I first visited Folk by the Oak in 2011. As a northerner living in Hertfordshire, and having recently discovered my love of folk music, the opportunity to attend a folk festival on my door step was one not to be missed. The ticket price then was thirty-something pounds for just one stage of music. As a regular festival goer, I though this was a bit pricey – though acceptable in the southern middle-class world of folk well attended by folk fans and families alike. Regardless, I ended up loving the experience, especially being introduced to Kathryn Roberts, an astoundingly brilliant folk singer from my home town of Barnsley.
Now, two years later and living back home, I venture south once more to Folk by the Oak. Since then, I have immersed myself in the history of folk music, its revival, I’m a regular visitor of Barnsley folk club and I’m a proud promoter of the long legacy of folk talent Barnsley has produced; Dave Burland, Derek and Dorothy Elliott, Kathryn Roberts, Foggy Dew-O, Robin Garside, Tony Capstick, The Deighton Family and two of this year’s starring acts, Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts and the formidable Kate Rusby. In fact, much more of this year’s line-up originates or is based in Yorkshire. An exciting prospect for me, as you can imagine.
From the moment me and my partner drove onto the grounds of the beautiful Hatfield House, a sense of order was in the air. Volunteers singeled directions to the car-park field at every turn in the dirt road and once parked up hassle free, the queue for entry was already lengthy. Already consisting of around two hundred folk all lined up nicely, many sat on their cool boxes, already tucking into their Waitrose salads and cous cous, chatting about the forecast of clouds and poetntial drizzle. This ended up being the most orderly experience of gaining entry to a festival ever.
Picnic rugs were spread out between the front of the stage barriers and went back a hundred yards. While many would choose to stay there the whole day, what I’d do is park my bum for an hour or so to scoff out picnic while the first few acts play, then take the gear back to the car and spend time to explore the festival properly. Last year, Folk by the Oak, finally acquired a second stage. This weekend it would showcase a number of independent and unsigned folk acts both local and national. That I was excited about.
And so, while I tucked into my chorizo sarnies and mini-chedders, Gilmore and Roberts took to the stage to open up the festival. Jamie Roberts is the younger brother of Kathryn Roberts – both siblings’ acts were up for Best Duo BBC 2 Folk Awards this year. Katriona Gilmore is originally from Hertfordshire, but now resides in Barnsley as well. We like to think of them both as our own.
The appearance of Doctor James signifies a crowd favourite as they cheer as the song is introduced, and Silver Screen is as 21st century as you get when it comes to folk themes. Apparantly it’s about SatNav.
Fleetwood Fair is a brilliant highlight. As they introduce the song, Katriona explains that Jamie had to wear make-up for his first ever music video appearance. In his thickest Barnsley accent, he said ‘ah looked bloody gorgeous.’
Katriona does a a beautiful rendition of her song Letters, inspired by her Danish grandmother who lived in London throughout the second world war and the finale of Scarecrow blew everyone away. You can bet that 2014 will see this duo play much higher up the festival bills, and deservedly so.
Up next is Field Hield, backed by both The Hurricane Party and folk legend Martin Simpson. I’ll admit that I’m not as familiar with either of them as I am some of the other artists playing today, but reading up of Fay is interesting for me, as she teaches Ethnomusicology at The University of Sheffield – more home grown talent. She opens with Tarry Trousers from her 2012 album Orfeo. Fay stalks the stage looking like a mediaeval princess and her singing style is of the more traditional type. She plays a song which she explains is an old nursery rhyme about a mad family that rides from London to Hull then back again. This is followed by a wonderful version of the traditional song Barbara Allen, as arranged by Tom Waits.
As Martin Simpson takes to the stage, he is greeted by rapturous applause for a version of Linden Lee, originally a poem written by William Barnes and put to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Little Liza Jane gets the audience singing along, and even though I don’t know the song, I instantly feel like I do and I’m swept along. The set closes with a great version of Wicked Serpent; the oldest Anglo-American folk song we’re told, and often known as Springfield Mountain. It’s brilliant way to end a set and I’m sold on both artists now.
We take the opportunity to roam the site, check out the vintage clothes stalls and craft tents. I slightly disappoint myself as there is no porter or stout in the real ale tent, but to be honest, just about anything that Tring Brewery comes up with is quality, so I’m easily pleased in the end. As we join the fifty strong queue for ice cream, we hear Jim Moray in the distance. My summer ale seems to be going down as well as his self-styled Psychedelic Folk-Dub. From over by the ice cream van, I start off not a fan – it sounds over produced and not as raw as a like my folk, but I end up wanting to seek out more of his music when I get home (I did, and his Beginner’s Guide is great). Continuing our tour of the site we find archery, a music shop but also a Ryvita van and Starbucks stall! I know I’m not oop north anymore.
