Tønder Festival 2019: Everything was almost perfect - the preparation, the line-up, the weather, the spirit and last but not least the many fantastic performances.
„Almost perfect“ means that unfortunately John Moreland had to cancel his visit to Tønder. His place was taken by Danish singer/songwriter Claus Hempler. A few days before festival start, John Prine was also forced to stay at home, due to his current health situation. Art director Maria Theessink made the best of the situation in putting together a highly inspired bunch of musicians, who played an „All the Best“ John Prine tribute as final highlight of this year’s festival.
The festival was opened by local and international heroes Savage Rose, who released their first album in 1968 and are still going strong.
My first discovery were The Birds of Chicago, who played a beautiful set in the picture-perfect Bolero tent. Their recent album „Love In Wartimes“ was purchased immediately after the gig at the CD/LP shop on-site.
The Delgres (Pascal Danae : voice, guitar, Baptiste Brondy: drums and Rafgee: sousaphone), who were born in France, with Guatemalan roots, played a fine southern blues on the OpenAir stage. Their inspiration reaches from John Lee Hooker to Daniel Lanoir.
Next stop Visemøllen, the location where everything started 45 years ago. Max Gomez, originally from New Mexico and still in his twenties, inhaled the music of the old masters, like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, as an early teen. Still he found his own path very soon. His winning voice is only surpassed by his winning smile; which would melt away every mother-in-law’s heart.
We already had the pleasure to witness Irish Mythen last year. But you can never get enough of this energetic and determined power woman. In short time, Irish already became a local (and hopefully international) hero. This lady has a lot to say, and she says it with the strongest of voices.
John Smith, an English folk singer and songwriter, gave a good taste of his folk covers as well as his own compositions. Ideally set on the Bolero stage.
American singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly appeared in tent 2. He and his highly motivated band played quite a modern set. Still, the ghost of the Carter/Cash clan shone through.
We headed to tent 1, to witness the second of my „must see’s“, I had on my list: Canadian singer/songwriter James Keelaghan with his congenial partner Hugh McMillan. Before Tønder I was only aware of one of his songs, „Cold Missouri Waters“, performed by the short-lived band Cry Cry Cry. Beautiful songwriting, great warm voice and skillful instrumentation. If I’d say that John Denver’s voice sounded quite a bit like James‘, I would mean it as a big compliment to the late Mr. Denver.
We started the Friday with a refreshing déjà-vu of Kate Rusby. I hadn’t seen her for around twenty years (last time must have been at the Cambridge Folk Festival end of the 90s). Still equipped with her charming Yorkshire accent flavoured voice, Kate and her mates made us forget the long interval immediately.
We could only take a short listen to Blair Dunlop, son of ex-Fairport, ex-Steeleye Span, ex-Albion Band bassist Ashley Hutchings and Judy Dunlop. Although running his father’s Albion Band for some years, Blair later developed his own singing and songwriting skills, which we appreciate at the Bolero.
After an entertaining performance of Adam Holmes & The Embers at Visemøllen, we headed back to tent 1, to listen to Chris Smither, the great singer/songwriter/guitarist from New Orleans. Smither was also on my „first priority“ list, and he did not disappoint at all. Getting his kick into the music business by Eric von Schmitt in the sixties, Smither is still going strong with his convincing warm voice and his wonderful guitar play. As Smither admitted in an interview, he is amazed that he does music for a living for about fifty years in the meantime. And I guess it pays him sufficiently well, as his songs were covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Joe Cocker, Diana Krall, Josh Ritter, just to mention a few.
The next act was like an earthquake for some. Situated at romantic Visemøllen, William Crighton and band shocked quite a few of the more traditional listeners with their dark, loud and hefty intro. After Crighton asked the audience to put aside all chairs in order to have more space to move about, some people fled to quieter places; just to make room for more inspired newcomers. What a man, what a voice!
As a warm-up, Breton folk band Startijenn opened up the Saturday for us very nicely. We were put back to our first visits to Brittany in the early 80s, when we saw An Triskell, Gwendal and Malicorne.
Designated highlight of the day was the Women’s Circle, a traditional gathering of six lady musicians, this time consisting of Irish Mythen, Caitlin Canty, Signe Svendsen, Heidi Talbot, Jenn Grant and Leslie Stevens. In two hours, each of the six did three songs, bridged by a lot of stories and laughter. As the climax, the circle did a beautiful version of Amazing Grace.
Irish grandmaster Finbar Furey continued in tent 1. This man has a lot to tell and a lot to play. It was a joy to listen to his stories as well as to his and his mates‘ musical performance.
Canadian singer/songwriter Jenn Grant and husband/musical partner Daniel Ledwell played a heartwarming and intimate set at the Visemøllen.
The Saturday was closed (for us) by Scottish traditional/contemporary band Breabach at the Klubscenen tent.
Sunday wake-up call service was given by Calum Stewart, one of the greatest Uilleann Pipe player from Scotland. Who isn’t awake after exposed to Uilleann Pipes, garnished by some lovely tap dancing, must be dead.
The Gentlemen’s Circle started at 2pm in tent 1. Three songs each, by artists Chris Smither, Dan Sultan, William Crighton, James Keelaghan,
Poul Krebs and Ian Noe. The gents finished half an hour earlier than the ladies the day before. I wouldn’t say that their songs were shorter, more likely the communication between each other as well as with the audience was. The other way around I’d say, the ladies were much more in chatting mood.
Another great name on my first priority list was Patty Griffin. I have got quite a few of her albums, but I saw her live only once before, as a member of the Band of Joy, together with Robert Plant. Her set in tent 2 was very Soul and Gospel driven, which suited her and her formidable band excellently. I could have listened for hours longer.
The final highlight was supposed to be John Prine, but as mentioned before, the good man couldn’t make it to Tønder, due to his state of health. Still a highlight it was! Maria Theessink put on stage a group of super inspired and talented musicians, who honoured Mr. Prine with wonderful interpretations of his songs.
To conclude I’d say that although the individual performances and styles of music were extraordinary, the best reason to go to Tønder is the overall spirit, which unites organizers, volunteer helpers from near and far, locals, caterers, musicians audiences and all other good people, who contributed.
The 46th Tønder Music Festival of Folk, Roots, Traditional Music and Americana will take place between 27th and 30th August, 2020.
Photo Credits: (1) Tønder Festival 2019 (by Helle Arensbak); (2) Max Gomez, (3)-(5) Delgres, (6) Birds of Chicago, (7) Irish Mythen, (8) John Smith, (9) Ruston Kelly, (10) Kate Rusby, (11) Blair Dunlop, (12) James Keelaghan, (13) Savage Rose, (14) Chris Smither, (15) Julieanne & William Crighton, (16) Heidi Talbot, (17) Caitlin Canty, (18) Calum Stewart, (19) Patty Griffin, (20) Finbar Furey, (21) Poul Krebs (by Michael Engstfeld).