Chester Folk Festival, Kelsall, UK, May 23-26, 2003

Chester festival seems to go from strength to strength each year. I know this, as it is my local festival, and I work there as a steward each year. The festival is not one of the biggest on the festival calendar, but probably one of the friendliest. What it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in quality of the guests booked. Although it is called Chester Folk Festival, it is in fact held in the village of Kelsall, about 10 miles outside of Chester City on the A556. The festival office and main concert marquee is situated on the field alongside the newly renamed pub & restaurant 'The Olive Tree' (formerly the Morris Dancer). The new landlord changed the name because he has decided to cater to the up-market clientele in his restaurant. So expect to pay a little more if you decide to dine there. However the festival organisers always see fit to provide outside caterers as well, offering the usual 'fast food', and also this year there were Mexican and vegetarian to choose from. The Royal Oak pub, situated just about 100 yards down the road, offers the traditional 'pub grub' at very reasonable prices and is worth a visit.

Although the marquee is the main venue, up the road about 100 yards away you will find the Kelsall Community Centre and the Social Club right next door to each other -- so all the main venues are in easy walking distance. Now, most important! All the venues serve an excellent selection of beers that I have tested for you! I am pleased to report they have not been watered down and are of outstanding quality. I take this duty upon myself each year, purely on your behalf, you understand. I recommend you try the Weetwood 'Old Dog' or 'Eastgate' ale. From a small local brewer, the beer is brewed in an old pig-sty, don't you know! ...A singing beer if ever there was one!

But I digress... What about the music? I have to admit to being a little bit sceptical about this year's line up of headline guests, which where: The John Wright Band, The Old Rope String Band, James Keelaghan & Hugh McMillan, Strawhead, John Spiers & Jon Bowden, Bob Fox, His Worship and the Pig, Louis Killen, Tim Laycock, Barry and Ingrid Temple, and also Full House, Xim, Hillary Spencer, Roy Clinging, Red 10, Hoover the Dog, and many more. I need not have worried, for over the weekend I managed to catch ninety-eight percent of them in concert, and all were absolutely superb. If I had to pick out the four best acts, they would have to be 1) James Keelaghan & Hugh McMillan, 2) Old Rope String Band, 3) John Spiers & Jon Boden and 4) The John Wright Band. But in truth all the guests, and the local artists supporting them, held their own very well, and the music and crack were non-stop.

The hit of the festival was unquestionably James Keelaghan & Hugh McMillan (Canada). I think this was only their second visit to the UK, so they arrived as a somewhat unknown entity to a lot of people. They took the audiences by storm with sets made up of brilliant chorus songs; they soon had them singing along and cheering for more. James is a really nice singer who writes a lot of his own material and has excellent taste in music. His singing is pinned by some very tasteful accompaniment from Hugh McMillan on his mandolin and sometimes on his fretless electric bass. The overall sound was very entertaining. I have a feeling they will be crossing the Atlantic a lot more often from now on. I am willing to bet their name will be on a lot more festival guest lists next year.

The Old Rope String Band... what can you say about them? A top class comedy act that is so polished and professional it is almost unbelievable. They could be best described as three absolutely brilliant multi-instrumentalists who are bored with life! Each of their sets was packed out, and they had the audiences roaring with laughter. From the 'grapevine' stunt, where they play three different instruments in one hand, whilst the other hand plays the partner's instrument, to playing a tune whilst riding on the spot on an eight foot monocycle, to Tim Dalling playing a full size accordion whilst hanging upside down on the back of Pete Challoner with -- yes, wait for it! -- Tim's head submerged upside down in a tank of water, for over 2 minutes! You really must see this act while they are still alive!

John Spiers & Jon Boden were one of the prize-winners in this year's B.B.C. folk awards. They showed they are certainly an act to keep your eye on. Their performance live, I thought, was a lot stronger than their CD. Perhaps it was the choice of material, but these two young men are on the way up.

The John Wright Band gave an impressive performance. John Wright, a former soldier and shepherd, has a nice voice, and he really loves to sing. Most of his repertoire is contemporary with a feeling for 'love songs' that the ladies adore. In the band providing the accompaniment were Maartin Allcock (ex Fairport Convention) and Tony Gibbons (Garva), Chris Parkinson on keyboards, and standing in for Terry Coyne (Garva) was Scotsman Fraser Spiers, who played a mean harmonica. They put in an excellent performance, which has made them firm favourites at clubs and festivals throughout the U.K. this year.

The atmosphere of the festival is centred on the Olive Tree pub, with several teams of Morris dancers leaping about all over the place, Mummers plays, step dancing, clog dancing, and what seemed to be a non-stop music & song session both in the bar and outside. I was amazed by the quality of singers in the humble singarounds held in the Royal Oak pub. A lot of the singers, mostly unknown to me, were putting on a performance every bit as good as the headline artists. But thatís the Chester festival -- the fun never stops. It is not expensive (compared to other festivals) and it's well worth a visit. Make a note in your diary for next year's Chester Folk Festival, 28-31 May, 2004. For more information, visit www.chesterfolk.freeserve.co.uk

[Peter Massey]