As this year’s Ely Folk Festival has been cancelled, like all other festivals, because of the currently ongoing Coronavirus pandemic let’s take a look back at a previous one from 2008.

Image: The Gang

Armed with stubby pencils, scraps of paper and a camera Ely Online once again ventured down to The Ely Folk Festival to capture the spirit of the event. With me (John Glover) on words and Karl Bedingfield (on the piccies) we hope to give you a slice of the weekend from a non-folkie angle. Holly and Mike were camping and completed the Ely Online team.The forecast was dodgy but the list of bands was great. For my diary of the weekend, read on:

Friday Afternoon (at work – 15:20)

Image: John Glover

Yet again I find myself on the afternoon of an Ely Folk Festival, praying to the Sun Gods. It worked last year after I wore a hole in the carpet dancing round in concentric circles, covered in wode, clutching a dreamcatcher and chanting a Plainsong (at this point I was going to add a feeble joke that the plainsong in question was ‘Jet’ by Wings but I’m enough of a Beatles bore to know that Jet was, in fact, Macca’s dog. So even if the joke had worked, which I’m sure you agree didn’t, it wouldn’t have been accurate). Err – where was I? After consulting the BBC 5 day forecast I suspect I will need some stout footwear and a hat. As Hunter Davies says, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. I even raised a small cheer when I realised that Saturday’s prediction had been downgraded from heavy showers to light showers.

As usual my remit is to type up a review of the festival from a non-folkie angle. As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews this is becoming increasingly difficult as I find myself getting into the music more and more. In fact, whilst on holiday in Greece I found myself comparing a traditional Greek tune they were playing in a taverna to a track off ‘Troots’ by Shooglenifty. As I imparted this, very astute I thought, observation I looked up to find Mrs Glover face down snoring into her tzatziki. Hmm…I thought. This is getting serious.

This will be my 8th visit to the Festival and, I’m ashamed to say, it should be my 23rd. It wasn’t until I was invited along by Ely Online that I took off my blinkers and saw beyond the stereotype of beards, rainbow-coloured waistcoats and men waving hankies around. Of course, all that is on offer at the festival but there’s also a lot, lot more. The Ely festival features a wide variety of styles, all which fit into the broad church of folk. Am I looking forward to it? You Betcha! Is it raining? Yes.

Image: Storm Beckons

Friday Evening

With a broken dreamcatcher thrown into the bin I headed off to the festival site. It all looked very familiar but with one or two changes in food vendors (No Chez Nous!). With five local breweries offering a variety of beers and ciders the beer tent was packed with people keeping dry with a session already under way.

Image: Lizzy Doe and Joe Bradwell

To open up the weekend as usual it was the competition winners, Lizzy Doe and Joe Bradwell, who were the committee’s pick from 21 entrants. Their Irish traditional tunes went down well with what was a fuller tent than usual at this time on a Friday. I suspect that because of the weather more people will actually be listening to the music rather than soaking up the summer sun so in one way you could say that the rain is encouraging people to listen to an act they might have otherwise missed. The duo have been increasingly focused on their collaboration since performing at New Roots 2008. That’d be a good name for a Hairdressers – but not as good as “British Hairways” which I recently saw.

Image: Al Lindsay

Due to the wonder of Myspace I’d been able to check out the next act, Al Lindsay, in the days before the festival and had been impressed by the song he opened with; “Shackles and Chains”. Al’s press release says that his writing style has comparisons with Jon Martyn, Nick Drake and World Party. Admitting to my folk ignorance I’ve never heard the first two but I definitely saw the link to Karl Wallinger’s style and phrasing. As the rain lashed down, Al treated us to “Singing In The Rain” and we all joined in defiantly. It was almost like Cliff Richard at Wimbledon the other year. No it wasn’t. Were we going to let the rain bother us? No. By the way, Al’s “Better Man” would have been a Number One if Robbie Williams had recorded it 4 years ago.

