Moving Tone reports on Ely Folk Festival, Ely Outdoor Centre, 8-10 July 2011

Ely Folk Festival
Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire


Everything went well again at this most delightful festival, which, impressively, manages to be both well-organised and relaxed. It has become deservedly popular, selling out many weeks in advance again. Success has been achieved not by innovation but by consolidation of a satisfying combination of appealing elements, of which just one is a strong line-up which presents contemporary folk music at its best. Everything, more or less, works just right, and word has got round that this is a most enjoyable festival to attend. One is surrounded by good people.


The festival opened in established fashion with a short set by the competition winner - the competition having been for the best demo sent in beforehand. Jess Morgan was very good indeed. Young singer-songewriters with guitars are not exactly scarce at the moment, but this one showed outstanding potential through powerful vocals and fresh lyrical observations. I would have liked to have heard more: maybe the competition winner could be granted a second set later in the festival in Marquee 2.


Anyway, it was over to Marquee 2 that MT then wandered, for an evening of performances by local acts. The auditorium at M2 has a more relaxed feel than the rows of seats in M1 (although these seemed less cramped than previously). This year there were only a few seats at the back of M2, creating something of a 'filling up from the back' feel, with those at the front often in rather supine postures. M2 was fairly empty early on Friday evening; nevertheless Cly Sparken delivered some nice vocals, and Ben Sayer some impressive guitar. But it was a quite brilliant set from The Willows that really brought the evening alive. It is easy to focus on the delightful vocals of the charming Jade Rhiannon, but equally important are some sharp arrangements of fiddle, kajon and acoustic guitars. The set was astutely paced, with the tempo upped at just the right moment, and a terrific climax with The Workers' War. The Willows are due for big success.


Back at M1 for the final act; many were looking forward to seeing The Men They Couldn't Hang, but most, I think, were disappointed by their ramshackle performance. They were raucous and outspoken, but without evident deep spirit. It's easy to endorse the punk ethos of honesty and energy over finesse, but many of the other festival acts had energy, honesty and finesse aplenty. Maybe it was an off-night for them, or maybe they're just not what they were twenty-five years ago.


On Saturday MT was sorry to arrive too late for Peterborough's excellent vaudevillians The Malingerers, but pleased to catch the pleasant vocals and guitar of Reg Neuross, which were comnsiderably enhanced by the beautiful cello of Beth Porter. 3 Daft Monkeys (and  a drummer) were superb. They're like a witty, slightly sinister anarcho-socialist circus cabaret act, with fiddler Athene Roberts particularly beguiling both musically and visually. Little Johnny England delivered stirring, thoughtful folk-rock, and then it was time for MT to survey the pleasing festival scene at large and enjoy a mug of Fairtrade tea - the high-quality food and drink, of many different sorts, being highlights of the festival in themselves.


In M2 again, Hickmann & Quinn impressed as guitarists rather than as songwriters, while Liz Simcock entertained gently with smooth vocals and quietly witty lyrics. The Tom McConville Band were great entertainment, with fiddler McConville combining Irish good-heart with a hint of Ivor Cutler, while all four members played with exciting prowess. The QP were my favourite act of the festival two years ago, so it was good to see them again, with two line-up changes, but still the same essential mix of youthful verve and inventive instrumental richness, tunefulness and lively energy. Over to M1 where MT caught the end of Dervish's set: evidently their Celtic musical and personal charm had been very well received. Shooglenifty rounded the day off with a set of almost non-stop Scottish dance tunes. They've dropped the techno from their sound, but they music is as lively and as skillful as ever.


Opening on Sunday Andy Wall delivered a varied set of interesting material with passionate and sensitive vocals and guitar, with his brother Keith providing additional guitar accompaniment. The Tom McConville Bamd were as entertaining as they were on Saturday evening, while Seize The Day's gentle style combined curiously, and on balance successfully, with their thoughtful political commitment. Heidi Talbot sang delightfully, most ably accompanied by Boo Hewerdine and John McCusker.


In the evening Rosie Hodgson's sweet, strong  vocals made her evidently a worthy winner of the secod competition - the one in which festival attenders perform two or three numbers in M3 on Saturday afternoon. Rory McLeod delivered a set of astonishing wit and energy, while Ahab's rousing country-rock maintained the energy well. Dana & Susan Robinson's Appalachian acoustic sound presented American music at it's most gently charming. American roots music (mostly from New Orleans, where Simpson lived for a while) also influenced The Martin Simpson Band (with Andy Cutting, Andy Seward, Keith Angel, B.J. Cole), who ended the festival with a set of unfailing top-quality musicianship.  


Phew! What a lot... and there was more which MT failed to see, because there was usually much going on at once, for instance displays by many top morris sides,and impromptu jamming sessions at the bar. Ely Folk Festival is a delightful experience, it really is. Thanks again to the organisers for all the hard work, and for sticking to a winning format.


Photo: Paul Rule