Review: Sunderland Folk Festival (Saturday and Sunday)

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WE’D enjoyed the sights and the sounds. Now it was time to party.

 Saturday’s headline act, The Peatbog Faeries, turned the energy quotient up to 11.

With a line-up comprising guitar, bass, drums, synths, fiddle, whistles, bagpipes, saxophone and trombone, and a light show liable to induce epilepsy even in those who don’t suffer from it, it was Gaelic rave – with, perhaps, rock, pop and a bit of ska thrown in.

The Scottish band includes fidddle player Peter Tickell and drummer Stu Haikney, both from the region.

And there was a strong regional element among the rest of the festival line-up. One particular revelation was the appearance of Tyneside’s Doonan Family Band, who have developed over the decades from traditional Irish music and song into their current incarnation, inspired by the addition of three of the band members’ offspring – Ben Murray, Rosie Doonan and Jamie Luckley – to resemble a cross between Fairport Convention and The Commitments.

In contrast, last night’s headliner, Cara Dillon, accompanied by a five-piece group which included husband Sam Lakeman on guitar and keyboards, gave a quiter reading of traditional Irish and self-penned songs – and one she recorded for a Disney movie.

Her pure, clear voice and faultless delivery have understandably won her a devoted following, who were in evidence in Sunderland last night.  

Although, oddly, it was often when the excellent musicians in her band were allowed full rein on traditional tunes that the set came alive. Maybe it provided the warmth which was needed in the decidedly chilly riverside marquee.

For me, her voice had been matched earlier in the day by Northumberland’s Judy Dinning, appearing with her band Real Time.

And exotic colour and excitement was added by the six-piece Zulu, from Durban, singing the distinctive South African harmonies and performing athletic dance routines.

In truth, though, over the first two days of the festival, I reckon I’ve seen close on 20 acts, and have yet to see a duff one. For a first-time festival the varied, well-chosen line-up is remarkable, and would complement many more established events.

The venues are ideal, with the marina, Glass Centre, university and riverside marquee all in a compact area; and lighting and sound have been perfect.

Sadly, the only thing missing has been the buzz you experience from having lots of people on site. Some of the events, such as the workshops and the folk club, have felt very empty.

It was a bold move, at a time when many people’s spending power is limited, to launch a new festival into the busy calendar. Although some well-established events – such as at Shrewsbury and Towersey, both held the same weekend – have sold out, others have had to cry off through lack of ticket sales. The council would like to make Sunderland Folk Festival an annual event. It would be a shame if attendance figures discouraged it. This is a good, well organised event, which could be used as a base on which to build, if music fans become more aware of it.

John Bainbridge