Ely Folk Festival

Do you want a pass to Stevie Nicks, VIP area?”
Sounds good.”
July 12th.”
I can’t I’m already booked – Ely Folk Festival.”

Ah well … I gather it was a good do. However, I feel in no way short changed. Here’s why.

Ely Folk Festival has been running since 1985, but this was my first time. Currently, the Festival is held just outside the city, has three main stages and a variety of dance, food, bar, other temporary sales emporia etc. It’s big enough to have variety and small enough for a chilled atmosphere

As ever, first impressions count. I arrived in the car park to be greeted by a steward who told me his name and said hello. Fifteen minutes later, wrist band on, I looked around the site. In the midst of the tables by the food was a pre-opening session called ‘Your Stewards Entertain’ – and they did, in particular Acoustic Spin, a duo of Stewards playing mostly their own songs, grabbed my attention.

Most people that I know book festival tickets in large part because of the ‘big names’, but they attend because of the event. There’s a difference and I’ll come back to this. I also notice that the Ely Festival Programme is delightfully egalitarian in putting the list of artists in alphabetical order and in the same font – so, literally, there aren’t any big names, just artists who play at different times of the day.

The loud ones – the final set on the big stage for the three nights – were Rusty Shackle, Peatbog Faeries and Breabach, all deserving recognition for their energy. A special word, though, for Breabach who played on Friday evening. I watched them, with the rain and cold depressing my soul and with my hands and fingers more numb than when I’ve been on Helvellyn in the snow.  Breabach played through it all. Well done.

Eddie Reader entertained us (as ever) and got people dancing. Her set ranged from Fairground Attraction onwards. The Patrons Concert (Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams) was a splendid two and a half hours and included various guests. John Kirkpatrick was a delight. Morganway were new to me. If they’re new to you, then forget the ‘Americana’ indications in the programme, this was mostly rock – and bloody good it was too. I’d seen Hannah Sanders & Ben Savage in a very small venue a couple of years ago and they were just as stunning on a big stage in a windswept field.

There were numerous ceilidhs, tune sessions, workshops, singarounds, Morris Dancing – in town and in the field – plus things to keep adults chilled (yoga and tai chi as well as craft ales and the gin bar) and children entertained (introductory ukelele and guitar, and, given how many were flying around, I’d imagine kite-making at some point). O’Hooley & Tidow were so popular I couldn’t get in the tent but sounded from the outside as good as usual. Though we might book for the names above, all of this is also why we attend Festivals.

The Latin ‘festa’ meant a religious holiday and has come through the ages and languages to give us fiesta in Spanish, fête in French and festival in English (and, less obviously, festone in Italian for garlands of flowers created for such days).

It’s secular nowadays, but mostly we attend because of the fun and shared celebration – we’ll tell people in advance that we’re going to see Eddie Reader (for example) but we’ll tell them afterwards, “It was a good do” or “The weather was ….”, or “We met ….”, or, better still, the active participation of “We sang/played with … we danced with …. “.

And Ely met all expectations of a lively and varied experience with flying colours. I’ve come home relaxed and telling stories of how much I enjoyed the event and why.

That’s my 500/600-word summary of a jolly good weekend at Ely Folk Festival 2024. However, there’s more if you’d like it:

In the same way as ‘Your Stewards Entertain’ – great idea – was a memorable greeting, here’s a few random memories that go to make a festival both fun and shared celebration:


  • Thomas Bradley Project – Winners of Ely Folk Festival’s 2024 Band Competition – also a great idea – were the first act I saw. I’d seen them at Southwell the week before and they’re clearly on the way to more festivals
  • The delight of a Festival is that you can move, as I did, from Thomas Bradley Project’s Jonathan Kelly-cum-Wishbone Ash feel straight to more traditional folk song such as Simon George Kelso or Andy Wall (both did songs about plough horses and I loved ‘The Cottagers Reply’). I also mused over whether early sixties Dylan has now become traditional music.
  • I knew the music of The Shackleton Trio and Alden & Patterson separately, but their joint adventure, Kitewing, was new to me. Five voices in harmony to kick off ‘Handsome Molly’ before handing over to a lead vocal will stay with me.
  • With their mix of tunes, songs and acapella singing, Kitewing have a sound to warm the coldest of days (they also played on Friday) and I noticed in the audience a couple of young parents linking arms and dancing, with the verve you’d normally get at the end of a ceilidh, to entertain a youngster in a pushchair. You don’t get that in a club
  • As I walked round the site, there was the big band bluesy sound of The Barefoot Doctors on the main stage and what appeared to be an impromptu tunes session in the Squeezebox Marketplace tent


I mentioned that we probably wouldn’t book a ticket for these reasons, but most of us attend festivals for human company and entertainment at least as much as to see those who entertain us.

