After visiting FolkEast for just one day last year, I was determined to return this August for the full experience. Travelling home back then, “quirky” had seemed a good word to sum up the day and after three full days I now truly appreciate just how appropriate it is. All festivals have their little idiosyncrasies, features that enrich your time there above and beyond a great programme of music. But at FolkEast these are woven into the very fabric of the event. Each year, the organisers, led by husband and wife team Becky and John Marshall-Potter, are able to come up with new ideas to entertain, inform or just simply make your smile that bit bigger. They have a great starting point with the festival being held within the grounds of Glemham Hall, originally built around 1560. The parkland surrounding the house has just enough relief and wooded areas to provide a site that’s full of interest even before the festival adds its attractions. And first amongst these is the festival mascot, the Jackalope, a 20ft+ horned hare, that each year appears at the centre of the site in slightly different form. The Wikipedia entry for Jackalope is worth a read. Or how about The Halfway Inn? A roughly 4ft square garden shed where you can buy yourself a pint, just in case you’re overwhelmed by thirst, half way between the festivals two main bars.
This quirkiness fits perfectly and gets a massive boost from the activities of festival patrons, The Young’uns. Their contributions this year included one, classic, standard performance of their songs and three hilarious events. The first an afternoon “live podcast” that transformed the Moot Hall stage into a TV talk show set. Guests Dan Walsh, Will Pound and Eddy Jay were “invited”, but they didn’t get much choice, to join David, Michael and Sean in some games, including Pop-up Pirate. The game’s makers reckon it’s suitable for ages 4 and over but the six of them just about managed with a bit of audience help. Interspersed among several rounds of that, we had the side-splitting humour of David Eagle’s first lesson on a potter’s wheel. And, yes, there was even some music from the guests including the treat of seeing the Walsh and Pound duo playing together again.
The comedy is very much the brainchild of David Eagle, and for the late-night spots on Friday and Saturday he gave Michael and Sean some time off. On Friday, he teamed up with Matthew Crampton, they’ve recently worked together on The Transports, to give a cabaret performance of old music hall songs and plenty of between-song chat, producing a show packed with humour, satire and, oh yes, smut, lots of smut. They seem intent on repeating this using the name Muddling Through, you have been warned. Late night Saturday found David performing solo in the dance tent, once again presenting his DJ set, The Young’uns in the Mix, traditional folk and pop/rock favourites coming together in an unholy alliance. It was a mix that produced a lot of movement on the dance floor, very little of it towards the exits.
The more serious side of The Young’uns comes through in their new album, Strangers, and between all the hilarity, we talked at length about the songs. The report on that conversation will appear shortly.
FolkEast provides numerous performance areas, the outdoor Sunset Stage, bring your own chairs or sit on the grass, two tent stages, Moot Hall, straw bales and some chairs provided and Broad Roots, café style seating. Programming for the first two aims to alternate music between the stages and the walk between the two takes you past all the food stalls and one of the bars, handy. Music on Broad Roots, though, runs almost continuously during the afternoon finishing in the early evening. The Soapbox Stage operates throughout the day and on into the early hours. Primarily an opening for local and up and coming acts but it was as well to keep your eyes and ears tuned as some established acts such as Daria Kulesh and Will Pound and Eddy Jay could be found there. Add to this the Estate church that hosted the Sanctuary Stage and a marquee next to the main bar that was designated The Village Hall and hosted occasional performances, most notably Muddling Through.
Having been at Fairport’s 50th anniversary at Cropredy the previous weekend, the longevity of performers in the world of folk music was fresh on my mind, and FolkEast gave an opportunity to meet up with two performers who’ve been around significantly longer than Fairport. Martin Carthy’s folk career began in the early 1960s and, as his reputation has blossomed over the years, he’s been feted both as an innovator and as a careful custodian of a vast repertoire of traditional songs. His solo set was primarily the later, classic Carthy, songs first described, then impeccably presented with guitar accompaniment that always gives pride of place to the words and melody. And yes, just a little bit of tuning. A standing ovation was inevitable. Martin also played a set with long-time collaborator, melodeon, button accordion, concertina virtuoso, John Kirkpatrick. With their combination of voices, instruments and humour, English folk music rarely gets any better than this.
