Reviews & Photographs

CHESTER FOLK FESTIVAL 2004 REVIEWS

By Geoff Smith for Folk North West:

For us the festival started early as we were working on site on the Thursday, which meant we were able to enjoy a really good sesh that the staff had in the Royal Oak on the Thursday night. Thanks to the new proprietors of this establishment who made us really welcome throughout the weekend and solved one of Chester's biggest problems - i.e. the lack of decent washing facilities - by making their showers available at a very reasonable price.

Friday the site filled up making use of the overflow site necessary again showing how popular this festival now is. The social club was a bit of a sardines job Friday evening so we settled for the relative comfort of the ceilidh & then the singaround.

Saturday we attend two excellent meets, First Mr Smith demonstrating his skills beyond those comic and highlighting the need to adjust for differing audiences; then Tanglefoot who never had to (as sometimes happens at meets) resort to a mini concert, in fact so interesting was their chat and so obvious their love of what they do that the hour went quickly without a note being strummed or sung. I think everyone present made their way to the marquee to see Tanglfoot's afternoon set performed to an audience far more in keeping with their talents than last weekend at Maryport festival.

Because it is such a compact festival Chester seems to allow more scope for interaction with other festival goers than some other festivals and the overwhelming mood seems to be one of pure enjoyment, the only complaint I heard was from one first time visitor who seemed to expect a five star caravan site! Well I suppose you'll never keep everyone happy.

Main concerts at Chester are held in the marquee, the only disadvantage of this being the problem of getting a drink without missing part of a set, and, as arriving armed with a supply of cans is not my thing, the relatively alcohol free evening is a small price to pay for a concert that later became standing room only to see Mr Smith be truly amazing, Jez be penniless but priceless and Tanglefoot be just WOW.

Sunday and the dance displays include(as do most at this years festival) the wonderfully innovative Bradshaw Mummers. The street (or car park) entertainment at Chester is always well supported, which must be down to good organisation and variation of programme, aided by the compact nature of the festival. On to the concert that includes Spiers & Boden , a duo fast climbing up my not to miss list, and Loose Chippings an eight piece group I hadn't seen before and unfortunately were, despite all the obvious energy, just not my cup of tea, but were different enough for the only possible advise be go and see them yourself.

Tears in their eyes (yes based on TV's stars) was an excellent idea and worth trying again, but I do think some of the participants took it a bit too seriously, for it to work properly I think caricature rather than imitation needs to be the rule of the day. On to the folk club with Kellie While showing talent runs in the family, wonderful rendition of 'The Galway Shawl', a beautiful song that seems to be making a come back, and 'Where've You Been'.

I'm in pretty lazy mood Monday but that does not stop enjoyment of Tom Lewis doing songs of Stan Rogers and giving account of meeting Stan's parents or of taking in sets by Last Nights Fun who never disappoint. Once again Chester show how to bring a festival to a close with everyone involved rather than just the end of the last concert.

Tuesday clear up the site head for home. Had a great time. See you all next year.

By Ray Downes from 'Town Crier' published by the Western Australian Folk Federation:

Chester Folk Festival is one of the smaller friendly English festivals and took place over the May bank holiday (long weekend) in the charming village of Kelsall and had some top guests. Overseas guests included Jeff Warner from the USA and Tanglefoot from Canada. I caught Jeff doing a bracket in the village social club venue. His songs were mainly from America’s rural past- places like lumber camps, and sailing ships as well as cowboy ditties,. His love of the material and his deep knowledge shone through. He was rather like a U.S. Bob Rummery.

Five piece rocky band, Tanglefoot were in your face, big harmonies, big blokes and a big reputation. Folk music with testosterone as one of the members told us. Their songs mostly original compositions steeped in the culture and history of their homeland but for me not instantly memorable. Jez Lowe was there for the day. It’s rare for a top act to stay for the whole festival in England as they generally appear at a couple of festivals over weekend. He did a Meet Jez Lowe session which ended up like an intimate concert (people aren’t always forthcoming with questions at these happenings). He played his W.A. (made by Chris Woodward) mandolin on one song. In his marquee concert set he was the best I have ever seen him probably as a result of the packed house joining in with great gusto on the choruses. He has a new CD with the Bad Pennies coming out in a few months time with Bob Fox making an appearance on backing vocals. Jez commented on the wealth of anti war songs being sung round the UK clubs just now and then went on to sing his contribution to that cause, Old Bones. Local four-piece band Full House was busy all weekend. Years of folk club residency had honed their skills as entertainers. Tight arrangements and harmony on songs like Sober Men Of Plenty (Andy M Stewart) The Smuggler (Ian McCalman) and The Broom of Cownenowes. They informed us that Beethoven had written a piece of music based on the Cowdenowes tune. That was new to me. For sheer brilliance and side splitting humour The Amazing Mr Smith takes some beating. Think: Monty Python’s answer to John Williams. He combined mad musical invention and superb acoustic guitar playing. The cardboard tube double bass, the musical shoelaces, The Nutcracker played on a tutu-xylophone, the Blue Danube on a condom harp, duelling banjos played on 2 banjos bolted together and his improvised 3 minute rendition of Riverdance had the audience wetting themselves.

