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It’s been around thirteen years since I last saw Joe Broughton. I was a second-year music student at Birmingham Conservatoire studying composition when – in a tutorial designed to expand our musical horizons and experience as composers – my mind was significantly blown. You think of the words ‘folk’ and ‘fiddle’ and you envisage a fast-paced tune with lots of foot stamping. You’d be right, of course, but this was on another level entirely. Imagine my absolute joy then, when I discovered that he was bringing the Conservatoire Folk Ensemble to Alexander’s.

The ensemble is in a state of constant flux as students graduate to be replaced by fresh-faced talented youngsters eager to get involved. Its a group that has offered its members many opportunities, including their recent performance at the Royal Albert Hall and also the release of a live studio album called ‘Painted’ to name a few. The fifty-strong group takes folk music and turns it on its head, fusing traditional tunes with a range of genres – and it’s not all fiddles and bodhrans either – there’s an extensive brass section, electric guitars, and a percussion section that wouldn’t look out of place in a samba band.

Joe Broughton introducing Bitter Lemon

Broughton, returning to his hometown for this gig, bounded onto the stage to introduce the first of two supporting acts – both hailing from the University of Chester. Octuplet Bitter Lemon put their own stamp on a varied string of covers from Dolly Parton’s ’Jolene’, Christina Aguilera’s ‘Say Something’, to a funk-inspired version of Chris Brown’s ’Fine China’, with Bob Marley’s ’Is This Love’ rounding off the set. Room 128 followed with another range of individual versions of ‘If You Ever Want to Fall in Love’ (James Bay), Bruce Springsteen’s ’I’m On Fire’, a personal favourite Screamin’ Jay Hawkins 1956 classic ‘I Put A Spell On You’, ending with The Hoosier’s ‘Goodbye Mr A’. One thing is very clear from the supporting acts – there is a lot of talent in the City and its University.

The stage at Alexander’s isn’t massive. The (now Royal) Birmingham Conservatoire Folk Ensemble is. A fifty-strong horde of musicians begged the question, where would they all go? Among them, percussionists, cellists, trombonists, violinists and one very energetic tambourine player squeezed onto the stage. I caught up with one of the violinists at the interval to ask how they all avoided taking each other’s eyes out. Put simply, they can’t – there had been eight bow-related attacks in the first half – talk about suffering for your art. You wouldn’t know either, as you’re too busy recognising how much each and every one of them is loving what they do.

There isn’t a single sheet of music anywhere either, as each player is encouraged to bring their improvisational chops in an anything-goes cacophony of sound and energy. Don’t get me wrong, there’s structure there – and Broughton deftly corrals the chaos from traditional Irish tunes such as ‘Banish Misfortune’ to Scottish reels like ‘Sleepy Maggie’, to bluegrass, to Bulgarian folk in ‘Can’t De Batre’ and his own composition ‘We March Under One Sun’, apparently inspired after watching the news one day.

Throughout the gig, the ensemble separated into smaller bands that have worked on their own projects – from four-piece Gathering Tides, to duo Julie (vocals and cello) and Josh (vocals and guitar), to Rob who just wanted to abandon his regular gig on the trombone to play the bass guitar on an Icelandic folk tune with five of his fellow musicians. This variety provided welcome vignettes into the individual skills and musical interests of this ensemble. Throughout its nineteen-year history, you can tell that Broughton has created a positive and encouraging environment for these musicians who are about to embark on their professional careers – all while having a whole lot of fun.

Leaving Alexander’s with ears ringing (despite Broughton’s insistence to the few front rows that they really want to use the earplugs he was handing out), as the band supped their well-deserved pints while a coach waited to perform its midnight run back to Birmingham, I couldn’t help but feel exhilarated. This wasn’t your ordinary gig by any stretch, this was a showcase of the Conservatoire’s next generation. A thrilling crash-course into folk music of all stripes, defined and shaped by those performing that has certainly spurred me to explore more.

Watch the ensemble play Sleepy Maggie below or click any of the song title links to listen on Spotify.

The Conservatoire Folk Ensemble are touring until the 19th of August, so if you’re near any of these places check them out:

  • Friday 8 June 2018, 7.30 pm – The Bristol Folk House, 40A Park Street, Bristol BS1 5JG (bristolfolkhouse.co.uk)
  • Sunday 10 June 2018, 3 pm – Power Folk 5, The Spotted Dog, 104 Warwick Street, Digbeth, Birmingham B12 0NH (powerfolk.co.uk)
  • Sunday 19 August 2018 – Green Man Festival, nr Crickhowell, Powys, Wales NP8 1LP (greenman.net)

For the supporting act dates, check out their respective Facebook pages: Bitter LemonRoom 128.