FolkEast 2017

Yippee, it’s that time of year again and to quote The Grateful Dead “What a long strange trip it’s been“, a year never to be forgotten and I need this festival to close the lid upon it. But first let me enlighten the pedants among you, yes I do know the festival is three days long but life’s complications meant it was possible, for me, to attend just two.

To stir the strange mix a little further, this year I was required to man Grapevine’s bijou yurt, and it was an absolute joy as hundreds of stars and not yet stars passed by to play us a tune, have a chat and be photographed. I don’t know which is ying and which is yang but the opposite side of the coin is that there was little time to wander among the stalls of glorious food, fabulous art and soak up all the non-musical things that FolkEast does so wonderfully. If you hate music still come along, you can avoid it and there is loads to do.

However, as the main thrust is music and a reviewer is supposed to review it I’d best get to it, and a splendid way to start Saturday evening’s entertainment was with John Kirkpatrick and Martin Carthy in The Moot Hall, now these two probably epitomise the English folk revival having played with just about everyone who is still breathing and many that, sadly, aren’t. I guess that their major collaborative contribution has been through the mighty Brass Monkey, possibly the first to marry traditional and brass instruments to any great effect, and most of their set was drawn from that band’s extensive repertoire .

Although both in receipt of their bus passes it has to be said that Kirkpatrick looks to have weathered the storms of life in better shape, for it was he that led the duo through the hour, stronger in vocal and more dynamic in musicality, Carthy only really coming alive when it was his turn at the microphone. All that said it was a thoroughly enjoyable, if unsurprising, set, the highlights being Kirkpatrick’s rendition of “Riding down to Portsmouth” and Carthy’s “I sowed some seeds“. But the absolute jewel in the crown was the closing instrumental set of Dave Swarbrick tunes “Carthy’s March” and “The Lemon Tree“, a fitting reminder of a much missed man.

Next, on the same stage, was another giant of English folk music, and if I were a musician the man I’d want to be, Martin Simpson. Great writer, fine singer and widely acknowledged as one of the world’s finest acoustic guitarists, probably the only thing he can’t do is juggle whilst playing the banjo. Anyway the set started beautifully with a sensitive version of “Reynardine” and moved on through Charles Causley’s poem “Katherine of Aragon” and a wonderful cover of Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell“, a song not heard often enough in my view. The politics came with an angry version of Leon Rossellson’s “Palaces of Gold“, and then the folk/blues test piece – Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game“, passed with aplomb, and for a well deserved encore we had a stunning delta blues version of “Heartbreak Hotel“.

Time for a quick stroll to the Broad Roots Stage to catch the remainder of a set by Two Coats Colder and, at this point, I should say that all four members of this band are friends of mine, but I’ve not seen them perform live for several years. My, how much better they are now than I remember – spot on tight harmonies and a much wider musical palette. Mainly they do their own songs, always good but now better, but I particularly liked the Stan Rogers song, that I believe was called “Mary Ellen Carter” although my pen failed me at this point, therefore I am probably wrong. That aside, the packed marquee was hugely impressed and sang along with each and every chorus, and I’m also going to mention their closing song “Working on the Railway” which fair clattered along and gave each of the four a chance to be the lead singer. A band that could easily rise to whatever level they are comfortable with.

Finally to the great outdoors and the headline act on The Sunset Stage, Sam Kelly and The Lost Boys now seven strong and what a stunningly wonderful racket they make and, in my view, the next band to break into the mainstream from the secret world of folk. Why is it that words fail me when I love things so much? Anyone present would run out of superlatives as quickly as I am doing, and those not present would still not have a clue as to what I am rambling on about.

But it is my lot to try and concoct something remotely articulate, so try I will. Take a bunch of songs from widely differing sources, although mainly traditional, and mash them all together through instruments from the tradition and a drum kit, trust me the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. In essence that is the Sam Kelly sound – you get astonishing versions of classics like “Sultans of Swing” and “The Chain” and equally brilliant trad songs from Britain and our Atlantic neighbours. Whatever magic dust they sprinkle this review could desperately use some, and once heard I defy you not to love them.

Let us leave that messy paragraph behind and jump forward to Sunday evening and, first on my list of excitement , the wonderful Knight and Spiers. Both, probably, better known for previous careers in Steeleye Span and Bellowhead respectively but, I’m guessing, both much happier in this duo format. For those unaware Knight is a fiddler of renown and Spiers is a master of all things squeezebox related and, together, they make music of the most glorious nature. Indeed such is their skill that it all sounds so simple and it is undoubtedly anything but. Waltzes, hornpipes, reels, fast, slow, solo, duo – the set just flew by on wings of gossamer silk. Lovely stuff, but for a longer set an injection of dynamism may be required to break the reverie.

Due to a surprising piece of programming The Sunset Stage headliners were on quite early in the evening but, then again, their ferocious sound may have disturbed the residents of the nearby counties. Here I am speaking of The Dhol Foundation and their Punjabi derived rhythms which shake the soul of anyone within earshot. As the four Dhol drums are each the size of a barrel earshot is quite a way away, as if that wasn’t enough percussion throw into the mix an orthodox drum kit and some tablas and you have a mind bogglingly uplifting noise that would send the devil back underground in a trice. Melody arrives in the shape of fiddle and electric guitar and the whole thing is wonderful, as evidenced by the dancing crowd that danced through the twilight and the falling temperature.

Was that the end of the fun? Don’t be silly, there was still time to catch Simpson, Cutting & Kerr, I’ve already spent too long eulogising about Martin Simpson so I’ll move on. Andy Cutting is another squeezebox master and Nancy Kerr excels in fiddle playing, singing and songwriting, together they are as marvellous as you would expect. Who would have guessed that the tunes would be superb, Simpson’s songs moving on, it was two of Nancy’s songs that grabbed my ears “Dark Honey” all about bees although, I’m sure, metaphors abound, and “Fragile Water” which explores the pleasures and pain of long term friendship. With a sparse “Plains of Waterloo” it was all over and the great adventure ceased for another year.

If Wizzard can wish that every day is like Christmas day then I want to wish that I can spend every day in the Sunshine, actual and spiritual, of FolkEast, and with that piece of pretentiousness I will, likewise, cease.