Kellie While (daughter of Chris While) had a brilliant voice almost like her mum’s, with great range and control. She did some self penned songs including Northern Town about moving from Southport to Dagenham near London and a haunting song about the death of her grandma (Chris’s mum). She concluded with a Ron Sexsmith song and her own song titled Hopefuls about the dreadful time she had when she auditioned for tv’s Fame Academy. Eight piece brass band Loose Chippings had the place in uproar with their melodic mayhem and their inventive, eclectic music and their powerful big band sound. They had us doing all manner of antics like throwing paper aeroplanes during a war tune and the whole audience in a shuffling huge circle linking arms backwards under your crotch whilst they played Nelly The Elephant . They concluded with a full pyrotechnic treatment of The Dambusters March complete with searchlights, smoke and bangs. Unique entertainment.

By David Kidman for NetRhythms:

I hate Bank Holiday weekends! The very idea of travelling interminable miles on clogged motorways nose-to-tail with caravans and jeeps loaded with massive lunchboxes, all at sub-elephantine pace and at the risk of multiple shunting accidents, only to arrive at your destination exceedingly frazzled and unable to enjoy the event in the end. But this year, a kind invitation I just couldn't refuse made me brave the Friday afternoon drag and toddle off to sample this well-regarded festival for the first time. Despite the cordial community atmosphere permeating the village of Kelsall where the festival is held, Friday evening got proceedings off start (could it be that many folks had stayed at home to watch the very last episode of Friends?! or more likely they were all stuck in those impenetrable traffic jams.). Whatever, from Saturday Chester is that although things kick off comparatively late each day (with very little scheduled before midday), the programming then manages to avoid those dreadful yawning gaps so many other festivals tend to have in the early evening where there's next to nothing happening. And there was a healthy spread of non-smoking venues (I do so hate festival venues where despite the prominently displayed No Smoking notices the pub staff insist on putting the ashtrays out on the tables.). Saturday proved an embarrassment of choices, anyone surviving "meeting" the Amazing Mr Smith at lunchtime having then to choose between a fine concert, a connoisseur's singaround, or meeting at close quarters either Tanglefoot or Jez Lowe! The teatime hiatus was occupied by an excellent Jeff Warner workshop then a great mini-concert where I encountered for the first time the impressive Birmingham singer and instrumentalist Andy Casserley.

Jez and Tanglefoot finished off the evening concert in the Marquee with what I felt were among their best performances (and I've seen both acts countless times). Sunday's highlights for me were the exciting sets by John Spiers and Jon Boden, but honourable mention should also be given to Shetland duo Solan, who ran a vibrant lunchtime session and performed several fine concert spots. And Les Barker, who drove in at short notice to fill the opening slot on the afternoon bill in his inimitable fashion. Further special mention should be given to Roy Clinging, who assembled (and performed, along with his cast of eight assorted but talented miscreants) a 90-minute presentation of seafaring songs, 'Off To Sea Once More'; this gave us 27 songs running the gamut of shanties, ballads and forebitters, interspersed with a few lively tunes, also recollections, background explanations and verse - an ambitious venture, which came across extremely well despite lacking an overall focus and needing a finer degree of polish at times. As a generalist event aimed at entertaining the non-maritime-specialist at festivals, it has a promising future I believe. For many festival-goers though, Sunday belonged to the collective oomph-sodden lunacy of Loose Chippings (once seen, never ever forgotten!) and the starry kitsch of the 'Tears In Their Eyes' presentation. Everyone seemed to have managed to recover in time for the following midday's blues session, which was in full swing when I had to leave it to run my allotted singaround upstairs (healthy turnout, great atmosphere, some fine and unusual songs, what more could one ask?).

Tom Lewis' emotional Songs Of Stan Rogers presentation as another highpoint, and the inevitable climax to both afternoon and evening oncerts was the hilarious but expert antics of Last Night's Fun. Again full marks go to Chester for providing a good amount of entertainment throughout the Monday - so many festivals give up the ghost by the time the evening of the final day comes round. But the sensible programming of the whole festival ensured that you could catch all of the acts you wanted somewhere over the course of their stay, on whichever day. And if you chose the alternative course, of following an individual artist throughout the weekend, the most professional of them would deliberately give maximum value by not repeating sets (the charismatic Tom Lewis always scores specially highly in this regard - top marks there, matey!). Fairly local-based acts like Roy Clinging, those sublime ladies forming The Waite Collective and the entrancing performance poet and singer Charlotte Peters Rock all gave sterling service at various venues, while I'd also single out the irrepressible maritime trio Three Sheets To The Wind for giving excellent value during the weekend, with bracing sets from each individual singer as well as several full group appearances.

Chester's also noted for the vibrancy of its ceilidhs, and the weekend's four examples catered for all ages and abilities with "aard vark" evidently put in by all concerned to ensure that legs were duly shaken with the appropriate air of sweet liberty (sorry!). Morris and dance sides and mummers were all in excellent fettle throughout the weekend too, aided by the gorgeous weather. Workshops were friendly, informative and well attended. What else could I rhapsodise about? No space - just to recommend Chester wholeheartedly as one of the very best of the smaller-scale folk festivals.

Some comments from our Feedback Forms:

'Very good atmoshere, friendly helpful people, good organisation & staff'

'This is the first time I have been to this festival and I will definitely come again'

'Consistently high quality of performance with some excellent surprises!'

'Always a thoroughly enjoyable time for myself and my family'

'Chester is my favourite festival - this year was truly first rank'

'Another fantastic festival - thanks!'

'Excellent festival again organised to perfection. Thanks for all your hard work'

'The festival just gets better each year'

'Great organisation. Good variety of venues. There isn't a better festival'

'Very child friendly - hence adults can have a good time too'

'A fantastic festival - the friendly atmosphere and mix of musical styles ensure that I will definitely be back next year'