Reviews & Photographs


By Didge Lewis for Folk Orbit:

Summer has arrived at last and may even be gone by the time you read this but it brought Chester Folk Festival, a fixture in my calendar. I think I mentioned it before but the festival is not in the city of Chester but a few miles out in the village of Kelsall. This is a lovely location for a folk festival especially as there's a pub The Olive Tree on the edge of the festival field.

When I first saw the line up this year I was a bit under whelmed. There were some well known top of the bill acts, Dick Vaughan and James Keelaghan for instance, plus some old friends Cloudstreet and some local acts but there were also a bunch of names unknown to me. However the first principle of folk festivals is to take pot luck, risk listening to new artists and enjoy it. The second principle is that whoever is appearing on stage don't forget the sessions in and around pubs, inside peoples' tents and sometimes (it is whispered) late at night in the big marquee.

I wasn't disappointed. I had a marvellous time and saw some great acts that were previously unknown to me. Keith Donnelly cracked me up with his mixture of wild humour and some heart tugging songs. The two Toms, Bliss and Napper, were thoroughly entertaining and kept me, a budding mandolin and bouzouki player, on the edge of my seat as they played a lot of (you've guessed) mandolin and bouzouki.

I had never seen Dick Gaughan before and was looking forward to it. I wasn't disappointed, in fact I'm now totally converted. It's been some time since I heard songs that were both so convincing and enjoyable musically. Yes Dick is the man, though I guess some might have found him a bit uncompromising to top the bill on a Saturday night.

However the real highs of the festival were the young bands. I'm thinking in particular of Isambarde, 422 and Back of the Moon. They are all individual but they have in common youth and an enthusiasm and energy for the music which is truly formidable. A few weeks ago I saw an internationally known traditional band that played as though this was just another gig in just another town and they were tired - all most probably true, but it came over as such. The young bands at the festival would knock them into the proverbial cocked hat. 422 In particular had a real knock your socks off stage presence that left you gasping. My personal favourites were Isambarde who are a trio of fiddle, guitar, and oboe. An unusual combination but their playing has that energy that makes you want to get up and dance. I was taking to them after the afternoon concert on Monday and was delighted how much respect they gave to the previous, though still very much alive, generation of folk artists, people such as Jez Lowe. They are excellent musicians and singers. Their guitarist Chris ran the workshop on Monday morning. I'm not normally a great fan of the oboe in a folk context but Jude plays it in a totally convincing way which doesn't sound as though she's just wandered in from a chamber music concert. Emily is a great fiddle player but also has a voice of character and grace that can be breathtaking. Yes, there's often one act at a festival that does it for me and at this Chester Folk Festival that act was Isambarde - watch out for them!

Now the act that did it for me a couple of years ago at the Bromyard Festival was Cloudstreet, an Australian duo who make regular summer tours to the UK. I've been following them ever since and I was delighted to catch up with them at Chester. As well as singing songs from the British Isles and Australia, they write their own. One song had my mind grappling with the concept of an Australian Morris side dancing up the sun on May Day, at the start of their winter. Cloudstree keep getting better with every tour.

It was noticeable how professional local band The Time Bandits have become during the past year and good to hear their Helen Armstrong (also of Folk Orbit!) sing so well and with great character. The Time Bandits share that wow factor with the young bands I mentioned above. Taken all together, they reassure me that folk music tomorrow will be even more musical, more enthusiastic and more exciting than it is today.

I just haven't the time or the space to describe the concerts and sessions in the pubs, nor the Morris displays and mummers, they all add variety and welcome colour to this relaxed and easy going festival

Sadly on the Sunday night a few young non-festival goers took advantage of this to cause some disruption on the campsite. I know the festival organisers are already looking very seriously at how to tighten things up without changing the character of the festival.

The offenders must have been a different type of youth from the musicians I've described above. It's clear to me which young people bring pleasure to others and make the world a better place.

All in all it was a great festival and we look forward to next year's and I absolutely promise to take part in the Morris workshop and report back.

