Midwinterfest sees a yearly migration South of music lovers from all over the country down to Torquay for a weekend of musical enjoyment with a Country tinge but by no means afraid to stretch that definition to the widest areas of Americana. Many will have booked their places twelve months earlier based on Midwinterfest 2015 before they even knew who all of the performers would be, such is their faith in the organisers that whatever is put before them it will be good. It may be new, it may be the sort of thing that they would not normally listen to, but it will be good.
This year saw a change in venue, to the Victoria Hotel, which proved to be an ideal venue, for food and lodging as well as music. The music provided from the stage looking out onto a sea of round tables and chairs, enough for everyone to have a clear view of the stage, in fact even if you were at the back of the hall you’ll have had a better view than 98% of the people who flock to the O2 each year for Country2Country.
Day 1 – Fitzwallace, Red Sky July, Luke & Mel, Alan West, Steve Black & Adam Sweet Fortified by a rather nice evening dinner it was time to take our place in the Ballroom. The evening began with an introduction from our hosts Steve Black, Alan West and the third member of the resident band Adam Sweet. Alan opened proceedings with “What Love Is”, to be followed by Steve singing “Chicago” with Adam throwing in an impressive bluesy solo. “Maria Dolores” was next with Adam neatly picking out notes that just add to the overall sound.
Steve chipped in with his storming slightly spooky song “Jacob”, spooky in that you are hooked in by the story from the very first line to it’s stunning climax. At no time during the song are you quite sure where the story is leading.
It was back to Alan for the imagined tale of JFK and Marilyn Monroe meeting for “Fine Line”. Adam once again took over the vocals on the Steve Black written “You Think Your Lonely”, one of our favourite tracks on his “Small Town Thinking” album, with a superb extended guitar solo and then Alan wheeled out another of the big tunes, the BCMA award winning song “You’re on Your Own”.
One final new song in this portion of the set was “Drivin’”, inspired from the travails of Alan and Steve across the nations motorways and A-roads specifically the M25 and the A303, - after a fairly hassle free return from Ascot earlier in the week they joked that the song was now redundant – give it time boys – just give it time.
Next up making a welcome return to Midwinterfest were Luke & Mel, co-writers of 2015 BCMA Song of The Year. With Mel all in black and Luke sporting a black tie and white shirt they kicked off their set with a cover from the Nashville stars, Maisy & Lennon's’ parents, The Stellas, with “Gravy”. This was followed by “Never Greener” before the aforementioned Song Of The Year “Something About A Woman”. It was at this point that Luke revealed he was playing with an injury just under his fingernail which made guitar playing throughout the set a rather painful experience – but the show most go on!
“Misery” saw Luke take the first verse with Mel taking the lead on the second, it was inspired after Luke had been left at home alone for a night.
There have been a number of UK Country acts who’ve been taking the trip to Devon for song writing sojourns with Steve Black, one of those acts was Luke & Mel and one of the results was the next song “Bad Habit”. I looked to the side of the room to see Steve nodding along seemingly pleased with the results. One of the features of Midwinterfest was the amount of new material being premiered, the next song was just such an example, “Save it” (For Someone Who Gives A Damn). Another aspect of Midwinterfest was the sound, and special praise is due to Jim who was monitoring sound throughout the weekend, many of the artists have never sounded better and Mel’s vocals were exceptionally fine on the night. There was time for one more song “Enjoy The Ride” which was very warmly received and brought their set to an end.
Red Sky July arrived on the back of a Christmas show at The Green Note and earlier in the week had been on fine form on Radio London, where they gave a plug for their forthcoming trip to Torquay. If there’s a slight spring in their step it is probably because they are safe in the knowledge that they have an exceptional album “The Truth and The Lie” in the can ready for a March release. The new album has a more full sound that is hard to reproduce as a three piece so the versions played tonight were approximations of what will come later. “Strathconon” was the first song played from new album and also kicked off proceedings with Ali on guitar, Shelly on mandolin and Charity also playing guitar.
