Apologies for not blogging earlier but I've been busy processing images from a weekend spent in Scarborough. Regular readers will know that this has become something of an annual pilgrimage for ickledot, attending what has come to be known as the Scarborough Top Secret Blues Festival. This name first appeared a couple of years ago. I think it came about originally as visitors to the blues club there were often heard to remark something like, "This is wonderful, I never knew it existed." Since then though the festival has outgrown its former base in the cellar of a local pub. In a festival closing speech at the end of last year's event, co-organiser Mark Horsley declared that another successful festival faced financial loss due to the size of the venue which could hold a mere hundred or so. He announced the organisers' intention that the 2015 version would take place in a bigger environment. And so it came to pass last weekend.
On the day of an historic partial solar eclipse (also partly responsible for a particularly high spring tide the following day, somewhat alarming tender musicians from softer climes), the festival kicked off in the Ocean Room and bar of the famous recently renovated Spa, right on the promenade at the southern end of the town.
It's a common cry nowadays that blues festivals aren't really so any more; some even changing their names to reflect an infusion of rock or roots. Organisers in Scarborough are unapologetic in their intention to stretch the term to its limits and beyond and there was a glorious, deliberate eclecticism in the choice of artists. Throughout the weekend each afternoon or evening session was crammed full of acts selected to contrast with each other in terms of style, presentation, volume or pace, forming a balanced menu, a veritable smörgåsbord of musical delights.
As always there really were too many great artists on show to mention in this short account but for me the standout performance of the weekend came from Tony Devenport, appearing on the Acoustic Stage late on Saturday afternoon. Tony has a stunning soulful voice which he uses to great effect on a set of self-penned songs crafted from a life that's seen hard times and even harder characters. His 'Billy Billy', the tale of a school friend bent on a path of self destruction, held the audience spellbound. 'Man In The Moon', a reflective piece about the relationship with his father is genuinely moving. We've all been there (Man in the Moon: a local pub frequented by his dad, where Tony imagines that one day they could finally sit down together for a drink). There were also fine renditions of classics including 'Ain't No Love In The Heart Of The City'.
Other highlights were Friday evening festival opener Lucy Zirins on the Acoustic Stage. Lucy's recent move south to London has brought with it inspiration for a batch of new songs, one written only a week before. Blue Swamp's version of Tom Waits' 'Heart Of A Saturday Night' was particularly memorable. Another visitor from across the Pennines, Kyla Brox and her band, provided exactly what was needed to get the opening night crowd in a festival mood, culminating with an appropriately upbeat 'Wang Dang Doodle'. All night long indeed. Jon Amor's starter, that brilliant juggernaut of a song entitled err … 'Juggernaut', was a thunderous statement of intent, and 'She Thought I Was An Eagle, I Was Just Another Crow' was excellent. We've all been there too.
I've seen Jo Harman & Company a number of times in recent years, including two occasions at Scarborough. This was a particularly outstanding performance though. The voice, especially soulful on this night, was accompanied by a presence and confidence, an ownership of the stage gained through near constant touring. The band too was in great form; the whole package tight and gig hardened, with a sumptuously slow version of a personal favourite, 'Sideways', complete with keyboard and guitar solos from Steve Watts and Nat Martin. Added bonus was a flawless performance by guest bassist Yolanda Charles. If she was unfamiliar with the material it never showed.
My first viewing of LaVendore Rogue did not disappoint. Their 'Gansters, Thieves and Villains' is a superb opener, giving enigmatic vocalist JoJo Burgess ample opportunity for menacing wide eyed grimaces, shaking of fists and threats of attack on lead guitarist, Joel Fisk. And so it continued, with more new material alongside Hokie Joint favourites including 'Get Me To The Church' and 'The Way It Goes … Sometimes'.
Coming from either ends of England, Cornish trio, Wille & the Bandits and Hartlepool's The Jar Family were, for me at least, the festival's surprise packages. W&TB have a hard rock style tempered by the use of a range of unusual instruments. The twelve minute instrumental which closed their set was mesmeric. The Jar Family, a larger ensemble, also switch instruments throughout, producing a brand of music which they call 'industrial folk'. Both highly recommended. Check 'em out.
The festival was closed by one of its favourites and a big supporter, Ian Siegal. Returning for the third year in a row, this time with his band, The Rhythm Chiefs, he played tracks from his current live album, One Night in Amsterdam. A trio in their own right, The Rhythm Chiefs include Dusty Ciggaar, a guitarist of some repute and deservedly so on this performance.
All too soon it was over. A great festival whose 2016 version is already being planned to be bigger and better. As has already been said on various social networks, this 'top secret' festival deserves wider recognition. If not a British Blues Best Festival Award, a nomination at least. Make it so.