“And YOU can be there!” said Mark Radcliffe back in February, after reading out the Folk Awards nominations on his radio programme and announcing that this year's ceremony would take place in Belfast. I immediately decided I'd better be, and so it was that I found myself in Belfast on a wet and windy afternoon last week.
The Waterfront is a state of the art concert hall which opened in 1997. It is in a draughty grey area of new developments and there was nowhere nicer to go for a pre-show drink than the Hilton Hotel bar. Both there and in the foyer of the Waterfront later on, there was a great sense of excitement and anticipation. It was quite a surreal experience to see musicians everywhere you looked.
Radio Ulster were broadcasting a warm up show from the foyer. I saw the Armagh Piper's Club perform and Cara Dillon and Dónal Lunny being interviewed by presenter Lynette Fay. Whilst standing there I spotted Maddy Prior, Paul Brady, Finbar Fury, Jackie Oates, Conor Byrne, Sam Lakeman, Cathal Hayden, Gino Lupari, Brian Finnegan, Jarlath Henderson – it seemed the entire folk world was there.
Ye Vagabonds appeared, wearing tweet jackets holding pints of Guinness, looking like characters from a bygone era. This was my cue to go in search for the bar that sold that Guinness, as I had been drinking a disappointing pint of lukewarm lager.
I got my pint just in time to take it into the auditorium. My seat was on the lower balcony. I had an unobstructed view of the stage and of the ground floor area, where the nominees were seated around tables. I had thought that there would be a lot of organisational stuff to go through, but the whole ceremony ran slickly and there were only minimal announcements: No photography or filming, the winners were to keep their speeches short and no swearing as the show was going out live.
The Folk Awards began in 2000 and have since 2013 been hosted by Mark Radcliffe and Julie Fowlis, who do a fabulous job. They clearly know totally what they are talking about and nothing about the show felt staged; it was like an evening of folk friends celebrating all that the genre, going through another revival at present, has to offer.
A highlights show has been shown on TV and the BBC is to be applauded for cutting out none of the music. All seven performances were shown in full, whereas the speeches were curtailed and many of the (worthwhile) introductions were left out altogether.
Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band opened the show with 'Devil In The Woman'. With their warrior poses and face paint they curiously reminded me of Adam & the Ants. There were a lot of musicians on stage but it immediately became apparent that the sound in the Waterfront Hall could not be better.
Next on were Lankum. Mark Radcliffe started introducing them and displayed his natural talent at how to gloss over a technical hiccup. Mark referred to “a ballet of engineers, quite a graceful thing to watch. It's like they're interpreting the non existent music through the medium of mime. Dexterous and balletic though it is, I hope it won't go on for too much longer....” It didn't and Lankum were on.
In true award ceremony style they did a medley of two songs. I did wonder why. Was it to show the public two different sides of their work, or did they or the BBC think that Joe Public could not deal with a slow six minute ballad? Lankum's very popularity is proof in fact that audiences can stomach a lot more than they are given credit for. In any case, their performance was superb. They did some verses of 'What Will We Do When We Have No Money', segueing into the instrumental 'Townie Polka'. You can watch it HERE
Local girl Cara Dillon performed accompanied by husband Sam Lakeman on piano and singer/songwriter John Smith on guitar. Cara sang 'The Leaving Song' from 'Wanderer'. This was followed by a very special moment that did not make it into the televised highlights. Cara mentioned that the following week would mark the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. She thought it would be fitting if we all sang a couple of verses of Tommy Sands' 'There Were Roses'. The crowd complied and it sounded lovely. Colin Irwin in the Guardian commented on the politeness and professionalism of today's folk musicians and the absence of political commentary, singling out Cara's singalong as the most affecting moment of the night.
My favourite performance of the night came from Dónal Lunny and Zoë Conway, who performed Dónal's 'Tribute To Peadar O'Donnell'. I knew of Zoë Conway, and that she is highly regarded, but I had not heard her play before. With just bouzouki and fiddle they made it sound like there was an entire band on stage.
