United Kingdom | 22 June 2010
Anna Hyams checks out the sixth edition of the Big Session Festival.
Overall - 8/10
This is the festival to take the whole family to – there is something for everyone, from a good old jig to a soft acoustic set, organic farm foods, 30 real ales and even a crèche for the kids. It’s the perfect summer outing and embraces British folk heritage like no other festival.
Big Session, now in its sixth year, heralded the likes of The Proclaimers, with their eighth studio album before they set off on their 24-date UK tour, Kate Rusby and Cara Dillon, with other big names such as Chris Wood, the return of Chumbawamba and the festival’s musical patrons Oysterband bringing the bill to the biggest line-up so far.
Friday was looking a bit bleak with nearly the entire male population of Big Session engaged in groaning at the football being shown in the bar, but the music soon pitched up the mood and managed to remove the frown from even the most loyal of England fans. Who can resist a good jig?
Getting there and back - 9/10
Though you may have heard horror stories about Leicester’s one way systems, with Big Session being held at DeMontfort Hall on the same site as The University of Leicester it is quite easy to find as there are signs posted all round the city.
Camping is situated directly opposite the venue at Regent College and is therefore a mere hop step and a jump between your bed and the bands. Having won a Greener Festival Award last year, Big Session was also promoting an eco friendly bike lock-up which was staffed all weekend to provide a safe and secure place to leave your pedal power. If you’re travelling from afar, Leicester Railway Station is a mere 10 minutes walk from the event and there is ample car parking available in the area as Big Session have teamed up with NCP this year at a very reasonable £5 per day.
The site - 7/10
Whilst Big Session have made the most of the area they have had to work with, it does feel a tad cramped with a huge big top stage, marquee stage and various shops, bars and food traders in a space no bigger than your average supermarket car park. Though the Friday seemed rather empty and calm, Sunday quickly became a shoulder-to-shoulder kind of affair, particularly when the sun came out and everyone decided they wanted to be outside in the tiny grass ‘courtyard’.
It’s not that what they’ve done is bad - it could just do with a bit more space to breathe. The thing that was most odd compared to other festivals, was the lack of outdoor stage – all three were indoors, so when the sun came out it became unbearably stuffy inside the hall, and very dark and subdued inside the marquees. For some acts, this seemed quite stifling – folk should be full of summer, sunshine, flowers and bare feet, outdoors, not shut up in a pitch black tent.
Apart from a few scallywag fence-hoppers who made a bit of trouble for ten minutes, the atmosphere at Big Session was absolutely fantastic. Instead of the standard range of 18-30’s seen at most festivals, there’s a place for everyone here. Everyone is friendly and interesting, most sing or play instruments themselves and there were more Big Session Veteran t-shirts than you could wave a Morris dancers’ stick at.
Whilst the bands on the bill were fantastic, the line-up as a whole seemed to be missing a little something. The music was considerably more subdued and softer than imagined, if you had expected lively jigs and real dance your socks off tunes this was not entirely the case, instead there are a lot of soul-searching, melancholy odes. Big Session might appeal to a larger audience if they were to embrace a few other styles, maybe a little blues, or a Flogging Molly-esque band or two, to liven things up.
Chris Wood - 8/10
Self-confessed joker Chris Wood is obviously a well-known name on the scene as the Big Top filled within seconds of his emergence onto the stage. A solo guitarist, and singer (who also plays the fiddle and viola), his folk ethos is essentially traditional English with humourus lyrics, which went down a storm at Big Session. One such song contains the lyric: “One in a million, that chippy was, one in a million.” Anyone who can write a 14-verse song about fish and chips is sure to be a hit with the British public.
Joel Owen - 9/10
Leicester born Joel Owen is currently making his mark in London with some high profile fans of his own (notably Mumford And Sons), however he does appear to have quite a large local fan base in his home town as the Orange Tree stage was fit to burst with the large audience that had gathered for his indie inspired folk-blues. A little jazz saxophone and guitar lifted the mood, and made it obvious that Joel is a strong and charismatic frontman. With two albums to date, we’re sure to be hearing much more from Joel Owen.
