Shrewsbury Folk Festival, always taking place over the last weekend of August to include Bank Holiday Monday, has a unique late summer atmosphere all of its own. Very much a family-friendly event it feels like one final celebratory hurrah for parents and kids alike before the return to school. You arrive in summer but when you pack to leave on the Monday it somehow feels as if Autumn has quietly descended.
Camping next to your vehicle is a big plus compared to other folk festivals and most regulars seem to have their favourite spots, finding themselves reunited with friends from previous years. My favourite pitch is alongside the lively and raucous Berwick bar which stays open well beyond daft o’clock. Those who prefer a quiet early night might prefer to camp closer to the river but this location suits my requirements very well. An added bonus this year was the proximity of a mobile proper coffee van…an early morning-after-the-night-before port of call for many a bleary-eyed reveller in need of a double espresso pick-me-up.
One of the major plus points at SFF is there’s always plenty of space. Even though the spacious agricultural showground location allows for potential expansion the festival directors have steadfastly resisted the temptation to sell more tickets and to pack more people in. As a result there’s always plenty of room to swing a rope (just as well judging by some of the children’s workshop activities). Similarly if you want to gather around with friends for an intimate song or tune session there’s no need to escape to the outer reaches of the campsite.
It quickly becomes apparent Shrewsbury’s clientele have all sorts of differing priorities. Many seem happiest simply carrying their instruments around and participating in the making of music rather than watching others perform. With them in mind the well-established Tuneworks project has become a focal point and with each passing year seems to have a more prominent role. Should you so wish you can spend all weekend attending their various workshops and well organised sessions. So with mandolin in hand the late afternoon gathering in the beer tent was my first port of call on the Friday. Most people present seemed to be playing instruments and to have done their homework (the repertoire of tunes can be downloaded in advance from the festival website). Fuelled by a pint of real ale a pleasant hour in fine company was passed in next to no time.
The festival boasts an array of different sized tents catering for all audience sizes. Major international stars line up alongside up-and-coming acts, many from the Shropshire area. SFF have always stressed their role as part of the local community. Sessions and mini-gigs take place in the local pubs and Morris sides perform among the city centre shoppers. There never seems to be any resentment among locals…though the festival takes place across the Severn from the main town it’s comfortably within walking distance or a short ride on the free shuttle bus.
As ever the focus on fostering the development of young talent is noticeable. An early highlight on the first night was ‘The Sky Begins To Change’, a multimedia concert event in the Pengwern tent, charming and moving in equal measure. Devised by Kerry Andrews in conjunction with early music ensemble K’antu the production incorporated footage of conversation with the elderly, filmed in local care homes. On the Sunday afternoon it was a similar delight to experience the major festival debut of the National Youth Folk Ensemble, a brand new initiative funded by the Arts Council and EFDSS and spearheaded by artistic director Sam Sweeney (Bellowhead, Leveret). Nobody performing was aged over 18 but the standard of musicianship on display was quite outstanding. Equally impressive were the gleeful smiles on all their faces alongside many a tear of joy from proud parents in the audience.
In the main tent, now named the Bellstone, Sarah Jarosz on the Friday was a revelation. Though accompanied by a precociously talented band (including Anthony da Costa on guitars) there’s still no questioning Sarah’s the star of the show. In amongst her own songs a gentle solo version of Paul Simon’s ‘Kathy’s Song’ was a particular highlight. Oysterband then take to the stage and bring the evening’s official programme to a rousing climax. However when the main stages close the night at SFF is still young. It’s a folk festival and still plenty of time for a nightcap in the Berwick Bar. The long, narrow room conveniently allows several groups of singers to share the same space without overly getting in each other’s way. There’s even a quietish singaround taking place in a side room just off the main bar. As ever, the shanty men have the greatest stamina and are the last to call it a night after one final chorus of ‘Pleasant and Delightful’ and ‘South Australia’.
