Hosted over Easter by Our Nation’s Capital, The National Folk Festival is something I look forward to, and every year I am in equal measure befuddled by, and in awe of, the phantasmagoria of sounds and kaleidoscope of sights present.
Music, dance, workshops, and expert percussive monkey puppeteers – these are all reasons to attend. But of course, there is another…
Lounging amidst lashings of hot mulled wine, ubiquitous gozleme and meat on sticks, lays the lip-smacking delight that comes with a side-served promise of spiritual awakening, known as The Feast.
The Feast, folk festival grub perfected by vegetarian Hare Krishnas, has become a main attraction. Two parts Royal Rice and Mixed Veggie Curry, one part Kofta Balls and Tomato Chutney and one part Halava Dessert, The Feast describes The National Folk Festival itself – aromatic, wholesome, lively and at times, experimental (who knew that sweet, sticky date-laden halava and tomato chutney could taste so good once accidentally combined)?
For this reason I will allow The Hare Krishna Feast a guest spot in this report (as it ‘gets’ folk).
This super-lovely set got off to a cute start, with Robyn and Chris, a.k.a. The Yearlings wholeheartedly strumming (as we wondered, “Why are they performing through their foldback, and underwater?” and “Who turned out the lights?”) until the sound guy helpfully pointed out that things had not yet begun. Then, after giggles all round and a formal introduction from the MC they were on their way, both visible and audible.
What followed was dreamy, alt-country, road-trippin’ side-winding – the kind that makes you think, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it”, or “Dernit, I fergit ma Stetson”.
“Wildflower Girl” was ultra-cool. Robyn’s voice, with a touch of the Hope Sandovals, is so listenable and Chris coaxes milky tones from his electric guitar. Isn’t it so much more engrossing when talented guitarists don’t overdo it, even though they could?
After the gig we bumped into them at the sunscreen dispensary. They were friendly, relaxed and not the least bit sunburnt.
The Yearlings via The Feast: Everything that is great about The Feast, exists within The Yearlings. If I had to compare them to a particular part, it would be Royal Rice and Mixed Vegetable Curry: subtle, moreish, satisfying.
Sarah Humphreys (feat. Sam Buckingham)
Sarah Humphreys is quite the endearing performer. Somehow both shy and confident, she has a gentle, folky sway and a bunch of stories that, if told by a performer less natural, would seem too earnest for me (heck, she’s brought me to near-tears on more than one occasion).
This year at The National she was joined by her guitarist and a percussionist, which added a good amount of pep, to her oft introspective set.
I adore her most when she sings this song, which she did with fellow songbird, Sam Buckingham, silencing all in the Flute ‘n’ Fiddle and well into the fields beyond, even the drumming monkeys.
Sarah Humphreys via The Feast: Sweet like Halava.
We wandered into a dark, cow-barn-sized, full of folk-folk room and settled in on the floor to catch some country/bluegrass tunes sung by a tiny, be-frocked Canadian fiddler accompanied by her wickedly skilled band (Cody Walters on double bass and banjo and Hayes Griffin on guitar).
All seemed wonderfully put together, hearty, festival, fiddle-driven fare until…April Verch started TAP DANCING!
I rummaged around for her programme bio to confirm that yes, this was happening and yes, April is not only a multi-instrumentalist and cherished Canadian musical export, she is also known in the business for her ‘step dancing’ prowess.
Over the next 30 minutes April and her band wowed us with their 3-man show. They were true performers, charming and funny (Hayes pointed out wryly that the only way to tell one fiddle tune from another is by the name, how true).
“I’m Still Trying” was uber-country in both lyrical style and arrangement, and simply lovely. The final number, “Bumblebee in a Jug” was a foot stompin’ hurrah that had me looking around for bumblebees swarming from jugs (‘cause people play jugs at the Folky).
To finish, the crowd sung Happy Birthday to April and she forgave us for not bringing a card. It was short notice, after all.
April Verch via The Feast: Just like a small dollop of Tomato Chutney, April Verch stepped up with a surprising amount of (high) kick!
The Ellis Collective
Being a Sound Guy at a folk festival is pretty much the job from Hell. Sound checks in real time, constant rearranging of instrument mics, vocal mics and leads, knob/big ego/fiddle fiddling, it’s no walk in the park.
On Friday night, as The Ellis Collective prepared to folk-rock the Majestic (a 1950s circus-style tent and newish venue at The National), it was clear that there might be technical difficulties. The show was running 25 minutes late, for starters.
When Matty Ellis and his band of ragamuffin folksters graced the stage, they were met with raucous applause. Having recently been ‘Unearthed’ in 2011, their following is growing in number and devotion and those attending didn’t seem to mind the murky sound one bit. The Ellis Collective soldiered through the sound and even sanctioned some specific, rhythmic audience participation, which much to their bemusement, the odd wag continued in unexpected songs, with the full audience’s final approval delivered in said-same rhythm-claps instead of the usual applause.
The gig swung from an avant-garde experiment that at one point saw nine band members on stage (incl. four percussionists, one playing a chain, in a bucket) to a moving, heartfelt performance, and it brought the tent down. Sound Guy Hell, but fan Heaven.
The Ellis Collective via The Feast: Crunchy, crunchy Kofta Balls.
David Ross MacDonald
A cool thing to do at a folk festival is take a punt, as we did on Friday afternoon, with David Ross MacDonald.
Knowing nothing about him, we sat ourselves down in the Flute ‘n’ Fiddle, taking care to manage our exit strategy, should his set not fill our 40 minutes with joy (sounds harsh but there is a LOT of music to get through at The National)! The only clue that we were about to see something good was that The Yearlings crept in via a sneaky side entrance to watch. Did I mention how much I like The Yearlings?
David, a troubadour in folk-armour (white shirt and vest), had us immediately. And I can’t quite pinpoint what it was that captivated, perhaps the blend of introversion, quirk, honesty and sing-scat-humming to himself off mic. If you watch this shaky recording of “Ruby Stone” (try to ignore the children crying), you might hear what I think I heard – a hint of Darren Hanlon and something deeply lovely. And we all joined in with the chorus.
(Here, why not watch some more, it’s fun)!
I also liked what he had to say – whether dispensing advice from his Mother (“Adapt or die!”) or telling a funny story about a family holiday with Grandpa that takes a twist and punches you in the guts with brutal, beautiful observation.
David is a great guitarist but his appeal isn’t abracadabra or production. We lined up to buy his latest album after the gig (and maybe gush a little) and I like it, but his live performance with nothing added, seemed so, so pure. The album longs me to see him live again.
In any case, I give David Ross MacDonald two of my thumbs, pointed skyward.
David Ross MacDonald via The Feast: Have you ever eaten the feast for lunch AND dinner. David Ross MacDonald is just like that.
In sum, The National Folk Festival rules. So does sunscreen, songbirds, tap dancing, Sound Guys, Grandparents, D. R. MacDonald and of course, The Feast.