By Pete Massey for Green Man Review:

Although it is called the Chester Folk Festival, this event is held 10 miles outside of Chester in the quiet, picturesque village of Kelsall.

As festivals go, Chester Folk Festival may not be biggest, but it must surely take the prize for one of the best thought-out festivals on the calendar. It has something going on most hours of the day between 11 a.m. and midnight for three days, and importantly, all the venues are within yards of the main stage marquee making it easy walking distance.

In the main stage marquee, which seats about 400, there are two concerts each day. The first concert runs from 2 until about 5:30 p.m. and the latter from 8 to 11:45 p.m. In addition, and in between times, there are usually two other mini-concerts in the Social Club and directly next door in the Community Centre. Wheelchair access is available at all three venues. Two other venues are usually reserved for workshops and acoustic folk club sing-a-rounds / music sessions. These being the function room above the Olive Tree pub (on the main site, which is also used for camping and caravans), and the function room upstairs at the Oak pub 200 yards away. If this isn't enough for you, there are always several never-ending sessions going on both inside and outside the Olive Tree pub.

The headline guests this year included Dick Gaughan, Steve Tilston, Back of The Moon, James Keelaghan, 422, Mick Ryan & Pete Harris, Keith Donnelly, Isambarde, Tom Napper Tom Bliss, Cloudstreet, plus many more. They were supported by an array of local bands and singers that each year makes up the 'stalwarts' of the Chester Folk Festival and appear each year.

On Saturday, the first main day of the festival, Dick Gaughan was headliner and topped the bill for both the afternoon and evening concerts in the marquee. Needless to say, Dick Gaughan put on a brilliant performance in each concert, although in the evening he was plagued by the electronics in his guitar giving up the ghost. Being the true professional he is, he quickly had a separate mike set up for the guitar. Dick is a brilliant act to catch 'live' with a very powerful performance.

Also on the line up for the evening concert was Tom Napper & Tom Bliss who gave a good solid performance that I enjoyed very much. Ditto the zany humour from Keith Donnelly. How does he inflate that 'inflatable cowboy suit'? As the evening wore on, the marquee was packed; it was evident that everyone was waiting for the 422 slot.

422 is a band that was formed after their members success in the young musician of the year contest about 4 years ago. They have to be seen to be believed. Even though they are all still in their early twenties, their musicianship is awesome. It's a pity they haven't added any songs to their sets, but that didn't matter. The sets I heard were blisteringly good. The way fiddlers Emily and Sophy Ball ripped their way through the tunes with absolutely impeccable timing was a joy to hear. It's really good to see youngsters coming into folk music and doing it so well.

However, if I were forced to pick just one of the guest artists and hand them the Grammy award for the best in the festival or the best newcomer, it would have to go to Isambarde, a relatively new three-piece band from the Coventry area. This band is on the way up at a meteoric pace! They have all the right ingredients, excellent musicians, excellent selection of traditional and contemporary material with superb, well thought-out arrangements, good stagecraft--they all really looked as if they were enjoying every minute of what they do, and they sing like real folkies! Plus, they are all in their early twenties.

Isambarde are: Chris Green on vocals, guitar, and bouzouki; Emily Sanders on vocals, fiddle, viola; and Jude Rees on oboe, whistles and vocals. It is right what the media is saying, "Folk is the New Disco"! I certainly enjoyed every minute of the band's performances, and so did everyone else I spoke to. Their pleasing, bright arrangements have put 'fun' back into folk song. I managed to catch the band in the function room for the "A Chance to Meet" Isambarde slot. In this the band perform acoustically without the aid of microphones. Very much the way they would in a folk club. This environment usually sorts out the 'pigs from the onions', as you get the 'true' sound of the singer or band. I have to say they were brilliant!

Next day was Sunday and my head was still buzzing with the Saturday concerts. I wondered if the day was going to be as good as Saturday--silly me! What with James Keelaghan, Mick Ryan & Pete Harris, Back of The Moon, Cloudstreet, and more from Isambarde on the bill – well of course it was. Back of The Moon had recently been voted the Best Folk Band in the Scottish Trad Music Awards. An award they richly deserve, their performance was pure class-- Scottish traditional music and song at its very best. Unfortunately, due to working my shift at the festival, I had to be somewhere else, and I missed most of Cloudstreet, but what I did hear was good. I will have to watch out for them in the future.

