Although it is called the Chester Folk Festival, this event is held 10 miles outside of Chester in the quite picturesque village of Kelsall. As festivals go, Chester 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 600, 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-arounds and 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, Cloud Street, plus many more. They were supported by an array of local bands and singers that each year makes up the ‘stalwarts’ of the Chester 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 lineup for the evening concert was Tom Napper and 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 in about 2002. 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 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. 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, Cloud Street, 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 Cloud Street, 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 and 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!
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 Heart 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.
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.