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Thursday, 24 July 2014

Folk by the Oak 2014: this time with beer

I love this festival. I love the idea of it, of naming a folk festival after a tree under which something important happened: in this instance Elizabeth Tudor discovering that she would be Queen while living at Hatfield House.

I also love the location, the fact that it is only about half an hour out of central London by train and that therefore every folky in the capital could, theoretically attend. And that it was on the same weekend as Lovebox, a fairly horrific hip-hoppy celebration of public drunkeness, vomiting and urination that happens pretty much next to my home - the eponymous (and ironically named) Glamour Cave - in Bethnal Green. While I was enjoying Richard Thompson and Seth Lakeman, other people on my Facebook timeline were already complaining about the mess that Lovebox makes.

I didn't care. I was being discerning at Folk by the Oak. And I don't get to feel smug or discerning very often so this was a bit like a holiday for me.

I love this festival. And this year it didn't even run out of beer, which was good because it was as warm in Hertfordshire as it was everywhere else last weekend and running out of beer would have constituted folky armageddon: the festival equivalent of fate giving us a big ding over the head with a banjo.

I missed Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, for which I basically have no one to blame but myself. But obviously this won't prevent me trying. Part of my brain was convinced, as I lazed in bed for an extra half an hour, that there was no way the schedulers would put them on first – not while there were other, less self-evidently brilliant, acts to choose from – and I didn't get much of a clue from the website. I should have asked for more information but... didn't. You know how it is. I'm looking forward to their new album a lot though, string arrangements and all.

So the first thing I saw that made a big impression was The Elizabethan Session, which was arresting mainly for the voices. There was Nancy Kerr, who is in my considered opinion a genius, singing the word "Gloriana", her flattened vowels making it unique to the place and the occasion forever now in my mind. And there was John Smith, who had me Googling him before two verses had escaped his lips, only to remember receiving a suggestion a while back from Phil at Folk Cast that I should do a follow up to my much-beloved post (judging by the number of hits it still gets, anyway), Gallery of folk musicians lying in foliage, with a new gallery of damp folk musicians, inspired by this.

For the avoidance of doubt: it's John Smith. In fact, please contact me by email here or on Twitter @emma1hartley with other pictures of damp folkies. This would be good.

It turns out John Smith has a great voice, so standing up to your waist in water is obviously honey for the vocal cords, if not necessarily your other body parts – it's more likely to be trench foot, mould or fungi for those – or your musical instruments, come to that. Having Bella Hardy, Jim Moray, Martin Simpson, Hannah James and Emily Askew as backing couldn't have hurt either.

The second stage then played host to Salt House, a Scottish four-piece with some new takes on old tunes – She's like the swallow, for one – while one among their number played a beautiful, cherry-coloured double bass that had been buffed to a high shine. Somebody clearly loves that instrument very much.

While they were doing this, I sat on a bale of hay and reflected that the crowd was clearly adoring the combination of old songs and young musicians and that the rest of the music industry, with its incessant re-releases of songs from the 1980s is becoming more like the folk scene all the time.

Speaking of which, Beth Orton clearly had a few fans in the crowd.

And it wasn't hard to see why, although her between-song banter sounded a little as if she were attempting it for the first time after having awoken from a 10-year snooze. It centred around how she was feeling old... but she looked fabulous and was talking to a field full of folkies who had an average of 15 years on her, I'd say, and who were also being rained on at the time, just to make them feel even more glamorous. Not me though. I had an ugly rain-deflecting garment taking care of the water (no, I don't have a picture, sorry) and word has it that Beth and I were in the same class at the Hewett school in Norwich for a while: one day I hope to be able to ask her about that and some other things for the blog.

Keston Cobblers Club, at the Acorn stage, made a big splash with their oompah, brass-bandy brand of folk that would sound comfy on a bank ad. I say that with love and I hope they make their fortune eventually: they had us wondering why they weren't on the main stage?

But then the Richard Thompson and the Seth Lakeman finale kind of supplied the answer: folk festival programmers play to the essentially conservative nature of their audiences and it is both why folk festivals do better than average and a bit of a drag sometimes to those of us who consciously enjoy novelty.

I mean, I love Vincent Black Lightning as much as the next person and also that Seth Lakeman sings songs about mainstream male experiences like being in the army and being a lifeboatman. But... *sigh* No actually, it was fine. Especially as Seth came with fireworks, allowing the male, heterosexual portion of the audience to experience first hand that for which the rest of us did not need fireworks. (I'm just fighting with myself, don't watch.)

In fact, it was more than fine. Did I mention that I actually love Folk by the Oak?

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