Video Below: The Elyonline Team at the festival.

Ely Folk Festival may be somewhat small and overlooked in comparison with the more mainstream Cambridge Folk Festival, but it has a warmth and charm and is undeniably flawlessly executed. Run by a dedicated group of volunteers, the organising committee has a nonprofit ethos that had proved a formula for success, as for the third year running the festival has sold out well in advance of the weekend.

And to the festival…

Friday July 8, 2011
There’s always something a bit special about heading towards Ely Folk Festival on a Friday evening: meeting with friends, the excitement and anticipation of the wonderfully diverse line-up, and the general fun-loving atmosphere of what is intrinsically a family festival. The big question on everyone’s lips this year “will it rain?” Well, not yet, but it was clear that Mother Nature had yet to decide the weather for the weekend. Nimbostratus clouds were hovering and didn’t seem to be moving anywhere fast.

There were positives to the threat of rain. A queue immediately formed for the main stage marquee, unheard of on a Friday night. Unfortunately, whoever was first in line had queued at the wrong entrance, which resulted in an undignified scramble to the correct one.

With the marquee packed to capacity it was time for the evening’s first performance, the festival’s band competition winner Jess Morgan, a singer-songwriter from Norwich. Quite rightly described as “Norfolk Americana” her brand of alt-country was well received, although a slightly nervous Jess had earlier Tweeted: “Armour plated and ready for Ely Folk Festival tonight!!”

Marquee 2 was devoted to an evening of up-and-coming bands. The gentle charm of The Willows kicked things off, followed by multi instrumentalists Crown Street, who have an ethereal quality to their English folk music that was innocent and beautiful. Also on the bill were Ben Sayer, Pagan Molly and Cly Sparken.

As the evening drew on, the eclectic bill in Marquee 1 ranged from those of a more intimate persuasion (Hickman & Quinn and Brooks Williams Band) to the danceable (3 Daft Monkeys and headliners The Men They Couldn’t Hang).

Impossible to typecast, 3 Daft Monkeys’ stunning blend of upbeat, danceable music got the first people on their feet and dancing at the front of the stage. 3 Daft Monkeys were a popular choice and received ecstatic applause and an encore. The same cannot be said for the punk folk of The Men They Couldn’t Hang (TMTCH), with Stefan Cush’s opening salvo of expletives about Rupert Murdoch (“…and he shifted all his f***ing poisonous dog-sh*t powers to Wapping…”) causing many to gasp before spitting out the political song “The Ghosts of Cable Street”, followed by “Wishing Well”. The applause was muted initially but as the set went on there was greater appreciation, even if Cush did push the boundaries of acceptability more than once.

Of TMTCH, the following morning one Facebook user wrote: “Having great time, music good up till last band last night! Didn’t come to listen to foul language (there were kids present) and political rants! Glad they are not playing again.” TMTCH was a brave choice for the festival and were the highlight of the evening, although it may have been a wise choice to have 3 Daft Monkeys as headliners.

With the emphasis firmly on having fun and being sociable the ceilidh rounded the evening off. The key ingredients of a good ceilidh being enthusiasm, a good band, and usually – but not essentially – drink. This ceilidh had all.

Saturday July 9, 2011
Saturday morning kicked off with the festival parade through Ely city centre. Led by the colourful Knockhundred Shuttles and followed by Morris sides Witchmen, Ely and Littleport Riot, Tanglefoot Appalachian, Rockinghan Rapper, Bakanalia, Gog Magog, Young Miscellany, Manor Mill Clog, Devil’s Dyke, Coton, The King’s Morris, Green Dragon, Little Egypt, Bury Fair and Wype Doles, the procession drew equal amounts bewilderment and pleasure from the unsuspecting shoppers on the High Street.

When the parade finished around midday, it was back to the festival. With Saturday being the busiest of the three days and Mother Nature finally turning on the sunshine, avid festival-goers opened their fold-out chairs and positioned themselves around the front of Marquee 1 to take in a fantastic day’s music, while making the most of the continued good weather – although the individual with the tent probably took things too far!

The on-site facilities were plentiful (food, beer and the usual array of niche stalls). The beer tent had a fantastic selection of ales and ciders with medieval sounding names. As the weekend drew on many barrels ran dry with “Dragon Slayer” being one of the first casualties. The spontaneous folk sessions within the beer tent seemed to suffer this year. The musicians struggled to be heard over the louder than usual main stage performances, which was a shame really because these sessions are loved by many.

Saturday night’s headline acts began with the charming Dervish, a traditional Irish band whose performance proved to be an intensely exciting series of jigs, reels and songs. Their singer Cathy Jordan captivated the audience with her lengthy song introductions and lush vocals over a rhythmic backing of bouzouki, mandolin and bodhran. The festival loved Dervish, by far the best set of the weekend.

