Overnight predictions of snowbound chaos proved to be unfounded as #Team W21 once again upped sticks and headed for Torquay for the years first major gathering of talent. Last year, the line-up was already pretty much familiar faces to us but this year was to be a voyage into the unknown for some of these names – fortunately it was to prove a pleasant trip! Midwinterfest 2017 perhaps buoyed by the success of 2016 was set to be the biggest yet with an extra 60 people gathered inside the ballroom.
As ever things commenced with our genial hosts Alan West, & Steve Black providing the opening set with sterling assistance from Adam Sweet, and this year, joining on percussion Justin Johnson. The first set as ever eases everyone into proceedings and commenced with “The Way Love Is”. Steve followed up with his bluesy take on the windy city “Chicago”, this year it seemed that Steve had a custom built microphone stand with an adaption that enabled him to keep his lubricating lager at close hand.
Steve and Alan relentlessly play around the Devon area and beyond, and the next song “Hillbilly Woodbines” born out of their many trips to Beer was next. Much like last year the first night seemed to be a case of reminding me people of gig going etiquette, with the bar staff being the worst offenders, however during “Me & Booby McGee” from Alan the room was at last respectfully quiet.
Adam Sweet, was there to sing as well as backing on guitar, and joined in with “Name Your Price” from his debut lp. Everyone was in fine voice whether it be Steve with “Drivin” or “Highway Of My Heart” from his newly released – “Right Here And Now” record, the latter song being unusually popular in Holland. It was also popular in Torquay, and looking out into the audience it was clear to see a large number of people joyfully singing along. Alan also closed his part of the first set with a recent addition to his repertoire in a cover of “Catfish John” and the community singalong that is “Are You A Devil Or An Angel?”
Next up was Josienne Clark and Ben Walker, winners of the 2015 Folk Duo Of The Year, with a set that somewhat divided the #W21 Team. When someone comes on threatening to “get the party started” with forty minutes off ballads” there may have been a few worries in the room, but when they are delivered this beautifully the time just flies by. Josienne has a great stage presence, and a wonderful sense of humour which perfectly counteracts the subject matter of many of the songs. She opened acapella with a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow”, a nice nod to the country audience and immediately the pitch and clarity of her voice were stunning and the audience were transfixed. The Midwinterfest fans if nothing else are music fans, they book quite often not knowing who they will see, safe in the knowledge that it will undoubtedly be good and this performance was something special.
Ben spent the set sitting, but we should not underplay his part, whether it was the slight echo on “The Birds” or the beautifully expressive playing on the Gillian Welch cover “Dark Turn Of Mind”, where he was shaking the guitar to extract every last second of sound. During the next song, some of the audience could last no more and in a first, rushed forward to buy the vinyl copy of the new album while they were still playing, such was the effect it had. By their own admission they “Specialise in melancholy” and “Silverline” was an example of that. My personal favourite of the night was the “Psychoballad” song, (a fairly niche genre ) “Anyone But Me”, which saw Josienne also strap on a guitar and channel her inner psycho with a little bit of acting on the delivery.
They did have at least one countryish song up their sleeve in the shape of “Home Made Heartache” from their 2012 EP, and followed with a song that had a touch of World War 2 about it “Dear Someone” another nod to the Gillian Welsh songbook. In contrast to Josiennes great stage presence Ben barely said a word, “he speaks through the medium of guitar” Josienne helpfully explained and it was never clearer than on this track. There was time for a mash up between one of their tracks “Milk and Honey” and a jazz song “Autumn Is Leaving” before closing out on a “song for a good cry”, the Buck Owens tune “Together Again” which saw huge audience participation and earned them a worthy standing ovation.
Twelve months earlier, Fitzwallace delivered a storming set at Midwinterfest and huge success seemed within their grasp. The intervening months have seen changes in style and the departure of a number of key members including chief songwriter Joe Martin, so it was with some trepidation we waited to see what the new Fitzwallace would be like. Now comprising of the two Wills ( Stock and Sensicle ) along with Amelia on vocals, initially there was not too much change, “Reason To Leave You” and the Chris Stapleton cover “Parachute” would be familiar to people who had seen them previously.
Will Sensicle unveiled one of the new songs, “Love On The Rocks”, a slowish ballad which indicated that the new Fitzwallace were not content to just relive past glories. The Hunter Hayes cover of “I Want Crazy” saw all three on acoustic guitars and was enjoyable. The real change in dynamic in the new band is that Amelia takes on the lion’s share of the vocals, and makes a good fist of it on this showing. Another of the new songs “Pour A Drink and Light it” had a touch of The Shires about it in the chorus. While getting up to speed on new material there were perhaps more covers than we are used to in a Fitzwallace set, the cover of Direks Bentley “I’ll Be The Moon” seemed pretty good.