There isn’t one minute when there isn’t a music playing at Folk by the Oak. The smaller Acorn Stage is a strange one. It’s positioning means that they can’t play at the same time as anyone of the Main Stage, as you’ll never be heard over the sound. So, the acts on the Acorn Stage only play for the 15 minutes between Main Stage acts. And although some of the acts on this stage do play twice throughout the day, blink and you miss them. It’s a shame, as love I to explore the unsigned acts on the smaller stages at festivals. I’d have loved to have seen longer sets too. Here, as you walk from the main stage and maybe grab a beer on the way, by the time you arrive at the Acorn stage, you’re already ten minutes into a fifteen minute set. Next year, it would be great if the Acorn Stage could be repositioned to allow for bands to play full sets without being overpowered by the sound from the Main Stage, and maybe have more acts throughout the day.
The first act I catch here is Tandem. I only manage to see two songs, but this instrumental duo, consisting of guitar and violin has that beautiful, spiralling sound you often get on Philip Glass recordings, and their song Captain Trips sounds nowhere near as morbid as its Stephen King inspiration.
I rush to the front of the Main Stage to catch what has been dubbed a folk super-group in Carthy, Hardy, Farrell and Young. Already a fan of both Eliza Carthy and Bella Hardy, and their album Laylem being one of my favourites of the year so far, I was more than eager to catch this live set.
While sound checking, Eliza plays with the audience and sound techs. She’s a cheeky bugger and great with it, and that personality feeds into her stage presence as she plays. When the group launches into their first song Greasy Coat, they mix bluesgrass, skiffle, the playfulness of The Andrews Sisters and The Shangri-las, but keep everything grounded in good old fashioned fun folk. It’s a big barn stomper, with Eliza literally stomping the life out of a bass drum by her feet. In a way, she acts as the group’s rhythms section, playing octave fiddle and drum, and mixed in with the three other voices, her his the bass that binds everything.
Kate Young takes lead vocal on this song and Lucy Farrell on the second. It would be easy for lesser signers to play second fiddle (see what I did there) to stars like Hardy and Carthy, but here both turn out to be the surprise gems in this festival. Both can really wail.
A number of songs from their album are played – Chickens in the Garden, Dew Drop and Wide River, each has a different lead vocal and each showcases the strengths of the entire group perfectly. On Why Don’t You Do Right, Kate Young sings lead again and there is my highlight right there. She’s playful, commanding and an absolutely joy to hear. They close with 100 Years, a Welsh sea shanty and the traditional song Country Life; the version The Waterson’s originally made famous back in 1975. I’m already looking forward to these gals playing Madfest back home next month.
I’m stood next to a family who have travelled from California to see Kate Rusby. The excitment in the daughters’ faces is obvious as they wait eagerly with their cameras. As Kate hits the stage to an entire acre of smiles, she too is grinning from ear to ear as usual. They start with a beautiful sounding Elfin Knight. Without her guitar, here she is part of a grand five piece band, and a sound that is much bigger than my previous experiences of Kate Rusby live. Elfin Knight has a similar tone and melody to Awkward Annie, and as she mentions, is a song that featured Barnsley’s Dave Burland on record.
As always with Kate’s concerts, her inbetween song chat is often as entertaining and charming as the songs themselves. She tells us it was raining in Barnsley before she set off to the festival. She follows by playing The Good Man and The White Cockade, and each performance has an explanation as to its origins.
Two big singalongs occure when the band play I Courted a Sailor and Greenfields, and The Blind Harper is dedicated to her daughter Daisy, who wants to be a bass player.
At this point I start to make my way back through the crowd to the top of the field as I really wanted to catch the whole of the last set of the Acorn Stage before I left. The finale of Awkward Annie is one big cosy singalong.
Eagerly waiting to play the Acorn Stage, and probably hoping Kate Rusby doesn’t pay an encore, is Hot Feet from Stroud. Some of my favourite bands I’ve discovered on the smaller stages, and Hot Feet are no exception. Starting five minutes late, it means their set might run over the final main stage act. They have a 60’s tinged folk rock sound, a la Fairport or Pentangle. With a rumbling bass, a loose jazz snare, there are hints of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and in Marianne Parrish they have an amazing vocalist. Remaining still throughout most of the set, her performance is understated and somehow channels Sandy Denny, Laura Marling and Jacqui McShee.
As they start to get drowned out by the Oysterband starting their set, they play louder and louder and I love them more for it. Undeterred, they all pick up percussion and beat out the final bars to the their set.
And that’s when I leave. A pink sun setting and the Ryvita van man still touting his free samples and not a traffic queue in site. I didn’t get sun burn despite the blazing heat and I was successfully merry but not drunk. Six new albums bought and two of them signed, along with a the discovery of a favourite new unsigned band, and more reasons to be raving about Barnsley in Gilmore & Roberts and Kate Rusby.
I’ll be back again next year for sure. Although there is still room for improvement, a good festival just got great. Bring on 2014.