Northern Ireland, of all places, has provided rich pickings for a musical genre whose halcyon years were built on strident political comment and the darkly dramatic narratives naturally associated with traditional song. You might have thought that the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards – an event not unaccustomed to controversy – might have had a field day raging over Brexit, borders and a year without a devolved government as it made its Belfast debut.
Not a bit of it. As Irish legend Finbar Furey wryly observed, he’d be blown away by the technique of the new generation were he starting out now, but the new breed of folk star tends to be a far more polite and professional beast than earlier models, not given to speaking out of turn. And, with the public now admitted, these awards are a slick affair, a far cry from the raucous early years of heckles, indiscretions and general bad behaviour in the old days at the London Brewery.
Indeed, when politics was broached, it was from an unlikely source. Cara Dillon, from just 50 miles away in Dungiven, performed the melancholy Leaving Song and then announced that in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday peace agreement she’d sing a segment of Tommy Sands’ classic Troubles anthem, There Were Roses. The audience responded instantly, voices rising to sing the chorus in the most affecting moment of the night.
“When words fail, music takes over and speaks,” said Sands himself, later presenting the Armagh Pipers Club with a Good Tradition award, honouring a 52-year history of teaching and promoting uilleann pipes in a time when they were fast heading for extinction. An uplifting closing set from members of the club – now equally well equipped with flutes, harps, fiddles and concertina – underlined their effectiveness in this neck of the woods.
The coup of the night, however, occurred when a dapper Van Morrison shuffled on to present Dónal Lunny – the rhythm king behind many of Ireland’s greatest bands from Planxty to Moving Hearts – with a lifetime achievement award. An audible gasp went around the audience as Van’s name was announced, though his speech was brief. “If I had to talk for a living I’d be poor,” he said. He’s not wrong there.
The big winners were Lankum, the Dubliners formerly known as Lynched, who changed their name in deference to concerns about associations with black American history. Having delivered a jaw-dropping version of the great travellers’ song What Will We Do When We Have No Money?, Radie Peat’s strident voice knifing gloriously through the air, they went home with the gongs for best band and best original track, for The Granite Gaze – a deeply bitter song about the Irish state.
No shortage of anger in the lyrics there, then; nor from the not-so-young-any-more Young’uns, whose Strangers, a collection of extraordinary stories about ordinary people, won the public vote for album of the year. It turned out to be the only English victory of the night amid a wealth of Scottish triumphs. One of them, Karine Polwart, accepted her singer of the year prize from the Irish singer Karan Casey, who gave an impassioned speech pleading for female artists to be treated with more dignity and respect, a theme enthusiastically supported by Polwart, who’s never been shy about confronting injustice in her songs. “All my music comes from the place of being a woman and a mother,” she said.
Eliza Carthy and her buoyant 12-piece Wayward Band also addressed gender, kicking the show off in vibrant style with their deliciously wicked Devil in the Woman – morris dance and all – while Paul Brady reverted to traditional song with a masterful Lord Thomas & Fair Ellender.
Not noted for his upbeat chorus songs, you did wonder how a Hall of Fame induction of the late Nick Drake would sit with such a celebratory event, but his sister, actor Gabrielle Drake, gave a beautifully measured acceptance speech (“If Nick was standing here now, all 6ft 2in of him, he’d look at the ground, look up again with that warm, shy smile of his and say, ‘Uh … thanks’”) before Olivia Chaney sang his sombre River Man. The gender divide, geographical bias and Van the Man left the barroom juries with plenty of material for heated debate.
The winners in full
Best traditional track
Banks of Newfoundland by Siobhan Miller
Chris Stout & Catriona McKay
Musician of the year
Best original track
The Granite Gaze by Lankum
Lifetime achievement award
Hall of fame inductee
Young folk award
Strangers by The Young’uns
Good Tradition award
Armagh Pipers Club
Folk singer of the year
• The Folk Awards will be broadcast on 8 April on BBC Four at 9pm and on BBC Two Northern Ireland at 5.30pm.