Another of the new songs “Jump” about that moment where you decide to jump in and commit to a relationship seemed promising even if the lyrics seemed a little clichéd on first listening. There was another new song in the shape of “Ain’t Cut The Same“ before a run through of another of last year’s singles “Call Me A Liar”. One final song closed out the set, a Will Sensicle co-write with a lady from Nashville called “Don’t Miss Me Tomorrow”. One issue they’ll need to address is in the percussion department, whether with a stomp box, a cajon player or a drummer their sound would benefit with an extra backbeat. It was a way from the heights of last year, but with enough promise to suggest that Fitzwallace, are definitely still an ongoing concern, however being sandwiched between Josienne Clarke and Amanda Rheaume did expose the new line up lack of stage craft which will hopefully come with more gigs.
Amanda Rheaume took to the stage and was a perfect ambassador for Canadian Country music. Playing as trio, with a stunningly tall bass player Anna Ruddick to her left while equally stunning was the guitar work of Anders Drerup on her right. Opening with “Strongest Heat” she immediately got everyone involved clapping, while they marveled at the harmonies and Ander’s guitar solo. The second song “Get To The Part” about being kind to yourself, was poppy, good time country and was played with a broad smile on her face.
It was at this point, on “Kiss Me Back”, that the difference in sound between Amanda and Fitzwallace, struck home, effectively the same line ups however the results from a well honed band against one who have a gig total in single figures was noticeable. The next song “Keep A Fire In the Rain” saw Anders switch to pedal steel while Anna went to double bass for this tale of family stories passed down the line. My personal favourite of the night was the somewhat sad “Dead Horse”, about a seven year on off relationship where the person had been pestering for a song to be written about them, their wish being granted but perhaps not in the way they were expecting.
By the time band kicked into “This Time Around”, the clock was well past midnight but no-one was moving. “Blood From A Stone” with its bluesy, thumping rhythm, was part of a quartet of songs from the rather excellent “Holding Patterns” album, the final being the beautiful harmonies of “Red Dress”. Another of the highlights of the night came towards the end with “Not This Time” which saw some exemplary guitar playing from Anders. The set closed with everyone in the room singing, all joining together on “Better Days Ahead”. To close things out the stage was filled with both Amanda’s band and the resident house band for a run through “Wagon Wheel”, which was a hoot including a somewhat fluffed second verse, but it was late and this was a great end to a fantastic opening day.
In The Round
The “In The Round” section of Midwinterfest is always a highlight that really could do with being at least another round longer. This year’s contestants, were multi BCMA award winning Southern Companion frontman, Darren Hodson, newly signed up to Paul Hardcastle’s label, and back for a second year, Liv Austen, with the third guest being perhaps the least known but nonetheless excellent Ags Connolly all organised by the ring master Steve Black.
The mood of these session is nearly always dictated by the performance of the first person, if they set the bar high then the following players really need to up their game. Sporting a Zac Brown cap, and suffering from a heavy cold, Darren’s tale of life post children would’ve struck a chord with many in the room, especially with the chorus “Feels Like Years, (since we had a good time)”. Somehow, it seemed easier for him to sing than to speak, and it was a great way to start.
Liv Austen gave us a sneaky peak of material for her forthcoming album in the shape of the heartfelt “Detour”, with its delicately picked tune in perfect harmony with the touching vocals. Having seen Liv’s new material a couple of times now, her debut album will be something special when it arrives.
The Last time #TeamW21 caught up with Ags it was at a showcase spot, at Alan and Steve’s monthly Ascot residency at Jagz. His sound channels that of the likes of the true greats, and he immediately captured the audience’s hearts with “Get Out Of My Mind”, a real slice of traditional country. He could not have picked a better song to open with.
Steve Black who had been joining in with Ags on his song, was then tasked with closing round one, and chose to do it with a new song “I Can’t Answer You”, a true piece of song writing where the listener is rewarded with a pay off in the final line. This version also had an impromptu guitar solo thrown in by Darren one the many crossovers that occurred as the session developed.
