Homefires festival, Conway Hall, London

Simple tales of alt.folk
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The Independent Culture

"To thine own self be true," reads the motto of Conway Hall, a meeting place for London's idealists, dissenters and cranks since the 1920s. Solidly oaken, stubbornly commerce-free and comfortingly out of time, it is the perfect place to host Homefires, a two-day snapshot of the burgeoning alternative folk scene. Bridging Britain and America, folk is really just one strand of what is not a scene in the normal sense of the word, but more an acknowledgement of the defiantly individual, strange souls whose creaking acoustic sounds are this year's most memorable music.

"To thine own self be true," reads the motto of Conway Hall, a meeting place for London's idealists, dissenters and cranks since the 1920s. Solidly oaken, stubbornly commerce-free and comfortingly out of time, it is the perfect place to host Homefires, a two-day snapshot of the burgeoning alternative folk scene. Bridging Britain and America, folk is really just one strand of what is not a scene in the normal sense of the word, but more an acknowledgement of the defiantly individual, strange souls whose creaking acoustic sounds are this year's most memorable music.

The organiser, Adem, and his ever-present partner in crime Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet, creator of "folktronica") have backgrounds in dance music, but the strange juncture they have now reached is revealed when I arrive on day one to find a mostly young and hip full house sitting cross-legged on the floor, listening intently to faint acoustic strums. The very opposite of dance culture's visceral, chemically aided onslaught, this is music requiring careful, intimate attention. Far from shouting over it, no one even speaks. People have gathered simply to experience new, quiet music with an open mind.

The stage is strewn with old lamps and armchairs, and on it Micah P Hinson, a bespectacled 22-year-old with a chequered past from Memphis, is making his acoustic guitar veer between near-silence and angry thunder. His songs of self-lacerating, exhibitionist emotion - casually threatening suicide to friends - are 21st century in tone, but prove the force of traditional folk's spare sound. The act of singing seems to physically take him over at times, and by the end he is roaring damaged sentiments at a mic he's left swinging from its stand, which he barges into while hopping maniacally. His eccentric extremity is typical of this loose scene's American branch.

Adem, up next, is an unlikely British scene-maker, slight and nervous even when so clearly among friends. But the lovelorn, slightly paranoid sensitivity of his album Homesongs chimes perfectly with the crowd's mood. "With all your senses dulled, you'd do anything to feel," he sighs on "These Are Your Friends", almost a manifesto for this music's intent. Near-whispered notes draw us in, before his yearning voice opens out, dramatising his songs' desire for the refuge of friends and home, a sense of small but achievable community that can be felt all around today.

The UK debut of Juana Molina, an Argentine former stand-up comedian, whose albums of bossa-nova-tinged folktronica are innovative, brilliant and lovely, starts awkwardly, her face hidden behind shadows and thick tresses of hair, as she sings in Spanish and twists strange sonar pulses from a synth. But 30 minutes of mad barking and playful, unclassifiable beauty later, she leaves to the biggest cheer so far, a triumph for herself and the crowd's wish to listen.

A solo set by Gruff Rhys, of Super Furry Animals, is followed by Beth Orton. Flanked on guitar by Adem and Hebden (who produced her upcoming album), she is cheeky and engaging, fiddling with her hair and chatting with the crowd. But, though she spliced folk and electronica almost a decade ago, her songs sound too straight for today's gathering.

Bert Jansch then closes proceedings, a British 1960s veteran revered in some quarters, and the only actual folk singer, by some measures, on the bill. The crowd stays to hear this gnarled root of the music they're discovering. Jansch provides Homefires' first non-self-obsessed protest song and astonishing guitar-playing, but he is too hesitant to connect fully. But he plays his part in an ambitious, heartening event.

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