NHL Festival Debrief

First things first. I’m going to apologise for the lack of much coherent content here, and to anyone at the festival I may have gazed blankly at without realising. Last week was insanely busy with the day job and I’ve been running around like a maniac for ages in bad need of some R&R. So getting up at 03:30 on Saturday morning to drive to Gloucester wasn’t really what I needed. I was too tired and walked around like a zombie most of the day, totally forgetting to take many pics or do much interesting.

(Pro-Tip: When you’re really tired. Drinking lots of coffee is not always the best option. Fruit and water would probably work better.)

It was the first time I’d attended the festival so wasn’t really sure what to expect. From what I saw the Hartpury College campus seemed like a good venue. The accommodation was fine (assuming you’re not too fussy about creature comforts) as was the food from the Graze cafe. The drinks in Legends bar were quite reasonably priced too so points for that.

On the downside, on arrival at the campus I had to wander around for ages trying to find where the festival was based. To be fair, it might have been easier if I had my wits about me but would it have killed them to put some simple signage up? I overheard a few people complaining about it.

As soon as I walked into the Mark Davidson Centre building where the workshops were being held I walked right into a slightly flustered Liam Ward who was trying to find the room for John Cook’s embossing workshop. I couldn’t help him, though we did both find it eventually. Seems rooms were being decided right up to the last minute and there were a few versions of the program knocking about.

Anyway, first up for me was the aforementioned embossing workshop conducted by John Cook. This was very interesting. Embossing is a subject that is rife with controversy and there’s a lot of misinformation around (hey, when is that not the case with all aspects of the harmonica?). Being able to see the reeds and slots under heavy magnification was revealing, and drove home just how very tiny adjustments can make a big difference. Dunno that I have the patience for that kind of delicate work but it’s good to know and John’s presentation was very engaging.

I followed that with Ben Hewlett‘s Orange Blossom Special workshop, which was okay I guess. It’s not a song I’ve tried to play before so I did learn a few things. It would have been nice if he had some handouts but he did offer to email them to anyone who wanted.

Next up was Liam Ward teaching What’s the Big Deal from his 2018 Uprising album. Handouts this time (thanks!). The harmonica solo on this is great and I’m definitely going to be stealing a lick or two.

Liam Ward’s workshop

Had a mooch around the merchant stalls after that. As well as various harmonicas for sale from various vendors, John Cook had a stall with his repair tools. Again, if I were in a better frame of mind I’d have paid much closer attention. I did stop at the Silverfish mic stall though. I only came across these online a couple of weeks ago and they have a unique look. They have a dynamic element and come in low impedance (for a clean sound) and high impedance (for a higher gain sound). I asked about the element but it seems that’s a trade secret. Hopefully someone will open one up and post their findings. I can confirm that in person they feel like a quality product and are so light you could almost forget you were holding it. For my taste maybe too small and light. After spending years accustomising to a JT-30 shell switching would be troublesome for me. I felt the same about the Bulletini (but that one definitely sounds awesome). Anyway, lunchtime.

Next was Ed Hopwood‘s workshop on tongue blocking octaves for pre-war and old-time harmonica. Ed is an engaging presenter and there was some good information here for those new to the subject. I learned the names of a couple of players who I’d not come across before to check out and learned some great octave licks. I chatted a bit to Ed at the evening concert and he’s a thoroughly nice chap.

Ed Hopwood’s workshop

Following that I had no choice but to collapse for a few hours kip before the evening concert. This was easily the highlight of the day. Varied styles and charismatic performers playing stuff I’ve never seen played live before.

First up was Eva Hurt. Playing traditional European folk tunes (I think). Lovely chromatic playing with more than capable accompaniment on piano, acoustic guitar and violin.

The Palamino Bros were charismatic and wildly entertaining as they used everything from humble diatonic to two-foot-long chord and bass harmonicas to conjure all sorts of exotic sounds. The highlight for me was their intense version of Dick Dale’s Misirlou. Which was faithful to the original at the same time as sounding like nothing else I’ve ever heard.

Can’t honestly remember whether it was Joe Powers or Will Pound up next, but they were both excellent. Joe’s stagecraft is as slick as his playing. And who knew there could be so much variety and power in a Tango? Not this lowly blues-folk boy, that’s for sure. Thoroughly enjoyed the set, and the piano accompaniment from Naoko Aoki was superb.

Will Pound was phenomenal though. Again, the music was not really in my wheelhouse but the technical prowess was astonishing. A harmonica and accordion duo is not the most natural pairing to me since they both occupy a lot of the same frequencies. In the hands of Will and Eddy Jay though, that’s no problem at all. They were able to create a thick, vivid and very intense sound together, and as I say, Will’s skills are off the scale. Also, I hadn’t realised that Accordion face was a thing but Eddy wins the prize for most demonically possessed expression while playing. Wish I’d got a pic.

Last up the Liam Ward Blues Band were every bit as impressive as I was hoping. I got the impression it wasn’t the regular lineup too so even more credit is due. Liam’s playing is superb. He’s great at adding little unexpected rhythmic and timing tricks to keep things interesting and is a great frontman too. It was good to hear some guitar and drums too after nothing but harmonica all day!

The Liam Ward Blues Band

Didn’t stick around for the jam afterwards though I wish I had. Just too tired. Collapsed into bed again and snuck away early on Sunday morning for the long drive back to Leeds.

Overall it was a fascinating experience. I liked the venue and there was more than enough going on. I only really went to workshops and the concert but there’s a lot more happening all the time.

Something important to note as well. There were a lot of people there who considered themselves beginners – a few I met who had only been playing a few months. There’s absolutely nothing for the inexperienced player to be intimidated about. In fact, it’s probably a better experience as you’ll learn so much. My advice is to take an audio recorder of some kind (even if it’s just the voice memo app on your phone) because being able to spend some time reviewing afterwards will enable you to get the best out of the workshops.

I’ll be attending next year if I can, and I’ll stay for the duration this time.

Oh, one last thing. If you ever wondered what a roomful of variously skilled harmonica players all trying to play something they just learned all slightly out of time with each other, it’s a lot like this.

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