For the Folk Awards Hall of Fame award the organisers invite a contemporary artist to honour the recipient. Past performers have been Guy Garvey (covering Ewan MacColl), Rufus Wainwright (Sandy Denny) and Billy Bragg (Woody Guthrie). This year Nick Drake fan Olivia Chaney took to the stage to perform a beautiful version of 'River Man', together with her regular musical companion Jordan Hunt on fiddle. I am quite a fan of Olivia's, so I was pleased to hear Julie Fowlis announce that Olivia has a new album coming out in June ('Shelter', on Nonesuch Records).
Paul Brady was an obvious choice for a folk event taking place in Northern Ireland, but all the same I was taken by surprise by his fabulous performance. I always say that the best folk music is the simplest, and this was just and a man with a guitar, singing the Child ballad 'Lord Thomas And Fair Ellender'. Many singers lose part of their vocal range as they get older, but Paul Brady, now 70, seems to have no such problems.
The show closed with members of the Armagh Pipers Club, recipients of the Good Tradition award. On stage amongst others were Jarlath Henderson on pipes, Brian Finnegan from Flook on whistle and flute and Brian Vallely, founder of the club that has produced so many great instrumentalists over the years. They played a fast and furious set of reels - a fitting set to close a great show.
In the days leading up to the award ceremony many nominees took to Twitter to share their excitement about going to Belfast and taking part in the show, yet most added "that it is not about winning".
Broadcaster/musician Leo Green said in his introduction for the Musician of the Year award:
“It's hard work being a musician. When you start out it's a real slog. You make all kinds of sacrifices and I guess the furthest thing from your mind is that one day someone is going to give you a prize for the music you are trying to make. I think it is vital that events like tonight take place, and acknowledge the hours and years of practice and honing and sacrificing. All of tonight's nominees have trodden that path”.
Musician of the Year in particular is a prestigious award. When the names of the nominees were read out I heard a snippet of Martin Simpson's 'Blues Run The Game' and I could not help thinking, “He is the best of them all”. Martin already has quite a number of folk awards to his name however, so it was nice to see this award go to Mohsen Amini from Glasgow. Mohsen is half English and half Iranian and a member of Talisk and Ímar. He gave the shortest acceptance speech: “It's a bit of a shock. This has been a lifelong dream. I'm about to cry so I am going to keep it short. Thank you very much”.
I am a huge fan of Lankum and I was pleased to see them nominated for three awards. They won 'Best Group', which they received from Finbar Fury, who has since tweeted that it was his pleasure to present Lankum with the Best Group award: “They are making seriously good songs and music and I wish them the very best till we meet again down the road”.
The Best Original Track award was presented by none other than Ralph McTell, who also gave a very meaningful introduction: “I am often asked what is the best thing about what I do, and the answer is always the same: It's writing a new song. Then sharing it with a trusted friend, performing it live and finally recording it. The whole process from idea to writing to performance is exciting, more so if it is not motivated by commercial success and is simply for the joy of taking a poetic though, adding musical accompaniment and fashioning a song that stimulates a response, be it emotional or physical in the listener”.
I had thought that this award would go to the Young'uns, whose 'Be The Man' literally made me cry when I first heard it (at Glastonbury 2017, the first time they performed it in public!). The jury decided differently and Lankum won this award for their song 'The Granite Gaze'.
I have to admit that I had to do a bit of digging before I fully understood what this song was about. Daragh Lynch explained this to Mike McGrath-Bryan of Village Magazine: “It looks at some very dark and disturbing elements of Ireland's recent history, and the very real impact that we still feel from that today. When we sat down to work out the lyrics, we were sure that we didn't want to spell it out too obviously though, and that it would be a far more effective song if we alluded to things and used phrases that might have more than one meaning, and that this would serve to create more of a general feeling and mood stan a straight up commentary”.
Lankum had a lot of support in the auditorium and there was massive applause as they went up to receive their award. I had to laugh at Radie Peat's highly professional reaction: “Thanks. Really surprised. I've never even won a raffle!” Ian Lynch followed this with a prepared list, cynically starting by thanking the Lord Jesus Christ...
The biggest surprise of the night came with the Lifetime Achievement award, which we knew would go to Dónal Lunny. Julie Fowlis announced that this award was going to be presented by one of Belfast's major musical exports and she mentioned some of the genuine classics he had written. Mark Radcliffe correctly commented that you could feel a collective gasp go through the room but assured us he was really there. Enter Van Morrison! I was sitting in quite a sedate section of the audience but at that moment I felt compelled to stand up and applaud.