An interesting fact you may not know, in 2007, Dervish were chosen as the group to represent Ireland in the Eurovision Song Contest Final that year in Helsinki with “They Can’t Stop The Spring”. They finished last receiving only five points – all from Albania.

The evening finished with Acid Croft pioneers Shooglenifty, who once described their music as “hypno-folkadelic ambient trad”. In layman’s terms Shooglenifty push “traditional” to its limits with their genre-defying blend of roots music and dance vibes. They have a huge following, which was clearly evident by the sizeable crowd that crammed up towards the front of the stage to dance.

Although infectious, Shooglenifty were not to everyone’s taste. With no anecdotes between jigs and reels, the performance continued like a seamless DJ mix-tape, which was probably too much for the seasoned folk-lover and it was noticeable that the seated area of the marquee wasn’t quite as full as when Dervish performed. But those who stayed (and there were many) fervently danced and thoroughly enjoyed the groundbreaking Scottish mavericks.

While it was the headline acts (Dervish and Shooglenifty) who had the crowd on their feet, honourable mentions for Saturday must also go to Malingerers, Little Johnny England, Johnny Dickinson and The QP, who entertained and informed with their incisive take on the folk scene.

Saturday night’s festivities wound up around midnight but the party continued into the early hours of Sunday morning in the campsite grounds. The Shooglenifty brethren played impromptu sessions in the beer tent before being moved on and playing wherever they could.

Sunday July 10, 2011
Sunday dawned while sunshine once again blessed the festival ground. Sundays are always a much more relaxing and carefree affair. The valiant early morning festivalgoer can treat their body to a gentle and relaxing Tai Chi workout but most just settle back and take in the surroundings, have breakfast, maybe participate in a workshop and have a beer.

For the children, Jan Edgecombe’s famous blackboard van and activities are always a popular destination. As was the guy making GIANT soap bubbles (a lot of grown-ups liked this too). Elsewhere, Morris Dance displays entertained, the highlights being Rockingham Rapper’s intricate sword dances and the cadaverous Witchmen.

Not sure what happened with Marquee 3 this year, it still had great workshops but there was promise of more by Festival sponsors, Spiral Earth. On their website they wrote that the marquee was to be renamed the Spiral Earth Tent with talk of great workshops and club nights plus surprise guests, acoustic performances and interviews with the artists. It would have been a nice addition between the busier marquees but it just didn’t happen. Why?

Sunday afternoon in Marquee 1 gave many people the chance to see some of the weekend’s highlights (headline acts aside) and some praiseworthy one-off performances. Tom McConville’s peers say he is the top fiddle player in the country and it’s easy to see why. With his band he gave a virtuoso performance that was technically brilliant, entertaining and had the audience laughing out loud with his narrative.

With protest band Seize the Day, every song sends a message. “You’re just as likely to meet us at your nearest frontline protest, whether it’s against GM crops, or war, or fossil fuels” states their website. Their songs included “Only Doing My job”, written about the death of Jill Phipps, an animal rights protester who was crushed to death by a lorry transporting live veal calves, but presented from the lorry driver’s perspective. Also making a powerful statement to the afternoon audience was “Bigger, Brighter, Better, Bullshit”, about corporate greed.

Careful planning is required if you want to see the best of what marquees 1 & 2 have to offer as performance timings of both marquees inevitably overlap. This was the case mid-afternoon with Bounty Hounds and Heidi, John and Boo.

Bounty Hounds unique brand of folk rock opened the proceedings in marquee 2 with a superlative set. While over in marquee 1, Heidi Talbert, John McCusker & Boo Hewerdine’s astonishingly beautiful music delicately captivated with a mix of each artist’s songs and minimal instrumentation (guitar, ukulele and fiddle). Perfect.

As the afternoon turned to evening the club tent’s best acts got the chance to perform on the main stage followed by the entertaining jongleur, Rory McLeod.

The fantastic Ahab had tweeted earlier a photograph with the caption “Sold out: Flyers on seats, sweaty tent… Let’s get the chairs kicked away”. Well, the chairs remained in place but the audience loved the harmonies of their folk flavoured UK brand of Americana.

The evening ended with Ely Folk Festival favourite, Martin Simpson, described as ‘the finest acoustic guitarist on the planet’. His American blues and English folk music went down well and was the perfect end to a perfect weekend.

Once again a big thank to the committee and all the volunteer stewards who made this weekend very special.

3 Daft Monkeys live at the festival.

Shooglenifty live at the festival.

Seize The Day live at the festival.

The Bounty Hounds live at the festival.

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