This kind of thing:

  • In the morning, I went into Ely to have a coffee with a friend from my home area who was house sitting in the town and then another with a local-to-Ely (ish) musician who wasn’t at the Festival.
  • I gather the Festival used to be much closer to the city centre and whilst it’s not too far out and the Festival organisers provide a (plush) bus, it’s no longer walkable. Gate to Southwell Festival (and no doubt others) has similarly moved sites. It changes the vibe – you can’t walk easily into town but nor do you have to get your car towed out of a wet field by tractor. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is – but it’s all part of the memorable Festival experience.
  • Not quite the biggest cheer of the weekend, but certainly one of the loudest was when the sun came out – an entirely illogical thing to do … and joined in by everyone in my line of sight. The festival world is so much better when the sun comes out – and it meant that many more people came to sit at the open-air stage.
  • The hum of conversation – “John Kirkpatrick played ‘Arthur McBride’ magnificently”, “Did you hear Rory McCloud’s virtuoso harmonica piece?” – and the elderly Springer looking at me while I wondered how mine was recovering from anaesthetic at home for a seed in her ear.
  • … and the table by the food tent. I’ve met many people at tables by the food tents in many festivals. Ely was no different. Two blokes sitting on their own at opposite ends (one turned out be a steward who knew the festival well, the other was at his first folk festival); I became a third bloke, physically bridging the gap, so we started passing the odd comment. This became banter and humour. Others joined the table – a father and daughter from Lincolnshire; I discovered the daughter went to my old school and took the opportunity to tell them about the Folklincs event in Barton on Humber next weekend; then others joined – who turned out to be former Yellow Bellies now living in Ely. More than the bar, you can’t beat the tables by the food tent for the chance to meet strangers and have a cheery conversation.


Amongst Eddie Reader’s comments (transcribed roughly):

  • Folk Clubs are good places to learn to sing, my first one was Inverness to see Christy Moore and he’s still playing; an even better place to learn to sing is a house full of alcoholics
  • What Covid taught me is how important it is to do this – to get out into fields, meet friends”
  • I’m proud that folk music allows us to watch music without worrying about fancy hair and the fame game

Other things struck me:

  • I was going from the big stage to the bigger of the two tents – and I passed the smaller tent. It was packed out, a lively folk rock-ish sound making me want to call in … but another thing with festivals is that there is always something you miss
  • Conversely, I’d missed The Fugitives (other than one song) at Southwell last weekend. I got a second chance here at Ely. Gosh they were good, why hadn’t I prioritised them at either festival?
  • Nick Parker, from the Glastonbury area, sound-checked while a thirty-foot yellow dragon wandered past outside and then came in to do a tour of the tent. It didn’t throw him. He was another artist new to me and a couple of us mulled over that he’d go down well on our side of the country
  • As the Patron’s Concert closed and people were walking elsewhere, I bumped into yet another person from my home area who was there stewarding for the weekend and we caught up for about half an hour

But I’ll finish with Jez Lowe. He played the Peregrine stage (big outdoor one), the Nightingale Stage (small tent for a ‘Meet Jez Lowe’ session – I missed this one) and the Kingfisher Stage (medium-sized tent) where he was the last to play on that stage and only Rusty Shackle and the bar were still going at the end of his set.

Jez Lowe: one day, three sessions (with a commitment not to repeat any songs) …  great songs (he played a mix of new and old – the old songs as good now as when I spent time in Co Durham in the 90s and first came across Jez – humour, tales of industry from life rather than nostalgia, the warmth and humanity that you’ll be aware of if you’ve ever seen him play, and a quiet stage presence that has you rapt.

He played his set … he played his encore … he looked slightly askance for a second as the introducer said, “and there’s just one more song” … it was the day that comes round once a year …. and we all broke into “Happy Birthday … dear Jez”. You wouldn’t get that at Hyde Park.

What a splendid weekend at Ely Folk Festival 2024.

Mike Wistow

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