Small Venues and the Folkistanis

Editor’s Box from fRoots 311 (May 2009)
Icome in praise of music in small rooms. I love the wide open spaces and atmosphere of festivals and I’ve had more than my share of life-changing musical experiences in concert halls and in front of vast stadium stages. But when it comes down to it there’s nothing like the ambience of somewhere holding no more than a few hundred, or even just dozens. Whether it’s a café with a stage or a house concert in somebody’s home, musicians jamming in a West African compound or an English pub, a hushed and intimate arts centre theatre or a powerhouse city club, there’s a small place for most of the musics I like. They’re where you feel at one with the performers, as they do with their audiences. I know this because, for my sins, I’ve not only been audience but performer and organiser too.

They’re where musicians in many genres learn their trade and often choose to stay playing because they like it like that. They’re more human, less pressured, allow evolution and experimentation. The advances we’ve seen in stage technology in the past few decades have made them better than ever. The UK’s smoking ban has also made a really noticeable difference in widening the range of people enjoying going out to live music in small venues again.

One kind of small room music runs on the standard UK folk club model that gelled somewhere in the early 1960s. I spent a large part of my formative years in them, when the music was evolving fast and the performers, audiences and organisers were mostly of the same (studentish) age and on the same voyage of discovery. They tended to be in the same rooms used on other nights by equally buzzing, atmospheric blues or jazz clubs which ran in different ways.

I can’t remember when I first saw critical pieces appearing suggesting that the standard UK folk club model was getting a bit moth-eaten, predictable, its denizens somewhat long in the tooth and cliquishly offputting, but it must have been as far back as the 1970s! They’re still being written today and when they appear, people still get hot under the collar because they see the standard UK folk club model as The Only True Way, and the divine right of floor singers the only possible method for a performer to learn the ropes.

The latter is simply wrong. UK folk clubs are good places for learning to be a performer in UK folk clubs, which have their own unique expectations and traditions, sometimes related to and including folk music. It’s a community that – with obvious exceptions – sometimes seems to outsiders to be Folkistan run by its own bearded fundamentalists. Other musics, from here and all over the world, clearly have a myriad other equally good ways for new performers to learn their skills or we wouldn’t be in such a golden age as we are now. I hope this issue’s main feature gives positive evidence that this is the case with English folk music too.

Ian Anderson


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