Rychard Carrington reports on the Ely Folk Festival, Ely Outdoor Centre, 9-11 July 2010

Vin Garbutt at Ely 2010
Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire


The twenty-fifth Ely Folk Festival was surely as good as any of the previous ones. Despite its increasing popularity, the character of the Festival remains refreshingly just the same: relaxed, uncrowded, friendly, well-organised, with good quality music, and good quality everything else.


Beyond strongly commending the many morris teams, the ceilidhs, the ales and the fish and chips, I shall restrict myself to passing comment on some of the musical performances. Really, though, every performance I saw in the two main marquees was strong on its own terms and went down well with its audience: my preferences essentially reflect my own personal taste.


On arrival on Friday I instantly felt the joy of being back at this great event, in such wonderful sunshine, so imbibing the atmosphere and ale initially took precedence over focusing on the music, although I enjoyed appropriately mellow sounds from The Floozies and Harvey Andrews in the background (both acts would play again on the Saturday). Colvin Quarmby merited total attention, however; nay, they compelled it - the extraordinary Gerry Colvin is such a fascinating, good-hearted and subtly unusual front-man and songwriter. He remains a very underrated individual talent, despite the enthusiastic support of Ely regulars. Colvin Quarmby were one of the best acts of the Festival, but possibly my favourite of all followed: The Demon Barber Roadshow. Their show (clog dancers, morris dancers, vocal sound effects, ska and Grateful Dead numbers and all) is a folk spectacular, very eclectic yet deeply rooted in the tradition, and thoroughly thrilling.


On Saturday afternoon a lazy summer feel predominated in the extremely hot weather. Lau's intricate music suited the mood very well, as did Harvey Andrews' gentle vocals and guitar, while Les Barker's comic poetry would have gone down well in any circumstances.


There's an early evening interlude, which gives punters a chance to enjoy what's on offer at the various stalls, without feeling they're missing anything. After that, on Marquee Two The New Essex Bluegrass Band demonstrated their talent, dedication and passion for their style, Pete Morton entertained with plenty of good-natured energy, while The Floozies offered a more relaxed charm. Moving over to Marquee One, John Tams and Barry Coupe increased the considerable respect in which they are held. Headliners The Oysterband are now more acoustic than rock - a welcome development, I think: I enjoyed the fiddle and the double bass. They weren't wearing their leather jackets either, but they still dressed exclusively in black, and John Jones was still in shades at eleven in the evening. Their rousing sound pleased their many fans. It would have been even more of a lovely time if they'd delved into their early history and performed Day Trip To Bangor, though.


On Sunday there were a lot of younger folk musicians on display. Dogan Mehmet fuses Turkish and English traditional very successfully, while the excellent Tyde were something of a new Lau. Local heroines Bryony Lemon & Friends (aka Grace Lemon and Alex Patterson) were very polished and most engaging. The four-woman a cappella group Beckleberry sang with power and beauty, at times reminiscent of The Unthanks. As well as there being many great young folk musicians present, there are now many more younger people at the Festival than there were even three years ago, which is obviously a very heartening indication of the health not just of Ely but of the folk scene in general.


At the other end of the quantity of experience scale, it was particularly good to see two old favourites on strong form: Vin Garbutt (pictured) and, again, Les Barker. Garbutt's impassioned humanism and down-to-earth wit embody what is best in folk, while Barker (with a completely different set from Saturday's) remains a unique institution as a comic poet.


The Woodshed Band, who have evolved from Something Nasty In The Woodshed (one of the best bands of last year's Festival) proved that folk-rock, often a rather lame genre nowadays, can still have the bite that it did in the seventies.


The size of Marquee Three has been sensibly increased. This seemed reflected, strangely, in the quality of the performances there on Saturday afternoon, which are arranged on a come-all-ye basis. I enjoyed the mighty a cappella war ballads of Sam Walter, the guitar-with-foot-pedal intensity of David Liversage and the soft charm of The Willows (featuring Jade Rhiannon and Cliff Ward). It must have been hard to select a best act to perform at the main stage for a quarter of an hour on Sunday evening , but Peterborough's vaudeville country blues band The Malingerers were worthy winners - they even dressed with ‘Old-Time' smartness, despite the heat.


Later at Marquee One Chris Sherburn's humour gives Vin Garbutt's a good run for its money, without quite overshadowing the quality of his concertina-playing, or the guitar of his musical partner Denny Bartley (also formerly of old Ely favourites Last Night's Fun). Wizz Jones's virtuoso guitar was very relaxed. Faustus performed their English folk with consummate talent and easy wit. Finally Maggie Bell and the very proficient vintage blues-rockers of The British Blues Quintet ended proceedings with a very lively electric blues party.


It was evidently a line-up selected by people who clearly love folk music, who steer well clear of either a narrow-minded, excluding definition of folk (an attitude that is practically extinct these days, I think) or a (more modern) inclination to book acts that aren't really folk at all, as if unadulterated traditional folk was something to be slightly embarrassed about. I didn't come across the naff term ‘nu-folk' at all this weekend, nor any of the tired ‘f**k' puns. Ely demonstrated again that folk music is powerful, intricate, entertaining and very varied. It is better than cool. And folk musicians and fans are like are such good friendly people. Don't change, Ely: please just carry on with your delightful winning formula.


Writer: Rychard Carrington

Photo: Paul Rule