Gig economies

Top quality music is being brought to rural communities in the north in a scheme ensuring tickets are affordable and fans can get home

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It’s an autumn Sunday and there’s a mini scramble for the handful of tickets left on the door.

Arnside’s Educational Institute is a hub of activity with its regular scrabble, bridge and pilates classes. Tonight is different. A folk band with national acclaim tops the bill and tickets are only £8.

Local vicar Rev David is in attendance, as are 70 other villagers keen to listen to Katie Doherty and The Navigators.

It’s something of a coup for this little south Cumbrian village to host award-winning singer songwriter Doherty, joined by Shona Mooney on fiddle (a former BBC Radio Scotland young traditional musician of the year) and melodeon maestro Dave Gray.

The trio arrive on stage promptly at 7.30pm and proceed to mesmerise villagers with an uplifting cacophony of feelgood folk.

Locals would usually have to venture to Kendal or Lancaster to see a show like this. But both destinations are impossible to reach via public transport at 7pm on a Sunday. Anyway, the last bus for Kendal left yesterday.

Tonight there are no worries about the latest Northern Rail cancellation as villagers don’t have to slog anywhere. They have the real deal right on their doorstep.

It’s all thanks to the Highlights Rural Touring Scheme, which brings 160 high quality theatre, dance, music and kids shows to village halls, schools and community centres each year.

Highlights was set up in 1997 originally to work with isolated rural communities in the north Pennines. The area had suffered from long term economic decline – it was once the biggest lead mining area in Europe – resulting in pockets of high unemployment, isolated communities, poor transport links and declining local services.

Twenty-one years and nearly 2,000 events later Highlights continues its work across a much bigger patch covering Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland. The aim is to bring top class acts to rural communities at affordable prices.

Many of the communities on the latest Highlights tour are like Arnside, with poor public transport provision.

When the interval comes at Sunday’s gig, Doherty and her Navigators chat to the audience who swig 50p cans of pop and munch bags of sweeties. The quaintness is complete when interval raffle prizes are handed out.

Singer Doherty is full of enthusiasm for intimate nights like this. “It’s ideal for us,” she says. “We are a new band and the rural shows are great in terms of the size of the audience and the fact that the venues have a committed audience, thanks to the great work done by the promoters, who are mostly volunteers.

“But more than anything, I am passionate about supporting the arts in rural communities. Having moved from the centre of a big city, where access to live music is very easy and affordable, to a very remote farm I have seen first hand the difficulties in getting access to high quality arts, music and theatre.

“Transport links are not always brilliant and it takes a huge amount of time, money and effort to go and see something in the city. What Highlights does is invaluable as it provides direct access to high quality programming, but it also galvanises communities to work together at the same time, take ownership of what they bring to their place and how it is presented.”

There’s a rapturous reception for her band at Arnside. They are three nights into a 12 date tour which will take in places like Ulverston, Egremont and Warwick-on-Eden.

Doherty loves the audiences at rural shows. “People are always pleased to see you. You get to connect to the audience and promoters on a much more personable level, which brings our performance down to earth and much more pleasurable. The volunteers who make the shows happen are really invested and often very professional with it. Everything is really well organised.

“It’s easy to assume that because it’s rural touring it’s small scale, and the quality might not be as high. But that’s simply not true. It’s becoming more and more popular to do rural touring these days and therefore there’s competition for what gets programmed, which increases the quality of the acts.”

A driving force behind Highlights is Barbara Slack. Co-director at Highlights North, she has been at the heart of the scheme since its birth 21 years ago.

“A lot of villages have lost their post office or the local pub. Village halls are a community hub which bring people together,” says Slack.

“Shows in village halls are informal and intimate. They create new audiences. The great thing about these events is that the audiences are able to talk to the performers. And we hope that young people who attend can be inspired by what they see and go on to be performers themselves.”

Slack is set to retire from Highlights this Christmas after more than two decades. She and a small team have been supported by a network of volunteers across 70 venues spread across rural northern England.

She says: “The aim was always two-fold: to ensure people living in rural communities have access to high quality arts events; and secondly to support village halls to help them be vibrant, visible, social places.”

Slack takes away happy memories of great acts and great nights. “People often come up to me after a show to say how much they have enjoyed it. One lady surprised me by bursting into tears, but it was because she was so moved by the quality of the musicians who had come to her tiny village hall.”

Highlights North topped the bill at this summer’s Rural Touring Awards, with staff and volunteers honoured for their work bringing shows to the sticks. Slack won a special award for services to rural touring.

The Arts Council has recently awarded Highlights with funding for the next four years. The scheme also receives funding from Cumbria County Council, Northumberland County Council, Durham County Council and South Lakeland District Council.

In Arnside Doherty tells the crowd that she hasn’t toured as a lead singer for more than a decade, revealing a battle with stage fright which she now seems to be winning.

Afterwards she adds: “I have known Shona and Dave for a long time. They are very instinctive players and I feel completely supported by them as musicians and as friends.

“Rural Touring feels like a safe place to put myself back on the stage.”

Main image: Katie Doherty and The Navigators. Doherty says touring small venues in rural communities has helped her overcome her stage fright 

Highlight’s top picks this season

Bowjangles: Excalibow
Singing, dancing, cabaret, fun, music and magic by comedy string quartet Bowjangles. Expect a theatrical musical journey through myths, folklore and legends.
Wingates Village Institute, 24 Oct; Wark Town Hall & Mechanics Institute, 25 Oct; Lesbury Village Hall, 26 Oct; Wreay Village Hall, 27 Oct; Orton Market Hall, 28 Oct.

A trio producing ace Americana. Between them they play violin, guitar, mandolin and double bass. Their new album Time to Save the World is out next month.
Boldron Village Hall,1 Nov; Heads Nook Village Hall, 2 Nov; BURC (formerly St Pauls) Spittal,
3 Nov; Levens Village Institute, 4 Nov; Frosterley Village Hall, 9 Nov; Dufton Village Hall, 11 Nov; Melmerby Village Hall, 30 Nov.

Garlic Theatre: Jack and the Beans Talk
A charming and inventive puppet show with an enormous beanstalk, bags of gold and a smelly old giant. For ages 3-7 and families.
Allendale Village Hall, 9 Nov; UTASS Middleton in Teesdale, 10 Nov; Shap Memorial Hall, 11 Nov.

James Wilton Dance: Leviathan
Multi-award-winning choreographer reimagines Herman Melville’s Moby Dick with a six-strong cast of dancers. A blend of athletic dance, martial arts and capoeira against a driving soundtrack.
Appleby Public Hall, 9 Nov.

Highlights Contemporary Craft Tour: Craft and Conflict
Artists from Syria, Sweden, Sri Lanka and the UK show off crafts that focus on the theme of conflict. Work by refugees is also on sale.
Bowlees Visitor Centre, Newbiggin-in-Teesdale, 3/4 and 10/11 Nov; Witham Barnard Castle, 13-21 Nov; St Thomas’s Church Hall, Stanhope 23-25 Nov.

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