Live Review

BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards at London's Royal Albert Hall

BBC Radio 2 on April 5, 2017

Ry Cooder at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards

Now in their 18th year, the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Awards have become a key highlight of the folk music calendar and, after starting out as a relatively low profile event, followed by touring around the country to venues in Glasgow, Salford and Cardiff, has more recently taken up annual residence at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Accolades include not only the likes of Folk Singer Of The Year, Best Duo, Best Album, and Musician Of The Year, but also a Young Folk Award and, towards the other end of the age range, Lifetime Achievement Awards, which this year went to Ry Cooder and Al Stewart. Marking fifty years since his death in 1967, aged just 55, Woody Guthrie was inducted into the Radio 2 Folk Awards Hall of Fame. To mark the occasion, Billy Bragg performed Guthrie’s ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ and couldn’t resist observing that the song only became more pertinent as time went on.

Grown men (well, me at least) all but wept with joy as Ry Cooder, introduced by Nick Lowe, took to the stage for a rare UK performance. Singing ‘Jesus On The Mainline’, he sported a blue woolly hat at the urging, he insisted, of his granddaughter, who’d also persuaded him to fly to London especially to receive the award.

British singer-songwriter Al Stewart also took to the stage for a performance of his 1977 hit ‘On The Border’. Al started his career on the London folk scene in the Sixties, working alongside Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page, John Renbourn, Rick Wakeman, Tori Amos, Roy Harper and many more, as well as sharing a flat with one Paul Simon and appearing at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1970. He’s best known for his Seventies hits ‘Year Of The Cat’ and ‘Time Passages’, insists the BBC Press Office, but there are many of us who have happy memories of outraging parents when he used the “F-bomb” on his lengthy ‘Love Chronicles’, for one of the first times on record

Astonishingly for many Brits in the audience who mostly remember Tony Blackburn as a Radio One DJ championing Motown and soul in the Sixties, Blackburn regaled the audience with his own personal story of Al. He explained that in the early Sixties, Stewart had in fact been the lead guitarist in Tony’s own group, who revelled in the name Tony Blackburn And The Swinging Bells.

“We used to practice at my parents’ house and, as good as he was, he always played his electric guitar far too loud and it always drowned out my vocals,” Blackburn remembered, to much onstage snickering. “The fact I’m here tonight will do Al’s credibility a lot of damage but I don’t care as I’ve enjoyed playing ‘Year Of The Cat’ very much over the years and I haven’t seen him in a long time.”

The revelation nearly matched a memorable speech a few years ago when the erudite Stephen Fry told an astonished audience that he was a huge folk music fan and especially fond of The Incredible String Band

The evening opened with a rousing performance by Afro Celt Sound System and across the night there were spectacular performances from Shirley Collins, (performing ‘Washed Ashore’ from her unexpected comeback album Lodestar), Daoirí Farrell (performing ‘Van Diemen’s Land’, which went on to win as Best Traditional Track), Jim Moray (‘Fair Margaret And Sweet William’) and Fara (‘Three Fishers’).

There was a powerful and moving performance taken from the Ballads of Child Migration, which tells the story of the enforced migration of over 100,000 children to Australia and Canada between 1863 and 1970. The specially-curated performance was narrated by Barbara Dickson with original songs performed by something of a Brit-Folk dream team, including Kris Drever, Jez Lowe, While & Matthews, Boo Hewerdine, O'Hooley & Tidow, John McCusker, Andy Cutting and Michael McGoldrick.

The full list of winners included:

FOLK SINGER OF THE YEAR presented by Sharleen Spiteri
Kris Drever

BEST DUO presented by Peter Lord of Aardman Animations
Ross Ainslie & Ali Hutton

BEST GROUP presented by Sir Ray Davies
The Furrow Collective

BEST ALBUM presented by Mark Kermode

Songs of Separation – Songs of Separation

HORIZON AWARD presented by Rachel and Becky Unthank (of The Unthanks)
Daoirí Farrell

MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR presented by Gus Unger-Hamilton from Alt-J
Rachel Newton

BEST ORIGINAL TRACK presented by Susie Dent

‘If Wishes Were Horses’, by Kris Drever

BEST TRADITIONAL TRACK presented by Pauline Black of The Selecter

‘Van Diemen’s Land’ by Daoirí Farrell

BBC RADIO 2 YOUNG FOLK AWARD presented by Simon Nicol of Fairport Convention
Josie Duncan & Pablo Lafuente

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD presented by Tony Blackburn

Al Stewart

Ry Cooder

Woody Guthrie 

Meanwhile, Simon Mayo’s BBC Radio 2 Drivetime programme also broadcast live from the Royal Albert Hall on Wednesday night and counted down the Top 10 Most Played Folk Songs on Radio 2, a list which makes for interesting reading. Somewhat surprisingly as it wasn’t even released as a single in the UK (although it reached No 11 on the US Billboard chart) the Number 1 track turned out to be Yusuf/Cat Stevens’ ‘Wild World’, which featured on his fourth album ‘Tea for the Tillerman’ in 1970. Jimmy Cliff, however, released his recording of ‘Wild World in 1970, produced by Cat Stevens, and that reached No 8 in the UK, with Maxi Priest hitting No 5 with his version in 1988. Cat, who was presented with the Lifetime Achievement honours at the Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2015, said he was “surprised that we actually pipped to the post all these great folk singers and that it’s still being played. That makes me feel very satisfied and it shows that the song and the meaning is still relevant. Of course it is relevant because wild world is exactly what it is and exactly what we’re living in right now and it’s getting wilder perhaps.”

Number 2 in the Top 10 Most Played Folk Songs on Radio 2 was Fleet Foxes’ ‘White Winter Hymnal’; at No 3 was Bellowhead’s ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’; at No 4 was ‘Meet Me On The Corner’ by Lindisfarne; No 5 was ‘Underneath The Stars’ by Kate Rusby; at No 6 was ‘River Man’ by Nick Drake; No 7 was ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ by The Waterboys; No 8 was Thea Gilmore & Sandy Denny’s ‘London’; at No 9 was ‘Streets Of London’ by Ralph McTell and at No 10 was ‘Roll Away Your Stone’ by Mumford and Sons.