I have a confession to make. I am a little bit scared of folk music. Look, it's probably a generational thing; born in the 70s to teacher parents there was a lot of it about, and the Saturday primetime Houghton Weavers TV show associated the genre in my young mind with bad comedy and men in scary jumpers singing whimsical ditties about steam trains. It clearly wasn't just me: radio presenter Andy Kershaw is quoted as saying "With 'folk' you either think of something like the Houghton Weavers, or proper folk." But hey, I go to acoustic nights - what's a word between friends? Those fortunate enough to have missed the 1970s have no such qualms: Sophie Parkes' violin parts in Air Cav songs are very much rooted in the folk tradition and for the past year or so she's been working hard to bring the finest present-day purveyors of the genre to Manchester with her own night For Folk's Sake, which runs monthly and promises an eclectic mixture of the traditional and modern, from the entirely instrumental to unaccompanied spoken word performances and everything in between.
This is her first session at Oxford Road's legendary 8th Day Cafe. The place began life in the early 70s as a "craft exchange and alternative centre", and memoirs from the time recall a psychedelic "head shop" type place where the fug of dope smoke hung thickly in the air as local leftfield artists performed amongst the tie-dyes. Gradually vegetarian and organic foods crept onto the shelves at a time when you wouldn't find them anywhere else and by the 80s this was their trade. A cafe opened in the 90s, and since 2003's renovation the place has thrived as a still co-operative led centre for all these things. And with the use of the cafe nowadays as a sometime evening performance space, it's almost come full circle; work by local painters adorns the walls, there's organic cider for sale alongside the cakes, and these days when the thought of anyone smoking anything in a public cafe is just a distant memory this is as close to a 21st century manifestation of the hippies' dream as you'll find at least in terms of legal operations.
Lindsay Sugden stands in the corner in front of the library shelf, a shy, waiflike girl with a beautiful pure voice - reminiscent of Sarabeth Tucek at her most stripped-down - and Scottish blood running through her melodies and tone. You can almost hear the mist of pine forests in her intricate finger pickings and chord sequences; it's there in her words, too. She introduces one song as being about not being able to get in touch with anyone, out in the wilderness somewhere modern communication methods don't quite reach, and yet she has the feel of one who relishes, at times, a simple and isolated life. There are definitely indie infuences in there too; played in a different style some of these tunes wouldn't sound out of place in a Twilight Sad set. Sometimes she does play them with a band - admittedly cells and glockenspiels as opposed to guitars and drums - but there's something very intimate about hearing them like this, almost whispered to a captivated crowd. "Thank you very much for being... nice... and stuff..." - as is often the case, the most sincere thanks come from those who you really feel you should be thanking.
Birmingham's Claire Jones is next in the performers' corner with a spoken word set that's half stand-up comedy and half poetry, often treading the line between the two in the space of a few lines. One minute we're laughing along at her astute character observations (old ladies a speciality, it seems); the next it's the poignant thoughts of the spaces left by a bereavement. Most of it's in the former category here, though, held together by blunt little comments like "that wasn't a poem, that was just rubbish" and "that was about my cat, she's dead now, no beating around the bush there then." She's got that dry timing at which Midlanders excel; if you're the sort of person who's realised that Shazia Mirza's newspaper column is about ten times funnier if you actually read it in Brummie in your head then you'll definitely get it.
Stephen Macartney is another young indie-inspired folk singer who sometimes performs with a band - The Farriers - but he's left them back home in Northern Ireland tonight - it's turning out to be a bit of a trip around the British Isles this, kind of a musical version of "Coast". (And yes, I am quite aware that Birmingham's not near any coasts, but you know what I mean). His voice has a very traditional folk style to it, richly accented and evocative, whilst the songs themselves are not a million miles away from the likes of I Am Kloot and indeed his first song is about drinking. In the park at the age of fourteen. Drinking crops up in several more songs, too. He also reminds me of Liam Frost in quieter mode with a bit of Ryan Adams thrown in - hey, maybe I was into folk all along but never realised it. Can't help noticing his last song lifts the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" almost wholesale but we'll let him off; where homages tend to get called out as plagiarism in indie/rock/pop circles, borrowing bits of the past is after all a folk tradition.
So yeah, this has all been quite easy so far for Non Folkie, but now we're onto the hard stuff. Irish Jigs. No two ways about it, Irish-Mancunian Emma Sweeney is a quite outstanding fiddle player (I'm fighting the urge to write "violinist" but you don't, not with this sort of thing) - a BBC Young Musician of the Year finalist a few years back ger CV already includes things as diverse as playing at The Royal Festival Hall and teaching the tin-whistle to street children in the slums of India. And unusually a lot of her material is self-penned, taking traditional melodic stylings but placing them in some sort of modern context: one tune, for example, she explains was inspired by a quiet zebra crossing the next one down from the legendary Abbey Road photo-opportunity.
All in all an eclectic and really enjoyable evening (and I didn't even try the organic cider) with not a bad jumper in sight. If you've always thought you should listen to more folk music but don't really know where to start, this would be as good a place as any.
Emma Sweeney teaches a ten week course in Irish traditional fiddle styles starting this Wednesday at Band On the Wall, priced at £50 (full) £30 (unwaged/student); see link below for more details. For Folk's Sake returns on Saturday 8th May with a collaboration with BBC Radio 2 Folk Club of the Year 2010 The Magpie's Nest, at Contact Theatre.