Folk by the Oak is set in the glorious grounds of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire in the grandly titled Queen Elizabeth Oak Field named as allegedly it was whilst sitting under an oak tree in this field that Elizabeth I learnt of her accession to the throne. There are two music stages, a Main Stage and the rather wittily named Acorn Stage (smaller stage, newer bands), along with the usual food and drink outlets and an unusual dance area (think maypoles rather than glowsticks) and a wood turning stall. The whole event obviously has an emphasis on music from a folkie/ World music background.
First on the Main Stage are the multi award-winning pairing of Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita. Unfortunately Catrin is still recovering from her cancer treatment (we wish her well) and cannot be here today so Seckou is flying solo this afternoon. The Senegal inspired temperature in front of the main stage is doing its best to make Seckou feel at home and the heat along with his beautiful kora playing fits the mood of the afternoon perfectly.
Sam Kelly & The Lost Boys have had an upgrade from the headline slot on the Acorn stage last year. Sam's a previous Horizon award winner for emerging artistes at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards and has chalked up many prestigious collaborations in his relatively short career. The seven piece Lost Boys play several tracks from recent album Pretty Peggy. 'Angeline the Baker' gets a surprisingly enthusiastic full sing along despite the heat. Sam half-jokes that the highlight of his career so far is that his song 'Spokes' was used in an episode of Hollyoaks!
Talking about the BBC Folk Awards the beguiling vocals coming from the Main stage must belong to Julie Fowlis regular co-presenter of that awards show along with Mark Radcliffe. Julie and her band start with a set of Celtic tunes ; 'Hug Air a' Bhonaid Mhoir' and 'Fodor Dha Na Gamhna Beaga'. “ Too fast in this heat, let's slow things down”, comes the call from the band. As the majority of Julie's vocals are sung in Scots Gaelic, including a version of The Beatles 'Blackbird', and are thus totally alien to us non-speakers you don't listen to the words so the vocal becomes a percussive as well as a melodic instrument. Stunning stuff.
In the Acorn Stage the day doesn't start well for Midnight Skyracer “Ladies and gentleman, please welcome Midnight Skyrocket” announces the compare causing much hilarity in the band. Once they have negotiated a swirl of feedback this 5 piece bluegrass band are absolutely terrific. Leanne Thorose's vocals sound as if they are soaked in Kentucky bourbon brilliantly accompanied by guitar and fiddle from the Carrivick Sisters, add in banjos and double bass to create a mix of hard-driving trad and original composition bluegrass. 'I'm just here to ride the train', 'So long, goodbye,we're through' we witness frantic strumming and fingers flying along fretboards. They've got some further festival performances this Summer and I urge you to see them play. The find of the festival.
Back to the Main Stage for the Big Machine which is Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band, the 12 piece band of amazingly talented musicians re-inventing Eliza's back catalogue along with some original compositions. 'The Fitter's Song' and 'Hug You Like a Mountain' are covers which Eliza has been playing for a while and songs from her back catalogue 'The Gallant Hussar' and 'Mr Walker' are re-energised by the big band sound. Remembering the 30c plus heat, “You'll need to use your imagination now to pretend we're in the frozen Antarctic waters” for the whale hunting song 'Great Grey Back' featuring Lucy Farrell and Saul Rose mock sword fighting with their bows. The energy and interplay between the various band members makes The Wayward Band special, but it's the force of nature that is Eliza Carthy which makes them a definite must see band.
Stick In The Wheel have a unique take on the folk tradition due to their background in electronic dubstep. As many have commented the whole sound is driven by the honest vocals from Nicola Kearey (unashamedly North East London) coupled with the raw minimalistic sound of dobro, cajon and handclaps which gives the whole performance a ritualistic, pagan feel. The best example being 'Abbots Bromley Horn Dance' which will probably be found on the soundtrack of the next remake of The Wicker Man'. 'Follow Them True', 'Over Again' and 'Seven Gypsies' all feel like ancient tunes but the raw, honesty of Stick In The Wheel's approach gives it a distinctly modern twist.
It may only be a short distance from North East London to Barking but due to a combination of a Sunday evening and the distance home regretfully we have to leave site to the sound of Billy Bragg from the main stage, which is a real shame.
Folk by The Oak is now into its eleventh year and I'm ashamed to admit it's the first time I've visited. The quality of the music and the beautiful surroundings means that I can heartily recommend that you make this festival a destination for it's subsequent years. An absolute delight.