Thursday, January 28, 2010

'Scribblings from the Surf' - Devon Life 2/10: North Devon's Musicians

The eighth in a series entitled 'Scribblings from the Surf' for Devon Life. To read the article see the text below or click to enlarge the pictures of the original article below that. To see the whole series, click here.


Barrister and writer Tim Kevan discovers a rich tradition of live music on the North Devon coast.

With the increasing popularity of the likes of Jack Johnson in recent years, surfing has become increasingly associated with singer songwriters. But in North Devon this is nothing new as there is a rich musical heritage and Warren and Shaun Lathams’ GoldCoast Oceanfest and musicians Amy Newton and Douglas E.Powell are three good examples.

GoldCoast Oceanfest
Back in the mid-seventies, Warren and Shaun Latham were growing up in Durban and they lived to skate and surf. It was a great time to be around with professional surfing just starting to take off and the likes of fellow Durban surfer Shaun Tomson at the very heart of the battle to break down Hawaii’s monopoly of the sport. It was ‘Dog Town’ Durban style as they describe it and perhaps the biggest influence on them looking back was the Gunston 500 surf competition.

Little would they have imagined that over twenty years later and after many adventures they would be in North Devon launching their very own Goldcoast Oceanfest. So, with the help of local surf companies such as Tiki and Saltrock they got the ball rolling in 1999 and it has grown from there. But unlike the Gunston 500 their event isn’t just about surfing. It’s got skateboarding, volleyball, surf lifesaving, aquathon and any number of other beach sports. Oh and that’s not forgetting the incredible array of musicians they manage to attract to the event which for many people is perhaps the main attraction. Only last year for example, they had international superstars Jason Mraz and Newton Faulkner headlining and they’re already booking for this year’s event which is set for 18-20 June.

But what many don’t realise is the valuable contribution they make to the local community not just through bringing people to the area but also through encouraging greater participation in projects such as skate parks, beach sports and climbing walls. The brothers are also deeply committed to the environment and as well as helping to raise awareness of ocean-related issues they also practise what they preach and have an extremely forward thinking green policy which ranges from education of both staff and contractors to insisting on such things as biodegradable plastics and electricity which has come from renewable sources. But above all, what shines out from these brothers is a true passion for life and for giving back to others some of the enjoyment that they’ve obviously had on the long journey which has, fortunately for us, brought them to this part of the world.

Amy Newton (
One of the local musicians who has played at the GoldCoast Oceanfest is singer-songwriter Amy Newton who was brought up in Croyde. She started out at the age of ten with a gig in the Croyde Village Hall with her professional musician father Roy Newton along with local surfer Ralph Freeman and Second Skin surf shop owner Andy Shollick. From those early beginnings she went on to study music and guitar at the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts where she was taught by among others Paul McCartney, Mark Knoffler and Joan Armatrading.

She then moved to the bright lights of London where Damian Hirst lent her his houseboat and she performed in venues such as The Bedford and The Ginglik alongside the likes of Newton Faulkner. She’s also toured the country’s festivals from as far afield as the Wicker Man in Scotland to the Pontadrwe Festival in Wales and closer to home at Glastonbury. But as is so often the case the pull of North Devon and its beautiful coastline proved too much and Amy returned to her roots where her career has continued to thrive. Her first album ‘Lost for Words’ was launched in 2006 to critical acclaim and her second album ‘Which Hand’ was released in 2008 also proved a success. But it is perhaps in her live performances in which her talent shines most brightly. Gauging her audience perfectly, her passion and musical energy are guaranteed to please. Taking her influences from the great tradition of the blues and the likes of BB King, Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton, Amy is now working on her third album and is in this respect too moving back to her roots with a more blues than Americana feel to the music. She can also be found each Sunday evening at the Open Mic night at The White Lion pub in Braunton.

Douglas E.Powell (
Another local singer-songwriter who recently performed at GoldCoast Oceanfest is Douglas E.Powell who has lived in Braunton for the last ten years having moved here for the surf. Although he had been involved in both bands and poetry previously, the musically fertile ground of North Devon provided fresh inspiration. Early on he worked with another local musician Mike Stocks and then after one album as Stocks and Powell he decided to go solo with his own brand of folk mixed with Americana.

Now I know that many might associate folk with itchy woolly jumpers, beards and Morris Dancing and I make no criticism there. But Douglas provides an altogether more modern version whilst at the same time tipping his hat to musical heroes such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bert Jansch. This can be seen both in his first album ‘The Still and the West’ which was released in 2007 and his second ‘The Iron Coast’ released in 2008 (and which includes expert banjo playing from local architect Jim Gardner). In both there is a wonderful mix of laid back soulful tunes mixed with often intensely personal lyrics. A sea breeze on a gentle swell in which the poet in him finds true voice. It’s this combination which has led to him getting gigs from as far afield as London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Sheffield, Portsmouth, Brighton and Cornwall as well as regular slots at The Tobacco Factory in Bristol and Lilicoes in Barnstaple. But of all the gigs he’s played, he’s most proud of one at Pilton Village Hall in 2009 in which he supported legendary American folk singer Otis Gibbs though that’s not forgetting his memorable performances with the legendary North Devon group the East Street Maritime Folk Collective.

So with the likes of Doug, Amy, the Latham brothers and no end of other talented musicians such as Jim Jones and Erin Matthews, there is one thing of which we can be sure: that the musical traditions of North Devon are as strong as ever and likely to be around for a good many years to come.

Tim Kevan is the author of the comic novel ‘BabyBarista and the Art of War’ (Bloomsbury) and the co-author of ‘Why Lawyers Should Surf’ (with Dr Michelle Tempest).

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