The second round saw us get a glimpse of a new Southern Companion track, one so new even the rest of the band have yet to hear it. Darren gave us a little of the back story to “A Few Too Many Hours” and it will be something to look out for on the new record. Liv Austen regaled us with a story of her visiting Nashville before giving us another teaser of the new material with “Same Story” about how she’ll mistreat her partner. With its “Doo Doo” chorus, it already has the feel of a forthcoming single. New albums are everywhere and Ags introduced his next song as not miserable, despite the lines being “I hope you’re unhappy enough to come back to me”, it received a tremendous reception. Steve has used his past time in Alaska to create a number of songs, and he has once again trawled those memories to come up with a great little story, “Mana Atunee” was the song that got everyone singing and left them feeling just a little bit smarter.
The final round came around all too fast, Darren closed his set out with “Crash” while Liv closed out with her excellent single “Don’t Regret A Single One”. As if to reinforce that he was in front of his target audience, Ags saved his best for last with an excellent new song called “Slow Burn”, another from his forthcoming record. Steve closed out with his autobiographical story “Jack London” with its finale of “Daisy Daisy” echoing around the ballroom.
Tom Russell has been a constant visitor to these shores for many years, and many of the Midwinterfest audience were already well versed in his catalogue as he took to the stage. I’d seen him many moons ago supporting Nanci Griffith’s on one of her tours at The Royal Albert Hall, he was mightily impressive then, so this was always promising to be a treat.
With a body of work so huge he could easily have played until midnight we would only get a taster of what he could perform, it was to be a case of cross your fingers and hope you favourite came up. Tom a tall figure, dressed in a red neckerchief with a hat that he would remove at times to cool off, was joined on stage by his guitarist Max Di Bernardi who had flown in from Italy where they would from a formidable team.
He opened the show with “More Often Than Not”, and it was in the introduction to “Blue Wing”, performed in memory of Calvin Henderson, that he received the first of many rounds of applause. Tom is a great raconteur, he can tell a story as an introduction, he’ll even insert one in the middle of a song that he is playing, such as in “Hair Trigger Heart” from “The Rose Of Roscrae”, where he regaled us about the difference between a drunk and an alcoholic. The same album would provide the next song, the fantastic tale that was “He Wasn’t A Bad Kid When He Was Sober” with Max providing superb work on the guitar.
“Veterans Day” came with a lovely Johnny Cash story, as well as tributes in the shape of “Fulsom Prison Blues” and “Walk The Line”. As mentioned earlier Tom adapts some of his songs to fit the location where he is playing, one can only wonder if he had spotted the burlesque club opposite the hotel when he decided to insert Torquay into the lyrics of “Tonight We Ride” as that was where he decided to go “up the whore house stairs!!”. Sometimes in the life of a songwriter, a song can suddenly become exceptionally prescient, and so it was with the ten year old song “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall”, which highlighted the irony of using illegal immigrants to build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants which has received a welcome boost due to events in the US.
The encore came in the shape of “Navajo Rug” which saw the whole room becoming backing singers for the “Ai Ai Ai” chorus. This was an absolute masterclass in how to hold an audience in the palm of your hand, it was a pleasure to behold. He’ll be back later in the year and is an absolute must see if he is playing anywhere near you.
Evening Session - Alan West, Steve Black, Adam Sweet, Fred’s House and The Swing Commanders
One of the complaints from last year was that there was not enough of Steve and Alan, that was corrected this year as they started up the Saturday night proceedings. Easing us in with “Down But Not Out”, it was followed by “Bobby’s Idle Hour”, a Nashville club now under new management that apparently Darren from Southern Companion has played at. Alan and Steve constantly update their set with new material and one of the most interesting of their new songs is actually an old one, in the shape of their reworking of Kenny Johnson’s “Down On the Bayou”, it’s a bit of a departure, but it really suits them well. Much like Tom earlier, there is much fun to be had listening to the introductions between songs, a second outing of the day for “St Olav’s Gate” was preceded by how Alan had sent his version across to Tom Russell for approval to get the response “Have you told the PRS?”. The song naturally received its second huge roar of the day.
At this point, Steve, Alan and Justin left the stage to Adam to run through his latest EP for which he plays all the instrumentation. It is a truly great EP, well worth investigating and it was a treat to see him get his twenty minutes in the spotlight. My personal favourite of the EP is the Jackson Browne cover, “These Days”, which Ags Connolly, from the side lines assured us was written when Jackson was only 16, Adams version tonight was a lovely rendition and his best vocal of the night.
The band duly regrouped to close out their set with “Hornet Hawkins”, with Adam providing some nice electric guitar work, “In The Blink Of An Eye” which was absolutely magnificent with Steve and Alan’s vocals blending together perfectly. Finishing the set was a visit to the lovely “Maria Dolores” from Spain!
