The first night of 2015’s Folk Weekend Oxford must have been horrendous for its organisers. The Randolph Hotel was burning, and by the time the number of fire engines had reached double figures, it had been decided that the festival’s box office and main stage were too close to the blaze: the Friday night headline acts were cancelled and the box office was stuffed unceremoniously into a local church. But it’s a testament to the excellence of the weekend that that this barely caused a dent in the enthusiasm of the crowds. It’s hackneyed to use a phoenix-from-the-ashes metaphor, but it’s also appropriate.
Folk Weekend Oxford isn’t just a series of gigs, it’s a colonisation of the city centre. The first things anyone notices are the gangs of Morris dancers, holding court in Gloucester Green and making Cornmarket even weirder than usual. Look a little closer, and you’ll find groups of musicians gathered together in pubs, blasting out tunes on mandolins and hurdy-gurdys for their own entertainment, the regular drinkers a mixture of entertained and baffled. Folk music doesn’t just become omnipresent, it does everything it can to pull the public towards it: the Old Fire Station were putting on a seemingly endless stream of free concerts, there was a ‘Relaxed Performance’, aimed at creating a space accessible to people with special needs, there was a vast array of events put on specifically for families, and most of the acts I saw had a sizeable contingent of children in their audience. This was the precise opposite of elitism: joyously and enthusiastically inclusive, throwing music and dance out across the city with as much energy as possible.
It was easy to find fantastic music. In the worst-kept secret of the festival, there was an unannounced reunion of local juggernauts Spiers & Boden, the founder members of Bellowhead who officially broke up as a duo last year. They played a stompingly sunny set of old favourites: with just a fiddle and a melodeon, they sounded like a band with triple their members. Later, Sunday night headliner Chris Wood brought charmingly abrasive grumpiness and idiosyncratic chord choices to small stories of everyday lives – his songs were rich with wit and pathos, and written with a photographer’s eye for detail. One of the best surprises for me was Kings Of The South Seas, who played old whaling songs with a Tom-Waitsian swagger and a flair for the melodramatic, electric guitar gurgling and muttering as if flashing out signals from the Mariana Trench.
The gig of the festival for me, though, was Tandem, a trio who married virtuoso fiddle and guitar playing with dizzying swirls of electronics. Half way through their set, they announced that this was their final performance together, that the band was breaking up, and the music shifted from compelling to wildly beautiful. As the audience sang along with increasing fervour to ‘The Parting Glass’, there was a clear feeling in the room that something wonderful was being lost. I’ll be keeping a close eye out for what Tandem’s now former members do next.
Of course, not everything worked for me: Boldwood (an acclaimed instrumental quartet who operate at the crossroads between folk and classical music) were a little fussy for my tastes, a little too calcified by their own academic rigour. And The Rheingans Sisters felt overly reverent, consistently pleasant but never calling for your attention. But it’s important to note that that both bands had enormous technical skill, and received enthusiastic responses from their audiences. Folk is a broad church, tastes are wide, and the festival catered for this broadness: if there was something you weren’t enjoying, chances are that someone else in the room was busy adoring it.
That’s a good way of summarising the weekend as a whole: it is a repudiation of the idea that folk music is a niche, and a celebration of the fact that it can contain enough contradictions to keep everyone happy. Sometimes it will be about re-enacting the traditions of the past, and sometimes about forging new ideas for the future. Sometimes it will be about watching master musicians at work, and sometimes it will be about getting involved yourself, no matter how scruffy your playing. And with its ambition and scope, Folk Weekend Oxford is proof that the whole city can join in.