There’s an old Neil Young album recorded at some Mudfest or other in the 70’s where he tries a spot of weather manipulation with the crowd. ‘Maybe if we all shout loud enough we can stop this rain!’ he implores the throng. Needless to say, it didn’t work and they all got trench foot and dysentery. However, after three weeks of continuous rain I thought it worth a try and in the week leading up to the 22nd Ely Folk Festival I did some furtive chanting, whilst pretending to work: ‘No rain. No rain. No rain’. At one point I started to rock back and forth in my chair and drooled a bit, prompting a concerned colleague to ask if I was ok. Going that extra kilometre on behalf of the weather pixies worked. By 6pm on Friday the rain had stopped. That wasn’t much consolation for the people who had to push caravans through the mud to get onto the site but it didn’t rain any more. Not a drop.
Despite the possibility of rain I was looking forward to the Festival with bated ears, quivering with anticipation at the opportunity to watch some decent live folk music. I’d watched brief parts of the Princess Diana Birthday bash on telly and was heartily sick of the diet of corporate rock bands that always play at those kind of events. I’m also getting weary of the kind of pap that record companies try to fling at blokes like me on Father’s Day – “40 Motorway Tearjerkers” and suchlike.
Regular readers of these festival reviews will know that a few years ago I thought an Uillean Pipe was something to do with plumbing but since then my folk profile has risen. I’ve been to the local club in Ely a few times and even started shelling out cash for this stuff: Mawkin, Kris Drever, LAU and others. I even spent a quiet morning at work reading up on Hurdy Gurdies after seeing Drohn at the folk club – and it’s all the fault of the Ely Folk Festival.
Friday at The Fest
With the weather a clear and present danger the Ely Online team ventured down to the festival site on Friday evening: myself, Karl, Holly and new member, Mike. Horror – the beer tent wasn’t open. I stood there, dry mouthed, for fifteen minutes before I realised the tent opening was on the other side. Armed only with a Tesco notepad and a stubby pencil I entered and got down to work – ‘A pint of Summer Lightning, please’.
With beer in hand we traversed the site as, what appeared to be, an evacuation was taking place. People were streaming by with arms full of sleeping bags, tents and boxes – and some Clever Trevor’s with wheelbarrows. No cars allowed on the field.
CD competition winners Martin Kaszak (sporting the mostly immaculately coiffured hair I’ve ever seen at a festival) and Rod Dujardin opened the festival with the very apt ‘Deep River Blues’ and ‘Ely 22’ was off.
The fifth element of the Folk Boy Five, Lee, was marooned at the bus stop in Ely waiting for the shuttle bus down to the site. He sent us two texts bemoaning its non-arrival, in which time he could have walked down there. Having said that, Lee was once on an escalator in M & S going up to the Menswear department when there was a power cut and the escalator stopped. He waited 20 minutes to be rescued.
When he eventually arrived, moaning about the ‘Shittle Bus’, we had to calm him down with a couple of Dragon Slayers and he was ok.
Anthony John Clarke was next up. His set went down well and he got the audience involved at every opportunity, especially on John, Paul, George and Ringo (Dave Dee, Dozy Mick and Titch). AJC also could stir the soul as on ‘The Day The Sky Turned Red’ with the lyrics taking in David Bowie, terrorism and diet fads in the space of a chorus. Good stuff. I’ll be trawling around for of his CD’s for sure.
Suntrap followed on the main stage. Playing a mixture of traditional and contemporary folk they went down a storm. Standout song for me was ‘Silver’; they were at their best when the girl’s vocal harmonies were at full throttle. I was also quite touched when they introduced the song ‘Brown Eyed Boy’ for Fred, who sat at the back, quietly singing along to the song that had been written about him. How cool is that?
Headliners on Friday were locals, Ezio. As a Cambridge Rock Contest regular I first saw Ezio and Booga (as they were then called) in the early nineties at The Junction. They seemed slightly uncomfortable playing to a seated folk crowd. Ezio commented that it was like being at a sÃ©ance, ‘trying to contact the living’. Cheeky bugger. They ran through their set with songs from the latest CD, ‘Ten Thousand Bars’ but the biggest cheers came from older songs like ‘Deeper’ and the majestical ‘Saxon Street’, that I’m pretty sure they were playing back at those Rock Contest gigs. Highlight of the set was Booga doing a Scooby Doo impression during a version of Boo Hewerdine’s ’59 Yards’. At last they looked like they were enjoying themselves.
And then it was off through the mud to a warm bed to leave the campers to shake their tail feathers at the Wide Glide ceilidh before a night under the stars.
After a huge cooked breakfast it was time for the traditional Saturday Morris Procession. I always enjoy watching the locals reactions as much as the dancing. It’s the ‘Marmite’ effect that takes over in Ely. Some people, who aren’t aware of the festival, are delighted with the dancing and stand watching for ages. The rest push by on the pavement with stern faces as they head off for the building society or the pub.
The first act of the afternoon session (always a hard gig) was taken up by Penda’s Fen. PF’s singer, Sharie Neyland, sports a neat line in spangly tops but their traditional fayre was not as appealing to me as her belly dancing and hip-swiveling. A couple of songs were accompanied by yelping dogs. Yup, time for my annual moan about canines . It was like Crufts at times. I expected to turn round and see Ben Fogle stroking a shiatsu, which doesn’t seem as amusing when you actually check in a dictionary and realise it isn’t spelt, ‘Shitsu’, as I’ve just done.
