Review Date July 13-15, 2012
Review By David Knowles
This was the first year that things had worked out right for me. I could finally go to the whole three days of this wonderful festival that is only a 20-minute walk from my home. One thing I did not bank on though was the British weather, as it had been raining since the start of June. As the festival weekend got closer I feared that it might well be cancelled, as others like it had already fallen by the wayside. However, massive credit to the organisers and a very big well-done to all involved as they never gave up and managed to defeat both the rain and the mud to put on the best Ely Folk Festival that I had been to. Friday evening, I made my way to the site and what I was faced with wasn’t what I was expecting. As I went through the gate the usual grass entrance was now a muddy, boggy, puddle-laden mess. The box office was situated along this path and I managed to get to it without getting too muddy, but that didn’t last very long, and I knew that wellington boots would have to be called upon for the rest of the weekend. 2011 BBC2 Horizon Award winner, Ewan McLennan was my first act of the festival and he put on a fine show. Next up was a trio by the name of Lady Maisery, comprised of Hanna James (vocals, accordion)-who delighted the wet crowd with a wonderful clog dance near the end of the set-Hazel Askew (vocals, harp, concertina)-who played such heavenly harp solos-and Rowan Rheingans (vocals, fiddle, banjo), who at one point took up a strange looking instrument that looked like a banjo with two music horns extending from it. It was in fact a ban-sitar and gave out a lovely sound, as was demonstrated on the tune, “Nottamun Fair”-the three brightening up the dull weather with some excellent musicianship and sweet harmonies. I thoroughly enjoyed this talented trio and for me the festival was now well and truly underway! It was then the turn of one of my favourite comics, Richard Digance. I hadn’t seen him in concert for quite a few years, so was really looking forward to his show at the festival. He set the tone straight away with the brilliant “Saga Lout” that had the whole audience singing along to the chorus. “Sod’s Law” kept the laughter going with many tongue-twisting lines, proving how good a guitarist he is with a wonderful blues guitar instrumental. A Richard Digance show wouldn’t be the same without him having a dig at someone or something and “Jobs” is a fantastic song, having a pop at would-be celebrities and talentless people who always seem to be in the news. I agreed with the ones he mentioned. “The Ballad Of Johnny Puller” is a young soldier’s perspective of the war and his involvement in the famous story of the football match between the British and German soldiers on Christmas Day in 1914. Richard also spoke about Leyton Orient Football Club who lost 3 players in the Battle of the Somme. Orient supporters have made pilgrimages to the Somme and on July 10, 2011 an O’s memorial was unveiled in the French village of Flers. Richard also performed my favourite number, “Remembers” in which he lists 200 sweets, toys, adverts etc. from the past. Richard Digance is a comic genius! Thank-you Ely Folk Festival for booking him. Friday was brought to a close by Jez Lowe and The Bad Pennies, getting people dancing with the lively polka tune “Barnstorming,” amongst others, plus band member Kate Bramley took the occasional lead vocals on songs such as “Jesse Owens’ Shoes,” inspired by the legendary American sprinter who dominated the 1936 Olympic Games. More rain followed on Saturday as I wandered into Marquee 1 to see Jez Lowe again, this time as a duo with Kate to do songs from the RADIO BALLADS. I then decided to stay in the main tent-especially as I had a front row seat-to see out the rest of the afternoon session. Monroe’s Revenge were next up, a British group consisting of Dave Plane (guitar, vocals), Roger Blackbourn (banjo, vocals), Richard Partridge (fiddle, vocals), Dick Embery (double bass) and Joe Hymas (mandolin, vocals) that played some scintillating bluegrass, comparable with many of the American bands. Great music and very entertaining, although I would’ve preferred Joe to have ceased talking in a fake American accent; it wasn’t needed, with music of this quality. Elvis Fontenot & The Sugar Bees was an infectious and supercharged Zydeco and Cajun band from Staffordshire, having played in festivals all over Europe and America. They were hugely popular with the audience, playing dance tunes such as “Dirty Old Dog,” “Hot Tamale Baby” as well as a cover of the Otis Gibbs song, “Caroline.” With washboard and accordion solos a-plenty, this was entertaining stuff but the vocals were a bit weak. The afternoon was brought to a close by the incredible guitar playing of Blues Band member, Dave Kelly. I was lucky enough to catch one of Dave’s rare solo, acoustic gigs once before and it was nothing short of amazing. Picture this: Big stage at a music festival with one guy sitting on a chair with a microphone and a guitar. He starts to play “Cross Road Blues” by Delta blues man, Robert Johnson. You could hear a pin drop; the whole audience mesmerised by his phenomenal slide guitar playing. This set was like an anthology of blues legends as Dave played Skip James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” followed by John Lee Hooker’s “No More Doggin'”. The chap sitting next to me commented on what a great voice Dave Kelly has and I had to agree with him, as a fan, but also as he’s one of the greatest British guitarists around. I was in absolute heaven when he played a brilliant slide solo on another Robert Johnson tune, “Come On In My Kitchen”-he also played my favourite, “Statesboro Blues.” The audience joined in on the terrific “City Of New Orleans” and the Buddy Holly tune, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” which also had Dave playing some gorgeous rock”n’roll guitar licks. Memphis Minnie’s “When The Levee Breaks”-about the Mississippi floods of 1927-followed another Robert Johnson song, with Dave finishing with “Few Short Lines.” This was blues music at its very best and performed by one of the best, not to mention a great way to end the afternoon session at the festival. The evening session started in Marquee 1 with the very funny and hugely entertaining, Anthony John Clarke, with his good voice, witty banter and fine guitar playing. One memorable point was on the amusing “Tuesday Night Is Always