Hosted by the laconic Mark Radcliffe and the charming Julie Fowlis, this was the first time in it’s twenty-year history that the BBC Folk Awards had been broadcast from Belfast. After we had practiced cheering and been warned about swearing during a live show, the evening opened with a bang as Eliza Carthy took the stage with The Wayward Band. “Devil in a Woman” was a drum-and-bass heavy slice of English folk with a variety of world music influences, complete with a dancing concertina player.
The first award of the night was the Horizon award, presented by Jamie Lawson and with Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne, Georgia Lewis, Ímar and Ryan Young nominated. New five-piece trad band Ímar took the award and this was followed by the Best Traditional Track award. Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, the Queen of tartan noir, presented this award and it went to Siobhan Millar for her version of “The Banks of Newfoundland”, beating Declan O’Rourke, Lisa Lân, Ye Vagabonds and Chris Foster.
Mark Radcliffe deals expertly with a few slight technical delays involving a small army of stage crew and sound engineers before Dublin band Lankum (ex Lynched) take the stage. They open with droning pipes and the haunting vocals of Radie Peat on “The Townie Polka” before the guitar and fiddle join in for “What Will We Do When We Have No Money”. Musician and ex-Radio 2 producer Rab Noakes presents the Best Duo prize to Chris Stout & Catriona McKay before Leo Green takes the stage to present the Musician of the Year Award. Green tells us of playing the Waterfront twenty years ago, as saxophonist with Van Morrison’s band before calling Moshem Amini (concertina player with Ímar) up to receive the award.
Next on stage was Dungiven’s own Cara Dillon, accompanied by Sam Lakeman on piano and John Smith on guitar. Dillon’s voice fills the Waterfront Hall as she sings “The Leaving Song” and she follows this with a few verses from Tommy Sands’ song “There Were Roses”. This is introduced as a song of peace to mark 20 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and she gets the audience to join in on the chorus. This gets possibly the biggest cheer of the evening.
Ralph McTell takes the stage to present Best Original Track he spends some time extolling the pleasures of song-writing for it’s own sake. This award goes to Lankum for “Granite Gaze” with Radie Peat noting “we’ve never even won a raffle before” before the band thank “our ma’s and da’s, sisters and brothers and some of our cousins.”
The biggest surprise of the night is when Radcliffe introduces the one and only Sir Van Morrison and asks him to present the Lifetime Achievement Award. Van takes the stage in baseball cap and sunglasses and delivers a heartfelt tribute to his friend Donal Lunny, name-checking his work with bands such as The Bothy band, Moving Hearts and Planxty as well as international artists like Kate Bush and Elvis Costello. Lunny then joins fiddle player Zoe Conway to play a slow and melancholic tune before picking up the pace with his signature rhythmical bouzouki style and playing a rather more lively jig.
Finbar Furey presents the Best Group award, and it’s not a surprise that it’s another one that goes to Lankum.
Nick Drake is inducted into the Hall of Fame and this is introduced by his sister and actor Gabrielle Drake who reminisces about Drake’s quiet personality, his shyness and his passion and love for his music which she illustrates using his lyrics. Olivia Chaney takes the stage to sing her cover of “River Man” in tribute to Drake and this is a slow and deliberate version of one of Drake’s better-known songs.
BBC Radio Ulster’s own Lynette Fay presents the Young Folk Musician to the Isle Of Man-based composer and harpist Mera Royle, who is clearly a little overcome by the occasion. Best Album is presented by folk legend Maddie Prior and it goes to Strangers by the band The Young’uns. This is a stand out album from a band with a significant and serious social conscience.
There’s not much that you can say about Paul Brady that hasn’t already been said. Tonight he plays “Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender” from last year’s Unfinished Business album. It’s classic Brady, from the guitar playing to the complex lyrics and story-telling and (for my money) the performance of the evening.
Tommy Sands presents the Good Tradition Award to the Armagh Pipers group, in recognition of their work over many years in education and the promotion and development of traditional music in Ireland. Starting out as a small group playing the pipes, the group have now been going for just over 50 years and take in all aspects of traditional music.
Before we get to hear the Armagh Pipers end the show, the last award needs to be presented – Folk Singer of the Year. This is presented by Karan Casey (Solas) who gives a speech that was probably a little longer than most of the performances. Casey describes this years’ recipient as being a deeply compassionate female role model, a tremendous activist and a fine footballer; the award goes to Korine Polwart and this is very well-received by the crowd in the Waterfront.
The evening ends with the Armagh Pipers featuring Jack Warnock (nominee for young folk musician) on guitar and Jarlath Henderson (a previous winner of the young folk musician award).
A great night, and another jewel in the crown for Northern Irish music. The big winners of the night were undoubtedly the very popular Lankum and the Gigging NI team left happy, and in search of the afterparty.