Midwinterfest 2018 Day 1 - Alan West, Steve Black, Adam Sweet, The Black Feathers, Ags Connolly &
The traditional curtain raiser to any New Year is the annual gathering of the great and the good at Torquay for Midwinterfest. As ever a lot of the attendees will have booked their places almost the moment the last note of last years festival completed, long before the final list of acts was announced safe in the knowledge that whoever turned up was likely to be good.
The job of guiding us through the festival once again fell to our hosts Alan West and Steve Black who aided and abetted by Adam Sweet on guitar and Justin Johnson on percussion played a number of slots throughout the weekend. Such was the feverish anticipation that there was a huge round of applause just for announcing that the show was open, and so after a few announcements it was down to the music.
Nothing quite warms the heart like seeing Alan and Steve playing to a packed appreciative audience, and soon everyone was settled in as Alan delivered "The Way Love Is" with Steve and Justin on backing vocals. Steve took over vocal duties for the slow bluesy shuffle of "Chicago" which saw Adam contributing some lovely guitar embellishments. This is after all a well oiled unit that get to play as a trio many times throughout the year. "Maria Dolores" also saw Adam contribute a delightful spanish guitar sounding solo that was so captivating it caused Alan to fluff a line on the chorus, but he instantly made amends with a storming version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee". It was back to Steve for "Drivin" which fortunately for once did not seem to sum anyones trip down to the Devon Riviera as the roads were unusually clear.
Adam Sweets role is not just as backing musician, as well as being a fine guitarist he can knock out a tune or two himself and so we got to have a 3 song mini set, which opened with "The Next Man After Me" which got a great reception, followed by "Dark Side Of Town" from last year's excellent EP. The full band then returned to the stage to complete the mini set with "Name Your Price". The set closed with a batch of songs you don't always get to hear at a a Steve / Alan show - the newish "One More Web To Weave" saw Steve once again on vocal duties while his back catalog provided Alan the chance to work on "Wasilla" where the characters in the song become so three dimensional they seem to be in the room in front of you. The set closed with the uptempo "(Tequila) Its' enough to kill ya" and Midwinterfest 2018 was well and truly open.
The Black Feathers have been on #TEAMw21's radar since they supported Ward Thomas at the Green Note many moons ago and it is always a pleasure to catch up with them. They are a husband and wife duo, Ray, tall with a jacket long hair and and acoustic guitar being the absolute perfect foil for wife Sian who provides gloriously matching harmonies, as well as accentuating songs with hand gestures and a lovely line in comedic announcements. They gather around one microphone and produce musical magic!
The set opened in a capella style with the first verse of "Lighthouse On Fire" from their recent "Holy Waters" EP. There was then a visit to their excellent "Soaked TO The Bone" album for "Down By The River". From there it was "Head first into misery!" with the title track of the "Holy Waters" EP which came with a moving story of how it came to be. It was also fascinating to see just how much atmosphere and volume can be created from two voices and a guitar.
Never was Sian's comedic timing better exemplified than with her tale of taking Ray to IKEA and keeping his attention by promising there was a guitar section at the end, it led into an absolutely beautiful "Goodbye Tomorrow". there then followed the first official Midwinterfest 2018 singalong with a gospel style reinvented "Spirit In The Sky" breathing life into a somewhat tired classic, and even finding time to squeeze a bit of the Addams family theme tune in as well!.
There was to be new material in the shape of "The Ghosts Have Eaten Well" which was truly absorbing and will hopefully be on their next EP as well as "Moonlight" about Romeo and Juliet which on first hearing seemed exceptionally strong. "Three Stars" closed their main set, possibly the most country sounding of their repertoire, it was another engaging song that came with an upbeat finish.
After such a performance there had to be an encore, and indeed a second singalong this time delivered off stage and off microphone with a song the whole room knew the words to, Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" bringing an absolutely mesmeric performance to a close. The set had such an effect that many were still talking about it at breakfast the next day! It was a set that dipped across much of their available catalogue and they were to go to sell copious amounts to an appreciative public, many of whom were seeing the Black Feather for the first time.
As we reported earlier last week, Ags is one of the bastions of this country for producing classic country music, with a delightful turn of phrase and the ability to confound your expectations in a song. Take the opener tonight "A Good Memory For Pain" from his debut album "How About Now".
With just an acoustic guitar for company, he proceeded to build on the reputation he established at last years Songwriters Round. Highlights were many, "Get Out Of My Mind" never fails to impress managing to convey the feelings of hurt in every line. The title track of his second studio album "Nothin' Unexpected" was another masterpiece which came with an introduction that had the crowd on his side before a note was even sung. Time with Ags is always time well spent, whether it be on old classics like "I Saw James Hand" or a new song "Lonely Nights in Austen" almost a definitive country song, where he again won us over with the introduction. Dressed casually in jeans and black shirt, the set seemed to be rattled through at a fair old pace in fact we seemed to reach the final two songs of the main set far too early - "I Hope You're Unhappy" previewed last year with its great lyrical twist and "Slow Burner" again from the excellent "Nothin' Unexpected" record. A hugely appreciative round of applause greeted the end of the set, that could only be satisfied with an encore of "I Should've Closed The Book". If you are a true classic country fan then his albums need to be settling in your collection, my only regret was that the audience did not get to experience Ags with a full band like at Buckle & Boots 2017, if they had they might still be clapping!
Last year Ags & Southern Companion were part of the Songwriters Round, this year they followed each other on the Friday night bill, Darren Hodson this time complimented by his full band including pedal steel and keyboards. With trademark check shirt and snapback hat they kicked off with a couple of tracks from "100 Days Of Rain", "Leaving Kind" and "Feels Like Years" with the mix so clear that each instrument was identifiable including the pedal steel which was the star of the show in those early songs.
Many of us hoped that the third Southern Companion record would be ready for Midwinterfest however although the physical product was not there we did get some excerpts and some hints at which direction they are heading in, "American Mistake" sounded very promising and showed a definite development in sound, while "Waiting On The Corner" seemed to have a more soulful groove than perhaps we have seem before. They sandwiched a cover of Jason Isbell's "If It Takes a Lifetime" which was delivered impeccably.
The big drum intro into "Billy's Brother" which came with an extended instrumental finale and the power driven ""Weekend Wednesday" possibly exposed the limitations of the venue to full out rocking as it got a tad loud for some of the audience however pretty soon we were listening to a lovely version of "Drive" and surely Darren's version of Chris Stapleton's "Tennessee Whiskey" would get an appreciative nod from the great man himself. The main set closed with "Crash" and a quick glance at the set list shows that there was a coin flip on which song to end with, in the end it fell on Ryan Adam's "Firecracker" which had a party ending kind of feel to it and sure enough with the bar dispensing the late night bacon baps day one was at a close.