Folk Weekend Oxford 2020 Lockdown Version

Live in Your Living Room – 17–19 April 2020

Usually at this point in the year Shire Folk would be extolling the vision of morris sides on Gloucester Green and hordes of folkie punters traipsing hither and yon, roaming free across Oxford. But not last year when the FWO team took a break, and not this year either. With just weeks to go before Folk Weekend Oxford was due to start, new business model and all (see interview with Festival Director, Cat McGill in SF164), COVID-19 brought things to a halt. Festivals all over the country were cancelled, but were the FWO team downhearted? Well, probably, but they picked themselves up and decided to go online instead. And after watching many hours over several days, in several different rooms of my house (and at one point in my garden), I’m here to tell you that it was, in West End theatre parlance, ‘a triumph’. Yes, there were some technical hitches, but all in all it was fascinating to see folkies in their natural habitat. Or at the very least in a room in their house most likely festooned with fairy lights (what is it with folkies and fairy lights btw?)

There were ceilidhs in the kitchen, quartets in a puppet workshop, and hairy men hitting blocks of wood with meat cleavers. Kicking things off with a pre-festival session was Martin Green and Friends (the friends being Kate Young and the aforementioned meat cleaver wielder, Nathaniel Mann). Many of the events at this year’s FWO were joint ventures and this particular soirée was co-presented with Oxford Contemporary Music (OCM). The original concept was an event called The Portal which should have taken place in the estimable North Wall theatre, but with the tech not allowing the three performers in their separate venues to play simultaneously, we had instead each of them taking it in turns to play a song or tune. This might have been disappointing (and I suppose it was a little bit), but with three such adventurous performers you were never far away from something surprising or eye-catching. As well as musical meat cleavers we had Green’s partner Inge Thomson performing a song in Norn, Kate Young singing in Bulgarian, some impressive stop motion animation going on behind Nathaniel Mann, and at the end the Green family going full Von Trapp. When The Portal concept hits your town it will be fascinating, but in the meantime this will more than do.

Next day the festival started in earnest with nonstop Facebook Sessions for those of you yearning for the interactive experience, and free gigs from the likes of Ben Avison and Samantha Twigg Johnson. The evening saw a couple of ex-Bellowheaders serenade us from their homes, or in the case of John Spiers, direct from his shed. First up was Paul Sartin performing his first-ever live streaming gig. Given that he’s a naturally entertaining raconteur (as well as being an exceptional singer and musician) the success of this was never in doubt. Consequently, this was both entertaining and informative, with the sheet music being waved in front of the camera. Finishing with a reading of Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’ was a poignant masterstroke. Up next was John Spiers, who was in outspoken and ebullient mood (as anybody who follows him on Twitter might expect). His shed appears to house a vast array of melodeons and squeezeboxes, most of which he endeavoured to use. We also had the rare pleasure of Spiers singing a couple of songs, one of which was the Bellowhead standard ‘Rigs of the Times’, which worked well with his tune ‘F**k the Tories’ (probably just as well it was a tune and not a song).

After free gigs from local favourites such as Henderson:Hooper and Jon Wilks, the following evening saw Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood in splendid isolation. This meant that we didn’t get the duets off their excellent EP Wings, but we did get some beautiful performances, nonetheless. It was odd to think that Jackie Oates was performing about 10 minutes away from where I’m writing this, but such is the nature of the new abnormal that we’re living with. There were many highlights, but Megan’s version of recent coronavirus victim, Bill Withers’ ‘Rosie’, was spellbinding and Jackie’s pairing of a verse of ‘May the Kindness’ with ‘Alexander Beetle’ was oddly moving. Who’d a thought it.

The final day saw scores of free concerts from the likes of Jon Fletcher and Ian Mitchell (of Little Red), and Suke Wolton hosting a slow session for beginners. Just after lunch it was the turn of Odette Michell live from her farm. Armed with a beautiful high, clear voice and dextrous guitar playing, her aim was to keep things upbeat, which she did. A request for ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ was a superb place to end, though, and as good a version of the Sandy Denny classic as you’ll hear. Another solo performer was young Lancastrian singer-guitarist Iona Lane, live from Leeds (but not in a Who or John Martyn sense), who gave us an excellent mix of trad material and originals (in some cases, very new originals). With a fairy light backdrop (again!) there were many highlights, but perhaps the best was her version of Rachel Sermanni’s ‘Lay my Heart’.

Less solo was Hannah James. Currently locked down in an artists’ residence in Slovenia, she was joined by three other musicians crammed into another shed, well a puppet workshop in this instance. Clearly social distancing was not an issue over there. As anybody who has seen Hannah’s Jigdoll piece will know, she veers to the theatrical and experimental. This didn’t always work in this format, but when it did the experience was quite extraordinary.

So that’s it for another year, and what have we learned? Kitchen implements make perfectly serviceable music instruments, the interactivity of Zoom allows us to see into each other’s houses (thank you ‘gallery view’) making for a strangely communal experience, and online streaming may not be a replacement for human interaction, but for the more introverted among us it has its benefits.

Until next year, stay safe, and if you’re on video make sure you’ve tidied up!

Jonathan Roscoe


Previous and other features can be found under the Features drop-down menu above. Last year's Features can also be found there in their sub-menus.


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