“I’ve Been Losing You” was followed with “Already Gone” from their eponymous first album. As ever, one of the key assets of this band are the way the harmonies of Shelly and Charity overlap and interweave. The band are intrinsically linked with the event that saw Ali struck with an aneurism that saw him facing a fairly negative prognosis. “Here Then Gone” from “Shadowbirds” is the song that resulted from that episode and it is always good see Ali’s face beaming out as he plays it fully recovered.
Next up is the song “Renegade” inspired from the book “Blood Meridian”, featuring Charity on violin, playing a tune so mournful it sounds like a lost soul crying out, “More Than” the first ever Red Sky July song was next up, before another song from the new record “Sway” was played, about the joy of the moment of dancing in the evening with your partner. An additional new song, “Take Myself Back”, a Beth Nielson Chapman co-write, was about getting to be yourself again after a break up. It was then time for a cover and what a cover it was, an excellent version of Dixie Chicks “Travellin’ Soldier” the sweet harmonies easily matching the original. This was followed by a song that would crop up again over the weekend “Country Roads”. Another song from the new album tailor-made for this audience was “Country Walking Song” - which names a number of country song titles throughout as a record collection is divided and it received knowing looks from the audience with the line “You can have “Crazy” yes you deserve “Crazy every time””. One final song of the main set was another cover, The Eagles “Take It To The Limit”. There was time for an encore and sure enough they returned for “Warm My Heart”. Keep an eye out for the new album it will not disappoint,
To close out the evening it was the time for Leeds based band Fitzwallace to take to the stage. They are a band we get to see nowhere near as often as we should in the South and they never fail to put on an excellent show. For tonight’s performance it was a cajon rather than a drum kit for Henry Broomfield as well as being only the second ever outing for new bassist Will Stock, but other than that normal service was resumed straightaway, with “Sweetheart Of Mine” starting off with Joe, Flo and Will Sensicle performing acapella before starting the song properly. They then ripped into “Ballad of a Star” and that extra bit of volume and the beat of the cajon really brought the evening to superb climax. The as yet unreleased “Love Me Or Leave” was mashed into the more familiar Fleetwood Mac cover of “Go Your Own Way”.
It was back to the “Sweetheart” EP for “Somebody New” and “Golden State Of Mind”. The first new song of the evening was unveiled as being inspired by Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” called “I Won’t Let You Go Again” which was followed by another new song “See Through My Eyes” which saw Joe, Flo and Will once again gathered around one microphone, and feathered some neat mandolin work from Will. The new songs just kept on coming with “Call Me A Liar” and “I’ll Be Gone” the latter of which saw an appearance of Orson the Mandolin!
The final song of the set as ever was the sweeping “Treading Water” with the gradual build to the epic finale. By the end there were people on their feet from eighteen to eighty giving a rousing round of applause. The encore was a chance for more audience participation which was an ideal way to bring the curtain down on the first evening with the sing-a-long, clap-a-long that is “Empty Heart”. The twelve song set was the longest that we’ve seen them play so far, and marked them as one the names to watch for 2016.
Day 2 – The Afternoon
After the storming finish of the previous night it was back down to earth for a "Songwriters Circle" comprising of Adam Sweet, Steve Black and the delectable Liv Austen, who had arrived in Torquay late the night before. The aim of the format was pretty simple, go along the line with each person singing a song, preceding it with a little insight into the thinking behind it or a little story of how it came to be written.
Adam Sweet kicked things off with a song designed to get everybody back in the mood, with “Albertine”, he revealed the trick had been to find a three syllable name that was suitable for enough rhymes. Liv’s first song was a bold choice, relating the tale of her reaction to when her parents split up. “Two Choices” outlined the way she could feel either “Bitter or Give Love". Steve chose to perform a song “written in 1922” - he was of course joshing and it turned out to be “I’m Down But I’m Not Out”.
