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A Musical Autumn Ahead – some forthcoming events

Laid-back tunes outside the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel at Langdale Festival

Laid-back tunes outside the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel at Langdale Festival

It’s going to be an eventful Autumn, music-wise. Here are some forthcoming events that either myself or my friends will be involved in.

Next weekend – Friday 13th September onwards – is the twice-annual Langdale Charity Folk Festival. This, as I have noted before, is one of my favourite places and events to go to in the world. My own gig will be on Saturday afternoon in the main bar, but I will be doing lots of music outside of that slot too, much of it involving relentless Irish tunes with Mike Allen on fiddle and any other wandering traddies who might be passing through. Only six sleeps to go!

The same weekend is the twice-annual Irish Music Weekend in Lancaster, organised by my very good friend Dave Lyth. Unfortunately (as I will be in Langdale) I will not be able to attend this time. I’m very sad to miss it as the craic is likely to be mighty, with lots of great musicians from all over coming to this very popular event. If you love Irish sessions, Lancaster is the place to be (unless you come to Langdale to play tunes with Mike and me instead, that is!)

On Friday 20th September, we will have our next monthly traditional session at the Lord Ashton in Lancaster. Starting at around 8.00 pm, this has been consistently good so far, and is in a small, friendly pub with good beer. All trad musicians and lovers of trad music are welcome.

Wednesday 2nd October sees the return of the Irish Traveller singer, Thomas McCarthy, to Lancaster. Tom will be performing at The Gregson, along with support from local duo Nyewood. As I have said previously, Tom is an amazing exponent of a tradition not widely seen outside the Traveller culture, and it is truly a privilege to hear him sing. Highly recommended.

Finally, the Lancaster Music Festival will take place during the weekend beginning Friday 11th October. This is a community-run event during which live music will take place all over the city, in pubs and other venues. I will be playing a short spot with my friends Celia Briar (harp) and Ross Campbell (concertina and various stringed instruments) in Market Square next to the Information Stall on Saturday 12th October, probably around 1.00 pm. Come and say hello if you’re out and about!

Memories of the Fleadh

Fleadh programmesI’ve been going through the cupboard at the top of my stairs again, which is full of all manner of treasures from my past. Here, therefore, is another little glimpse into my musical memories.

I went through a phase in my teens and early twenties when I entered loads of competitions. Mostly these were through Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), and resulted in me never quite winning an All Ireland Champion title, although I was runner-up in the All Ireland twice and third once. Don’t get too excited, now, it was the Senior Flute Slow Airs competition!

I generally did pretty well in fleadhanna at local level, in both dance tunes and slow airs on whistle and flute, and usually got a fair showing in the All Britain. I no longer have my All Ireland medals, I think my mum still has them displayed on her wall, but here’s a handful of other medals I found in a box. This shows, really, how much of a masochist I was back then, putting myself through all that stress over and over again:

Medals

I also found a couple of adjudication sheets, with some fairly complimentary comments by the judges. However, I must admit I didn’t always agree with their comments, especially the one judge who told me she’d awarded me second place because the slow air I played was, quote, “A bit short.” I took quite a bit of umbrage at that, as I’d spent rather a long time painstakingly learning it from the singing of a Sean Nós singer, and thought I’d done a pretty good job! The slow air in question was Donal Óg.

Adjudication sheetsI went on to become very involved in Comhaltas throughout the 1980s and early 90s, and even eventually became an adjudicator myself. It was far less stressful than being on the other side of the table, I must admit, though could be a bit dull at times if there were 30 under-twelves all playing the same Kerry polka! Some of the kids were amazing, however, standing out from the pack like shining beacons of brilliance, and I’m sure those ones will have gone on to be tremendous musicians.

I have absolutely no desire these days to enter competitions. It was a phase in my youth, something I felt compelled to put myself through, possibly because I felt back then that I had something to prove. These days, I’m very laid back about it all, and I’ve always told myself, in the years since, that standing up and performing on stage is a doddle in comparison with setting yourself up for that kind of scrutiny. Remembering how scary it all was is a great cure for stage fright!