Image: Shambolica

Shambolica were back at the festival after their first appearance in 2006. The trio have progressed from playing around the kitchen table six years ago to making an album. They seemed far more polished than on their last showing and Kerry’s voice is a treat. “Lonesome Traveller” was my favourite.

I love Colvin Quarmby. Having previously seen them a couple of times I was surprised to see their new line-up. With the departure of Dave Dutfield they have expanded to a five piece with new members Marion Fleetwood and Allan Maslen from Meet On The Ledge. With their previous line-up I’d thought they were a change from the more traditional folk act but with the addition of fiddle, squeezebox and a less obvious “rock” line-up they are more folkie now. As usual Gerry Colvin had the audience laughing and kept referring to his ex-girlfriend who caused him to spend all his time in the shed and made his hands shake. Gerry had the crowd in stitches with the pre-amble to Dylan Thomas’s pen and encouraged a good sing a long.

Image: Colvin Quarmby

Last act in the main tent were Saor Patrol, a live act to behold, with pipe tunes and drum rhythms to stir the soul and put fire in a man’s belly. As Holly’s boyfriend, Mike, put it, “It makes me want to run around with a sword!”Can’t remember any of the song titles but I know that the tent was bursting at the seams. It was an excellent first night and a good mixture of the traditional, singer songwriters and passionate music.

Image: Saor Patrol

Saturday Afternoon

Image: Mike & Holly

The traditional Molly parade kicked off at 11am in the city. They were well underway when I got myself around a bacon and egg baguette from the wonderful “Tea For Two” and eggs rolled down my freshly shaven chin. I arrived at the site in time to catch the last couple of songs of Claude Bourbon, but luckily with most acts playing twice at Ely you can catch them the next day if you like what you see. And I did.

After another trip to the beer tent it was time to meet up with Ava and Jamie from “Northern Folk” and introduce them the Ely Folk Festival. Yet another downpour forced us back into the beer tent and more refreshment and the chance to catch an excellent impromptu set by members of No ID.

Then, just on time, the sky cleared and the African Dance workshop was in full swing. I’d have to say that natural rhythm was slightly lacking as members of Zambula put some willing dancers through their paces. I expect all those people to be throwing shapes in the main tent tonight.

To finish the afternoon session it was Martin Simpson. He had the audience in the palm of his hand and received a cheer for the mighty, “Never Any Good”. Today he let the music do the talking. He said he was in the mood for playing the guitar and kept the banter to a bare minimum. “Duncan and Brady”, a Johnny Cash style tale of shootin’ and runnin’ saw some nifty finger work and feet tappin’. Simpson is acknowledged as one of the finest acoustic finger-style and slide guitar players in the world and I think I know the reason why. I took a photo and zoomed in on his left hand for an arty shot. He actually has 7 fingers and 2 thumbs on his left hand. Thinking about it now, I think I saw him on Channel 4’s “The Freakiest Looking Buggers In The Worldâ”. He was on the week after the man with the head made of wood and the 5 year old girl whose feet are on backwards.

Saturday Evening

Image: Show of Hands

By 9:20 the sky had cleared and the sides were taken off the main tent. Time for Show of Hands. Introduced as “a kind of Chas and Dave of Folk”; Phil Beer, Steve Knightley (ably assisted by the lovely Miranda Sykes) were immense. Cousin Jack had the crowd bellowing along. Strange that, of all the folk bands I’ve seen now, Show of Hands didn’t have to encourage any audience singing – everyone just joined in. “Roots”, “Country Life” and “Galway Farmer” were all met with cheers. Fantastic stuff. And, refreshingly, Steve Knightley mentioned that you could buy a CD after the gig or get a copy off a mate. Not what you’d hear Fergal Sharkey say. When I saw that Show of Hands were on the bill I went to Ely library, borrowed a copy of “Witness” and burned a copy. I loved it so much that I bought a copy of “Roots – The Best Of”. A month later I was in a tent singing along with “Country Life”  “No Jobs! No Shops! No Pubs!” They used to say Piracy is Killing Music – No! Blokes in suits in record companies who know nothing about music buying habits is the problem.

