You wouldn’t think that anyone would mistake a one day music festival in Winchester for the sprawling SXSW held annually in Austin. However, the lawyers at SXSW thought the possibility was there so they slapped a cease and desist order on Oliver Gray’s SXSC (South By South Central) some years back. Oliver, an author and long time music fan had set up SXSC in 2009 although he had been promoting shows in Winchester under that banner since 2004. Writing about his encounter with the SXSW folks he says, “The 2013 SXSC Festival was to be the last under that name, following a surreal series of email exchanges with lawyers representing the South By South West Festival in Texas. I tried to respond with levity but was always flat-batted back with stern, unresponsive legalese, so in the end gave in.” Thus was born SC4M – South Central For Music. Held annually the festival has featured many acts mentioned on Blabber’n’Smoke and this year is no exception so we reached out to Oliver to chat with him about the festival and his tireless promotion of Americana and roots music.
You say that you first really got interested in Americana type music when you saw Peter Bruntnell back in 2000.
Yes, although I’ve been going to gigs since the mid sixties I really first stumbled upon this more roots based music when I first saw Peter Bruntnell. That was in the Tower Arts Centre in Winchester and I decided then that I’d have a go at promoting what was then called alt-country with my friend, Richard Williams. Our first show was in 2003 and the act was of course Peter Bruntnell. After that, we put on shows at The Railway Inn on a fairly regular basis and also started doing house concerts before we decided to try a one day festival. I’d been to SXSX several times and thought we’d call ours South By South Central as it seemed to fit Winchester geographically and sum up the music.
So this year is the eighth festival?
That’s right. We started off in 2009 with Peter and Richmond Fontaine headlining. We call Peter our lucky mascot because he is one of our very favourite musicians and he’s played at The Railway Inn so often and it’s almost a tradition that he and his fans will be at the festival and this year is no different. His latest album, Nos Da Comrade has been so successful that we take it as a compliment that he’s still happy to come along and play for us. He’s a busy man these days touring in various formats and we’ve actually got him coming back in October when he’ll be playing with the legendary BJ Cole but for SC4M it will be the four-piece band who can really rock. I saw them a few weeks ago at Static Roots in Oberhausen and they were really good as were Danny & The Champs, another great band who have previously headlined SC4M.
The festival takes place in The Railway Inn. Can you tell us a little about the venue?
Yes, it’s almost my second home. It’s your classic, slightly dingy, music venue but it has a great atmosphere and it has the advantage of having two rooms, the barn, which is the main room where we have the bands, and the attic which is where we put on the acoustic acts. We alternate the location so there’s never two acts playing at the same time which is one of my pet hates at festivals when you’re watching a band but really wishing you were at another one playing at the same time. So the audience can amble from room to room and see all of the acts. It’s very homely, almost club atmosphere, just a bunch of friendly people having a nice time together which is what we’re all about. The capacity is 100 and if all of them came into the attic it can be a bit claustrophobic but some people take time out for a drink or a bite to eat so usually it’s not too crowded. It starts at noon and goes on until 11. Tickets are £32, same as last year even though our costs have gone up and there’s a range of food and lots of ale. It’s not your overpriced festival stuff, it’s a proper pub.
There’s quite a lot of these smaller events going on these days and I’m glad to see that. I was at Ramblin’ Roots a few weeks ago and they had a similar set up with several of the artists who were on veterans of SC4M but it seems that as the appetite for what we call “Americana” grows there’s room for more, we’re not in competition. The more the merrier I say as there’s an astonishing amount of talent out there and if we can help in any way to let them play to sympathetic audiences then it’s a job well done. It’s always a fraught time as financially it’s extremely tight, we don’t make a profit and each year I get into a bit of a panic over whether we’ll sell enough tickets but in the end we always do. I hand out flyers for example at The End Of The Road Festival and quite a few people seem to come having seen them so it seems to work. We don’t have a publicity budget so it comes down to word of mouth and sympathetic folk mentioning us although I have to say that RnR magazine (formerly R2 and before that Rock’n’Reel) very kindly gave us an advert in return for us advertising the magazine at the festival. It’s very kind of them and they’re a great supporter of roots music.
Blabber’n’Smoke has mentioned many of the acts appearing this year : Peter Bruntnell, Emily Barker, Benjamin Folke Thomas, Joanna Serrat, Curse Of Lono, Robert Chaney and Vera Van Heeringen. There are a few we’re not familiar with, can you tell us about them?
Lucas & King are two girls from the Southampton area and we’ve put them on a lot. There’s quite a taste right now for sweet voiced duos but these guys are quite different. Bo Lucas sings and she sounds almost like Tammy Wynette but the songs aren’t anything like traditional country as they go into quite biting and original topics while Hayleigh King is a wonderfully fluid electric guitarist who plays with no effects sounding almost like Chet Atkins. Jonas and Jane are a bluegrassy husband and wife duo from Farnham, just up the road for us and they played last year and blew the audience away so we’ve moved them up the bill a bit this year. Finally there’s Dan O’Farrell, the “token” local guy, he’s quite a political writer, our local Billy Bragg.
As with Peter Bruntnell we’re happy and proud to have Emily Barker back as she puts on a lovely show and she has been a stalwart supporter. As for Benjamin Folke Thomas we’re hoping he has the Swedish Mafia with him but at present we’re not sure if he will or if it will be a solo performance. And then there’s Curse Of Lono. It’s unusual for me to book a band I haven’t seen personally but they’re playing a bunch of festivals and I thought we’d better get them while we can. It’s a great line up and you could say we have two themes really. The first is Internationalism as our acts are from all over – Sweden, Spain, Australia, Holland etc and secondly we wanted to try and feature as many female acts as we could and I think we’ve managed that.
I was looking at the SC4M website and the list of artists you’ve promoted over the years, at the festival, The Railway Inn and your house concerts, is just astounding. Are you able to mention any particular highlights?
We always love it when Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express come as they always do a storming show and I was really pleased to see that Uncut did two full length album reviews this month of acts that we’ve presented. They featured John Murry who headlined the festival last year and This Is The Kit who are of course originally from Winchester. I think that the best show that we’ve ever done was not at the festival but we put on Sarah Borges with Girls, Guns and Glory and there was only about 12 people in the room. Despite that they played the most exciting show I’ve ever seen.
The house shows have been going on for some time and they’re a wonderful experience. As empty nesters we’re able to offer to put the musicians up for the night which of course helps them to keep the costs down. These musicians are inevitably incredibly nice people especially the Americans who are so polite and appreciative. Through this we’ve become good friends with some of them over the years especially the guys in Richmond Fontaine. Although it’s a hobby and doesn’t make us any money it’s a privilege to be a part of it and I honestly believe that we’re living in a bit of a golden age for Americana.
So, it sounds like a great day out and you can purchase tickets here. As Oliver says there’s only space for 100 folk so best to snap one up quickly. At £32 that’s less than £3 a band!
The SC4M webpage has a host of information including a great list of all the acts who have appeared under the SC4M/SXSC banner over the years. There’s also a Youtube channel, The Swiss Cottage Sessions , where you can see many of the acts who have played at the house concerts. In the meantime here’s classic clip from a previous festival…