At 81, Hughie Jones has had a career even longer than Martin’s, and it was a particular delight for me to see him again after a gap of more than 50 years. As a member of Liverpool based quartet, The Spinners, Hughie was one of the handful of folk artists who, in the 60s and early 70s managed to crossover from folk revival to mainstream attention. The Spinners hosting their own TV show for seven years from 1970. They officially retired in 1988, though, as Hughie put it, “I think we discovered that we hadn’t saved enough for our pension”, and so did a few special shows for the next 3 or 4 years. Shortly after which, “the phone started ringing, and it was people saying, could you come and play at our club?”. So, Hughie picked up a solo career that had started with the 1991 release of the album Hughie’s Ditty Bag. He’s the only Spinner who was originally from Liverpool, and the city’s maritime history is seemingly in his blood. His solo repertoire is dominated by songs of the sea, both traditional and his own compositions. Hughie at 81 sings with a clear, strong voice that would be the envy of many a younger man, accompanied by his finger-picked guitar. He loves to tell the tales of the songs as well, especially of his own compositions. He says he’s driven to it because just singing a string of songs is hard work but it’s easy to see he’s a natural raconteur and wouldn’t want it any other way.
One of the delights of festival season is the opportunity it gives for catching up on acts you’ve heard about but not yet seen and first on my list were Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage. The Cambridge-based duo excites interest just from reading about their passion for uniting roots Americana and English trad, even more so when you realise their stage setup is around a single condenser mic dealing with the two voices and their array of acoustic instruments, mountain dulcimer, dobro and guitars. This all worked beautifully in the intimate setting of the Broad Roots tent. Hannah’s voice is crystal clear, perfectly suited to traditional ballads whilst Ben’s, in contrast, can be quite gruff. You might think they wouldn’t go together, but they do, splendidly. I was particularly taken with Hannah’s introduction to one ballad, “it has everything in four minutes, real value for money”.
India Electric Co. seem to have been popping up all over for the last couple of years and seeing them at FolkEast I can see why. Joseph O’Keefe plays such a range of instruments, though he focused on piano accordion and violin for this set, and uses them to evoke an impressive variety of styles. The violin could be Celtic, or gypsy jazz or American swing. Alongside, Cole Stacey’s powerful voice drives home lyrics that always reward careful listening, just don’t let the fascinating accompaniments distract you too much.
Instrumental trio Three Cane Whale provided an equally bewitching but rather different musical experience. Blissful, summer afternoon music, you can either lose yourself in the sound or stay alert to watch the on-stage interactions between three skilled musicians as each piece develops. Three multi-instrumentalists who between them constitute a small orchestra. The introduction given to the pieces firmly tied several to landscapes, I was particularly taken with one intended to portray bounding across southern downlands, preferably with a red setter, worked for me!
Having had a day in which to recover some semblance of sanity after his appearance on the Young’uns podcast, Dan Walsh teamed up with John Dowling for a Sunday afternoon set. John is an award-winning banjo player and also one-half of the banjo-building partnership that is The Cornish Banjo Company. With two astoundingly good banjo players on stage, there was, inevitably, some fast-paced picking to be heard, the classic Whiskey Before Breakfast for one. But also songs, I’ll single out another American old time classic, Rain and Snow. We all know the banjo jokes, but in the right hands they make for some great music, and Dan and John are definitely the right hands.
The previous three acts mentioned performed on the Moot Hall stage, and there’s one other I’ll mention. On Sunday evening, Simpson, Cutting and Kerr re-assembled for the first time in over a year and immediately re-created the sound that had made Murmurs such an unforgettable album. That album’s embrace of the unexpected was soon apparent, usually when Martin Simpson was making introductions. Introductions along the lines of, we have two of the greatest English folk musicians here, who better to play some jug band music? Or, The Lads of Alnwick, an old English Hornpipe, it’s a pipe tune, so why not play it on fiddle, banjo and melodeon? Let’s hope for another reunion in a recording studio somewhere, sometime soon.