In the end, the music is what matters, and winning or not winning competitions is irrelevant in the great scheme of things. I like to think that, even back then, I still had some sort of perspective, despite my apparent urge to make life difficult for myself. Fleadhanna, for me, were always more about the sessions than the competitions, so I’ll end with a photo of the first All Ireland Fleadh in Listowel I attended, back in the early eighties, getting on with the real business of the day: playing in yet another all-night session.

Listowel

My Heart is Full

The incredibly beautiful Langdale valley

The incredibly beautiful Langdale valley

I can be a bit fatalistic at times, especially when it feels like things are going just that bit too well. Therefore I have long suspected that one day I will go to Langdale Festival, and it won’t be as good. Each time the twice-yearly festival comes around I mentally prepare myself for this eventuality, dreading that this next festival will be the one where it all starts to go downhill. “It can’t be like this forever,” I tell myself. “All good things must come to an end.”

I’m always relieved to be proved wrong, and last weekend was no exception. The most recent Langdale Festival showed absolutely no signs of a slippery slope down into the doldrums. Instead, it’s like we rounded a corner to see yet another shining peak rise before us out of the mist, with the clear prospect of even more dizzy heights of fun to come. All of the usual suspects, it seems, just keep on keeping on, and the younger generation, who we old folkies must rely upon to carry the musical torch into the future, are very confidently and competently striding ahead on the path.

For the uninitiated Great Langdale, where the Langdale Festival is held, is a glacial valley north of Ambleside in the Lake District. Dramatic peaks rise almost vertically out of the flat valley floor, the mercurial weather and the stark, unspoilt scenery making it look and feel like a timeless oasis at the end of the world. At the head of the valley the only signs of habitation are the National Trust campsite, a farm, and the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where the festival takes place.

The ODG Hikers Bar

The ODG Hikers Bar

The ODG or the ‘Old’ as many of its patrons call it (to distinguish it from the ‘New’ Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, further back down the valley), is a 300 year old coaching inn run, rather conveniently for we musical types, by fiddle player Neil Walmsley. It is famed the world over, particularly for its ‘Hikers Bar’ in the converted byre of the hotel, complete with preserved cow stalls transformed into seating. Such is its allure that the ODG has had its fair share of famous regular visitors over the years, including Chris Bonington, Jimmy Page, Roy Harper, Mike Harding, members of Fairport Convention and countless others, as well as the many thousands of less eminent walkers and climbers who have passed through its doors. One reason for its popularity is its unparalleled location; another is that the ODG has a decades-long reputation as a spontaneous venue for music of various kinds, often played by the very people who head off in the morning to walk and climb the fells roundabout.

Janice, still a bad influence after all these years!

Janice, still a bad influence after all these years!

I was introduced to Langdale at the tender age of 18, in the company of my (then) more worldly-wise friend Janice, a fellow folkie who was already an established Langdale-ite at that time. We travelled up in Janice’s campervan for the weekend, accompanied by her black labrador Bess, and proceeded to drink the valley dry of Youngers Number 3 ale, appropriately served up in pewter tankards. Tunes were played, songs were sung, lifelong friendships were forged, and my love affair with Langdale went careering through my life thereafter like a force ten gale down Mickleden Beck. I urged family and friends to come with me the next time, and almost immediately they were in love with it too. Thirty years later we’re all still going up there anytime we can, every bit as infatuated with Langdale now as we were all those years ago.

A very young me playing the flute with friends in the ODG in 1983

A very young me playing the flute with friends in the ODG in 1983

Twenty years ago, the Langdale Charity Folk Festival sprang out of the firmament of the like-minded souls who frequent the valley. Music was being played there anyway, so the reasoning went. Why not keep on playing, but make an effort to do some real, tangible good at the same time? And so charities were adopted, and the festival was born. Since its inception, the festival has raised thousands of pounds for the Search and Rescue Dogs Association, the Great North Air Ambulance and Fix the Fells, all causes close to the hearts of the walkers, climbers and (let’s not underestimate it) drinkers of Langdale.

The positive benefits of our fundraising were demonstrated in stark relief last weekend when, as we played and sang all cozy and warm in the ODG, a real-life rescue was taking place at that very moment on the cold, wet mountain behind the hotel. On this occasion, there was a happy ending as the stranded walker – afflicted with hyperthermia – was brought safely down off the fells.

