Back in 2017, reviewing FolkEast for Spiral Earth, I said the festival was “muscling its way through the crowds to become one of the most enjoyable folk music festivals of the summer”. The Guardian has also said that “FolkEast feels more like a very English village fete than a festival”. So, what happened in 2019? Did that muscle squash the fete out of festival?
Our arrival on the Friday was a soggy affair but that didn’t stop us walking straight into Daphne’s Flight giving an exuberant performance of their faultless harmonising on the main outdoor Sunset Stage. Whether they’re drawing from folk, blues or jazz, they always offer up a swelling chorus that lifts the spirits if not the clouds.
You can imagine that the indoor performances in Moot Hall were popular for drying off from the wet weather. However, the talents of Blair Dunlop followed by The Good Lovelies were reward in themselves. The former’s set reflected the maturity of his most recent recordings with ‘Sweet On You’ going down particularly well. The Good Lovelies treating the audience to the warmth of their delicious Canadian harmonising.
Back at the Sunset Stage, Karine Polwart emerged with her brother, Steven, and Inge Thompson all wrapped up to keep out the weather. It proved a source of amusement for all with speculation that they appeared like they were part of a schoolteachers’ outing. Taking selections from her recent albums, they gave lessons in how to entertain an audience with warmth despite the rain which came and went throughout.
With our increasingly unpredictable summers in the UK, it’s always a risk to have your main stage in the open air but, after a soaking on the Friday, more normal service was resumed on the Saturday with a great day of music matched by the weather. The day started with a flood of singing talent in the All About The Voice workshop featuring Melrose Quartet, Daphne’s Flight, The Good Lovelies and Brasy. Passing the baton to choose the song down the line, each act in turn led the Moot Hall audience in an energising singalong ranging from the unexpected (like Brasy’s choice of Buddy Holly’s ‘That’ll Be The Day’) to the traditional (such as a version of ‘Bright Morning Star’ that had the full ensemble closing the set).
With the sun shining back on the Sunset Stage, State Of The Union, the duo formed by Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams took a Transatlantic folk and blues stroll that warmed the audience. Also drawing inspiration from both sides of the Atlantic, John Smith followed with double bass supremo Ben Nicholls at his side as he drew from his back catalogue of material. One of the highlights of his set being when Cara Dillion arrived on stage to duet on ‘If I Prove False’. Later, she returned in celebration of the 10th anniversary of her album ‘Hill of Thieves’ and was joined on stage by the stellar cast of Jarlath Henderson, Sam Lakeman, Ed Boyd, James Fagan, Toby Shaer and Ben Nicholls. It provided a truly magical set of material to close the day on the Sunset stage.
Sunday continued the fine weather and music combination of Saturday. Typical of the knowledgeable programming of the festival’s line up, the appearance of Calan on the Sunset Stage was a personal surprise for my ears. Drawing from Welsh roots, their music fishes in many musical pools taking from jazz, poetry/rap and clog dance alongside the anticipated sets of folk tunes. It gives them a distinctive identity and proved a great afternoon livener.
Patrons of FolkEast, The Young’uns were absent from the festival this year on a US tour as explained in the programme by their master of tongue in cheek, David Eagle. He states “To be honest, when we said we weren’t going to be at FolkEast this year, we hoped for a protest and a mass boycott of the festival, thus incurring a headline-grabbing bidding war between FolkEast and the US folk scene, but alas, our plan has utterly failed. So just to spite you, we’ll probably come back next year.”
The absence of the Teeside trio was geographically compensated for by Bob Fox and Billy Mitchell from the North East. Their entertaining set on the Sunset Stage came complete with various songs from that area such as ‘The Bonnie Gateshead Lass’ and ‘Dance To Your Daddy’. Back in Moot Hall, Jez Lowe reminded the audience that Teeside and Tyneside have their rivalries with his composition, ‘Bother At The Hoppins’. His set was chock full of self-penned compositions and blessed with a songwriting skill that can adeptly cover politics on such as ‘Will Of The People’ as well as humour with ‘Don’t Spend Christmas In Australia’.
Very definitely from Yorkshire, Hope & Social tore up the Sunset Stage with a rocking band and brass section before making way for Sunday’s headliner. Appearing with just an acoustic guitar after such a raucous set would be daunting for some but not when you have an armoury of songs like Richard Thompson. His set leant more towards old favourites like ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ and ‘ Beeswing’ though included excellent songs off his latest record such as ‘The Rattle Within’. He even found time to slip in Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ and cover ‘Oops!… I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears. It was a perfectly balanced selection pitched to satisfy all fans of his music in the weekend’s final headlining performance.
Whilst I mainly wandered between the two bigger stages and a review like this can’t cover everything, a mention should also be made of the smaller performance areas too. There were several areas for impromptu sessions alongside smaller stages such as the Soapbox where entertainment for younger family members is mixed with opportunities for ‘open mic’ performance as well as established local musicians. The Broad Roots indoor stage also acts as something of a focal point for those who like the atmosphere of a folk club as opposed to a concert room. Let’s not forget the self-explanatory Dance Tent, Morris Stage and Sanctuary Space too.
Earlier on Sunday was the time for us to look up some of the village fete aspects of the festival. While the site is surrounded by local tourist spots such as Aldeburgh with its tempting fish and chips alongside the cultural delights of Snape Maltings, the festival draws together the heart of local culture. This year, there was everything from folk traditions such as dwile flonking to wrought iron gate manufacture. Even stands looking to recruit students to the International Boatbuilding Training College of Lowestoft could be found strategically positioned next to a session tent offering workshop space for sea shanty singing. There was the local and more studious Kinodrome showing nostalgic films harking back to the local East Anglian past while, adjacent to this and out in the open air, others might fancy the more frivolous world’s most public loo – selfie anyone? There really is something on offer for everyone and there will never be a dull moment if you dig around this well put together festival.
So, in summary, FolkEast began its life by placing the emphasis on quality throughout the line up without leaning on a few ‘big name’ acts to sell their tickets. Having maintained that quality approach, the star name quota has been increased in 2019. There was a chance that bigger names in the line-up would draw in the crowds but lose that village fete feel of the festival. Pleasingly, that village fete feel meets top quality folk music blend has been maintained. A huge round of applause, please, for the organisers.