On the Saturday I decide an early morning yoga session might be just the ticket to start the day. The weather is fine, sunny but not overly hot. Thankfully it stays much the same for the entire four day duration. The Dance Tent seems quite a trek after a long night but a gentle relaxing stretch under the guidance of Faith Page helps soothe aching limbs and after breakfast and a shower I’m suitably refreshed and feel ready to join in an instrumental workshop. There’s a good selection as always but this year rather than stand-alone sessions, several instruments were being taught in a numbered series over three days. This seems to be another Tuneworks initiative and most agree a welcome development. Hopefully the eventual benefits won’t depend entirely on attending every one! This year I was pleased to see Welsh tunes workshops on the programme (led by Charlotte Goodwin who by her own admission isn’t Welsh…not that you’d know it). A famous harp tune ‘Dafydd Y Garreg Wen’, a personal favourite, was on her taster menu…and quite a tester for many of us participating.
From there I manage to catch the tail-end of The Rheingans Sisters in the Sabrina Tent. They employed one or two unusual instruments during the set (obtained by Anna during time spent studying in the South of France). I made my way across to the main tent for the much anticipated reworking of Pete Bellamy’s The Transports featuring the cream of English Folk Music (The Young ‘Uns, Faustus, Nancy Kerr and Greg Russell). They were allotted an unprecedented two performance slots in order to accommodate the full two hour production chronicling the unlikely love story between impoverished and petty criminals being convicted forcibly migrated to Australia. There were many echoes of the modern world with the risks taken by desperate people in order to provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. Despite the well-known faces on stage it was narrator Matthew Crampton who was the glue holding it all together. His passionate, eloquent and unhurried delivery employing improvised monologues was at times spine-chilling. The company were afforded a well-deserved standing ovation.
At Shrewsbury the stages are always vacated between afternoon and evening performances to allow crews and artists privacy to reset the stage and sound-check. This allows the perfect opportunity to wander around the various arts and crafts emporiums flanking the village green area. Even here the live music is never far away though as the only outdoor stage is located centrally (albeit covered with an awning). One of the more pleasant surprises of the weekend was stumbling totally unplanned across the foot-tapping rhythms of Harare, featuring the former front man of the legendary Bhundu Boys. It doesn’t get much better than listening to South African township jive with the sun beating down and a pint in hand. During the weekend much of the Morris dance programme also takes place on this, the Village Stage. The area is also home to many children’s activities in the Pandemonium tent. The children effectively have their own mini festival within a festival with activities tailored to every age group. Parents can confidently leave their kids and enjoy time out in the knowledge that they’ll be perfectly safe and safeguarded during their absence. Festival volunteers are also on hand to ensure the area remains secure. They even have toilets allocated for children only.
After a bite to eat courtesy of No Bones Jones one of an array of excellent cuisine outlets surrounding the covered food tent (where there always seems to be a tune session in progress!) I make my way over to savour a rare chance to see Jim Moray perform with his full ten piece Upcetera Band. This ensemble/mini orchestra are only ever likely to convene for folk festivals (they must surely lie beyond the scope of your regular weekly folk club). The Moray formula for reinventing and reimagining traditional folk songs is still much in evidence but the addition of complex baroque arrangements is a feast to the ears. A sultry Portuguese fado version of ‘The Foggy Dew’ is a particular delight as is his award-winning composition ‘Sounds of Earth’.
Jon Boden follows and his set, entirely solo but equally powerful (using an eclectic array of instruments). He incorporates several Bellowhead favourites during the set ('Jordan', 'New York Girls') ensuring the whole tent singing along as one. However the best was still to come on Saturday night as the Festival had this year booked New Yorker Eric Bibb for a return visit. I had half expected to see him performing solo, a format at which he is more than capable of delivering a memorable show but Bibb emerged onstage flanked by a three piece band. Immaculately dressed as always and sporting his trademark hat, the charismatic Bibb was swiftly into his stride. It was noticeable that while his bandmates dripped with perspiration he always remained the coolest man in the tent. If the band didn’t regularly play together (as Bibb inferred at one point) you’d certainly never have known it. Guitarist Steffan Astner was the perfect foil, drawing several ovations for his inspired solo breaks. I sensed even by their own standards they were surprising themselves by how well everything was gelling during the set and they appeared lifted by how well they were going down with the crowd. After playing beyond their allotted time they were afforded a rare encore by the MC and despite playing an extended number Bibb quickly led them into a second before the applause had died down. I can’t remember anyone getting away with a double encore at Shrewsbury before.