Adam kicked off Round 2 with a slower song “Take Your Time” with a chorus built around a three note refrain. It brought to mind the sort of tune that might have been sung by Free. We look forward to hearing it again. Before Liv’s second choice she took time to thank the audience for being both quiet and attentive, and this was indeed another factor of the Midwinterfest crowd; they were there for the music and were quiet during the songs and then appreciative once the song completed. Her second choice was “The Guts You Always Had”, a brave choice in that it is normally played on a piano, however this guitar led version proved to be a revelation, in a room that is dead silent every single note could be heard, there was no room for a misplaced note and true to form it was delivered perfectly. Steve’s second song was a new one to our ears based around a painting he had bought for £4. It is as yet untitled but is known as “The Train Song” or “The Painting Song” and tells a tale inspired by the picture which showed a man meeting a woman getting off a train, and was the story of how they could have come to have met. It was an insight into where Steve gets his inspiration from; as Steve played Adam added little flourishes to just lift the song even more.
Round 3 started with a startling confession from Adam that he’d been unfaithful to Steve and had been working with another writer!! Boon Gould was one of the founding members of Level 42 and the song was called “Move On”, with Steve’s face being a picture as the title was announced and the laughter spread around the room. Liv delivered “Don’t Regret A Single One” introducing it as a positive song detailing the positive aspects that have come out of her previous relationships rather than dwelling on the negatives; with Adam and Steve also joining in it made for a special moment. 2016 should hopefully see Liv break through to a wider audience, it will be well deserved when it does happen! Steve’s final song was the story of his grandfather Jack, London, and of how he ended up losing a leg after an unfortunate accident which for a piano player was not a good move. The song ended with Steve leading the audience into a version of “Daisy Daisy Give Me Your Answer Do” which they all joined in on. Coincidently, just as the final chord was played, a mobile phone rang in the audience, which on a normal day would have ruined the atmosphere, however Steve jokily put it down to the fact that it was his grandfather, which brought even more raucous laughs! The time absolutely flew by and would have been nice if another round could have been squeezed in however there was much more to come!
Jim Almand is a striking figure, let’s be honest, tall with a deep voice and eye patch, this was to be the second time I’d seen him in a week and he was a revelation. We were probably more aware of his work in the form of Alan’s covers so it was a revelation to hear the man behind the songs. Starting with just a guitar and a selection of harmonicas he started with “Sweet Summer Rain”. For the third song he was joined by mandolin maestro Randy Clark who was one of the exceptional musicians on display over the festival. He was able to extract such sweet sounds from the mandolin. “Barn Burn” with its harmonica intro was revealed as being inspired by William Faulkner’s Short stories.
One of the highlights of the set was soul blues revivalist song called “Church” from his “Dancing In The Church” album. “I’ll Call You” followed and was revealed to have been inspired from a conversation in the car with Alan while he was both “driving and rolling”. It had perfect moments of both harmonica and mandolin which made it a truly special song.
“Louisianne” upped the volume with its Cajun style vocals and harmonica playing while giving his guitar a damn good thrashing. The song inspired by watching the train go by from his house “The Love That Lives Here With Me” followed and was delivered with aplomb. “Words From My Mind” was dedicated to Bobby Keys, and we heard about how his parents used to send him to Arkansas as a kid which has resulted in his hillbilly love song “Trysting Tree”. Jim recalled a night that he and Kimmie had met before and played a “gig from hell” prior to launching into the soulful blues of “You Were The One”. It was a afternoon for great stories “A Man From Your Side Of Town” was introduced as being a song that was going to be given to Randy Travis but stopped short after reaching Randy Travis’s gardener. For the final song Jim set the scene “It’s a late night eatery and a prostitute walks in” before playing what we think was called “Desert Rain”. At the end of Jim’s set there was a demand that he return to the stage, not sure many would have been expecting ”Somewhere Over The Rainbow” but that is what he delivered in a surprisingly soft and tender version.
Kimmie Rhodes and family stopped in as part of their current UK tour to grace us with a performance from true country royalty. Opening with one of the title tracks from her myriad of albums “West Texas Heaven” it was to be a set of great songs, tales from her great life and playing of the highest quality from Gabe Rhodes and a surprise guest slot from her daughter Jolie Goodnight. “I’ve Been Loved By You” was revealed to have been inspired by fellow Lubbock luminary Buddy Holly and once you knew that you could almost hear his presence in the room.
