Sunderland stages its first folk festival

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John Bainbridge casts an eye over what’s been happening at the first Sunderland Folk Festival

MUSIC fans of all ages have been drawn to the Wear this Bank Holiday, as Sunderland stages its first folk festival along the bank of the river.

And as well as festival-goers seeing some of Britain and Ireland’s top folk artists in concert, visitors to The Bridges, the marina and the riverside have been treated to free song and dance performances.

The area around St Peter’s has been transformed into a festival site for the three-day event, which continues today.

Proven veterans of the folk scene have shared billing with acts designed to appeal to younger fans, including Folk Face, from Radio 1’s Chris Moyles Show, and indie-folk on stage at Sunderland’s Independent club

More young performers were in evidence in the Glass Centre’s Riverside Suite – a beautiful setting, with its picture windows looking out across the Wear to the Fish Quay.

There, the stage for new and emerging acts gave hope for the future of folk music, as extraordinarily talented young musicians picked up the baton to continue the tradition.

Among those enjoying the music were Dave and Deborah Elliott, who had travelled from Tynemouth with sons Luke, 13, and Aidan, 12, for their first folk festival.

“We’ve only just started listening to folk music,” said Dave.

“We’ll definitely come back here if it’s on next year, and we’ll try to get more people to come.

“It’s unthreatening; people don’t look down their noses if you don’t know what’s happening; and it’s relaxing. It’s a shame there’s not more people here.”

The family had been particularly impressed by the Teesside husband-and-wife duo Megson, made up of Stu and Debbie Hanna. And Deborah said they had enjoyed the raucous Celtic fusion of The Peatbog Faeries. “It wasn’t what we were expecting,” she admitted.

Mary Wilson and Geoff Oliver, from Bedlington, have also enjoyed their visit to Sunderland.

“The acts have been really well organised,” said Mary. “My favourites have been the Doonans. There’s just been a bit of overlapping – there are a few we’ve seen twice, but there were other people we wanted to go and see that we missed.”

Geoff added: “The location is right, because you haven’t had the travelling to do between concerts. Maybe they need a bigger choice of something to eat, though – we had to walk right along to the Queen Vic looking for something.”

Matthew Kelly, 20, from Washington, was at his first folk festival and was impressed by the line-up. “I’ll definitely come again if it’s on next year,” he said.

The festival has been organised by Sunderland City Council, with the support of Washington’s Davy Lamp Folk, Phoenix Folk, and the University of Sunderland.

Zoe Channing, of the city council, explained that the council had picked up on folk as the next step in its development of a music strategy for Sunderland, which had had rock and pop well covered since 2008.

It was expanding to cover all music genres, but as there was already strong support for folk music in the North East it was a logical move.

Funding was coming from a budget aimed at drawing people from the sea front towards the city centre.

“Tickets were slow to start with but have picked up. There’s a lot of people asking if they can pay at the door,” she said.

Among the acts on stage today will be retired teacher Terry Walker, 63, from Roker, performing his own song The Stadium Of Light.

The song won the festival’s songwriting competition, on the theme of “the changing face of Sunderland.” It acknowledges the city’s industrial past, but looks with hope to the future, using the imagery of Sunderland’s stadium being built over the former Wearmouth Colliery.

“I wrote this song about 10 years ago and I’ve performed it in pubs and clubs before, but this will be the largest audience I’ve ever performed in front of,” said Terry. The panel of judges who picked Terry’s song were local songwriters and musicians Jez Lowe and Billy Mitchell – both on the festival bill – and Echo editor Rob Lawson.