Chumbawamba - 10/10
With their politically-amped songs ranging from stalkers to Thatcher to homophobia, it is hard to believe that they are the same band who produced ‘Tubthumping’. Chumbawamba appear to be revered on the folk scene due to their melodious somewhat choral arrangement, and the use of obscure hand instruments. Instantly charming and comedic, Chumbawamba played an absolute blinder, stopping to quip about the football and their Thatcher Memorial EP (available to pre-order, delivered upon death, very amusing). The hall was packed and the band were completely at ease on the stage, making for a very memorable experience.
Whapweasel - 9/10
The ten-strong Whapweasel, were joined on stage by caller Gordon Potts – wearing a black kilt (and looking quite a lot like the long lost third Hairy Biker), who proceeded to organise a motley collection of toddlers and teens, grannies, grandpas, mums and dads into a hip-swinging, foot stomping complete do-si-do line-up. The rest of the band, looking like they had stepped straight out of an Old Orleans riverboat scene, can lay claim to the most active performance of the weekend. Whapweasel brought sharp clean jigs with a pinch of saxophone jazz and some serious rocking guitarwork amongst the folksy cittern and melodeon to the Big Top. Hire them for your summer weddings, they are so much fun.
Oysterband - 10/10
Big songs, big presence. A really strong set and an enigmatic performance, those in the seating tiers were stomping their feet so hard the floor started shaking, and the band were dancing about as much as the audience. Best bit of the performance? When John Jones and ‘Chopper’ jumped off the edge of the stage with microphones to sing in the middle of the crowd, unlike other festivals where the headliner would have been instantly mobbed, they managed to actually sing the rest of the song from there. Funnier still was Chopper hoisting himself back up onto the stage just in time for the next one to start whilst John fought his way out and up the back steps instead, after the band had played a longer than average intro so that he could catch his breath.
Ash Mandrake - 6/10
Whilst Ash Mandrake drew a sizable crowd to the Orange Tree Stage, and did some very interesting stuff with a loop machine, he also spent a lot of time switching hats and fiddling with the instruments rather than actually playing them. However, the fact that he managed to make himself sound like a whole band is actually rather brilliant and somewhat redeems his fashion faux pas and entirely too short tunes.
Stornoway - 6/10
Though Stornoway were hotly tipped to be one of the jewels in the Big Session crown this year, they turned out to be softer and more melancholy than hoped. Not the sort of thing you expect from a sunny evening in the park - granted they were playing indoors, but stepping outside after their set was akin to waking from hibernation.
POG - 4/10
Compared to other acts at Big Session, POG are a slightly less refined, more mainstream sound, and though varied in terms of style, a bit simple. The band lean towards electro-indie rather than folk which left most of the crowd looking somewhat bemused.
Ian King - 6/10
A very talented but rather experimental musician, prone to an almost vacant temperament, which meant most of his audience were seen to be shuffling their feet, playing with their phones and quaffing ale whilst he went on what can only be described as a musical bender.
Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman - 6/10
Though the sound was good and the voice great, the songs were very similar, repetitive and in the dark Big Top they came across more lullaby than showstopper.
Because of the size of Big Session and the fact that the folk scene isn’t so large these days, a lot of the bands decided to hang around afterwards to see friends play or to enjoy the sunshine, which meant they were just milling around and talking to people all day. This sort of thing doesn’t really happen at other festivals, and was nice to see. Joel Owen after playing the Orange Tree Stage, said: “We literally arrived five minutes before our set, it’s poor time management but we made it! It’s always good to be back in Leicester playing to a home crowd, it’s been brilliant.” Jude Abbot and Neil Ferguson of Chumbawamba also commented on their set earlier that afternoon: “It was forty-five minutes of bliss to see all those faces out there, we’ve had a great time.”
By Anna Hyams.
Tuesday 22 June :
I didn't get there till late Saturday, so couldn't comment on most of the acts, but Pog?! 4 out of 10? Were we at the same show?
I don't know how an acoustic guitar and double bass could be described as "electro", and as for most of the crowd looking "bemused", I spent a good fifteen minutes queuing to buy their albums afterwards.
After some of the beardy mumbling and quiet strummings, they were a blast of fresh air to these ears!
Thursday 24 June :
The 'electro' was a misprint by me so I take that back, but the 4/10 was entirely justified by the fact that the large group of people next to me were more interested in talking about Big Brother than listening to Pog... Though they have an interesting sound, the lead singer seemed to be performing at a different beat to the rest of the band which made it sound like he couldn't really keep up. Its not that they were dire, its that they were up against some fierce talent and I have to call it like I see it!