Image: Show of Hands

Last up – Zambula. We’d watched the Dance Workshop in the afternoon and I was keen to see if the moves had been put into action. They had. Great way of ending Saturday and I think the committee got it spot on with the bill – a big anthem folk band to make you think before the beer soaks through to the brain. Then, when brain turns into a sponge it’s time for jumping up and down.

Image: Zambula

Sunday Dinnertime

Lightning Jack began the afternoon session. They were cooking on something rather warm. All their mum’s were there and Lester Lloyd-Reason said it was only the 2nd time his mum had seem him play in 30 years. Ah Bless! Stand out song – Purple. When they appeared on stage Mike pointed to the bass guitarist and said, “He’s been behind the bar all weekend!”. Step forward and take a bow, Fil Utting-Brown. Playing two gigs and working behind the bar. He sang the praises of Chairman Trish Reed (well deserved) but Fil also deserves a cheer – Hoorah!

Image: Mawkin:Causley

Last Night’s Fun were up next. With Denny Bartley on a break it was strange seeing the new line-up. It was a weekend of changes (see ColvinQuarmby). Like when a Doctor Who regenerates you hope you’re going to like the new version. Would Findlay Napier be Colin Baker or David Tennant? I’m happy to report that he was at least as good as Christopher Eccleston. A corking rendition of Doxford Hall blew some cobwebs away and Autumn Child, described as “chair stacking” music by Chris, was a delight. “Chairstacking – 20 Golden Greats From LNF” could be a good album title.

Image: Kerfuffle

In their press blurb Kerfuffle are described as playing music that cannot easily be categorised. Yes it can – it’s bloody good. Energetic playing caused a record amount of broken strings, to the point where Hannah James spent a while introducing a song about her native Derbyshire which she’s spent some time tracking down, only to realise they couldn’t play it because the guitar was knackered.

Sunday Evening

Image: Gareth Pearson

Arriving back on site I overheard a conversation and the only snatch I heard was, “it’s almost too well organised” – what the hell does that mean?

Image: 4 or 5 pints of Dragon Slayer

On Sunday evenings I prefer my music in Marquee 2 – it’s more up close and personal. It was while casting an eye around that I noticed the preponderance (that’s not a bad stab at a four-syllable word after 4 or 5 pints of Dragon Slayer) of headgear. Why do people wear so many weird and wonderful hats at folk festivals? Could it be lack of hair? Having said that, I was listening to Boo’s new CD in the kitchen and I realised I’d left my trilby on.

If you were at last year’s festival you’ll already know how big an impression Gareth Pearson made on me – as I’m sure he does wherever he takes his guitar. I watched him again in the more intimate setting of Marquee 2 and he was excellent – again. Running through his set of self penned tunes and clever covers he received more rapturous applause. He ate a Fab ice-cream while playing “Jerry’s Breakdown”. Holly spoke to him after his set and he said the crowds were dancing while he played in Canada and he had to acclimatise to the more reverential atmosphere of Ely. It was a joy to watch people’s faces when he started “I Want You Back” – members of the audience smiling with delight at the tune and hoary old guitarists thinking, “How the hell does he Do that?”

Image: Boo

Boo Hewerdine was introduced as a legend that saved the committee money because there are no accommodation charges. He said he’d better play a good set or he’d find it awkward in the newsagent. Seated for the first few numbers I’m sure Boo will be able to hold his head up as he buys his copy of The Guardian (I reckon Boo’s a Guardian man) and polos. He formed an impromptu backing band, hastily named The Shakers, all playing their recently purchased Shaky Eggs along to “59 Yards”. For an encore he played “Can’t Get it Out Of My Head”. He only introduced it as an oldie and I recognised it immediately – the ELO album it’s from was the first LP I ever bought, on mail order from Frantic Records, when I got the address from the back of the Melody Maker. I haven’t heard it in years and I have to say I felt something moist forming in the corner of my eyes (corners of my eyes? What am I talking about?) and I had to swallow a bit.

