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FESTIVAL REVIEW: Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival – Cast, The Boo Radleys, The Heavy North. 18/6/2022.

Wearing a John Lennon ‘Working Class Hero‘ T-Shirt he strode up to the microphone and greeted the crowd with, ‘HELLO MIDDLEWICH! Fuck me, I never thought I’d hear myself say that!’. You and me both John Power.

Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival was celebrating it’s thirtieth anniversary. I bet it’s changed a bit in those years. Now it mainly consists of: a Floating Market on the Trent and Mersey Canal, where you can buy all sorts of craft related knick-knacks, as well as a beer, or a pizza from a flotilla of narrowboats; a small Folk Stage; and a Main Stage in a field adjacent to a quaint Town Hall. It was in this field that I spent the majority of a very pleasant Saturday.

I got to Middlewich early to see ‘the parade’. This consisted of a bagpiper, the mayor, some members of The British Legion, some young ladies wearing long dresses and carrying flowers, and most bizarrely, a large group of people dressed as crows. It lasted all of five minutes. The brevity of the parade was a bonus as it meant that I had more time to spend at the festival’s Main Stage.

The good burghers of Middlewich in their wisdom had decided to split the day’s festivities into two sections. The afternoon was a free-to-view session with all welcome. The evening was a ticketed affair. Making the most of a gratis event in these fiscally challenging times, I got in early to see the afternoon artists.

Astles

The sky was a brittle grey colour with hairline fractures of pale blue poking through – hinting at the possibility of something better. It was the ideal meteorological metaphor for Astles‘ music. Astles is a singular person, originally from Southport, who sometimes appears with the Balloon Moon Orchestra, but today was occasionally backed by a combination of keyboards, delicate drums and deft bass guitar. He looks a bit like a well-turned out Badly Drawn Boy, and his sound and demeanour were not dissimilar too. The set consisted of deeply introspective ballads, heartfelt tunes with lilting, hopeful harmonies, and full of minor chord melancholy. The vocals on Love In November and Two and a Bit – a song about Astles‘ relationship with his younger brother – were so delicate and fragile that you felt they could crack right there in front of you at any moment.

I’ve seen Liverpool five piece Casino before and I have to say they are getting better with every viewing. I said previously their vibrant soul-laden songs were so good that they could be mistaken for some long-forgotten Tamala Motown or Stax B-sides. After seeing them perform their original songs like Visions and the 4/4 stompers Don’t Stop The Music and Nothing On My Mind I’ve had to re-evaluate. They could be mistaken for forgotten A-sides.

Casino.

Casino are not imitators, they are innovators. It’s Northern Soul for the 2020’s. Get your kicks out on the floor. Or in this case, as a great many Middlewichians were, out on the grass. The crowd was not huge, but it was diverse. I’m certain in the future Casino will play many larger, more prestigious festivals, but I doubt they will forget the time they played in front of a lad on a mountain back giving his mate a shoulder ride (whist being chased by security), and an aged lady with a four-wheeled walker accompanying the band on the spoons. Festival life eh.

After spending a miserable hour in a local pub listening to people murder Wonderwall and Sweet Caroline on the karaoke we were allowed back into the main Stage for the evening’s entertainment. Even though the rain had started steadily falling nothing could dampen my enthusiasm for some proper live music. Those that braved the drizzle and made it to the stage early were rewarded with a dynamic performance of top indie/alt-pop from Tilly Louise.

Tilly Louise in full effect.

Liverpool is blessed with a great number of talented alt-pop-tinged, female singer-songwriters – Zuzu, Pixey, and Natalie McCool to name a few, and you can add Tilly Louise‘s name to that list. She and her band played a shiny set of catchy, hook-laden, spirited alternative pop tunes. My personal favourite songs were Baggy T-Shirt a tune whose chopped guitar riffs gave it a 90’s brit-pop feel a-la Sleeper, and Calypso whose clipped afro-beat riffs reminded me of some of the work of Tilly Louises local compatriots Spinn. If you are quick you just might catch her at Retro, Manchester on 30th June.

