Lets lay my cards on the table from the start Folk East has become my favourite festival of the Summer. There, I have said it, phew, that feels like a weight off of my mind. But why I wonder, what is it that makes it so special. Perhaps a review of the weekend's music will begin to explain what I like about it so much.
Arriving mid afternoon on the Friday the easy going stewards usher us into the camping area with a cheery smile, the first of many we will see this weekend, and soon we find a nice spacious area atop a hill to pitch the tent with the car close by, and a view encompassing weird, wonderful and withered trees, and a grand country house in the distance enhancing, but never dominating the landscape. Tent assembled and people greeted en route to the vast main site it becomes clear that once again this year the festival has increased audience wise but still has enough space acreage wise to comfortably hold thousands more should they arrive. From an audience perspective thankfully they don't but should the intention from an organisational perspective be to reach Cambridge attendance levels the space would potentially be there.
5 years in and organisers John and Becky Marshall-Potter have settled into running things nicely, giving their patrons The Young Un's a free hand to take to the stage in many different guises, always thinking of interesting bookings and unlikely headliners. Indeed there is now so much going on to include everything that I saw, heard, watched, and indeed tasted could run into a dissertation so an overview of my favourite sets of the weekend seems a sensible approach. In the case of the first artists that I get to see it seemed to stem from John and Becky suggesting a collaboration that the artists themselves had not even considered.
Melodeon man JOHN SPIERS now solo post Bellowhead, partly here to talk about running an allotment, and former Steeleye Span violinist PETER KNIGHT here without his band and seemingly to do a question and answers session about his former band may not have considered taking to the Broad Roots stage as a duo but with the Marshall-Potters persuasive push found themselves to be compatible musical comrades. Accomplished musicians both the interplay between them seemed so natural that you would be forgiven for thinking that they had been taking to the stage as a duo for a decade rather than just that day. With a wealth of material to draw upon it was a set of hornpipe tunes encompassing 'Easter Thursday' and '3 Rusty Knives' , and set concluder French Canadian tune 'Isodores Reel' that caught my ears and left me hoping that on the strength of what I had just heard this wasn't going to be just a one off get together, but the start of a long term project. Superb.
THE YOUNG UN'S have settled in nicely into their role as patrons of the festival and the Friday night on the Sunset stage saw the unveiling of perhaps their most adventurous project to date recreating, and re-interpreting the songs of Bob Hart, and traditional songs from his native Suffolk accompanied by the Aldeburgh young musicians. Story based songs of Lowestoft trawler men and lives at risk upon the sea led neatly into songs of local men being called up to go to war and the uncertainty as to whether they would return or not. Beautifully delivered by a choir of haunting and beguiling voices led by Georgina Denholm , including in parts a Gaelic infusion courtesy of Mary Ann Kennedy, and sensitive brass playing the atmosphere can never really remain maudlin throughout when the Young Un's are involved, and so the mood changed towards the end of the piece as Tuba's, Trumpets and Trombones heralded returning heroes and the show broke into a celebratory ceilidh onstage. A magnificent piece that perhaps would be too elaborate and expensive to take on tour but in its natural county surroundings proved to be a winner with an attentive and rapturously applauding audience.
Deep in the heart of the woods, at the end of a track illuminated by fairy lights and all powered by a solar bus is the Soapbox stage. A refuge for the weird and wonderful from music and arts to poetry and comedy and some exceptionally good, and mainly local and regional to the festival artists, many of whom deserve to, and have made the step up to one of the bigger stages on the site, but perhaps feel that they have found a natural home in this quirky, yet cosy cavern. With all this solar powered lighting one such appropriate band was the superb SOLANA. I first encountered them 3 years ago as a 3 piece encompassing Alex on guitar, Rowen on fiddle, and Tamsin on accordion and flute a few years ago and was so impressed that I immediately invited them in to play a session on my radio show. Now 2 albums in and still flute and fiddle led they have expanded to a 5 piece with the addition of bass and drums and become a dynamic force of nature drawing inspiration from not only home grown folk, and celtic music but from many different cultures and continents. The Spanish and gypsy influences were already there due to the original 3 having spent time living and studying in Spain but the addition of Spanish singing drummer Elio has led to the addition of new original tunes the Latin and bossa nova inspired 'Cheap Nougat ', dub reggae rhythms on 'Saracen' and waltz time tune 'Zenith' into a set that has also branched out to include Balkan tunes as well. Right now there is an energy, and camaraderie about this band that you maybe only see in a band 2 or 3 times in a year. Currently seeking crowd funding help to finance their third album you can't help but wonder, unless of course they wish to remain completely independent , whether a leading folk or world music label should consider signing them as they have the ability, songs, tunes and attitude to really be big. Only time will tell. Fantastic.
