Blackpool's faded grandeur may have been replaced by neon-lit garish bling, but its historic Winter Gardens still provides a great stage on which performers can roll back the years.
Even the great Bob Dylan returned here in 2013, so it was perhaps no surprise that 16 years since they last enjoyed Area success together, Foden's renewed link with Prof Nicholas Childs once again secured the North West Regional Challenge Cup with victory in an engrossing, if somewhat variable, Championship Section battle.
All time list
It was Foden's nineteenth win and the MDs fourth — taking his Area tally to 27 — just three behind the great Major Peter Parkes in the all time list. That gap could be narrowed even further with Black Dyke at Bradford this weekend.
Victory on 'Cambridge Variations' also denied Fairey their first Area hat-trick, despite the defending champion giving an imposing, crowd pleasing performance under Garry Cutt. However, the judges later revealed that Foden's 'had stood out a mile', whilst it had been 'nip and tuck' between the podium finishers.
Stephen Roberts and John Berryman revealed that they actually had to give 'a great deal of consideration' to eventually decide who came second; Wingates, led by Paul Andrews, getting the nod to enable a joyous Westhoughton band to return to the Albert Hall for the first time since 2004.
For Foden's it will be an eleventh consecutive Kensington appearance, although it was certainly the celebratory tipples of victory not qualification that tasted sweetest in the bar afterwards.
"It's been great to work with Nick again," Andy Rolfe told 4BR. "It always give us a huge boost to work with the very best conductors in the banding world — something Foden's has been renowned for throughout its history — so to team up again after 16 years to win another Area title makes it a memorable achievement."
Blink of an eye
Prof Childs also took time out of his Black Dyke preparation to pay a reciprocal tribute to Foden's, who he now hopes to meet in battle at the Albert Hall. "It was good to work together again — and to help them reclaim the Area title.
My congratulations go to all the players and to Mike Fowles for preparing the band so well. On stage those 16 years passed in a blink of an eye especially as the band delivered a very fine performance."
He added: "Everyone worked hard and showed that famous Foden's quality once more. Now though I want to get Black Dyke to London."
Stood out a mile
Prof Childs will surely be even more pleased if the judges at Bradford enable him to do that with a margin of victory that according to the judges was almost as long as Blackpool's 1.6 mile golden promenade.
"One band stood out a mile," Stephen re-iterated to 4BR what he told the audience before the results. "It was quite a difficult piece to adjudicate with its thick textures and contrasting dancing and singing elements.
Some bands misjudged the pace in the quicker sections — becoming too manic and losing detail, whilst some of the slow music lacked flow and direction. Poor intonation was also a problem."
Texture was something that formed a key part of Wingates performance — as Paul Andrews set up in an intriguing formation with five tubas and two euphoniums forming a backbone line that gave the colour palette of Sparke's difficult work, a very different hue.
It certainly made a mark in the box (helped by their 'Best Percussion' section — also positioned much more to the side) as they pipped Fairey and notable rivals to secure their trip to Kensington Gore.
It meant bitter disappointment for supporters of the defending champion, as the hat-trick seeking Stockport band ended third, despite delivering a rendition that Garry Cutt later told 4BR had given him 'immense satisfaction'.
No smiles either on the faces of Leyland fans, after their thrilling, high-octane account failed to find favour with the judges; although in contrast there was deep satisfaction for the solid pairing of Ashton under Lyne in fourth and Milnrow in sixth.
Behind them the standard fell away sharply: 'Cambridge Variations' baring its teeth; mauling efforts at the bottom end of the results table from bands who despite bravery, enthusiasm and commitment (and in some cases, principal player European imports) never came close to taming its feral technical challenges.
The North West will send a brace of strong contenders to Cheltenham after Vernon Building Society Poynton and Rainford produced 'Essays' of technical and musical character to gain the qualification marks from judges Colin Hardy and David Hirst.
Edward Gregson's work proved a deceptively transparent ask of the fourteen contenders; each of its three sections requiring the mastery of contrasting styles and technical security — especially the central 'Soliloquy' with its tranquil echoes of Gilbert Vinter.
As a result, by the time many gave a rousing 'Epigram' to close, qualification chances had long been lost, whilst others could not match execution to intent as nervousness and a litany of unforced errors proved fatal.
The judges gave concise pre-results remarks — noting the challenges and pitfalls encountered, although they didn't mention the surprisingly poor levels of intonation which must have undermined a number of accounts.
Red letter Essay
However, for Vernon Building Society Poynton, 'Essay' proved to be a red letter day; with victory sending them to the Finals for the first time since 2004 as they captured a first Area title since 1975.
