I know that it is already June - nevertheless I go back in this article into the dark months of this year, when I went on the adventurous search of one of Suffolk's best hidden secrets - as it is quite common in England, these are folk clubs and folk venues.
An evening in February. I found out in event listins that the Fraser Sisters would be playing at the Everyman Folk Club in Saxmundham, meeting at the Queens Head. The folk club has an up to date website, and there you find perfect directions. So Queens Head easily found, but what now? Entering the pub there is no sign of an event that night - only chance: asking. The description to the folk club venue is as typical as it can get for an English folk club: "Use the back door to the toilets, don't enter the toilets, but choose the other door where you will find stairs up to the folk club venue." And indeed, there we were: The folk club venue. Well secured against outsiders who are not part of the folk circle...
We received a very warm welcome from the folk club team, as apparently we were the first ever press people visiting the folk club - local journalists were invited already several times, but never came. Or maybe they just did not find the venue???
The evening started with floor spots of about half a dozen local singers and musicians; now finally my English partner (who has not been long in the folk scene) could experience the "real" English folk club - and the reason why folk clubs in England have especially among young people this certain reputation as being not really the most perfect pastime for a Friday night out: The floorspots all had a certain charm and represented how many and what a broad range of amateur folk musicians are around, featuring unaccompanied singing, some music, funny stories - all not outstanding, but nice enough. Nevertheless after a while I just waited for the main act...
The Fraser Sisters are among the most talented musicians on the English folk
scene; their contribution to various bands and projects, most remarkably in
the all female superb band Token Women, has given them quite a bit of fame.
The Fraser Sisters are Jo Freya, playing instruments such as soprano/alto/tenor
saxes, whistles, clarinets and Fi Fraser with fiddles, clarinet, hammered dulcimer
and percussion. They brought along to this gig the talented string instrumentalist
Jo Freya warned already at the start of the concert that she would not be in perfect shape that night; her cold (which she had also just exported to Belgium) would make her life as a singer and, in particular, saxophone player difficult. Somehow all three seemed not to have their best of days, starting the songs and tunes quite regularly in different keys, and presenting a not particularly tight playing. It was rather obvious that the three had not played together for a while. But they could nevertheless win the audience quite easily - they have enough charm, humour and an appealing live performance to weigh out the weaknesses of the music.
The selection of songs and tunes is rather attractive, although that night it was a bit of a shame that they had to reduce the numbers of instrumentals due to Jo's state of health. They played numbers from both their two albums released up to now; all this unplugged without micros, which is a nice difference to so many concerts these days.
Before the second set of the Fraser Sisters started, we still had to listen to another half a dozen floorspots, and of course the unavoidable raffle. Nevertheless, all in all an enjoyable evening. I suppose the Fraser Sisters might well appeal to a lot of youths, the folk club "traditions" would, for most young people, not add to the attraction though...
Already the next evening we were out again in Suffolks dark countryside, this time out into the midst of nowhere: to Bardwell, a small village near Bury St. Edmunds - at Tithe Barn a special concert should happen that night, featuring Karen Tweed, Andy Cutting, Tim van Eyken and Robert Harbron. This combination of talent came together because the four of them were giving that day music workshops as part of the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust in Ipswich. The concert was a charity concert in support of ME.
This time, we did not have any directions (the website did not indicate any), but we believed that in a small village you should easily find such a venue. We must have forgotten that it was a folk concert we were going to - obviously, it is nearly impossible to find it. After having driven several times up and down the village, we asked a couple on the street for directions, who were pointing into a direction saying: "we were told it is down there". And indeed it was; of course it did not help that Tithe Barn did not have a sign "Tithe Barn", nor did you find anywhere posters of the event. An additional little problem was that the only parking in this little village belonged to the local pub refusing non-patrons to park there. Just imagine maybe two hundred visitors parking along the tiny roads of a tiny village... probably the only traffic chaos Bardwell ever has had! It was quite unbelievable that all these 200 people found their way to Tithe Barn...
The concert was yet well worth the long search, as it was a real treat. And yes, there were no floorspots tonight, the musicians would directly start the main part of the concert. They started half an hour late though, probably because they did not find their way to the venue...
On stage we had four of the greatest musicians from England, part of the new innovative and "sexy" scene of magnificent musicians who are open to look beyond the borders of the British islands, taking up tunes and influences from Spain, Scandinavia, Ireland and plenty of other places. They all show that they love to play their music: you can hardly catch them without a smile on their face while playing. Additionally, they have a great sense of humour.
It might seem at a first thought a bit boring - a concert featuring an accordion, two melodeons and a concertina, plus the occasional guitar input from Robert and songs from Robert and Tim, and of course the entertaining little stories of all four of them. The instrument range might have made a boring concert, if it would not have been THESE four musicians playing. They create a tremendously beautiful soundscape with their accordions; it sounds perfect, there is no need for accompanying instruments. All four musicians were all the time on stage. At times, they played all together, while inbetween each musician had their solo, and there were several duos of the established duo partners Robert / Tim and Karen / Andy.
It was one of those absolutely perfect folk evening - listening to four musicians who know their instruments, who love to play, and who are additionally great fun. This is English folk music at its best!
So - two concerts of great musicians, two venues that were very hard to find. Could folk music in England extend its appeal, and get a new young fan base? My answer is: Yes, if a) the venues would not just try to be as hidden as possible hide away, but put up signs saying: Here is great music tonight and b) if folk clubs adopt a bit, becoming more attractive for young people - if they are at all open for change, that is. Well nothing against the folk club, I enjoyed the evening and would come back again, but I suppose many young people who are not that much involved in the folk scene would not be too attracted by the folk club "traditions" around the concert.
Related Internet sites:
Everyman Folk Club: http://www.wheatstone.co.uk/EFChome.htm
Action for ME folk concerts in Suffolk - see http://www.acousticity.co.uk/
Watch out for some great stuff in Suffolk and beyond this summer - for example the Folk at Fram event at Framlingham Castle on the 10th August 2002 with Niamh Parsons, Old Blind Dogs and Tarras, the Jazz at Fram event just a week earlier. Or the events at the Snape Proms, in the Snape Maltings building, a spectacular concert series feat. Folk, Jazz and Classic music throughout August (see www.aldeburgh.co.uk). Also the Colchester Folk club has a rather impressive program throughout the summer, see http://www.acousticity.co.uk/
Photo Credit: Photos (1), (3) and (4) by The Mollis; photo (2)
press photo of Fraser Sisters
(1) Suffolk coast in Dunwich, (2) Fraser Sisters, (3) (from the left) Tim van Eyken, Robert Harbron, Andy Cutting, Karen Tweed, (4) same as (3) without Karen Tweed
Suffolk and beyond is a regular series about folk events, gossip
and the impressions of a German folk fan living in England. Up to now there
have been two parts of the series:
Part I: English curiosities - Folk and Jazz garden chair display, proms and folk in a church
Part II: Two in a bar etc. - Plenty of old folkies for Christmas and the satire of a licening law prohibiting sessions and sing-alongs
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