Such was the success of Fred’s House set last year, that they were immediately booked to reprise their set in the Saturday night slot, the problem with this being how do you follow up what was pretty much a faultless performance. As they opened with their excellent single “Shut Up and Dance”, initially something was slightly off. Perhaps it was the sudden change in volume, this after all was the first proper burst of a full drum kit that we had heard all weekend, so they were much louder than any act that has preceded them, or maybe it was the fact that they were using the Swing Commanders drum kit which looked much larger than I remember the normal Fred’s House kit being, but there was definitely something out of kilter. The intervening time had also seen a slight change in line up with returning guitarist Locky displacing the keyboard sound that had replaced him.
That is not to say the Freds’ were not giving it their all, “I’m Not Saying”, about depression saw some great bass work and harmonies. There were great performances of “Looking Glass”, “California For A Girl”, and “Marathon Man” but suddenly everything clicked into place. It was during the cover of Neil Young’s “Old Man”, either the drums got quieter or the band got louder but balance was restored and the rest of the set was barnstorming. Vikki and Griff are such engaging singers and the band play with such joy that it is impossible not to become involved, as in “Standing Next To Me”. The vocal interaction on songs like “Ghost Town” were a sheer joy to behold.
Inspired by last years Bowie tribute of “Sorrow” from Steve Black, they decided to cover “Starman” which went down a storm. “Beautiful You” once again saw exceptional vocals from the Fred’s, and the song really built up as it went along ending with its polka finale!! Closing with their vibrant incessant cover of Jefferson Airplanes “Need Somebody To Love” and a storming round of applause, they pulled off a successful return to Midwinterfest. This band are truly exceptional and we look forward to seeing them on the main stage at “Buckles & Boots” later in the year.
Closing out Saturday night fell to The Swing Commanders, they looked immaculate, played fantastically and sold a ton of merchandise after playing a set that transported everyone back to the 1930’s – it was loved by virtually everyone in the room. Personally, I found it heavy going and lacking any sort of soul but have to accept that I was heavily in the minority!
All to quickly the weekend arrived at the final event, a last chance for Alan and Steve to reflect on what had passed and leave us with a farewell set. Starting with Alan on “I’m Not Over You” and with Adam adding extra flourishes. It was then followed by something quite extraordinary in a cover of Little Feats “Willin” where Alan’s vocals for 11:30 in the am were startling, to the point you could virtually see his jugular vein throbbing as he delivered the chorus. At the end he visibly mouthed an “Oh yeah” as he knew that he had nailed it perfectly.
There was to be no slacking in quality, Steve Black revisited his latest album for “Many Miles From Home” also providing a fabulous piece of singing. There was a brief respite as Alan placed his drink on Justin’s percussion kit, causing Justin to highlight what the likely outcome would be. It was only when watching from the side in the final set that I realised that Justin’s percussion touches were being improvised virtually on the spot, with Alan giving a nod or a short indication of what was required or when the song was coming to a close. Many onlookers would probably not have noticed, such was the skill with which it was done.
It was a welcome return for “Framed”, a personal #TeamW21 favourite, and then came Steve’s best vocals of the weekend, on “Dance With Me”, it also saw some lovely guitar work. It was a selection of fantastic material with which to start a Sunday session. “Come on Home” with its tale of an errant daughter followed by “A Line In The Sand” with its gripping narrative, so real that you feel for the characters in the story. Adam Sweet chipped in with his Fleetwood Mac tribute the mash up of “Oh Well” and “The Green Manalishi”, a tour de force that was something to behold.
In an attempt to exorcise forgetting the second verse of “Wagon Wheel” from Friday night there was another attempt, which was not a complete success but everyone was in a forgiving mood such a great time had been had. The quality of this final batch of songs was quite astounding, Steve Black with “Jacob” was followed with Alan’s take on Kris Kristoffersons “The Pilgrim Chapter 33”, Adam’s “You Think You’re Lonely” really benefitting from the extra percussion and Alan’s “You’re On Your Own” always a pleasure, all delivered with great aplomb.
The closing song was “Way Of The World” bringing the curtain down on another Midwinterfest. The 2018 line up already looks spectacular, and the queue to pay deposits began almost as soon as the final chord had been struck. As the headline on the screens either side of the stage had proclaimed throughout the weekend, “it’s all about the music” and it had been. Once again thanks to Alan and Steve for hosting a marvelous event – until we all meet again in 2018.