To finish the weekend it was Folk WunderKidz, Spiers and Boden. Lee and I spent the first five minutes trying to work out where the bass whoomp was coming from and we worked out it was from a footpad. Is that allowed in Folk? Their mix of traditional songs and dance tunes was a fitting end to another festival, the first to sell out.

Top Songs/Tunes of Weekend:

  1. Al Lindsay – Better Man
  2. ColvinQuarmby – Dylan Thomas’s Pen
  3. Martin Simpson – Never Any Good
  4. Show of Hands – Cousin Jack
  5. Miranda Sykes – Rain
  6. Lightning Jack – Purple
  7. Last Night’s Fun – Doxford Hall
  8. Gareth Pearson – I Want You Back
  9. Boo Hewerdine – Can’t Get It Out of My Head
  10. Zambula – Dunno the title but it got people shaking their asses during the dance w/shop
Image: Jeremey Cluckson

And yep – the sun finally shone on Sunday and it was glorious. The site was packed with Morris shows, the sides of the marquee were open and the children were playing in the middle of the field. Nice. Once again a grit big old thank you to the committee, (especially Chair, Trish Reed) and we’ll see you all next year.

Image: Sold out

Monday Morning

Back to work – Bleuggghhh! Just checked on Google and “Jet” could actually either be about a dog, horse , rabbit or John Lennon! Talking of Wings, I was in the kitchen listening to “Live and Let Die” the other day and my daughter walked in. She knows the song from Geri Halliwell’s attempt at it. “Dad”, she asked, “Is that the song by the man who was married to the woman who made the sausages?”

That’s it. I’ll shut up now – see yer.

Original comments made about this article:

  1. Paul Mardell says:

    Thanks to all involved in the organisation of the festival. It was my first and I will be back! The music was stunning from start to finish .. such a wide variety of performers. There were many highlights but seeing Martin Simpson was very special and Show of Hands played a wonderful set .. the atmosphere in the marquee was quite something that night. I have come away really inspired and much the wiser. Thanks again .. see you next year!!

    Russell Moden says:

    Really enjoyed the festival this year I think the best one since I have been going (this was the 6th), good report and pictures Jon and Karl see you in the beer tent next year

    John Glover says:

    Hi Helen – the trains are punctual but full. Nothing changes.

    While I’m here I’d like to answer a question I raised with regard to Spiers & Boden:

    “To finish the weekend it was Folk WunderKidz, Spiers and Boden. Lee and I spent the first five minutes trying to work out where the bass whoomp was coming from and we worked out it was from a footpad. Is that allowed in Folk?”

    Well, Lee has done some research and the whoomp was produced like this:

    “For the stomp box we use a square of strong plywood (about a square yard but could be smaller) and 4 pieces of 4″x4″ pine cut so it fits together with a mic inside it. It’s stuck together with velcro. We also pad the top parts of the supporting pine with foam to make it less clacky. We use an Audio-Technica ATM87R condenser mic (designed for bass drums) Generally to get our type of sound you need to turn down all the treble and mid on the desk and whack the bass up as far as you can without getting feedback – this gives a bassy dull thud, if you want some attack to the sound then put some mid back in.”

    I stand corrected.

  2. Helen Blake (nee Palin) says:

    Oh, hell! I left Ely/Little Downham about 4 years ago. I discovered the band Show of Hands sort of recently (Johnnie Walker played ‘Roots’on his part-time radio show) and I would have liked to see them live. Looks like I have missed a really good chance. I stay on the Isle of Lewis (Outer Hebrides) and we have a celtic fesitval each year in Stornoway. I don’t suppose the boys would consider playing up here next year? They may have a few problems if they were to trott out ‘Roots’at the big tent but I think they would be able to look after themselves!

    Looks like the Ely Festival was an excellent gig. PS How are the trains these days!

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