PG Wodehouse memorably reviewed the first Flashman novel in terms of privileged "watcher of the skies" observers being present at the birth of something special. I suppose, to extend a battered metaphor, that's how I felt at the Whitby Folk Festival in 2011.
A capella folk is not the most obvious genre for young musicians to start out in - risking credibility immediately by coming out somewhere on the spectrum between The Flying Pickets and a poor man's Ladysmith Black Mambazo. However, that night, high on the headland overlooking the harbour, we made the acquaintance of The Young 'Uns. Over a 45 minute set they showcased a seemingly effortless ability to marry three part harmony with North Eastern folk. Obviously, with a new band it's easiest to measure them by their interpretations of standards, and their rendition of John Ball certainly seemed competent enough. But what really made the difference was the strength of their own material. It just didn't seem like there was going to be a gap in the market any time soon for 3 twentysomethings and an accordion.
How wrong can you be? The Young 'Uns have a sound quite unlike anyone else out there currently. Seth Lakeman's a great fiddle player, but his material can seem a bit one note - if he had the courage to slow things down a bit and get rid of the softer folk rock elements he'd be roughly in the same ballpark. Similarly, if the Unthanks were just a bit more cheerful.....
The Young 'Uns first album, "When Our Grandfathers Said No," hit the streets at the back end of last year, and is about as far away from the North London "I can't get over Laura Marling" banjo feyness of your Mumfords as you can get (and a prudent man would like to go much further). What you've got here, is love, loss, heavy industry, beautiful harmonies, and the glamourisation of Hartlepool that that town has long unaccountably lacked.
I like Hartlepool personally; it has a certain honesty and stark beauty - especially to the north, where it shades round to Easington and Seaham Harbour. However, I'd be lying if I said I'd ever seen it as romantic - I once stood above the town and took in the panorama, from the steelworks via Cameron's Brewery to the nuclear power station, and wondered who the town fathers had upset.... The closing track on the album, Jenny Waits for Me, which they performed in Whitby 2 years ago, makes it all much clearer. This is real folk, it's also real life - from the depressing drudgery of "The Chemical Worker's Song," to the gruff honesty of "Love in a Northern Town," the Young 'Uns take you further into Britain's folk scene than many will be comfortable with, but God they can sing.
Disappointingly, they won't be at Cropredy this year (my one man lobbying mission obviously needs to step up a gear), but they are on the Whitby bill again - go and see them, and, if you can't, buy their album.