Karaoke,” plus he had everyone in fits of laughter with the confusing family tree song entitled: “I’m My Own Grandpa.” Anthony John Clarke is just what every festival needs. Nancy Kerr and James Fagan performed during the evening session in Marquee 1 on both Saturday and Sunday-I watched them on the Saturday and they put on a wonderful show with songs such as the gypsy folk styled “Barbara Allen” and the well known tune “Dance To Your Daddy” (probably better known as “When The Boat Comes In”). They also played some quite exhilarating jigs. Finally, it was time for the excellent Show Of Hands and the audience had already started to move forward to stand up at the front by the security rail (myself included). Steve Knightley, Phil Beer and Miranda Sykes were all in a line across the front of the stage and as soon as they started, people were singing along with them. Phil took lead vocals on the Bruce Springsteen cover, “Youngstown,” whilst Steve took on “I’ll Haunt You”-a song he co-wrote with Seth Lakeman. Steve actually took on most of the lead vocals, with Phil accompanying excellently on various instruments such as fiddle, guitar and mandolin; Miranda playing some fabulous double bass, as well as adding some heavenly harmony and powerful duet vocals. A few songs in and Steve introduced “Cruel River,” everyone in the marquee utterly spellbound by this amazing group. Steve’s voice on this song was both haunting and strong, but then got even stronger and tempered on the politically charged “Arrogance, Ignorance And Greed,” taking a swipe at a
ll the cuts and redundancies whilst the fat cats line their pockets. Steve started off the first couple of verses of “The Blue Cockade,” and then handed the vocal baton over to Miranda; her beautiful voice sprinkling sunshine into the hearts of all who listened, even though it was dark and raining outside. They finished with the fan favourite “Cousin Jack” that had the audience singing along so loud that they almost raised the roof. Final act on Saturday night was an 11-piece band called Steamchicken. Headed up by singer, Becky Wolff, they stoked up the musical fires set by Show Of Hands with their feisty jazz swing. With a superb horn section and amazingly soulful jazz vocals from 18-year-old Becky, this group were an absolute feast. I’d been planning to head home after meeting Show Of Hands in the signing tent, but once I heard the music coming from the marquee I was drawn back in, leaving as the encore was starting and knowing that I had seen some great acts that day. Sunday was a clear but breezy day. I’d arrived in time to see a fantastic folk group called Pilgrims’ Way, named after the Rudyard Kipling poem. I already had their debut album, WAYSIDE COURTESIES and looked forward to seeing them live. In fact, even though I really liked the CD, they were greater live and I loved the song “Young Men Are False” on which they got the entire audience singing along, even though it was still early in the day. They also got everybody joining in on the Kipling poem, “A Pilgrim’s Way” that had been put to music by Peter Bellamy, with the gorgeous voice of Lucy Wright accompanied wonderfully by fiddle, accordion and hurdy gurdy. They finished with a couple of very lively jigs, with Lucy joining in with the Jews harp. The Liz Simcock Band performed a fine set, although did not garner enough interest for me and I wandered off to the bar for a pint of Pickled Pig cider, before going back to check out Fran McGillivray & Mike Burke who performed a nice mix of folk and soft blues. Comedy group, Mrs Ackroyd Band were ok for a few songs but I soon lost interest and headed over to Marquee 2 to catch the end of Rosie Hodgson’s set and wished I had got there sooner. After Rosie, the Broom Bezzums-who are a very talented folk duo comprising Andrew Cadie and Mark Bloomer, with additional guest vocalist Katie Doherty- took to the stage. I thoroughly enjoyed the show put on by this group, especially the sing-along sea shanty “Keep Hauling” and the three tunes that Andrew played on the Northumbrian small pipes. The evening session in Marquee 1 introduced another new name to me, in the form of The Willows. This folk band from Cambridge (just down the road from Ely) are like a folk version of Florence and The Machines, with the breathy and enticing voice of Jade Ward supported by fiddle, guitars and beat box. This group wowed the Ely crowd with great songs like “Love Is Teasing” and “Cap In Hand.” After they had finished, there was a long queue at the tent next door to get their new CD signed. Following another good set from the Broom Bezzums, plus another appearance by Nancy Kerr & James Fagan, it was finally time for the headline act, the brilliant Blues Band. With two new albums out and over thirty years under their belts, Paul Jones, Dave Kelly, Tom McGuinness, Gary Fletcher and Rob Townsend hit the stage, with Dave-reprising his vocals from the “Statesboro Blues” the previous day-now electrically and fully charged with his slide guitar solos a dream alongside the awesome blues harp of Paul Jones. Paul then sang “If You Love Me (Like You Say)” from his 2009 solo album, STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN, Tom sang “I Got My Eye On You” and Gary chipped in with “You Are True.” All this with Paul’s harmonica, Dave and Tom swapping guitar solos and the ace rhythm of Gary on bass and Rob pounding the drums goes to make the greatest British blues band around at present. The slow and bluesy “Suddenly I Like It” had Paul in tremendous voice as he got the audience singing along, dueting with Dave on the Muddy Waters song “Trouble No More” before performing one of their greatest songs, “Flatfoot Sam”-which ended with an amazing extended harmonica solo from Paul-(I don’t know about him but I was definitely out of breath by the end!) They ended with their signature song “Green Stuff” with all members of the band taking turns at solos. They came back to ear-splitting applause and screams for an encore with the Chuck Berry rock”n’roller “Little Queenie” that had many up the front dancing. The brilliant Blues Band brought the curtain down on the 27th Ely Folk Festival, but I have to mention again the fantastic and tireless work of the committee and all the stewards who made this festival possible. This has been my favourite Ely Folk Festival so far (I have now been to 4) even with the weather conditions. This was pure musical heaven to me!
Find out more at www.elyfolkfestival.co.uk