An extremely heroic dog with collection buckets. If you're ever passing through the Lakes, please put a few coins in the mountain rescue collection tins

An extremely heroic dog with collection buckets. If you’re ever passing through the Lakes, please put a few coins in the mountain rescue collection tins

Afterwards the mountain rescue team (all of whom are unpaid volunteers), accompanied by their rescue dogs, came to drink a well-earned pint in the ODG and listen to the music. The rescued walker, still in shock but very much alive thanks to their intervention, came to join us as well. The whole episode was a poignant reminder of the very real motivation behind our festival: a celebration of life at its most joyful, along with selfless compassion for it at its most vulnerable. I don’t think, in the current climate of austerity and blame, that you can get a more salient reminder of the innate goodness of humanity than that.

A consequence of so many years of association with Langdale Festival has been the bittersweet juxtaposition of a large group of friends all growing old together, so that we’ve long-since got to a point where no one is ever shocked by anyone’s behaviour, and we all accept each other without judgment, exactly as we are. There’s something very comforting about having one place in the world where you can be unashamedly yourself, safe in the knowledge that your friends still like you, warts and all.

A photo of Ethan Thomas, inserted into this part of the post where I talk about drinking for no particular reason whatsoever

A photo of Ethan Thomas, inserted into this part of the post where I talk about drinking for no particular reason whatsoever

The very first time I visited Langdale with Janice, was the very first time I fell asleep with my head down the Hikers Bar toilet. It’s a rite of passage in Langdale to get steaming drunk, and be looked after (and have the piss taken out of you) by your friends. Some of us might even (ahem) have done it more than once. It was encouraging to see this fine tradition being passed down to one of the younger performers at the most recent festival, and to see people being just as caring (and gently sarcastic) in the aftermath. For the young person in question, who shall remain nameless, don’t worry. One day that sense of crippling embarrassment will fade, and you will be just as blasé about earning your Langdale hangovers as the rest of us!

It’s not only the fine tradition of drinking and craic that is being passed down through the generations, but the music too, and this is very evident within my own family. Throughout the weekend my son Eoin wowed everyone with his harp and guitar playing, whilst my younger son Rowan, newly obsessed with his own burgeoning musical development, could be found at various times playing mandolin, Irish tenor banjo and guitar. Cue me being a very proud mother indeed, as these are children who have found their own way to music through love of it, and ultra-talented they are too. Meanwhile, my niece Katy and nephew Simon, who have been coming to Langdale since babyhood, were on the bill as a trio with Katy’s fiancé Chris Ainsworth. Katy has the most incredible voice, a true show-stopper, and I am not ashamed to say my heart was full listening to her sing in the Saturday afternoon concert in the ODG lounge.

My sons rocking out in the ODG residents bar: Rowan on the banjo, and Eoin on the mandolin

My sons rocking out in the ODG residents bar: Rowan on the banjo, and Eoin on the mandolin

My heart was full for so many other reasons too. Singing ‘Pleasant and Delightful’ with my sister Christine. Playing endless Irish tunes with one of my favourite fiddlers, Mike Allen. Throwing together a band made up of ‘Bev and Friends’, and upsetting the soundman because I invited so many friends that there were not enough inputs in the P.A. system. Performing my usual reunion gig with Jim and Mike, who I played in a band with in the 1980s. Eclectic music sessions with Mike, Mik, Den, Dougie, Celia, Ross, Jim, Rod and so many more, and watching concerts by such excellent performers as Stanley Accrington, Bill Lloyd, Phil Simpson and Ethan Thomas, all of them giving their time and talent for free.

It’s a bit special, is Langdale Festival. One day it might not be as good, but today is not that day. ODG Lounge by Resh

Some Forthcoming Music Events

I am happy to report that The Fluter Who Cannot Flute has now become The Fluter Who Can Flute a Bit! It took many months for my broken wrist to heal but, at last, I am all out of plaster and splints, and am starting to work up to playing at full session capacity. I’m not yet The Fluter Who Can Flute a Lot, as I still have some pain and mobility issues, but at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel. This is just as well, as there are a couple of music events coming up soon that I would be gutted to miss.

