A short bit about the whaps….
Renowned folk dance band Whapweasel have been delighting and exhausting the folk dance enthusiasts for the last 20 years. This solid eight piece folk rock dance band have over that time notched up 6 albums of enthralling, turbo- charged dance music attracting rave reviews and packed dance floors and the accolade of Dance Band Of The Year at the Radio Two Folk Awards. Their most recent album ‘Fēstivālis’ also includes a sprinkling of songs traditional and modern, wrapped in lustrous and witty instrumental settings.
Hover over band pictures to find out about the whaps…..
The long story of the whaps…
Whapweasel? Ah, yes — ceilidh band from Northumberland, containing virtually every English dance musician north of Scotch Corner. Well — wrong, actually. Never mind the bit about every English dance musician (nowadays they’re down to a meagre eight!); defining the Whaps as a ceilidh band in 2016 is what Richard Dawkins would probably call a category error.
It’s true that they’ve made their home on the ceilidh circuit over the past 20+ years, hurtling up and down the motorways of England on a mission to move innumerable bodies sweatily around the dancefloor from eight to midnight. Indeed, many would aver that there’s not a band in the land that does it better. But the Whaps don’t just nail the groove: they can’t stop themselves from doing devilishly interesting things with the mighty armamentarium of instruments that they wield. It’s the unexpected twists, the witty flourishes and furbelows, the endless ingenuity of their arrangements that has always made them more than “just” a ceilidh band.
There’s always been more to Whapweasel than meets the eye. From one angle they may look like a ceilidh band, and they’re certainly not embarrassed by the fact. Nowadays, however, the phrase can no longer contain them. The more crafty their arrangements have become, the more they’ve gravitated towards the concert stage. And now — whisper it, my little ones! — they’re doing songs.
The proof of this is to be found on their new CD Festivalis. There you’ll find a generous measure of the self-composed dance tunes that have made their reputation, but also a selection of songs traditional and modern sung by box-squeezer Saul Rose and wrapped in lustrous and witty instrumental settings. There’s no doubting that it’s a statement of intent. The Whaps have been conspicuously absent from both the ceilidh and festival circuits over the past eighteen months or so, mainly because of Saul’s involvement with the National Theatre’s West End production of Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse. With his tour of duty now completed, the band look hungry to be out there playing again.
It’s been a long and winding road from their modest origins in the Tynedale dance scene. Rumour has it that the first line-up consisted of two melodeons. Yes, just two melodeons — courtesy of Brian Bell and Robin Jowett, fellow members of the Hexham Morrismen. Within a couple of years, however, the personnel had inflated to seven, including Vikki the caller. At that point it seemed like a good idea to invest in a PA system. They’d shrunk to a five-piece by the time of their debut CD Skirl Naked in 1999, which turned a few heads with its intoxicating brew of English Country music, folk-rock and, erm, ska. By the time of the follow-up Burn two years later they’d acquired a brass section, affectionately dubbed the Toots and consisting of Stuart Finden and his partner Fiona Littlewood. This was another stylistic swerve: the Toots would weave in and out of the arrangements rather in the stylee of jazz big bands. By this point it’s fair to say the Whaps sounded like nobody else on the folk scene (or anywhere else, come to that).
Another key ingredient in the Whap sound was the repertoire, which was built almost entirely out of original tunes cooked up by Robin, citternist Mike Coleman and Stu the Toot. These broke the folk-mould with their multiple sections and intrepid chromaticism. Steeleye bass legend Rick Kemp had produced both albums, and was so impressed with what he was hearing that for the third, Relentless (2003), he volunteered his skills on electric guitar and was swiftly drafted in as a full-time member. Around the same time Brian’s daughter Heather joined on keyboards, and the classic Whap sound was now solidly in place.
2005 saw the Whaps on the crest of a wave, with the release of their most envelope-pushing album yet, Pack Of Jokers, and a triumphant appearance at the Radio Two Folk Awards, where they picked up the gong for Best Dance Band. Shortly afterwards they rode the misfortune of Robin’s being invalided out with repetitive strain injury (the muso’s nightmare), and quixotically replaced him with the twin-melodeon spearhead of Saul Rose and Simon Care. Bob Wilson vacated the drum stool around the same time, to be expertly replaced by John Hirst. When Joe Fowler was drafted in on trombone, the roll-call hit double figures, as reflected in the swirling, multi-textured Colour (2008).
At this point the Whaps seem to have hit critical mass. You can only get so many people into a van, after all. Simon and Rick withdrew from regular Whapping, and it’s a leaner, more spacious soundworld that you hear on their latest CD Festivalis. Their original tunes are as foxy as ever — mostly by Mike these days — and their move towards songs has thrown up hitherto-untapped talents within the ranks.
So whither Whapweasel now? Their extended break from motorways and marquees has seen them slip below the folk radar somewhat. The band, are confident, however, that Festivalis will be a bracing trumpet blast to announce their return to the fray. The faithful following they’ve built up over the years will be pleased to hear them once again delighting audiences in the dance tent, but anyone with a relish for their signature blend of energy, exuberance and sheer musicality will track them down wherever the winds may blow them. The Age of Whap has dawned — again.