Vishtèn and Korrontzi at Warwick Folk Festival, July 2018.
Sunshine and showers - and the occasional small tornado - set the mood for some marvellous music at the end of July. I reviewed the full Warwick Folk Festival in 2016, but this time I was focusing on two concerts. Warwick is a mainly English affair, with the emphasis on song but almost as much dance, both ritual and social: non-English acts are in the minority, and I was particularly interested in a couple of very un-English groups indeed.
Korrontzi are a Basque ensemble - no better word - fronted by melodeon master Agus Barandiaran and including virtuoso guitar and mandolin player Alberto Rodriguez and tambourine maestro Xabier Bersaluce Leturia as well as a back line of drums and bass. Vishtèn hail from Acadia, a historically French-speaking area which includes much of Maritime Canada, and consist of multi-instrumentalist twin sisters Pastelle and Emmanuelle LeBlanc from Prince Edward Island with fiddler/guitarist Pascal Miousse from the nearby Magdalen Islands of present-day Quebec.
English is not the first language of any of these people - with the Basques it's not even their second language - so the ease with which Vishten use two languages, and the efforts which Korrontzi have made to master a third for their English audiences, were quite humbling at this time of English-only sentiment in the UK.
There was plenty of English talent on show at Warwick too. I heard wonderful ceilidh bands like Relentless, Tickled Pink, and the bleeding-edge blend of Notorious J.I.G, all animating a large community of dancers. I sat in awe at performances by Crows, Moore Moss Rutter, Granny's Attic, and Will Pound who is touring his very English Through The Seasons show. Straining the definition of English, I also enjoyed the music of Rowan Piggott, Inlay, and Soft Option Appalachian dancers. There was a strand of Irish music from Cork this year, and much more which I didn't have time for: the main interest for me was definitely the two big overseas acts.
Vishtèn were in the main theatre on Thursday night, and in a somewhat smaller venue on Friday. Both concerts were packed, although the first may have been partly due to Jon Boden & the Remnant Kings coming after. A lot of people attended both performances though, clearly impressed by what they heard on Thursday. Vishtèn's music is powerful, extremely varied, and very much based in their Acadian traditions: dance, song, hard work, wild parties, and a passion for their own culture. This trio is unusual in bringing a more contemporary sound to Acadian music. The traditional foot percussion is supplemented by electronic piano, Pascal switches between fiddle and electric guitar, and the sisters supply bodhrán, whistle and mandola as well as the more typical jaw harp and accordion.
The instrumental sets are long and strong, made for dancing, with prodigious playing and a beat to wake the dead. Emmanuelle and Pastelle both sing, with backing from Pascal - all songs are in Acadian French, clear as a bell, stories of love and loss and liquor, in two- and three-part harmony, arranged in the French Canadian style with countermelodies and instrumental breaks. I was about three feet from the band for Friday's concert, the sound quality was perfect and I could see every footstep, every fingering, every facial expression, even count the fraying strings on Pascal's bow as he shredded another reel.
Songs like Fleur de Souvenir and Bi Bi Box are a true blend of new and old, an evolution of the tradition, while Vishtèn's own compositions add to the body of Acadian music and pay homage to their culture or sometimes take it in a new direction. The slower piece Les Sirènes à Roméo is a good example, a beautiful melody with hints of Country and Celtic, or possibly Canada's other coast, quite unlike most French Canadian music yet growing out of that tradition. Horizons (the title track of their new album) takes a step back towards the tradition, but also looks east to the Irish and Scottish roots of Maritimes music.
There was a bit of Cajun in places, from the Acadians' southern cousins, and a bit of rock'n'roll blended in not grafted on, but my powerful lasting impressions of Vishtèn's concerts are their strong flowing vocals, their non-stop pulsing percussion, and their drop-dead brilliant reels and jigs on accordion, whistle and fiddle. I'd have happily gone back for a third helping, but the band was off to Lyon, and then to WOMAD, and then to more festivals before flying home.
On Saturday evening, after a day of storms and sessions, shanties and hankies and silly hats, I was almost over the departure of Vishtèn and ready for the evening performance by Korrontzi. This is a group I first saw at Warwick in 2016, when they were pretty new to the UK, and I was gobsmacked. Their performance then was simply dazzling, and this show was just as impressive. Basque music is complex, some of it very old, and nobody could show it all in one concert, but Korrontzi make a brave attempt: they draw their material from the repertoire of the trikitixa or Basque melodeon, with a few new tunes and songs.
Agus Barandiaran led most of the performance on virtuosic trikitixa and powerful vocals, with brief solos from Alberto and Xabier, and dramatic accompaniment from these two as well as percussion and bass guitar. The pace rarely slowed as Korrontzi pumped out dance music in various Basque styles, and their two young dancers took our breath away with leaps and spins, high kicks and capers, complex stepping and smooth balletic romance. Much of Basque dance seems to be a show of prowess, a test of skill and stamina, and the feats this pair performed were prodigious, dancing almost continuously for an hour with several rapid changes of costume.
The repertoire of Korrontzi is hard to describe - it has similarities with Spanish, southern French, and even Irish music, as well as accordion styles from Italy, Quebec and England. It's mostly exciting, sometimes slow and graceful, always happy and always brilliantly performed. With little English, Agus put huge effort into establishing a rapport with the Warwick audience, and it paid off - he had us clapping, dancing, waving for a band selfie, and at the end Korrontzi wound its way through the crowd, still playing and dancing, making conga lines of English folkies, and finishing their show in a circle of new fans. Simply outstanding!
Two great concerts, several other highlights, good food, good sessions, fabulous weather, and the chance to meet old and new friends: my second trip to Warwick was at least as enjoyable as my first, and I'm pretty sure it won't be my last. Next time I'll try to stay for the full five days!
Photo Credits: (1) Warwick Folk Festival (2) Vishtèn, (3) Korrontzi (unknown/website).