For three days each year, the whole of Rochester becomes a heaving mass of folkery. Mandolins, squeeze boxes, hurdy-gurdies, ukuleles and bodhrans become the official musical instruments of choice while fashions will generally involve sooted-up faces, a dash of steam-punked millinery (complete with those all-important goggles) and floral wreaths in the hair.
And if you’re not seen glugging real ale from a pewter or clay tankard, you clearly aren’t taking the proceedings seriously at all.
2018’s Sweeps Festival has, so far, been a wonderful celebration of folk revelry. And the glorious weather has only made things all the better.
Much as my name may imply some nominatively determined connection to the pastime (oh, the ribbing I got at school), I’m not overly fussed by the Morris dancing that dominates much of the festival. But the music? Ah. That’s a different thing all together.
And here’s a flavour of what went on during the second day of the festival: Sunday 6 May.
It’s 12.45 and the first stop is The Two Brewers on Rochester High Street. It’s very, very sunny outside. Absolutely gorgeous weather. So it takes a while for the eyes to adjust when entering the pub.
I’m here to see Two Man Ting who are, as you might have gathered, a two-man…ting. They are Jon Lewis and Jah-man Aggrey who sing and play upbeat, summery songs filled with African rhythms.
The complicated guitar lines are created by the endless layering of Lewis’ loops. Meanwhile Aggrey sings and plays a variety of percussion instruments including – but of course – the scraping of a screwdriver on an old baked bean tin.
Even when the songs take a bleaker turn (there’s a couple in the repertoire concerning, as Lewis says “slavery and imperialism and all those things you want to hear about on a sunny Sunday afternoon”) the sound remains upbeat and sun drenched.
There are songs to make you dance (‘Move Fast’) and songs to make you think (‘Righteous Man’). There are songs to make you laugh (‘The Duvet Song’: “twenty years and I still I can’t get acclimatised/I’m so cold”) and others to give you a warm fuzzy feeling (‘Ar Lek U’ translates as somewhere between ‘I like you’ and ‘I love you’).
And there are also songs to sing along to. Take, for example, their cover of Nick Clyne’s ‘Give Me Some Grief’, the verse of which Aggrey has translated into his native Krio, but whose chorus remains very much in Anglo Saxon: “Give me some grief/lay some more shit on me”.
From the Two Brewers it’s a brisk walk down to Rochester’s Esplanade and onto the Kitty, a sailing barge. Yesterday the ship played host to, among other things, an intimate set by Larkspur, during which the small audience sat with the band inside the boat, mesmerised by their Middle Eastern tinged renditions of much loved folk tunes.
Today though it’s standing room only – in my case – off the boat as ten ukulele players (ukulele-ists?) sit atop the Kitty playing such classics as Johnny Cash’s ‘Fulsome Prison Blue’, The Mavericks’ ‘Dance the Night Away’ and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Bad Moon Rising’.
One of the players has a misquote from Game of Thrones’ Tyrion in large letters on his T-shirt: “That’s what I do. I play the ukulele and I know things.”
Next up it’s over to the Boley Hill Stage, near the castle, where the Daniel Nestelrode Trio are playing on the bandstand. They’re a three-piece from America who play roots music including, cheerily, a song about a man who commits suicide – but only after demanding his body is buried beneath a particular willow tree so the woman who spurned him will know exactly where he lies.
Standard fare for a folk festival, really.
Back down the road, by the City Wall bar, are another three-piece: Lightworker, purveyors of a rather over-earnest sounding brand of American Idol style acoustic pop-rock.
The set includes a cover of ‘All Along the Watch Tower’, featuring rather excitable gasps of ‘hey-hey’ which both Dylan and Hendrix had the good sense to leave out from their versions. Hey, even the questionable insertion of the song into a Battlestar Galactica plot managed without such nonsense.
These things are sent to try us.
And now, for a joke that’s probably been done before: an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a pub – and play some wonderful music.
Way, way down the Old High Street (you’re very nearly in Chatham if you’ve come this far), you will find the excellent, micropub The Flippin’ Frog. Words cannot extol this place’s value enough. Everything about it is perfect: the food and drink on offer, the warm, inviting atmosphere and, of course, the music that gets played so regularly here.
Wednesday nights are the usual time to catch a singer/songwriter or two performing within the intimate environs of this absolute gem of a pub. But today is not Wednesday. It’s Sunday. And, as a special treat, four musicians have squeezed themselves into The Flippin’ Frog.
They are Border Crossing, a folk act that have already played a couple of sets at this year’s festival already. The regular line up of John Matthews (Ivor Cutler-ish vocals), Dean Tainio (guitar and vocals) and Sean Wholihan (banjo, mandolin, whistle etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.) has been swelled slightly by the addition of Zoe Bance on double bass.
Precisely how she managed to get that instrument down into the belly of the Kitty early today I have no idea. I assume it involved some sort of miracle of engineering.
Border Crossing’s folk is of the beautiful, lilting Celtic variety. Absolutely perfect for a lazy sunny Sunday afternoon. The two-part harmony from John Matthews and Dean Tainio is sublime. The addition of the gentle, fluttering mandolin of Sean Wholihan makes it even richer, not least in their cover of Sydney Carter’s ‘The Crow on the Cradle’.
You could listen to such hauntingly, tender songs all week. But what stands out particularly are the moments when the tempo picks up and the volume rises. One such time is with the spectacularly imaginative folkified rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Hey Jude’, starting out as restful lullaby before morphing into something approaching a jig.
There’s also a rousing cover of Seasick Steve’s ‘It’s a Long Long Way’ and a community sing-a-long care of ‘Step it Out Mary’.
Standing here, surrounded by a bunch of real ale quaffing revellers, all of us listening to songs played with such tenderness and passion it’s difficult to think of a better way to spend a May Day bank holiday.