Saving Oxford Folk Weekend by moving it online was a triumph, says Jonathan Roscoe reviews

SPRING in Oxford means Morris sides on Gloucester Green and folkies roaming free across the city, moving from venue to venue for the annual Folk Weekend Oxford.

Not this year, though. With just weeks to go before Folk Weekend Oxford was due to start, coronavirus brought things to a halt. Festivals all over the country were cancelled, but rather than being downhearted the Folk Weekend team, headed by Cat McGill, faced the challenge and decided to go online instead.

And after watching many hours, in several different rooms of my house (and in my garden), I’m here to tell you that it was a definite success. Yes, there were some technical hitches, but it was fascinating to see folkies in their natural habitat. Or at the very least in a room in their house festooned with fairy lights.

The weekend of April 17-19 saw ceilidhs in the kitchen, quartets in a puppet workshop, and men who should probably know better, hitting blocks of wood with meat cleavers.

First was a pre-festival session from Martin Green and Friends (the friends being Kate Young and the afore-mentioned meat cleaver wielder, Nathaniel Mann). A joint venture with Oxford Contemporary Music (OCM), the original concept was called The Portal which should have taken place in Oxford’s North Wall, but unable to have the three performers playing simultaneously, each took it in turns to play a song or tune. Not quite the same, of course, but with three such adventurous performers you were never far away from something surprising or eye-catching.

There was also Green’s partner Inge Thomson performing a song in Norn, Kate Young singing in Bulgarian, some impressive stop motion animation behind Nathaniel Mann’s performance of The Owl and the Pussycat, before the Green family went full Von Trapp.

Next day, With the festival in full swing there were Facebook sessions for those yearning for the interactive experience, and free gigs from Ben Avison and Samantha Twigg Johnson.

The evening saw a couple of ex-members of folk band Bellowhead – John Spiers and Paul Sartin – serenade us from their homes, or in the case of John, from his shed in Wootton, near Abingdon.

Paul is a naturally entertaining raconteur, as well as being an exceptional singer and musician, so the success of this was never in doubt. A reading of Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’ at the end was a coup de theatre.

‘Squeezy’ John 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. He also sang couple of songs, including the Bellowhead standard Rigs of the Times. Well over 100 years old, the song shows that little in politics has changed.

We also saw Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood in splendid isolation. There were many highlights, but Megan’s version of Bill Withers’ Rosie was spellbinding and, under the circumstances, poignant, and Jackie’s pairing of a verse of May the Kindness with the children’s song, Alexander Beetle’ was strangely moving.

The final day saw more free concerts from the likes of Jon Fletcher and Ian Mitchell of Little Red, and a ‘slow session’ for beginners.

Then it was the turn of Odette Mitchell live from her Yorkshire farm. Blessed with a high, clear voice and fluid guitar playing, her aim was to keep things upbeat, which she did, before closing with as good a version of the Sandy Denny classic Who Knows Where the Time Goes as you’ll hear.

Another solo performer was young singer-guitarist Iona Lane, live from Leeds, giving us an excellent mix of trad material and originals (in some cases, very new originals). 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 artist’s residence in Slovenia, she was joined by three other musicians crammed into a puppet workshop. Clearly social distancing wasn’t an issue. As anybody who has seen Hannah’s Jigdoll piece will know she veers to the theatrical and experimental. The experience was extraordinary.

So, what did we learn? Kitchen implements make perfectly serviceable music instruments, the interactivity of Zoom allows us to see into each other’s houses – making for a strangely communal experience, and online streaming probably isn’t a replacement for human interaction. Oh, and if you’re on video, make sure you’ve tidied up!

Jonathan Roscoe is editor of Shire Folk