Last weekend I made my first visit to FolkEast where I was covering a couple of days of it for Outline magazine (with Pavlis covering the Friday), it’s a beautiful and very friendly little festival and I can’t praise it highly enough. I saw many familiar faces and good friends including FolkEast regulars Richard Penguin and Dorraine, Sally and John, Jenny, Jo, and Outline colleague David who was stewarding. Below is the full copy of my review for Outline.
FolkEast is a festival I had never previously visited but many friends mention it among their favourite festivals, quite a few of them say it is their favourite festival. When my Outline colleague Pavlis returned from covering Friday he sounded like he was a total convert and was full of praise saying I’d also have I great time. He was correct. I was covering Saturday and Sunday and quickly became the latest in the long line of admirers for this beautiful, charming and special little festival.Less than 90 minutes by road from Norwich to the heart of the Suffolk countryside, Glemham Hall is in a beautiful setting with gently undulating hills, well, hills by East Anglian standards at any rate. From entering the site, collecting wristbands and being directed to the camping area without exception all of the stewards and crew were friendly, warm, cheerful and very welcoming. I had a smile on my face before I had even entered the arena, or set up the tent. A massive bonus here is being allowed to park the car where you camp which immediately does away with several laborious journeys back and forth from car parks meaning camp is fully set up in well under an hour, one of many greatly appreciated considerations of this event. With the tent readied we sat outside with a mug of tea in the sunshine just as a band was starting up on the main Sunset Stage. The sound immediately struck me as being so clear, wafting gently up the slope to our hilltop location.I decided to have a quick explore of the site to get my bearings and immediately bumped into several friends from Norwich, friends in-the-know who are veterans of most, if not all the previous FolkEast festivals. This rather set the tone for the weekend, the palpable sense of friendliness and contentment in a relaxed setting. But my first port of call was Amy Soapbox’s stage for the afternoon set by Izzy’s Daughter from Ipswich, who was joined on piano by Phil Jackson. I knew a few songs by Izzy’s Daughter after stumbling upon her by chance online a while back and being taken by what I heard of her dark, gothic-folk style. When I saw that sound duties were in the exceptionally capable hands of Billy Fleming I knew we were in for a treat. Izzy’s Daughter, dressed in a black flowing lace dress, has a beautifully haunting voice, the accompanying piano adding to the ghostly, ethereal and melancholic atmosphere that will be loved by fans of the likes of Marissa Nadler and Kate Bush. I say that as a big fan of Marissa, I’m now a big fan of Izzy’s Daughter too. My visual memories of her set all seem to be in moody monochrome such was the dreamily haunting atmosphere her voice created, it was goosebumps stuff at times and at my first set of the festival I had already totally lost myself in music. The Soapbox Stage proved to be quite possibly my favourite of all the six stage areas (and countless impromptu sessions around the site too), set in an enchanted woodland area with hay bale and cable-reel seating it also had wonderful artistic touches and details all around of handmade art from recycled materials. In daylight it is beautiful but nothing prepares one for how it looks at night, not even the recommendations I was given shortly beforehand. The lighting is breathtakingly magical and many people of all ages got stuck here for hours just gazing in awe and stunned into childlike wonder. I admit I was one of them. Everything is solar-powered too, from the “Solar Decker” behind the stage. My times spent here were an absolute delight.One of the other FolkEast stages I visited several times was the Sanctuary stage, a few minutes’ walk outside of the arena to the church where acts performed acoustically and completely un-amplified. The acoustics lent themselves well to a number of artists I saw here, including Red Dear, Stromm, andDawn Chorus, who are a 16-piece vocal ensemble from Norfolk formed by Sian Croose and Brendan Taafe but of course include bands within the band such as Of the Clay, Iain Lowery, plus Kimberley Moore and Alfie Carpenter, many of them showcasing songs they had composed for Iain’s “One Month Album” project. The Dawn Chorus closed their set with three powerful gospel songs which showed off their brilliant collective voices and the acoustics of the church perfectly.During a bite to eat sat within hearing distance of the Sunset stage I heard an introduction to a song which caught my attention and interest, detailing a