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Matthew Pearson

Campfire Club, Bethnal Green Nature Reserve

  • The Campfire Club
  • The Music
  • The Location
  • Coming Up

The Campfire Club

The Campfire Club is a series of gigs taking place every week from May to September each year. Unamplified and by campfire, the evening concerts bring live music to some of London’s most treasured local pockets of green and woodland. Run by critically-lauded London folk club The Nest Collective, Campfire Club evenings showcase established and soon-to-be-so folkish acts from around the world. You might be treated to some improvised Indonesian gamelan music, a suite of American murder ballads or some sea shanties. You might hear a set of songs authored hundreds of years ago, or tunes made up last Friday in a shared house in Peckham. Whether through original compositions or traditional pieces, modern interpretations or resiliently trad arrangements, the performers all draw from the world’s wellsprings of folk music. They connect a country’s folk to their musical heritage and cross geographical borders to unite strands of musical lineage you wouldn’t have thought could be woven together. Basically, it’s not all beardy blokes with six strings. It’s small-f folk. International folk. And we have The Nest Collective’s curatorial eclecticism to thank for that. You bring your own blankets and food; buy a very reasonably priced drink from the table at the entrance; find a log to sit on near the fire; and let the warmth of the fire and soul of the music wash over you for two hours. [caption id="attachment_3496" align="alignnone" width="1365"][/caption]

The Music

We saw Aberdeenshire folksinger Iona Fyfe supported by Scottish singer-songwriter Samantha Whates. Whates’s simple songs of cherished childhood memories - and events in the adult world you might rather forget - warmed everyone into the evening, as the campfire did its best to do the same. The sun wasn’t quite done, you could still see the faces of the five and ten-times-that year olds around you...every quiet crack and fizz of an opening beer felt like too much of an intrusion in such a sober, close environment. But Whates’s gentle delivery, mix of confessional and state-of-the-world songwriting, and easy, cheeky between-song charm suited the intimacy of the early evening. Toward the end of her set, she said, “I’ve got five CDs for sale at the stand over that I mean five copies of the same CD. Shows how ambitious I am.” And that shows how unpretentious, friendly and warm this Campfire Club was. After her first song had inspired a singalong of Scots lyrics few in the audience would have understood, Iona Fyfe joked, “The last time I had a p*ss-up in the woods I was 14.” Because some ludicrously young people with ludicrously mature singing voices that can hold and enhance the magic, weighty themes and winding stories of centuries-old songs can also be very funny. Some people can just do the lot. The headliner played with the deepening atmosphere of the evening, performing story-songs and ballads from Aberdeenshire. Some sung in the Doric Scots dialect found a particularly unlikely but welcoming home in this bit of Bethnal Green, the mythical tales told in a language most could only partially recognise, but sung in a voice no one could fail to understand. Iona made the most of a loosening crowd and the growing darkness, with songs about murdered wives and sinking ships, as well as a few singalong choruses...about murdered wives and sinking ships. She closed her set with some Americana ballads, which her voice settled and soothed to meet. And that sent us on our way home.

The Location

Campfire Clubs take place across London. They hold some in North London, some in Peckham, some in Stockwell. We went to the one in Bethnal Green. They all pop up in community-run green spaces and patches of woodland, great and small. [caption id="attachment_3494" align="alignnone" width="1300"][/caption]


The Bethnal Green gigs are held in the artist and community-led Phytology space, a part of Bethnal Green Nature Reserve. This patch of purposeful wilderness amongst the planned pragmatism of East London serves as a research, performance and exhibition space for artists, scientists and the wider community. Their medicine garden provides free food and medicine to locals, while their Mobile Apothecary delivers homegrown herbal remedies to underserved communities in the local area. And they offer up a fairy light and candlelit clearing to the Campfire Club. A couple of streets over from the breweries and pizza places of the Bethnal Green arches, it’s not a space where you’ll feel removed from London. You’ll be lulled into the pastoral imagery of the folk songs and out-under-the-stars atmosphere of the campfire. Then the sound of a moped spitting down the road knocks you from your reverie and brings the urban land- and soundscapes into bold focus.

Folk in the City

And I think that’s kind of the point of The Campfire Club. This isn’t a weekend glamping trip where you pretend you don’t live in London. It’s not even a countryside walk. These are gigs in treasured little snatches of green that don’t deny the modern world around them. And that’s how the music comes across in such an environment. The authenticity of folk music has been under scrutiny since critics found out Bob Dylan was the son of an electrical appliance store owner from Hibbing, Minnesota. What does authenticity in folk look like now? The folk performers at Campfire Clubs can’t deny the modern world and our place in it. Not when a car alarm goes off as they’re singing about the quiet flow of lazy streams. So these age-old songs and themes are reinterpreted. Not reduced, but reinterpreted. When you see the canopy of leaves pierced by streetlights. As a baby cries and a car blares out music of its own. As someone shouts a rude word to a friend the other side of the road. The songs are reinterpreted by such sounds, just as they are by the crackle of the fire, the whistle of the wind in the leaves, and the giving squash of mud underfoot. [caption id="attachment_3489" align="alignnone" width="700"][/caption]

Coming Up

There are plenty of events happening before the month is out. And check out The Nest Collective’s festival, taking place in Dalston this November, with totally unamplified acts playing across a number of stages. Some details are below, and check out their website for more details and tickets. 14th September 2019 - Campfire Club: Tartine de Clous, Thodoris Ziarkas Oasis Nature Garden (Stockwell) 20th September 2019 - Campfire Club: Cynefin Culpeper Community Garden (Angel) 21st September 2019 - Family Campfire Club Culpeper Community Garden (Angel) 21st September 2019 - Campfire Club: Sing & Supper Culpeper Community Garden (Angel) 27th September 2019 - Campfire Club: Rheingans Sisters, Thom Ashworth Glengall Wharf Garden (Peckham) 16th November 2019 - Unamplifire Festival: Winter 2019 St Mark’s (Dalston) Looking for more late summer things to do in London? Look no further.

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