Convention Review

Duple Time
The 24th Annual UK Filk Music Convention

Peter Tyers reports on the Ramada Hotel, Grantham, Lincolnshire,
event held 3rd - 5th February, 2012.

This year’s annual UK Filkcon was a mixture of joy and sadness – joy at all the music but sadness at the loss of one of its own.

Keris, aka Chris Croughton, the Chairbeing of the con, had passed away in a traffic accident three months earlier and the convention was very much in his memory and honour. Keris has been a feature of filkcons for as long as I can remember; shortish, dressed in beard and glasses and black T-shirt and black jeans, he was always to be found somewhere – often behind the sound desk – though his talents were not limited to technical matters! He was equally at home in front of the audience as an instrumentalist and was a member of several choirs, including the NMC, and was internationally recognised for his services to Filk. He was knowledgeable on many subjects and a conversation with him was bound to be interesting and full of insightful tales. He is greatly missed by his many friends.

Now for happier matters: the music! Following the Opening Ceremony and dedication to Keris, Valerie Housden kicked things off nicely with a varied set; some older, some newer.

Having nipped off to the bar for a quick dinner, I returned in time to listen to Doug Hamilton; a voice, a keyboard, and some very amusing songs - a little reminiscent at times of Flanders and Swann. Jackie Mitchell finished the evening, her strong voice belting out a spirited set. From then it was choice of visiting the filk circles for more music or hanging round in the bar and catching up with friends - well actually a bit of both!

Saturday’s first set came from Talis Kimberley, excellent as always, and featured some of her new songs. Mike Richards followed and the morning finished with Sebastian Kinder, this year’s Footloose Filker.

What is a Footloose Filker you ask. The idea is to encourage young, upcoming, talented filkers from mainland Europe to perform in front of audiences other than their own and to this end a 'grant' towards costs is sometimes awarded to a suitable 'candidate'. Sebastian proved to be a very pleasant, seventeen year old lad from Germany and he fulfilled his task well; he is still a little shy and quiet on stage but he performed well and this sort of experience can only help him develop his talents. And that will be good for all of us in the audience!

Sebastian was far from the only German attending; there is a healthy interchange of British and German filkers as they come to our filkcons and we go to theirs. Duple Time even imported the German habit of a full-time Master of Ceremonies for the weekend, and what’s more they imported Franklin Gunklemann (complete with tails, white gloves, and a sharp sense of humour) to do the honours.

The afternoon was mostly given over to the Main Concert, in which a goodly number of folks got to perform a number or two. Running simultaneously with the concert was the Filk Fund Auction, a vital part of raising the finances necessary to run these events. Running the two items together has proven very successful with the auctioneering filling in the 'quiet' bits whilst each artist/group is setting-up then the music 'breaks' keeping the auction vibrant; often it developed into a race between the auctioneer (Roger Robinson) and the techies, to the frequent amusement of the audience.

Next we were treated to the first set from Mary Crowell, the (American) International Guest of Honour, who proved to be a talented performer (hardly surprising given that she has a doctorate in music and used to be professor in the subject). Her singing was gorgeous and her piano accompaniment oh so fitting. To add to the fullness of the sound she was joined by Brenda Sutton (with whom she forms part of Three Weird Sisters) on percussion and by Mike Whitaker on bass.

Following dinner we sat down for an hour of the n’Early Music Consort (aka the NMC); once again their songs and choral work were both excellent and most inventive. The evening finished with the first appearance by Lissa Allcock, the UK Guest of Honour, sharing the stage with the rest of Phoenix, Filk’s own rock band. The music was suitably loud but over the years they have just got better and better so it was a shame that this was, they announced, their final appearance. We finished the evening with rollicking good classics such as Tom Smith’s 'Superman’s Sex Life Boogie' (featuring Tim and Jared Walker sharing vocals - a real pleasure to see Jared following in his father’s footsteps) and Leslie Fish’s 'Black Powder and Alcohol'.

Sunday morning started with an eclectic and most amusing session from Sponge Fingers (Xander Nyrond, Chris O’Shea, Silke, and Valerie Housden), followed by the flat-out and rather loud Castrophony (not as loud as Phoenix nor as tuneful, their youthful enthusiasm needs to be tempered by experience and practice).

The afternoon saw the second concerts by both of our special guests. Lissa delivered an excellent and varied set, inviting friends to join her on stage for various numbers, and proved that she is far, far more than just Phoenix’s drummer. Mary wowed us again with another outing, this time adding Tim’s trumpet to her 'backing band'.

And that just left the Sams - the annual awards. Nominations were open throughout the weekend, with the voting being after Sunday’s lunch. The final item on the programme was the Sams concert, a chance to hear the winning songs again, and this year’s winners were:
          Best At Con Performance: Peter Westhead and Soir for 'March of the Can't Breathe' (this was to 'Cambreadth' with Soir singing and Peter struggling on bagpipes (hence the can't breathe bit))
          Best Silly Song: 'Silver Rule' written and performed by Sebastian Kinder
          Best Serious Song: 'Spoon' written and performed by Talis Kimberley
          Filk Gold: 'Turn Back the Tide' written by Michael Greiner, arranged and performed by Phoenix.

To officially close the con we sang the almost obligatory 'Sam’s Song', a sort of lament that it was all over but also a reminder that next year we’ll be there again, meeting up with friends and celebrating filk music once more.

At this point some headed for home whilst those who were able to stayed on for a last evening, made dinner plans, socialised in the bar, and wandered in and out of the final open filk circle.

And that’s one of the nice things about the Filkcon, not only is there lots of good music from breakfast to bedtime but also a good community spirit. There are invariably people sitting round chatting with friends old and new, whilst the music varies from formal sets in the main hall, through the less formal circles (where anyone who wants to gets a chance to perform a song or two), to impromptu singing in the bar (admittedly usually in the later evening, after a beer or three). For those that finished breakfast early there were even 'morning classes', this year’s temptations being androgynous vocal techniques, yoga, and making silly hats out of paper (well, there is a limit to how serious you can get after a large hotel breakfast).

Like many national conventions, the annual Filkcon used to move round the country, from the south coast to the northern midlands, from Weston-Super-Mare in the west to Ipswich in the east, but of recent years it has, at least for the moment, settled at the Ramada Hotel in Grantham. There is a reason for that - Grantham is 'roughly central' and so is not 'too' far from the extremes of the country, it has good rail and road links (the hotel is just off the A1), and the Ramada has proved a very good venue. The layout is ideal for us, the main performance room is the right size and shape and has good acoustics, the bar and lounge are close by but just far enough away not disturb performances, the bedrooms are fine (without being unnecessarily luxurious), the staff are friendly and helpful, the food is good, the bar gets in real ale and real cider for us (both tasty and at sensible strengths), and the prices are reasonable. The evening dinner is sensibly priced and the bar meals likewise, with the soup-and-a-sandwich lunch option proving popular, so (unlike some cons) there is little to drive you to seek cheaper meals elsewhere (though there are nearby alternatives should you fancy a change of scenery). Admittedly we had a problem with prices and staffing levels one year but stern words were had with the management and normal service was rapidly resumed - a useful lesson in hotel liaison! As one of the staff told me as I was checking out: 'we like having you here, it’s one of our favourite weekend events - we explain to the new staff that you drink like a rugby club but behave like a chess club'. And that is not a bad way to be seen!

All told about a hundred and ten of us had gathered, enjoyed a weekend of good music and good company, eaten and drunk to our heart’s content, and left feeling all the better for it. Above all, it can be said that Duple Time did Keris proud!

Peter Tyers


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