What with it having been scheduled to rain all week, it was coats, umbrellas, wellington boots and the slightest hint of trepidation that we set out for Folk by the Oak. Imagine how overjoyed we were to find that the elusive British summer had decided to take a break from dull, grey, wet weather and provide nothing but sunshine. With such an overwhelming set list the day was set to be incredible from the start but for our first time at Folk by the Oak the addition of a blazing sun certainly breathed more life into the day.
As we emerged into a gargantuan field we were met with a bustling village of activity. Dozens of people were queuing in an abnormally orderly fashion to purchase t-shirts, guides and CDs from the dedicated concert shop while others were staking out their claim on the grounds surrounding the main stage. Peppering the edges of the field were dozens of vans, tents and stalls with people selling their wares. The strangest amongst them perhaps the Branston Pickle van and even a Soreen Malt Loaf van. Aside from pickle and malt loaf there were a vast array of foods on offer from wood-fired pizza to heapings of rich, beautiful paella. The queues for the ale tent were discouraging in size but worth every second waited – after all what better accompaniment to folk music in the sunshine.
Families were catered for extensively with breakout areas littering the field where parents could entertain their kids. Hundreds of small children wandered around the field with their faces painted and headed eagerly towards a small section that had been set up with a selection of fairground games, cuddly toy prizes were appearing on the field in abundance. The kids (and realistically a lot of the adults) also had the chance to pay a few pounds to participate in the practice of longbow archery. This already sounds like fun but that fun is doubled when you find out that your targets are large plastic dinosaurs. By the end of the day they resembled some terrifying prehistoric porcupines.
A short walk away from the ocean of collapsible chairs surrounding the Main Stage in every direction was the secondary Acorn Stage. Covered by a hefty gazebo and filled to bursting point with bundle upon bundle of hay bales it was already thronging with people who had laid a tentative claim to the bales at the front of the stage. The festival itself is laid out in such a way however that this is only hugely necessary if you are dead set on being on the frontlines. Each act was careful not to interfere with the other and rather than cramming in as many acts as possible in their timeframe they alternated from the Acorn Stage to the Main Stage and back all day enabling you to see every act. Anyone who has ever been to a festival before can undoubtedly identify with the sometimes agonising decisions made as to which if your two favourite bands you can see.
Festivities commenced with a performance from the London Youth Folk Ensemble – a vast array of children with immense musical talent. Doubtless you’ll see some of them emerging in the future emerging as the next big thing in folk. Together they crafted a rich tapestry of sound that included an impressive violin section and a young conductor who was clearly overjoyed with her role. This joy and mirth was completely infectious and left the crowd glowing and ready to start things from the main stage. Opening the Main Stage was Moore Moss Rutter, a wondrous and upbeat traditional styled band who brought with them a selection of rousing medleys and deft violin tunes that were as bright and cheerful as the day’s sunshine – the perfect opening act on such a day.
Next up on the Main Stage, shortly after a second stint from the London Youth Folk Ensemble was the beautiful and hauntingly charming vocals styling’s of Lady Maisery who were a stunning addition to the days lineup. Their crystalline vocals reached through the crowds like a candle piercing the night and soothed and mellowed everyone in the audience. This serenity in the sunshine carried on throughout their set and carried the audience cleanly into the Acorn Stage where the bar was raised a notch by Orkney based band Gnoss who are a stunning and bouncy Celtic infused traditional pair of musicians whose rich compositions and lively performances brought the audience out of their calm demeanours and roused them back to the more jubilant side of folk.
Propelling ourselves back to the Main Stage once again we were lucky enough to find Keston Cobblers’ Club dominating the stage with their brash, brazen sound. This band are truly remarkable – their relentless upbeat medleys are booming and completely irresistible. At a first listen you could be forgiven for likening them to the likes of Mumford and Sons but this is held only in the unique lead vocals which only share shimmers of similarities in certain moments. The harsh reality would simply be that Keston Cobbler’s Club leave them in the dust; their warm, dancing melodies are the sounds of something that is truly good for the soul.
Next up was the Jess Morgan Trio who took to the Acorn Stage to sooth the audience once again who had reached revelry and jubilation through the last act. Jess Morgan and her accompanying musicians were an ideal wind-down for this, allowing fans to store up their energy for the grand finale. Morgan’s stunning honey-steeped vocals are the kind that leave a tingling chill that lingers on your skin. Her soft, subtle and charming compositions were deftly brought to life by one of the most silent and absorbed audiences you could have ever hoped to find at a festival.