Van joked that if he had to talk for a living he would be poor. In his introduction however he mentioned working with Dónal on a TV programme and recording a really good version of 'St Dominic's Preview'. Van recommended we check that out on YouTube.
I have done just that. On the bus on the way back to Dublin I listened to the 'Sult – Spirit Of The Music' album, the soundtrack of the TV series Van was referring to and I had actually forgotten what a brilliant album that is. It illustrates that in addition to an exceptional musician and producer, Dónal is a great facilitator who just brings out the best in other musicians. Sharon Shannon for example has in my opinion never bettered her second album, the Dónal Lunny produced 'Out The Gap'. 'Sult', apart from the song with Van, has great collaborations with Paul Brady, Matt Molloy, Máirtín O'Connor, Begley & Cooney, Brian Kennedy, Liam O'Flynn – and more. A superb album; thanks for the reminder Van!
Dónal Lunny came to the stage to the magical sound of the Bothy Band's 'Kesh Jig', amidst more standing up and 'we are not worthy' waving. In his acceptance speech Dónal named two great teachers that really changed his life: “They wound me up and installed high-powered batteries and set me off. It was a long time before I looked back. I feel I am accepting this award on behalf of all the people I've worked with over the years”.
Dónal singled out Andy Irvine in particular, mentioned Christy Moore, Liam O'Flynn and 'the bauld Paddy Glackin' and thanked his children for keeping him going: “They'll keep me going for a while yet”.
The equally prestigious Folk Singer of the Year award was presented by singer and founder member of Solas, Karan Casey. Together with Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Pauline Scanlon and Beoga's Niamh Dunne, Karan has recently set up Fair Plé, promoting gender balance in Irish trad and folk music and she was therefore a very fitting choice to present this award. I presume that it was by coincidence that the Folk Singer of the Year nominees were all female this year. The award went to Scottish singer Karine Polwart. A bit ironic that Karine won this award on the back of an album that is part spoken word, however I see it as a recognition of her previous work also, which has been consistently excellent.
The Folk Awards recipients are chosen by a panel of experts, with one exception and that is the Best Album award, voted for by Radio Two listeners. Lankum, Eliza Carthy and Karine Polwart were nominated, but I was not surprised to hear Steeleye Span's Maddy Prior announce that the award went to Sean, Michael and David – the Young'uns. Again huge cheers from the audience.
A fragment of 'Ghafoor's Bus' was played as they climbed the stairs. David told Sean off for starting to speak to soon, as they would have gotten royalties if it went over 30 seconds (“Put it back on!”). Sean then did a lovely speech, acknowledging all the people whose stories inspired the songs on the indeed amazing 'Strangers' album.
I have been thinking about why I love this album so much. I guess that in a world where so many people are pessimistic and depressed and where everything seems motivated by money and greed, it is heartening that there are people like the Young'uns who sing about real life folks who have overcome obstacles and tragedy and done amazing things. It is their optimism and their highlighting of righteous causes that is so heartwarming and just what the world needs in this day and age.
If you have stuck with me to this point you must be genuinely interested in folk music. Many thanks for reading. I like to finish by quoting what I regarded as the nicest speech of the night, which came from the actress Gabrielle Drake, talking about her brother Nick. Gabrielle acknowledged the role that listeners play in the evolvement of the music:
“Nick's songs are made timeless by you. This fine accolade by the BBC would not have been possible without Nick's fans. Nick gave birth to the songs, but you cherished them, nourished them and sent them out into the world as he was never able to do – and he owes you a great deal". Being a man of few words he would probably have just stood here, pleased and delighted beyond words, and he would just have said, 'Er.., thanks'. And so on my brother's behalf I say to the BBC and to all of you: Thanks”.
Additional awards given out on the night:
Horizon award: Ímar
Best traditional track: Banks of Newfoundland – Siobhan Miller
Best duo: Chris Stout & Catriona McKay
Clips and a full audio version of the ceremony can be found on the Folk Awards homepage on the BBC iPlayer
Also recommended: 'Lost Boy – In search of Nick Drake', radio documentary about Nick Drake, narrated by Brad Pitt