“Just One Look” from “Angel Gets The Blues” saw Gabe play the guitar on his lap as a slide guitar before then going on to play it normally while still also providing backing vocals – it was one of a couple of moments that got spontaneous applause mid song. “Love Me Like A Song” gave the audience the chance to take Willie Nelson’s part on the return refrain. It was another song in which Gabe beautifully picked out just the right notes to play. The story that accompanies “Bells Of Joy” was an absolute hoot and another virtuoso solo from Gabe caused his mum to shout out “That’s my boy” to yet another round of applause.
“God’s Acre” from our personal favourite album “Rich From The Journey” gave the chance for another singalong. The Midwinterfest audience is not one that needs too much encouragement to burst into song. The next song “I Just Drove By” by her own admission “made her a lot of money” which she later tells us with a huge smile has all been spent! “Contrabandistas” was next, a Joe Gracey song, one of the earliest recorded songs in the set. It was at this point that Jolie Goodnight joined the rest of the family on the stage. They expertly performed a Bob Dylan song, first recorded by Doug Sahm “Wallflower”.
Jolie looking stunning and sounding superb then sang a song popularised by Ray Charles, “You Don’t Know Me” before once again channelling the spirit of Buddy Holly with a version of “True Love Ways”. Such was the impact that this short appearance made, the merchandise stall was inundated with requests for Jolie’s album which hadn’t even been put on the stall that the good lady herself was despatched to find some copies to sell! The set closed with Kimmie back at the helm for a reworking of Townes Van Zandts “White Freight Liner”. There was never any doubt that there would be a demand for an encore performance and sure enough the afternoon session was closed in style with a song made famous by Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler, “Love and Happiness For You”. As with most of the sets at Midwinterfest, the time passed by so quickly leaving you wishing for more and hopefully many of the audience will seek out Kimmie, Jolie and Gabe as their tour works its way around the country.
Day 2 - The Evening
Dexeter were handed the opening slot for the evening, once again appearing as a duo with a mixture of best bits and forthcoming teasers for what will be on their new EP. Opening with “Something Gold” and “More Than This” from their excellent debut LP “Brighter Skies”, it was clear that Deeanne was in fine voice. “Meet Me There” gave the audience an early chance to sing along. “Grey” saw a return to the “Brighter Skies” album before we got to hear the first of the new material. With w21Music banners all over the place, how fitting that the first song was inspired by our very own “Andy and Sarah”. “Weight Of The World” seemed to be a welcome return to form with a chorus that should see it do very well. The next of the new songs “Not Giving Up Tonight”, was a slowish number once again building to a big chorus. The final new song being a Michael Logen co-write “Waiting For A Lifetime”, which Gareth seemed very pumped up about. We await to hear the full band versions with some anticipation.
There was time for two more songs “Slow It Down” and the slowed down version of “Older”. As much as we love seeing Dexeter as a duo, the real joy is to see them as a full band, and we eagerly look forward to their forthcoming tour with the foot stomping Holloway Road and in London also with Loud Mountains and Lisa Wright..
Adam Sweet was next and pushed the Americana label to the limit, as he took us for a tour around his rather fine bluesy “Small Town Thinking” album. With just Chris Page on drums, and Jeff Walker on bass and Adam on guitar they made one hell of a sound, and how did the crowd react who had spent the afternoon listening to the delicate singing of Kimmie Rhodes? They loved it! These fans were not just country fans, they were music fans, and they knew good music when they heard it. The opening song “At Times Like This” a gentle bluesy romp was a good introduction for how the set would progress. Songs like “Name Your Price” played on the traditional myth of bluesman selling their soul to the devil. Adam’s songs have an instant familiarity about them that you cannot help but warm to, and the set that seemed a bit of a risk perhaps when the running order was announced more than justified its place.
There was a switch to acoustic guitar for “The Next Man After Me”, the tale of doomed romance that could only end badly. It was the time for the first song that Adam and Steve wrote together, another personal favourite on his album, “Doin’ Alright”. It was back to the electric guitars for one of his oldest songs “I Work Alone”, a southern grungy blues swamp of a tune that was on Adam’s first EP, of which all remaining copies were snapped up as soon as the performance ended. Everyone likes a good story song and the factual retelling of a trip to a Greek bar in “Santarosa Street” that was to prove costly, kept everyone entertained. There was one final song, the closing song of the album being the closing song of the set “When The Time Is Right”. It brought the curtain down on a great set that was really appreciated by the broad church that made up the Midwinterfest crowd.
