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11 février 2007

The BBC Folk Awards, The Brewery, London

Folkies aren't supposed to want to be famous; they're supposed to want to be contiguous with their tradition. This does not appear to be an issue for Seth Lakeman (inset), the young Dartmoor multi-instrumentalist and beacon of spanking new folk celebrity. He won two gongs at the BBC Folk Awards last week and treated the assembly to a demonstration of authentic star quality.

He radiates wide-eyed camera-ready energy and he does it without inhibition. But whereas Lakeman just goes out there and gets on with it, everyone else in folk is a bit anxious about the celeb thing, not least the BBC. The problem, of course, is that to serve folk's cause you need to get "profile". To get profile you need to get people's attention. And to get people's attention these days requires celebrity, or so they say. What then ensues is the marketing grail: momentum. So while the Folk Awards have got bigger and bigger over the half-decade or so since their inception, year-on-year biggerness has become an absolute requirement.

Danny Thompson and Peter Gabriel (not a mirror image!)

This year the ante was upped afresh. The stage was dressed with Hollywood twinkles, Eliza Carthy dressed herself as the inside of a pomegranate and Lembit Opik MP made a speech in which he declared a passionate interest in Romanian musicianship.

That was the only real stomach-churner, though, because the Beeb just about got it right, by inviting celebrity gong-presenters possessed of real status but, Opik aside, reasonably contained vanity. Nick Park, Andrew Motion, Sir David Attenborough, Rosanne Cash, Peter Gabriel and Jennifer Saunders were gracious, un-narcissistic and in some ways relevant to the recipients of their prizes. Vin Garbutt and Archie Fisher were less sexy but more relevant.

In real folk terms, though, sexy is hard to define. Some might suggest that the definition of 21st-century folk sexiness might be the unlooked-for onstage reunion of the first great crossover artists of British folk. No, not the Seekers. Pentangle. And so it came to pass. A shudder of anticipation passed round the Brewery as the original five-pointed stars of folk-rock-jazz-blues fusion took the stage for the first time in 30 years and then completely cocked up their first number, "Bruton Town". They followed it, almost flawlessly, with that hoary old cliché of Sixties pan-cultural fusion, "Light Flight", and everyone felt a lot better. You even began to get a sense of what it was that made them into celebrities all those years ago - slippery, shiny, elusive music that defies easy definition. Music which is remarkable for being neither wholly one thing nor another.

By Nick Coleman

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