On Sunday the mood across the festival seemed mellower. By now even newcomers seemed to have found their way about and become comfortably embedded in the mysterious goodwill bubble that Shrewsbury Folk Festival always seems to conjure up. The inevitable by-product is that everyone seems to have successfully tuned themselves out from the distractions of the outside world. It’s all smiles and cordial greetings as I make my way over to the shower areas. In recent years these facilities have improved and the queues move quickly and efficiently. Almost too quickly to compare festival experiences with the people next to you.
I decide to join the mountain dulcimer workshop led by the affable Robin Clark. He supplies (and makes) the instruments himself and quickly and effortlessly gets everyone, even non musicians, playing a simple tune. As he says “it’s as easy as do re mi”.
Then it’s back to the main tent for the reformed super-group Daphne’s Flight, a tour de force display of vocal prowess from some of the best lady singers of the last thirty years. Originally convened as a one-off album project in the mid 90’s they have now completed a follow-up. The sumptuous layered harmonies are just as hair-raising all these years later.
By late afternoon it’s time for an annual highlight with the colourful Morris procession making its way through the festival up the Dance Tent. We position ourselves nearby on the hay bales by a new addition since my last visit, namely The Launchpad, a small open mic stage between the main tent and the food area. Here we were able to enjoy what appeared to be a succession of youthful contestants in an Ed Sheeran sound-alike contest!
By the evening I lay down next to the open side entrance to the main tent and enjoyed an enthralling set from The Unthanks. Their music has divided opinions in the folk world but I think now they have even won over most of the doubters. The band arrangements are precise and intricate and the effect of Rachel and Becky’s sibling harmonies strangely hypnotic. Loudon Wainwright III was next onstage, alone with his guitar, ukulele (and piano for one song). Nobody synthesises humour and pathos with such charming and disarming ease as dear old Loudon. His songs trawl through the complexities of family relationships across many generations (and he’s clearly had his fair share throughout his life). It’s a rare skill to have an audience laughing one minute and crying the next. ‘White Winos’ written for and about his mother provided one of the most touching and poignant moments of the entire weekend. Nothing could follow the majesty of this set for me and even with Seth Lakeman due to close the night I decide to retire early to save my energy for the final hurrah on Bank Holiday Monday.
The atmosphere at SFF was always likely to be more muted this year following the untimely passing of festival founder Alan Surtees earlier in the summer. Several tributes were paid from the stage over the course of the weekend and Faith, Folk and Anarchy (comprising Martyn Joseph, Steve Knightley and Tom Robinson) performed a moving version of ‘I’m a man you don’t meet every day’ during their closing set on Monday. Everyone seemed to know Alan and nobody had a bad word to say about him. However, he most certainly wouldn’t have wanted a subdued mood to descend on the festival in his absence. On the contrary nothing would have given him more pleasure than to see thousands of people enjoying themselves and benefitting from the enduring legacy of the festival he dreamed up with his wife Sandra many years ago. It’s Sandra’s wish that the festival will continue to evolve and go from strength to strength. Though our paths didn’t cross this year it was heartening to hear reports that she was out-and-about during the weekend (and enjoying Andy Fairweather-Low’s set on the Pengwern stage).
The ‘Alan Surtees Trust’ has now been established to provide grants to young musicians and support new musical projects. A hastily compiled album with tracks from many of Alan’s festival favourites was already on sale in the merchandise tent. While buying my copy I couldn’t resist also picking up a small ‘My Heart belongs to Shrewsbury Folk Festival’ souvenir badge to pin on my guitar strap. Shrewsbury has become my annual end-of-summer festival destination, a vibrant and friendly family gathering boasting something for everybody.
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