A drizzly day in Walton-on-Thames didn’t dampen the spirits of this little festival with a lineup you would expect from an event many times its size. The acts were as impressive as ever, with the festival back in its regular Sunday slot before the May bank holiday.
First up on the outdoor stage was a surprise appearance from Sue Graves – the ‘Surrey Nightingale’ – a local singer and guitarist who often performs with her band, Suntrap. Her unscheduled appearance was due to a shorter set from Ellie Gowers, who was suffering from a sore throat.
Sue delighted with her collection of covers, opening with the traditional American folk song, Silver Dagger; she proved that the Beatles’ From Me To You and What a Wonderful World (made famous by Louis Armstrong) are also folk songs at heart. Ending with a rousing Big Yellow Taxi, it was a great start to the day.
The Warwickshire-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist Ellie Gower sounded exquisite despite a sore throat. I was fortunate to catch her supporting Blair Dunlop earlier this year, so I knew it would be a treat. Ellie stoically and stylishly gave us five songs before her voice gave out. She’s a performer of passion and elegance, and the songs showcased from her forthcoming album suggested it’s going to be something extraordinary. The highlight for me was The Sky Is On Fire, on which her delicate picking accentuates her intense vocal. She’s out on tour launching her new album, Dwelling by the Weir.
It was exciting to see Jack Cookson back after going down a storm at the first Walton festival in 2018. Jack regaled us with a few stories and entertained and challenged the audience with his honest and often hard-hitting songwriting. It was great to hear a sequel to Ocean Song about his dad’s boat on the Plym, but the follow-up, Michael’s Boat, was a bittersweet tale of the vessel sadly sinking. Jack’s guitar work is stunning, as he demonstrated so dextrously on House of the Rising Sun. An acoustic Ironashley was another surprise, a brilliant and thoughtful exploration of toxic masculinity.
There’s a real buzz around Angeline Morrison right now, and she’s on the bill of some of the most prestigious UK folk festivals this summer, including Cambridge and Sidmouth. Angeline has a commanding presence and a deep knowledge of traditional music (she lectures on the subject at Falmouth University, where she gained her PhD). It was a challenging set, drawn mainly from her stunning new album, The Brown Girl and Other Folk Songs and her forthcoming The Sorrow Songs project. Challenging in the sense that she confronts one of the ‘elephants in the room’ in the tradition, the lack of songs that tell the story of the Black experience in English folk song. Opening with The Brown Girl, one of the few trad songs to address the subject, a tale of racism and revenge, it was a stunning acapella reading, showcasing Angeline’s remarkable voice. More heartbreaking songs followed, including Unknown African Boy (Died 1830) – the title speaks for itself – and, while the set was a wake-up call for the audience, Angeline herself was warm, illuminating and engaging. Situated by the Thames with the stage surrounded by trees, the birds of Walton joyfully joined in with Angeline. They’ve got good taste.
There was no escaping the English weather, however. So the arrival of The Outside Track was doubly welcome as it gave the crowd a chance to dance in the drizzle. My son, age 10, managed this all the way through. He even got a shout-out for his moves from Teresa Horgan, the band’s main singer and whistle player. The pandemic meant that The Outside Track hadn’t performed together for two years. With group members scattered across Scotland, Ireland and Cape Breton, it wasn’t surprising. But their infectious blend of fiddle, accordion, harp, guitar, flute and whistle was undiminished. They were terrific, as usual, and you could sense the band’s joy being back together on stage, particularly in the lively dance numbers such as Road To Rollo Bay, The Cape Breton Set and Drilling. Logistics mean they don’t tour that regularly, so if they are in a club or festival near you, move heaven and earth to be there.
Polly Paulusma performed songs from Invisible Music album (reviewed here), a collection of traditional folk songs that influenced novelist Angela Carter. We were treated to The Maid and the Palmer, Jack Munro and Lady Isabel & the Elf Knight. Polly’s singing is distinctive, and her more contemporary vocals bring new life to these ancient folk tales, much as Angela Carter managed through her writing. Polly’s songwriting easily matched these old songs; particularly She Moves in Secret Ways and Over The Hill. A few previews of songs from her forthcoming album, The Pivot On Which the World Turns, suggest she is back to her songwriting best.
Fortunately, the rain stayed away for the final act, Wildwood Kin, another act I’d never seen live, and they were magnificent. The sound they create together is awe-inspiring. They performed a number of favourites, inclusing Wake Up Sleeper, Never Alone, Beauty In Brokenness which delighted the crowd, many of whom were dancing throughout their set.
What a climax! A day of music that challenged, informed and delighted in equal measure. Walton Folk Festival is on a mission to showcase and celebrate the very best in cutting-edge and contemporary folk, roots and acoustic music. Mission accomplished.
While we wait for announcements of the 2023 festival, the Riverhouse Barn in Walton will feature its Autumn concert series indoors with Road Not Taken on Sunday 11 September and the welcome return of Peter Knight’s Gigspanner on Saturday 5 November, with more to be announced.
Before that is a very special concert by songwriter Tobias Ben Jacob (one half of Jacob and Drinkwater). Jacob will be performing songs from his stunning 2020 CD, REFUGE, a vibrant album of electronica-tinged story-songs inspired by people at the heart of the global refugee crisis. The show will also raise funds for DEC’s Ukraine appeal. Tickets from the links above and at riverhousebarn.co.uk