I love The Heavy North. In the last twelve months I have probably seen them more than any other artist and they never fail to impress. They, along with bands like Mexican Dogs and Manchester’s Dirty Laces are bringing classic blues/garage rock back to the masses. The band have been gigging relentlessly – they had to shoot off immediately to play a Macmillan fundraiser in Manchester – that work ethic pays dividends and is evident in the tightness and power of the band’s performance.

Kenny Stuart – The Heavy North (and strategically placed Electric Soul Machine album).

The set consisted mostly of songs off their excellent debut album Electric Soul Machine, and opened with the first track off that album – The Genie – a track inspired by lead singer Kenny Stuart’s son – Gene. Highlights of the set were the bombastic Darkness In Your Eyes a questioning song full of warning and self-examination, Satisfy You – a Zeppelinesque song about ignoring social media naysayers – ‘I’m not here to satisfy you’, and the super-soulful, delta-blues ballad As Long As You’re Here with Me. The Heavy North will be headlining a nationwide tour in September taking in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle, Hull, Birmingham, Newport, London and culminating with a big hometown show at Liverpool Arts Club on September 24th. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

The joy of watching The Boo Radleys at a festival is that you are reminded of what a great back catalogue of tunes they have. For the uninitiated The Boo Radleys’ career amounts to one song (but what a song!). However in the space of four years between 1992 and 1996 The Boo Radleys had three Top 20 albums, and on the night main-man Sice (Simon Rowbottom) treated the crowd to something from all of them and much more.

Sice, The Boo Radleys.

The set opened with a couple of well received songs from the 1993 album Giant Steps Barney (..and Me) and Wish I was Skinny. Sice established a convivial rapport with the crowd – which had swelled considerably by this point – by telling tales about the birth of songs, his current whereabouts in Oxfordshire, and at one point encouraged by the band’s guitarist, had Happy Birthday sung at him. There were three songs from this incarnation of The Boo Radleys‘ latest album, 2021’s Keep On With FallingAll Along, Full Syringe, and the albums title track (which has a Brian Wilson/Pet Sounds feel to it) – before the obvious, jubilant climax.

‘I can see the folk, but where’s the boats?’ was John Power’s second utterance upon entering Middlewich’s Main Stage, and it was just as pertinent as his first. The boats were on the canal about half a mile away, but the field was now a bobbing sea of faces. Power’s third act was to count the band into Flying, and we were off.

John Power, Cast.

Cast are John Power’s band. But for a group that has been a going concern for thirty years plus, there have been relatively few changes in personnel. Following the band’s return from hiatus in 2010 guitarist Liam ‘Skin’ Tyson and bassist Jay Lewis have provide a solid foundation of top class musicianship. The band seem to really enjoy playing together. You’d imagine they have a good laugh just rehearsing. Enthusiasm like that is infectious and easily spreads throughout a crowd as it did on this occasion. Add to that continuity and passion, the fact that you have genuine classic rock songs like Sandstorm, Fine Time, and Walkaway in your locker, then you can’t go too far wrong. Put that all together and you have the recipe for a top nights musical entertainment. Lewis and the band’s drummer present a solid rhythm section, Power has the voice, the tunes and the presence – and someone is going to have to go a long way to better the lead guitar performance I witnessed from Liam Tyson. His playing was outstanding throughout, but what he did with his instrument and a set of effect pedals during History was astounding. Following that song Cast finished their set with a staggering flourish – Beat Mama, Guiding Star, Free Me and finally Alright. Despite spending a drizzly Saturday in East Cheshire I found myself once again agreeing with the words of Mr Power, ‘I guess I’m alright, guess I’m alright, I guess I’m doing fine, guess I’m doing fine’. Is right John. You and me both.

Ian Dunphy

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