"We're thrilled to have won such a hard fought contest," MD Neil Samuel told 4BR. "We put the hard work in to master the difficult basics — especially note lengths and tempos, and we were lucky to have such gifted players to pull off the difficult solos with ease."
He added: "The piece appears easy, but it isn't. The tempos dictate the need for accuracy and clear, non-aggressive articulation. That's what we aimed to achieve. I'm a very proud conductor, as we have continued to move in the right direction and are making massive steps forward with every contest."
Those steps also enabled Poynton to overcome an excellent number 1 draw marker from rivals Rainford. Any disappointment the 2015 Senior Trophy champion may have felt at being pipped will be tempered by another impressive performance under MD Gareth Brindle.
Their persuasive rendition (aided by their 'Best Percussion' section) set rivals an imposing challenge, with principal cornet Morvern Sinclair delivering the demanding 'Soliloquy' solo with a level of nuanced artistry that may not be bettered anywhere else this year.
Set the tone
It set the tone for an engaging contest that tested potential Championship Section credentials to the full; with a confident Longridge just failing to cross the qualification line in third, whilst inconsistency put pay to the hopes of well directed top-six accounts from Pemberton Old Wigan DW, Haslingden & Helmshore and Wardle Anderson Brass.
Behind them came some crowd pleasing renditions that failed to register in the box, whilst others simply found the 'Essay' question a bit too difficult to answer coherently despite bold attempts.
Philip Harper's Piscean love-story certainly inspired colourful interpretations from the eighteen competitors in an engaging Second Section contest — although it was a band from an area with a proud equine history that eventual enjoyed a 'happy ending' after enduring some testing times of late.
Haydock was down to just eight players a few seasons ago, but with fantastic dedication and a long term aim to marry both musical as well as organisational ambitions together, they secured their Cheltenham starting slot as Area champion — returning to the Finals for the first time since 2011.
They will be joined there by Cheshire Constabulary and Boarshurst, after a contest that saw numerous contenders enjoy themselves on a deceptively testing set-work.
It was Haydocks's first Area title since they won this event back in 1997 — so it was understandable that MD Mark Quinn was a pleased man.
"I'm thrilled for everyone," he told 4BR. "I've been involved with the band for 27 years now — and through some testing times as well, so to finally come back and win the title means a great deal."
Mark actually enjoyed a 'double' triumph on the day; later helping Wingates to qualify for the Royal Albert Hall, although it was obvious that it was this victory that perhaps meant most.
"I enjoy playing with Wingates under my great mate Paul Andrews, but this meant just a bit more," he confessed. "I only took up the baton eight years ago to enable us to start building on long term foundations. Over the last 18 months we have been getting closer and closer to a day like this.
I just felt so relaxed on stage: The band just gave me everything I asked of — especially in a fantastic middle movement. I was so pleased with the judge's remarks; they didn't find fault in what was the key for me to the whole piece."
That was something certainly touched upon by adjudicators Mike Kilroy and David Lancaster in their pre-results remark.
"It's descriptive music full of imagery, place, people and events," Mike told the audience in a typically thorough analysis of 'The Mermaid of Zennor'. "Today we had three different combinations; some technical ones but with little description; some musical ones but with technical problems and at the top end — and one in particular, that had it all."
He added: "It was enjoyable, but mixed in quality, and there was no hiding the balance and tuning issues. The winners were exceptional."
These were points echoed by David Lancaster who added: "The top two were outstanding but after that there was inconsistency. The winners really captured the 'two-in-bar' feel to the opening section that many others missed. From 5th place down, the margins between bands was very small."
Newly promoted Boarshurst set a commanding marker with a cultured rendition under James Garlick to return to Cheltenham for a second successive year, whilst Cheshire Constabulary continued their solid incremental rise through the sections under David Woollam by catching the ears of the men in the box in gaining their first final's appearance since 2011.
Behind them a clutch of well directed bands producing colourful tales that just lacked overall consistency for the men in the box — with Tyldesley, Crewe Brass and Manx Concert Brass taking deserved top six finishes.
There were celebrations to be enjoyed literally at both ends of a long street in St Helens on the weekend, as Valley Brass (Haydock) secured their second National Finals appearance in three years under the baton of Dave Chadwick.
A performance of 'A Cambrian Suite' hallmarked with good tempo choices and ensemble detail saw them tipped as something of a dark horse for the title, but as the results were announced they pipped them all at the post — aided by the whip hand of an excellent 'Best Percussion' section.