Georgian worksong. Having a great affinity with and love of the small country of Georgia it was a serendipitous surprise as it is not often one hears Georgian songs performed live over here but I’d just happened to be talking about Georgian music minutes earlier and so I was delighted to hear The Magnificent AK47 perform this. It sounded wonderful.On Saturday evening I was lucky enough to be present for what I within minutes knew was going to be my absolute festival highlight and so it proved. A trio well-known to those of us in Norwich, Alden, Patterson and Dashwood. This set was simply incredible. Straight off the back of a five hour car journey if they were tired it did not show because when they play music together something special happens. It’s obvious they love what they do and the chemistry between them is a wondrous thing, Alex and Christina give us little backgrounds to the songs in their introductions and Noel has a great gift for one-liners … their natural warmth as people comes over well and the engagement between songs and then the amazing performances of the songs themselves really connects with the audience. As if it could be any more magical, as they were introducing The Moon Song the clouds suddenly dispersed to reveal a perfect half-moon in the sky. Now with two albums under their belt and every single track is excellent, they are onto something quite special. The Moot Hall Stage is the second largest on site in a large marquee with seating for over 500 people but it was standing room only such was the demand to see them. I’ve seen AP&D many times in recent years but usually at gigs local to Norfolk so it was a revelation to see them here and realise just what a big deal they have become beyond the county, this is the sort of audience and attendances they play to these days and although already a big fan and admirer I was sort of seeing and hearing them here with fresh eyes and ears. At the end of the set every one of the 500+ audience got up from their seats for a standing ovation and prolonged applause, loud and enthusiastic appreciation. I have never seen this at a folk gig before, nor many gigs at all for that matter. That’s how good it was and it was richly deserved.My Saturday night’s music ended back again at the Soapbox stage for an 11pm set by Klezmerized! Playing Jewish and Eastern European music to an appreciative and increasingly lively audience the second half of the set had most of the tent crowd animated in dance. As with every stage I attended over the course of the weekend, the sound was fantastic.Sunday started back at Soapbox, once again, for a relatively early 11am set start by Alden, Patterson and Dashwood. I’d have come to see them again anyway but after their set the previous evening word probably got around and the Soapbox was rammed. Noel said he was hungover and but feeling “high on life” at this festival and as always he was excellent with his amazing dobro playing. Alex on fiddle and Christina on guitar and vocals were superb too, they provided yet another highlight, more goosebumps moments when they got the audience readily singing along, the whole audience singing with “I’ll Fly Away”, known to many of us from O Brother Where Art Thou? Again, they were sensational and in this intimate but full setting it was a lot of fun. Their set was immediately followed by a kids’ open mic Soapbox session.A lot of thought and love has gone into this festival and although it’s not a vast site the stages are all far enough apart and positioned in such a way as there is absolutely no noise-bleed from any of them whichever stage you happen to be at. In fact, a group of us were talking about heading to another stage after a Moot Hall set and realised that the Sunset stage act we wanted to catch was supposed to have already started but we couldn’t hear a thing. A very short walk later we were suddenly aware that there was indeed an act playing but it just wasn’t audible a mere few hundred yards away. Much consideration must have gone into this because we are talking about the massive main stage here which had amazingly clear and warm sound, only it was directed away from those other stage areas. Of course it helps that the acts were mainly acoustic but this doesn’t just work out by chance. I was very impressed by this attention to detail from obvious music fans, and I have to say, each of the stages I experienced sounded superb.Something else that impressed me was that the couple of beer tents were more like pubs hosting beer festivals with real ales. A huge choice of excellent local ales and at an outstanding price, I can’t recall the last time I got a pint for such a good price, when will other festivals learn that this is the way to do it rather than overpricing? I think these beer tents were close to having been drunk dry by the end of the festival and everyone was in good spirits throughout.
