Besides being home to a great number of extraordinarily talented musicians, Glastonbury Town also attracts well known performers from around the world. It helps that Europe’s biggest performing arts festival happens only 7 miles away, which has put the town on the map for touring musicians. Those for whom appearing on the Pyramid Stage is but a dream can still get a mild frisson from being able to exclaim the words “Hello Glastonbury!” at the start of their gig, no matter how small the audience.
We can‘t attribute the town’s appeal purely to the festival. The unique and special energy of this small Somerset market town, with its layers of myth and history and eccentric community, appears to magnetize those of a creative and romantic disposition, folk musicians in particular. This ready availability of folk musicians suits me – I sometimes describe myself as “a sad old folkie”, giving in to the idea that folk music is a shameful habit. It’s associated in the British psyche with other quaint, bucolic activities, like Morris dancing and Druidism. Indeed, a younger me suspected I might marry a bearded, tinkly-ankled Morris dancer. I never had a specific one in mind, it was just a momentary fantasy I had after noticing that one of the Wells Morris, on Glastonbury Tor for May Day morning, looked like a slimline Brian Blessed. Anyway, I digress.
We are very lucky in Glastonbury to have the Fabulous Furry Folk Night, founded in 2007 by Glastonbury folk singers Nathan Lewis Williams and Emma Pickerill and hosted by the Assembly Rooms on Glastonbury High Street. The FFF provides a regular platform for both amateur and professional musicians to perform to appreciative audiences in intimate weekly acoustic “singarounds” in the cafe, and monthly gigs in the atmospheric 200 capacity stone hall, where quality local or touring bands headline, supported by open mic “floor spots” from all comers, including singaround regulars and visiting acoustic acts.
This surprisingly successful formula, effectively an alternative and vibrant Glastonbury “folk club”, has for years encouraged an eclectic coming together of traditional and original songs, tunes, psych-folk acts, bards, minstrels and exquisite and exotic performers from around the country, some of whom have gone on to achieve national fame (Emily Portman, Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin, now playing as Edgelarks, and Martha Tilston spring to mind as acts who appeared at FFF before having major success) and the organisers continued to also host such well-known names as Martin Carthy, The Incredible String Band, Sheila Chandra and DJ Andy Kershaw. In the days before Facebook, Nathan and Emma kept regular Myspace blogs and printed these out alongside photos and photographs, as a record of everyone who’d played.
I really respect Nathan’s curation of bands at the FFF, he has a particular talent for spotting bands who are on the ascendant and booking them while they are still prepared to play a small venue! For several years I programmed festival stages, and many of the best bands I booked were bands I’d seen first at Fabulous Furry Folk. Nathan got Emily Portman to the FFF after seeing her on Myspace, inviting her to come and do her first solo gig at the Rooms, now he tells me she is so in demand that FFF can’t afford her!
Perhaps holding something as apparently conservative as a “folk club” in this crazy alternative town is radical in itself, even when the club’s name is a nod to Gilbert Shelton’s freaky stoner cartoon characters of the 1970s. There may be enough tweed on display at a Furry Folk Night to carpet a bowling green, but there’s a distinct absence of fingers in ears and ale tankards. The audience is a good mix of the usual crowd of Glastonbury alternative types with people who are used to a more traditional folk club session.
Nathan tells me: “We are glad to be seeing increasing numbers of retired folkies who might not think of the Assembly Rooms as their natural habitat. They might be used to seeing folk bands in village halls and pubs, then they come here and are stunned by the atmosphere of the venue and the friendly welcome.”
Indeed, the Glastonbury Assembly Rooms is a special venue, its honey-coloured stone walls hold the memories of a century and a half of events. In the intimate atmosphere of the Furry Folk Night it is easy to imagine the days when the space was lit by gas lamps and heated by open fires. In the 1930’s the hall was frequented by bohemian types, scandalizing the Somerset populace with their love affairs, corduroy trousers and bare feet. Those days may have passed, but the hall retains a special ambiance, as carved stone heads reclaimed from the ruined Abbey watch over us, candles and fairy lights brighten the space, and large and beautiful hand painted wall hangings depict the turning of the seasons.
Musicians love playing the club; Glastonbury audiences aren’t just looking for entertainment, they want to connect too. They facilitate the two-way communication essential to a great performance with a particular quality of attentive listening. It’s definitely not all about the headliners either: less well-known local acts get the chance to play floor spots on a fantastic stage with proper sound and lighting. Nathan is keen to encourage performers to brave performing live and several musicians report that the FFF has encouraged them to start writing and performing after crippling writer’s block or shyness.
Ten years ago Folk Roots magazine fRoots was lauding a revival in British folk music, nowadays they report that British folk clubs are dying, or at least in danger. The Furry Folk Night however is attracting a younger audience than most clubs and fRoots are very supportive. For a while the club’s “singarounds” fizzled out due to stiff competition from other open mic nights and events in town, but they were re-launched in October 2018, with alternating singarounds and hall gigs on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, which regularly see gatherings of up to 40 people in the cafe, either singing or joining the circle to listen..
For a flavour of the singarounds see this video that Matt Witt filmed undercover!
The evenings are hosted by Nathan and folk singer and fiddler Dora Darling – herself a regular FFF performer back in the day, and now increasingly well known on the folk circuit for her striking voice, magical original ballads, and her excellent blog on all things folky.
I worked in the Assembly Rooms for four years after arriving in Glastonbury in 1993, the place was buzzing with a big team and events occurring almost every evening. Perhaps that’s why I feel a warm and comforting sense of community in this place more than any other in Glastonbury. At the FFF events, as I listen to the musicians and glance around the hall at the faces of the attentive audience, I find myself thinking about the many ways in which this town ties us together.
At the Furry Folk’s hosting of the Dana Wylie band a few years ago I was taken back over four decades to my hometown in Northamptonshire. The double bass player of Dana’s band turned out to be one of a family of five children that my Mum used to babysit for when we were both four years old. I was fascinated by his family, the four boys were all named after benevolent Communists, his Dad sold the Daily Star, they lived in a house far more chaotic and busy than the one Mum and I inhabited. We went through secondary school together, I was mates with his sister (we both loved Queen), but I hadn’t seen him since I left school at sixteen. It seemed fitting that a folk event should have re-membered me to my roots in an unremarkable Midlands town – where folk music and radical politics, more than anything, introduced me to other ways of being in the world and ultimately led me to choosing Glastonbury as my home.
Every fortnight, lovers of acoustic folk are welcome to attend all singarounds and gigs either as performers or as listeners, with Magic Hat donations welcome in the cafe singarounds, and a varying door charge applying for hall gigs, on a “pay or play” basis. Follow the Fabulous Furry Folk Facebook page to see who’s coming up.
Nathan has a particular love of psych-folk and Britain’s finest purveyors of medieval acid-rock Circulus are bringing their “acoustic baroque’n’roll” to the FFF on Thursday the 24th January 2019. Their latest vinyl single is in at number 2 in this month’s issue of Shindig! magazine, as they make a welcome return to the Rooms to kick off the 2019 season of FFF gigs. Support from open mic floor spots of 5-10 mins up to 9.30, with the band on at 9.45 p.m. More details here on the Facebook event page.
Performers need to arrive early (doors open at 8 p.m. for all events) to secure a slot to play, or contact Nathan or Dora in advance via Facebook or email – firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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