Hatfield House, Hertfordshire
It was no surprise that the 2020 Folk by the Oak was cancelled, but more of a surprise that this years was able to go ahead, albeit with reduced ticket numbers and the usual Acorn Stage for newer acts removed to allow more space for distancing. So I was that on a blazing day in July we headed for a field in the grounds of Hatfield House near Welwyn Garden City for the novel experience of enjoying live music in the company of several thousand like minded people. I think it could catch on.
The 2020 lineup all signed themselves up for a like-for-like bill this year, though in the end Richard Thompson couldn’t manage the date. His spot was filled by The Young ‘Uns who were in turn replaced by festival compere Jim Moray after one Young ‘Un succumbed to Covid. In addition, Sam Sweeney was in a car crash the night before as he was going home from a gig, and although he says he was more shaken than hurt a glance at the state of his car on his FB page will be all you need to confirm that he’ll need some time to recover. Best wishes to both men for a speedy return.
Given the strength of the Sun and the length of the day we passed on the first two acts, The Bookshop Band (seen them before and found them insufferably twee) and Katherine Priddy whom I know nothing about. It was the Sam Sweeney slot by the time we had set up our chairs and heard that due to his accident he was to be replaced by Jack Rutter. I found Jack, along with Kitty McFarlane who followed and Jim Moray who followed her, agreeable enough if a bit harmless. It takes a lot to hold the attention of a large field with just an acoustic instrument, and although all three passed the time pleasantly I can’t say I remember much other than some of Kitty’s introductions about life on the Somerset levels. Considering the other two hadn’t been expecting to perform at all until right before the festival it’s to their immense credit that they gave as good a show as they did.
Things livened up a bit when the bands started to appear, starting with Skinny Lister. They were a bit rusty, understandable as like many acts this was their first show since 2019, but a drum beat, chanted choruses and accordion solos (where most bands would have a fiddle) can stir even the most laid back audience. Not that much though. It was immensely hot and most people stayed nailed to their chairs throughout the day, topping up on fluids and sun screen.
Next up was the highlight of the day as Kate Rusby hit the stage in wonderful voice and with her usual charm. The set was built around her recent collection of covers, so as well as some familiar folkie tunes we got songs by Bob Marley, The Bangles and Taylor Swift (‘That is just WRONG’ was the verdict of the teenage girl next to us on the last of these) as well as the theme tune to The Littlest Hobo. Kate can be a little ‘Live Laugh Love’ but she was head and shoulders the best act of the day here.
After Kate left so did a huge number of the audience. I’m guessing around a third of them packed up and headed home before the headliner. I haven’t seen anything like it since the crowd mobbed the exits before The Corrs headlined The Fleadh in Finsbury Park many years ago. I guess Seasick Steve wasn’t folkie enough for their tastes.
I’d never seen Steve before, but the set confirmed what I thought from the CD or two I have picked up from charity shops since I heard was going to play FBTO. He made a wonderful racket but so far as I could tell played the same song for his whole set, and although a guitar tech handed him a new instrument after each tune the only real difference I could tell was with-slide or without-slide. His only accompaniment was a drummer with a beard even more luxuriant than his own. After an hour we made our own way back to the car and headed for our hotel in Welwyn Garden City and a welcome shower.
Immensely well behaved. We generally abided by the request to mask up when moving around he field, even if that seemed a bit much in the open air, and scrupulously observed the request to take rubbish home with us. Something I have noticed at FBTO before is that I didn’t see a single person smoking. I don’t just mean there was no waft of weed, but I didn’t see any tobacco either. I remarked on this to The Light, who scanned the crowd for smoke signals then commented, ‘Is every person here white?’ It was certainly not a multicultural gathering.
It made me think..
There’s nothing quite like sitting in the sun enjoying music with thousands of others and a bottle of Malbec (me only – The Light was driving) to make you feel that (almost) all is right with the world.