Lancashire music festival returns
Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival co-founder John Flanagan talks to Tony Dewhurst about the challenges of the past year and how festivals will need to adapt to survive
There was a glint in his eye, the kind you would expect a batsman to have when he spies a short ball before clubbing it over the roof tops for a towering six.
“My wife has never forgiven me,” laughs John Flanagan as he recalls a golden moment from the 2018 Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues festival.
“I told her the headline act, Norwegian pianist Bugge Wesseltoft, was going to be out of this world – and he was. Bugge stepped on to the stage with an elf-skin tambourine, banged the instrument with a drum stick and it went, ‘Bong. Bong. Bong.’
“Then, there was this rhythmic whoosh, and suddenly he was creating layers of weird notes intermingled with a pulsating wall of sound.
“He was sampling music on a loop with this sonic blast reflecting the harshness of the Lofoten Islands, far above the Arctic Circle, where he has a holiday home.
“It was a masterclass – Bugge had transformed this collection of wild sounds into a brilliant musical triumph based on many jazz themes. It was definitely on the edge of the far-outer reaches of the jazz universe.”
It was at this point his wife looked at him with a stern expression and said: “That’s it. I’m never coming to see another jazz concert like this again.”
He adds: “I nodded sagely, and it just seemed such an hilarious moment and what makes music so special because we all have our own tastes. We do still talk about that brilliant Bugge Wesseltoft concert. At least I do!”
However, that warm and spontaneous festival vibe has been replaced by a great uncertainty as a chill breeze blows through the festival community.
“Suddenly we are in a different world, Covid-19 has ambushed us all,” he says. “Our culture is under threat because of the pandemic. We’ve got to find new ways of transforming these creative experiences. Britain is the home of music festivals. We need to get everything going again.”
The idea of staging a live-streamed festival began days after the country was plunged into the first Coronavirus lockdown.
John says: “When we had to cancel in 2020, we made the decision to get the festival on this year, come what may. We looked at every conceivable option. Would we able to have a live audience? Would crowd capacity be severely restricted?
“We even looked at the possibility of having a giant screen on the bandstand under Clitheroe Castle, showing the acts performing live from the Grand theatre. We just didn’t have the answers, though – nobody did.”
Surrounded by the constant flux and unpredictability of the health emergency there was just too much uncertainty.
Now all three days of the festival will be streamed for free over the May Day Bank Holiday featuring some of the biggest names on the British jazz and blues scene.
Singer-songwriter Kyla Brox, an avid supporter of the festival, will provide the vintage fizz when she headlines the jazz and blues jamboree on Bank Holiday Sunday.
“We decided not to charge a fee for any of the shows, because it increases people’s ability to come and enjoy the acts without any barriers,” says John.
“And beaming the festival out electronically will definitely give us an extra opportunity to deliver it to a wider audience.
“There will be a live question and answer session between the artists and audience, while the technicians are dubbing on clapping and cheering during the shows. It also gives the musicians a chance to market their new album or EP and to let fans know about their future plans which is really important.”
Still, there can be no substitute for the rollercoaster involvement of a live gig and all the emotion that generates.
“Doing something on-line can never be the same as experiencing that moment, having a drink and a chat with your friends, seeing the band warm-up and then to be enthralled by the sound. But the festival is going ahead and that’s the most important thing.”
“Before the pandemic hit, we’d usually have 15,000 people in and around Clitheroe during the festival with hotels and restaurants full.”
Planning a smaller-scale event has allowed the festival committee to take a more interactive role this year.
John says: “We’ve got a whole new wave of young jazz bands coming through, acts like Nubian Twist. Their starting point is jazz, but they are infusing their sound with other genres of music, for example dance or dub music. It is an incredibly interesting era of jazz music right now.
“We always try to bring new and exciting acts artists here – like Go Go Penguin – who played at Clitheroe before they became really famous.”
The festival always provides a strong showcase for local talent and Western Valley Swing, the Pancake Steel Band and Red Hot Drop, all on the bill this year, are incredibly talented musicians.
Two workshops under the leadership of Issie Barratt, artistic director of the National Youth Jazz Collective, will deliver special tips to young musicians.
Issie will be joined on festival Saturday by Alex Clarke and Ralph Porrett, finalists of the Young Jazz Musician 2020, and on Sunday by Rosie Turton and Jas Kayser.
Festival chiefs are kindly requesting donations to this year’s Festival Fundraiser - Fairplay to Musicians – as they bid to raise £2,000.
“Many artists and technicians have received no help whatsoever and this a way of trying to assist them financially and put a bit of money in their pockets,” says John. "It also keeps the festival in the spotlight, and that’s really important because it will create extra momentum for 2022.
“It is saying to our audience that we are still here and doing all these things for the community. People are ready for a bit more excitement in their lives and this festival will give it to them. Having appreciated the artists live, we would just ask the audience for a small donation of £5.”
Brilliant jazz vocalist Jacqui Dankworth headlined the inaugural Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues festival a decade ago - and since then they’ve attracted a host of international stars to Clitheroe - Courtney Pine, James Taylor, Arun Ghosh and Claire Martin.
John says: “We are incredibly proud of what the festival has become and how people have embraced it. The festival has attracted people from far and wide and they love coming here because the Ribble Valley is such a beautiful place to explore.
“People tell us that they come back year after year because it is a friendly and intimate festival where they can see an act and then sit down and have a pint with them. We want to keep the spirit of this wonderful community festival alive and when we can all re-unite it will feel more uplifting than ever.
“The one thing the last year has taught us is that we all need that human connection and to be a bit kinder to each other.”
Most importantly, the future of the Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival is secure and their hope is the festival will return to a traditional format next year with live crowds.
“We already have our eyes on 2022 and artists are champing at the bit to be involved,” says festival co-ordinator Sue Bradley. “For this year’s festival to be a real success we need you – the audience. Music doesn’t exist without the listener’s enjoyment – and this will be one of the first opportunities performers will have had for many months to share their talents and passion for creating jazz and blues.”
Acts who will be performing from April 30 to May 2 include Kyla Brox, The John Pope Quintet, the Nicola Farnon Trio and Neutrino. For the full festival line-up visit www.rvjazzfestival.co.uk