The first record we heard on BBCRadio 2 this year was Honey Ryder’s “What If We’ve Only Got Tonight”, and it seems at long last they are being given a decent run by the Beeb. The excellent BCMA nominated album of the year “Born In A Bottle” and its predecessor “Marley Chains” are chockfull of tunes that in previous decades would have seen them retiring to sit around guitar shaped pools in Los Angeles counting their royalties. They took to the stage as a three piece and while it can only be approximation of the sound on the records they still pulled out a fantastic set. Opening with “You Can’t Say That”, Matt’s mandolin was deliciously high in the mix, with Lindsay’s voice coming through loud and clear. This was followed with “Worlds Away” and it was clear that the essential essence of the records was being recreated.
It felt like hit after hit as each song was instantly memorable, “What If We Only Got Tonight” was followed by a #TeamW21 favourite “Hitting The High Note”, which included a great guitar solo. As ever a bit of audience participation does no harm and the audience were more than happy to join in on “Drink With Me”. “Mirage” with it’s gentle verse leading into yet another excellent chorus followed by “Never Say Never”. There then followed the only bit of audience non-participation as Lindsay failed to find a taker for her shakers!! – not even Acoustic Journey could be prised from the bar for a shake!
It was yet another set that raced by, “Marley’s Chains” led into what might possibly be the next single “Dammit I’m In Love Again” and then they were gone. They’ll be hitting the road again this year and we can only wholeheartedly recommend going to see them.
Our awareness of Fred’s House was limited to a couple of excellent singles released last year which was probably more than most in the room. They confronted the audience head on with a display of such enthusiasm that one could not help but enjoy it. With a line up consisting of keyboards, bass, guitars and an excellent driving drummer, as well as a multitude of vocalists.
Songs like the single “Standing Next To Me” were such upbeat romps with fantastic choruses, and also “Ghost Town” was ideally set up for the Saturday night slot. If they had not already cemented their place in the audiences hearts then playing their single “Shut Up And Dance” followed by a cover of the Bee Gee’s “Gotta Get A Message To You” certainly sealed it, the latter producing a massive singalong at full volume from most people present.
The final song of the set was “Beautiful You” which built and built in speed like a Russian folk song after which there was a veritable stampede to the merchandise table which saw the biggest sales of the weekend. It was a great performance from a band who will shortly be visiting most of the UK on their forthcoming tour and as a present, all those who signed up to their mailing list got a free copy of “Gotta Get A Message To You” in their inbox on their return.
After show party
The late night show was supposed to be held in a small bar in the hotel but the audience were not for moving and so things carried on in the main room. Now as this was an addition to the main event, we were not strictly reviewing it but just to give a feel of what went on ….
Cometh the hour cometh the band and Acoustic Journey took to the stage and set the scene perfectly ripping into “Sweet Home Alabama”, with a proper set scheduled in the morning it was a case of rattling through songs not on their two EP’s. The loudest moment in the whole weekend came during their set as they launched into “Country Roads” when the audience somewhat alcohol fuelled sang their hearts out, on the chorus. Another cover in the form of Zac Brown Band’s “Chicken Fried” dedicated to the hardworking man of #TEAMw21 also got an airing.
The weekend had passed without a mention of David Bowie who had passed away on Monday morning and we had discussed the possibilities of someone doing a country tribute on the journey down to Torquay, and the thought of someone adding some twang to “Life on Mars” was something we were secretly dreading, Who would have thought that Steve Black would be first to venture down the route singing a pretty respectful version of the Mersey’s song that Bowie covered on his “Pinups” album, “Sorrow”. This was then followed by Adam leading the way through a fairly full throttled “Jean Genie”, which the audience lapped up, as well as a version of Stealers Wheel's “Stuck In The Middle With You”. In many ways it almost did not matter what was played just as long as it was played and enjoyed by both band and audience alike. I seem to remember a version of “Wagon Wheel” just as Jim walked in with his guitar case giving a slight look of disbelief before putting his head in his hands!
