Martha Tilston | Kendall Payne | Karine Polwart | Juliet Turner
Those that have read our review of the Guilfest festival earlier in the summer of 2005, will have noted our frustration with the lack of female artists, or indeed artists of any distinction at all at that festival compared to 2004. By contrast, Greenbelt, the famous Christian festival held each year in Gloucestershire, UK, was a complete revelation.
This was our first visit, despite living locally for five years. The regular appearances of Musical Discoveries favourites Iona (review) had not quite compensated for slight wariness of the worship-orientated aspects of the festival. In fact, the atmosphere was remarkably relaxed, and the multi-ethnic, multi-denominational and multi-cultural aspects of the festival were nicely balanced, with music, comedy, arts and crafts sitting alongside displays representing all the Christian charities. The site itself made for a slightly surreal scene; its many venues superimposed upon Cheltenham racecourses' betting shops and hospitality suites like a slightly inappropriate houseguest.
But it was the music that drew us to the festival, and we discovered a treasure trove of talented artists, male and female, some playing devotional music, some preferring lyrics with more secular or ambiguous subject matter. There were five main music stages. The outdoor main stage, showcased a broad range of styles from Saturday headliners, Scottish brothers the Proclaimers to remarkable folk artist Jim Moray, who plays traditional English songs, but gives them intense, crunching indie-rock arrangements. The second stage, a smaller indoor venue featured, in the main, youth-orientated rock acts, while the 2000-capacity Centaur stage hosted laidback, after hours fare. The Performance café was a relaxed, and often packed-out acoustic venue, featuring sets from many of the main stage artists, and the North Stage featured a variety of daytime performances. With all these venues hosting artists worth a look, it was impossible to see them all. However, what follows is an overview of the best of what we saw.
Those who enjoy singer-songwriters, accompanied in simple fashion by an acoustic guitar or two, were well served by the festival. Martha Tilston (), playing on the main stage, delighted as she had at Guilfest. Her music loses none of its charm in a stripped down format, despite reducing her band to a single mandolin player and her own acoustic guitar. She plays excellent folk with a strong contemporary twist. American singer-songwriter Kendall Payne (), by contrast, has an intense, country-influenced style with contrasted nicely with the more traditional folk of wonderful Scottish songwriter Karine Polwart (), whose two-man band of guitar and bass also contributed some lovely harmonies.
Perhaps the best pick of the "folkies" was the celebrated Irish singer songwriter Juliet Turner (), whose late-night, Sunday evening set on the Centaur stage drew a large audience, with due reason. She is a stunning songwriter with a powerful voice, an impressively diverse array of material and a talented band providing guitar and piano backing.
Of course, singer-songwriters need not always be "folky," despite playing in an acoustic setting, as both Esther Alexander () and Cathy Burton () showed. Tall and elegant, Esther, playing in the Performance Café with two guitarists, is clearly a singer-songwriter with some talent and has a pure, appealing voice. Expect a review of her album Rhyme and Reason shortly. We missed Cathy Burton's solo acoustic set, but caught her entertaining trio performance with Dan Wheeler and Paul Field, not to mention her superb three-song guest appearance with Deacon Blue front man Ricky Ross, which included a spine tingling rendition of the band's classic "Love’s Great Fears." We will review her magnificent pop-rock album Speed Your Love shortly.
A quick word of praise for the excellent soul and funk of Carleen Anderson () famed for fronting The Brand New Heavies, whose set was more traditional than the equally infectious, crowd pleasing hip-hop and rap of Friday night headliner Estelle (). Bodixa, from Yorkshire, are also work noting, their hypnotic, laidback pop-rock reminded us of Dido, but a touch more interesting (). Emiliana Torrini, on the other had, confirmed what we already knew--that she is a highly individual performer with a huge charm and a quirky sense of humour. No other festival than Greenbelt, we suspect, would have greeted a performance of such intricate stillness with such respect. Read a review of her album Fisherman’s Woman here ().
Possibly the most exciting discovery of the festival were the amazing Note for a Child. Fronted by the cool, elegant Susie Beattie, with some lead vocals by Daniel Goodman, they were expertly backed by a five-piece band, including the talented Kathie Brown on violin and Indian instrument Tambura. Her backing vocals--a powerful soprano--contrasted beautifully with Susie's more ethereal voice. While the band's lyrics are devotional, their music is delightfully hypnotic, without sacrificing the quality of their song-writing. Comparisons with Iona, Clannad, Karnataka and Enya are inevitable, but Note for a Child have their own, world-music influenced sound that deserves them a place outside the world of Christian music. Expect a review of their debut album Impossibly Beautiful here shortly ().
Christian and Non-Christian readers alike considering going to Greenbelt really should take the plunge – this is a wonderful, relaxed festival with more to see, do and hear than is possible for one person in four days. The devotional aspects, while prominent, are hardly forced upon the visitor, so keep an open mind and give it a go in 2006. You won't be disappointed.
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