Reviews & Photographs


From 'Folk North West Magazine' - Autumn 2002

CHESTER FOLK FESTIVAL - Friday 31st May to Monday 3rd June 2002

This extended Bank Holiday festival coincided with the Queen's Jubilee weekend and much of the national focus was directed towards the World Cup and the musical activity of ageing pop stars at Buckingham Palace. France had just fallen to Senegal in the first soccer match of the World Cup (oh dear how sad never mind - heh, heh). We were suitably positioned in an elevated position on the bowl shaped festival site, immediately adjacent to the aptly named "Morris Dancer " pub/restaurant in the heart of the quiet and picturesque village of Kelsall, twenty minutes drive from Chester.

Festival events were held in a large marquee situated a stone's throw from the pub and craft fair. Other official event locations were the pub Function Room, (first floor), the nearby Community Centre (the ceilidh venue) and the Social Club, (music/song sessions/workshops). The "Royal Oak" pub, a five-minute walk away from the site, hosted music sessions and scheduled workshops. The licensee of this pub made land at the rear available for overspill camping - most convenient for an 'early morning pint'.

A full and varied programme over the four days was commenced with a Friday folk club hosted by the excellent Chester based trio 'Full House', a ceilidh and a music/song session hosted by Roy Clinging, (Cheshire's own singer/songwriter).

On Saturday 'Little Johnny England', 'The Wilsons', 'Robin Laing' and 'Janet Russell' were the principal guests. LJE are a loud English folk rock band who play mainly English and Cajun music. By their own admission because of their name they 'don't get many gigs in Celtic countries'. Extremely skilled musicians, they are a highly dynamic group described as "A band for and of today". The Wilsons, (strong a capella voices from the north east) were only four strong on this occasion. They are unique in their own way and provide good sets, which can at times be a little predictable because of a lack of new material.

In the afternoon I attended at Scotsman Robin Laing's - 'Songs of the Supernatural' concert. Robin is a definite favourite of mine and there is no doubt that he is one of Scotland' finest singer/songwriters. I had not seen this style of presentation before. His detailed preparation and delivery highlighted tales and stories of 'ghosts, ghouls, witches and vampires'. His atmospheric tales were interspersed with songs such as - 'Fine flowers in the Valley', 'Ballad of the speaking Heart', 'The Black Lady', 'The Dundee Ghost', 'The Kirk-Douglas Ghoul', (Robin says - "it brings tears to your eyes if you are ever grabbed by the ghoulies"!!), 'The Wife of Usher's Well', 'The Witches Reel' and 'The Vampire Song' among others. I strongly recommend a visit to see Robin at anytime but this was an extremely interesting diversification from his normal concert performances. Another Scot, Janet Russell is also a wonderful singer/songwriter but when I spotted her 'Voice Production' workshop I just knew that I would come away having learned something useful for future performances. My singing colleagues, Buddy and Mike felt similarly so we headed for the Function Room. Janet demonstrated excellent tuition skills and soon had everyone up on their feet and involved from the outset. The benefits of pre-performance physical exercise (including head and face), correct breathing (we have four types of breathing you know), relaxation and stance, were explained and practised. We concluded with the group singing four-part harmony to an Afro-type song during which we attempted to apply what we had just learned. Marvellous.

That evening I again attended at the Function Room folk club, (compere - our very own Derek Gifford) to see Janet Russell in concert. Her set was almost completely made up of Scottish songs. I would have liked to have heard her sing some of her early stuff e.g. 'Curtain Call', but it was enjoyable nevertheless. Later I popped into the marquee to get another 'dose' of Robin Laing where he sang one of my favourite comedy numbers - 'The Punters Song'. Try singing this song when you are the worse for drink and you could get turfed off stage for foul language. Robin's diction was perfect however. He had no such problems.

Sunday saw a mass influx of new artists including, 'Flook', 'It's the Girl' (Marilyn Middleton-Pollock, Steve Mellor and Grant Baynham, (ex- That's Life), Anthony John Clarke and Phil Hare, but as we needed an injection of personal singing we attended at the Social Club during the early afternoon and missed them all. 'Full House', (Dave Russell, Nick Mitchell and Chris Lee) did a great job of hosting both a two-hour Singaround and the Music and Song session that followed. As one cannot be everywhere we missed a Phil Hare guitar workshop and a song-writing forum that featured Robin L, Phil H and Anthony JC.