At this point the evening did start to get a little hazy, pretty sure Jim returned to the stage with Adam but your guess is as good as mine as to what they played. It went down well, the audience were still singing, and dancing, while some were still even pondering whether or not to get that Fred’s House CD or not!
Things only came to an end at two in the morning with the release of bacon rolls, had someone wanted to take to the stage for another 30 minutes I reckon a large amount of the crowd would have stayed on, however with the metaphorical curtain coming down on the evening, it did at least give us a chance for a few hours sleep before the final sessions commenced on Sunday morning.
Day 3 – And now the end is near …..
Now I think it is fair to say that many in the audience had not had a lot of sleep, while at the same time perhaps having slightly more to drink than they would have had on a normal Saturday night and could easily have been forgiven for not making the 11:00 appointment with Acoustic Journey. The Midwinterfest crowd however were having none of that and packed the auditorium for their second dose of AJ’s charms. Somehow the bigger stage and bigger crowd seemed to bring out the best in Acoustic Journey and this was certainly the best we've seen them as they played their way through all of their second EP.
There is something quintessentially British about Acoustic Journey, their knowing lyrics about country songs being about “Trucks and Whiskey” or the observations of what makes up a “British Summer Time”. It was a performance that got the audience awake and was just what was needed. There was a nice observation about their sets always ending at 11:30 be it morning or night and they won a lot of new fans over their two sets which ended with the title track of the first EP “Real Good Feel Good”.
It was time for Alan, Steve and Adam to close down what they had started on Friday evening and where better to start than “Hillbilly Woodbines”, the phrase that somehow needs no explaining, Alan laughed off a complaint that there had not been much of himself and Steve on stage, declaring that the event was not about self promotion and he was right, this was an event that brought new music plus old favourites into one fun packed weekend, still when they launched into “How Could I Love Her So Much” you almost wished for a longer session rather than Sunday lunch!!
As if to rub it in that for once it was going to be the audience doing the travelling there was a reprise of “Drivin”, followed by “He Ain’t Fooling Me” with Jim Almand watching. There followed a speech that received a rousing response highlighting that wonderful as Nashville was, he feared that all it did for UK acts was empty their wallets, and why go when we have a great deal of talent in this country.
As if to prove the fact they played “Bobby’s Idle Hour” which has more narrative than your average short story, the “empty cellar bar” is literally painted around you with the quality of the lyrics. There was time for requests including one from #TEAMW21, “Framed” as cracking a song as we had heard all weekend.
Steve then pulled out a song inspired by his recent wedding, the beautiful “Your Future With Me” which met with a fantastic reception. There was time for a song that seemed apt as rumours of snow landing at home had reached us, “The Big Freeze” , before there was another unusual request, unusual in the sense that it had been placed the previous year! It was the Hugh Moffatt written “Mama Rita” - it is one of those songs that you need to get in the zone for and it was clear that Alan was there. It certainly sent me back to iTunes to find out more about Hugh Moffat.
We could hardly finish the weekend without one more shot of Mr Almand and he joined the stage to provide both harmonica and dancing for “It’s Enough to Kill Ya”, “Devil or Angel” for which at least one audience member had come prepared with her devil horn and angel halo headdress!! Things could only end on one song the Jim Almand, Steve Black co-written “Way Of The World” and then it was all over.
We’d absorbed a huge amount of music over the three days, all had been beautifully performed and equally importantly beautifully listened to and really appreciated. As Alan read out the potential names for next year, there was already a queue of people wanting to get their booking in immediately such was the good time had by all.
There had been some notable performances, whether it be Paul Richards drumming with Fred’s House, Randy Clark’s mandolin playing with Jim Almand or Gabe Rhodes’ unerring ability to pick the right note or unleash a great solo as well his ability to tune Fran’s ukulele!! A lot of friendships were made, a lot of CDs were bought and we all came away agreeing it was one of the finest musical events we’d seen.
Special thanks must go to Alan and Steve for having us be part of this amazing festival, and to all of the artists who performed who were very gracious with their time, allowing us to interview them and putting on tremendous performances and not forgetting of course the audience for making the whole event such a success.
Review by Fran & Chris