Vertical and horizontal
Valley Brass will be joined at Cheltenham by fellow qualifiers Blackpool Brass and Farnworth & Walkden after a contest that saw the chances of success for far too many bands undermined by a lack of attention to what adjudicator Michael Fowles (joined by Dave Roberts) later told 4BR was the 'vertical and horizontal' instructions of the score.
Behind the podium qualifiers came Eagley, Besses o'th' Barn and Greenalls, with bands further down the results table failing to give performances that required more texture and malleability for the judges.
"Overall the standard was a little disappointing," Mike said. "David and I were puzzled at the lack of understanding from MDs of the vertical dynamic details and balances — even in the very first bar of the piece. The horizontal instructions were also ignored far too often — small changes in pace that gave the music its character and flow."
He added: "The clear winners certainly did that in a fine performance, and the solid qualifiers nearly pulled it off too, but behind them some bands could have really benefitted from closer attention to Michael Ball's well known instructive detail — including the 'attacca' between the second and third movements."
For the triumphant winners, no such problems pausing too long as they prepare for Cheltenham again: "We are not that far from Haydock Band," Dave Chadwick told 4BR. "Literally one end each of a very long street!
We have been building a strong connection with our local community for many years now — literally so — as we have just finished over £30,000 of building and clearance work at our community centre which acts as our base and rehearsal facility."
He added: "The commitment and work ethic of the players is superb — as was the concentration and nerves on stage as we had a delay to start because of some missing percussion.
We really enjoyed playing the piece, concentrated on the detail because of the hall's acoustic and it worked. As soon as we came off stage we knew we had all enjoyed it and couldn't have played better. "
Thornton Cleveleys will perhaps have to have to find some of Phileas Fogg's old travel maps after they won the Fourth Section title to claim their place at the National Finals for the first time since the band was reformed in 1962.
Under the baton of King's Division flugel player Stephen Craig, a performance rich in character and security in delivery made just the right impression with adjudicators Kevin Wadsworth and Steve Pritchard-Jones in the box.
Meanwhile, stamping their qualification passports for a second successive year will be Formby, as the defending champion ensured their Cheltenham return with a fine account of Fogg's musical journal to claim the runner-up spot ahead of a spirited Stalybridge Old.
Just behind them came a host of well directed top six efforts from Tarleton Brass, Blackley and Sale Brass.
Peter Graham's set work proved a good test of musicality as well as contesting basics, as Kevin Wadsworth told the audience: "The piece tested every facet of the bands. Basics, dynamics, tuning and control were important, and the MD's individuality and interpretation also figured.
The fanfares were fabulous and both Steve and I were impressed by prize winners playing in particular. There were encouraging performances from all bands."
"We are delighted as well as totally surprised," Thorntons' spokesperson later old 4BR. "We've never qualified before and haven't really come close in the past, but since Stephen came to the band last year everything has changed.
We are now much more positive, enthused and enjoying what we do. This is the pinnacle of our banding history — a real gear change. Now we have to start raising funds and looking at potential hotels. It's a fantastic result for the band."
Earlier, Stalybridge offered a fine marker off the number 1 draw for others to beat, with Formby upping the ante just after the halfway point (aided by some excellent 'Best Percussion' playing).
However, it was Thornton Cleveleys that in the opinion of the judges brought the stylistic and technical differences together the best — from a Paris 'Can-Can' to Russian 'snow waltz' to capture the biggest prize in their 55 year history — although not the £20,000 first prize that the intrepid explorer won for his 1873 efforts.
With the excellent organisational skills of the Regional Committee ensuring that the complex timetable of events ran smoothly, the North West Area kicked off the 2016 Regional Championships series in fine style — and by also paying tribute to three stalwarts in Rob and Sylvia MacDonald and Malcolm Kerry who had notched close on 100 years of dedication to the banding movement.
Not even the great Bob Dylan could return to better that.