I had to be content with listening to Mick Ryan & Pete Harris from back stage (I had to work my shift as a steward on the stage door) but what I heard was brilliant-- I have heard Mick & Pete many times before. They gave a rock-solid performance with dazzling vocals. Need I say more!

James Keelaghan is a superb singer-songwriter from Canada. What can you say about this guy – he is brilliant and gave a magnificent performance! He was accompanied by bass and octave mandola player Hugh McMillan and fiddle player extraordinaire Oliver Schroer. The unexpected high spot of his set was when James broke a string in the middle of a song and then proceeded to replace the string, and tune it in, all whilst he continued to sing the song! What a performer, and I captured it all on my video camcorder.

Monday is the 'wind down' day for the festival. Because of other commitments I wasn't able to stay all day, however I was able to take in the 'Northwest Morris Workshop' put on by the Chester City Morris Men. This was followed by a display of Morris dancing by the Chester City and The White Hart Morris Men, plus a mummers play by the Bradshaw Mummers in the car park of the Olive Tree Pub. Then I took a quick dash up the road for the afternoon concert in the Community Center. Master of Ceremonies for the afternoon was Graham Bellinger, who had put on a neat performance the day before, opening the afternoon concert in the marquee. We were treated to Steve Tilston topping the bill with Isambarde, Craig; Morgan; Robson, a three part harmony group, and Brian Bull, a traditional English singer from North Wales.

Brian opened the proceedings with a nice selection of popular songs which included 'The Bold Poachers' and 'Rout of The Blues.' All were very well received by the audience and set the mood for the afternoon. It is always very difficult for the opening act, but Brian coped admirably. Next to hit the stage was Isambarde. Obviously, the audience, even if they had never seen Isambarde before, knew by now what to expect and the atmosphere was electric. Needless to say Isambarde were in great form and looking very relaxed. The first song 'The Gay Fusilier' (or as it has been renamed 'The Bold Fusilier') was only marred by the BBC cameraman hopping around to take close-up shots as the band performed. The cameraman's antics didn't faze Isambarde at all, they just got on with it. Next up was Craig; Morgan; Robson, three ladies who have teamed together to show us three-part harmony at its very best. Finally, Steve Tilston took to the stage. Steve of course has been around for many years, and at least three of his songs 'Slip Jigs and Reels,' 'The Naked Highwayman' and 'Tom Paine' have been recorded by Fairport Convention and many others. Apart from his talent as a songwriter he is also a superb guitarist. His repertoire this afternoon was well delivered as he took us through some of his more famous songs cumulating with probably his greatest, --'Slip Jigs and Reels.' Strangely for me, I mused, as I have sung this song literally hundreds of times not realizing it was written over 20 years ago, and although I got the words right I didn't realize I got the tune--or should I say the phrasing--wrong, having learnt the song by osmosis from other singers! Still--not to worry, I think this is what is known as the "folk process".

So that was the end of my Chester Folk Festival for 2006. I think I can safely say it was a festival that turned out a lot better than my initial expectations. I thoroughly enjoyed every artist I saw. I came away with at least three new songs I am intent on learning. I can recommend that you put this festival on your list for next year.

Some comments from our Feedback Forms:

'What a brilliant line-up, what excellence! I was delighted, thrilled to bits. I live down under in Aus. and sought a possible festival. I could not have had a better time. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Well done'

'A lovely festival, both as an artist and a punter. Great organisation; friendly people'

'Again, a very well-organised festival; a good mix of people and very good music'

'All the artists I saw were good, and there was an excellent cross-section.'

'This is our first folk festival each year: we look forward to Chester Folk Festival very much! Thank you to all the people who work diligently to make it happen'

'Super music & dance, decent grub and very, very friendly. A fine festival: thanks to all the organisers!'

'An excellent enjoyable festival - as usual'