Skagen is a town in the far north of Denmark, in fact as far north you can go in that country, situated at the top of the Danish peninsula Jutland, where two seas, the Skagerack and the Kattegat, meet. Skagen is a popular holiday resort for the people of southwest Scandinavia, and many come here regularly by car or yacht for the beauty and the hospitality. During the 19th century the town was very popular with artists and quite a few settled here. Many of their paintings are exhibited in the local gallery, a must for every visitor.
On the last weekend in June every year Skagen hosts an international music festival with a folky direction. Fairport Convention, the Dubliners and Runrig have played the festival in recent years.
The festival is a spread-out affair with four stages. The South Stage and The Meeting Place are situated at the festival camp about four kilometres south of Skagen, The Big Stage is in a sports hall in south Skagen and The Harbour Stage — well, you can figure that one out, can’t you? The various locations and the fact that there are no all-festival tickets (you buy for individual concerts with some events free of charge) makes it slightly difficult to get an overall picture of the event. From what we saw, many visitors to Skagen were not even aware of the fact that there was a festival going on.
The hierarchy among groups and musicians is clearly spelt out in the programme. The big names play The South and The Big Stages in the evening, with ticket prices in the region of $25 a night. The unknowns play at The Meeting Place and the Harbour Stage in the afternoons, with no entrance fee at all. Those in-between guests play the same stages in the evenings, when you pay about $5 to get in.
During my family’s four days in Skagen we only tasted a small sample of the music on offer since we also did some travelling around to experience the wonderful north Jutland scenery. Our main intent when it came to the festival was to look for English, Irish and Scottish music, of which there was a lot. We missed groups like De Dannan, Beggars Row and Shave the Monkey because of scheduling conflicts with other groups we wanted to see (and let’s not forget the Soccer World Cup final). But here is a little about the groups and performers we caught (with a few we thought too amateurish left out).
Coinneach is a Scottish four-piece with three CDs to their name. Most of their songs are written by singer and guitarist Davy Cowan. They are good craftsmen, producing a very full sound and rocking quite well. But to me they raise a few questions: What is folk or roots music? What distinguishes it from other genres? (And do we really need those borders?) To me, Coinneach comes across more like a rock group with a singer dressed in kilt and a fiddler than anything remotely folk or roots. Nowhere do you sense their roots. Sure they say their song are about Scotland, but if you did not know you would hardly guess it. Instead you get too often repeated chord sequences from the 1960s with the attitude of the punk rockers from the 1970s. Maybe they were aiming for the very big rock festival in Roskilde, Denmark that weekend but did not make it.
Friday lunchtime brought sunshine to the Harbour Scene, and you could sit outside the big tent, enjoying the music from inside and admiring all the luxurious yachts on display in the harbour.
The three groups we listened to raised another question: If you are playing roots music, is it OK to adopt other people’s roots? Irish and Scottish music seem to have gained world domination when it comes to folk and roots. There are groups playing it everywhere, no matter where the people in the groups originate from.
The members of Rolling Home are from the Netherlands, calling themselves a Folk and Shanty choir. This day there were about 30 of them, all but one men in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and a young girl on flute, to help the guitars and accordions along. Most of the songs are familiar, like “The Irish Rover,” “The Leaving of Liverpool” (a song performed by many groups over the four days) and “Ye Jacobites by Name.” Despite the horrors of amplifying choirs they came across quite well and were a pleasant start to the day.
Then came my really big discovery of the weekend, Flax in Bloom, four rather young (to me anyway, but I’m soon leaving my 40s) musicians from Copenhagen. They play pure Irish music, with no rock intentions at all, just plain folk music as it has been performed for centuries. But they do it ever so well. Their two front instrumentalists, Tim Goddard (flute and whistle) and Ditte Fromseier Mortensen (fiddle), produce slip jigs, reels and mazurkas quite effortlessly, backed by very talented guitarist Rasmus Zeeberg and Sussie B Nielsen on bodhran — and they sing as well. Goddard is the soloist on a few songs, but though he does it very well, it was the voice of Nielsen that melted my heart. Her renditions of “I Wish” and various Gaelic songs were quite breathtaking; she had a voice to fall in love with. According to their web page there is talk of an album somewhere in the not too distant future, something to wait for in anticipation.
Waxie’s Dargle are Danish as well, a three piece with a strange instrumentation; guitar/banjo/vocals, violin and drums/backing vocals. There was no bass, and the drummer only had a bass drum, a snare and a high hat. They played a very energetic set, clearly inspired by the Pogues, and in small doses they are very enjoyable, but an hour in a concert setting was a little too much. But I really liked their slowed down version of “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.” More of that, please.
