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Teabag Golf amongst this year's surprises at FolkEast
From its first appearance in 2012, FolkEast has been quietly establishing itself as a festival for the folk music connoisseur with a line up full of quality from top to bottom. Set in the grounds of Glemham Hall in Suffolk, just off the A12, the location offers a rural idyll for its attendees on a spacious greenfield site.
This was our third trek from the North West down to Suffolk for FolkEast. It's a long journey to make but the motoring blues were quickly banished on entering the site that Friday. The sun was past its peak but the tea was freshly brewed as we fell across the weekend's first surprise package outside the BBC Radio Suffolk tent.
With his tongue firmly in his cheek, "Can you sing up?" said BBC Radio Suffolk's Stephen Foster as Irish Mythen jumped in to sing with The Young'uns on a live broadcast. Her lungs were strong enough to blow the fuses on the local transmitter and she was pencilled into my schedule to watch a full set on the Saturday.
Also, something of a surprise for me on that first night was the appearance of Attila The Stockbroker on the main stage. My last memory was seeing him in his punk poet days many moons ago. Who'd imagine that I'd next hear him talking up the merits of the crumhorn in a punk meets renaissance setting with the band Barnstormer 1649 as backing.
Of course, everyone loves to get a musical surprise at a festival but there is a rewarding time to be had in predictable enjoyment too. That's the way it was on that first night with the sets from The Wilsons, Oysterband and, festival patrons, The Young'uns too.
Fans of the patrons will realise that I use the word 'predictable' loosely in describing their set. Yes, those great harmonies and songs were in place but little did audience member Jamie Crisp suspect that tweeting about their set would result in him joining The Young'uns on stage to drum up a promotional video for Sheringham Flooring. Don't ask. It was one of those madly hilarious moments that you expect to enjoy when The Young'uns are around.
Returning to the site on the next day for our second dose of FolkEast, there were decisions to be made. Whilst the programming generally allows you to skip between sets on the outdoor stage and the indoor marquee without missing an act, sometimes the temptation of the food, drink, various other stages and entertainment such as trying out archery can distract. Yes, you read that correctly. Archery.
Decisions made, we ventured forth to the indoor marquee, Moot Hall, where Luke Daniels was putting a different spin on Canadee-I-O. Literally, he had turned Nic Jones guitar part on his version of the song from 'Penguin Eggs' into the spinning disc of a Victorian polyphon. Merging this old technology music box with some modern looping of music, he accompanied himself on guitar to great trippy effect. With singer songwriters fighting for our attention these days, that move got the attention of the audience.
Rather recklessly, Luke had volunteered for The Young'uns podcast which was up next on that stage. Like lambs to the slaughter, he was joined by Edgelarks (Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin) as well as Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne for the on-stage mayhem masterminded by David Eagle. Available online to download soon, you can hear the guests performing songs mixed in with a beatbox competition, a game of KerPlunk and (replacing their annual – ahem - 'Herbal Tea of The Week' feature) was Teabag Golf which involved the merry throng using their teeth to fling teabags into the audience to see who could go furthest. Something of a modern day version of dwile flonking I'd suggest before you think FolkEast's surprises are not grounded in 'tradition'.
We were barely recovered from this madness when we reached the open air Sunset Stage to catch The Magnificent AK47 delivering their choral gifts from Ashton Keynes. It was more laughter raising material for us such as Delilah sung in an homage to beards. I'm not sure Tom Jones would have recognised the lyric "forgive me, Delilah, I could not shave anymore".
Following the frivolity came Irish Mythen. We saw a different side to her talents after her previous night's appearances with The Young'uns. The strong vocals were still there but set against songs backed with her vibrant acoustic guitar. From a tale of lifelong love, 55 Years, to a reflection on the Irish troubles, If We'd Built A Wall, before turning to tradition with the song from the previous night, The Auld Triangle. She won over the audience with her powerful performance and, no doubt, has more fans as a result.
Next up on the Sunset Stage, there was a rare chance to see the Gigspanner Big Band where Peter Knight's trio is matched up with Edgelarks. Like bees around a honey pot, the audience swarmed the outdoor stage to witness a magical performance as the sun set and the moon rose across the skies. Not that they needed it but the stage was set for Show of Hands to end the day's entertainment in fine style with a mixture of fan's favourites like The Blue Cockade and some not heard for a while like The Preacher.
Returning on the Sunday, the line up on the Sunset Stage exemplified the festival's programming skills in identifying the rising stars of the folk music scene. Early in the day, a large main stage is never an easy spot to fill but Edgelarks kicked off proceedings in style. They were followed by more musicians on the rise, Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar, who alternated between tunes to suit the dancers and songs for the seated listeners.
As we meandered back down towards Moot Hall, we came across one of those musical moments that only happen at festivals. Somewhere between one of the bars and the fish finger sandwich stall in an area designated for those who wanted to sit, play and explore instruments; Peter Knight and John Spiers were rekindling the spirit of their duo at a spot that was a stone's throw from where they'd been first put together as part of the 2016 festival programme. This time, not programmed, not expected but still atmospheric playing that soon gathered a crowd. A surprise moment to remember.
Back at Moot Hall, in full swing was Will Pound's Through The Seasons show - narration about Will Kemp dancing from London to Norwich in an exploration of the Morris using the words of Debs Newbould. Interrupted only by the sound of bells when there was a coming and going in the audience of Morris teams, this was a performance that mixed education and entertainment in equal measure.
Back at the Sunset Stage – yes, it was a back and forth day - McGoldrick, McCusker and Doyle were delivering on their virtuoso reputations with a mixture of blistering, frenetic tunes and delicate, slow songs. Even a power cut was not going to slow them down as they came over to the edge of the stage and delivered off microphone to the delight of those down the front.
There were further trips between stages to capture sets from the delightfully eccentric and supremely talented, Tim Edey, and the Romany and Gypsy inspired The John Langan Band who were closing the outdoor stage. It was on one of these trips that I stopped by the Jackalope that stands proud at FolkEast every year. This time, the mythical jackrabbit with antelope horns was covered in empty plastic bottles rather than the usual straw sculptured affair. This was all in aid of reminding us about the problems caused by single use plastics. It's headline news if you want the planet to survive in a sustainable way. Whether inspired by this or not, as we departed, it was noticeable that the audience left very little waste on the ground of the Glemham Hall site. So, well done to the audience, well done to the artists and well done to the organisers. Success, all round.
Words: Steve Henderson
Photos: John Heald