August bank holiday weekend 2006. I was among the many thousands of festival goers heading down the M4 from London to Reading. Fast forward twelve months and this year I attended a very different musical gathering, as I travelled to the south of Denmark’s Jutland island (that’s the big one) for one of the folk world’s premier events, the Tønder Festival.
Folk has had a bit of a raw deal over the years, the very word bogged down by those connotations of woolly jumpers and big beards. It would be a lie to say there wasn’t the odd bit of facial hair to be seen about, but the Tønder Festival experience was anything but a boring one.
True, there were no tents a-flame, no exploding gas canisters or trolley wars, but it had late-night drinking, debates on the finer aspects of whiskey, private sing-a-longs with performers, the discovery of the obligatory festival blow-up doll, yet more imbibing of whiskey, some great music, lots of sunshine, festival strangers who became friends and even a love story. The crucial subject of toilets held no fears of looking down either. There were even sinks, towels and mirrors. It was civilised.
Now for a quick history lesson. They’ve been getting folkie types together to perform for the people of Tønder since 1975 and down the years have had the likes of Steve Earle and Pete Seeger gracing their stages. Indeed Seeger’s grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, continued the tradition laid down by his legendary relative by playing this year as part of bluegrass quartet The Mammals. The American band were just one of the many to visit Denmark from abroad, with artists also playing at the festival’s nine venues from the UK, Ireland and Canada.
Headlining the opening night of the four-day gathering were festival veterans Runrig. The Isle of Skye veterans pleasantly surprised. Their excellent Canadian singer Bruce Guthro served up a crowd pleasing performance that veered near prog rock at times whilst never moving far from their Celtic ballad sensibilities. Old favourite Beat The Drum was thrown in near the start to get everyone going, while other highlights included a four-pronged drum solo, the sound of sampled bagpipes, the beautiful thing that is a foreign crowd singing in unison in English during the touching Scandinavia, and the traditional finale of Loch Lomond on what must have been their third encore. I lost count.
Preceding Runrig in the giant green tent they imaginatively call Tent 1 – the Tønder Festival’s version of The Pyramid Stage – was fiddler extraordinaire Seth Lakeman. Unlike Runrig, Lakeman has largely been responsible for making folk sexy, achieving public acclaim from beyond the folk world with his Mercury Prize nominated debut Kitty Jay and subsequent major label deal. He left those unsure of his talents beforehand in no doubt after a storming set on Thursday. His assured voice always to the fore, it was his virtuosity on the violin that really set him aside, particularly during Kitty Jay itself. I swear I saw smoke floating up from the strings, such was the speed he was playing at.
Friday at the festival witnessed the official opening in the town square with the aforementioned Mammals offering a free show while in the roads around them a bagpiper played and a jazz band rode through the town on top of an old fire engine.
The evening highlight would be offered by Levellers, ably supported by Great Big Sea, in Tent 2 – Tønder’s ‘Other Stage’ if you will. The Levellers rarely disappoint live and a year before their 20th anniversary they still have the ability to get everyone in party mood thanks to ditties like Beautiful Day, Liberty and Riverflow.
Amid all of the fine performances perhaps the star turns were Great Big Sea. The energetic Canadians had both the audience on Friday and during their headline show the following night like putty in their hands as they reeled off their own unique rock interpretations of traditional Irish drinking songs and sea shanties. They even got the audience singing The Proclaimers‘ I’m Gonna Be and Queen‘s Bohemian Rhapsody. At the same time I was getting text messages about what a stinker the Red Hot Chili Peppers were giving back at Reading.
As with all festivals you miss so much. But a special mention must go to The McCalmans‘ Nick Keir, who immediately won me over with some of the most gorgeous songs I’ve heard in a long time, performed in a newfound festival friend’s private tent.
It summed up the whole spirit of the Tønder Festival, which you could enjoy without paying a single Danish Krone. There was neither security at the front gate nor an alcohol monopoly from a certain lager brand. But as for the love story I mentioned earlier… well, you’ll have to watch this space.