It's Ely Folk Festival time again. A week later this year, but, anyway, whoopee, for verily this lovely festival is a true highlight of the year. As good a festival as any to which I've been in fact.
But lo, arriving on Friday evening we were greeted by plentiful mud underfoot. Fortunately, as the weekend progressed, this never quite progressed from being a niuisance to really spoiling the fun; indeed it enhances the experience once one is safely back home and viewing thr festival in hindsight. I pity the poor football pitch that was underneath our boots, though.
The Woodberrys set the music off gently with their pleasant bluegrass. Then it was time for a beer. In the beer tent there were real ales a-plenty, most of which were unfamiliar, so it was really a matter of selecting one with an appealing name. Beer featured prominently in my festival experience, but I won't carry on mentioning each time I visited the bar, lest it might make you inconveniently thirsty. Beer-in-hand, then, I sallied over to the Moor And Coast food emporium, for a delightful fish, all the way from the shores of Whitby, with chips.
Back to the big marquee for more music. Lady Maisery are a young female trio who sing traditional folk music in a fresh and winning way, even utilising the Scandinavian 'mouth music' style, which is like a folk version of scat.
My appreciation of Richard Digance's set was extreme. He has a great voice, and superb songs, which combine wit and poignancy to thrilling effect. Phew! Saga Lout was my favcourite number of the festival.
Friday night's final act, Jez Lowe, was well recieved by most. A palpably thoughtful and goodhearted chap, it is easy to see why he has garnered considerable affection and respect from folk audiences over the years. An expanded version of his band The Bad Pennies created a full sound, with fiddle adding its usual charm to the texture. For me, though, Lowe's songs lack punch, at least in comparison to Digance's.
Time to go home. But back the next day for plenty more. Monroe's Revenge plied us with some very accomplished bluegrass, then Elvis Fontenot & The Sugarbees provided some thoroughly entertaining, energetic cajun and zydeco. Blues Band guitarist Dave Kelly played a solo set of accomplished acoustic blues. Three good acts in a row, each one a British act playing American music. Hmmm, time for some pork with wensleydale cheese and chips, a delicious bargain from Moor And Coast for only £6. A new marquee has been provided with tables for eating, near Moor And Coast and the other food stalls (all of a commendably high standard, far from your usual hot dogs and hamburgers). This is appreciated, although unfortunately it obscures ithe lovely view of the festival site and Ely cathedral from the top end of the field. The problem was, though, that there were not enough chairs to go by, so people were standing by the tables with their supper.
After this over to Marquee 2, for a brilliant set by the young Norwich singer-songwriter Jess Morgan. Her ballads are lively and literate, not the drippy stuff one often gets from young female balladeers at all. She definitely deserves big success. Shame that I had to sit uncomfortably on the floor throughout her set. More seats for Marquee 2 next year, please!
Marquee 3 has been relocated next to the beer tent, inhibiting sessions by the bar somewhat, but providing entertainment for people who don't like carrying their beer too far. Many of the sessions there were 'Meet The Artist', in which artists who also play in the bigger tents answer audience questions, or, if there aren't lots of these, playa few numbers. Here were Nancy Kerr and James Fagan: first time I'd seen this Anglo-Australian trad duo, and what a great act they are - excellent people playing excellent music. This they confirmed shortly after with their set on the main stage.
This was followed by the Festival bill's biggest crowdpullers, Show of Hands. This remarkably popular act played a predictably high-quality set with assurance, but also with the good humour and unpompous sincerity - belief in both the music and in communicating to a live audience - that make them greater than the sum of their musical and songwriting talents. Many exited after their set to see Breabach do their Scottish stuff in Marquee Two. Steamchicken, now really a jazz act, played an entertaining closing set with in Marquee One with verve a-plenty, without quite having the sound needed to revive an audience somewhat tired after a full day.
The first act I caught on Sunday was singer-songwriter Liz Simcock, with her band of of Warwick jones and Ian Newman. Liz sings gentle, thoughtful, down-to-earth songs of real contemporary life from a female perspective. She does this very well. Next on was Mrs Ackroyd, now a trio - Alison Younger, Hilary Spencer, Chris Harvey - without Les Barker himself, but still perfroming musical versions of Les's brilliant comic poetry. At first I was sad not to see Les (he still performs solo poetry gigs, apparently), but the qualityof the musical performance did full justice to his words, so a great time was had by all. Definitely one of my favourite acts of the festival.
Over to Marquee Two for TwoManTing, a duo platying laid-back African music, reminding me of Ali Farka Toure, which was fine by me. Then more pork and chips. The final session in the big Marquee started with short performances from the two best acts from the 'Club Tent' open mike sessions held in Marquee Three on Saturday. These were young singer-songriter-guitarists Fern Trevor and Dave Neale. Both sounded promising; Dave, slightly older and more confident, was the better on the night, performing three interesting, thoughtful songs, the best being The Raincoat, with guest vocals from Jade of The Willows, a very touching song about faded love, definitely one of the best numbers of the festival.
Next The Willows themselves came on, with Ian Turner from Lightning Jack deputising very successfully for the otherwise-engaged Steve Maclachlan on percussion. Ely was where I first saw Jade perform, when she won the Club Tent competition a few years back. Since then she has honed her talent and charn as vocalist nicely, and she nows plays in a band of enterprising musicians who create a light acoustic sound with instrumental intricacy and surprising bite. They have just completed their first album, and definitely have the potential for large-scale popular success. It's also good to see them around, camping for the whole festival, and really getting into the festival spirit, not just focused on their own performances.
Singer -songwriter Anthony John Clarke is not my cup of tea, so instead I went and had a cup of tea at the MashBangDollop stall. Might try their food next year, it looks very tasty. Then Nancy Kerr and James Fagan were on again and as good as before. In recent years the final slot on Sunday has been given over to a rousing electric band, who counter weariness and end the festival with a bang. The Blues Band did this par excellence. They still contain the vintag e line-up of excellent blues virtuosi, and got folks dancing as no one else had in Marquee One. Magnificent.
I should observe that my rather subjective account is intended to give you a flavour of how one person can experience the festival. Of course different people experience it quite differently. With music being performed concurrently in three marquees, someone else might have seen as much of the music as me without seeing any of the same performances. Furthermpre they might have camped, they might have had equally good but different food, might not have drank the ale, might have joined in the ceilidhs or been part of a Morris team, might have had children playing at Jan's Blackboard Van, might have only attended for one day. Whatever, I'm sure they would have enjoyed themselves very much indeed. I've never met anyone who hasn't thoroughly enjoyed attending Ely Folk Festival.