Rychard Carrington reports on the Ely Folk Festival, Ely Outdoor Centre, 10-12 July 2009

Ely Folk Festival
Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire


Apart from the morris dancing, the tai chi and the real ales ...


Ely always starts on Friday evening with a set by the winner of an open competition for folk acts - the slot is the first prize. This year's winners were The Dog Roses, a proficient London five-piece who played lively bluegrass. It's a shame they were only on for twenty minutes, before most of the audience had arrived: methinks the competition winners deserve a more generous slot.


Next on was a Hertfordshire rock band, Strange Folk (a slightly misleading name), who played in a soft-gothic style akin to All About Eve, with romantic-pagan lyrics aplenty. I'm not convinced it's progressive to book a rock band  for a folk festival, when rock gains so much exposure elsewhere. The rich variety of styles and instrumental aggregations on offer throughout the festival makes a rock line-up seem boringly orthodox, and Strange Folk failed to excite.


Lincolnshire-based Something Nasty In The Woodshed play the best kind of folk-rock: strong trad folk enhanced by powerful rock-fuelled arrangements, to produce an exciting sound that delivers the sentiments of their material most effectively.


Allan Taylor's guitar accompaniment is pleasant enough, but to be honest I fail to see anything distinguished in his songwriting. Others would beg to differ.


Baka Beyond ended Friday's proceedings with a joyous climax. Their lively, intricate, very uplifting sound presented acoustic music (a blend of African and Celtic) at its most life-affirming. Their dedication to supporting the Baka people of Cameroon is inspiring, and I wish I could write the way Denise Rowe dances. A tremendous set, that made you want to cheer for Baka Beyond, Ely and folk music in general.


Saturday openers The QP were a great discovery. This young seven-piece band play a rich blend of trad folk with true verve and a winning instrumental prowess. Lets hope they become the big stars they surely deserve to be.


Adam Brown and Alan MacLeod are another youthful act who play tight, exciting trad folk, Irish in the case of these two Cambridge residents, bodhran and accordion players respectively, best-known as members of No I.D., but with a strong act as a duo that will amply satisfy any folk audience.


Flossie Malavialle was the second great discovery. Uniquely, she is both very French, and very northern English at the same time (she emigrated to Darlington). She banters with great humour, sings with great passion, and generally had the most engaging personal presence of the festival.


Edward II's synthesis of folk, rock and reggae would once have seemed unlikely. Nowadays one can weary of eclecticism, but certainly not in this case. Like Baka Beyond, they raised the energy, inspired dancing (quite an achievement in the chair-dominated Marquee 1), and confirmed quite what a joyful, socially unifying spirit resides in good music, waiting for attuned performers to bring it out and give it to the people. Wonderful!   


Despite the weekends' only rainstorm, Peatbog Faeries maintained the energy with their techno, rock and bagpipes, to end a full day of great music and great vibes.


On Sunday Cuckoo Oak's harmony singing provided a refreshingly different sound, delivered with enjoyable, well-choreographed humour. Eric Bogle and John Munro, shortly to retire from touring, gave us an assured set of Bogle's much-respected, humane songs, to much applause. The Ceilidh All-Stars (featuring Hazel Fairbairn and Mark Russell, emerged intact from the ultra-violet of Horace X) were without their caller and squeezebox man Steve Prosol, recovering from illness, so delivered a low-key but of course very classy set of traditional tunes, enhanced considerably when Bryony Lemon joined them halfway through on accordion. Mark Russell and Fabian Bonner joined Hot Lips & Chilli Fingers (aka Steve Lockwood and Chris Newman), for an easy-going set, energised by Steve Lockwood's harmonica virtuosity and determined showmanship. Finally there was the last-ever British performance by Canadian folk quintet Tanglefoot, described by MC Terry Walden as the festival committee's favourite band. Tanglefoot played a smart and versatile set, producing an emotional climax to the festival. The final cheers were an adieu to both Tanglefoot and the twenty-fourth Ely Folk Festival.


An excellent festival, verily. Sold-out well in advance for the first-time ever too. Would I change anything? My only real dissatisfaction was that the seats in Marquee 1 were squeezed in very tightly, making entry and exit from the middle of a row quite an ordeal. In the other two music marquees, conversely, seats were a little too thin on the ground. But otherwise no, I hope that Ely Folk Festival stays just the same, because it really is a special, friendly, happy, relaxed event (mercifully less crowded than the Cambridge Folk Festival), full of enjoyable, interesting musical talent and much more besides.


Writer: Rychard Carrington