First of all, there is our Spring bi-annual Irish music weekend in Lancaster, organised by my friend David Lyth. This will take place 22nd – 24th March 2013. Full details of times and venues can be found on The Session website. This is usually a great weekend of pure traditional sessions, and has become so popular that in addition to the big main session there is frequently overspill into smaller, peripheral sessions, which I like quite a lot. We get musicians travelling to this from all over the UK, as well as Ireland and the Isle of Man.

Here’s a video made at an Irish music weekend four years ago by my son Rowan (with a little bit of help from mum). I am posting part 2 (part 1 can be found here) as this second video, filmed on the Sunday afternoon/evening after a lot of musicians had left, perfectly illustrates the immense patience and self-sufficiency a child with a traditional musician for a mother has to develop!

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Me in my element

Me in my element. The most beautiful place in the world, the Langdale valley.

The next big event after the Irish music weekend will be another bi-annual shindig, the Langdale Charity Folk Festival. The May Festival will be on 10th – 12th May 2013 at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel in Great Langdale, Cumbria. This is such a great event which, over the past few years, has raised over £17,000 for SARDA, The Great North Air Ambulance and Fix the Fells. A very worthwhile set of causes, and a great opportunity to spend time in a beautiful location listening to – and playing! – great music with a friendly bunch of old and peculiar people. And there is excellent Old Peculiar ale to be had, too. What could be more perfect?

The Fluter Who Cannot Flute (and other stories)

Simon, Jo and the girls arrive at Wedstock


It’s been a while since I last posted here, as work commitments over the past few months have kept me too busy for blogging. Now things have calmed down a bit, I intend to carry on with my musical reminiscences and ramblings. I’ll start with a recap of recent events.

Since I last wrote here we’ve had a family wedding, at which all of the entertainment was provided by family and friends. My lovely and talented nephew Simon married the love of his life Jo, in the company of their two beautiful daughters, and the happy musical event was aptly entitled ‘Wedstock’.

It could perhaps best be described as a retrospective wedding; Simon and Jo had actually married in private several days before, so their vows at the public ceremony (conducted by another member of our extended family – the ‘Reverend’ Dutch Ainsworth, especially internet-ordained for the occasion) – were in the past tense:

“Did you, Simon, take this woman to be your lawful wedded wife?”

“Yes, I did!”

“Did you promise to love her and care for her?”

“Yes I did, and I will continue to do so!”

And my personal favourite:

“If anyone knows of any just cause or impediment why these two should not be wed… you’re too late!”

Simon plays with the big boys. Fleetwood Carnival, 1984

Simon is an immensely talented rock drummer, who started out his musical career playing traditional and folk music as a child along with family and friends. Like so many of us in my family, he cut his teeth on folk festivals and sessions.

He’s progressed on a bit now from being the cute wee lad on the bodhrán to the cool dude on the drums. Here he is in action with his popular Foo Fighters tribute band, the Tofu Fighters:

I was delighted at the wedding to play a short traditional set along with Simon on bodhrán, and also my brother Rick on guitar and family friend Heath on fiddle. It wouldn’t be a proper family wedding without a few reels! After our set Simon played drums for the rest of the night with various combinations of high-energy, high-quality rock musicians. It was a really great musical event, all the better for being so full of home-grown talent.

A large part of the rest of the summer was taken over by my older son, Eoin, rehearsing for a big production as part of the Preston Guild celebrations. The show, Metropolis, (written and produced by the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster), was staged on 7th September. Eoin played both harp and guitar as part of the band, and it was a fantastic experience for him and for all the other young people taking part. The show received some great reviews, including one in the British Theatre Guide.

And of course the Autumn Langdale Charity Folk Festival took place in early September. As usual it was amazing, with great music from all concerned. Some of the highlights included Jo Byrne and Mike Rolland of the Blue Pig Orchestra joining forces with my old mates Mike Allen and Jim Smith to deliver a fantastic performance in the Dining Room concert, before rocking away in a bar session into the early hours. Then there was my favourite band, The Sail Pattern, whose energy and music are just like a huge burst of joy on stage. They are genuinely nice people too, making a point to be really encouraging to my young lad when he was playing harp in the bar. I think their shared love of both metal and trad was something Eoin could really identify with!