While this generally quieter music was in the Moot Hall, the Sunset Stage was the place to be if you wanted a little more “thump”. Maybe not too much in the case of Friday night headliner, Jon Boden, though with a combination of guitar, shruti box and stomp board backing his voice, he could certainly turn up the volume when needed. His set combined songs from previous albums with two new songs as a taster for his new solo album, Afterglow, released on October 6th, and, of course, a smattering of old Bellowhead favourites.
Having been making music to growing acclaim for 15 years, including a Grammy nomination, Beoga, haven’t exactly been “under the radar” but their co-operation with Ed Sheeran on his recent album must have made them feel the entire world had suddenly noticed them. They deftly put that to one side, though, and gave us a storming set, putting the best of Irish tradition alongside their own compositions, five brilliant trad musicians and, as a bonus, fiddler Niamh Dunne has a voice to die for.
Saturday night and it was the turn of Lau followed by Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys to take over Sunset Stage. Lau have been revisiting some of their earlier material, preparing for a 10th Anniversary tour later in the year. They’re developing more electronic treatments of pieces that were originally arranged for their acoustic instruments, accordion, violin and guitar. Hinba was a five-minute piece on the 2007 album Lightweights and Gentlemen but live, and especially at festivals, an extended version was always a crowd pleaser. This, even more, extended version features Martin Green’s latest electronic creation. It has a keyboard, but the rest rather defies description in musical terms. There are wires in abundance, some arranged rather like ship’s rigging, and controls that my ancient A-level physics suggests could be potentiometers. What it produces is a vast range of sounds, some recognisable as chords, others, tones of an infinitely variable pitch. Martin seems able to tame this beast and integrate it with the somewhat more conventional sounds coming from Kris Drever’s guitar and Aidan O’Rourke’s violin. In typically Lau fashion, pieces such as this sit alongside poignant, lyrical songs from Kris such as Ghosts.
The guys in Sam Kelly and the Lost Boys really enjoy being on stage, and at FolkEast they were in party mood as it was Sam’s birthday weekend. They produced a great festival set, plenty of variety, top quality songs throughout and their final set of tunes, in particular, had the crowd on their feet and jumping. I’ve commented before on the atmosphere the current crop of young Scottish bands instils in their audiences, well here is an English band that can match them. Having closed with such lively tunes and then been cheered back on stage for an encore, it was a brave choice to play one of their slowest songs. But what a song, written in tribute to his Irish grandfather. Sam has always made clear his love of folk music was kindled by the music and stories he heard from him, and this song is a beautiful testament to that.
Sunday on the Sunset Stage saw Damien O’Kane and his band giving us another take on Irish music, Northern Irish style. With a markedly less traditional sound in comparison to Beoga, both bands, nonetheless, have their roots embedded in the music of the north of Ireland. Damien is mostly known for his tenor banjo playing, but with the band, he’s as likely to be playing an electric tenor guitar. With Damien was Steven Iveson on guitar, Anthony Davies on keyboards and Steven Byrnes on guitar and percussion. They opened with a couple of tune sets, the second of them leading us well away from traditional influences with snatches of the Muppet Theme and a thoroughly jazzy interlude. The majority of the material came from Damien’s albums, Summer Hill and Areas of High Traffic, many of them traditional songs but with distinctive treatments that give the band’s music a freshness that bodes well for the album that they are currently recording.
Damien didn’t quite close the festival on the Sunset Stage, that task went to The Dhol Foundation who gave another of their energetic and engaging shows. Music on the tent stages, though, carried on much longer, The Soapbox Stage and the Dance Tent not closing until well after midnight. The wonderful atmosphere generated by FolkEast is one people just don’t want to leave.
Next year’s festival is on17th, 18th and 19th August 2018.