Love Folk Festival, held the weekend closest to Valentine’s Day at The Atkinson Arts Centre in Southport, spans 2 days and 2 venues. Starting on the Friday evening and then all day Saturday, with the better known names in the main hall and the ‘Busk Folk’ event, hosted by online magazine FATEA, presenting developing artists on the Acoustic Stage, offering the chance of progression to the main stage in following years.

First up on the main stage is Frankie Archer – new to me but definitely making waves in a hurry, coming off the back of an appearance on Jools Holland and an increasing number of festival and gig bookings. Simultaneously the most traditional and the most modern artist of the weekend, combining a range of historic songs from the North-East with a range of electronic devices, from loops to what appeared to be a home made theremin. An explanation was forthcoming at times, which made the whole set, part gig, part Royal Academy lecture and never less than captivating throughout. It may well be that as one version of the Alex Glasgow’s Coalhouse Door closes, another one opens, bringing a vision of the future.

Headline act The Magpie Arc have been quite rightly described as a supergroup – bringing together some of folk’s finest, in the forms of Nancy Kerr, Martin Simpson and Finlay Napier and giving them the chance to expand their musical horizons and from the look of them, to have a jolly good time while they are doing so. With vocal duties passed amongst the front three and allowed their individual introductions to their chosen songs, what was offered was a range of moods and styles within what could broadly be termed folk-rock. The instrumental prowess was never in doubt, the intros and lyrical content also reflected social concerns and while Martin is recognisably one of the best acoustic guitarists around, the sight of both him and Finlay sporting Gibson SGs signified that some serious axe action was about to go down – and so it came to pass. Praise is also due to drummer Tom Wright and bassist Alex Hunter for being integral to the overall excellence. We visited Country-Rock, through Nancy’s more folk driven choices to a couple of real rock belters (see Gibson SGs) and an encore of ‘After The Last Bell Rings’ that evoked the early morning regrets of a night too well spent!

With Show of Hands, The Oysterband and Edward II all either bidding us farewell or taking an indeterminate break, there is room for others to step up – and this was very much the case of The Magpie Arc putting their best foot forward.

Saturday brought another set from Frankie Archer on the main stage – with more of the same and more – with audience participation taken to a new level by physically involving the crowd in creating the sounds, while the Acoustic stage was kicked into action by the always engaging John Reed, though sadly a timetable misfunction left him less exposed to the audience than was desirable.

Also appearing on the Acoustic Stage was classy duo Eleanor Dunsden and Gregor Black. Having decided that the a combination of full sized harp and a full drumkit would make for easy touring, they still had room to transport us to a cool session at Ronnie Scott’s, hugely atmospheric with surprisingly jazz elements. Both have graduated from the Glasgow Conservatoire – and the level of excellence was apparent throughout. Eleanor also appears as part of the fabulous Ranagri – due to wow a field full of people at Cropredy Festival this August and their eclecticism has not been abandoned for this new project!

Chris Fox demonstrated that making the progression from the intimacy of the Acoustic Stage to the expanses of the main room can be seamless. Drawing inspiration for his songs from the likes of Brad Pitt for Tinseltown or The Blues for ‘Who Really Loves You’, he can be atmospheric and evocative as well as rootsy, with the occasional nod to Laurel Canyon. Offering an easy and engaging manner, the bigger stages seem set for him.

A fifteen second dash between rooms brought a meeting with Roary Skaista, who along with the biggest smiles of the weekend, shared her joy, along with intimate and personally revealing songs, addressing issues close to her heart. Along with Elsi, the final performer on the Acoustic Stage, there is a whole host of younger talent waiting in the wings to take their place in front of larger audiences.

Iona Lane brought the day’s early session to a fine conclusion. Lyrical and gentle, whether her focus is outwards to the wonder and beauty of the natural world or more personally reflective, she finished with a fragile and evocative version of ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’.

After a break for sustenance and conversation, an introduction to the wealth of food choices at The Market Hall, and a cheeky half at the superb real ale haven but 20 yards from the venue, it was back to enjoy the evening offerings – kicked off by Harp and A Monkey. Firm favourites in these parts, they never fail to interest and entertain. Storytellers supreme and musically adventurous, they embrace both tradition and possibility – and who doesn’t love a song about a Molecatcher. Add all this to a comfortable and engaging rapport with the audience reflecting the personalities of three of the nicest guys you could wish to meet, and the result is, as ever, however long you spend in their company, it will be time well spent.

If Frankie Archer gave us the shock of the new, Nati offered something akin to new clothes for the old ceremony – though without the need for a Leonard Cohen cover. There is a buzz about her in certain circles, her appearance at last year’s Beardy Festival sent ripples from those who saw it and she certainly lived up to expectations. Percussive and powerful, she filled the stage and the venue with voice, guitar and personality, whether offering her own songs, an entrancing version of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’ (always evocative to habitués of Wigan Folk Club) or something a little more Gaelic, she remains characterful, with an easily established rapport and a knack for encouraging singalong audience participation. We liked Nati and expect to see much more of her at events around the country.

Which leaves Merry Hell to finish the whole thing off. From last night’s supergroup to a band that is just super! These days, it seems that you don’t so much go to a Merry Hell gig as live a Merry Hell gig. We laughed, we cried, we swayed, we sang, we got up and danced and when the time came for it all to end, we shouted for more! The introduction of some new songs didn’t disrupt the feng shui of the set, slotting seamlessly into a well-established routine. Final words to an audience member who commented that ‘they just get better and better’ and a venue crew member overheard to say, ‘that was absolutely (strong swear word) awesome’ and who are we to disagree?

Back next year – same folk time, same folk place. See you there!