Saturday started where Friday left off back at Soapbox now sans lighting and many of last nights revellers still sleeping off the night before's energetic set from Solana before emerging bleary eyed into the sunlight, well, slightly overcast day. The 1pm spot was given over to one of the regions more interacting with the audience, verbose, yet always entertaining artists CHAD MASON. He informs us that this is his first visit to Folk East and how much he is enjoying it before launching into the first of many catchy and memorable songs in 'Long Way Home'. Amusing, yet self deprecating, and critical, both in, and in between his lyrical songs, notably on his last single 'Procrastination Day' there is a warmth and natural approach in his songs and onstage performance that many professional songwriters have still yet to master. On 'Old Days' he even managed to persuade the audience to join in on a whistling solo. Regaling us with drunken tales of youth, some his, some others, being mistaken for another songwriter with the same name, and how not only the subject matter of songs changes as you get older from girls to paying the bills so do the keys that you write them in endears him to an attentive audience. No surprise that post gig having won many new fans over he was selling copies of his albums to several people. Great stuff.
THE YOUNG UN'S live podcast on the broad roots stage with guests including John Spiers and O Hooley and Tidow, led by the ever amusing David Eagle was a laugh a minute joyous experience that involved such unlikely subject matters as Herbal tea of the week during which Sam Kelly served tea to the assorted guests while the Young Un's extracted their opinions of said brew, the intrepid north east 3 comparing themselves to characters from Rainbow, and an onstage game of jenga with giant wooden blocks with an unaided Mr Eagle taking part and being the one who demolished the game. In between all of this John Spiers aired some of his new compositions including some nimble fingered playing on 'Ironing board hornpipe' while O'Hooley and Tidow concluded proceedings by leading a rousing rendition of 'Oh for me grog' with all assembled and large sections of the audience joining in. Just a fun filled and completely wonderfully daft 60 minutes that made me feel that I must get to hear more of these podcasts.
..and thinking of daft onstage antics while talented and able musicians both Accordionist Sam and Percussionist Gary Hammond of THE HUT PEOPLE are it is their amusing actions that draw people in as much as the music it would seem. Rhythm driven their range of tunes extends from musical spoon and washboard led zydeco tunes, through latin beats, to frantic folk including a breakneck speed rendition of the classic 'Music for a found harmonium'. However what many come to see is Gary;s crazy array of ever expanding mad percussion instruments from around the world, and they certainly wouldn't have been disappointed when on one tune he kept the rhythm going with oinking noises obtained while sqeezing plastic pigs, introducing a Japanese toy called Mr Knocky, while using a palm print game as a snare drum. Brilliant and very entertaining while they won over a mostly adult audience an alternative career as children's entertainers might also be an option they may wish to consider.
In a very different vein CHRIS WOOD sitting slightly back from the microphone and quietly engaging with the audience seemed to be somewhat ambivalent as to whether people wished to come and see him, but enjoying playing to the assembled crowd nevertheless. Lyrically contemplative and thought provoking songs pervaded throughout the set with songs of soldiers going to war rubbing shoulders with songs from The Darwin Project album that he was involved with in the early 2000s contemplating how Darwin and his deeply religious wife Emma were able to find a common ground amidst differing beliefs. Equally the slightly cynical 'My Darlings Downsized' lyrically sticks 2 fingers up to corporate enterprises as the character at the songs centre gets out and takes early retirement to spend more time on her allotment. A somewhat captivating, yet downbeat set was concluded surprisingly with an encore of Ronnie Laine's 'The Poacher' complete with the audience and Chris humming the songs recognisable woodwind refrain. An enjoyable if slightly affably moody set.
