FolkWorld Live Review by Michael Moll; 09/2002

Music under Tudor chimneys - Folk at Fram 2002
Three of the best acts from the British Isles

Folk at Fram; photo by The MollisSuffolk makes up, arguably, the most beautiful Eastern county of England. Framlingham is right in the centre of Suffolk, a little market town in a pleasant location, famous for its twelfth century castle. This very castle makes up a unique and perfect venue for music events throughout the summer. Most appropriate of these events is without doubt the one-evening folk festival, "Folk at Fram", displaying music traditions in a historic environment. Folk at Fram has built up a very good reputation among musicians, and this year once more all three acts were enthusiastic about the event, the venue and, last but not least, the weather!

While the rest of the British Isles was still covered under thick clouds full of rain, the musicians found on arrival, Suffolk at its very best, in beautiful sunshine. No wonder that most of the audience brought along chairs, rugs and big baskets full of picnics with some bubbly or wine. Arriving half an hour before the concert, you find the castle full of picnicers, giving the whole event a wonderfully relaxed and summery atmosphere.

On our arrival, we heard of a change of programme - the English band Tarras (yes, the one that became famous as the first band without a CD release that made a cover story in the Folk Roots magazine) apparantly decided to disband, just before their booked appearance in Framlingham. Not really the "refined English way" (German idiom...) - just six days before the event, the organisers of Folk at Fram were left with the task to find a replacement for the planned final act of the evening. They were lucky to find an excellent replacement (to my tast preferable to Tarras): the traditional Irish folk band North Cregg. North Cregg could be easily convinced to spend the day in their van travelling up from the (soaked) Sidmouth Festival up to Suffolk, to play a festival where their name had not been on the posters.

Niamh Parsons; photo by The MollisWith the addition of North Cregg, the Folk at Fram 2002 programme was for my taste rather perfect. The concert started with Niamh Parsons, arguably today's best singer from Ireland, with her duo partner Graham Dunne on guitar. Their appearance was in the middle of their holidays, and in fact they were spending just 24 hours in England; before and after this period, they directly headed back to the pubs of a festival in Ireland. What a pleasure it must have been to come to such a sunny place as Suffolk, looking from the stage at the impressive castle walls in the evening sun (and maybe wondering why this 12th century castle has those odd looking Tudor chimneys) and the happy crowds in the castle grounds with their big picnics.

I have known and loved Niamh Parsons singing for a long time, yet once again I was stunned by her beautiful, rich voice, that manages to make every song her own; perfectly sung with beautiful vocal arrangements. The talent of guitarist Graham Dunne makes the songs even more spectecular; Graham proved that night that he has entered the world class of Celtic guitarists. He is both great at subtle arrangements for Niamhs songs and delivering impressive solo numbers. Niamh sang that night a mixture of old favourites and songs from her new CD, "Heart's Desire". Recently, Niamh used to appear regularly with a fiddler or accordionist, who would add some wild tunes to the set. Now, appearing as a duo, Niamh tries to fill the gap of faster numbers with a couple of more lively songs. These are good enough, although it is very obvious that Niamh enjoys most those songs that she is best at: The slower, beautiful and gentle songs. The audience enjoyed the set of Niamh and Graham; all listened, it was completely quiet during the songs. The venue of the castle with its special acoustics gave a beautiful surrounding for the duo's simple, yet stunning music.

North Cregg; photo by The MollisAs the planned second act of the evening did not arrive completely in good time, North Cregg filled once again a gap, appearing now as the second act of the evening. The band has built up a reputation throughout Europe as one of the high quality Irish bands, playing in their distinctive "Sliabh Luachra" style. The musical centre of the band is the amazing box player Christy Leahy, working hard in every single set of the evening. He is joined by fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano and snare drums. North Cregg needed that night a bit of time to get fully warmed up, but towards the end of their set they had convinced every single person in the audience that they are a superb live band, with a lot of energy and power. Shame though that their new singer Fiona Kelleher was apparently on maternity leave that night; leaving the song task to the other new band member Paul O Driscoll, singing a few country songs.
The audience was warmed up after that set for the final act of the evening, the Old Blind Dogs.

Old Blind Dogs, photo by The MollisThe organisers at Folk at Fram show usually very good taste in choosing some of the very best Scottish bands for their festival - a very attractive difference to most other folk venues in the region, where Scottish bands are a rarity. The Old Blind Dogs are without doubt one of the best Scottish bands, combining five highly talented musicians: Rory Campbell, probably the best piper, whistle player and composer of Gaelic style tunes to be found today, the talented singer/songwriter Jim Malcolm with his charismatic voice, the two founder members of the Dogs, Buzzby MacMillan on electric bass and cittern and Johnny Hardy on fiddle, and finally a talented percussionist recently joining the line-up, Fraser Stone (replacing Tim Jennings, who decided to focus on his other band, Croft No. 5). Their music is a wonderful combination of traditional music and song and modern influences; it has a lot of drive and energy, and has a distinctive Old Blind Dogs style. They combine songs from the North East of Scotland with songs from Jim Malcolm's songwriting repertoire, traditional tunes from all over Scotland with Gaelic style tunes. In particular with those Gaelic tunes composed by Rory Campbell they create a very modern, groovy and danceable sound. But it is the mixture of the inputs from each of the talented individuals that makes the Old Blind Dogs one of the most exciting bands from Scotland.

The crowd loved the Dogs; soon the whole castle was once more completely changed: While Niamh Parsons & Graham Dunne and North Cregg turned the picnic site into a concert hall, the Old Blind Dogs turned the concert hall into a large dance hall, where the audience was enthusiastically dancing away to the music. It was a perfect finale for a perfect concert evening, rated by Rory Campbell even as one of the best gigs he has ever played in England.
For the Old Blind Dogs, it went on the next day to the Folkwoods Festival in Holland, where they would bump into my brother...

It was a great evening; the combination of bands was excellent, and it seemed that nobody missed Tarras that night. Wonderful music in a wonderful surrounding.

Niamh Parsons' new album, Heart's Desire, is extensively reviewed in an article in this issue.

Photo Credit:
All photos from Folk at Fram, by The Mollis. (1) Framlingham castle with picnicers; (2) Niamh Parsons; (3) North Cregg; (4) Old Blind Dogs

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