In the evening Kieran Halpin played the Harbour Stage. The set raised further questions: Why do people pay the entrance fee to listen to someone when they clearly seem to have no interest at all in the music performed? Why don’t they go to a pub with a jukebox instead? My wife and I really tried to catch the tunes and the lyrics, but the noise level from some of the audience was just unbearable. Afterwards we bought a CD from Mr Halpin to enjoy without a wall of murmur and chatter between him and us. What a pity for such a great singer, guitar player and songwriter, he deserves a listening audience.
We arrived at the festival camp late afternoon on the Saturday to get prepared for the evening’s big concert. As a warm up we went to the Meeting Place and listened to The Boys of Bluehill. They are anything but purists. With bass, acoustic guitar, banjo, according, the occasional fiddle and four strong voices they served us a string of classic folk songs (like “The Wild Rover,” “Whiskey in the Jar” and so on) with a few country ones thrown in for good measure in a bluegrassy way, introducing John Fogerty’s “Lodi” as a Californian folk song.
My son summed it up: “In my mind they are not a real group, just four middle-aged men enjoying themselves thoroughly.” Their enthusiasm clearly spilled over to the audience. I would not buy a CD by them, but I would not mind listening to them again in a pub or at a festival.
In the programme it said: “Come early to secure a seat”. But when we entered the huge tent holding 3,100 standing people that is the South Stage there were no seats, just a lawn to sit on. Wiser fools than us had brought their own chairs, though.
Jackie McAuley, an Irishman with a past in the legendary Them , started with a few songs alone on his guitar. Then he brought on his band Poor Mouth; drums (Clive Bunker, ex-Jethro Tull), violin, bass and keyboards/pipes/mandolin. They mixed McAuley’s own songs with very heavy version of jigs and reels. They really rocked in an Irish folk-rocky way, but when McAuley switched to electric guitar at the end they sounded more like a pale Belfastian version of Mr. Springsteen and his band. But the first two thirds of their set was very good, though at times a little underrehearsed, with the interplay between drums and bass not always working very well.
Then it was time for the Donnie Munro Band, the very reason we had decided to visit the festival, so do not expect me to be unbiased! Munro has been to Skagen a few times before as a member of Runrig. The extent of Runrig’s popularity in Denmark can be measured by the fact that I found three Danish various artists’ budget priced CDs in the local post office sporting tracks by the group.
Munro’s band is set up much the way Runrig is. At the back there is a drummer and a keyboard player, but no percussionist. At the front we have Munro on guitar and vocals, two electric guitars (instead of Runrig’s one), a bass player singing backing vocals and ex-Runrig producer Chris Harley on backing vocals and tambourine. Harley was a revelation for me. He is a very good singer; when he and Munro sing together you have as powerful a vocal front as any band in the world. And his tambourine playing is something else. I have often discarded the tambourine as something for singers to hold in their hand in order to feel a little more part of the band during solos and instrumentals, but Harley really plays the instrument.
They gave us a fair selection from Munro’s new excellent album, “Across the City and the World,” a few from his first, “On the West Side,” and then of course a handful of old Runrig chestnuts. Munro makes no excuse to sing songs recorded by his old band. Instead he celebrates the songwriting of the MacDonald brothers.
Munro himself is always at the centre of the proceedings. No matter how good his band is, and believe me, there are few bands in the world today that can equal them, you know it is his show. He has such a charisma and an ability to make the in-between-songs talk meaningful. And what a show it was! An hour and a half of good songs, perfectly played with two superb vocalists at the front. Rock, folk rock, folk, roots, whatever — it was just great.
Oyster Band had a hard task following Runrig. To many they succeeded, but not in my book. The Oysters have found their niche in the world of music, with a mix of folk and punk, with their bass player sometimes playing the cello, and the fiddle and the melodeon part of a Phil Spectorish wall of sound. They pay a great deal of their attention to the lyrics, but this evening most of them got lost as the sound man clearly had problems during the first five or six songs.
Maybe I suffered from not having listened to many of their latest albums because the absolute majority of the audience loved them.
We took some time off for good behaviour on the Sunday, watching the World Cup Finals and only turning up for a few groups performances. We saw a third of the set from Ribe Spelmanslag, a congregation of fiddlers, accordionists and other assorted musicians from Jutland. Twenty head strong, they performed true Danish folk music in a truly catchy way. We would have loved to stay, but after twenty minutes an official of the festival went round selling tickets for the fish buffet, telling everyone that only those with buffet tickets would be allowed to stay. With a wife allergic to fish we had little choice but to leave, a great pity because we really enjoyed it.
In the afternoon we went out to the Meeting Place once more to check my impression of Flax in Bloom. I was convinced it was right. They are a lovely outfit. And second time around I realised how crucial the guitar is to their sound.
And that is it. This is just a small sample of what went on, with me missing far more groups than I caught, but that is life. On the positive side there was some very good music, with a large selection to choose from. But also there was a lot lacking in information (about the groups) and too many people drinking too much and talking through performances in a way that spoiled the pleasure for others. I would not mind going again, but I would do it to catch certain performers more than for the festival itself.