In a more upbeat mood were BLOWZABELLA who concluded the night on the main stage. Brass, pipe, hurdy gurdy melodeon and pulsating bass line driven tunes whooped up the audience most notably on 'The New Jigs' during which large swathes of people instinctively gathered to French dance almost pre prepared and waiting for this moment. Many seemed to have a connection with the band stretching back to their roots in the late 70s and early 80s. when the band itself made many of their inaugural appearances at festivals and venues in the area. Not just an upbeat outfit they slow the occasion down with the lament 'The Rose of Raby' with its sax solo lead line accompanied by sympathetic and subtle violin. Hurdy gurdy and melodeon backing. Waltzes followed on from mazurkas with an audience in the know and forming circles and finding partners with the chill of the night air banished from their minds as they sashayed back and forth in time to the glorious tunes emanating from the stage sending them waltzing happily and joyfully back to their tents as dusk fell and the bars closed.
Sunday lunchtime proudly for we dwellers of the relatively nearby Norwich brought two of our finest acoustic acts appearing as the opening artists on the main stage. ALDEN, PATTERSON AND DASHWOOD have musically connection wise been considered by some in the know to be something of a local supergroup, while by others name wise to sounding like a firm of Solicitors. The former is much more apt as their sweet harmony guitar, fiddle and dobro combination wins over a relaxed audience bathing one minute in mid August sunshine and the next sheltering from the rain. The delightful 'To the moon' was followed by the lyrically puzzling 'Riddle song' leading into the subtle English folk fiddle inspired 'Bina's jig' , and sweet sounding country tinged title song of their lovely debut album 'Call me home'. Mostly penned by fiddle player Alex and singing guitarist Christina Dobro man Noel soon gets a look in as his song about moving to a house near to the river 'Ferryman's court' with its reference to the English summer, ducks, wildlife, fish and swans that are 'beautiful but slightly aggressive' brought a smile to the audience who had arrived prepared for all possible weather combinations. A lovely way to start a Sunday and they were soon followed by THE GEORGIA SHACKLETON TRIO Cut from a similar cloth, they have perhaps slightly more bluegrass and Americana influences that were evident on their take on Billy Edd Wheeler's 'Coal Tattoo' and the traditional old time American tune 'Devil and the farmers wife'. However the bulk of their set is self penned including great story telling songs from Georgia about the perils of the deep waters and dangerous roads of the fens in 'Black Sluice', birds trained for war time operations in 'War Pigeon'. and the tale of the last remaining giant tortoise of the Galapagos islands 'Lonesome George'. Equally they have some fine instrumental tunes as well with Georgia penning the album's title track 'The Dog who would not be washed' and the trio's Nic Zuppardi contributing 'Dinghies on the Wensum'. Post gig Georgia appeared side stage bearing copies of the new album for sale, and a queue formed with people waving notes eager to purchase their album. I think that its fair to say that they went down well.
A brisk walk across the site followed to catch MARTIN NEWELL AND THE HOSEPIPE BAND performing their marvellous tales of Black shuck and the green children of woolpit put to music with Martin reciting his captivating tales over the top of atmospheric music. As well as standard instrumentation of guitars, double bass, and piano's they encompass dulcimers, bass recorders, mandola's, hurdy gurdy and footbass to create a sympathetic soothing underpinning to the tales and fine upbeat instrumentals in their own right. Poetry wise Martin's stories are based upon traditional East Anglian tales, and on 'Black Shuck' we discover the legend of the sinister ghostly dog that haunted East Anglia from Essex to Norfolk resulting in the death of people that it encountered along the way. The second half of the set was given over to the 12th century story of the Green Children of Woolpit a brother and sister who despite talking in a language that nobody understood and having green skin appeared to be otherwise perfectly normal, and charts their story of the girl seemingly adjusting to her new found surroundings and her brother not surviving the transition. Martin's delivery is hypnotic and dressed in an ancient military tunic it adds an air of grandiose to the occasion. Only the second time they have combined to perform these works they received a standing ovation and many left the tent clutching poetry books and cd's as a memento of what they had just seen and heard. Marvellous.
I managed to catch some of Planxty founder member ANDY IRVINE'S set ahead of his evening appearance with Usher's Island and enjoyed what I heard. In a relaxed conversation with the audience he talked about his time as a child actor , drinking at legendary Irish pub O'Donahue's , and mixed traditional and humorous Irish songs and ballads with songs learnt from and written by New Zealand friend and songwriter Marcus Turner most notably the thought provoking 'When the boys are on parade'. Meanwhile back at the Soapbox stage another Norwich artist was about to take her chance of playing Folk East. JESS MORGAN has already toured the U K, broken through to being played on the Radio 2 folk show and tonight she seems keen to tell us all candidly the stories behind the songs. Ably accompanied by Jose on bass and Noel on dobro country tinged new song 'In your life' contemplates how many things she will be asked to turn a blind eye to in her lifetime, while recent single 'Nathalie' she states was written for said girl who she would tease when on family holidays in rural north western France later in life felt bad about doing so. Equally 'Down in flames' we discover is a personal look at online dating. Much of her material has that personal approach and storytelling, almost confessional aspect to it, and while some are written from a third person perspective, much of it is first person honesty, which explains, along with her crystal clear voice. as to why she has started to make a breakthrough on a national as well as local and regional level.