Throughout the festival I kept thinking time and time again that it was so friendly, I had lengthy and enjoyable conversations with not only the friends I happened to bump into but also the previously unknown festival-goers as everyone freely struck up conversation or, for example, asked me about my t-shirt on a couple of occasions. (Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, if you’re interested) and all the stewards were just lovely too. There seemed to be a good collective energy and raised vibration here of kindness and it did remain, a feeling of trust, acceptance and respect that felt very healthy, comfortable and healing. I saw one friend who had just realised that she’d left her bag of purchases at another tent but everyone knew it would be OK, and it was, of course. I saw her a little later and she said some kind soul had handed it behind the bar. That’s the sort of level this festival’s energy is at. Another indicator of which is that I did not see a scrap of litter all weekend, neither on the campsite, arena, or stage areas. People could wander to the bars or toilets and leave their folding chair but find it still there where it was on their return.I experienced plenty of good music at FolkEast, “folk” is a broad umbrella term so the music was quite varied in style and tempo with new discoveries everywhere. Back outside my tent taking a bit of time-out I sat down with a drink and wrote some notes and just enjoyed the music coming up from the Sunset stage. It was McGoldrick, McCusker & Doyle and they sounded superb, I think this will become a fond memory for me, enjoying this quietly and in solitude. It’s not an overcrowded or noisy festival but we all need to take a bit of time-out occasionally and it’s perfectly easy to do that here, plus exploring the neighbouring villages is actively encouraged by the organisers too but there’s plenty of space to relax quietly in the grounds as well. It’s a family-friendly festival and very safe for children who can wander around within the arena without worry as there’s plenty to occupy them including a climbing wall and the stewards check the wristbands of everyone coming and going. The toilets are plentiful and regularly cleaned and there are even “free to use” shower facilities so it’s all quite civilised. The only thing lacking for me was a programme with stage times as they had all gone by the time I arrived on the Saturday but I was still able to get details from friends who did have one.On top of all of this there are loads of stalls too. As well as the varied food outlets of pizza, falafel, noodles, curry, fish-finger sarnies etc. (all well-priced), in the Art Arcade there’s a number of art stalls (40+) and workshops, including Print to the People and brilliant Norwich artist Sally Hirst’s workshops are in such demand that they are full before the festival even opens, you may need to book now for next year!On Sunday evening the Sunset stage did indeed close around 9pm with a dramatic sunset sky as the backdrop to a most enjoyable set from The John Langan Band.It’s one of the best festivals I have ever been to and I can totally see why my friends hold it in such high regard. It is special. It’s not just about the music either, there’s the art and activities (including dance classes, donkey rides, wall climbing, and even archery!) but also something that makes you remember what is so special about the concept of festivals in the first place, the togetherness, the coming together of people with not only a shared love of music but a faith in the essential goodness of people generally. Kindness, friendliness and trust were in abundance here and it would take a cold, hard soul to not respond in kind to that, but there were no such people here, only warm, friendly ones.Those who know me might be aware I like other extremes of music too and I did wonder what it would be like at a solely folk festival for a whole weekend. That was not an issue at all, there’s plenty of variety and although not all of it totally hit the spot for me most of it most certainly did. I already own Klezmerized’s album and both of Alden, Patterson and Dashwood’s but I added Izzy’s Daughter’s lovely Luna CD to those I own by this year’s performers and also came away from a CD and vinyl stall with albums by Hank Williams, New Model Army, Sonic Youth, and Siouxsie and the Banshees … those tastes remain!FolkEast is a gem, a really well-organised and well-run festival, it’s so special I almost want to protect it from becoming too big but the organisers clearly know what they are doing and what is special about it and what sort of cap they want, I feel confident that they will protect and retain that most precious essence to be found here. Each act I saw made mention of how much they enjoyed playing at FolkEast. It’s all done from the heart and soul with great integrity so of course this shines through and manifests as something truly beautiful: FolkEast. It is just marvellous and I really do hope I will be back there again at some point, I loved it. This is just a snapshot of what’s on offer, it has so much. My thanks and respect to everyone involved.
Big thanks to Outline Magazine and all at FolkEast.
Norwich: Music City, UK