Towersey Festival celebrates its golden anniversary this August with a very special five-day event in its stunning rural setting near Thame. Oxfordshire. From Thursday 21st until Monday 25th August the event embraces great music plus poetry, story-telling, theatre, dance, comedy, circus, visual arts, film and fine food, cider and real ale. As part of the festivities at Towersey, this year there will be a special concert celebrating 75 years of Topic Records, hosted by folk singers Norma Waterson and her daughter Eliza Carthy. There is also Towersey's Children's Festival with a range of attractions from craft activities to baby reflexology.

Amongst the musicians appearing at this special celebratory 50th Towersey are world-class guitarist Richard Thompson, Mercury Prize winner Seth Lakeman, Eliza Carthy, Nancy Kerr and James Fagan, hree-piece traditional folk musicians Lau who have four times been BBC Radio 2's Best Folk Band plus the Bootleg Beatles who headline the opening night spectacular.

I spoke to several of the artists appearing at Towersey and to Festival Director Joe Heap whose grandfather was one of the event's founders back in 1965.

“We are hugely proud to be celebrating Towersey Festival's Golden Anniversary,” Joe Heap told me, taking a moment away from the mammoth task of running what is now a sizeable event. “Towersey appeals to a very wide audience and is popular with all age groups. Often three generations of a family attend together. We attract at least 10,000 people each year - we are especially popular with campers and caravanners - and in the last decade we have raised over £250,000 for local charities, trusts and organisations. Plus there is much more to Towersey than the music, good though that always is! We've developed Towersey as a broader arts event and forged strong links with local organisations like Thame Arts and Literature Festival. There is art and sculpture on site from local artists, a big spoken word strand with poets and storytellers plus there are poetry and story writing workshops. Thame Film Club are programming various films too. Running in parallel there is the Children's Festival with all its popular attractions and a Real Ale and Cider Festival with 20 different locally-sourced real ales and ciders plus a wide range of catering."

“I am told there are over 700 music festivals this year in England but Towersey definitely stands out as something very different. We are like a giant village fair with massive family appeal. We have twelve stages from a tiny busking space to a 3,000 capacity headliner's stage area. Ahead of the Towersey Festival there is a launch event at the James Figg pub in Thame which will feature Megan Henwood, former BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards winner and a rising folk star."

“At Towersey we are keen to attract people who wouldn't necessarily attend other festivals,” Joe continued. “So we offer a range of ticket prices including the chance to just pay around £20 to see a single top performance by Richard Thompson or the Bootleg Beatles or Seth Lakeman. There's also an £8 'festival taster ticket' which is bought at the gate and allows access to the main showground for the day.”

Joe Heap's grandfather Denis Manners was a co-founder of Towersey Festival back in 1965.

“My grandad was one of a small group of local music and dance enthusiasts who ran a folk club in the village,” Joe explained. “They wanted to raise funds to refurbish the Memorial Hall in Towersey and decided to run a little event in the barn at the Three Horseshoes pub. A few local musicians and dancers took part. It was a big success and from that year on my family were always involved. My dad, Steve Heap, took over in the 1970s and now that responsibility has passed to me. A lot of money has been raised over time."

“We have attracted some major artists over the years. Way back, Martin Carthy used to perform at Towersey - it is great that his daughter Eliza is playing here this year - and later we had the Beautiful South, Chas'n'Dave and many household names. It is hard work running Towersey. But it is always worth it. Nothing makes me happier than a glorious, sunny day with a big, blue sky and watching thousands of people enjoying our large showground at the hub of Towersey Festival. Just seeing all those visitors with the musicians sitting amongst them on the grass and hearing the wonderful music and laughter everywhere is very special for me. Nothing ever beats that!”

Eliza Carthy keenly anticipates joining those happy crowds at Towersey this August. The highly acclaimed Yorkshire folk singer and fiddle player will be thirty-nine on the third day of the Towersey event. She first performed professionally at 13 with the Waterdaughters alongside her mother Norma Waterson and her aunt and cousin. Eliza's first ever solo gig was at Towersey.

“All I remember about that is blind panic,” Eliza laughs now. “These days I do between ten and fifteen festivals each year and I am not quite so nervous! Other things at festivals have really improved too - especially the toilets! Artists are also looked after better; you don't have to change in the car any more. I am really looking forward to Towersey and especially to acting as MD for the Topic 75 Concert which celebrates Topic's wide and wonderful catalogue down the years. We are working on the set list now. My family and I have a long association with both Towersey and Topic Records and feel great affection for both. Towersey gave me my first solo gig and Topic gave me my first solo record!”

Eliza's earliest recollections are of a house full of music. “There would be lots of parties at home. I'd be in bed upstairs but I could hear my mum and my Aunt Lal (Waterson) and her husband, my uncle George, all singing away. And we had American, Cajun and Indian friends staying so banjos, guitars and a sitar would be playing and exotic food would be cooked. It took me years to realise that not everybody's family is like that, and then I'd be puzzling whether it was something strange or something special! Now I know the answer - everyone is special and strange! My own early music influences were Louis Killen, the traditional Irish piper Seamus Ennis, Rory McLeod and English folk musician Chris Wood. But I also listened to Bob Dylan and Michael Jackson.”