Following shortly in her footsteps over on the main stage was one of our favourite acts of the day, Nancy Kerr & the Sweet Visitor Band who put on a truly phenomenal and mesmeric Celtic infused show. Kerr’s sweet, tender and evocative vocals rang out through the sea of visitors the way a church bell cuts through the air on a Sunday morning. Her tender, heartfelt songs were performed with a raw and compassionate power that made her one of the most sublime performances of the day. Her every word being backed up by the rich and dextrous music of The Sweet Visitor Band it made for one completely enchanting set.
Kerr gave way to the next show-stealer of the day, none other than Blair Dunlop who completely packed out the Acorn Stage and the surrounding vicinity. His set may well have produced numbers that could have made the Main Stage blush and hundreds of eager faces were waiting for him when he took to the stage. Suffice to say that he absolutely did not disappoint. His beautiful, smoky vocals filled the air with his charm and good grace, his set was as tender and heart-warming as it was funny and his deft, buoyant guitar melodies where as warming as the afternoon sun. Listening to him play and observing the audience around us it was as if he had cast a spell over the audience, every one of them totally enraptured in his every word.
By this point in the afternoon the festival had started in earnest and like a runaway train there was no stopping it and no slowing it down. Taking over from Dunlop on the Main Stage were The Unthanks, arguably one of the most astonishing and popular acts on the folk circuit today. Backed with the abundant, grandiose sounds of their band they burst onto the stage to rapturous applause with the title track of their latest album Mount the Air. The ten-minute song is a tender and emotive song that grows and grows and as it peaks and dips the audience did the same, thousands of ecstatic faces swayed along in time to their every note. The crescendo of the song is thrilling enough on its own but in such an atmosphere the effects are thoroughly spine tingling. Their eloquent and charming vocals, combined with their trademark clog dancing and astounding music had the audience chomping at the bit for more.
Sadly The Unthanks had to take their leave eventually to give way to up-and-coming artists The Young’uns. They filled the Acorn Stage with lively banter and their unique brand of shanty acapella before giving way to Mary Chapin Carpenter. As a joint headliner for the Main Stage her set was extended past those before which allowed the crowds even longer to enjoy her molasses vocals as well as her soft guitar lullabies and her jazz-up rocky edge.
As you would expect however, it was with the beginning of the culmination of the festival that people really began to open up. Perhaps it was too long spent in the sun, perhaps a few too many ales but it’s far more likely that people were just enjoying the highest calibre artists working the circuit today. Closing the Acorn Stage were the unique and post-apocalyptic sounds of the Moulettes – put simply as one of the most wondrous, experimental and resplendent bands to grace a stage. Physically impossible not to get sucked into their deep, dark riffs and eerily haunting melodies, they are a dominant stage presence that is not to be reckoned with. This is folk music like you’ve never heard it before; it’s loud, it’s edgy, it’s brazen, bold and brimming with charisma. When they played their final song, Lady Vengeance the hundreds of people swarming the Acorn Stage had a choice – miss this last song and get a better spot for Bellowhead or stay and risk it. Barely a soul chose the former. Both the band and their performance on that stage could be described in many ways but for us this is the kind of music that is life affirming.
Finally the night was drawing to a close and the moment the Acorn Stage had dimmed its lights the Main Stage erupted with a burst of lights and drums as Bellowhead took to the stage to close the evening. Bellowhead have a reputation for consistently putting on the best live shows for their fans and thankfully this was yet another night where they earned that. By the end of the first song it was as if the field had shrunk and expanded at the same time. Hundreds of empty chairs loomed in the shadows while the small grassy area in front of the stage was suddenly undulating with hundreds of dancers in the dying light. As people danced themselves up to the rigs, down the jigs, up to the rigs of London town, Bellowhead stormed the stage with their trademark lively banter, playful morris dancing and general music feats that shouldn’t seem feasible (see Sam Sweeney playing his fiddle at breakneck speed whilst doing a powerslide on one side of the stage). The day that Bellowhead bow themselves off of the world stage will be a devastating day for music but for now we were incredibly grateful to have been able to enjoy such a fantastical show. During their final numbers they were accompanied by an explosion of fireworks from behind the stage – it marked the perfect end to a perfect day. It was better still when people in the front row mistakenly started heading home thinking there would be no encore and relinquished their spots so that the more eager amongst us could get close still. We ended our evening after they burst back onto the stage with a racaus and resounding performance of Frog’s Legs and Dragon’s Teeth which saw the crowd in a dancing frenzy and Sam Sweeney throw himself from the highest point of the stage.
Folk by the Oak has to be one of the most carefully constructed and meticulously organised festivals we have ever had the good fortune to attend. Filled with what is arguably an immaculate and wonderful set of acts it made for an amazing family-friendly day out in the sun. It’s a festival that is now marked down on our calendars for the foreseeable future.
Review by Joe Knipe