I did my usual regular ‘Bev and Friends’ spot in the Saturday afternoon concert at Langdale. This time I played with Mike Allen on fiddle and Dougie Downie on guitar, and also invited my sister Christine Allen up for us to sing together. Later on we were joined by Jim Smith for the big finale. It was a fun set to play, hardly at all marred by the fact that the fire alarm went off in the middle of it. The rumour was that someone had set it off by using deodorant in one of the bedrooms. I’m not sure what that says about the honest sweat of hikers and folkies versus those new fangled aerosols, but I doubt I will dismiss the latter in favour of the former anytime soon!

Here’s Mike, Dougie and myself doing our thing uninterrupted, before later on making like the band on the Titanic and resolutely playing on throughout the alarm:

Fluting prohibited

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So, work has become slightly less all-encompassing at last, and you’d think that would mean a resurgence of sessions (which I’ve not had time to play at) now the busy summer is o’er, but unfortunately I broke my wrist recently and am therefore in a cast and out of action for several weeks. Is a fluter who cannot flute still a fluter? This is the big philosophical question of the age.

Hm, I think I may have been overdoing the painkillers again…

Doing the Time Warp Again at Langdale Festival

The Whelan Family playing at The Lane Ends (AKA The Rag) in Blackpool, 1979. Dottie is on the left playing mandolin.

When I was growing up in Blackpool, my mum had two of the downstairs internal walls of our house removed. She did so because it was getting impossible to fit everyone in for the afterhours sessions, which took place at least twice a week in our living room after we all finished playing in the local pub. The house nearly fell down, because a supporting wall got demolished. But after a real builder came to sort out the mess, we were soon playing and singing again until the early hours, except now with more elbow room.

If it was a school night, I had to get up and out of the house the next morning regardless. And I might not get much sleep the next night either, because by the age of fourteen I was playing gigs at least four or five nights a week with my folk band, Thistledown. It was a wild and unusual childhood, for sure, with both its good and not-so-good moments. But at least it wasn’t, in any sense, boring!

Thistledown in 1979. Left to Right: Mike Allen, Kevin Whelan, Bev Whelan, Malcolm Shellard, Mike Hayes

The music at those wild sessions in my mother’s house was thoroughly eclectic. Jigs and reels, country songs, bluegrass, soft rock and folk songs of every kind; the repertoire depended entirely on who turned up. And turn up they did, in their dozens. My mum had a plaque put up beside the front door, proclaiming to the world what we were all about (as if the constant music blasting out of the windows wasn’t already a clue): ‘Musicians’ Homestead’. The sign is still there and my mum Dottie, bless her heart, still goes out to play at more gigs and sessions than I do, despite her lack of mobility.

I think, perhaps, that my unusual upbringing is one reason I feel so very much at home at the Langdale Charity Folk Festival, which my sons and I (as well as other members of my family and many old friends) attended last weekend. Langdale is every bit as eclectic as those wild all-nighters in Dottie’s front room, and every bit as much ribald fun, especially during the early hours in the resident’s bar. It even has some of the same people who used to stagger back over the road from The Rag to the Homestead in the good old days, which sort of gives the impression that Blackpool has taken over the Lake District, saucy jokes and all.

One of the most wonderful things about the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where the festival is held, is that it never changes. I was a regular visitor at the ODG for several years in the eighties until I moved away, and I didn’t go back to Langdale for more than twenty years. When I did, for the 20th anniversary festival (oddly my first ever Langdale Festival, despite my long-ago association with the place), I was delighted to see that the ODG looked exactly the same as it had on my last visit. Same decor, same fantastic fiddle-playing landlord, some of the same staff and patrons, and definitely the same sense of fun. It was like going through a time warp.

Eoin playing in the session

Langdale Festival is held twice a year (in May and September), and since 2008 I have not missed a single festival. Every time I go, nostalgia juxtaposes itself uncannily with the present, to create a little oasis out of time, defined by music, fun, friendship and family. It’s the place in the universe where I feel most at ease, both musically and socially; like coming home.

I also feel like I’ve come full-circle. My older boy Eoin, who is thirteen, performed at Langdale in concert on his harp last weekend, and really enjoyed playing guitar in the late-night residents’ bar sessions. Needless to say, I can’t help but see the parallels with a wee lass all those years ago, who did something similar on the flute.

Here’s a clip of Eoin playing harp last weekend, along with me on flute, Ross Campbell on concertina, and Mike Allen on fiddle: