The MU’s Summer Of Live festival returned for a second instalment on Saturday 18 July, with a livestreamed event that shone a spotlight on the cream of the British folk scene, while raising much-needed funds for the MU Coronavirus Hardship Fund.
Running from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm, the event was hosted by Radio 2 Folk Award-winning artist Greg Russell, who stressed the financial challenges faced by musicians whose income has been decimated by the ongoing crisis. “Of course, musicians aren’t the only people affected by the virus,” he explained, “but it has driven a bulldozer through the creative arts.”
Presented in association with British Underground, this latest livestream had an international flavour, highlighting both the shared predicament of musicians globally and the community spirit for which the British folk scene is renowned.
Sets at Sheffield’s Yellow Arch Studios came from Lady Nade, Chloe Foy and Russell himself – with a rendition of Seven Hills – interspersed with footage filmed earlier this year at venues in New Orleans and Montreal, featuring Lauren Housley, The Bookshop Band, Findlay Napier, Sam Lee and Armagh Rhymers. John Smith also played a four-song set from his home in Devon.
Financial help for 4,000 musicians – and counting
Despite the convivial atmosphere, the Summer Of Live Folk Special was driven by a desperate call to action, with Russell urging viewers to donate generously to a cause that has already helped nearly 4,000 musicians, and to support a community that has lost over £20 million and an estimated 70% of job opportunities since the coronavirus crisis began.
“Musicians have been hit hard,” says MU National Organiser for Live Performance, Dave Webster. “The music industry fell off a cliff almost overnight, leaving many professionals out of work and the MU responded by being the first to set up a hardship fund for musicians.
“Live music was one of the first entertainment sectors to be shut down and looks like being the last to reopen. This is why we are doing all we can to help them in this time of need, while aiming to keep musicians gigging.”
Armagh Rhymers: Ancient folk traditions for the modern age
The first hint that the Folk Special was to be no ordinary evening of music was announced by Ireland’s Armagh Rhymers. Founded in the 70s as champions of traditional ‘theatre of the people’, the quartet have since brought their brand of ancient folk music, elaborate costumes, storytelling and drama to festivals and schools across the world.
Opening the Summer Of Live event, Armagh Rhymers’ performance of What Put The Blood On Your Right Shoulder in New Orleans was otherworldly and haunting, with Barry Lynch and Anniejune Callaghan’s faces hidden by masks, foliage and wicker costumes, while their trilling Celtic bouzouki and wistful harmonies spoke to a less chaotic age.
“It was the same for us all in the music business, we had to stay safe and creative,” they say of weathering the coronavirus. “So we launched a project called The Noble Call on social media, sending good wishes and asking every single person we’d ever worked with to send us a piece of their own creative work – and they did.”
Chloe Foy: Manchester Hot Tip with Heart-on-Sleeve Songs
Chloe Foy doesn’t need to shout to make herself heard. Gloucestershire-born and Manchester-based, this rising singer-songwriter specialises in delicate slow-burn acoustic balladry, decorated with a glorious swooping vocal that’s won her the attention of tastemakers like Steve Lamacq and over 15 million Spotify streams.
With her recent tour itinerary including SXSW, the Green Man and Cambridge Folk Festivals, plus an international tour in support of Jesca Hoop, Foy has felt the loss of her live work keenly since the crisis.
But at Summer Of Live, as well as showcasing the sparse beauty of ‘Where Shall We Begin’ and ‘Flaws’ – ably assisted by Harry Fausing Smith on electric guitar and violin – Foy had a serious point to make. “I wanted to get involved with this event,” she says, “because I feel that raising money for the hardship fund is hugely important. So many musicians are being left behind right now and they should not be penalised for their choice of career. We need to keep music alive.”
Lady Nade: A voice for the ages, writing the best in modern folk-soul
Evoking the smoky thrills of a ’20s jazz club and the crackle of a long-lost acetate, Lady Nade’s astonishing voice has taken her far beyond the folk circuit of her native Bristol. Enchanting crowds across Europe, appearing on media including BBC2, BBC6 and Radio 4, and opening for Grammy nominee Yola, Nade’s modern interpretation of the roots form, and her mastery of fingerstyle acoustic, was much in evidence on her latest album, Safe Place.
But it’s onstage that Lady Nade is perhaps at her most captivating. For Summer Of Live, she treated viewers to intimate solo performances of the frustrated Powerless, the bruised Last Dance, the heartfelt friendship ballad Josette, and the poignant Complicated, about the death of a family member.
“I wanted to get involved with Summer Of Live, because I love giving back and contributing to my community,” she says. “I chose to start with ‘Powerless’. It’s a brand-new song written during lockdown, and seemed fitting, because we’re powerless over Covid-19 and everything it’s brought.”
Lauren Housley: Yorkshire Singer-Songwriter Bringing Comfort & Joy
For Summer Of Live’s next segment, the action shifted across the water to New Orleans, where local music writer Gabe Soria gave a whistlestop tour of the city’s creative hubs – now reeling from the shutdown – and stressed the importance of global solidarity. "Musicians around the world are in trouble. Venues around the world are in trouble. There's no other way to put it.”
The Crescent City’s cultural centres might lie deserted for now, but British Underground were able to film three striking performances shortly before the virus hit. First onto the makeshift stage at the famed Euclid Records store was Lauren Housley.
In her early years, the Yorkshire-born singer-songwriter fell for music as “my therapy” and has since passed that comfort onto others with 2015’s independently released ‘Sweet Surrender’: a debut album that saw her playlisted by Radio 2, supporting Vintage Trouble, and invited onto the star-studded bill for BluesFest at the O2 Arena.
“The main challenge of lockdown for me,” Housley reflects, “was the sudden cancellation of all shows until the end of the year, not just from a financial point of view, but because playing live with my band feeds my soul. To stay positive, I've been connecting more than ever with my fans through a regular Tuesday night concert on Facebook.
The birth of my baby boy Noah also helped me stay positive. The song I performed in New Orleans is called ‘Sing To Me’, taken from my new album, Girl From The North. I always describe it as an adult lullaby. For me, it represents finding a place of calm amongst the chaos of everyday life.”
Sam Lee, The Bookshop Band and Findlay Napier: Off-kilter roots from three modern masters
As Summer Of Live continued, three of modern folk’s quirkiest artists took the stage. Following Housley at Euclid Records was Mercury Award nominee, Sam Lee, whose mission over the past decade has been to gather, rework and share the ancient folk music of Britain and Ireland.
The London-based songwriter and environmentalist’s debut album, 2012’s Ground Of Its Own, made critical ripples, but in New Orleans, he treated viewers to a highlight from this year’s Old Wow, with ‘The Garden Of England’ combining double bass, fiddle and bodhrán with Lee’s melancholy vocal, to hypnotic effect.
“Derived from the classic English folk song ‘Seeds of Love’, I rewrote it to speak about the journey and life of our native folk songs,” he says, “and the complexities of stewarding these ancient and wise gems into a modern world and keeping them alive in our day and age.”
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting backdrop than the famed Beckham’s Bookshop on Decatur Street for the next act. The Bookshop Band are Beth Porter and Ben Please: an idiosyncratic folk duo occupying the sweet-spot where music meets literature.
With their 13-album catalogue inspired by texts spanning from Shakespeare to Philip Pullman – and their songs often guest-starring contemporary authors – critics have dubbed their material a “fairytale land for adults”. At Beckham’s Bookshop, they gave us the dreamlike ‘We Are The Foxes’, told through the eyes of an urban fox.
Meanwhile, performing in Montreal, Findlay Napier was as raucous as his reputation, with the much-admired Glaswegian troubadour leading the crowd in a call-and-response singalong of Hamish Imlach’s classic Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice. The song might date back to the late-’60s, but the bawdy lyric – telling of a baby conceived in an outdoor toilet – had the audience howling approval.
“That song is from my album Glasgow,” he says. “It has become a bit of a showpiece at my gigs as I increase the patter between verses. It’s part interpretation and part storytelling. Some folks have called it stand-up… but I’ve dabbled in stand-up and it’s bloody hard work!”
John Smith: Devon Visionary Running With the Baton of John Martyn
Summer Of Live had one more ace up its sleeve. The legendary John Renbourn once called John Smith “the future of folk music”, and the singer-songwriter has lived up to the billing, applying his signature blend of fingerstyle and slide guitar to a five-album catalogue with over 33 million streams, and building a live profile that has seen him headline internationally, open for folk heavyweights like Davey Graham, and guest with everyone from Jackson Browne to Jarvis Cocker.
“Staying in one place is new to me,” he says of lockdown. “I’ve done nothing but tour for the last ten years, but it turns out that being still has its rewards. I’ve been reading, listening to a lot of music, practising, playing with my daughter. It’s been a good time.”
For Summer Of Live, Smith exclusively invited us into his Devon home studio. Moving between electric and acoustic guitar for dazzling takes of Hares On The Mountain, Save My Life, Far Too Good and the title track of his recent Hummingbird album, his masterly blend of traditional folk and avant-garde sonic effects tipped a hat to the most adventurous work of John Martyn. Meanwhile, Smith’s witty use of an applause app reminded viewers of a sound that we’ve all missed so badly during lockdown.
Watch the Summer Of Live Folk Special here.
Financial support for musicians
Members with genuine and pressing hardship can apply to our Coronavirus Hardship Fund for individual grants of £200, to cover immediate financial needs.
Find out more about the eligibility criteria for the fund and how to apply.
If you’re able to help us provide immediate support for musicians in real financial hardship as a result of coronavirus, then please donate to the Coronavirus Hardship Fund.