Suffolk based songwriter JOHN WARD is the main organiser of the Broad roots stage, and adjoining club and having overseen the weekends proceedings was then able to put himself on with his band on the Sunday night. Being based in the most easterly part of the U K on the coast and links to the sea it is natural that new album 'Sargasso' has a nautical bent to it in many and different forms. 'Pass it on' talks of people with boat building skills passing their knowledge on to the next generation, while his poignant song 'Adrift' about the plight of refugees leaving their homeland not knowing where they will end up received a rapturous applause both before the song for John's concern for their welfare, and after for the quality of the song. With a different sea related theme to it John's traditional sounding 'Stornoway to Lowestoft' tells the tale of the herring girls who followed the path from Scotland to the east coast seeking work and in many cases, as is I believe the story of a relative of his settling having found love as well as work. It is a song crying out to be covered and would not sound out of place either being sung week in week out up and down the country in folk clubs or onstage to a thousand people by the likes of Fairport. Interspersed amidst songs of the sea were a Woody Guthrie dustbowl ballad about the plight of Mexican fruit pickers and a fine display of his skills on the bodhran. A heartwarming set.
Surprisingly I had not seen ATTILA THE STOCKBROKER before the weekend and I am glad that I can now add him to the list of people that I have seen. Armed only with his trusty mandola, his poetry and autobiography of his life he took us on a journey from the death of his father when he was young, adjusting to life with a strict stepfather, growing up listening to glam rock and then punk, his early musical roots and being played on the John Peel show for the first time through to perhaps too much detail about recent operations, all delivered in his own uniquely humorous way. Still as angry and political as ever before he railed against Thatcher, and current political incumbents , made light of tabloid obsessions in song, including amusing audience sing-alongs had a plethora of anecdotes, and paid tribute to the memory of Joe Strummer all delivered at breakneck speed for maximum amusement, leading to one of the most robust of standing ovations of the entire weekend.
..and so to another one of those how did they manage to get them to perform moments when USHERS ISLAND, featuring founder members of Planxty Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, Bothy band man Paddy Glackin, Capercaillie's Mike Mcgoldrick and John Doyle formerly of Solas. Decades on for the likes of Andy, Donal and Paddy they seemed relaxed and enjoying being on a major stage again and the force of the rain did not deter a sizeable audience, many of whom had waited a long time for some of these people to share a stage together again. Irish myths of the Claddagh ring sat neatly alongside 'Felix the soldier a tale of an Irish soldier called up to go to war, while instrumentally they have lost little of their deft abilities to play fluent flute, fiddle and pipe parts on slow Irish airs and midst upbeat jigs and reels that got faster and faster. Leaving the stage some 80 minutes or so into their set to wild applause they return to encore with 'Sean Kane's set' that Andy Irvine informs us goes all the way back to his days with Sweeny's Men, and following some fine fast fingered instrumental interplay between the fab folk five they are gone into the night with many of their fans shocked that they have witnessed something that they have waited a long time for and fear that they may never see the likes of again.
Before heading home however there was one final set for me, thankfully undercover as the rain poured down that I wanted to see as the mostly French band TOPETTE with the addition of UK and Blowzabella members Andy Cutting and Barnaby Stradling played a dynamic conclusion to the weekend in the broad roots tent delivering everything from polkas, mazurkas and Schottische's alongside rolling and rambling instrumentals played on fiddle, melodeon, banjo, bodhran and bass with a verve and energy that was a shock to see that anyone still had at 11 pm on a Sunday evening at the end of the festival. Not only that a couple of hundred revellers still had enough get up and go to get up and dance.
They are made of hardy stuff these folkies, rain, camping, sleep deprived nights and tired limbs from walking twixt stages can not deter them from getting up on their feet and whirling each other round a makeshift dancefloor.
Me, I headed home awake enough to make it back home with a head full of good memories and fantastic tunes going round in my head. Folk East is great.
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