figures for the weekend. Delivered to us after appearing on BBC Radio 6 with Cerys Matthews, the suited and booted duo's songs from 'The Fragile', and Belinda's newly learnt accordion playing, are lapped up.
New resident of Cardiff, Blair Dunlop, reasons why he left Chesterfield in 'Bags Outside' and treats us to 'Black Is The Colour', learnt from Paul Downes. With hints of blue collar Springsteen his storytelling is gaining an ever burgeoning edge which sees him hoovering up fans.
Finishing the afternoon are Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts. Displaying more raw emotion than last time Spiral saw them, the duo have stepped up a gear with 'Shepherd' showing their toughness and Katriona's 'Letters' displaying the tender - a story inspired by the discovery of a relative's wartime correspondences asking for news of loved ones.
ahab are a man down as Callum has a dodgy appendix, but they soldier on to victory. More than a few of this crowd already know the harmoniously blessed 'Joanna', 'Rosebud' and 'Call a Waiter' but, hang on, is that the second outing for 'Wagon Wheel' today? We're not complaining.
Moving into the evening, the American Rodney Branigan brings Miranda and Rex back to the stage, does a continuous soft shoe shuffle, and announces he's after our baked beans and women. Coupled with a knack for spectacularly playing two instruments at once, he's a definite showman, but it's his convivial manner, and unique take on Texan politics, that leaves the lasting impression.
Karine Polwart brings new material and sounds as part of a compact and intense set. 'King Of The Birds' details the construction and history of St Pauls Cathedral right up to the Occupy residency and 'Five More Sleeps' references the Polwart's childhood musical education - did you get all the musical quotes? Karine takes time out from her new role ensconced at the harmonium for some classics: 'Rivers Run' and 'Sorry', leave the crowd in a blissful reverie.
Saturday night is hen night and Steve and Phil have their work cut out. Somebody might be getting married in the morning but their love for the Show Of Hands fellas is undimmed, and she's gone to the trouble of spelling it out on a banner. The guys, and the ever present Miranda, work hard not to be upstaged. Sing-a-longs are the main course with 'Arrogance Ignorance and Greed' and 'Cousin Jack' leading the way plus a steady supply of other side dishes: 'Keys Of Canterbury', 'Cruel River' and 'Haunt You', co-written with Seth Lakeman, all fill the hall with smiles.
Drifting up to the Isambard Kingdom stage we're taken in by the laid back Americana of Dirty Boulevard. With a touch of the Townes van Zant's and the sun streaming in the windows, he's put us back in the zone. Doing the rounds we hear stories of last night's sold out Newton Faulkner gig at the o2 Academy and the sessions at the surrounding pubs, we're in our element.
Under The Driftwood Tree give a thumping performance in the mid-afternoon complete with didgeridoo and oodles of sunshine. Their surf/ska/folk fusion, complete with Dizzee Rascal cover, has us all aglow. Hang on, is that bass player's guitar slung lower than Peter Hook's?
Trad on laptops anyone? Yes? Then Solarference are for you. From a sparse stage set of, well, laptops, the duo set about constructing ethereal versions of, amongst many, 'Lucy Wan' and 'Cold Blows The Wind'. Acoustic instruments and found objects are played live, fed to the computer, and sent back to the room. It works, amazingly well, but wouldn't be anything without their sonorous voices.
Continuing on the Fred Wedlock stage Ghosts From The Basement are blowing decades of dust off some old vibes with a celebration of the Village Thing Label, an independent venture from this neck of the woods in the 70's. Employing a songwriter's circle type approach Tucker Zimmerman provides numbers for a mass jam, Wizz Jones hits his revered groove on 'San Francisco Bay Blues', and Jason Steel & Nancy Wallace, the next generation, sit centre stage making simplicity sound ghostly on 'Polly On The Shore'.
Pushing the definition of dynamic to new levels, Phil Henry & Hannah Martin, let the wood and steel sing so sweetly, and when the moment comes, stomp out with abandon: witness their take on the old ballad 'The Boy That Wouldn't Hoe Corn' (based on The Union Station version) or a stonking 'Death & The Lady'. Otherwise, how about 'The Painter' for self-penned drama from the top drawer.
Ruarri Joseph is missing his wife and dedicates just about every song from a short set to her. He's an affable chap who puts the crowd at ease with his understated delivery. The rustic twang in his voice is hypnotic over the descending chords of 'Orchard For An Apple', but he has to dash, the baby sitter's waiting!
The Irish are in town. Alan Doyle & Dave Garner warm the main stage up with Celtic guitar and fiddle, and the odd Paul Brady song, but it's Cara Dillonwho sent a queue spiralling down the foyer's staircase and she doesn't disappoint. Joined by the legends that are Michael McGoldrick, Mairtin O'Connor and Donal Lunny, that's about as good as it gets, and it shows, even if Cara and Sam spent the previous evening cleaning up after a sick baby (NB: don't carry child from one room to another midflow!).