In 2005, Eliz participated in a major tribute event for the iconic singer and musician, Peggy Seeger. “Working with Peggy was lovely,” Eliza recalls fondly. “Though I was a little intimidated by her just because of who she was. I will never forget singing 'Che Guevara' with her and accompanying her on the fiddle on another song. It was such an honour to be invited to do that by someone of Peggy's stature - you feel like you are four again and have had a massive cake on your birthday! That's certainly a moment I'll always treasure.”

Eliza's next album will be with the American musician (and music professor), Tim Eriksen. But meanwhile she is fully focused on her Towersey commitment and the Topic 75 Concert.

Richard Thompson is equally enthusiastic about appearing at Towersey. He enjoys returning from his American home to perform at Fairport's Cropredy Convention every few years. So the chance to be at another open-air event in Oxfordshire is a bonus for him. “Each time when I come back to England to play, I enjoy it hugely,” he said. “After all, Britain is where everything began for me all those years ago.”

Richard, now 65, attributes his start playing guitar to the late Bert Weedon's 'Play in a Day' guitar book. “I had a battered old Spanish guitar as a young teenager and, thanks entirely to Bert's book, I did learn to play in a day,” Richard laughs. “My dad, who was a policeman at Scotland Yard, used to play guitar in a London dance band but, in truth, I never learned much from him. I went my own musical route. Like so many of my generation, I'd been influenced by skiffle and early rock'n'roll and it helped that the guitar was a sexy thing to be seen playing back then. I joined various bands at school and we did R & B covers. We also tried to be like the Who. By the time I was 18 I was with Simon Nicol, Ashley Hutchings, Martin Lamble and Judy Dyble playing clubs and universities as Fairport Convention."

"Increasingly, I started writing songs and, in 1969, I wrote 'Genesis Hall'. These days I am based in the USA and divide my time between writing, recording - often in Nashville - and touring. Getting back to the UK is something I always look forward to, so appearing in those Oxfordshire fields at Towersey will be a great pleasure.”

The Bootleg Beatles have an incredibly busy touring schedule but, as Steve White ('Beatle Paul') told me as he and the band were preparing to fly to Australia, playing UK festivals is something they especially enjoy.

“We appear at a lot of festivals - we've done Glastonbury six times - and it will be great to be part of Towersey's Golden Jubilee event. The Bootleg Beatles started 34 years ago and, a bit like the real Beatles, we enjoyed big success overseas sooner than we did in the UK. Then, in the Nineties, when Oasis invited the Bootlegs to support them at the Albert Hall and then on tour, that grew a new contemporary home audience for us and really opened up things. Suddenly the band were sharing stages with Rod Stewart, David Bowie, the Corrs and all kinds of people. Last year at Glastonbury we were with the Rolling Stones, the Proclaimers and a lot of other heroes of ours - which was fantastic.”

The Bootleg Beatles have in the past played in front of Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and the Beatles' producer George Martin has been very complimentary about the authenticity of the Bootlegs' sound.

“George Martin really loved the Bootleg Beatles show,” Steve told me. “What George particularly appreciated was the way the Bootlegs perform live some of the later Beatles' songs which the Beatles themselves never played outside a recording studio. We use a small orchestra to achieve that, and we work very hard at replicating everything as exactly as we can. George Martin said he was really impressed - and that meant a lot to all of us.”

Is Steve ever frustrated at playing in a tribute band - even one enjoying the huge international following and commercial success of the Bootleg Beatles? Do he and the other band members sometimes yearn to be appreciated as themselves and perform some of their own original material?

“I never find it at all frustrating,” Steve insisted. “I am a huge fan of the Beatles, as we all are. It is an incredible privilege to be able to recreate that music on stage as perfectly as we can and to get the rapturous reception we do - in America, India, Europe, Australia - everywhere really. I am told there are even some tribute Bootleg Beatles bands who emulate us, now! We do enjoy adopting a bit of the persona of the Beatle we are representing too. Mind you, I am careful not to do any of that out of hours to the point where my family would get irritated. It is important never to blur the lines between fantasy and reality - so I definitely don't do that!”

Does Steve have a favourite Beatles number?

“Well, I have always liked country music and I do enjoy a lot of the Beatles' earlier recordings,” Steve reflected. “But I also love George Harrison's 'Something' which has to be one of the best ever Beatles compositions. His 'Here Comes the Sun' is a great song too - beautiful in its simplicity, just perfect really. I believe George was under-estimated as a writer. It was bad luck being as good a songwriter as George Harrison was and ending up in the same band as mega-talents like Lennon and McCartney! But on the Beatles' last album, for me it is George Harrison's songs that really stand out."

“When we perform we try to cover each phase of the Beatles' career, and we always include many of the biggest crowd-pleasers, the classics, that everyone sings along to. We'll have all the supporting orchestral musicians with us at Towersey. It should be a wonderful night for everyone!”


For details of Towersey's Golden Anniversary Festival visit www.towerseyfestival.com.











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