Hosted by West Norfolk’s very own Folkspot Radio for Helen Meissner’s Folkstock productions, the undisputed old master of folk fiddle gave us an evening to savour.
He featured in the second half of the programme which opened with a guru-like Dave Swarbrick centre stage radiating virtuosity to a house sold out weeks in advance, the reeling time signature and key-race of his fiddle occasionally accompanied by the offstage dog he brings on tour with him.
The Swarb turns questions into a cue for telling shaggy dog stories about his career with warmth and bluntness, growling his way to the heart of this audience, like Ravi Shankar with a Brum accent.
The emotional highlight is surely The Quiet Joys of Brotherhood a resurrection of his duet with the immortal Sandy Denny, with Said The Maiden singing Sandy’s poignant words.
Like the finest matured wine, it all goes down so easily, it is easy to forget that this maestro creates folk-baroque masterpieces like a Handel from another age.
The audience was treated to a first half of East Anglian support acts who had won their place on Swarb’s stage via rounds of submitted performance videos and live auditions in Great Massingham at the end of March.
Johnny Steinberg and Alex Preece from Norwich and Forncett St Peter performed a moving war story about Johnny’s grandfather, sung and played with a genuine feeling heightened by Alex’s violin.
Ely’s Steve O’Kane, performing two engaging ballads with a buoyant Fiona McBain, declared himself hardly able to believe ‘The Swarb’ – that collaborator with folk-royalty Sandy Denny, Martin Carthy, Fairport Convention – was here among us.
Andy Wall, director of Ely’s annual folk festival, gave a masterclass of traditional folk music, his skilful guitar and rich voice blended into a whole greater than these impressive parts, a long festival career apparent in the high-quality material and assured performance.
Natalie Lake who travelled from Yarmouth to be main local support act, confidently took her place as regional winner.
If the future of folk is female, it may well be Natalie. Like Beth Orton, she sings and plays soulfully, hypnotically, with a gulp of emotion in the delivery and eyes half closed in mantric concentration, watching the audience from behind half-closed lids. Her cheery banter between songs is a surprising and engaging contrast.
The first half was concluded by the refreshingly natural Said The Maiden, who bundled onto the stage like breathless schoolgirls at a ladies college recital and declared themselves overawed by having to follow such a diverse suite of talent. However, their unison singing of traditional folk songs is so fine they needn’t worry about following anyone.
The distinct individual voices are subtly matched and, in between spellbinding harmonies, they inject the folk tradition with girlish laughter.
The recently introduced instrumentation adds variety but the a capello voices are their forte.