The organisers had arranged the festival programme in such a way that one could begin the evening watching a concert in the Function Room and after a short break continue in that mode by moving over to the marquee for the rest of the night. Prior to our evening BBQ I decided to once again visit the Function Room where Mary Clinging was hosting five acts in two hours. The 'Waite Collective', (Mal, Rebecca and Katrina) got the event off to a fine start with their close harmony singing of the songs - 'Honey Comb' (Jimmy Rogers), 'Three Drunken Maidens' (Ewan McColl), 'Sail Away Johnny' (Mary Benson), 'Gaudete' (which of course is pronounced Gow-day-tay) (traditional) and 'Drift Away' which has appeared on over 140 recordings with the most prominent recording artistes being The Stones and Barbara Dixon. You know the one - 'Give me the beat boys and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll - and drift away'. OK, it's not strictly folk, but what the he..? The harmonies were great and the audience loved them. Next were 'Root Chords', the residents at Alexander's Bar in Chester who were six strong on this occasion. An opening Jelly Roll Morton number featured - a guitar, two mandolins, melodeon, harmonica and bass. Graham Bellinger, the lead vocalist, excelled with 'the blues', and as he was singing I reflected that it was a great pity I had missed his 'Picking the Blues' workshop earlier in the day at the Royal Oak. I must keep that in my memory bank for next year. The 1960 Rye Cooder song - 'Why don't you try me?' gave the band the opportunity to display harmonies with four of the band singing and on 'The goodnight train is going to carry me home' Phil Bradley took over lead vocals whilst still chipping in with stunning harmonica. When Graham took up the bouzouki I was enthralled by their rendition of 'We make love to the rumba beat' - a Cajun style toe tapper. A great set - this band is worth going some distance to see. Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman were next. They are in my opinion a brilliant duo. Kathryn has a unique style to the folk scene of singing with mic in hand which allows more personal movement and expression. This allows Sean to 'perform' closely with his partner with the guitar becoming not just an instrument that makes a pleasant noise - magic. Kathryn is much more versatile in her singing than her former partner Kate Rusby and her development with Sean in the band "Equation" was clearly evident. Their repertoire contained the traditional song 'Once I had a sweet heart', a Lol George composition about suicide '20 million things', an unaccompanied song about the theory of relativity and Albert Einstein, a song about 300 men trapped and killed in a mill, 'The Granite Mill', plus the rather risqué and sexily performed 'Cuckoo's Nest'. Kathryn in her introduction tells the tale that she first learned this song from her parents when she was aged two. If this was so the mind boggles in view of the lyrics of the song.

My evening was spent - yes again in the Function Room - and even though it was billed as an open Mic night, it was wonderful. Quality-wise we all know that such events can be rather patchy but not this one. "Root Chords" hosted and managed the night in fine style using the 'Sign in and Sing' process. James, one half of the Bazley Brothers (childrens' entertainers), was the star. His dexterity on the guitar was dazzling and this for someone who had formerly shelved his learning with this instrument. He was advised to take it up again by friends. Excellent advice.

My final day was spent chilling out and in sessions in the "Morris Dancer" before attending at the final concert in the marquee which featured "The Restless Bentleys", "Phil Hare", "Regal Slip" "Roberts and Lakeman", "Bernard Wrigley" and finally "Last Night's Fun". Lancashire's favourite son, comedian and actor Bernard, was superb telling tales e.g. of flatulence and singing songs like "Does me bum look big in this?" This taste of his style means that one must not be prudish in outlook when Bernard is in full flow. He is also a superb guitarist as demonstrated when he performed a guitar medley for his encore which included 'Tea for Two'. I remember Bernard doubling up with Yorkshire's Dave Burland some years ago at the now defunct Amber festival in Alfreton when they held a 60's pop session performing impromptu song requests shouted out by the audience. They were fantastic together. Anyway I digress -- The festival was brought to a dynamic celtic finale by LNF with Denny Bartley - guitar, Chris Sherburn - concertina and Nick Scott on Uillean pipes. Nick is the little elf-like figure (with massive hands by the way) in the middle who bears the brunt of Chris and Denny's humour. With Denny's driving open tuned guitar rhythms and Chris's jaw-dropping squeezebox played at speed they are simply superb. What a pity therefore that from my position half a dozen rows in I was unable to clearly discern Denny's lyrics. The amplification being too loud and not set quite correctly. Denny's Irish accent and diction may not have helped as well.

With a wide variety of workshops, childrens' entertainment and Morris Teams galore, (including the Bradshaw Mummers), complementing everything I have described above, it was little wonder that Chester 2002 was for 'my gang and myself' - just fantastic.

In conclusion, I do not apologise for the length of this critique. This event deserves it. The efforts of Cheryl and the gang, a very well managed festival committee, assisted by very pleasant and willing stewards, makes Chester FF one of the best of its kind in the country. I strongly recommend, to those of you who have not yet visited it, to diary it now for 23rd to 26th May 2003. I can assure you - you will not be disappointed.

by John Owen

Some comments from our Feedback Forms:

"Congratulations to all who have contributed to such a successful festival. Keep up the good work"

"The programme of events was well organised so that virtually no artist could be 'missed'. Great facilities for children"

"Great sound engineers - lovely clear sound without being blasted. Clean toilets with loo roll - always a blessing!"

"The lighting and sound were briliant. So were the bands"

"Brilliant festival - very laid back this year, it seemed to go really quickly."

"Absolutley fabulous once again - good variety and balance of performers and events."

"Weather could be better but still good fun."

"Very friendly stewards made us welcome at our first Chester Festival."

"A brilliant festival! We come pretty much every year and you haven't let us down yet."

"Fantastic festival - I look forward to it all year through."

"Excellent well run event. Will come again for the 4th year."