Britain’s Got Talent? It ain’t Tap-Dancing Grannies or Juggling Budgies
Every year I leave the EFF with an act stuck in the memory that I’ve been absolutely delighted to have been introduced to. This year it was acoustic guitar player, Gareth Pearson. I’d checked out some of Gareth’s samples on his Myspace page but nothing prepared me for his live act. A charismatic 18 year old, Gareth has already supported Ray Davies and Southside Johnny. He plays a mixture of covers and his own compositions and had the audience in the palm of his hand.
During Gareth’s set I could smell burning as scores of old folkies who’ve never got to grips with ‘Streets of London’ went off to burn their instruments. Gareth has a unique charm, which comes across during his banter. He told the crowd how he was ticked off by an Irishman for calling his tunes, ‘songs’. ‘He said I shouldn’t call them that cos they haven’t got any words’. Gareth’s rendition of The Jackson’s ‘I Want You Back’ proves that some songs don’t need words. He appeared to be playing every instrument at the same time. Stunning. Britain’s Got Talent? Yep, it has, but it ain’t Tap Dancing Grannies or Juggling Budgies, it’s people like Gareth Pearson. I have it on good authority that he’ll be back next year.
I would imagine that Mawkin were slightly apprehensive having to follow GP. They needn’t have worried. I knew all about Mawkin having seen them at the Ely Folk Club in March and they delighted me again with their Essex tunes. In fact, I’m listening to ‘The Fair Essex’ whilst bashing this out, one-fingered, on the pc in the back room at work. David Delarre admitted being concerned at having to play a solo piece so soon after Gareth Pearson’s display. ‘You might want to wait around for 6 years or so while I catch up’, he quipped modestly. He proceeded to play a great version of Eric Roche’s ‘Roundabout’ that won him a runner up place in the 2006 Radio 2 young folk awards.
Young singer and fiddle player, Jackie Oates opened up proceedings on Saturday evening. A finalist in the Radio 2 young folk awards in 2003, Jackie’s not my cup of Earl Grey but her warm stage presence went down a treat with the traditionalists at Ely. An interesting aspect of her set, for me, was that she played an instrument that looked like a backgammon board that she sort of opened and shut a few times and it made a noise like my dad a couple of weeks when he smoked 40 Woodbines a day. Made a hurdy Gurdy look straightforward.
Following Jackie was singer/songwriter Eddy Morton. I’d done some research on Eddy, buying ‘The Singing Tree’ off Amazon for Â£1.24 and getting into songs such as ‘Ordinary Man, Ordinary Woman’, ‘Lighthouse’ and the awesome ‘Back To The Land’. Guess what? The bugger didn’t play any of them. It didn’t matter, Eddy was excellent. Old Bushbury’s songs ‘When We Were Young’, ‘Camille’ and ‘Faith Healer’ went down a storm. Eddy’s musical partner, Paul Hodson, sported the best haircut of the weekend. Paul enjoys the benefits being able to marry that going-thin-on-top look with the ability to grow his hair really long at the sides. Think Phil Collins from the early 70’s. I was most disappointed when I saw him in the beer later with it tied back.
Shooglenifty – funkfolkaroll?
Remember when they used to print ‘File Under’ on records? It was so straightforward then. Music was either vocal, instrumental, rock, country and not much else. Whenever you read about Shooglenifty the writers go to tortuous lengths to pigeon hole them: ‘new Celtic folkatronica trance disco’, ‘funkfolkaroll’, ‘acidbagpipe a-boogie’ and other convoluted names (that I’ve just made up). Truth of the matter is you’re wasting your time. Just listen to the music and forget about which shelf you’d have to put them on if you worked in HMV. Anyway, as Elvis Costello once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. A fantastic way to round off Saturday, a full main tent and plenty of aled up folksters shaking their tail feathers. I will be investigating The Shoogles back catalogue.
Soaking up the sun on Sunday morning and glancing through the programme I realised I had a dilemma on my hands. Who The Hell Am I Going To Watch, Who The Hell Am I Going To See? Yep – Gareth Pearson and Vin Garbutt were scheduled to be on at the same time. In the end I realised that I could watch the Welsh guitar wizard again and still catch an hour of Vin in the main tent. Sorted! GP was excellent and received another tent-raising reception.
Who The Hell Am I Going To Watch, Who The Hell Am I Going To See?
I’d seen Vin Garbutt about 4 years ago on his last visit to Ely and he didn’t disappoint. His illness of a couple of years ago has, rather than diminish his powers, just given him more material for his between song banter. Highlights of the set for me were the preamble to ‘Beggars Bridge’ and the excellent “Wings”. I am reliably informed that at least one member of the audience was reduced to tears by one of Vin’s stories. He has a unique ability to make you cry with laughter with his anecdotes and then howl sadly when he (eventually) gets around to singing the song.
By then the skies had cleared and it was nice enough to sit the sun over a bagel and fantastic bread and butter pudding to listen to Mawkins set waft across the field before the evening session began with the Club Tent Winners. First up was Jade, from Cambridge followed by Sound Tradition from Bury St Edmunds who did about 15 minutes each. Jade did a mesmerising version of Massive Attack’s, ‘Teardrop’. Sound Tradition, are an acappella trio and left me a bit cold but most of the crowd seemed to luv ’em.
By now the Lazy Sunday afternoon had really started to kick in and we spent the rest of the evening alternating between bread pudding, beer and the remaining 3 acts of the weekend: Pavlov’s Cat, Alistair Russell & Chris Parkinson and to round off the weekend, Jez Lowe.
And that was it for another year. Big thanks to the committee for pulling it off yet again. As well as putting on a fantastic festival they somehow managed to change the weather. Or was it my chanting?