Cara's voice simply dazzles in this setting. Trad numbers from her latest release are a necessity with this band: 'Black Is The Colour' and 'Donald Of Glencoe' mix with solo Gaelic performances and older faves such as 'Hill Of Thieves'. Inbetween the band are let off the lease to set the pulse racing.
You want diversity? This was how stage two lined up this morning: Bristol's own Rag Morris take to the stage for their funfilled version of Mummers Play; followed by the lushness of Emily Wright's jazz trio; then why not stick around for Nicky Swann's tales of South Devon from must hear new release 'How Does Your Land Lie'. Later, Duotone emote beautifully over a crescendo of loops from a truckload of instruments; their banter moves in the same loopy way bringing merriment and gutsy appreciation.
Ed Sheeran collaborator, Amy Wadge, has a gripping voice and infectious laugh. Performing here with Pete Riley, they're a formidable pairing. 'Nine Miles Of Bad Road' and 'Easy On Me' make for stand out moments.
Opening with the anti-war song 'Portland Town' Lady Maisery's combined voices mesmerise. They bring a bansitar to play (a banjo which sounds like a sitar, silly!). They also stir up a gender debate with 'The Capable Wife' and even know a song about fancying people with ginger hair.
The best festivals bring out the best in people and Bristol did the city proud this afternoon. As Spiral Earth head downstairs people are rushing for a vantage point to see RSVP Bhangra take over the foyer with their body rockin' sound. Getting people organized, Judge from the group kick starts some formation dancing which sees a multi-generational crowd joined by a morris team for a 'you had to be there' moment. Just a little life affirming!
Walsh & Pound fling themselves into the frailing banjo madness and pumping powerhouse harmonica of their act. Both peeling off for stunning solo spots and turning their ire on Jeremy Kyle elicits whoops of delight. You need a big personality to follow that and Lucy Ward is that person. Cabaret and song fills the main hall as she hold the crowd rapt with the cruel twist in 'Alice In The Bacon Box', rolls out the cautionary tale of 'Maids When You're Young', and can't resist Pulp's 'Common People'.
Patsy Matheson & Becky Mills have the whole of Patsy's latest 'Stories Of Angels & Guitars' album to pick from, and they choose wisely, the Spiral team are thrilled with 'If You Ask Me', and 'Water Is Over The Weir'. And any festival would be incomplete without a Dylan cover, so a slinky 'One More Cup Of Coffee' is duly provided. Becky's not left out, as 'Amy Sharp', a new number of hers, almost steals the show.
The awe inspiring Sam Sweeney & Hannah James bring the stage two show to a close. Songs inspired by busty Norwegian maidens and clog dancing are the order of the day. Sam's a little tired and tongue tied so the music takes over with tracks ranging from 'The Battered Hake Polka' to 'The Farmer's Cursed Wife' and 'William Taylor', the song with the best ever last verse? The crowd wishes it would never end as their fiddle and accordion fuse into one glorious melody.
It's finale time with the PA turned up to foundation worrying levels for the riotous 3 Daft Monkeys to pound their way through 'One Fine Day', 'Social Vertigo', and 'Perfect Stranger'. Every song as momentous as the last. The mighty Afro Celt Sound System take the reigns. The talk is over, the beats are ramped up, and the spotlights are on. Musicians reel around in front of a bank of percussion and keyboards, Johnny Kalsi, James McNally, N'faly Kouyate divebomb across the big stage, drawing Simon Emerson into their gang, and immersing themselves in a global soundclash of epic proportions. This was festival programming at its best, completing an extraordinary weekend. Book us up for next year.
Saturday 5th May
SHOW OF HANDS
Karine Polwart / Rodney Branigan / Rua Macmillan Trio / Miranda Skyes & Rex Preston / Katriona Gilmore & Jamie Roberts / Sam Sweeney / Ewan McLennan / Blair Dunlop / O`Hooley & Tidow / Luke Jackson
Sunday 6th May
Moore, Moss and Rutter / The Young'uns / Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin / Maggie Boyle with Paul Downes
Ghosts from the Basement: Wizz Jones, Tucker Zimmerman, Nancy Wallace, Ian A Anderson, Ben Mandelson, Jason Steel and Pamela Wyn Shannon
Under the Driftwood Tree / Joe Tilston
Monday 7th May
AFRO CELT SOUND SYSTEM
Lucy Ward / 3 Daft Monkeys / Benji Kirkpatrick / Rory McLeod and the Familiar Strangers / Mawkin / Hannah James & Sam Sweeney / Amy Wadge & Pete Riley / Lady Maisery / Walsh & Pound / Patsy Matheson & Becky Mills / Steve Turner / Duotone
Official site: www.bristolfolkfestival.com