My congratulations go to all the players and to Mike Fowles for preparing the band so well. On stage those 16 years passed in a blink of an eye especially as the band delivered a very fine performanceProf Nicholas Childs
Test Piece: Cambridge Variations (Philip Sparke)
Adjudicators: John Berryman & Stephen Roberts
1. Foden's (Prof Nicholas Childs)**
2. Wingates (Paul Andrews)**
3. Fairey (Garry Cutt)*
4. Ashton-Under-Lyne (Philip Chalk)
5. Leyland (Thomas Wyss)
6. Milnrow (Mark Bentham)
7. Blackburn & Darwen (Huw Thomas)
8. Co-operative Funeralcare North West (Jef Sparkes)
9. Diggle (Alan Wycherley)
10. Roberts Bakery (Simon Stonehouse)
11. Freckleton (Paul Dalton)
12. Oldham (Lees) (John Collins)
*Pre-qualified for the National Final
** Qualify for the National Final
Centre Stage Best Percussion Prize: Wingates
Test Piece: Essay (Edward Gregson)
Adjudicators: Colin Hardy & David Hirst
1. Vernon Building Society Poynton (Neil Samuel)*
2. Rainford (Gareth Brindle)*
3. Longridge (Mark Peacock)
4. Pemberton Old Wigan DW (Kevin Gibbs)
5. Haslingden & Helmshore (John Hinckley)
6. Wardle Anderson Brass (Sean Conway)
7. Mossley (Duncan Byers)
8. Silk Brass (Tony Wyatt)
9. Bollington Brass (Peter Christian)
10. Eccles Borough (Mareika Gray)
11. Marple (Sarah Groarke-Booth)
12. Poulton-Le-Fylde (Dave Collins)
13. Whitworth Vale & Healey (John Binns)
14. Hazel Grove (Nigel Beasley)
*Top two bands qualify bands for National Final
Centre Stage Best Percussion Prize: Rainford
Test Piece: Mermaid of Zennor (Philip Harper)
Adjudicators: Mike Kilroy & David Lancaster
1. Haydock (Mark Quinn)*
2. Cheshire Constabulary (David Wollam)*
3. Boarshurst Silver (James Garlick)*
4. Tyldesley (Robert Taylor)
5. Crewe Brass (Wayne Ruston)
6. Manx Concert Brass (Ian Clague MBE)
7. Besses Boys (James Holt)
8. Pemberton Old Wigan DW 'B' (Michael Golding)
9. Darwen Brass (Steve Hartley)
10. Middleton (Andrew Baker)
11. Flixton (Jason M Smith)
12. Delph (Phil Goodwin)
13. Uppermill (Alan Widdop)
14. Eccleston Brass (John Wood)
15. Old Hall Brass (John North)
16. Golborne Brass (Trevor Halliwell)
17. Hoover Bolton (Craig Mann)
18. City of Chester (Ewan Easton)
*Top three bands qualify for National Final
Centre Stage Best Percussion Prize: Flixton
Test Piece: A Cambrian Suite (Michael Ball)
Adjudicators: Michael Fowles & David Roberts
1. Valley Brass (Haydock) (David Chadwick)*
2. Blackpool Brass (John Pearson)*
3. Farnworth & Walkden (Matt Shaw)*
4. Eagley (Matthew Ryan)
5. Besses o'th' Barn (Phil Shaw)
6. Greenalls (Phil Boardman)
7. Trinity Girls (Ryan Watkins)
8. Greenfield (Tom Haslam)
9. Dobcross Silver (Tim Sidall)
10. Hawk Green (Neil Hewson
11. Pilling Jubilee Silver (Len Charnock)
10. Hawk Green (Neil Hewson)
12. Douglas Town (Robert Mitchell)
13. Rivington & Adlington (Malcolm Wilson)
14. Littleborough (Adrian Woodhead)
15. Coppull & Standish (Matt Stringer)
16. Skelmersdale Prize (Karl Stott)
17. Stacksteads (Fred Bowker)
18. Lostock Hall Memorial (Phil Edwards)
19. Parr St. Helens (John Ludden)
*Top three bands qualify for the National Final
Centre Stage Best Percussion Prize: Valley Brass (Haydock)
Test Piece: The Journal of Phileas Fogg (Peter Graham)
Adjudicators: Steve Pritchard-Jones & Kevin Wadsworth
1. Thornton Cleveleys (Stephen Craig)*
2. Formby (Louise Hough MBE)*
3. Stalybridge Old (David Ashworth)
4. Tarleton Brass (Gillian Bould)
5. Blackley (John Atkinson)
6. Sale Brass (Alan Seymour)
7. Rode Hall Brass (Nigel Butler)
8. Caddishead Public (Craig McFarland)
9. Manx Youth (Ian Clague MBE)
10. Lees (Matt Corrigan)
11. Brindle (Keith Richmond)
12. Stockport Silver (Ian Colwell)
13. Dobcross Youth (Richard Windle)
14. BMP Europe Goodshaw (Josh Hughes)
15. Denton Brass (Matthew Bailey)
*Top three bands qualify for the National Final
Centre Stage Best Percussion Prize: Formby
Youngest Player: Georgina Parkinson (9 years of age) — Dobcross Youth