WHEN HE HEARD The Rolling Stones were coming to town over the weekend of the 20th Hong Kong Folk Festival, Vernon Crew was understandably worried that they might steal some of its audience. By now the Harbour Fest organisers, if that's the right word, may well be wondering if rival entertainment will shrink attendance at their extravaganza - particularly given the disparity in ticket prices between the shows. The folkies and the rockers go head to head on November 7 when an informal performance featuring festival acts will be taking place in a more modest indoor space at Delaney's Wan Chai, but catching Mick Jagger and the boys in the evening would be possible for folk fans attending the day event on November 9 at Quarry Bay School - providing, of course, they manage to stay sober. Crew, of the Hong Kong Folk Society, concedes that this is not something he expects of all of the folk festival's loyal following. Beer is to this event almost what it is to the Rugby Sevens. Furthermore the Carnegies team that runs the bar doesn't water the stuff down. Some intoxicating music is also promised however, and lovers of the north of England's rich folk tradition will be particularly looking forward to the performances by the Kathryn Tickell Band. Tickell, although only in her early 30s, is a British folk-scene veteran who was an established virtuoso on her first instrument, the Northumbrian pipes, by the age of 13. She is also a formidable fiddle player. In 1990 she formed the first incarnation of the Kathryn Tickell Band, and on the side performed live or recorded with artists ranging from The Chieftains to Sting. Since then a busy career as a music educator has still left her time to record her own albums, compose music for television and the stage, and perform with musicians from jazz and classical as well as folk backgrounds - most notably with the great saxophonist John Surman and the group Ensemble Mystical. In 2001 at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Kathryn Tickell Band broke down another musical barrier by becoming the first traditional music group to appear at the Last Night of the Proms. Their three-tune performance was broadcast around the world. Although the band have gone through many line-ups in the past decade, Tickell is particularly excited about the potential of the young musicians she is working with at present. 'All of the band are from the northeast [of England] and I think that's the first time since I started that everybody is from and still lives in that area, which makes things easier. Julian Sutton on the melodeon has been with me for a long time. In fact I used to babysit him when he was much younger, and he's been playing since he was about five. The other two people in the group are Joss Clapp, who plays with various young bands, and my stepbrother, who's 17 years old, Peter Tickell,' she explains. Tickell also plays pipes, Clapp alternates between bass guitar, mandolin and mandola, and Peter Tickell also plays fiddle. It is a close-knit unit, and Tickell believes the heritage she and her stepbrother share adds another dimension to the music. 'It's great working with Peter because he's been brought up listening to my playing and the music of other people that have influenced me,' the musician says. 'He has his own style, but there's definitely something about us playing together. A real connection.' The new band perform a mixture of traditional tunes from the northeast of England and original material by band members, including what Tickell describes as some 'quite driving dance stuff with the two fiddles'. Dance is one of her many interests - she first visited Hong Kong about 20 years ago as a teenager with a Morris dancing group. She has also been back once since for a festival appearance in the mid-1990s, and is looking forward to returning with the band. The other headliners are all established favourites with Hong Kong folk fans. Puppeteer and children's entertainer Major Mustard is a folk festival institution. Cockney Derek Brimstone is equally skilled as a singer, raconteur and guitar and banjo picker, and has been a star attraction for decades on the British folk scene where his ready wit and fine musicianship are well appreciated. He is also the author of an autobiography, Till I Was Twenty, which chronicles a tough time growing up in working class Britain through the 30s, the second world war, and National Service with the army in the early 50s. Some stories from the book have been known to turn up in his club and festival performances. Perth-based singer songwriter Bernard Carney has appeared about once a year in Hong Kong over the past five years, generally for a club appearance or two on the way home from an annual tour of Britain, where he grew up before migrating to Western Australia. This year that tour happens to end just before the festival, and he is accordingly able to join the headliners. This is a lucky break for the organisers, because demand for Carney appearances is currently at a career-to-date high. In Australia he received both this year's Artist of the Year Award and the Lawson/Paterson Songwriting Award at the important Port Fairy Festival. He is also being widely heard internationally, thanks in part to the adoption of his 1995 song Gardens Of Death for an International Red Cross campaign against landmines - the subject of the harrowing lyrics. In Australia he is probably best known for the song Devil's Island, about the country's past treatment of Aboriginal prisoners. If that sounds heavy going however, don't be put off. Like Brimstone, Carney also brings an advanced guitar style and a sharp sense of humour to the party. His early lyrical influences included British folk humourist Jake Thackray and American satirist Tom Lehrer. 'I've been on tour to promote the current CD, which is called Feathers And Tributes. It's been a successful tour of England and before that I was on the road in Australia for four weeks, so I'll be well travelled by the time I get to Hong Kong,' he observes over the phone from Britain. Notoriously tough folk club audiences in both hemispheres have been won over by Carney's sets, which comprise about 95 per cent of original songs. 'The songs are about all facets of life. I've got the serious stuff, I've got some silly stuff about computers, about cricket, and about having the flu. If you're going to give people something serious to think about it should be peppered with silly laughing stuff as well, and it's all held together with a fairly decent guitar style which I've been honing for 30 odd years,' he observes. 'It's all a question of bringing people round to your way of thinking.' CDs by the folk festival artists are not widely available in local record stores, but most will be bringing at least a few to sell at the gigs. Should they sell out, however, as often happens, Tickell, Carney and Brimstone distribute their music internationally through sales over the web. Each artist has a website or homepage: www.kathryntickell.com ; www.bernardcarney.com ; homepage.ntlworld.com/d.brimstone1/ The Hong Kong Folk Festival headliners will be appearing at Delaney's Wan Chai at 7.30pm on Friday, November 7, admission $50; at the RTHK studios in Kowloon Tong for a broadcast performance at 7.30pm on Saturday, November 8, admission for Folk Society members $120, non-members $150, students $80; and at Quarry Bay School on Sunday, November 9, admission Folk Society members $120, non-members $150, students $80. Local performers and a craft fair will also be features of the Sunday event at the Quarry Bay School, from noon to 6pm.